Visually Impaired: Now What?

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The Impact of Transportation Access on Health and Wellness

by Empish Thomas

Empish standing at a street corner, white cane in hand

Medical Doctor Moves Away

A few weeks ago I got some disappointing news from my neurologist. I was told that she was leaving the medical center she practiced at and moving across town. I was deeply saddened and in shock. I really enjoyed the rapport I had with this doctor. She understood my medical needs and was sensitive to my visual impairment and transportation challenges. Now, I would have to start all over again looking for a new neurologist closer to home. This situation and similar ones were discussed at a conference I attended this summer called "Rides to Wellness." It was an all-day event where people from the transportation and medical community got together to discuss problems and solutions on how transportation impacts health and wellness.

I attended the event because in the Atlanta-Metro area where I live the population is growing, but public transportation has not kept up. As a result, it is taking longer and longer to get around town to accomplish basic daily tasks like working, shopping, eating out, and of course, medical appointments. As a result, I have been strategic in trying to keep my doctors as close to my home as possible in order to shorten my commute. So even if public transportation is not working, I can take Uber or Lyft, and it will not be so expensive.

Missing Medical Appointments Because of Transportation

During the conference, there was a panel discussion with people who discussed missing doctor appointments because they either lacked transportation, didn’t know how to use it, or didn’t have the money to pay for the commute. These challenges impact one's overall health and ability to be well and physically fit. If you are having problems getting to a doctor, it has a trickle-down effect that can impair accessing information, getting a prescription, conducting medical tests, and attending follow-ups.

When I worked at a vision rehabilitation center, I scheduled clients for our low vision clinic. Many times the client would have to turn down the appointment because they had no transportation to our location. Even though their eye doctor highly recommended coming to have a low vision evaluation and obtaining recommendations of aids and devices, it was to no avail. Sometimes I was able to set up the appointment only for the client to call back later to cancel because the ride they thought they had fell through. Or, in what we thought were some dangerous cases, the clients would drive themselves to the appointments. This was an on-going problem for which we, unfortunately, had little to no solution because these clients lived off the bus line and many, many miles away. In a situation like this, a person with a visual impairment can easily lose independence and access to the things they need to be healthy and well.

Transportation Impacts Fitness and Healthy Food

Empish on a home treadmill

At the conference, we also discussed health and fitness. Transportation to recreational activities, parks, and gyms impacts your health too. I remember when I first purchased my home, I didn’t notice until later that there were no parks, gyms, or fitness centers close by. To get any physical activity, I realized I had to venture far away from home or create a personal gym, which is what I ended up doing. I was fortunate to have the resources to do that. So today, I have a treadmill and recumbent bike along with hand weights and a floor mat. Also, I don’t live in a food desert or have to travel more than a mile or two to get fresh produce and healthy food. There are many grocery store options close to my home and a couple even deliver. But recently, a couple of major stores closed a little farther away, and this has had a major impact on people who depended on them.


So, what are possible solutions? That was the last part of the event that we discussed. We sat at our tables brainstorming ideas for tangible solutions. The Rides to Wellness program is a federally funded initiative and is temporary. The goal is to increase access to non-emergency healthcare services and to promote partnerships across the health and transportation sector demonstrating the return on investment for the partnerships and developing investments for community-based solutions.

At my table, we talked about growing more partnerships with local and state government officials. We felt it was important to get our political officials involved in this process as taxpayers and voters that transportation and wellness are critical to our communities. Other tables came up with media campaigns, community advocacy efforts, and exploring alternative transportation like biking and shared ride programs. I am learning to use online shopping options as a partial solution.

Find Out More

Read about the Rides to Wellness Initiatives

Find out about driving and transportation alternatives and finding rides when you can't drive

Check out the Independent Transportation Network

Technology Has Become My New Best Friend

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

female Aira user (not Mary) looking at menu posted in restaurant using glasses

Thank goodness the old saying, "You can’t teach an old dog new tricks," has been proven wrong by those of us who are past our prime. We need to keep up, or we’ll be left behind. We’d be saying, "Where did everybody go?"

On the Go with Smart Glasses

The biggest and brightest star in the technology world for people who are blind or visually impaired are the "smart glasses," brought to the accessibility scene by a company known as Aira, pronounced like the boy’s name, Ira. If you’ve ever wished you could have a sighted guide to crawl into a pair of glasses and lead you through unfamiliar territory, help you shop independently, read a menu or a handwritten birthday card, Aira has the solution for you.

Having just purchased my first month’s membership, I’m still learning which buttons to push and which tabs on my phone to tap for the best results, but so far, it’s the most independent I’ve felt since getting my first dog guide. Oh, please don’t ask me to explain how it works because it’s absolute magic to me. But I can tell you what I do on my end to make it work. First, I have to make sure that two pieces of equipment, no three, counting my iPhone, are fully charged. One is a thing about the size of a deck of cards or a Victor Reader that provides the WiFi as you travel outside your home. It’s called a mifi. The glasses, which look pretty much like a pair of sunglasses with a tiny camera on one earpiece, need to be charged as well. When you press a button on the glasses, it calls an Aira agent, who answers almost immediately and introduces himself or herself. No appointments needed. With the utmost courtesy, respect, and objectivity, he or she describes what they see through the lenses of the glasses as if I were looking through them myself.

First Exploration

As users of the service, we are called "explorers." For my first exploration, I asked my agent to go along with me as I walked along my street, which was in the process of being completely removed and replaced. Monster trucks with nerve-wracking backup beepers and deafening noises made taking a walk in my neighborhood a scary venture. At the end of the block, they had completely ripped out the corner, so now, the sidewalk was a challenge as well. Although I have the best dog guide in the world, I wanted to have someone along just to affirm that she was taking me the right way around this obstacle. She did it like a champ without a single word from me, and it was extra gratifying to hear my agent confirm that we were back on the right track. She isn’t supposed to express an opinion, but I could hear the smile in her voice.

Meeting the Wardrobe Challenge with Aira

In recent years, I’ve become lazy about labeling my clothes and noting colors, patterns, or messages on shirts. One night last week, I put on my Aira glasses, pushed the little call button, and in a minute or so my agent and I set to work sorting my summer clothes. We’ve had a very long winter here in Ohio, so I hadn’t seen some of my dresses and tops for many months, and I couldn’t even remember buying some of them. That’s because the minute I got them home from the store last summer, winter set in. As I held up each garment, and my female agent described it, I’d put it in a pile of other clothes of a similar color, reds with reds, purples with purples, etc. But I have so many summer clothes, that soon I ran out of spots on the bed for more piles and then there was the challenge of some items that had several colors that went with several other items. When we ended the session, I realized that my room looked like a cyclone had hit it. I recognized some of the dresses that I’d had for a while, so I labeled them and hung them up, but then there were all the tops and pants, and which ones went with which? Was this a solid blue or a blue background with white flowers? The problem was that I simply had too many clothes. I considered calling an Aira agent and doing just a few garments at a time, making several short calls, so I could label and hang them up before doing another small batch. Why didn’t I think of that before?

Old Technology Comes to the Rescue

Then I remembered a piece of technology I hadn’t used in a long time—the iPhone FaceTime feature. I called my daughter, who lives in another state, and problem solved. I could have used another app on my phone called Be My Eyes, a free service where a volunteer answers your tap on your phone and looks at something for you or reads the directions on a package. But there’s nothing like a daughter’s honesty and keen eye for style and color. At one point, I said, "Hold on a minute. I’m going to put this outfit in the other closet." "What happened,&quo;t she asked in alarm. "It went black." "Don’t worry," I said. "I just put you in my pocket for a minute." Only a daughter could find that funny.

While the Aira agents and the Be My Eyes volunteers are talented and efficient, it’s more fun to joke around with a daughter. But when a daughter is not around, the next best person is an Aira agent, whether navigating a construction area or your summer clothes closet.

Your Ideas on Using Aira

I would like to hear your ideas about how you use or plan to use Aira.

Read More

Aira, a New and Exciting Access Service

Be My Eyes

REV UP for National Disability Voter Registration Week July 16-20

REV up campaign logo Make the Disability Vote Count courtesy of Association of People with Disabilities

Caption: REV UP Campaign Logo, Courtesy of the Association of People with Disabilities

While many people are vacationing, attending summer camp, relaxing by the pool, and firing up the grill, others will be hitting the streets spending this July focused on a voter’s registration campaign. Although the next national election is not until November, this campaign is concentrating its efforts early and specifically targeting the disabled voter. The REV UP Campaign is coordinating National Disability Voter Registration Week (NDVRW) during the week of July 16-20, 2018. The purpose is three-fold.

  1. Get people with disabilities registered to vote
  2. Educate them about this year’s election
  3. Prepare them to cast a ballot in November

The REV UP Campaign

The REV UP Campaign, which is a part of the American Association of People with Disabilities’ advocacy efforts, stands for "Register, Educate, and Vote - Use Your Power!" It aims to increase the political power of the disability community while also engaging candidates and the media on disability issues. According to their website, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) is a convener, connector, and catalyst for change, increasing the political and economic power of people with disabilities.

mary sitting at accessible voting machine with dog on floor behind her

Another reason for the campaign focus in July is that the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is observed during the same month. The law supports accommodations for disabled voters, such as accessible voting machines for the blind and visually impaired, poll workers to read and help fill out forms, and voting materials in alternative formats. Also, July falls before the voter registration deadline for some state primary elections. No doubt giving time to get the word out and get people registered to vote. So, the REV UP Campaign hopes to garner further attention from media and candidates running for office.

"The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) launched the REV UP Campaign in early 2016; however, it was actually the brainchild of Bob Kafka and other disability advocates in Texas," said Zach Baldwin, AAPD Director of Outreach. "They used REV UP as a strategy to organize multiple organizations under one voter engagement initiative. After being offered and taking the REV UP brand to go national, AAPD convened a group of other disability voting advocates to strategize on next steps and how to grow the campaign. We landed on launching our own voter registration initiative as a way to build awareness about the potential power of the disability vote while also establishing a common event to organize and rally partners around the country."

Plans for National Disability Voter Registration Week

During NDVRW, REV UP will partner with state and local disability organizations across the country and provide them with resources and support to register and educate their community. There is a National Disability Voter Registration Week Toolkit available via the AAPD website. It includes a guide on how to organize voter registration events, ideas on other ways to participate, sample social media posts and graphics, and other resources. There is also a Candidate Questionnaire Template that explains how nonprofits can submit questionnaires while remaining nonpartisan as well as over 100 sample questions that partners can use to develop their own questionnaire for state and local candidates. Lastly, the REV UP Campaign will release an "Issues Guide" that will provide a summary of the issues and legislation that are having a relevant impact on the disability community. This guide can be both a tool to educate disabled voters and used by advocates.

Importance of Exercising Your Right to Vote

It is important that you exercise your right to vote. I have shared my experiences on VisionAware and strongly believe that voting is a powerful way to get your voice heard. We must be politically active in order to protect not only our rights but the programs and services that are essential to our community. "In 2016, Rutgers University identified that there were 35.4 million eligible voters with disabilities. However, only 16 million people with disabilities voted in the 2016 general election," Baldwin explained. "While voter registration is not the only reason for this level of turnout (access issues and transportation are significant barriers to many people with disabilities), we do know that the voter turnout rate and voter registration rate for people with disabilities was 6 percent and 2 percent lower, respectively, for people with disabilities compared to the rates for people without disabilities. National Disability Voter Registration Week is needed to address one of the barriers to voting experienced by people with disabilities and more importantly, to demonstrate that the disability community is paying attention, is getting registered, and is planning to vote to advance disability rights in 2018."

More Information

Using the Accessible Voting Machine

The Association of Americans with Disabilities

REV Up Campaign

Voting and Self Advocacy Are Intertwined

ADA and Voting

Pickup or Delivery, a Different Way to Grocery Shop

Editor's Note: With Independence Day just ahead, VisionAware peer Empish Thomas has written about a vital aspect of independence for people with vision loss—grocery shopping. Empish discusses some new ways that retailers are making it possible to shop more autonomously than ever before.

Pickup or Delivery, a Different Way to Grocery Shop

woman in check out line of grocery store

A couple of months ago I started a different way of grocery shopping. In the past, I would inventory my pantry and refrigerator to restock, make a list, and catch the bus to my favorite grocery store. Once there, I would venture over to the customer service counter, get assistance, and do my shopping and go home. I still shop in that traditional and familiar way, but when I got a postcard in the mail from Walmart to try their grocery pickup services, I decided to try something new. I also have discovered that grocery shopping pickup and delivery services are what’s trending now. I have to admit I was a little hesitant. I wondered would the person doing my shopping do a good job without my presence? How would they pick my produce? Would my bread be fresh and not smooshed? Would they check the expiration date on my milk? These were the questions I thought about that caused me to pause when thinking about grocery pickup and delivery services. A friend encouraged me to try and just see what would happen. If I didn’t like it, I could always go back and do my shopping the old-fashioned way. No harm, no foul, right?

Walmart Grocery Pickup

The first service I tried was Walmart Grocery Pickup. I found the experience very pleasant. First, the website was very easy to navigate with my screen reader. As I searched for items to place in my cart, it would add them up at the bottom giving me a sub-total. Additionally, I could add items to my favorites so that in the future, I wouldn’t have to look up the same items over and over again. A couple of times I got a little stuck on what to do and simply called the Walmart Grocery customer service number, and the representatives were very helpful. They were patient while I navigated the website and assisted me with solving the problem. I like the idea of substitutions. So if an item is not available on your list, you can choose a substitution or not. You can even do same day pickup and definitely next day. There is no charge for the service; you just pay for the groceries and tax. I used my cell phone so that I could get a text message of when my groceries were ready. I also downloaded the app so that I can "check in." This lets the Walmart representatives know that you are there and ready for your pickup.

Now for a little snag. Walmart Grocery is a pickup service, and they cater to people who drive. Of course, since I am blind, that doesn’t exactly work. So I do catch the bus so that I arrive at the pickup time. I sit in the delivery area until they text me that my groceries are ready. Then I call the pickup number and let them know I am in the store and that I am blind. They bring the groceries over; we go through and check my order for accuracy. Then I either take the bus or Uber home. I have done this on several occasions and found it works very well.

If you decide to use this option and you are having someone drive you, download the app on your smartphone and check in. There you will be directed to drive over to the pickup area. You will also be directed to give the make and model of your car. A Walmart representative will come out and put the groceries in the car.

To find out about what Kroger is offering with their new ClickList service, be sure to read Aaron Preece's article in AccessWorld.

Instacart Delivery

About two weeks ago, I tried Instacart Delivery for the first time. I had been hemming and hawing about using it for several months and just couldn’t make up my mind. After having brunch with some girlfriends and talking about grocery shopping, I decided to take the plunge. I had already downloaded the app and started playing around with it. Instacart had the following options of stores I could shop from in my area: Publix, Kroger, Aldi, and CVS Pharmacy. With Instacart, a person will shop at the store of your choice. You will get your items within two hours or so. There are fees associated with this service (i.e. delivery, service, and tip for the shopper). The first time I shopped my fees added up to about ten bucks, which would have been what the price for a round trip on Paratransit cost.

Using Instacart, I shopped at Aldi and didn’t have too many problems using the app. I placed each item in my cart but did notice that items were not being added to my favorites. I contacted Instacart customer service about it, and they were unable to explain the issue. They shared that once I ordered items, I could "purchase them again" from my previous order. Once I checked out, I got a timeframe of about two hours for delivery. Instacart shoppers select your groceries in real time, so as you look at your app, they are purchasing items. If there are problems, they will text you. For example, the milk had expired, and my shopper asked for suggestions of what I wanted to do next. I texted her back a solution. Then she explained about not finding cucumbers and frozen asparagus. I texted back on that as well. I found this process great although a little stressful. I like the fact the shopper is checking in with me on items; however, the texting back and forth was rapid as I am not a regular text message person and use Voiceover on my iPhone. So, by the time I replied to one message, I was getting another one. After all the texting back and forth was done, I saw her check out and then send an ETA (estimated time of arrival) of when she would reach my home. The ETA was very accurate, and she arrived and placed the groceries on my kitchen counter. She also explained the situation with some of my items to be sure I totally understood what happened in the store which I appreciated.

Amazon Fresh

amazon mobile app with picture of shopping cart

I have not tried Amazon Fresh and don’t live in the service area. So I reached out to a friend and called Amazon to learn how it works. Although I don’t live in the service area, I can order from their pantry which includes dry goods like cereal, canned items, and snacks. To use this grocery delivery service, you must be an Amazon Prime member, which you can pay either annually or monthly. I was told that both the website and app are very accessible and fairly simple to use. Searching for items seems to be easier on the website than the app, but first, you must type in the words "Amazon Fresh" in the search bar to get started. Instead of a favorites list, Amazon Fresh has a wish list and grocery list that you can use to order your items. Amazon selects its groceries from one of its neighboring fulfillment centers and Whole Foods. In the years that my friend has used Amazon Fresh, she has had few substitutions and has found odd items not typically found in a regular grocery store. For example, she was looking for vegan Worcestershire sauce and was pleasantly surprised that Amazon Fresh actually had it. Like other Amazon orders, there is no delivery fee if ordering over a particular amount, but a tip for the driver is encouraged. Delivery can be the same day or following days. Delivery options include doorstep or attendant. If you select doorstep, that means your groceries will literally be dropped off at your door. Sometimes, depending on driver availability, this option might be chosen for you regardless. The other option of attendant means that the driver will come to your home and personally deliver your groceries. When your groceries arrive, they are packed in dry ice for temperature control and to maintain freshness. Other items that are fragile are wrapped in bubble wrap to prevent breakage.

A Different Way to Think About Grocery Shopping

Deciding to have your groceries delivered or picking them up can provide you with extra choices during your shopping experience. Sometimes these options are preferred because they provide a totally new level of independence plus a time and energy saver. No more waiting at customer service for a person to help you walk around the store to shop. No more waiting for a family member or friend to take you shopping. No more asking for patience and understanding as you "touch and feel" your items or read a label to ensure it is what you want. When you shop through delivery and pick up services, you have more control over the situation, and the power is in your hands.

Additional Information

Walmart Grocery 1-800-924-9206.

Instacart 1-888-246-7822

Amazon Fresh 1-888-280-4331

Kroger Expands Access to Online Shopping

Reevaluating Shopping as a Person Who Is Blind

"Have Dog, Will Travel" Book Review

Editor's note: This review was originally posted on VisionAware peer advisor Susan Kennedy's website, Adventures in Low Vision. It contains snippets from that review and is part of the VisionAware bookshelf series.

Book Draws the Reader In Through Its Opening About Author's Guide Dog

A white guide dog in its working harness

Have Dog, Will Travel, A Poet's Journey is not the first book I encountered by Stephen Kuusisto, but it’s the first one I finished. From the opening scene, as he contemplates what it’s like to work with a guide dog, I wanted to know more. He vividly describes the flow of teamwork, the partnership of handler and guide dog. But this book isn’t just about Kuusisto’s first guide, Corky. The book is about his journey of accepting blindness, too.

Journey of Accepting Blindness

As the story unfolds, Kuusisto includes mistakes and interactions that humanize him and keep this from being one of those hero tropes. He admits his denial about blindness and showing vulnerability until age 38 when his teaching job ended. He had lived in an insular world of his construction. This didn’t make me judge him; it led me to want to know why.

Solid white cane skills of orientation are the foundation on which guide dog handling builds upon. Kuusisto must learn cane skills, or there will be no dog.

Overcoming Parental Doubts

Sharing his plans with his mother, a woman sidetracked in homemaking but more by her love affair with alcohol, the reader witnesses a missed opportunity for support. When told of the impending visit to guide dog school, his mother is not pleased: "People will know you’re on the fritz," she said.
"On the fritz? You mean like a household appliance," Kuusisto asks.
"Yes. You should never let people see you’re defective. They’ll think less of you."

It reminds me of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) tagline, "blindness isn’t what holds us back." Clearly, Kuusisto goes forward with his plans; otherwise, there would be no Corky, no book.

At the Guide Dog School

He goes on to my favorite parts of the book, the time at guide dog school. He illuminates the whole process, from the roles of loving puppy raisers to the trainers who match you by stride and pace to an available dog, to the dogs who make the cut and why. He weaves in history of guide dogs in America as well as some disability rights history. I doubt a general audience is aware of these things.


Now, this brings me to a criticism. Kuusisto indulges other tangents throughout the narrative by referencing characters in mythology and whatnot. His poet mind must be full of these kinds of things, but after a few mentions, I was over it. Yes, you’re professorial; you don’t have to keep proving it. Furthermore, the meaningful parts of the story are strong enough without the literary flourishes.

Book Educates and Fills a Void of Knowledge

Overall, Kuusisto’s experiences, both at school as well as his wide travels later, do much to educate in an entertaining way. As I finished the book, I realized it filled a void. Years ago, I read another book by a man who used a guide dog and lived through the evacuation of one of the twin towers on 9/11. His book ended up being more of a memoir of the man rather than a trip into guide dog handling, which is fine, but it was not what I expected. Kuusisto’s book answered those leftover questions and left me with a greater respect for all of the work involved with service animals.

Corky and Kuusisto hit their stride and so did Have Dog, Will Travel. A man embraces his blindness and the fascinating work with his guide dog that follows is well worth reading.

Have Dog, Will Travel is available through Amazon as an audible book and is narrated by Fred Sanders.

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Read more reviews on the VisionAware Bookshelf series

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