Visually Impaired: Now What?

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Guide Dog Training: One Skill at a Time

Dindi, a black Lab guide dog
Photo by Maribel Steel

Editor’s note: In celebration of National Dog Day August 26th, peer advisor Maribel Steel shares her experience of being paired up to a new guide dog in Australia.

Decision Time

For almost a decade, I’ve been using a white cane as my mobility aid. After my first guide dog went to the great kennel in the sky, I wasn’t ready to train with another guide dog. It seemed easier to continue my independent travel with a cane.

Yet my sight continued to fade and it became obvious that where once I felt confident on my own on a busy street, I was beginning to falter and to feel stressed. I began to imagine a guide dog by my side again, and how much easier it would be to follow a guide dog to the right door or station platform.

I contacted Guide Dogs Victoria (GDV) and after I completed all the appropriate paperwork and visits, I was on the waiting list.

First Impressions

A few months later, a trainer called to let me know they had a match for me. She came to my home to introduce Dindi, my possible new guide dog. Upon jumping out of the vehicle, a young and trim black Labrador showed little interest in me. She was just a dog, and I was just a human.

Dindi sniffed the ground, distracted by the new smells in this neighborhood and ignored any eye contact with me. I knew not to take this personally; while her trainer was in close proximity, she held the dog’s heart and attention.

It was after our walk, when Dindi gently lay across my feet, that I felt the possibility of forming a bond with this guide dog. Having experienced her spritely and curious nature, she seemed the kind of dog I could grow to love.

The Newness of Everything

A few months later, I was bowled over with the generosity of the staff at the training center. A chorus of ‘hellos’ greeted me as three guide dog trainers waited to welcome me and four other clients as we were shown around our new ‘home’ for the next three weeks.

Before we could meet our guide dogs, we had a group chat in the lounge room. Here, we were given our surprise show bags, with certain items we’d need for the care of our dogs. After lunch, we went to our individual rooms. It was here where guide dog and new handler spent some quiet time together to get to know each other.

Establishing Trust

The first 24 hours with Dindi were not what I had expected. She was fretful and showed signs of separation anxiety when away from her trainer. She was obviously more of a ‘sensitive’ dog who needed me to consider her needs in this new and unfamiliar situation. My heart opened to her and I tried not to be too concerned; we would go gently in our new relationship. I knew it was about giving our friendship time, but she was way out of her comfort zone.

Dindi sat facing the door, waiting for her trainer to return. I coaxed her to sit by my side, where my hands gently travelled over her back in calming massage movements. I accepted that these first hours were more about staying calm for her sake, to give her time to adapt and to trust me as her new handler.

The following morning, a warm tongue licked my outstretched hand. It was as if we were saying hello for the first time. Her tail wagged, making a friendly thumping sound on the bed. She licked my hand again and my heart melted – she was ready to accept me.

Raring to Go!

Within only a few days, my beautiful Dindi and I were developing a special bond. Her stress had vanished, and in its place came the spritely spirit of a loyal companion, eager to help me be a confident partner in this guide dog team.

There were many new skills to learn, even for a handler who has had a guide dog before. Those first two weeks felt like being behind the wheel of a fabulous sports car. My guide dog was eager to take me to new places, but I didn’t have the skills yet to ‘drive’ her onwards. No fancy spins around the block; our trainer made sure we had the basics well under control.

The ‘gears’ I had to learn were a series of voice commands and body gestures that would help Dindi keep moving smoothly to our destination and past distractions along the way.

Her Guiding Eyes

What I came to love about Dindi was that she showed how keen she was to be my guiding eyes, how focused she could be. Her goal was always to get us safely back to where we had started. When you have struggled to see landmarks as a person going blind, trusting a guide dog who could obviously keep me safe brought tears to my eyes.

As we travelled down a busy street, staying calm and steady, Dindi led me confidently past all sorts of obstacles: road works in progress, cafe tables and signboards, shops full of interesting scents. Dindi picked a path through all these distractions.

On one walk, a flood of emotion swept over me. With Dindi guiding me, I could keep my head up high and look straight ahead, something I was not doing when using a white cane.

Travel Buddies

Maribel and black lab guide dog in front of Sydney Bridge
Photo by Harry Williamson


I am grateful for all the human hearts who have invested their time and affection in making Dindi the working guide dog and loving companion she is today. They have passed on their skills, which Dindi and I are perfecting each day: at work and at play.


    ADA at 29: Websites and Apps Still Not Fully Accessible

    Man holding smartphone in one hand and white cane in the other

    When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 29 years ago, the internet as we know it today and smartphone apps were not in existence. Fast forward to today and doing a Google search and downloading an app are as normal as drinking a cup of hot coffee in the morning. The majority of us, both sighted and blind, are constantly online searching, reading, and uploading information in order to work, live, and play. Smartphone apps make this even easier. Having access to technology has become extremely important, yet those of us with vision loss still struggle with accessible websites and apps. The ADA has assisted and many developers have made their sites and apps accessible, but many have not. Issues arise when only portions of the site are accessible, or an update makes it inaccessible.

    These issues have been the saga of my life as a blind person. Since I, like a lot of people, depend heavily on my computer and smartphone, I run into inaccessible sites and apps on a regular basis. I experience a range of emotions from pure anger, to mild frustration, to apathy. Each time trying to figure out what kind of approach I should take in handling the problem, while knowing that it will probably come back up again. I have vowed to try to remain calm, troubleshoot for the time being, and contact tech support so that they can fix the problem.

    My most recent website accessibility challenge was with my bank. I have used online banking for many years with little to no problems. However, one day I noticed that the log in portion of the screen was totally gone. That meant that I couldn’t sign in to check my savings, mortgage, checking, or credit card accounts. I contacted tech support, only to be told that it was my browser. I half-heartedly believed that because I had been using the same browser for a few years with no incidents. I didn’t think that was the real problem. Something told me to try it on my laptop instead of my desktop because I had a different operating system. Sure enough, I got a different result. My laptop had Windows 7 and I was able to sign in just fine, while my desktop had Windows 10 and I could not. When I went back to the bank, they had no answer.

    There have been times when portions of a website were not accessible, but I was able to get an accommodation. This happened a few weeks ago when I tried to purchase a ticket to a play. I had logged in to my account, selected the date and time of the show, but when I got to the credit card section, I couldn’t fill in the field. I contacted the theater company and told them that particular portion of their website was not accessible. They apologized and told me they would handle my order over the phone. I was okay with that, even though I still would have preferred to have done the transaction on the website independently.

    Sometimes when I have had problems with a website, I have been advised to use the app. I have been told that the app is easy to use and more accessible. However, I have found that not always to be true. For example, I tried to use the website for my favorite grocery store but later moved to the app. For over a year, their app has been inaccessible using VoiceOver on my iPhone. When I reached out to tech support, they said they were relaunching the app and the website to give them a new look and feel, and that it would take a while. I had no idea it would take so long! It just became available again this past month. I started to use the app again only to discover several buttons are not labeled properly. Additionally, it is not user-friendly, meaning that you have to flick and swipe around the app to get things done. It takes more time than before to complete one simple task. I am reaching out to tech support about these issues as well.

    My movie theater’s app is another example. Whenever I go to a movie at the theater, and then open the app, a rate and review pop up screen appears on top of the home screen. It is not very accessible. They have several buttons that are not labeled, including the remove button. Through trial and error, I figured it out. Now I know which is the button to remove the pop up so that I can use the app, but that needs work too.

    I can go and on and on about various websites and apps I have used that are not accessible. I am sure, if you are blind or visually impaired, you have your own stories to tell. I try to focus on being solution-oriented and not complain too much. I try to troubleshoot when I can, contact customer service and/or tech support to alert them to the problem, and persevere. I also try to keep up with any updates to changes to the ADA as far as making pieces of the law stronger in this area. I believe we need stronger legislation that addresses the accessibility of websites and apps just like physical barriers such as buildings, bathrooms, and sidewalks. As we advance, technology will become more and more a part of our lives and those of us in the blind and visually impaired community need to have equal access to it.


    Including Yourself in a Faith Community as a Person with a Visual Impairment

    Silhouette of woman standing with arms outstretched facing morning sunrise

    When you lose vision, at first it might feel like you are unable to participate fruitfully in a faith community. Whether you’re new or a long-term member, some aspects of congregation life that you’ve always taken for granted can suddenly feel uncomfortable as a worshipper with blindness or visual impairment. Who’s saying hello? What are the words we’re singing? How do they take the blessing or communion here? We’re sharing this information in hopes that you won’t give up attending your faith community of choice if you’re experiencing vision loss now, or that you’ll consider visiting a new one if you’re interested.

    VisionAware offers tips and resources intended to help you be part of whatever congregation you choose. While some of these resources are specific to certain faith groups, many can apply to almost any worship setting.

    Before You Go

    Going to a place of worship for the first time, or for the first time since vision loss has occurred, can be much easier if you do a little detective work first. If you can visit its website, information such as location, times of worship and activities during the week that may be of interest to you are usually posted. A quick call to confirm never hurts. Here are some questions you might want to ask:

    • If you are not able to find your way to the building independently, is there any volunteer ride service available to and from worship or other activities?
    • Is it on a bus line or some other means of public transportation or do you have other means of transportation?
    • If yes, but if it is difficult for you to navigate somewhere new, would it be possible for a member of the community to meet you at the transportation stop for the first one or two visits?
    • Are there steep or unexpected steps or other architectural challenges that you should know about when you visit?
    • Are service dogs welcomed? (Religious institutions are exempt from the ADA. Read the FAQ on Service Animals, Q34.)
    • If so, is there any available green space for its needs?
    • How is the lighting, and is it ever dimmed?
    • What are the acoustics like, and would there be a better place to sit for best hearing? Or are there assistive listening devices available for use?
    • Does the community have any regular attendees with visual disabilities you could meet?
    • Does the congregation offer any materials in large print or braille? If not, is it possible during the first and/or second visit to have a volunteer sit beside you to explain or assist, cueing you when it’s time to stand, kneel, etc.?
    • If blessing, communion or other individual ministry is involved, could you get an explanation beforehand to avoid awkwardness going to the front or receiving something? (Some leaders are very willing to come to you.)
    • Is there a publisher that could provide large print or braille materials? If not, could the congregation leader or music leader send recordings, texts or other information ahead of time for you to read or listen to?

    Stay Involved

    Even if you are not new to your community, some of the above questions might be valuable to discuss one-on-one with community leaders. If you have any concerns owing to your vision loss, you can always talk with them; remember, it is as much in their interest to keep you in the fold as it is in yours to stay there. Some of your conversation can involve making suggestions. Few leaders have disability-specific training or resources, and you may serve as expert in this area to help not only yourself, but also future guests and members.

    Ways to Stay Involved

    • Community outreach such as cooking, calls to shut-in members, prayer circles
    • Offer to lead study groups at the place of worship or in your home
    • Group or individual music participation
    • Answering phones or guest inquiries
    • Any other volunteer activity you feel comfortable with that would keep you visible and active in the community

    Responding to Well-Wishers in Your Faith Community

    It is common to encounter people asking questions far beyond the usual chit-chat once you enter a faith community. Many people have great intentions, but they may be quite lacking in information about your disability or personal situation. It’s important to keep this in mind when you respond, but it’s also OK to set boundaries such as stating, “I don’t feel comfortable discussing that,” or “I don’t think you know me well enough to talk about that.” On the other hand, fellow community members may offer kindness or social opportunities not available to you in other areas of your life. As long as you feel comfortable, it’s all right to discuss your disability, your needs or your desire to go deeper in your faith walk or service to the faith group.

    At times, well-meaning people of faith may offer, or even ask to pray for you in private or in public. It’s not uncommon for someone to believe that prayer can help or even heal you. Again, the ball’s in your court in deciding how to answer this request. You may feel the desire or even the need for prayer, and all the more from someone who wishes to provide it. Or, while you may appreciate the gesture, you may wish to redirect the good intention. Here are a few examples of honest and courteous answers you might want to keep in mind in case you are in such a situation:

    • “Thanks for praying for me. In fact, I am having eye surgery next month, and I would really appreciate your remembering me.”
    • “I am all right with my vision loss, but could you remember my cousin Lola, because she has cancer right now, and they don’t know what to do,” or “I appreciate your asking, but I am fine. But maybe there is something I could pray for in your life?”

    Do you have other tips for staying active in your faith community? Drop us a line at connectcenter@aph.org!

    Related Articles

    Faith Resource List

    Meeting a Person with Vision Loss

    Meeting a Person with Hearing and Vision Loss

    Finding Rides When You Can't Drive


    You Cane Give: Making an Amazing Difference

    Members of Team Kenya standing together smiling at camera

    Editor's Note: James Boehm, VisionAware Peer Advisor, recently participated in a special mission to give blind residents of Kenya and Africa independence, mobility training and a new hope. He wanted to share through VisionAware his personal experience with the White Cane Initiative's Team's work. Other team members included Paul Mugambi, Hilda Mulandi, Laureen Agola, Karen Nelson, and interpreter Florence Mithika. The post was edited by Maribel Steel, VisionAware's International Agency of the Month Correspondent.

    Trip to Kenya 2019

    While in Kenya, the team visited 4 cities and conducted 5 trainings. On each training day, the team planned for 20 mobility canes and 20 audio Bibles to be distributed. Security was high, and throughout the team's travels, there were numerous security checkpoints where often the vehicles and their contents had to be searched. But the team was able to get their supplies through customs

    Happy Recipients in Nakuru

    On the first day, the training team and partners met to discuss logistics. Then the team set off to Nakuru, leaving. at 5:30am that morning and returning around 8pm.

    The team met many older blind individuals who had never owned a cane. They expressed that previously no one had taken a personal interest in their ability to navigate independently. That day the team gave away approximately 20 canes and 20 audio Bibles. A fifty-five-year-old man named Albert was the first individual to receive a mobility cane.

    The women were so moved by the team’s visit and their new canes and Bibles in Swahili, that they broke out in song. Many of them who spoke little English were able to say, "Thank you Global Cane!" over and over again.

    One elderly lady had a skinny, heavy, metal water pipe that clunked loudly as she used it for a makeshift cane. She said, "No one has ever cared enough about how I’m surviving and how I’m living."

    Day 2--Visit to a College

    During the 11-hour return trip to Machikos, eight volunteers in one van set off to visit a college for people who are blind, deaf, or have other disabilities. Volunteers were greeted by many hugs from the staff and students and were welcomed with authentic foods and tea. The team trained over 70 students although they were worried about running out of canes. A blind a cappella group sang a song based on Psalm; a student sang a poem that he wrote personally,in celebration of the empowering white cane – known as Swahili as "gongo."

    Training in Difficult Terrain

    One of the directors gave James a tour of the grounds of the college and surrounding area, to demonstrate the rough terrain these students must learn to navigate. Although worried about running out of canes, the team was able to equip most students. Several students even donated their used canes to be refurbished! In addition, all students received mobility training from Karen and the team.

    Visit to Primary School for the Blind in Thika

    At a primary school for the blind in Thika on Day 3, the team was warmly welcomed by staff. The team was deeply moved and humbled when we heard there were 220 students and teachers who needed canes, yet the team had only 30 canes to offer that day. The team promised to return at a later date.

    Excitement on Days 4 and 5 in Nairobi

    James met directly with the heads of the Kenyan Union of the Blind and the African Union of the Blind. Both organizations were keen to discuss the progress of the current White Cane Initiative, as well as future collaborations with Paul Mugambi, who originally had the vision for the Kenya White Cane Initiative.

    The team distributed the remaining 40 canes and 40 audio Bibles and also met inspirational people including a blind, female minister named Mary, who received her first accessible copy of a Bible. Another young woman who is a singer, songwriter, musician, grad student, and the host of two local TV programs received her first mobility cane.

    Mobility Instructor Karen managed all challenges, including a young mother who came for mobility training with a baby on her hip! While holding the baby, Karen trained this woman and the rest of the students using the structured discovery method of training (instructional services consist of non-visual techniques, problem solving strategies, experiential learning, and confidence building experiences) including using the guide "The Feeding and Caring the Long White Cane," found at YouCanGive.org.

    This method was especially beneficial for the environment and terrain in Kenya. There are few sidewalks and shorelines to follow. The roads and walk areas are rough, rocky, and people selling anything that you can think of all along the road, crating numerous obstacles. The method encourages using all of ones senses and incorporating the feedback received from the tapping of the cane to identify obstacles and landmarks in the route.

    The White Cane First Aid Kit!

    Through the White Cane initiative, the team worked with an estimated 165 individuals, providing them a cane and mobility training as well as audio Bibles. Some learned basic mobility techniques to use in training individuals after the team's departure.

    The team also showed them how to restore canes. They were excited to be able to fix their own canes and named the kit of materials "The White Cane First Aid Kit." While in Kenya, James also demonstrated the use Aira glasses to many of the blind individuals. This was the very first time Aira was demonstrated in Africa!

    Humble Thanks

    The team thanks everyone who helped, including the Global Cane Outreach for their assistance in providing the talking Bibles and travel contributions. At the team's debriefing all members felt very positive about the trip. Paul stated, "This project has laid a great foundation for future missions."

    The team left feeling blessed to have made so many new friends and to have the opportunity to create life-long partnerships. On leaving Kenya, the team told our new family that this is not a "goodbye," but just "until next time." Further meetings are scheduled with the African Union of the Blind to focus on future efforts.

    Additional Links

    YouCaneGive.org

    You Cane Give on Youtube


    Early Warning Signs of Dementia and Its Effects on Vision

    Sandra Burgess and her mother sitting together with text reading California 1975

    Editor's note: For Older American's Month, Sandra Burgess shares her experiences with her mother's onset of dementia.

    Losing Memory Slowly

    My mom began to lose her memory very slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it was not terribly noticeable nor was it enough of an issue to cause her or her family any concern. My mom would say she couldn’t think of a word or remember someone’s name. As forgetfulness worsened, she realized something was not the same and talked about her frustration. When a woman from the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association visited her and conducted some simple tests, such as having her draw a clock and repeat back a list of words, my mom asked if she could attend a support group for clients. I understand such groups now exist, but back then, my mom was told support groups were only for caregivers.

    Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, affecting some fifty million worldwide. Dementia is not a disease; it is a broad term used to denote symptoms of memory impairments that severely disturb the quality of one’s daily life. Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia are diseases of the brain that result in loss of memory, reasoning skills, and thinking. In my mother’s case, she was informed that she didn’t have Alzheimer’s because when she forgot a word, memory pegging resulted in her remembering. For example, if she could not think of the word “ball” in a word list and the examiner gave a clue, such as, “It is round. It can be used with a bat,” my mom would then quickly say “ball.” With true Alzheimer’s, thoughts slip away never to be retrieved.

    We never learned what led to my mom’s dementia, though the fact that she had diabetes, high blood pressure/high cholesterol, and a number of mini strokes (also called TIAs) could have been factors.

    Early Warning Signs

    • Forgetting new information (important dates, events). This was very common with my mom, who would call to make a doctor’s appointment, repeat the information out loud, and not remember when she went to another room to write it down. Thinking her family would remember what she repeated, she would ask us and we hadn’t always been paying attention.
    • Performing familiar tasks takes longer, or cannot be completed without mistakes (writing checks, following a recipe, remembering how to drive to a familiar place)
    • Difficulty with where they are in time or place: Mom did not know the correct year, or where she was living when she was in a nursing home.
    • Spatial Relationships and Visual Images. Reading, determining distances, color, or contrast may be hard: Mom thought she was positioned to sit on a chair, and ended up on the floor.
    • Current problems with words when speaking or writing: it may be hard to participate in or to follow a conversation.
    • Misplace items and no longer have the capability to retrace their footsteps.
    • Changes in judgment or in making decisions: Individuals may begin to make poorer decisions in dealing with money, such as giving large amounts of money to scam artists. They may also pay less attention to their personal cleanliness.
    • Withdrawing from hobbies, work projects, and social activities
    • Changes in Mood or Personality: When they are in uncomfortable situations, they may easily get upset, fearful, anxious, befuddled, or suspicious.

    As mentioned previously, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can cause changes in one’s vision that make everyday life much more difficult. Dementia is a brain disease and the brain works along with our eyes to interpret what we see. Coupled with dementia, many older adults experience vision loss from conditions such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, or retinal damage from diabetes.

    Some Examples of Problems That May Occur

    • Mistakes interpreting what they see: the blue floor looks like the sea, or a coat hanging up appears to be a person
    • Problems identifying people by sight
    • Diminished visual field, so there is a loss of peripheral vision while looking straight ahead
    • Trouble seeing contrast between items and backgrounds
    • identifying colors: purple and blue for example
    • Poor depth perception
    Learn more helpful tips on caring for someone with dementia.

    Additional Resources


    TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack)

    How Alzheimer’s Disease Affects Vision and Perception

    Tips for Caregivers on Reducing Visual Perception Difficulties in Individuals with Alzheimer's

    Alzheimer’s Association

    ALZwell Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia Caregiver Support

    Alzheimer's Society (UK)

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