Many of life’s essential daily tasks can pose major challenges for the 3.4% of the population who are blind or visually impaired — but change and increased accessibility is possible.
“Vision loss can affect anyone at any time, and quality of life can spiral downward and put them at risk,” says Gaylen Floy, a computer and assistive technology instructor at Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. Floy serves as chair of Washington Council of the Blind’s communications committee.
Although progress has made things like fitness equipment, voting and medical devices more accessible — and safe — for this population, there are still areas where improvement is needed, Floy says.
Julie Brannon, president of Washington Council of the Blind, explains that fitness equipment often uses a flat screen and unless it’s speech- or button oriented, blind people like her cannot use these machines independently.
“When I’ve bought equipment, I’ve had to put my own buttons on it,” Brannon says. “That way I know what’s what, and then I have to memorize what each button is.” She says it would be helpful if exercise equipment at gyms and for the home could have buttons with a list of what each button represents or could be speech-oriented.
Although there have been great improvements over the last 30 years, Brannon says this is another area where progress is needed. For instance, Brannon has a talking thermometer to monitor her body temperature, a talking oximeter and a talking blood pressure cuff.
Brannon emphasizes that anything a person needs to use at home to make sure they’re medically OK needs to be adapted to include speech functions. “As new devices are developed, they need to be audible and tactile.” For example, Brannon notes that Dexcom has improved their diabetic equipment by making functions audible and Bluetooth-enabled.
Information on medication bottles
Brannon explains that there are devices that can help with getting information from medication bottles, such as a specialized reader that verbalizes everything on the label, but the challenge is getting all pharmacies to provide them at affordable costs.
“I get mine from a pharmacy that puts Braille [on the labels] because I’m a Braille reader and user,” Brannon says, but she notes that only a small percentage of blind people read Braille, so verbal labels are crucial.
Equal voting and privacy when voting is another issue faced by people who are blind and visually impaired. “We’re trying to make it so it can be as anonymous for us as it is for everybody else,” Brannon says. “Everybody has the right to vote independently.” She explains speech-oriented voting machines were developed years ago, and that’s how she votes — but people who live in smaller towns and rural counties can’t always get to a polling location using those machines.
“Local governments are constantly looking for ways to save money, frequently by reducing their transit service budget,” Floy says. This is another area where members of WCB are working to expand transit services and pedestrian safety for those with vision loss. “Many dangerous intersections lack accessible pedestrian signals, and unfortunately, several WCB members have been hit by cars in the last few years,” Floy says.
Brannon says that they’ve asked for more identification on poles and buses, in either audio or Braille, and accessible ways to identify bus numbers — especially in places like downtown Seattle where there can be many bus lines at a stop.
Both Brannon and Floy emphasize the importance of the blind advocating for themselves. “We understand what it is to deal with life-changing vision loss and are in a unique position to listen, answer questions, share resources and personal stories, and support those who are experiencing vision loss,” Floy says.
Brannon says that she’s observed firsthand how belonging to the organization has given people confidence, advocacy skills and leadership abilities they otherwise may never have had the chance to develop.
“When my vision changed, I thought being blind meant sitting on a couch and becoming irrelevant. Through personal mentoring and a college scholarship from the Council, I was able to finish my bachelor’s degree,” Floy says. “I was able to find a job where I can use past skills and grow my skill base. I’ve been able to purchase a home and care for my older brother. I love my job because I can help others grow their skills, too.”
Washington Council of the Blind is a member-driven nonprofit with chapters and special interest affiliates all across the state, committed to promoting opportunity, equality and independence within the blind and visually impaired community through education, public awareness, and advocacy.