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Date posted: 9th April 2020
A big question for many blind and partially sighted people who live alone is how to cope with meeting almost no one while keeping sane and positive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this blog, Graham Page, Technology Officer at TPT, writes about how he shops, keeps in touch with people and occupies himself at home.
I have spent the last 20 years working and living in London. I am familiar with the shops and other local amenities such as pubs and cafes. I was at a boarding school for the visually impaired and then at university, so I also know people from around the country. How can I keep in touch with these people and how will I cope with not meeting them?
We all have different situations and we need to adapt our coping strategies accordingly. There are many factors which must be taken into account when trying to get through this period of uncertainty. Are you living alone or with a partner or family? Are you able to shop for the food and other essentials that you need? If this is difficult, what kind of local networks can you rely on? How much social contact with others do you need and how can this contact be best achieved?
In my case, I have reasonable mobility skills and I am familiar with the area. I know where the shops are that are open in my locality. This means that I take advantage of the fact that I can go out and shop for essentials.
I wash my hands before I go out and when in the shop I try to get a member of staff to go at the other end of the trolley so we can go round the store with some social distancing in place. This works better than giving the staff member a shopping list, because many things are simply not available on the shelves, so we regularly need to discuss substitutions as we go around the store.
Walking at opposite ends of a trolley is not perfect, but without someone to shop for me and as a totally blind person, I need to balance risks of catching the virus with the problem of having no food. The delivery model for supermarket food is clearly broken at the moment. Smaller companies are beginning to deliver, which is great, but many of these companies are just not in a position to replace supermarket delivery nor do they have the infrastructure to scale their operation up enough to take advantage of the extra demand.
I try to get out of the house every day for about an hour, which is a highlight of my day, but I need to think about using my time at home productively. I still have a job so that helps me structure my day. I live alone so at home; I make use of the internet and related technology.
I follow friends on Facebook and Twitter and Whatsapp for chatting to friends. I am in a number of Whatsapp groups where the members chat using voice or text messages. The only thing to be aware of when using Whatsapp is that all those participating in the same group will see your phone number.
I use Zoom Cloud Meetings for meeting friends. We can create an environment such as a virtual pub where we can all sit down with a drink and discuss a whole range of subjects. Zoom events need organising as you can have up to 100 people in a room on the basic paid program and even 25 people all talking at once can be pretty chaotic without rules. I’d like to find an app that could mimic CB radio where people use a central channel or conference room to contact people and then go off to a separate room. Products like TeamTalk allow something similar but I’ve not used this yet. Finding the best app for generally socialising in real time is still very much an ongoing thing for us all, I think.
I still get occasional bits of post even though I manage things online as much as possible. There are apps for scanning documents such as Seeing AI, VoiceDream Scanner or Envision AI which can be used for reading paper documents or identifying food. Where this doesn’t work, there is the Be My Eyes app that lets you connect to another person over an audio video link using a smartphone. This service, run by volunteers, allows me to contact a person to help with tasks such as identifying what is in a tin or helping me read the TV screen.
Though I am not a big computer gamer, I do enjoy Dice World which lets you play various dice games online with other people and chat with fellow players. There are a number of games available for apple devices listed on the www.applevis.com website and the website www.audiogames.net has lots of information about accessible audio games across all platforms.
Many people have chosen to learn a language or read up on a hobby or an interest. In my case I will have a go at the JAWS certification process and probably the NVDA certification too. You can freely take the exam online for both products and only pay to get the certificate.
I usually go for the ready meal or takeaway. Now I can try cooking more for myself. What I cook depends on what I can find on the depleted supermarket shelves, so this adds an extra bit of unpredictability. The slow cooker is a useful tool here as you can pile everything into it and turn it on and just let it cook. I don’t use any of the talking products myself as they are expensive. I’ve got a Kenwood combi microwave that can grill, oven or microwave and I’ve got an ordinary gas oven with hobs so I’m not short of appliances to cook on.
Smart speakers can be used to find recipes and go through them step by step so you can think about what you want to cook in advance. Just ask your smart speaker to find you a recipe and it is likely that both Alexa and Google will come up with something you can cook so you can do this with either smart device.
I employ a cleaner for two hours a week and we make sure to stay two metres apart. Help with keeping things clean is also likely to help my sanity even though it could be argued that having someone in my house increases the chances of me getting the COVID-19 virus.
My mum is really not good with technology. She has a computer she uses just for emails and an old-school mobile phone. Not having an online presence can make keeping in touch difficult. So, if we know people in this situation, we should try to ring them regularly to check they are ok. I ring my mum every couple of days though in the past we would talk no more than once a week.
People who are not online often really appreciate getting a card through the post to mark a special event such as a birthday or Fathers’ day. Sending cards can be difficult for blind people at the best of times as we need to get help writing a message in the card and addressing the envelope. It can also be difficult to choose a card.
There are websites such as Moonpig where you can design your own card, but I don’t want all that hassle. I use a website called Click and Post at www.clickandpost.com where you order your card online and they write in your personal message should you want one, address your envelope and send it to the recipient. I can choose a card, and have it written and sent for around £3.49 which includes the price of the card and postage and it is reliable.
So far, the steps I have taken have meant that living and working from home has been bearable even though I don’t have a garden to sit out in. Coping with the next few weeks or months is going to be challenging but technology has been very valuable to me as it helps me keep in touch with others and fill my time doing useful or interesting things.