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Access to signage, rapid test results not provided to people who are blind, visually impaired

An at-home COVID-19 test kit with instruction booklet in English and Spanish laid out on a white countertop.
Mary Engisch
Instructions for at-home rapid test kits, and the multistep process itself, can be inaccessible to those with low vision or blindness.

If you've taken or given a rapid antigen test to determine whether you or a loved one has contracted COVID-19, you're familiar with the multistep process.

Kits can be virtually inaccessible to people who are blind or have low vision. Other pandemic safety measures, like social distancing and signage mandating mask wearing, present their own difficulties.

VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with Dan Norris, director of adult services for the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, about the unique experiences of some Vermonters who are blind or who have visual impairment. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Can you share some challenges that folks with low vision have experienced in the last two years?

Dan Norris: Absolutely. So the first thing people should understand about vision loss is that as a disability, vision loss is the disability of access.

You are not able to attain information that other people can readily access by just looking. And so when we're talking about the pandemic, there are multiple facets that have really impacted our population. You know, the first is just being out in the community — knowing how far away you are from somebody, how far away they are from you. And not only you being exposed to them, but them being exposed to you. You know, it was very stressful for a lot of our clients that we work with.

"The first thing people should understand about vision loss is that as a disability, vision loss is the disability of access."
- Dan Norris, Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Being able to access the signage, and knowing what's expected of you in a particular place — that is something that many of our clients really struggled with. In a lot of places, being able to identify, you know, a ride to go to the testing center — who was going to give you a ride if you had symptoms? Here in Vermont, we do have a volunteer transportation program that the Vermont Association for the Blind offers, and our volunteer drivers as well as our clients both agree that all involved are going to wear masks.

And then more recently with these rapid test kits.

With the the tests themselves, the at-home test, you're absolutely right. They're not accessible. And so the only way that you can access the information is through technology. Use of, say, smart devices, like your phone with an [optical character recognition] app. ç has a free one that you can scan, print and have it read to you.

But then you're dealing with manipulating the swab and getting it in and out of the tube without touching the tip. If you have low vision like myself, you might be able to navigate that. And if you had the directions provided to you, you might be able to do it yourself. But then reading the test strip and knowing how many lines are on it and so forth — that's a real challenge.

More from VPR: Most Vermonters support statewide mask mandates, school vax requirements, VPR-Vermont PBS poll shows

And so if you are alone, there are some apps out there, like Be My Eyes, which has volunteers that — through the internet, through this app — they can use the camera on your phone to be able to look at something and tell you what it says. But it's also time sensitive: you have to read that strip between 10-15 minutes to have it be accurate.

So, if you're not able to get the phone and the test strip and the right person on the phone to help you that's a volunteer from somewhere in the world — that could be very challenging. For many of our clients, it's easier just to schedule the volunteer ride to go get the official test and then wait a couple days, which slows you down.

I'm wondering about potentially having to rely on folks who are sighted to drive you to a vaccination clinic or a testing site. Dan, what has this been like for the adults that you work with in terms of independence, or even privacy about medical issues?

Well, that depends on the person. It's frustrating, because you lose a little bit of that feeling of independence when you need to rely on somebody. But at the same time, many of our clients are so grateful to have that person to help them to be able to get that test. If a person wanted to do this completely independent on their own, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for some of the people that I work with.

...If you're the only person in your neighborhood who is visually impaired, that feels very lonely.
- Dan Norris, Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired

What are some triumphs and some positives that have grown out of the pandemic for those who are blind or who have low vision?

One of the things that we've been doing is helping our clients to learn technology, like through Zoom, to be able to connect with people. You know, there are accessibility features built into iPads, iPhones, Kindles. All these different devices that are very mainstream now have accessibility software built into them. We did receive some additional funding from the state of Vermont to provide what we call "smart training" to help the clients learn how to use that technology.

And another impact that the pandemic's had on our clients is their ability to get resources, like groceries. Again, our volunteer drivers can take people to the grocery store and help them get the groceries they need on a weekly basis. If they have the means, ordering food to be sent to them —delivered from the grocery stores — is a great service a lot of the grocery stores didn't offer before the pandemic. We hope that kind of a service can continue.

We do offer support groups online through Zoom right now. Traditionally we have in-person support groups around the state that we provide transportation to, and those are great because if you're the only person in your neighborhood who is visually impaired, that feels very lonely.

Talking to someone else who has a visual impairment, that's really empowering. They're called PALS groups: "peer-assisted learning support." Because of COVID-19, we did transition from in-person to online. And so we've got 10 of those groups around the state. And if anybody is interested in joining those support groups, we would be happy to welcome them in. And then when it is safe to go back to in-person, we would provide transportation for those people to get together in person.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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