From coronavirus comes insights for some in Wine Country blind community

For many, with remote working comes the feeling of isolation. More so for those who are visually impaired. But technology is helping.

Santa Rosa filmmaker Vivien Hillgrove is legally blind, though she has peripheral vision. Since COVID-19 she has been using a special headset which allows her to overcome the hindrance of not being able to hear people well through their masks by giving her clues on their movement.

Jan Molen of St. Helena, a retired Napa Valley College professor blinded by macular degeneration five years ago, is overcoming isolation via online courses offered by the Earle Baum Center, a Santa Rosa nonprofit providing services for the visually impaired.

“Through the Earle Baum Center I got terrific technical assistance. I have voiceover on all of my Apple devices; I have five. That is what really keeps me connected to the outside world.”

Since the facility closed in March per state orders because of the deadly virus, Molen is saving about $100 each time she logs onto a class because she no longer has to pay the transportation costs to travel from her home to the facility.

“I’m taking all of these courses through Earle Baum Center like exercise and yoga,” Molen said. It’s more than staying fit and relaxed, EBC has allowed Molen to stay engaged while staying isolated.

Hillgrove was a client of the center’s before COVID-19 struck and today credits EBC for allowing her to continue doing her life’s work because of the classes it offers, especially in technology.

Masking what people are saying

Even though those with full sight can have a hard time hearing someone who is wearing a mask, for those with vision issues it’s even more problematic. Anyone who loses one sense then relies more heavily on the others. Masks have impacted hearing, as well as the ability to read facial expressions.

“I have had to kick up other senses with COVID with masks obviating things,” Hillgrove said. “I’m able to use those other senses to extrapolate things. You need to know how everyone feels and how everyone is doing every second. Team building is a large part of filmmaking.”

While Hillgrove is a veteran in the film world, she has had to adapt to having no center sight. Technology has been the answer, through being able to share her desktop, and using various computer programs designed for those with sight disabilities.

Hillgrove’s film credits include being a dialogue editor on “Amadeus,” “Blue Velvet” and “The Right Stuff”; narrative film editor on “Henry and June” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”; documentary editing work on seven films by Lourdes Portillo. “Vivien’s Wild Ride” is the documentary memoir she is currently working on, which should be wrapped up in late 2021.

“It’s hard to shoot with PPE (personal protection equipment) regulations. We are doing so with drones and long lenses,” Hillgrove said. “I think it has made the film a better film.”

Silver lining found in pandemic

Remote classes were not part of EBC’s offerings pre-COVID. The organization had to quickly rethink how it delivered services to clients, which number about 2,500 a year. Some people may attend one seminar, others are regulars.

“If we can look for a silver lining in this pandemic, smoke and fire arena, it’s the real expanded reach of EBC,” explained CEO Bob Sonnenberg, who is also visually impaired. “We really had to retool our whole delivery platform to do it remotely. We cannot only utilize a priority delivery platform, but we can expand our reach.”

While the approximately two dozen visual rehabilitation centers in the state have generally been respectful of each other’s geographic territories, sometimes there has been overlap. Earle Baum primarily caters to those living in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. With the advent of online offerings to clients, borders no longer exist.

“We can do things all over the world now. We haven’t figured out how that is going to play out,” Sonnenberg said. “There definitely has been a lot of upside being able to perform on a remote basis.”

Working remotely could be another bonus to come out of the pandemic for the visually impaired. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, “Only 44 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired are employed, compared with 79 percent of those without disabilities.”

Molen is hopeful some good will come out of the pandemic besides being able to access EBC classes from home.

“I think the whole thing of working at home is a major silver lining because transportation is a total disaster. Getting places is really difficult. You can’t drive and we live in California in a car culture unless you are in San Francisco and even that is not easy.”

Nor is getting on other forms of transportation during COVID, especially for the sight-impaired because they can’t see if they are 6 feet from another rider on the bus nor can they tell if the ride share driver is wearing a mask. The social distancing part of this pandemic is near impossible when one can’t see well or at all.

Sonnenberg said those with some sight would be aided at stores if distancing information on the floor had more contrast in color. Putting texture on the indicators so they could be felt by foot would be another welcome option for those with vision issues. Signs tell people where clean grocery carts are; but you have to be able to see to know this.

Touch is significant to the sight impaired; it’s how they connect. It’s doors, door jams, railings, people. They touch nearly everything in order to see. In this world of COVID touch for the most part has been taken away from everyone. For those who can see, it’s not a big deal to only grab that one tomato and move on. For the visually impaired, they want to feel how big it is, note any imperfections and judge its quality by touch. Not much in the outside world is in Braille, but street crossings are one common area. However, hand washing isn’t possible in the middle of an intersection or on a street corner.

For Molen, she is also shopping online more often because going out these days can be even more difficult. This is because whipping around a cane is not a safe option and guide dogs are not trained to measure distances.

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