For people with disabilities COVID presents different challenges
Hoby Wedler has no idea when he’s encroaching the ascribed six-foot social distancing rule because he’s totally blind. He uses a cane for the blind when he walks; it should be a visual cue to sighted people that he can’t see what he is nearing. It baffles him when sighted people don’t tell him he is getting close.
Bob Sonnenberg, CEO of Earle Baum Center of the Blind, said people without sight “don’t know what social distancing is” because they can’t see it. They don’t know the spatial relation of six feet, and when out in public they have no idea how far they are from a person unless “someone is kind enough to tell you.”
And Wedler said he thinks some people are awkward or afraid to say something, but he wishes they would.
“They can see my cane. All they have to do is say something… versus standing there watching me, then when I get close they scream,” Wedler said. “You would be surprised… people get freaked out and have yelled even profanities.”
Wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and a change of routine is everybody’s norm during this coronavirus pandemic, but for some – those with varying disabilities – it’s a different challenge.
For the seeing impaired who rely on other senses such as hearing, masks can change the way voices sound; and touch, an important tactical sense, is impaired due to social distancing.
Facial coverings block the view of mouths, and for lip readers that impedes their ability to understand what is being communicated to them. Routines are disrupted because of closures, throwing off self-regulating mechanisms for those with autism.
Denise Vancil, who teaches several subjects and classes at Earle Baum, said “touching, is seeing for people with sight loss or blindness.”
Giving hugs or shaking a person’s hand give information of how tall or short a person is, she said.
“Giving a pat on the shoulder to someone who is visually impaired communicates that that person is listening, or the affection that might be found in eye contact,” said Vancil. “And simply touching items in stores, holding a person’s arm for them to be a guide, taking Uber or Lift, which we relied on, doesn’t feel comfortable, hence, I have not really gone anywhere.”
And her guide dog “doesn’t really get to be the guide dog he once was, as they don’t understand social distancing.”
And for people with mental health disorders, such as Susan Levine who is also a double-amputee, the effects of a COVID-world could be trying, but she’s determined to not let it rule her, she said.
Levine is open about her two suicide attempts, the second one cost her an arm and a leg, she said.
“For me my injuries happened in New York. I was run over by a subway train. I put myself on the tracks,” Levine said adding that she doesn’t remember the accident.
Now on medication and managing her depression with physical activity, spiritual and social activity and regular sessions with a psychiatrist, Levine is “great” except for a recently dislocated shoulder. She said she would see her first psychiatrist through Zoom and that was fine, but she found she prefers to meet in person with her current doctor, which they do now with masks and social distancing.
But in the beginning of the shelter-in-place orders they only met through Zoom.
“I find I prefer (seeing the psychiatrist) in person. It wasn’t horrible, but it is better for me to be in person” to be able to see his expressions and full-body response, she said.
“I think it’s important to destigmatize suicide and depression,” Levine said. “In times of COVID, depression is up, suicide is up.” She wants to be open about her own health issues as an amputee and one who manages depression to help others.
After her suicide attempt she said she “chose to live.” That choice influenced her attitude and how she approaches life now. She sought out things that give her purpose, and helped her become strong physically and emotionally. She’s developed a “resilience.”
“COVID took some of that away,” she said.
She worries that people who have PTSD from the past fires might be suffering now with the current fires, adding to the stress some feel from the pandemic.
Routines have been chopped up, twisted and reshaped. For some, such as Jeanne Allen, it’s adapting to not attending events in person, for example. Allen has to be even more vigilant about staying away from potential coronavirus carriers because she has multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune disease, the effects of which have put her in a wheelchair.
“I shouldn’t be going out and getting viruses,” Allen said.