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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.”

Mental health

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.

Ordinary habits

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.

She and her husband Chip still lead active lives and are quite busy with a new real estate business venture, but she no longer goes to the grocery store and limits her amount of time in public, she said.

The adults with autism who live at Sweetwater Spectrum have had their routines reorganized, too, said Kory Stradinger, CEO of the housing solution for people with autism and other developmental disabilities.

“Had to limit parent visits for a while at the height of shelter-in-place,” Stradinger said.

And regular programs and activities were altered to accommodate for the virus and need for masks and social distancing. Some of the residents who enjoy shopping for themselves were not allowed to do so because support staff that assist with that kind of activity weren’t working. For some on the autism spectrum, changing routines can be upsetting, he said.

They don’t understand why they can’t go to the grocery store, or why their parents weren’t visiting – Stradinger said parents are now allowed in with masks and social distancing – or why their programs were changed.

For Denise Vancil and her husband, both blind, they rely on the assistance of people they hire to clean their home, grocery shop and help with other day-to-day things.

“Currently, we still have someone help with the shopping, drop it off, and (we) let it sit in the garage for a few days before bringing it in, and then use our kids to figure out what the things are or apps on our phone that voice out through (OCR) scanning reading software,” Vancil said.

Their children are 14 and 11 and are distance learning, yet another change of routine.

Face coverings

Wearing masks hasn’t been too much of a problem for Sweetwater’s residents, but some of them don’t like to keep them on, Stradinger said.

Nancy Turner, who is totally blind and a volunteer and client of Earle Baum center, said she noticed that some voices sound different coming from behind a face covering.

“I have often thought about what it’s like for a sighted person” to adjust to not seeing other full faces and expressions. “It seems like it would be a handicap for them,” she said.

Sonnenberg, who is legally blind, answered a knock on the door the other day. When he didn’t recognize the voice he asked the person to identify themselves. It was a friend wearing a mask that altered the sound of her voice, which surprised him, he said.

“And she has a very distinctive voice.”

Hands and touch

Folks with impaired sight such as Sonnenberg, Wedler, Vancil and Turner rely on touch in several ways, they said. Touching an object allows them to understand what the object is. They use Braille to “read” signs and other written material. They hold on to elbows of others to be safely led while walking.

The signs outside grocery stores instructing people how to behave in a store, or know that carts in a certain area have been sanitized, are not written in Braille.

And touching objects in public is a safety concern, one that Rie Casale, who is temporarily disabled due to a broken foot, had to relearn, she said.

“I found out interesting things,” she said of her temporary disability.

Casale uses a scooter to get around these days, and during a road trip to Wyoming and Montana she said she discovered public bathrooms are a challenge. First, getting in the door of a gas station market where the bathroom is located is tough.

“Doors are hard. They don’t stay open,” Casale said. With one leg on a scooter and one hand holding on to the scooter she had to finagle her way inside by opening the door and scooching in the scooter a bit and repeating the process until she could get all the way in.

“I’d open the door, the door would hit me,” she said. By the time she got in she had touched the door four to 10 times depending on how tight the spring was.

She said she was aware that she had touched a surface where germs could be lurking and may have transferred them to the handlebars and neck of the scooter. That made her aware of the need to sanitize the top and back of the areas she touched.Washing her hands in the bathroom proved to be a lesson as well.

“If you have two feet, you can wash your hands” and use your “elbow and butt” to push open the door from the bathroom.

“You can’t do that with a scooter or wheelchair,” Casale said.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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