Making a House Livable for Someone Who Is Blind

Some years ago, one of the more distinctive shows on television was a program titled “Life Styles of the Rich and Famous.” It was just what the name promised, a voyeuristic tour of the homes of celebrities accompanied with the narration of the cheesiest announcer in the history of broadcasting.

So, although it will lack the pizzazz and tackiness of the original, I’m devoting this blog to a tour of our house and a summary of some of the ways a home might be modified, whether that be for the owner or for another family member who is visually impaired. While not everyone who is visually impaired will make these adaptations, these are some things my wife and I have done to make daily life more convenient and efficient.

Because the entirety of our downstairs is either hardwood or tile and a couple of rooms are slightly off-set, it easy for a visually-impaired visitor to get disoriented when first entering the house. Consequently, rugs are strategically placed throughout the first floor. Some serve to clue the visitor that they are approaching a landmark such as the hall while others may be used as a guide to follow when crossing one of those off-set rooms.

One of the trivial but tricky things you need to pay attention to when you are a blind homeowner are light switches. We have several lights which may be controlled by more than one switch. That is, to ensure that the front hall lights are off after guests leave, both upstairs and downstairs switches should be in the “down” position. Forget one of these and the lights could be on day and night for days.

While we have labeled the microwave and dish washer with Braille, this may not necessarily be a convenient, or even the best, option for all visually-impaired people. After all, the large majority of visually-impaired people know little or no Braille. However, if grandma’s vision has deteriorated to the point that reading buttons is not feasible, you can simply substitute tape of various designs. “On” could be a square; “off” could be a triangle; “up” could be an arrow pointing up. You get the idea. Incidentally, this system collapses when a sighted guest moves the Braille or tape to read the print signage on the microwave. Since, once moved, the labels will never go back into their original position, guests like this should be treated like small children and watched very carefully.

One of the trickier things we’ve had to confront is knowing when the dishes in the dish washer are clean or dirty. The solution came to my wife after one dissolute trip to Vegas. (Is there another kind? She brought back a poker chip that was magnetized and put it on the dish washer. If it’s on the left side of the door, the dishes are dirty; if it’s on the right, they’re clean and I’m supposed to empty them.

Frequently, we’re trying to keep track of things that just have a lot of turnover. Think here of the cans in your kitchen cabinet. While some people use specialized Braille labels to distinguish breakfast cereal from pancake mix, we arrange things alphabetically, both by category as well as specific product. Thus, all of the cake mixes would come before the cereals and bean and bacon soup comes before chicken noodle and chicken and rice.

The same strategy can be used in the closets. On those occasions when I need to wear a coat and tie to a wedding, funeral, or other festive occasion, all I need to do is walk into the closet and know that the pants, sportscoat, and appropriate shirt are hanging together. I know that my wife has even more carefully organized the 90% of the closet that is hers, although I couldn’t begin to concisely summarize how that is done, but, then again, she looks a lot better than I do.

After reading the previous paragraph, you may wonder, “How can you know whether your clothes match?” There are several types of technology that enable someone to do this. While they vary slightly, the one we use is fairly typical. Roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes, all that is necessary is to place a tiny “window” on the device against the fabric you want to check and press a button. A mechanical voice will then announce, “Blue” or “Dark green.” We’re dealing with technology and, while it is generally pretty accurate, it has its glitches. For example, it is unable to distinguish between navy and black, but, that having been said, you can use it and be assured that you’re not going to be looking like a Christmas decoration and wearing green and red together in July.

We also have a couple of gadgets that, strictly speaking, we could do without but, over the years, have become dependent upon. The first is a talking caller ID and does exactly what you think it would: it announces the name and phone number of all in-coming calls. The second is a talking thermostat. For years, I had to remember how many degrees I had lowered the device before going to bed so that I could precisely reverse the process in the morning – doable but awkward – and you really never could program the thing. Now, all the visual feedback is spoken.

Sometimes what you need doesn’t come out of a catalogue of products especially adapted for the blind. My favorite example of this is the Ove’ Glove, a great little oven mit that enables us to put things in the oven and take them out without coming away with melted stumps for hands.

Not everything lends itself to an easy work-around. There’s not much you can do with flat-screen appliances; they’re just completely inaccessible. So, when you need a new washer or dryer, your options are greatly limited. In fact, you will probably drive all over town, check the most popular web sites, and, even then, stand a good chance of having to buy a product lacking some of the features you’d really like.

There are a number of other things that could have been included on this list, but these give you some idea of how our house has been modified. The common theme that runs throughout all of these is the need to think of alternate ways of doing conventional tasks in the most convenient ways possible.

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