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Contact: Art And Social Distancing Without Sight

Susan Byrnes

Social distancing is here the foreseeable future. But for people who are blind, contact with others can be essential for many daily life tasks. Community Voices producer Susan Byrnes tells us how one person without sight is managing during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A few months before COVID-19 hit the US, my next door neighbor, Jan, came home with a new Seeing Eye dog. When Jan recently asked me to help her learn a new walking route with her dog, I was nervous. Normally this would involve a sighted person guiding her by taking her elbow. With social distancing, we couldn’t do that, so during our walk I followed six feet behind while Jan and her dog navigated intersections, trash cans, and uneven sidewalks.

Jan lost her sight 45 years ago, and this is her 6th dog guide, so she’s very experienced. As we walked, I asked her if she was afraid of getting too close to people on the sidewalk now because of the virus.

"So I have to trust that people will give me the distance I need," she said. "Most of the time [they do]. I’ve had two incidences where I actually brushed up against… I went right home and took off my shirt and put it in the laundry and washed where we touched. You know it’s just one of those things, and that was like four weeks ago, and I’m still on my feet, I’m doing good."

I asked her if those incidents worry her.

"No, I just try to manage it as best I can, that’s all I can do. I’m not going to stay in my house in fear."

At the age of 70, Jan works as a licensed counselor, a job she’s now doing from home on the phone. Being cut off from people has been hard. The other day, her smartphone stopped responding. She couldn’t get it to work and was almost in a panic. 

"I am accustomed to being around somebody just about every day. Because of the virus and my need to limit my contact with people, I’ve gone days without seeing anybody. When I did have contact with somebody they looked at my phone and said 'Jan, you’ve got something all over your screen and that’s why it’s not working properly.' I believe because of the ongoing stress of our current environment with this coronavirus, kind of being overwhelmed, it took that added event to tip me over the edge as far as flat out stressing out. And the only thing I knew to do was to walk out my stress, so I harnessed up my dog guide and went on a power walk, in the rain in the cold for about an hour and a half."

Jan has a strong sense of self-reliance, and it’s been tested by the pandemic. She says in some ways she’s become more independent because her normal support network is not able to be there. But there’s one thing Jan has always done without needing any help. In her basement, she keeps a potter’s wheel and a kiln that she can operate with Braille-labeled buttons. 

“I come down here, by myself, and it’s kind of like I can escape the troubles of the world.”

Just before an injury caused her to lose her sight, she learned pottery, and later taught it for twenty years. Lately, working with clay is a way for her to deal with uncertainty.

"None of us know where this is all going to…what the course of this is going to be or how many deaths. As much personal trauma that I have had, I’ve always had an idea, or the belief, that I would survive it. This, I don’t know, I don’t know if I have that concrete belief.”

Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council and is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Susan Byrnes