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Sarasota Herald-Tribune article about Lighthouse training

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has a story about Lighthouse clients whose digital training and learning to use technology help them adapt to vision loss.

Sarasota-Manatee residents with vision loss embrace digital tools during COVID-19

Lighthouse client uses iPhone with VoiceOver
A Lighthouse Vision Loss Education Center client uses an iPhone during a training session.

Justin Garcia
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Jan. 15, 2021

On Thanksgiving Day of 2018, Rich Jacobs handed his friend his car keys and said, “I’m done driving. I don’t want to put anyone in danger.”

Earlier that year, he woke up and his vision was suddenly foggy. He thought that he might need glasses, which was surprising to him because he had never needed corrective lenses before.

As his vision got worse, he went to multiple doctors to try to figure out the issue. They eventually diagnosed him with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), a genetic condition that causes cloudy then blurry vision, and often results in acute loss of sight.

His vision deteriorated until the reality set in that he could not work anymore, and that he should not be behind the wheel. By March of 2019, his sight was completely gone.

His wife, Kim, helps him with tasks around the house and put Velcro on the microwave so he can feel his way around the buttons to heat up meals. He found a guide dog, a 3-year-old black lab named Debbie, who has been a helpful companion. 

It’s been physically and emotionally hard on Jacobs to be sightless at 51, after so many years of seeing. Luckily, he has a strong support system of family and friends who help him stay positive. He’s even found that his other senses such as taste, smell and hearing have increased greatly. 

But it’s more difficult to stay connected with people digitally these days. His first step was to learn how to use his iPhone again. His next goal is to relearn how to use his computer. For now, Kim helps him with more complicated digital tasks.

Before losing his sight, Jacobs was a project manager for big construction projects in Pennsylvania. He still has all those skills, but he needs to be able to use the technology to get back into his field. 

“I just want to be productive again,” he says.

He’s one of 7,675,600 people affected by vision loss in the U.S. as of 2016, according to The National Federation of the Blind. For many years, people like Jacobs have faced issues with access to the digital world.

According to The Pew Research Center, there have been advancements in making social media platforms and websites more accessible to the visually impaired; however, there also have been dozens of recent lawsuits which claim that some aspects of the digital world are not accessible to people with vision loss. 

To find help with his situation, Jacobs visited Lighthouse Vision Loss Education Center, a Sarasota-Manatee nonprofit with a mission to “educate and empower those affected by vision loss so they may enjoy happy, healthy and independent lives.”

He uses Lighthouse’s digital training to get reacquainted with his devices. When COVID-19 came to Florida in March of 2020, all of Lighthouse’s programs shifted online.

“At first, he was a bit apprehensive about how navigating the digital trainings would work,” says Yahkub Augustine, technology manager at Lighthouse. “But now, he’s really getting the hang of it, and he’s one of the best clients we have.”

To help Jacobs relearn how to use his phone, Augustine arranged Zoom meetings. First, he taught Jacobs how to use the voice-over function on his phone. Jacobs asked the program Siri to turn on voice over, which is a gesture based screen reader that gives audible descriptions of what’s on Jacob’s screen—from battery level, to who’s calling, to which app his finger is on.

Then, Augustine had Jacobs install an app on his iPhone that he swears by, called “Seeing A.I.” The app has a variety of helpful functions, including optical character recognition, which reads text in front of the phone’s camera out loud. Seeing A.I. can also describe scenes in front of Jacobs when he points his camera at them. This helps him navigate the world through his phone by announcing to Jacobs what’s in front of him. 

Jim Auchter, 60, also lost his vision recently. In 2019, he suffered from health complications that led to him losing his sight. Even simple things became surprisingly difficult.

“Go in the bathroom with your eyes blindfolded and try to find your toothbrush and toothpaste,” he says. “See if you can get the toothpaste directly on top of the toothbrush.”

Auchter became increasingly upset as he realized so many things he loved to do were now inaccessible for him. He wanted to read books and browse the internet. All his life, he was adept at technology and worked as an operations research analyst for the Department of Defense. But without his sight, all his past passions seemed out of reach. 

He went to Lighthouse just a month before COVID-19 came to the states. 
“At first, I was worried and didn’t know what was going to happen if we couldn’t meet in person anymore,” Auchter says. “But it turned out the transition has been really smooth and helpful.”

He gives a lot of credit to the IT Department at Lighthouse, which offers an array of services, from technology classes to reading groups and cooking classes. Like Jacobs, he also began utilizing apps, especially one called “Be My Eyes.”

If Auchter drops something on the ground, such as a prescribed medication, and is worried that his dog might come and eat it, he can get immediate help from the Be My Eyes team. He initiates the app, then a volunteer answers and is sharing his screen. 

They help him search the ground, and once they spot the pill, they guide him to pick it up. He also reaches out to get help finding his favorite pasta sauce at the grocery store. Other apps such as Siri and Cortana help him answer questions and search the web for things he’s curious about.

He’s appreciative that Lighthouse has introduced him to such useful technology and also embraces the camaraderie he finds. Lighthouse hosts talk therapy sessions, where people with vision loss can discuss issues they deal with daily.

During their Zoom discussions, they address feelings of being “othered” by society. Especially during the pandemic, many without sight have experienced intense feelings of isolation and anxiety. Being out in public was how they usually interacted with people. Without the ability to use digital tools, there would be a lot more silence in their lives, Auchter says. 

Lisa Howard, CEO of Lighthouse, says that while COVID-19 presented certain challenges, they’ve still been able to adapt and serve, with some surprises along the way.

“Through using virtual meetings, we can reach people from further away who couldn’t make it to our physical location before,” Howard says. 

Before COVID-19, people had to find ways to make it to Lighthouse. Some spent hours using public transportation to get there. But now, they can access the same help from the comfort of their own homes. 

From April through December 2020, Lighthouse provided more than 6,800 hours of direct client services remotely using Zoom or Google.

Howard says that Lighthouse will eventually have its physical location available again for in-person programs when it’s safe, but that things will never quite be the same.

“Seeing the usefulness of these digital tools has changed everything,” she says. 

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.