How Technology Helps Visually Impaired Navigate Social Distancing World

June 25, 2020

Posted by WCBS 880



As businesses begin to open up and restrictions are lifted, New Yorkers will have to navigate a completely different world.

Navigating social distancing is a challenge, but it’s especially difficult for the visually impaired.

Ed Plumacher, of Lindenhurst, has been working remotely, but when he returns to his job at the Lighthouse Guild, he’ll need to navigate the Long Island Rail Road, Penn Station, the subway, the streets and the elevator in an entirely different way.

“You might ask for assistance or someone might offer you assistance in situations. You know, one of the common ways that we would get that would be you’d ask for an elbow. Well, the last thing I want to do today is grab somebody’s elbow when they’re sneezing and coughing into their elbows instead of into their hands today,” Plumacher said.

Plumacher knows Penn Station inside and out, but he doesn’t know if he’s within six feet of someone.

“A lot times people are quiet so you make sure you’re using proper cane skills, you’re sweeping a cane properly, you may hit somebody in an ankle or something if they’re standing in front of you. So I always apologize and step back and try not to make physical contact,” said Plumacher, who is the adaptive technology specialist at the Lighthouse Guild.

The blind rely on touch — holding a hand rail, running their fingers over the Braille in elevators.

Carol Moog, a senior mobility instructor at the Lighthouse Guild, says there are ways to adapt in this new world.

“Speak up, shop safely, embrace technology, use the white cane, adjust the cane and stay connected and active,” Moog said.

Moog said in these anxious times, communication is key. She hopes sighted people politely ask others to social distance since they may not be able to see markings on the floor.

“Life does go on and I think it’s always, when we deal with a change, it’s learning how to adapt and how to move forward and find the solution that works for you,” Moog said.

Adaptive technologies are helping the visually impaired navigate the world of social distancing.

Plumacher says there’s an app that can help the blind navigate the subway or a supermarket during social distancing.

It’s called AIRA. The app connects a smartphone camera with a sighted person.

“They can tell where you are, if you hold the camera in front of you pointing out they can tell what’s in front of you, describe the scene,estimate distances, things like that,” Plumacher said.

There’s also a sonar-equipped smart cane called WeWalk that will vibrate when the user gets within six feet of an object or person.

The Lighthouse Guild also offers mental health services for the blind who may be more prone to loneliness while sheltering at home.

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