A Strange Concept, Sight Loss, Working from Home and CoVid-19

2020-01-27 | By Orcam Staff

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A Strange Concept, Sight Loss, Working from Home and CoVid-19 - OrCam

As I sit here contemplating how to tackle this post and how I am going to make it a mindful piece, I hadn’t even typed up my first word when I began to think of my own situation. I am registered as blind, I am working from home and I’m missing family, friends, and of course my work colleagues. COVID-19 has a lot to answer for.


It was my plan to write about how blind and visually impaired people were coping in general with self-isolation, being housebound and trying to protect themselves from this terrible pandemic that is ripping through our world at a rapid rate, and how part of my job was to try and assist those people integrate an assistive device into their daily lives that would give them empowering independence. Then it hit me. What about the thousands of blind, visually impaired, and disabled people who, like me, are working from home? How are they coping? How are they handling the rigors of everyday life? 


When you are blind or visually impaired the reality is you are already disadvantaged and at times you would certainly be forgiven for feeling a little pressure to stay one step ahead of your sighted colleagues and peers. There is a large contingent of blind and visually impaired people out there who successfully hold down important roles in the workplace and society, and I wanted to reach out to them for an insight into how well they are handling COVID-19.

A laptop on a desk with Zoom open and a bunch of participants. A coffee cup and flower pot are on the desk as well.

Every day we see posts from major organizations fighting the fight to get equal rights for the millions of us who have a disability of sorts but, I have yet to see a post from a company or organization that praises their workforce who have a disability and work from home. I feel fortunate. I love my job. I work for a great company, OrCam, and I am constantly told by my employers, senior management, and colleagues if I need anything then I only have to get in touch. Through these difficult times that is comforting to know that I have their support, but, what of my peers? 


I began my research by reaching out to my good friend Stuart Beveridge who works for SeeScape, a Charity in Fife. Stuart assists their service users by providing them with advice on assistive technology. Stuart told me, “In these extremely difficult and challenging times, many people are now working from home. As a totally blind person, I was extremely anxious about this to begin with, as most of my day-to-day job is concerned with interacting with clients face-to-face, assisting them to use many different forms of technology (either hardware or software.) 


However, for the most part, I am actually carrying on as normal. This is mainly due to the fact that having no sight means that I completely rely on audio feedback, Voice Control or Braille when using technology both on a personal basis and also when training clients who need ongoing training and support in this area. So, in short, I can still provide a very good one-to-one or group service via phone, email or even through webinars hosted on a platform called Zoom. While this is not ideal, thanks to advancements in the field of technology in the last few years, I am still able to maintain a high standard of work and provide a vital service to people in Fife who rely on technology to communicate with family/friends and use it to stay independent in everyday life.”


It certainly sounds like Stuart is coping well and of course, he is providing an invaluable service throughout the Kingdom of Fife. 


I then turned my attention to someone who is partly responsible for the skillset I have today. Debbi McKenzie is a tutor, yes, the same tutor who taught me how to use screen readers on my PC. When I spoke on the phone with Debbi, she told me “Time has changed for many, for myself, who works as an ITC tutor at the Dick Institute Library in East Ayrshire teaching visually impaired and blind people how to use JAWS, iPad, iPhone and  Android through voiceover, on a one-to-one service.

So, working from home is a lot different. I have to use my home phone line on loudspeaker alongside the person who I teach who has theirs on loudspeaker, also with the volume turned up high on their computer, iPad, iPhone, etc.”

“It still brings a meaning of routine to my life although in a slightly different way. I use my Orcam if I need to read something off my phone whilst teaching the client a shortcut key on the computer. I can also use my Orcam to read my worksheets in case I forgot the shortcut key to then pass on to the person I am teaching. Isolation is very hard but manageable because, like all people, we managed to find a way around it. And I still manage to have a laugh with my clients and keep them at bay. What I do is have a little chat to make sure they are okay and they are not feeling too isolated and alone. I also work for the RNIB where I use telephone conversations with those who are vulnerable, on their own, and very isolated.” Now here’s a little piece of info for you. Debbi was the first OrCam customer in Scotland and the first customer who I trained, and it was Debbi who told me of the trainer's position here at OrCam

A laptop on a couch with a cup of coffee and air conditioning remote beside it.

I made one final call to a really good friend who helped me when I first began my own sight loss journey, Dr Hazel McFarlane, who is totally blind and highly respected by her peers. Hazel is now the regional manager for the Macular Society and once ran a double marathon from Glasgow to Edinburgh with her guide runners and when we spoke about her own situation she said, “My role with the Macular Society involves considerable travel across the South of Scotland, with me home working one or two days per week. Due to the Coronavirus situation, we suspended all face-to-face work on 10 March. Since then, I have been working from home organizing and facilitating teleconference peer support groups.”


“The Macular Society has been amazingly supportive of its staff, initiating video conferencing team meetings and informal options to help reduce the potential for isolation. I have the option to participate in video conferencing each weekday, Grub Club at lunchtime, and High Tea in the afternoon. I have taken part in video conferencing at 3:30 PM each weekday, opting to have a cuppa with colleagues, to have those daft conversations that you usually have in the office kitchen. A really big positive of this is that since the Macular Society has staff throughout the UK, I have gotten to know other people through meeting them in the virtual kitchen, that I otherwise would not have met.”


“Although the Macular Society has been incredibly supportive, the prospect of working at home for an extended period of time is a bit daunting when I envisage it rolling out in front of me. So, I am just taking it a day at a time. I feel very fortunate to be in a job and to be in a job that I can continue to do at this time – a real privilege.”


So, there we have it. Some incredible people put their skillset successfully to the test each day to help others become that little bit more independent. They are true hero’s in my books!!!!