For blind educator, pandemic poses unique hardships, new perspectives

DAVIE, Fla. (CNS) — Social distancing and lockdown protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic are challenging enough for most people. But for someone who is vision impaired, there are added complications and twists.

That’s the experience of Francesca Marinaro, a college educator and Catholic who is navigating the crisis while living independently and managing a career.

“When you are coping with any disability, there are certain things that become a little trickier,” said Marinaro, assistant professor of English at Broward College.

In a time when people rely more than ever on working remotely, online conferencing and internet grocery ordering, Marinaro said she has a slight leg up in the technology department from her years of using digital tools for the blind. But the pandemic still presents real-world dilemmas for the handicapped.

One issue is touch, Marinaro told the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Miami Archdiocese. She explained that people who are visually impaired need assistance such as having someone hand them something or guide them somewhere.

“Isolation and social distancing for a person who is not sighted is a challenge when trying to keep your distance from others,” Marinaro said.

So are things like personal outings into the community and getting some exercise in crowded public places, both of which prove extra tricky for the vision impaired now.

Marinaro said she would like to get down to the Hollywood Beach Boardwalk with Zeus, a yellow Labrador who serves as her guide dog. But obviously, the dog can’t judge proper social distancing during a stroll on a busy walkway.

“He has not been getting a lot of work lately; he has basically been furloughed,” Marinaro said of her guide dog. “I will take him out for a walk. But if I hear someone, we will navigate around other people and be respectful of their space.

“People who are not sighted rely on public transportation, so our options for getting a change of environment are not really there,” she added.

Add to that the issues of social distancing and mask wearing in public places that everyone has encountered but which sighted persons can at least try to evaluate for safety in terms of virus transmission.

When she does go out, Marinaro tries to go with family members who can judge a situation.

“They are able to look around and say if everyone is wearing a mask or going down the aisles correctly,” she said. “But if I am on my own, I have to trust that everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing.

“There is a great ethic of care to beat this pandemic, and I hope people will eventually see that putting on a mask is important,” Marinaro said.

Since the national lockdowns and school closures in mid-March, Marinaro also has refrained from meeting her students in person. Transitioning to video-based communication platforms on a computer initially required some coaching from her family and friends.

Marinaro also said meeting with a friend or inviting someone over for a cup of coffee are clearly off the table now, as they are for most everyone else.

She lives independently and normally spends a lot of time visiting her parents and shopping and taking walks with them — until the pandemic complicated life.

Her parents, both retired Catholic school teachers who live nearby, are another concern, she added.

“My parents are in that high-risk age bracket. I want to interact with them when I can, so I don’t want to expose myself unnecessarily,” she said.

As time has gone by, they have become a little more lax on social distancing. “But we are very careful with people outside our family,” Marinaro said.

Marinaro has been reading the Bible each morning and watching the Mass online rather than venturing to church in person. She has even found enrichment through commentator-narrated services broadcast from the Vatican.

“I would listen to the English voice-over, and it was fascinating to me how much I had forgotten,” she said. “There was a time when I had partial vision, and I realized how much I had forgotten about the physical gestures (of the liturgy) and to have someone providing commentary; and describing all of that lent a dimension to the Mass that I had forgotten since I was 12 or 13 years old.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just turned life upside down for the disabled; Marinaro said she realizes that people everywhere are adapting to the experience.

“This pandemic has turned attention to the social isolation of people and how important it is to have a network when you are single,” she said. “We have found ways to connect with others to deal with that social isolation.

“The goal of all the things I do (differently) now is: How am I going to maintain that when my life returns to something like what it was before the pandemic? Once a day I repeat to myself, ‘This can’t last forever.’”

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Tracy writes for the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.

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