Earlier this year, Stephanie Watts participated in the local Martin Luther King, Jr. march and followed that up with a 5K walk on Valentine’s Day. She also worked out at the YWCA three times a week.
“I didn’t retire just to have all these health issues,” said Ms. Watts, 60, of her pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.
She modified her diet and bought one of those three-in-one elliptical machines for her townhouse. She started to feel good and often took walks in her neighborhood, just to get some fresh air.
Then COVID-19 hit and everything changed. Seven months into the pandemic, it is common to see signs outside of businesses stating, “Closed Due To COVID,” “Masks Required For Entry” or “Remember To Stay 6’ Apart.”
Because she’s legally blind, Ms. Watts can’t see any of those things.
The Long Beach native was born with optic atrophy and glaucoma and had limited vision most of her life.
“I was able to see a little bit, mostly what was in front of me versus distance; I never really had that,” she shared.
Ms. Watts retired in 2015 after 28 years of state service and was enjoying her freedom when in 2018, what sight and light perception she did have began to diminish.
Simple things like pouring a cup of coffee became difficult.
“(Before), I could go to my kitchen and get the coffee pot and pour a cup of coffee visually. Now with diminished vision, I could see the cup, but not with any great accuracy. I thought to myself, “I’m going to have to get a technique for this so that I’m not just pouring coffee all over the kitchen counter,” she shared.
“What was stable for me that enabled me to do what I needed to do or wanted to do was changing.”
That’s when Ms. Watts reached out to the Society of the Blind in Midtown Sacramento.
“Limited vision is fine, well and good. People get used to what they get used to; it’s stable, but it’s that instability that gets us thrown off.”
The Society of the Blind helps people adjust to being blind, largely people who become blind, suddenly or gradually, at some point. Ms. Watts, having been blind since birth, didn’t have the same needs, but implored them to help her “brush up” on her mobility skills. She began participating in their Senior IMPACT Program and attended a retreat to help older people who are losing their sight learn new skills to maintain their independence.
Ms. Watts participated in a program graduation ceremony on March 13.
“By the following Monday we were on stay-at-home orders, so I haven’t really been out and about much because I’m a very conscious person and I don’t see a need to be places unless it’s necessary,” she shared.
She was asked to be a mentor to newly blind individuals and participated in a Black American Senior Support group that was started in July, helping to show people that the Society for the Blind is inclusive. Members call in twice a week to engage.
“Some seniors are feeling more isolated than I am,” Ms. Watts shared. “I have myself on Zoom and all kinds of other stuff. I was telling somebody I’m more busy now than I was before.”
Ms. Watts is a member of the local chapter of the California Council of the Blind where she serves on the Legislative and Community Affairs, Inclusive Diversity, and Access and Technology committees. She also volunteers with other blindness organizations, beta testing and giving policy input.
“I want to remain active,” she said.
She’s largely been practicing her newfound skills close to home.
She’s weary of taking Lyft or Uber as she once did.
“We’ve got to take it on faith that they’ve done everything they say they did. You have to or you won’t go anywhere,” she said.
She’s always preferred to buy groceries online rather than in-person shopping. Her husband, however, doesn’t mind going into stores. He’ll ask employees for help locating items. Many sight impaired folks also take advantage of services like Instacart that will shop at various stores for them.
“There’s different services available now that weren’t available say even 10- 15 years ago,” Ms. Watts said.
“Companies like AIRA (Artificial Intelligence Remote Assistance) that will connect with you through your phone and then they see what’s around you through your back facing camera and you can literally hold the phone up and say, ‘OK what am I in front of?’… You can also use that same service to walk down the street and be able to ‘observe’ what’s around you. They’ll tell you, ‘OK, you got a tree in front of you, step two steps to the left’ or ‘there’s a telephone pole on your right’ or ‘someone’s passing you on the left or the right’ they literally see what’s going on around you to enable you in these days and times to navigate. Especially with COVID you want to know if someone’s getting close to you and doesn’t have on a mask, you definitely want to get out of their way.”
Most days, though, she simply uses her white cane.
“Those services enhance things, but for some who don’t have the money or the interest, then you certainly can get along without them,” she said.
She misses her 5K walks, but having to do them while holding onto a helper’s elbow doesn’t allow for required social distancing and she wouldn’t feel comfortable, even with face masks.
Instead, she’ll continue to work out with her home gym and go for walks around the complex where she lives.
“COVID has affected that piece of my life,” she said. “I need a different president with a different national plan before I feel comfortable really letting myself out there. Too many people are doing too many things. Some make sense, some don’t, so I got time. I can be conscious.”
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Photo by Robert Maryland