Keeping Communities Connected During the Pandemic (Part 1)

hands reading a braille map of San Francisco

The COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions on personal interactions have been difficult for everyone, but they can be particularly difficult for people who are blind, who often rely on their sense of touch to interact with the world. To help ease the feeling of isolation caused by pandemic restrictions, NIB associated nonprofit agencies have developed creative ways to restructure their in-person community programs to continue delivering services that are critical to their clients’ well-being. 

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, for example, has long offered a full slate of community-support services to its clients, ranging from health and wellness programs to orientation and mobility classes. COVID-19 concerns required some reimagining about how best to continue to provide those previously in-person services. 

“Staying in touch with those in the community who depend on our services is critical, so we came up with creative solutions to provide virtual services,” Director of Community Services Anthony Fletcher says. 

The LightHouse’s health and wellness programs – which include yoga classes, guided meditation sessions, and an “Optimal Health, Optimal You” class in which participants set weekly health goals – is now offered virtually using Zoom and other apps. A previously in-person, six-week orientation and mobility program prepares participants to travel independently through online training using GPS and tactile maps, or “TMAPs,” created by the LightHouse. 

Similar changes were made to deliver other programs virtually. Adaptive technology training with one-on-one instruction is now provided online; a “Tech Together” support group meets weekly through Zoom to share information and tips on new platforms and apps; and “The Business of Blindness,” formerly offered as a weekly coffee hour, is now a phone chat focusing on advocacy, politics, and history. 

The LightHouse also continued its community outreach programs for young people. The Youth Employment Services Academy, previously an immersive, four-week, in-person summer program helping teenagers and young adults learn employment and independent living skills, morphed into a five-week online program. 

Perhaps the LightHouse’s biggest challenge was the cancellation of its Enchanted Hills Camp, which, pre-pandemic, regularly hosted more than 600 campers and their families for one-week sessions throughout the summer. To compensate for the cancellation, the LightHouse launched “Virtual Campfire” Zoom meetings on Saturday evenings and held week-long online camps, enabling people around the globe to share the fun. 

Other social and educational services have continued, such as virtual movie nights, trivia contests, and board games. A four-part Zoom series offered virtual concerts performed by people from all over the country who are blind or visually impaired. 

Fletcher says that in many cases, the move to virtual programming has helped the agency reach more people. 

“Our philosophy is: ‘Whatever you were doing, find a way to keep doing it.’ We’ve extended our reach to so many additional people in the virtual sphere, reaching thousands with our concerts and campfires. Although the LightHouse is really looking forward to meeting with our students face to face again – it will still be our first choice – virtual programming is here to stay,” Fletcher says.