Dedicated to Improving the Lives of Blind and Visually Impaired People

RDPFS Resources for Partners April 7, 2023

Gardening Tips for This Spring

by Connor Courtien, RDPFS Intern

Now that spring is in full swing, it’s the perfect time to do some gardening, whether you’re a novice or a green-thumbed veteran. If you have a visual impairment and have never gardened before, or have some experience, but could use some additional tips, here are some pointers. First, consider using containers to store your plants instead of planting directly into soil. This is much easier than digging garden beds, and each container provides a natural separator between each plant, making them much easier to differentiate. To make identifying plants even easier, place labels on each container in either large print or braille, whichever best suits your needs. Finally, consider using “marker” plants in the garden – those with a distinct, unique smell or tactile feel – to act as anchors within your garden, making it simpler to stay organized and oriented. You can buy containers or, better yet, use recyclable items you have around the house from takeout or groceries. To check out more tips on gardening with a visual impairment, look at this article from VisionAware on Gardening After Vision Loss: Tips from an Experienced Blind Gardener.

Setting Up Your Garden

Whether or not you have a visual impairment, another aspect to consider is how to design and structure your garden to enhance its enjoyment for those with vision loss. For a larger garden it is important to make walkways straight to allow for simple navigation. It’s also helpful to keep plants encased in borders, such as by using containers, as mentioned above, and to limit the width of each section to about three feet, to allow for easy access from either side. While you probably want to choose plants that have a strong scent for a greater sensory experience, don’t overdo it, as too many strong smells can be overwhelming. A final tip is to include additional features such as wind chimes and waterfalls in your garden to guide those with visual impairments, as well as to contribute to the overall level of immersion. To read more about curating a garden, while keeping those with visual impairments in mind, check out this article from Gardening Know How on Visually Impaired Gardens – How To Create A Fragrant Garden For The Blind.

Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Appreciation Week: April 9 – 15, 2023

This year’s observance of Vision Rehabilitation Week begins on April 9, 2023, to commemorate Anne Sullivan’s birth on April 14, 1866. A pioneer in the field of vision rehabilitation, Sullivan was the teacher who worked with Helen Keller to develop the skills Keller would use later in her life as “an international lecturer and advocate for individuals with vision and hearing loss.” Sullivan graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind and began to work with Keller in 1887 as a Home Teacher, the title at that time for the profession now known as Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (VRT). Today’s VRTs generally have completed a Master’s level education and additional training and certification to provide training to clients on adaptive living skills, low vision devices, communication (including braille, as needed), using assistive technology, and more. For more information on the commemoration and how to celebrate, visit Low Vision Tech’s webpage on Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Appreciation Week. To locate a VRT near you, check out VisionAware’s Directory of Services at VisionAware’s Directory of Services. Thank you VRTs!

National Poetry Month: Highlighting a Poet’s Experience with Vision Loss

by Connor Courtien, RDPFS Intern

Poetry serves as the most personal, acute, and resonant form of writing, connecting the internal experience of the poet to that of the reader. In doing this, it serves a very important and humanistic function, engendering empathy, understanding, and free expression. This makes it fitting to celebrate “poets’ integral role in our culture,” which is the goal of National Poetry Month. Launched by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, the occasion is observed each April by millions of people, making it the largest literary celebration in the world. Check out the website from the Academy of American Poets for more information on ways to celebrate, such as receiving a Poem-a-Day in your inbox, all in the service of increasing public awareness of the work of poets. In that spirit, it’s a great opportunity to highlight an accomplished poet who has grappled with vision loss.

Edward Hirsch, a poet and critic, has written prolifically over his decades-long career. He has won many awards and grants, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986 for his second volume of poetry, Wild Gratitude, as well as the MacArthur Fellowship in 1997. Hirsch also serves as president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which “offers fellowships to exceptional individuals in pursuit of scholarship in any field of knowledge and creation of any artform.” Alongside his success, he’s struggled with vision loss for the past 20 years, a result of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder which causes the gradual breakdown of cells in the retina. His condition worsened hastily during the COVID-19 pandemic, rendering Hirsch legally blind. While he was initially in a state of shock, he started to receive tools and services to help him adapt, and, in writing about his vision loss for The New York Times, Hirsch stated: “’Daily life has a renewed delight and vigor.’” To read more about Hirsch and his work, check out this piece on him by the Poetry Foundation, and be sure to read the full article he wrote for the Times: I Am Going Blind, and I Now Find It Strangely Exhilarating.

Diagnosing Eye Diseases with Artificial Intelligence

by Connor Courtien, RDPFS Intern

Recent developments in applying artificial intelligence (AI) to ophthalmological medical care, utilizing a process called deep learning (DL), show promise when it comes to diagnosing several eye diseases. Diagnosing eye diseases through a DL model largely began with diabetic retinopathy, with the first such AI-enabled ophthalmic device approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018. Over the past five years, more and more eye diseases are being diagnosed in this way, including macular degeneration and glaucoma. Some examples of effective AI diagnosis covered in the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC) include two models for diagnosing keratitis and keratoconus, conditions affecting the cornea, which were 99.9 percent and 99.6 percent accurate, respectively. Models such as these are already very precise and will only become more so as the technology develops, allowing for clinicians to utilize AI-enabled tools for more efficient and accurate diagnosis than they could provide manually. DL models can diagnose diseases through a training process where they learn to infer the underlying pattern shared by each image of a common category, such as healthy retinas versus those with diabetic retinopathy. This allows for predicting the category where a new image belongs and is accomplished by providing a large number of images that are labeled as belonging to one category or another. From these images, over several iterations known as “epochs,” the model can learn to distinguish one category from another. Consequently, the number of images, as well as their quality, greatly increase accuracy, and these are often the constraints when trying to build a model for diagnosis. To learn more about the current state of AI-enabled eye disease diagnosis, check out this recent AJMC article on how Improvements in AI Make Ocular Surface Disease Diagnosis Possible and this brief academic publication from the National Library of Medicine on Artificial Intelligence in Eye Disease: Recent Developments, Applications, and Surveys.

National Public Health Week is Here: Tomorrow is Accessibility Day

This week, from April 3 to 9, 2023, National Public Health Week, celebrates and identifies ways to contribute to the health and well being of people across the United States. Each day of the week focuses on a particular aspect of public health, such as nutrition, mental health, and community well being. On Saturday, the messages are related to access to health care for individuals with disabilities. More than a quarter of U.S. adults have a disability, although senior citizens and Native Americans are “disproportionately  affected.” To address this, the American Public Health Association (APHA), sponsors of National Public Health Week, offers fact sheets, a toolkit, and other materials in English and Spanish that can be provided through doctors’ offices. APHA also provides additional information about health disparities, along with suggestions regarding advocacy, access to nutritious food, and how to join in the initiative. Learn more here about Accessibility during NPHW. For details about the overall commemoration, visit the National Public Health Week home page here.

Celebrating Earth Day by Safely Disposing of Medications with Donated Kits

To celebrate this year’s Earth Day on April 22, 2023, Accessible Pharmacy is inviting individuals who are blind or visually impaired to join them in practicing safe medicine disposal. If not disposed of properly, medicines can lead to environmental damage by polluting waterways and the soil. Starting on April 1, 2023, Accessible Pharmacy has been donating 100 home medication-disposal kits to people with vision loss who would like to remove unwanted, unused, or expired medicines safely. To join in this initiative, on a first come, first served basis, please click here to participate in Accessible Pharmacy's Earth Day Initiative. Accessible Pharmacy also invites those who want to become involved by donating kits to others or by sharing these efforts on social media. Click here to contact them via email. To learn more about their work, visit the website for Accessible Pharmacy: A Home Delivery Pharmacy Specializing in Individuals Who Have Disabilities.

Braille and Language: What Educators Need to Know

Despite the fact that most children who are visually impaired attend regular public schools rather than specialized schools for the blind, few teachers are trained to “understand differences between tactile and visual languages,” as noted in an article in the publication Education Week. Understanding different language modes can be vital in fostering literacy skills in students who are visually impaired, according to researchers speaking at a recent conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. M. Cay Holbrook, a special education professor at the University of British Columbia, and her colleagues found that only 26 teacher education programs in North America offer training in braille “and its connection to print and oral literacy.” As a result, many school districts, particularly in less-populated, rural areas, have very limited if any professional development resources for working with readers with vision loss. Holbrook also pointed out that teachers who only learn how to read braille visually, rather than tactilely, often incorrectly consider the tactile language just a “’code’” for print. Since words are not broken up the same way in braille and print, reading is achieved differently in tactile compared with visual learning, which “can lead to misunderstandings for visually impaired students taught by sighted teachers.” To address these issues, Robert Englebrotson, associate professor of linguistics at Rice University, stated that “’…if teachers intentionally conceptualize braille as a writing system that represents spoken language parallel to, equal to, and not dependent on print, then they may better enable students to achieve reading fluency.’” Advances in technology, such as braille translation software, keyboards, and portable electronic braille displays, as well as audio books and read-along software, can be helpful to students with vision loss in a general education classroom. Englebrotson and Holbrook also suggested that teacher training programs encompass different modes of language, not only to better serve blind students, but also to improve knowledge about how all readers acquire understanding of language. Read more here about "Braille and Language Development: What Teachers Should Know."

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Happy Easter to All Who Celebrate!