Walking in my shoes: You see me, I can’t see you.
Hi! I’m Leona Atkins, I’m a senior software developer at the Met Office which I’ve been in for over 12 years now. I have a disability; I am severely sight impaired (registered as blind). The condition is known as complex Microphthalmos, which is a developmental disorder of the eye.
Covid -19 and the lockdown have posed new challenges whilst, strangely, fixing others. On the positive side, meetings are now held online. I’m able to know who is talking to me and when people screenshare I can magnify it and know what is being presented. I can also take part in [i]mob and pair programming now that it’s all online. We are also using Miro, a virtual whiteboard app, rather than sticking Post-It notes everywhere, so it makes things more accessible for me: I don’t have to hand write or try to read other people’s handwriting, which can prove very difficult.
I found working from home extremely challenging, as lack of space and the temporary nature of my accommodation meant I couldn’t find space for all my assistive technology. (Lockdown happened during my house move and I found myself having to quickly find a house share). Also, I wasn’t able to get my setup right initially. Eventually it was agreed that I could purchase a proper monitor stand and getting DSE equipment shipped from work. However, the whole process was very stressful and my lack of routine and poor internet connection just added to my frustrations. It was far from ideal.
Then there were the everyday things like, what was I going to eat? I normally do my shopping online, as I can’t see things in shops well enough, but suddenly there were no delivery slots available. I was not disabled enough to be considered vulnerable, so no priority was given, and faced the real possibility of running out of food. I did try food shopping in person but couldn’t see well enough to use the one-way systems or physically distance, and consequently got shouted at on many occasions for going the wrong way, getting too close or looking too closely at products despite using a white cane. (Top tip: hand signals, arrows and signs, don’t work for blind people!) Shops could no longer provide assistance; I had to concede defeat and stay home. Thankfully my housemate was able to do some shopping for me and I have wonderful friends who also did their best to help. Without them I don’t know what I would have done. Having read many accounts by friends and other disabled people, it is obvious that we were very much left to fend for ourselves with little or no help with even the help of carers reduced or even withdrawn. It was a very scary time indeed.
As I didn’t want to be stuck indoors forever, I thought about how I could solve the physical distance problem. I started work on an Arduino-based distance sensor, the idea being that it would beep if I got within 2 meters of an object. This, at least, gave me the opportunity to turn something negative into something creative. I have the hardware and have coded up the solution and I’m now working with a colleague to build a housing for it. I’m eager to test it out.
What simple things can people do to help those with a visual disability? If planning a meeting, provide any reading material beforehand. Don’t use visual tools like ‘post it’ notes, (my pet hate), when giving a talk or presentations, try not to use ‘visual’ cues, like ‘as you can see here’, or ‘look here’, it’ll have no context to someone with no sight. If unsure of how to help, just ask, ‘we’ would rather be asked than ignored and lastly, it’s a small thing but, if talking to someone with sight loss, introduce yourself, e.g. ‘Morning Leona, it’s Gill’, as you can see them, remember they can’t see you.
[i] Pair Programming is when 2 developers work together on the same task, usually sat next to each other, this can be a great teaching aid for a junior developer, it also allows the task to be completed, as the peer review can take place at the same time.
Mob Programming is where the whole team gets involved to either solve a complex problem, or where the task will hold up other team members, so we all work on it together, again this provides a good learning aid, great if some members of the team are new. We also use this technique for peer reviews, so we will review a piece of work as a team.
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