A career planning and employment resource for people who are blind or partially sighted

Independent Living Skills: Audio Interview

In this interview we discuss some of the skills that people who are blind or partially sighted need to learn in order to live on their own independently. We talk with Sophia Spyropoulos, and independent living skills specialist at CNIB.

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​​Interviewer: Welcome to this Project Aspiro audio feature. Today we’ll be talking about Living Independently with Sophia Spyropoulos, an Independent Living Skills Specialist with CNIB

Sophia, what exactly are Independent Living Skills?

Sophia: Well, Independent Living Skills means to be able to manage your household and personal tasks independently and safely. So if somebody has had a change in vision, so if they have partial sight or full vision loss, there are techniques and methods that they can learn, so that way they can maintain their independence and safety

Interviewer: Okay, and so what would be some specific examples of Independent Living Skills? What kind of topics would they cover?

Sophia: Right, so they would cover things like food preparation. So if anybody has difficulty using different appliances, anything from the stove, the microwave, ovens, different appliances that they have the toaster. If they have any difficulty in actual food preparation, whether it’s measuring, pouring something to drink, peeling and cutting, then Independent Living Skills Service would provide techniques for that. And generally what we would do is come out to a person’s home and have a conversation with them on those, on these different tasks and see exactly where their difficulty lies and then kind of set up goals along that so we can come out as many times as they need to teach them those techniques so that they’re safe and they’re less frustrated doing those kind of tasks

Interviewer: So, can you describe that process a little bit more? In terms of how you think about an individual… I guess maybe another question would be is there a different between someone who is blind and someone who has partial vision in terms of how you approach this?

Sophia: Yes, it’s very individual because depending on the eye condition and how that individual is affected by it, we’ll try to maximize the use of their vision, if they do have a certain degree, to help as well as different kinds of techniques. For example, organization is very key, certain things would be common to somebody with partial sight and full vision loss, organization is one big area that anybody can benefit from so that if they know they’re putting back something in the same spot and something has a spot and other family members follow that as well, it cuts down the frustration.

They’ll know exactly where things are, so if, for example, you open up your cupboard or your drawer, and you know where the scissors are, those kinds of simple things will cut down on the frustration. So we’ll go over those kinds of things; organizing, using contrast is very important for those who are partially sighted, so instead of, let’s just say at meal time, instead of having a white plate on a white table, and say you’re serving white rice with mashed potatoes, and like chicken, there’s nothing there, there’s no contrast at all. So it’s manipulating the environment, especially at your own home you can do that quite easily.

Manipulate your environment so that there’s a greater degree of contrasts and that will enable you to use your vision a little bit more to be able to see that, so something as simple as getting different coloured place mats, different coloured dishes. If you’re going to pour something that is dark like tea or coffee, put it in a white mug. Vice versa, if you’re going to pour something white like milk, get a black mug. So basically when it comes to a general approach, organization using contrast and lighting are the three areas that we talk about in general, that we try and approach for all the different tasks you can kind of bring that to each task. Making sure you’ve got enough lighting.

What’s beneficial is sometimes lamps with, like a … Lamp, that you can adjust the light specifically on a task, as opposed to just general overhead lighting, and controlling light is very important, as many people experiencing vision loss will become very sensitive to the light, so they have not just sunglasses for outside but often getting indoor sunglasses as well, or closing the blinds or opening, controlling that kind of thing. So in general, we’ll talk about that organization contrast use of lighting to approach different tasks, and then specifically each person how they’re coping with their vision, what tasks are giving them difficulties, then we try to customize what works for them. 

Interviewer: Okay, so you’ve talked a lot about the environment that they live in, so what would you then do specifically for people around them, as opposed to setting things up, setting up their environment, but how they actually do things? So what would be some examples like that, and what would you call that?

Sophia: For example, labeling is a very big one. Being able to identify different food items. Let’s just say they fridge, in the cupboard. There’s so many different ways to do that, and that’s why it’s so good to specifically find a method that is good for an individual. So for example, if a person’s able to read large print, we can make large print labels up that would have used, instead of pen, a black felt tipped marker, and they would make labels up for themselves, make reusable ones, hole punch it, have a little elastic around it, put it on a can. And this is where organization comes in as well, because you can label everything, but if you’re trying to pull every single can off the shelf in order to read it, it kind of goes hand in hand.

So if we put say, vegetable, everything canned vegetables, canned goods all in one cupboard, and soups in another. That person knows okay I’ll go to my left cupboard for the vegetables, pull of my can, read the larger print label. For other individuals, they might not be able to read the large print, so we can do something tactile. Often shampoo bottles and conditioner, the bottles are the same shape, so if you can’t tell them apart, you can just throw an elastic band over the shampoo bottle, you feel the elastic band, you know that’s your shampoo.

So sometimes it’s using large print and using contrast, sometimes it’s tactile, and then there’s also audio. A really interesting device is called a “Pen Friend” and it actually came from the RNIB and it’s an audio labelling system. So it’s shaped like a cigar, or a very large pen, and it comes with these stickers, so what a person would do is, say they pull out a can of corn. They can stick that sticker on there, usually need somebody, some assistance to label everything in the beginning. So they bring the Pen Friend over to the sticker and record their own voice and say “corn”.

So the next time they pull that can out with that sticker, they bring the Pen Friend over to that sticker and they hear their own voice say “corn”. So it’s a great way not just to label but also for messages. So as you can see there’s a variety of ways, and that’s what it is; it’s finding what helps. What will help that person be able to do the task independently? And that’s just an example of labelling. When it comes to thing like using the appliances, because microwaves, for example, it’s very flat, the panel, there’s these little stickers, tactile bumps, bump ons that we use, we can just put on let’s say the 2, a 0 and a start.

That way the person doesn’t have to struggle getting close to it or get their magnifier and a flashlight, to go through all of this to try and see the numbers, they can just feel the bumps and know to push what they need to turn the microwave on. Similar to when you’re using the stove or the oven, we use a hymer, almost a puff paint, and you put a mark on the dial and let’s say a mark at 350 (degrees) and it dries hard, and that way the individual would feel the bump on the dial and line it up with the other bump at 350 that way they would know for sure what temperature they’re setting. 

Interviewer: Oh this is like a pen that leaves a 3-dimentional… 

Sophia: Exactly, fabric paint that will dry hard. So there’s all those techniques but there’s also safety factors too. For example if somebody is burning themselves using the oven, we would come in and teach them techniques so that they are safer. And those sort of small things like, instead of standing in front of the oven you’re going to stand to the side. And so often we’ll show them those techniques and if they would like to we can actually follow a recipe and cook something and be there to observe. And also show them those kinds of techniques, so the main idea is that they keep their independence and they’re safe. 

Interviewer: On the website we talk about, on Project Aspiro, we talk about personal management and home management as well as a bunch of other topics that relate to, that fall under Living Independently. The things you talk about, would you say those are more home management type things versus personal management? Or would they fall under both categories?

Sophia: I would think for meal preparation you could say it’s home management because we’ll speak to things as if you’re trying to put your keys into the lock, be able to control your thermostat in the home, those kind of actual home management, the day to day tasks to manage your own home

Interviewer: And so what would be some more examples of personal management? 

Sophia: Personal management would be more in terms of, let’s say, telling the time, if you’re having difficulty telling the time, being able to identify your clothes, those kinds of things, manage your own money. So if an individual has problems identifying coins or bills, there’s different ways in order to do that

Interviewer: If you talk about the process for some of those things, like managing money or time?

Sophia: So for managing money often what we’ll teach the coins, well the Canadian coins often have a, if you feel the very edge of it, there are different textures, so judging by that, and the size and if somebody can see enough to know the, let’s say that a penny is darker and the loonie is a different colour, those kind of things.

So it’s using those kinds of factors but mainly the size of the coins and the feel of them. And for bills, if an individual is having a hard time seeing the five, the ten, the twenty, there’s a bank note reader they can get, a little device that you can slide the bill in and it will announce to you the denomination of the bill, whether it’s five, ten, twenty, so first to be able to identify your money, and then be able to organize it.

So for again, organization is always coming in, because you can identify that it’s a five or a ten dollar bill but once you put it in your wallet it can get confusing as to which bill is which again. So what we often do is identify the five and ten, and then lets say that your wallet is organized in such a way the that five dollar bill is flat, your ten dollar bill is folded, your twenty is folded a different way, or sometimes we’ll get a wallet a person might feel more comfortable not judging it based it on folds but in different pockets, for example in little compartments. But that’s the idea is that again, that organization comes in, so that’s just specifically in that area.

For telling the time, it’s finding a device that enables someone to tell the time, whether it’s talking watches where you push a button that tells you the time, talking clocks, there’s talking key chains, different things like that. 

Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit about, so these are fundamental living skills in order to be independent, can you talk a little bit about what does that mean in terms of how that translates into preparing for your career?

Sophia: Yes, right, well often if a person’s had a change in vision, day to day tasks can become very, very frustrating, you know, if they wake up in the morning, you can’t get the toothpaste on the toothbrush, if you go to the microwave and you’re struggling to use that and you’re struggling to pour something to drink, that kind of frustration builds and often make you feel like not reaching for other kinds of goals that you feel.

So it hits you, but if you have the techniques to manage the basics then it will give you confidence and that way that’s under control, that’s being managed. And that way you can reach out and say okay what else would I like to be a volunteer, or now I’d like to start a career, if you’re going to be switching, things like that. And some of these skills are transferable, so if you use a traditional computer, but now it’s difficult for you, there’s different software that will speak to you on large text on the screen, so if you’re able to know how to use that you can use that at work as well. Of course, computers and cell phones and everything is the way the world works it seems now, so that way you’re able to do that in your work, you’re able to dial a telephone comfortably, get on the computer, send emails, those kind of things.

Being able, in terms of orientational mobility, being able to navigate to work, around your office independently and home. I’ve got a co-worker who does exactly that; he leaves his home, able to get on to the subway, take a few buses up to his office, and he knows exactly how to be able to do his work, to go to and from. So it’s building, that’s what it is, it’s building bit by bit. 

Interviewer: building those skills

Sophia: That’s right, building those skills, first personally and at home like everybody has to do, and then that can branch out for when you’re in the work force. Yes, absolutely. 

Interviewer: Okay well great, thanks so much, Sophia, for coming here to talk to us today about Independent Living Skills. ​