SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Born in 1958 with very low vision in public school Marj Schneider had a hard time reading books as she was not taught braille because at that time she could see.
“I could see well enough to ride a bike and crash it really,” said Marj Schnieder, the president of the Savannah Chapter of the Georgia Council for the Blind.
She tried her best to hide her condition due to fear, shame, and isolation.
Later, in high school, she learned braille and how to type on a typewriter, but she was hesitant to go to college not knowing how to navigate until she met other blind people in her community.
“So, I learned that I could talk about being blind and that it was ok to do, and it was ok to be blind and is nothing that I should try to hide,” said Schneider.
The community was a pillar for Schneider as she navigated life blind and urged others to connect with the Savannah Center for The Blind & Low Vision and the Savannah Council of the Blind.
“It’s important that we do raise awareness issues for blindness and low vision people because our population is very scattered through communities all over the country, and we don’t always receive much attention,” said Schneider.
She notes that the life of the blind has changed for the better with the advancements in technology, something she didn’t have growing up.
“I do remember some decades before we had internet and this kind of access to material which used to just be in a book that we couldn’t read,” said Schneider.
She notes that we have come a long way, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“A lot of times, there can be difficulty accessing that technology because of cost and trying to get state services to pay for them because that can be a difficult long drawn out process,” said Jill King, the Disability Caucus Chair of the Young Democrats of Georgia.
Assistive technology for the blind and low vision can cost thousands of dollars, with screen readers costing an average of $1,200.
On the other hand, Schneider emphasizes the importance of training the blind on how to use assistive software like text readers and braille notetakers.
“That kind of training has to come from people who know how to use the software that blind and visually impaired people use,” said Schneider. “There is a considerable learning curve to be able to use a smartphone and new computers.”
Schneider would like to see adequate funds go towards trainers for the visually impaired to help the community as well as those who become blind later in life.
How to get around
“It’s been a trip, so over the course of 6 months, I went from fully sighted to losing my license, and that can be difficult to process on its own,” said King. “There’s grief there, grieving your vision, and grieving the access you had that isn’t there anymore.”
The learning curve of discovering a new life with low vision shows itself when it comes to public transportation, which is not always reliable, so King tends to get rides from friends.
“I’ve heard people in various ways poke fun at the bus system, like ha I don’t use it so I don’t have to care about it,” said Schneider. “But for us, we depend on the bus system.”
Schneider and King would like to see more money into public transit and infrastructure as well as more drivers for services like Tel-A-Ride, which is $4 per one-way ride.
Trips to the store
“For me, I haven’t done in-person grocery shopping in several years,” said King. “But when you do go into a grocery store, you don’t even know where to go and the signage is high.”
King would like to see signs with bigger font sizes and more trained employees who can direct the blind.
Stores are not required to have blind assistance, which makes going to the store alone daunting. Schneider recounts a time when she went to a local Walmart that would not provide her with assistance.
We have reached out to that location with no response.
Many of us haven’t encountered someone blind or visually impaired in public before, so how can you respectably interact?
“First off, I mean people can say hello, many people are intimidated to speak to somebody who is blind or low vision so often I will end up passing by people who I didn’t even know they were there until they have passed,” said Schneider.
“And not assuming that somebody needs help, but inquiring is really appreciated.”
Prevention and eye health
Becoming blind is one of the most feared health problems, with 1 million Americans having some form of blindness and 6 million with vision loss.
When it comes to vision loss warning signs include blurred vision, but oftentimes there may be no symptoms for instance in glaucoma, a painless disease that takes away peripheral vision.
“It can happen so slowly over months to years that people don’t realize they have it until it’s caused severe damage. That’s why it’s so important to have a general eye exam,” said Dr. Miriam Pendleton from Iris Optical.
Pendleton says the most common causes of blindness are age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma which increase with age.
Including a diet rich in antioxidants and greens can help reduce the risk of AMD and quality omega-3 supplements. Cataracts occur from a lifetime of sun UV rays, so eye protection with sunglasses is important.
“I tell my patients, it makes sense, you keep your body healthy, your eyes are going to be healthy,” said Pendelton.
With breakthroughs in technology and research, we could see the use of stem cells to reverse blindness, but Pendelton stresses the importance of keeping up to date with your eye health.