Ever wondered how people with visual impairments organize their closets?
Many years ago, while sitting alone on my reading chair, I thought about what’s really the basis of being truly organized in one’s space? Perhaps it’s when you know where things are and can locate them with little trouble even in complete darkness.
I remember getting up from my chair and trying it out. I closed my eyes and slowly made my way to a drawer, opened it and tried to identify what I could solely through touch. It was an adjustment to only rely on feeling the items with my fingertips (their shape, texture, size) but since I had assigned a proper place for everything I owned, I didn’t really have a hard time recalling what they were or where to find them.
Last year, this thought came back to me and out of curiosity I started to do research on how people who are blind organize their spaces - specifically their closets. How do they choose which outfit to pluck out to wear? How do they know which pieces go well together or even match? Do friends help them make sure they look well put together? And beyond fashion and style, how do they determine which items to put away in specific places so they can find them again next time?
Thanks to Google, I found Hadley, a resource that offers practical help, connection and support free of charge to anyone with a visual impairment, their families and the professionals supporting them.
Watching Hadley’s diverse tutorial videos (most of it under 8 minutes) on helping people who are visually impaired be independent in navigating daily living piqued my interest further and made me want to learn more. Wide ranging topics include tips on general safety, working in the kitchen, dining out, traveling, how to organize closets and other spaces, how to leverage features of smart phones and there’s even a series on starting a business and so much more! Super cool.
I reached out to Hadley and after some initial email exchanges, a Zoom schedule was set. I was able to do an interview with two wonderful ladies, Jennifer Ottowitz and Tiffany Mpofu - both learning experts at Hadley.
The first thing I learned that I was surprised about? Not all people who are blind are 100% blind.
In the US, less than 5% are completely blind or have “total blindness”. This means they can’t see any light or dark, and the rest have varying degrees of sight impairment. Some have “functional vision” – they may not have good eyesight but it’s still useful enough to do daily tasks. Others have “low vision” – they may see some light, vague shapes or colors but not enough vision to function or do what they need to do easily.
Jennifer shared different examples. One person with visual impairment may need to be 20 feet away to see something clearly that most sighted people (with good vision) can see 200 feet away. Some can only focus on a slice of a pie vs. seeing the whole pie. Others may only see through their peripheral vision vs. center vision as the central field is lost and some can only see things as if one were looking through a straw. I learned that to be “legally blind” in general, doesn’t actually mean completely zero vision as most are partially sighted.
So, knowing that huge tidbit, this answered my initial thoughts watching the Hadley videos - how does a person who is blind learn from these videos when they can’t see the visuals? Now we know that most of them can but in varying degrees and not always without assistance of certain tools like magnifiers.
I asked Jennifer and Tiffany their degrees of vision. Jennifer shared that she can no longer see a hand wave across her eyes while Tiffany can still see as long as things are at least three inches near her face with ample lighting. Lighting and magnification are a huge help for the people with visual impairments. Tiffany could sort of see me online but couldn’t really make out my features. She said she couldn’t really see my eyes and I told her not to worry, having small Chinese eyes, it wouldn’t really make much difference. ;-)
Interestingly, what I learned was that how people with sight impairments organize a closet was not much different from how I would organize a closet (except for a few things).
· Organizing clothes by group or by category – casual vs. formal for example or by season etc.
· Arranging items by frequency of use - often, occasionally and seldom.
· Gathering outfits that go together in one hanger.
· Separating plain from printed clothes.
· Stacking shoes by color or type.
· Labelling bins.
· Keeping things in assigned places so it’s in the same place once it is needed.
· Can base arrangement of clothing by feel, texture or cut of the fabric
· Lighting is super important in helping identify colors or just in seeing everything better (lighting that mimics natural daylight is best).
· Uses large print labels, audio labels or braille labels on bins.
· Can hang entire outfits on the same hanger (example: a blouse with a suit including accessories) and would need to return them to the same hanger at the exact same spot they got it from.
· Arranging by color – light vs dark clothing but more for easy visual identification.
· Pinning socks with a safety pin to keep them together (pinning on the thickest part of the socks).
What’s super cool are the gadgets that aid in identifying miscellaneous items. They can be used for the closet or anywhere else, really.
Colorino Talking Color Identifier
This pocket-sized gadget tells you the colors of objects from a variety of different surfaces (from fabrics, fruits, books or packaging etc.) and can distinguish over 150 shades. It also has a light detector that emits a signal that increases in pitch as one gets closer to a light source (almost like a metal detector). It can also tell you if a light is natural or artificial.
Penfriend Audio Labeler
Shaped like a fat pen with a speaker on top and a sensor on the bottom, this audio labeler can record and re-record data up to 250 hours long with its 4GB memory. It comes with hundreds of small sticker labels that act as customizable bar-codes. Stick a sticker on an item, tap to record what you want the item to say and voila, next time you want to know what the item is, just point the sensor to the sticker and it will clearly and loudly play back the information you recorded about it. This can be used in labeling medicines (not just for names but for other data you want to be reminded of as the Penfriend has no recording limit), on documents, in the kitchen and even items in the freezer. Basically anything you can stick the sticker on. I think this can help with our elders too especially those who may start to become forgetful in remembering too many details or instructions about certain items.
Know more here: http://www.braillebookstore.com/PenFriend-Audio-Labeler.1
Handheld Braille Labeler
Much like the old classic Dymo labeler, you twist and punch the letters you want to spell on the sticker label. What’s nice about this is that even sighted people can use it to help make braille labels because the top rim of the labeler are the braille letters and on the bottom are the regular alphabet letters.
Know more here: http://www.braillebookstore.com/Handheld-Braille-Labeler.1
Jennifer shared a trick of using beads from craft stores to identify clothing. Use differently shaped or sized beads then insert then in safety pins before pinning them on fabrics to remind you of its color or style – your very own “braille” beads system.
Braille Clothing Tags
These are machine washable and dryer safe clothing tags that can be sewn on garments to help coordinate the wardrobe with number sets.
Know more here: https://www.maxiaids.com/search?Q=braille+tags&As=false&Pf=&Pt=
As for smart phone features, Tiffany’s favorite iPhone tools that have been a huge help for her are the built-in Zoom (screen magnification), Dictation, and Siri. Her favorite purchased app is the Visor - magnifier, a digital magnifier that helps her see better!
This app is designed specifically for blind and visually impaired users, this app utilizes the mobile camera application and voiceover functions to take a picture or video of anything and identify it out loud for you.
Know more here: https://taptapseeapp.com/
Another cool app I discovered from a friend abroad is Be My Eyes – this app lets you lend your eyesight to people with vision impairments who need your help whether it’s to identify an item, read or guide them to whatever they may need assistance on. I downloaded the app last October but only logged in a few weeks ago and so far, I haven’t received any requests for help (as to be expected) as there are more people volunteering than those who need help. When you log in, the app will show a video on how to answer a call.
The funny thing I learned chatting with Jennifer and Tiffany was that, the challenge of staying organized in one’s space is exactly the same for people with visual impairments and for the sighted. Which challenge? Not putting things back where they belong! – whether by us, family members or anyone we share spaces with. This made me laugh. I was a-mazed. Designating a proper place for everything helps everyone in the household find things but, it is much harder for people who are blind or have vision impairments to “look” for something when things are not put back exactly where they need to be. It’s already hard enough for us who have good vision to be going around in circles locating a misplaced item, multiply that frustration when you have limited to no vision. I got tired just imagining it.
Clearly, organization in your space and using the right tools whether it’s for your closet or other parts of your home or office is a must in enabling anyone to function their best in everyday life. Once you’ve set up a system in your space that works, putting things back where they belong is key to staying organized.
“Hadley was established 100 years ago (1920). Founded by William Hadley, an educator who lost his eyesight later in life, Hadley provides online, large print, braille and audio media education serving nearly 150,000 individuals each year, reaching all 50 states and 100 countries. More people learn braille from Hadley than from any other organization worldwide.”
If you want to know more about Hadley or know anyone who may benefit from this information, please share this blog or their website at www.hadley.edu.
Here’s a link to an interesting timeline on Hadley’s history. It’s pretty amazing. https://donate.hadley.edu/centennial/timeline.asp
For more info on independent living gadgets / assistive aids, here are some websites:
For information on how to appropriately address people with disability:
Thank you to Jennifer Ottowitz and Tiffany Mpofu! 💗 I not only learned a lot but so enjoyed speaking with these ladies! I didn't expect we would have such a lovely time chatting! 💗 Until next time! 💗