by Miriam Vieni
At the beginning of October 2006, I moved from the large suburban house in which I had lived for 30 years to an apartment in the same village. I originally wrote this article in December for the ACBNY newsletter. At the suggestion of one of the members of ACBNY, I have updated and edited it for "The Braille Forum." He thought that there may be other ACB members throughout the country who may have experienced the special issues that we encounter when we change residences and that they might, therefore, relate to what I'd written.
I lived with my husband, two daughters, and (for a time) with my ailing mother in a large two-story house with a beautiful backyard. I loved the house which held many wonderful memories, but I knew that staying in the house alone was inappropriate. In February 2006, I learned that a new condominium was being built in a very convenient area of town and it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I had two requirements. First, the apartment had to have two bedrooms because I needed one room to hold my office equipment. Second, it had to have a balcony because I needed to feel that I could step outside to the out-of-doors without going down in an elevator, through the lobby and out the front door. But all of the two-bedroom apartments with balconies had been spoken for. Even so, I put my house on the market in February. At the same time, a two-bedroom apartment with a balcony miraculously became available. The young woman, who originally purchased it from the builder, decided that it would be unsafe for her two-year-old child. The apartment was available for purchase at the beginning of June.
This apartment building was built to be ADA compliant. What that means is that there are no stairs leading up to the front door of the building; the elevator has braille and raised print numbers; and the doorways within the apartments are extra wide in order to allow wheelchair entrance. However, none of the appliances are accessible to people with visual difficulties, nor are the numbers on the doors leading into apartments readable by visually impaired people. The original purchaser of the apartment had paid for some "upgrades" which included stainless steel appliances in the very modern kitchen. When I purchased the apartment from her, I had to reimburse her for the upgrades. But there were problems with the appliances. The stove was electric and very fancy with a flat glass top. I have a little vision so I could have dealt with that, except that there was so little contrast between the burners and the area that surrounded them that I couldn't see the burners. The control knobs were on the back of the stove requiring one to reach around or over the cooking area. I knew that this was an unsafe arrangement for me. Actually, I don't think it's really safe for anyone. The microwave oven, which was above the stove, had a light that shone on the stovetop, but it was not very bright. In the end, I purchased a safer stainless steel stove with burners that I could see, and a matching hood microwave oven with bright halogen lights that shine down on the stove. Maybe I could have found a white, old-fashioned electric stove somewhere that was more "accessible," but it would have spoiled the beautiful look of the kitchen.
I knew that I needed braille labeling in order to use the kitchen and laundry appliances. I remembered that KitchenAid had provided an excellent braille overlay for the KitchenAid dishwasher that I purchased for my house approximately five years ago. It was on very tough plastic which didn't come off and the braille was easy to read. KitchenAid told me that the Lighthouse made braille overlays for them in the past. So I called the Lighthouse and the braille department was very agreeable to doing the overlays. However, it turned out that these were individual braille labels that had to be positioned on the appliances. They were not overlays that one could just place on the surface of the appliance. Getting the right braille labels in the right places was tedious to say the least. Unfortunately, after the task was completed, I discovered that the braille is very difficult to read and that some of the labels were already beginning to come off. So little by little, I am making my own labels with Dymo tape (which may also come off readily) but will at least be easy to read.
When I started traveling for fun in 1986, it became very clear to me how a blind person becomes so much more vulnerable in unfamiliar environments than when at home. Therefore, I anticipated that moving to a new home would be stressful. In my house, I could be very competent because I was completely familiar with my environment and because I had set up the environment to meet my needs. The areas in a home that must be completely accessible are the kitchen and the laundry areas. My movements in both those areas in my house were automatic. I didn't have to think about what I was doing. Therefore, when I set up those areas in my apartment, I tried to make them as much like the ones in the house as possible for this reason. In most cases, I replaced the apartment appliances with the same brand appliances I'd had in the house. But, because the appliances in the apartment are new and (in some cases) not the same styles as the ones in the house, I couldn't be completely successful in my attempt. After I re-labeled the clothes washer/dryer combination, the laundry became easier to do. I purchased a side-by-side refrigerator, similar to the one in the house. But this is more modern with an icemaker and ice water and involved additional labels for all its fancy new functions.
The kitchen is more complicated and it took me much longer to be comfortable functioning in it. This has to do with the location of dishes, pots and pans, and food items. Initially, a lot of people helped with the move and they placed things where they thought it would be easy for me to find them. In spite of their well-meaning attempts, I had a lot of difficulty finding the things that I needed in order to function efficiently. Therefore, as time passed, I had to locate items with sighted assistance and then reposition them where I could find them. This task was complicated by the fact that I moved from a very large house with lots of storage space to an apartment with very little storage space. I had to become accustomed to far fewer possessions, and I have had to arrange them in a much more efficient manner. I've also been creative. My apartment has two bathrooms. The second bathroom has a closet which contains the washer/dryer combination, and is used by visitors and by my two cats whose litter box and food are in it. There's a bathtub in this bathroom which has become a storage bin. It contains cleaning supplies, a large container of cat food, and a laundry basket. The contents of the bathtub are hidden behind a shower curtain.
The other adjustment that I have had to make is to recognize that because I am living in an apartment building, I continually encounter people who don't know me and I have to help them learn how to relate appropriately to me as a blind person. When I lived in the house, my life was much more private. Neighbors had been in the surrounding houses for years and knew me. The gardener, the repair people, and the mail deliverers also knew me. There are security people here who also function as doormen. The security people, the maintenance person, and the mail deliverer have all been very kind. There are occasionally changes in the security people, which can be a problem because the new ones don't know me. My mailbox is easy to locate because it is in the row of boxes at the left and I put a braille label on it which came off only once. I have purchased potted shrubs and flowers for my balcony which are a joy to look at and which provide a bit of the feeling that I used to have when I sat on the patio in my backyard.
I feel that all of the challenges of adjusting to my new physical and social environment have reminded me anew of my blindness and its effect on my functioning. What I've said to friends is that I feel "blinder" than I was last year. The up side of all of this is that life in the apartment is much easier than it was in the house. It is just large enough to meet my needs and I don't have to worry about maintaining a house and property with all of the effort and expense that this entails. It is my island of peace.