By Heather Wood
Created: Apr 19, 2021 08:00 AM
The coronavirus pandemic left Vision Bermuda with no choice but to close the doors to Beacon House last March.
In addition to all the other challenges brought by Covid-19, social distancing would have been a huge problem for its clients – most have difficulty seeing, some cannot see at all.
By the time the island reopened for business, the closure had turned into an opportunity. With plans to bring the aged building on the corner of Cedar Avenue and Dundonald Street up to international standard already approved and funding for the project largely in place, Vision Bermuda gave the go-ahead for construction.
"The building is pretty old. I think the last time it was renovated was in the 1960s," said Theresa Hall, the charity's executive director.
"Originally, when we were Bermuda Society for the Blind, we used to be a sheltered workshop and of course that's what the building was used for. Now we're doing vision rehabilitation. It's a totally different need. We're looking to try and help people retain independence; develop new skills."
Vision Bermuda was formed as Bermuda Society for the Blind in 1957. Its members often met for weaving workshops offered by Beacon Club, a group that was founded three years earlier. In 1962, Beacon House was built and became the charity's official home. The name changed to Vision Bermuda in 2018 "to more accurately reflect our mission to serve anyone whose vision loss impacts their day-to-day activities, as well as their families, carers and also professionals with an interest in vision impairment".
The $750,000 renovation should be finished in July "if Covid allows". In the works is "a teaching kitchen, space for social activities [and] a purpose area for vision rehabilitation [with] all the equipment to hand".
There will also be a technology room with equipment capable of reading the details in a bill or e-mail. Keyboard and internet classes will be on offer and there will also be an audio book library.
"What we're looking to do is to have a modern facility that is purpose-built for today's needs and for people with vision impairments," said Ms Hall, adding that the idea is to open it up to senior citizens as well. "The terminology we use is 'international standard for universal design principle' [which is about] making a building environment more useable by everybody – so not just those with vision impairments, not just those with disabilities, but it's taking all that into account."
The most up to date information on Bermuda's visually-impaired population comes from the 2010 Census which describes 2,416 people as having difficulty seeing even with corrective lenses. Of that number, 45 were "completely blind" while 940 said their everyday activities were impacted by poor sight.
Diabetes is the leading cause. As such it is worrying that one-third of the population already has it or is at risk of developing the disease, Ms Hall said.
"If you have diabetes for 15, 20 years, you will have vision challenges. So when you're looking at where those numbers will go that's pretty scary."
It is part of the reason why a redevelopment of Beacon House was considered necessary. Thanks to the "huge support" the charity received over several years from Hamilton Lions Club and Lions Clubs International it was able to move ahead last year, while the building was empty.
"With people who are visually impaired, social distancing is not possible," Ms Hall said. "Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the confidence and independence of many with vision loss, resulting in increased isolation and exclusion. Central to the issue is the inability of many of our clients to exercise their free will and stay safe outdoors during this pandemic.
"A person with very low vision, for whom human proximity, guidance and touch are the very cornerstones of how they engage safely with the outside world, cannot practice social-distancing because many are physically unable to evaluate their relative distance in relation to other people let alone ascertain if someone is wearing a mask. In addition, many of our clients are in the high-risk category either because of their age or an underlying condition, or both, and do not feel confident to leave their homes."
Ms Hall joined Vision Bermuda in 2014 but had had a close relationship with the charity for several years through her work with WindReach Bermuda.
She was considering stepping back from full-time employment when Dudley Cottingham, a WindReach trustee, asked if she would be interested in helping out at Vision Bermuda, where he was a board member.
"I already knew quite a lot about them anyway and knew the people involved so it just worked very well," said Ms Hall, who has been involved in philanthropy in Bermuda since she arrived here from England to work with the Council Partners Charitable Trust in 1999.
Although at the start of the coronavirus pandemic there was some panic, many charities are now more upbeat.
"Initially we were all extremely concerned because so much of the philanthropic money within Bermuda was just redirected to direct Covid need – which we totally got.
"[But] there was a risk that we would come out the other end of this with a very different landscape and a very poorer cultural set-up. Donors have become more aware of how much we do in the community; the government has relied heavily on our services across the board.
"So charities are suffering and it is tough out there but I can certainly say a number of the charities, the people I'm working with, have said it's not ended up being as bad as we thought it would be."
With Beacon House closed, Vision Bermuda had to take its services into people's homes, either virtually or in person where possible.
During the shelter-in-place order especially, its focus was clients who lived on their own: getting them food and medication and making sure they had access to "other critical services".
"Obviously it's depended on what the clients' needs are and their own personal circumstances and how they feel about an individual coming to them, whether it can be done outside and things like that. We haven't been able to offer our full services but we have been doing a certain amount of one-on-one vision rehab work as much as we can while keeping everybody safe."
Much of that work was done by Vince Godber, Vision Bermuda's vision rehabilitation professional. Although he has left the post to join his wife in New Zealand he will continue to offer his skills remotely until his replacement arrives.
"What vision rehab is all about is using the sight that our clients still have, using any remaining sight as effectively as possible. It does depend on the diagnosis and what the issues are," Ms Hall said.
"If a client is diagnosed with aggressive sight loss, it's really much easier for them to learn how to use some of the technology that we have while they still have [some] sight. It's using the sight they have as effectively as possible to train them to be able to do things differently so you're not just relying totally on sight."
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Serving Bermuda's blind and vision impaired community since 1957
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