The way I see it: Kristen Steele

We introduce this series to give our writers an opportunity to share their own experiences and stories with you. Each one will offer a different perspective of the phrase “the way I see it.” Blind since birth, Kristen has never let her visual impairment stop her from accomplishing her dreams. COVID-19 made her massage therapist job impossible, Kristen found ways to stay active and give back to others during this pandemic.

As the fear of COVID-19 worsened and "social distancing" became the new anthem, I began to feel my job being pulled out from under me. As a licensed massage therapist for a local hospice agency, I am constantly on the move, traveling from one care center to the next and averaging around six to seven visits per day. Many facilities soon entered a lockdown of essential staff only, which excluded massage therapy. It was soon after that my workplace officially laid me off. Though I knew my basic needs would be fulfilled by a loving, close-knit family, I had a different fear as a blind professional–losing my sense of purpose and confidence that comes with a fast-paced, high-stress schedule. As it turns out, I've felt more connected and happy than I ever imagined. 

In order to keep up with the physical demands of my job, I strive to lead an active lifestyle. Therefore, even though I'm not living by an alarm clock, I make exercise a priority each morning. Depending on the weather, I alternate between taking a stroll outside with my guide dog or cranking up the tunes on the treadmill. A simple walk or jog does wonders for staying in shape and boosting mood levels through the release of endorphins–the body's feel-good chemicals. 

With a spark of creativity, I renamed the term "social distancing" to "physical distancing." Human connection fuels the heart. My passion for eldercare shined when I stumbled upon a Facebook post from a sighted New Yorker who built a website, The Blind Oasis, in remembrance of a blind friend. I thought, what if I could build a website to engage the senior population who are nearly all in isolation during this uncertain era? After some correspondence, he took it upon himself to assist with the visual aspects of web development–for free. Our collaboration resulted in the creation of Faithful Friends, where a loved one can register an isolated senior citizen to receive companionship calls on a regular basis by compassionate volunteers. It is an ongoing effort, but I hope to bring a familiar voice to those facing fear, confusion and anxiety, with little to no human contact. 

I didn't stop there. One day, I forwarded an announcement on upcoming virtual events to an elderly blind woman, whom I met on a BrailleNote Listserv and had helped her with assistive technology in the past. Our catching up revealed that she was still interested in so many tech conundrums that I brought technology training from Iowa to Kentucky through phone calls and typed instructions. In addition, I found a new love for audiobooks, prompting me to start a book club with my local ACB chapter. When an 87-year-old woman was unable to access the selection, I offered to read aloud and then called another older member to see if she would benefit from listening along. Little did I know, she had contacted a friend in Des Moines to let her know of the book choice, and that friend offered to copy the book onto a cartridge and send it to the original woman. The sense of community astounded me. My involvement in my state's ACB chapter gave me a feeling of social connection and solidarity that I never knew I was missing. 

Another idea began lurking in my brain. When emailing one of my homemade technology guides to the Kentucky friend, she mentioned a phone-based, voice-recording service for the blind called Philmore Voicemail. What if I recorded chapters of books for visually impaired or homebound readers who lack the ability or technology to listen to a story? 

In the midst of my "physical distancing" pastimes, a much larger theme emerged. We shouldn't wait for the next global pandemic to read that book we've been setting aside, to call the friend we've been meaning to catch up, to live healthier or to follow our next "dream" idea. Make the time for the people and the things that you love. Allow yourself to relax, dream, connect and to give back. You may not be able to smell the roses, but you can hear the rainfall. Happiness is homemade. 

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