There is a place for everything when you’re visually impaired
@AlesiaKan / Adobe Stock
A place for everything when you’re visually impaired
“A place for everything, everything in its place” – Benjamin Franklin
As a visually impaired person (AKA VIP), I embrace the above quote by Ben Franklin every day. My need for predictability requires that I remain organized, informed, and aware of my personal belongings and the state of my environment. Admittedly, some of this diligence follows me from my childhood into my current life, but ultimately, I am thankful for this state of order as my need for it grows.
Car keys and house keys, toothpaste and toothbrush, glasses, and glasses case, these are a few of my favorite or sought-after items in each day. I inherit a meticulous sense of order from my German mother who kept house fastidiously and I continue to look for organization, predictability, and a prime location for most things physical and emotional. When I lost most of my vision in 2015, the order of the world around me became paramount to my sense of navigation and orientation. It is important that things stay in their proper place so I can access them quickly, as I operate mostly on feel rather than sight. I imagine a tour of my living space or home can illustrate poignantly my allegiance to a sense of order and familiarity.
Starting outside my Oakland Hills townhome, I proceed down 14 stairs to the balcony adjacent to the blue front door. I assume and am happy to notice there are no obstructions on my descent downward, because that would not be a pretty picture – a fracture, abrasions, or assorted yelps and screams as I regained my composure. Occasionally there will be an Amazon or USPS package at the top of the stairs, which I can usually detect. I keep my single housekey in a special pouch of my purse, withdrawing it to let myself in.
Depending upon how organized I feel, I take off my flip flops or shoes, and deposit them right outside the door or right inside the door. One of the most reliable or instinctual habits I have is to place my key on a series of hooks attached to the cabinet when we first walk in. House keys are on the left and car keys are on the right so that there are rare lamentations of “where are my keys?” I readily admit that I do not search for keys on the right as I no longer can operate a motor vehicle.
To the right of the entryway lies a half-bath, and my daughter, Julia’s room, which is rarely occupied since she spends most of her time in LA. I do not enjoy navigating down those three gray slate stairs to the bath or her room. Rather, I prefer to spend more of my time in the kitchen, which maintains fairly clean counters, a recycling bag on the left as I enter, two sinks, and a familiar array of teapot, landline, CD player, and toasters – one of which is gluten-free for my daughter Eleni, who has Celiac. Since I view my kitchen and every kitchen I visit as the heart of the home, I feel most welcome when it is clean, functional, and organized.
We have lived in this house since 2008, so I maintain a fresh mental memory of where things are – the dishes used daily, the pots and pans nestled inside each other from large to small, my silverware drawer, and adjoining utensil drawer. Because my 5’3” frame has slowly begun to shrink through osteoporosis, I note the need to stand on my tippy toes to get to the second shelf of my cabinets. I handle cautiously any breakables from the second shelves when I am preparing a meal for others. In the silverware drawer, one of my pet peeves is when the salad forks and dinner forks are mixed together, and likewise, the soup spoons and teaspoons. I find as I become more visually compromised, it is easier for me to use a salad fork and a soup spoon to enjoy more of a meal; otherwise, more food lands on the counter, table, or floor surrounding my feet than in my mouth. Sharp knives are located to the right of the silverware drawer, blade side down, and when I open that space, I handle knives with caution.
An area of great difficulty for me is finding objects in the refrigerator. I perceive by feeling around the side shelves, and can usually identify my favorite items, like mayonnaise, mustard, and sriracha sauce. The produce compartments have salad fixings on the right and fruit on the left and are easily identifiable, as are the objects in the deli drawer, including lunch meats, sliced cheeses, and tortillas. Almost everything else is up for grabs since I cannot read the containers or labels. My husband, Ted, and I adopt some special arrangements for the other shelves, which includes milk and creamers on the right and bowls of other fresh fruits and veggies on the second and third shelves. I can identify the carton which houses the eggs but rely on the process of opening and sniffing to identify other unknowns. The freezer drawer below is a veritable grab bag to me and other than my frozen English muffins or containers of ice cream, it is all unknown to me.
Some other organizational assists in the kitchen include three rotating components that facilitate finding spices in the cabinets, condiments on the Lazy Susan on the counter, and a bi-level one that houses miscellaneous kitchen supplies in one of the cabinets. Identifying spices proves to be the most difficult task for me, as I do not always use a penfriend to read the labels, but I try my best with smelling the herbs in their bottles. More often I complete the cleaning activities while Ted is tending to the kitchen stovetop cooking. I am unable to set a timer or set the temperature on our LED display oven, thus making it impossible to do oven cooking by myself. Special kitchen accessories, like color-coded measuring cups and spoons, and a white and black cutting board assist me in the measuring and meal prep tasks. My San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind store called “Adaptations” allows me to make periodic online purchases for kitchen and home supplies uniquely designed for the visually impaired.
When Eleni moved back home, her celiac diagnosis required a change in cleanliness and organizing standards as gluten was now her enemy. I find it ironic as her blind mother, I must search for glutenous crumbs and keep them at bay. She keeps her dishes, cutting board, and utensils separately from ours. If we handle any gluten-containing products like crackers, bread, or breadsticks, during joint meal-time preparation, we diligently wash our hands before proceeding to mealtime prep that includes Eleni’s foods. We easily acclimated to this handwashing process since Covid during the previous year necessitated similar diligence in decontamination. Sometimes necessity creates a need for change, as has been considered by my daughter’s Celiac disease, where she washes her dishes in a separate sink, uses a separate cutting board, and two nonstick pans of her own. As a result, I have noticed her being a lot cleaner in the kitchen as a way to minimize her contact with gluten.
The dining room is open and adjacent to the kitchen and is our site for many tasty and amicable meals. I usually position myself at the head of the table so I can hear all the guests better that way. Also, I can avoid the glare of light beaming through the plantation shutters. When I sit down to enjoy a meal, I feel for my utensils with knife and spoon on the right and fork on the left. I prefer stemless glasses for my wine, so that I do not have accidents when I reach across the table for an item. My plate becomes like the face of a clock, and I ask someone to identify which foods are at which positions on the clock, i.e. 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, 9:00. Ted automatically will cut tougher meats or meats attached to a bone (like my favorite, a chicken drumstick) so that I can maintain more decorum and less soil during the meal. After I have completed a meal, I carry items to the kitchen and rinse them before placing them in the dishwasher. Rows bordering the upper and lower racks are still identifiable to me and I have placed a bump dot on the dash of the dishwasher start button.
The living room and family room are openings at the end of the hallway about six or seven steps, the floors of which are unobstructed of blankets, laptops, or books that I could trip on. This room houses the sofa and the TV, and fortunately, the furniture doesn’t move so I make my way to the swivel chairs or sofa without difficulty. Watching TV is enjoyable, but knobs and remotes are not mastered by me yet. I am reliant on another to tune in to a favorite program, such as the news, PBS specials, or Netflix movies. I affectionately note that my book club has met here for the past 11 years until COVID-19 began March 2020. By adding a few folding chairs, the living room is ample enough to fit the 12 women in my group. Floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors assist me with moving from one area to another since they provide ample light.
As I descend the stairs, clinging to the right-hand rail for security, I count seven carpeted stairs to the landing, and another seven to the downstairs hallway. At the bottom of the stairs and immediately to the right is our laundry room where washer, dryer, and stainless sink peacefully coexist. I have memorized the functions and cycles on each machine, and when needed, I have placed a bump dot at the areas frequently utilized, such as on the ‘normal cycle’ button. I put an eco-friendly laundry ball in the dryer to prevent static and improve drying time, proves challenging to locate at times as it sometimes hides in an elastic sheet or a pant leg, causing frustration. Sometimes I even trip on them as they may roll out of the laundry and onto the floor. I am so at home with my role in the laundry room that I coin myself as the “Laundry Queen.” Until 2016, my tabby cat Waldo also lived here and enjoyed the warmth emanating from the washer and dryer.
Like the living room, the platform bed, desk, and sofa remain fixed in place and the floors unobstructed in the master bedroom. On my nightstand, I maintain a red and gold glasses case, my portable straw drinking cup, and a familiar place for my mp3 player and iPhone. With some regret, I acknowledge that the desk is more a Ted rather than Kathy territory since I cannot read the mail, pay bills, or use the computer. Fortunately, I am still an active participant in all household matters as we do discuss mutual decisions here and I can regularly, at least once a day, recharge my phone in the outlets housed on the desk lamp.
Adjacent to the bedroom is a large master bath. When I awaken each morning or retire each night, I can see bare outlines of my silhouette in the mirror and locate my toothbrush and hand soap positioned to the left of the sink. Each of my vanity drawers contain dividers for toiletry items or medications. My medicine cabinet houses four shelves with perfumes, deodorants, and medications. The two vanity drawers have my curling iron, mp3 charger, and makeup in trays. On the left-hand side is my razor, skincare, toothpaste, and comb and brush. To limit my frustration, I keep the charger for my mp3 constantly plugged in since plugging things in is difficult for me, even with a bump dot. I leave my husband to his own devices with his hygiene items, but I know where to find the stacks of toilet paper in the right-hand cabinet. Reflexively, when I notice additional rolls are needed, I remove two at a time to place them on a rattan shelf above the lavatory. It pleases me to perform these minute rituals which to some might seem trivial, but to me they reflect my sense of comfort and purpose.
In the shower, I distinguish the shower gel from the shampoo by placing a scrunchy around the shampoo bottle. Before adopting this measure, I am sure that there were times that my hair was washed with the shower gel instead of the shampoo. I use my sense of smell to differentiate between mouthwash and cleaning products. I can still barely read the Crest label on my toothpaste, but at least I can differentiate that to tubes of petroleum jelly and topical skin cremes based on the size of the tube.
In the rear of the bathroom is our walk-in closet with its many shelves and hanging rods. Sorting my blouses, coats, and dresses by color (more or less) assists me in finding close matches. A hanging shoe rack with at least ten compartments allows me to feel for the most appropriate shoes. I locate my folk-type jewelry in a wooden box or on an earring rack, but I rely on Ted to provide the best match since I cannot always identify the colors. The laundry hamper is white and is easily located underneath the shelves.
In our five-drawer blond wood dresser, clothing items assume traditional positions: top drawer has socks paired on the left followed by underwear and on the right, bras. I can know instantly where to go when there is a sense of order. I can also place them in the drawer easily after I do laundry in these compartments. The second drawer houses my nightgowns and, on the right, my half-slips. The third drawer is scarves and swimwear. The fourth drawer is miscellaneous, usually future gifts are stored here. The fifth is Ted’s clothing, underwear on left and paired socks on right.
A sense of order and familiarity prevails in any location outside of the home, like in the car. Knobs in the car are also difficult for me in terms of radio stations or the air conditioner, but Ted remains gracious about managing those for me. Since the car door handle matches the body color, I sometimes attempt to position myself in the backseat, only to be corrected by Ted. I still can be a backseat driver while in the front seat.
As I retrace the layout of my home, I feel grateful, refreshed, and safe with the organized room-by-room attributes and I recognize that I will adhere to these qualities or behaviors for life. Since my poor vision mandates it, long live cleanliness, order, and familiarity for this VIP!
Kathy Stephanides resides in Oakland, California with her husband and she has two grown daughters, one in LA and one in Oakland.