How to adapt a home for the visually impaired

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A round-headed key is protruding from a silver-coloured metal keyhole. The key has a key ring in the shape of a single-storey house with an arched door in the middle of the facade and two windows.

Filling a cup with water without spilling it, choosing a cardigan matching your trousers, finding the right paper in a pile of documents, – these and many other day-to-day things can be really challenging for a blind or partially sighted person. How to make your home as comfortable as possible for daily life? We talked to deaf-blind actress of the In Touch project Alyona Kapustyan, blind student of the School of Psychology at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) Alyona Zirko and partially sighted Vyacheslav Yeryomin. They told us how they label their household items and what special gadgets they use.

Never move things around

Furniture, clothes, crockery, books, documents – you should never move or rearrange any objects in a place where a blind person lives without their knowledge. They can navigate around their home quickly and safely only if they know exactly where things are kept, without using special multilevel floors or labelling furniture and walls. “I walk freely at home. I know the interior of all the rooms, hallway, kitchen and bathroom like the back of my hand. There are no special labels, and it’s as spacious as possible. The main thing is to know the place and where everything is, so that you don't bump into it,” says Alyona Kapustyan, who lost her hearing and eyesight as a child.

Such a mundane and basic thing, unfortunately, is not always obvious to sighted people. According to Alyona Zirko, who lost her eyesight during her first year at university, sometimes the family of blind people rearrange things at home without their knowledge, which can be considered deeply disrespectful. “The first rule in a blind person’s home is to never move items around without asking. Everything should stay where it is. Otherwise, they won’t be able to find anything. If friends and family treat this person with respect, they won't touch his or her stuff. Of course, there are families where relatives move things around. In that case, the blind person becomes helpless and is always waited on.”

Audio description: This is a room. A man in sunglasses is sitting on a low grey sofa next to a small white table. In his right hand, he is holding a white cane with a red band. On the table, there is a cordless phone on its base. The man is reaching over for the phone with his left hand. He is wearing a light-grey shirt and blue jeans. There are white bookshelves behind the sofa and a fluffy grey carpet on the floor.

Alyona lives in a dormitory, where there are a few other visually impaired people. She says that the students are always informed about any, even minor changes in the corridor: “If someone decides to leave a trolley in the corridor, they will definitely let us know. Otherwise, we could hurry, knock it over and get injured, because we wouldn't be careful enough knowing that there shouldn't be anything in our way.”

Alyona Kapustyan, in turn, says that there are no special interior solutions for the blind in her home. “I remember when I lost my eyesight, my parents didn't change or rearrange anything in our flat. After I went blind, I remembered perfectly what was where, I even visualised the whole place so it wasn't difficult for me to move around. I even remembered how to turn on the TV and video recorder to watch my favourite films and cartoons. But, of course, I realised that I couldn't watch or listen to them. I was just sitting there, trying to get at least a glimpse of it. I'd memorised almost everything so it was easy.”

Labeling items and technical devices

Special labels – markers – make life at home easier for the blind and partially sighted. You can label anything: documents, operating buttons, household appliances etc. There are several types of labels, for example, ‘blank’ labels of different shapes and those that can be written on in Braille. “There's a labelling tape on which you can write in Braille. It resembles self-adhesive paper: you cut off a piece, write on it and stick it on. Also, there are labels of various shapes – squares, circles, ovals etc. You can use them to mark, for example, operating buttons of technical devices and remember that a circle is for ‘Power.’ For me though, it’s more complicated because it means that I need to memorise what all those symbols mean. It’s easier for me to write on labels,” Alyona Zirko says.

According to Alyona, it is important to label technical devices if they have more than one button and you need to know which is which. “We've got a lot of different things that we use for labelling. It's vital for us. For example, I mark all the documents – I stick certain labels on the files to tell me what kind of paper is inside. On your iron, you can label the temperature setting that you normally use — the same with the washing machine. Alternatively, you can just memorise the position of each setting. Also, I label all the cereals. They are sold in boxes. Then I put my bags with cereals into these boxes and label them: buckwheat, semolina etc.”

Alyona Kapustyan says that she also labels appliances: “Sometimes, I attach small stickers onto the touch-screen devices that have no raised buttons. These labels show me the button that I need to tap. I don’t need any symbols: I know by heart what every label and raised button means. On some devices, there are no labels, but I can find the necessary button by the distance to it from the edge of the device. I either memorise the labels or, of course, use counting.”

Vyacheslav Yeryomin, who became partially sighted as an adult, can see the silhouettes and outlines of objects. He usually asks his mother, family or friends to stick white squares with symbols on essential items (for example, medicines). “When I need to take a medicine, I can distinguish the letter written on a piece of paper on that medicine. It’s not a tactile label – just one big letter. For example, I use sea buckthorn oil for relieving a runny nose. My mother wrote a large letter ‘S’ (for 'sea buckthorn') on the bottle with the oil, and I can read it.”

"Smart" kitchen

Audio description: This is a kitchen. There are kitchen appliances on a kitchen island with a wooden worktop. From left to right: a black drip coffee maker, multicooker with a black lid and handles, white sandwich toaster, white hand blender, white-and-green jug blender, matt chrome two-bowl steamer and white iron with a blue water tank. Behind the kitchen island, there is a freestanding wooden table with a stone worktop and built-in gas hob. Behind the table, there are dark kitchen cupboards with built-in appliances.

A kitchen that is adequately equipped allows visually impaired people to cook their meals without anybody's help. Today, in the age of technology, there are plenty of useful kitchen appliances with special functions on the market, for example, a liquid level indicator. “The most useful one is called Grasshopper. It sits on the rim of a cup and makes a ‘trrr’ sound when you've poured enough liquid. That helps you pour a cup of tea in a hygienic manner. My boyfriend always uses this thing at home. But I'm lazy and keep forgetting where it is. It’s much easier for me just to stick my finger in the cup,” Alyona Zirko says.

Another useful device is an egg separator, which helps to divide yolks from whites. “Many people use it. It’s a good thing for baking. It's a lot harder to do with your hands. But as I live in a dormitory, I haven't got much space. I only buy what I really need. An egg separator isn't one of those things,” Alyona says. In addition, food lovers will appreciate talking kitchen scales, which make the process of weighing ingredients much easier.

The most important thing in the kitchen of a blind or partially sighted person is, of course, high-quality equipment, which you can buy either in specialised or ordinary stores. Many companies produce, for example, voiced appliances. “I bought my multicooker in a regular store, not a specialised one. It's very convenient as all its modes are voiced. It has prominent buttons. On the market, you can also get a talking multicooker, but with a touch screen. In that case, you need to stick labels on the display to know where to tap. It's best to buy equipment with buttons rather than with a touch screen. It's more practical. But if you’ve already bought a touch screen appliance, just put some labels on it,” Alyona Zirko says.

Alyona Kapustyan is both blind and deaf so talking devices are not suitable for her. To use a multicooker, microwave oven and other things, she has to memorise the menu: “I use the same household items as most sighted and hearing people do. But in the kitchen, I've got some difficulties. It’s not easy for me to tell whether the water is boiling, a burger is fried enough, or if the vegetables are cooked through. However, there's one thing that solves the problem – a multicooker. With its help, I don’t need to worry that something might be burning or the water might be boiling over on the stove. I don’t even need to pour vegetable oil. (It’s the hardest part: I can’t tell how much oil I’ve poured into the frying pan. And I can't stand eating fried dishes with lots of oil!) So a multicooker, toaster, microwave oven and electric kettle are great things to have in the kitchen.

There are talking devices designed for the blind. They're convenient for them, but not for me as I have trouble distinguishing automatic speech. At home, I've got a touch screen microwave without any labels: I can move my finger from the edge to the left or up and push the necessary button. Yet, there are devices with touchpads that you need to swipe with your finger a few times, like a mobile phone – this isn't easy and can be confusing. That’s why I recommend buying push-button devices where you can press the same button a few times if you know the menu by heart. For example, my multicooker has a dial with a raised minus sign on the end. You can rotate it, for example, until you find the word ‘Pilaf’ and then press ‘Start’. The main thing is, at first, you just need to learn the settings of your appliance and memorise the menu to not get confused.”

For the blind, there are also special knives with adjustable blades that allow you to cut food into pieces of a certain size. However, Vyacheslav Yeryomin recommends using regular, but very sharp knives that cut well and do not squash vegetables or bread: “When I need to cut a tomato, I just take the sharpest knife that cuts, but doesn't squash the product.”

Talking gadgets

In the photo (from left to right): a liquid level indicator and colour identifier

Audio description: This is a colour photocollage. There is a light-grey background with white circles. A liquid level indicator Pomoshchnik PM-305 is in the centre. It is a small blue-and-yellow device in the shape of a little motorboat with three metal probes. To the right, there is a Colorinotalking colour identifier. It is a dark-grey trapezoidal box with a round speaker in the upper part and two round red and yellow buttons in the middle. Strips of coloured cardboard are fanned out underneath.

Floor scales, thermometers etc. are useful everyday items. As with kitchen appliances, it is worth buying voiced gadgets, which will help a blind or partially sighted person to live an independent life. They are available both in specialised and ordinary stores. One of the most useful items is a colour identifier, which allows you to find colour-matching clothes without anyone’s help. Bear in mind that colour identifiers do not always recognise ‘complex’ shades. “It's a small device. You hold it against your clothes, press the button, and it tells you the colour of your clothes. To be honest, mine is very old and doesn’t work very accurately, but I remember roughly, say, the colour of my blouse, and it helps,” Alyona Zirko says. There is also a similar smartphone app.

Hobbies, crafts and games

There is a large selection of games, toys, postcards and other things for the blind and partially sighted in specialised stores. However, many people come up with their own ways to pursue their favourite hobbies. Alyona Kapustyan says: “I remember I used to draw animals, landscapes, girls' dresses with felt-tip pens using special plastic sheets with holes. You know, there are plastic sheets with cut out images, for example, of a flower, dog, blouse etc. Then you can colour it all in different colours. On the end of each felt-tip pen, I scribed the first letter of its colour. For example, on the end of the red pen, I would scribe the letter ‘R’ so I didn't have to ask my mother for help every time. I drew pictures because, before I lost my eyesight, I was very keen on drawing and even dreamed of becoming an artist. After I got blind, I just couldn’t stop doing what I loved so I found a way how to go on. You can also draw with a stylus on a piece of paper and then colour it all, but I don’t do it anymore. I read a lot of books instead and spend more time on studying and theatre (I’m also engaged in a theatre project). I do it quite rarely, only as a gift to my friends or family for their birthdays or New Year. I love DIY gifts. I think they are much better than those you can buy in a store.”

According to Alyona, who lost her hearing and eyesight as a child, she does not remember having any special tactile toys – she had just normal dolls. She also used to play regular draughts and dominoes with her family. “I loved playing hide-and-seek with my brothers. Once, one of them hid somewhere and then called out to me. I looked for him for a long time. I used to play dominoes: it had raised numbers, which helped me to know what’s what. By the way, I also played regular draughts. Special draughts were hard to find, and my family bought regular ones: a wooden board and pieces that felt the same to the touch. We would cut squares out of a sheet of black flock paper and glue them to the black squares on the board. Also, we marked the black pieces with a cross. This is how I played draughts with people who could see and hear! I was also into quilling (an art form that involves the use of strips of paper that are rolled, shaped and glued together to create decorative designs - ed.), making postcards, bead embroidery, crocheting napkins and flowerpot coasters. I like to surprise my family and friends!”

Although the number of products, equipment and household appliances designed for people with various needs is constantly growing (on the market, you can find lots of things that make life easier), bear in mind that you do not need everything that the stores have to offer. Do not buy unnecessary things. Be creative!