It’s business as usual — almost — for the summer residency students in the Blindness and Low Vision Studies (BLVS) program at Salus University.
Of course, nothing is the same as it once was thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the BLVS program has made it as close to business as usual for its students, primarily by utilizing existing technology to its fullest potential.
“We’re going to tap into existing technology and put it to good use under the circumstances,” said Dr. Fabiana Perla
, chair of the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies.
The BLVS department has four programs — Low Vision Rehabilitation (LVR)
, Orientation and Mobility (O&M)
, Educators of Children and Youth with Visual Impairments (TVI)
and Vision Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT)
, all of which are mostly taught online.
But students in those programs need hands-on practice with certain skills — like how to use a white cane, how to use optical devices, or learning independent living skills — and those things can’t be taught online.
“There are a great deal of learning experiences that use blindfolds and low vision simulators so that the students actually learn how to perform the skills and use specialized equipment under simulated vision loss,” said Dr. Perla. "That happens during the summer because many of our students are school teachers and can come on campus during their break."
The disruption with the limited access to the Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, campus at Salus, which loosened a bit in June to allow students on campus for labs, did alter the annual BLVS summer orientation.
The orientation, usually an on-campus opportunity for students to meet each other in person, learn about the University’s various departments and student services, and get to know faculty members, was limited to an online Zoom event June 11.
Normally, students meet in larger groups and interact during lectures, then break out into smaller groups to practice learning skills in the summer. This year, students started coming to campus on July 6 for short, hands-on practice instead, to minimize time on site. The program will end this year on Aug. 14.
Utilizing existing technology to a greater advantage has helped the students maintain normalcy in their training. For example, the O&M program utilizes audio equipment when it’s training students on-site in communities like Chestnut Hill. During these sessions, they move around their environment — similar to a tour guide that uses a microphone to speak into headsets worn by those on the tour. The O&M instructor can use this system to communicate with the blindfolded student while their classmates listen in. This is beneficial because it’s oftentimes very loud on the street.
“Now, as it turns out, we’re using that equipment for another reason, so the students don’t have to be on top of each other (maintaining social distancing) and the ones observing can keep at a safe distance and not miss a beat,” said Dr. Perla.
Safety protocols on the Salus campus have also presented challenges for the BLVS students, and again, effectively using available technology helped the students continue their training.
Summer rules on campus include one-way staircases, direction arrows on one-way walking routes and limiting the number of people on elevators. Navigating those rules, which are visual in nature, is challenging for those with visual impairments.
The program is taking the opportunity to utilize an app called Aira, which is a service that connects blind and low-vision people to highly trained, remotely located agents. Someone who is blind and on campus could point the camera on a cell phone and ask the Aria agents for help in negotiating the area. They can even help someone leave campus to get to the nearest bus stop or to a local restaurant.
“Some of the students already have low vision or a visual impairment, but they are learning how to teach those skills to others,” said Dr. Perla. “They need to actually manipulate the equipment, and go through the different skills themselves, often practicing with each other, not unlike an optometry student performing an exam on somebody else.”