Blind teens in NH, Maine adapt to Zoom for social activities
PORTSMOUTH, NH – When almost everything went virtual and the term ‘foreclosure’ was booming again last spring, Stephanie Hurd and Ryan Menter began asking how they would change their teen programming for Future in Sight, an organization in non-profit that provides education, rehabilitation and social services. people who are blind or visually impaired.
Hurd, whose vision loss progresses over time due to a rare degenerative eye disease, began working on Future in sight as coordinator of volunteer services. She then provided one-on-one trainings to teach people how to navigate technology when they are blind or visually impaired. She began to informally organize activities for adults, then for teenagers, which eventually turned into cohesive programming. She is now a specialist in assistive technologies and activities for the group.
Before the pandemic, Hurd organized one or two in-person activities per month at various locations in New Hampshire for teens. A wide range of activities were available, including pottery, fencing, baseball, horseback riding, hiking, rock climbing and ice skating.
For blind and visually impaired youth, these programs run by Hurd were “something to look forward to,” a chance to meet and befriend other teens who share similar experiences, said Menter, a 16-year-old. years old from Lebanon, Maine, who serves as a volunteer co-coordinator for Future in Sight.
“We used to look forward to these events, and we’d all text each other a few days before, ‘Remember, I’m so excited! “” Menter said. “Now of course you can’t go anywhere else. “
Menter, who is immunocompromised, said he would not meet the group in person again until he is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Menter met Hurd while they were both present Camp Lawrowfield for blind and visually impaired people of all ages in northern Maine. There, Hurd introduced Menter to Future in Sight, where Menter attended and volunteered ever since.
Hurd said developing self-esteem, meeting new people, and having new experiences are key to a teenager’s development.
“It’s important to understand that young people with vision loss are young people first,” she said.
A frustrating and innovative transition
Menter had previously participated in Future in Sight programs and chose to earn his community service hours in high school by volunteering for the nonprofit last year.
“I love helping the community in any way I can,” Menter said.
In the process of transitioning to virtual activities due to the onset of a pandemic-induced lockdown, Menter and Hurd realized that they “can still do these events we loved so much before COVID,” Menter added.
On Saturday, March 27, Sharon O’Shea guided the teens in making papier-mâché cereal bowls, all via the Zoom video conferencing platform.
“Are you ready to get dirty?” O’Shea asked the group before leading them through the steps.
Flour, cold water and salt are mixed to create a dough, similar to the consistency of pancake dough. Strips of newspaper are dipped in the dough and then assembled by the teens who place the mixture on an upside-down bowl to harden and dry.
“How are you going there?” Hurd asked the group. “It’s okay, I guess,” remarked one participant, Jess, who doesn’t particularly like the gooey material on her hands.
“It’s a good exploration, it’s creative. Wait until you see what you have!” Hurd responded.
“I like to get my hands dirty,” said another participant, David.
The initial transition was frustrating for Menter, who said trying to figure out “what we can adapt and how to adapt” was the first step.
“I think one of the biggest challenges for everyone was getting to know Zoom, which isn’t the greatest with accessibility features,” Menter said.
Hurd and Menter offered activities every week at the start of the pandemic on Saturday morning.
“I wanted to give the kids some consistency, something to look forward to and to feel good about,” Hurd said.
Another challenge was to have fewer opportunities to have non-visual sensory experiences with people and objects.
“I’m just a very, very tactile person. I think a lot of blind people are.… I want to feel everything and I don’t have that ability as much,” Menter said.
Despite the initial challenges, Menter and Hurd quickly regrouped and came up with a host of new activities. Basically, together, the group cooked, made pictures in Braille, read an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, played trivia games, performed improvisation shows and even participated in a virtual auditory escape room. For the holidays, they made secret exchanges with Santa Claus and Valentine’s Day.
Virtual activities here to stay?
The virtual activities, while not ideal, have brought new opportunities for expansion for the organization, which plans to pursue a hybrid of virtual and in-person programming after the pandemic, said Hurd.
The programming is now more accessible to those involved from communities in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and even New York City, Hurd said.
“It removes those logistical barriers, trying to bring everyone together,” she added. “Not everyone has the opportunity to go to a place.”
Then Hurd looks forward to a “Cupcake Wars” style baking – when they can get together in person again, hopefully soon.