Practical Tools for Vision Loss
Megan Kennedy

When you first meet Megan, signs of vision or hearing loss are not readily apparent. She looks directly at you when in conversation and her speech is articulate. Yet Megan struggles to see and hear every day, and uses an exhaustive amount of concentration in order to understand her continuously changing environment. This is because Megan has Usher syndrome, the leading cause of deaf/blind disorders in the United States.

When Megan was three years old doctors confirmed that she had a moderately-severe hearing impairment, with a hearing loss equivalent to 80%. But it wasn't until 2007, when she was 22 years old, that she learned she was also losing her vision due to Usher syndrome. Unbeknownst to her, she had been losing her vision all her life and was already considered legally blind. To further the blow, doctors told her to prepare for a life of complete darkness – she was going to go blind.

Today Megan is the founder of The Megan Foundation, a non-profit organization with the mission of making positive impactful changes in the Usher syndrome community by raising awareness, funding research efforts, and directly supporting those with the disorder. Her duties as the Director of Development range from managing the foundation's website and social media pages to organizing and developing fundraising events and campaigns. She is a philanthropist actively involved in other non-profit organizations across the nation, such as the Diversity Awareness Partnership St. Louis, and is also a board member of the Usher Syndrome Coalition,  the nation's leading organization in securing government funding for Usher syndrome research and host to the only worldwide Usher syndrome registry.  Her passion is in finding and creating accessible opportunities for others in all areas of life. You can read her blog by clicking the foundation link above.

Accessibility needs are no stranger to Megan. Having worn hearing aids since she was a young child, she has learned how to maintain her independence by using assistive devices at work and at home. Technology has come a long way to ensure not only Megan's success as a disabled individual, but also to enhance her life as a young adult. With her new digital Bluetooth hearing aids, for example, she can sync her iTunes music to play through her hearing aids directly from her iPhone!

Megan starts her day like most other people, with the alarm going off at 6 in the morning to get ready for work. She takes advantage of the "vibrate" feature on her iPhone so that she can feel the vibrations when her alarm goes off next to her on her bed. After she turns off her alarm, she checks her email on her iPhone using accessible "zoom" and "invert colors" features to zoom in on text and to change the contrast settings from black text on a white background to white text on a black background. Using the invert colors features significantly reduces the glare from the screen, making it much easier for her Megan's sensitive eyes to read her emails.

After finishing with her morning routine of getting ready for work, Megan preps her guide dog Sunshine for the day. While Megan still has central vision, her safety is compromised with her lack of peripheral vision. Sunshine guides Megan away from obstacles that she cannot see in her peripheral vision, such as stairs, curbs, poles, and various other objects. While Megan is fairly independent when there is sufficient lighting available, she is completely blind in the dark and relies much more heavily on Sunshine at nighttime. Sunshine has special commands such as "find," to help Megan find a bathroom, elevator, door, or whatever desired area Megan is trying to access.

At work, there are several assistive devices that make Megan's day productive. She uses a software program called ZoomText that, similar to her iPhone, allows her to zoom in and out on her computer screen and to adjust the contrast settings of the text she reads. When she is handling paperwork, she uses a paperweight magnifying glass with a flat bottom that she can use to scan text line by line. The office she worked at had also added flashing lights features in case Megan didn't hear the fire alarm going off in an emergency.

Once the day is finished Megan and Sunshine head back home with her husband Ryan, who picks her up every day after work. Megan likes to treat Sunshine with playing time in the park across the street or a walk through the neighborhood without her harness, or while she's "off duty." Megan only traverses areas she's familiar with when she allows Sunshine to be on Sunshine time, but even then she sometimes carries the harness in case of an emergency or unexpected circumstances.

One of Megan's greatest pleasures is reading, and her favorite way to read is on her iPad, using the same zoom and contrast adjustment settings she uses on her iPhone. She also makes use of her Audiobooks app to listen to her favorite books when her eyes are too worn out to focus anymore. Before she turns in for bed, however, she lets Sunshine out one last time to relieve herself. By this time, it's usually dark outside, and Sunshine needs to be "off duty" when she goes to the bathroom. So, once again, Megan makes use of her nifty iPhone and uses a flashlight app to help her see where she's going when letting Sunshine go to the bathroom.

Many of the accessibility features that are used by visually impaired and hearing impaired people are also great features for everyday use by those without disabilities. Universally designed solutions that work for both the disabled and non-disabled are often the most efficient solutions because they can be used by a broader audience of people. Because of this, there is less need for adjustments or the hassle of accommodations when there is a single point of access for everyone to use.