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For Napa's visually impaired, a whole new set of challenges brought on by COVID-19

For Napa's visually impaired, a whole new set of challenges brought on by COVID-19


Jan Mollen’s guide dog, Babe, can’t count.

That was no issue for Mollen, of course, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and members of the public were told to keep a minimum of six feet away from each other for their own safety.

Babe has helped Mollen, who has lost most of her sight to glaucoma in the last five years, maintain her independence; the two go on walks together around Mollen’s St. Helena neighborhood, and together they navigate everything from crossing the street to walking down aisles at stores.

But Babe doesn’t know that she’s now supposed to keep Mollen six feet apart from everyone else, Mollen said – and as life changed by COVID-19 continues on, that’s been a difficulty Mollen has had to grapple with.

“I can’t tell if I’m six feet away – I’d have to poke them with my cane, and that’s not very welcome,” Mollen said, and she laughed. “I can’t see people – they’re just shadows in the light.”

Mollen is one of an estimated 500 Napa County residents who are clients of Sonoma County’s Earle Baum Center (EBC), a non-profit community center for the visually impaired or blind. The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, says the center’s CEO Bob Sonnenberg – but for the visually impaired, it’s in some ways been especially trying.

“(The pandemic) compounds challenges for everybody,” Sonnenberg said. “But if you’re part of the blind community, the sight loss community, it’s scary, it’s challenging, it’s stressful – more so than it would be, I think, if you had all your senses working for you.”

Public transportation and ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, upon which many blind people rely for their personal travel, are now punctuated by the added risk of exposure to the coronavirus, Sonnenberg explained. The same can now be for touch – a sense that often replaces some sensory awareness for those without sight – whether it be products on shelves in the grocery store, walls of an unfamiliar room or the hand of a friend or guide. And any existing sense of isolation an individual might feel in the wake of having lost their sight could be worsened by the shelter-in-place order, Sonnenberg said.

People with vision impairment “have an increased risk of depression” and decreased mobility, according to an article by Lee Smith and Peter M. Allen, two British researchers, published in the journal Nature. Individuals with sight loss could be more at risk from the coronavirus “owing to difficulties accessing medical help due to their reliance and unavoidable contact with others,” Smith and Allen wrote.

The EBC has kept in constant contact with its clientele in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties through the course of the pandemic, Sonnenberg said, recognizing that this could be an especially difficult time for them. The center has continued offering some of its classes through Zoom, and staff often check in on clients by phone, he added.

“I personally am really focused on minimizing that isolation feeling. But it takes effort, and if you’re not comfortable extending that effort, (the feeling) can be pretty debilitating,” he continued.

Bridget Ketelaar, a Bay Area native who moved to Napa at the beginning of this year, began working with the Earl Baum Center in January, she said. The pandemic disrupted plans she had to complete a computer training and mobility courses at the center, though thankfully, Ketelaar said, she was able to resume remote training over the summer.

Ketelaar, who has “low vision” as a result of a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa, has had to stop using Napa’s bus system—a precaution she’s taking as a kidney transplant recipient. (Treatments used to ensure recipients’ bodies do not reject transplants can leave them immuno-compromised.)

Like Mollen and Sonnenberg, she struggles with social distancing, and has had to curb her use of touch to understand her surroundings. She’s hopeful the center’s mobility classes – she’s been able to attend one in-person instruction – will help her overcome that challenge.

Mollen, who taught at Napa Valley College for almost four decades and described herself “heartily” believing in education, has also continued to utilize classes at the center. Orientation and mobility classes were “a life saver,” she said, and also qualified her for her guide dog.

She’s also turned to the center’s Zoom classes as a source of social interaction; Mollen, who is 76, has not gone out in public much since quarantining – her husband does the shopping for the pair.

“I’m not even trying to deal with social distancing – it’s just too impossible,” Mollen said, adding that the center’s exercise classes and free audio books from the National Library Service have gotten her through much of the “cabin fever” prompted by quarantine.

Sonnenberg has heard a handful of anecdotes about people reacting negatively to a visually impaired person’s inability to keep six feet away in public, he said. Fortunately, the vast majority of folks have been understanding, he said.

Ketelaar said she’s had several conversations in the last month about vision loss – and if she has bumped into someone, they understand once they see her cane. She emphasized that the definition of ‘blind’ has changed greatly over the years to include individuals like herself with limited vision

“We’re still people – we just have to do things a different way,” Ketelaar said, noting she’s always open to people asking her questions about her vision and her experience as a visually impaired person.

“(That kind of interaction) just opens up so much,” she added.

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You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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