When my husband and I first moved in together I had a lot to learn. Living with someone who is visually impaired brings with it a certain set of necessary parameters, many of which I had considered before we shared the same roof, and many others which I had not. There are things that make the set up of most homes particularly challenging for people with visual impairments, but with a few simple adjustments, your home can be safe and comfortable for both of you.
There are two main considerations when arranging your furniture in a home that will be shared with someone with low or no vision: safety and convenience. Safety being the primary consideration for most people, I will start there.
The first place to start is to make sure that you have a full understanding of the visual deficits of the person you will be living with. Is he or she totally blind, do they have form or color perception? Where are their blind spots? There are all kinds of visual impairments that can render a person legally blind, and the needs of the person you are living with will vary based on those impairments. Oddly, often the people who have the least trouble with obstacles in their environment are people who are completely blind. They are not integrating spotty or unpredictable visual cues into their environmental perception, and are therefore relying solely upon their orientation and mobility skills. However, most legally blind people do not fall into this category.
It’s best to start with a clean slate, if possible, and involve the visually impaired person in the arrangement of your home. This guide will be helpful to you, but your best resource is the person who has been living and challenged in sighted environments all his or her life, and each will have his or her own preferences and peeves.
Let’s start with the common areas, including the living room, the TV room, the office, et cetera. When at all possible, choose pieces of furniture that are somewhat uniform in depth, and focus on the perimeter of each room, leaving as much space in the center as possible. Avoid coffee tables whenever possible. Coffee tables are wonderful and handy for sighted people, but they present a special challenge for the visually impaired. Not only are they designed to be positioned in the center of a travel space, but they are low laying tables, generally with sharp corners that rise up from the floor at just about shin level, inflicting a nasty scrape or cut when banged into. Even a round or oval shaped coffee table can leave a good bruise. Try end tables instead.
Next, look to your entrances. Is there a couch or an end table positioned right up against the doorway? Try to move it down, at least three feet from the door. An entrance is most effective and safe if there is a cone shaped area of open space starting from the doorway and expanding out to the center of the room in which to travel. Otherwise, your housemate is going to get a hip check from that imposing piece of furniture every time he or she comes through the door at an angle or cuts over a little too quickly after entering. A little space here goes a long way.
When considering the lighting of your room, first find out what light sensitivities or considerations, if any, your soon-to-be housemate has. Glare sensitivity is a common problem with many eye diseases, yet others require lighting that is as bright as possible. With that in mind, be cautious in the placing of table and floor lamps, and place special consideration to wall mounted or sconce lighting fixtures.
When placing table lamps, be sure that they are on a stable table or other piece of furniture that is wide and deep enough that they are not hanging over the surface, making them easy to bump into and knock over. For the same reason, over sized lamp shades are best avoided. A floor lamp is best utilized away from doorways, as it is easy to topple if it is the first thing your housemate encounters upon entering the room. Wall mounted or sconce lighting should only be mounted over pieces of furniture that are deep enough to ensure that there is no danger of the piece being walked into, particularly considering that most of these pieces are installed at neck or head height.
Let’s move into the bedroom(s). Again, focus on the perimeter of the room for your nightstands, dressers, and armoires. The most efficient placement for the bed for most visually impaired persons is usually in the center of one wall, with the headboard against that wall, and with an open pathway to either side of it. The same rules apply for free standing tables, unfettered entrances, and lighting considerations in the bedroom as they did in the common rooms.
The dining room is an obvious area where it is unlikely that you will be able to leave the center of the room clear for travel. By placing your dinning room table as perfectly centered in the middle of the room as possible, you will be creating a set up with the most available space possible for freedom of movement to any part of the table. If sideboards or china cabinets infringe greatly on these pathways, try to arrange these pieces so that you can create the most open space around the table as possible.
In the kitchen you will most likely have a head start, as most appliances are already situated around the outside walls of the room. If the kitchen table can be located pushed back against one wall, it will leave more room for your housemate to travel. This is particularly important in the kitchen, as we are continuously moving from appliance to appliance, into the pantry and over to the sink when we are preparing food.
Hallways, it possible, should be just that. Try not to obstruct them with too may extra tables or chairs. This goes for the bathrooms as well. These are two areas of the house where your housemate will appreciate simplicity and functionality.
Finally, when considering how to safely arrange your home for a blind or visually impaired person to live in, pay close attention to the smaller details. Are all your electrical and extension cords tucked safely away? Are they out of the way of all possible travel areas, and not hanging down over the top or sides of tables, where they can accidentally be snagged? How is your artwork placed? Do you have a lot of sconces, masks, or other object d’art that protrude from the walls at head level? If so, are they safely mounted above furniture wide and deep enough to keep that they will not be bumped into?
All of this leads me to the most important safety tip of all: communication. It takes some getting used to, but it is essential that you communicate to your housemate each and every change you make. Moving a couch a half foot or changing the location of a chair can result in an uncomfortable, often painful discovery on the part of the blind person if he or she didn’t know to watch out for it. And remember, things that for sighted people have just moved to another location often cease to exist all together for someone who is visually impaired without the proper information.
So now that you’ve got your furniture arranged so that your home is safe for someone who is blind or visually impaired to live in, what are the tips for making your home more convenient for them? There are a few tricks that definitely make things easier.
First of all, find or make room for a place for the things that are most important to them or the things that they use most often. A special spot by the door for their cane where it won’t be bumped or moved is a very simple accommodation to make, but is very, very helpful. Other concessions might take more sacrifice. For instance, if they have adaptive equipment like a Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) to read with, or a library of braille books, more space will be required to be put aside for them in a well-located place.
And then there is the placement of common items. Arranging things like the television or stereo in easy to access locations are also helpful. Doors to appliances, including the microwave and toaster oven, should all be positioned so that they are unblocked and open out, unencumbered, into free space. Dishes can be stored in stacks of like items (dinner dishes in one stack, salad plates in another, et cetera) separately on shelves in order to avoid the necessity of the blind person having to lift a whole stack of dishes in order to get to the size of dish he or she needs. And, as often as possible, choose fixed holders for things. For instance, a wall mounted toothbrush holder will be far more convenient for a visually impaired person than a cup on the edge of the sink that is easily knocked over.
By following these guidelines, and others that you and the person you are living with will discover to be helpful to your particular situation, you will find that the obstacles are easily overcome. With a little careful planning, sharing your home with someone who is blind or visually impaired becomes as easy as sharing your home with anyone else. It is what you make it.