It’s around 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon at Selis Manor, a part of the Chelsea neighborhood that has long been known as a safe haven for housing New York City’s visually impaired. Though recently renovated, the building’s structure has come a considerable way from the Braille blueprints that blind advocate Irving M. Selis designed dating back to 1977.
“Would you like some grapes?” AnnaMarie Kaplon, 62, is in the midst of eating her lunch when she offers me part of it. Wanting to experience what Kaplon feels even for a second, I accept her offer and eat a few with closed eyes.
Kaplon, who spent 16 years in New York City working as a print buyer for newspapers at Doremus advertising agency, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) at just 30 years old.
Sitting right beside her is Donna Ranello, 65, a self-declared Brooklynite sharing the same diagnosis as Kaplon and a friendship that began in 1995 over the phone. As the two made calls with one another to swap advice about seeing-eye dog training, it wasn’t until 17 years later, in 2012, when Kaplon and Ranello would actually meet.
Now they sit in the Selis Manor cafeteria, exchanging chitchat and laughs over homemade wraps, while I listen in.
“The pointer finger is a real Godsend when you’re eating,” Kaplon says, describing how it acts as a feeler tool to skillfully find food around your plate. I quickly learn all the nuances involved when it comes to someone blind enduring such a basic necessity of life: eating.
Don’t ever order peas, they’ll roll right off your plate. There is no hope in deciphering a carrot from a potato. Eat something you can hold in your hands; a sandwich is good. Wear a bib for when you drip food on your clothes. Instead of extending your hand out to grab your drink, slide your hand on the table so to prevent knocking anything over; glide up and over your plate. As Ranello’s late husband had encouraged her to do, ask the kitchen to cut your steak before bringing it out to you. And back at home, Kaplon swears by the air fryer. “Alexa, what’s the temperature for fried chicken?” she’ll ask.
Amazon’s Alexa, Amazon.com, the Roomba robot vacuum, Victor Reader audio book and music player, JAWS computer software screen reader, and iPhone apps such as VoiceOver, Blindfold Blackjack, Blindfold Words from Words, and Seeing AI that “narrates the world around you” are just a handful of technologies changing the way blind people can envision their lives.
The National Eye Institute defines retinitis pigmentosa (RP) as “a group of rare, genetic disorders that involve a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina—which is the light sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye.”
As Kaplon and Ranello explain to me, you lose your sight gradually, first with your night vision and then your peripheral, leading to tunnel vision, and eventually to complete blindness. In very bright light, they can sometimes see outlines of shadows. The National Eye Institute estimates “that the disorder affects roughly 1 in 4,000 people, both in the United State and worldwide.” That is an 0.00025 chance of anyone in the world being diagnosed, and here I sat with two of them.
VISIONS is, according to its site, “a nonprofit rehabilitation and social service organization” with one location at Selis Manor. Every Wednesday, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., VISIONS at Selis Manor, led by Director Ann De Shazo, holds a weekly support group meeting, called Moving Forward. Some of its members come to VISONS at Selis Manor once a week, some several times. Traveling from Staten Island, Kaplon comes the furthest.
While there are some who travel independently and take the bus and/or the subways, many use Access-A-Ride, a taxi service for people with disabilities, where $2.75 takes you to any one of the five boroughs. Those that have worked are living off of pensions, social security, and some savings. Others receive disability.
Director De Shazo tells me she usually gets about 10 to 15 people at Moving Forward, but on this Wednesday, I count 16. She lightheartedly warns them to be on their best behavior while I am there.
Upon walking into the room where everyone was seated around a long table, some in chairs along the wall, I see one-dollar bills being handed off across the table. It is a jovial atmosphere with lots of giggling when Director De Shazo jokes, “no money laundering, guys.” Immediately my presence is so friendly welcomed.
I soon learn that the dollar bills Kaplon was being handed were for the weekly lotto run she goes on every Wednesday for the group. This Wednesday, I join her and Quinlin.
“Quinlin, find us the candy store,” Kaplon says. We make a right out of Selis Manor, onto West 23rd Street. Kaplon’s Golden Labrador seeing-eye dog of two-and-a-half years leads us the way and I try to close my eyes. She tells me that the dogs are trained for two years before being used. I realize that Kaplon has probably shared her longest conversations with Quinlin as a guard dog requires frequent direction and although they can get you close to your destination, they can’t get you over the curb into the store. “The dog doesn’t know Burlington from the pizza shop,” Kaplon says.
As my eyes flutter open and closed, trying to walk a mile in Kaplon’s shoes, I realize I may be better off helping her once we enter the candy store, her weekly lotto destination and no more than a 5-minute walk from Selis Manor. Described to Kaplon as lightly toasted marshmallow, Quinlin’s fur coat is shining in the beaming sun.
Kaplon asks aloud, “Am I next?” to which a gentleman replies that he is, but happy to let her go ahead. We choose to wait our turn, and I help Kaplon sort out the money she has collected, distinguishing a five-dollar bill from the several other one-dollar bills.
For a total of $12, we split the pot for the group between tickets for Powerball on Thursday and Mega Millions on Friday. “We never win,” Kaplon says. “But wouldn’t that be a kick in the ass if we did?”
As we walk back to Selis Manor, it dawns on me that it is no surprise why the group nominated Kaplon for me to shadow that day. A member of VISIONS for 14 years, she also works two days per week at Helen Keller Services for the Blind. Her husband passed away but still she raises her two kids, a son who is going to be 29 and a daughter getting married in July – both of whose homework she remembers checking with a talking calculator when they were young.
“Don’t you have a talking watch?” Abe Abramson, 83, and another member of VISIONS has asked her as he convinced her to join VISIONS years ago. For Kaplon, she was “tired of not knowing the time” when she first lost her sight.
“I belonged here because I’m in the same world as everyone else,” Kaplon says.
She now lives her every day according to the clock. In just a couple minutes, we’ll get up from the cafeteria table at Selis Manor and head back downstairs for afternoon Pilates – where, sandwiched between Kaplon and Ranello, I close my eyes and let the instructor guide us three together. e