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For blind educator, pandemic poses unique hardships, perspectives

'I have a guide dog, and he has not been getting a lot of work lately'

Francesca Marinaro served as a lector at the 2018 annual Mass and reception for local persons with disabilities held at St. Gabriel Parish in Pompano Beach.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Francesca Marinaro served as a lector at the 2018 annual Mass and reception for local persons with disabilities held at St. Gabriel Parish in Pompano Beach.

DAVIE | Social distancing and lockdown protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic are challenging enough for most people — but when you're vision impaired, you confront added complications and twists.

That's the experience of a college educator and Catholic who is navigating the crisis while living independently and managing a career. 

“When you are coping with any disability, there are certain things that become a little trickier,” said Francesca Marinaro, an assistant professor of English at Broward College and a graduate of St. David School in Davie and St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale. 

In a time when people rely more than ever on working remotely, online conferencing and internet grocery ordering, Marinaro said she has a slight leg up in the technology department from her years of using digital technology for the blind. But the pandemic still presents real-world dilemmas for the handicapped. 

One issue is touch, Marinaro told the Florida Catholic by phone. She explained that the visually impaired need assistance such as having someone hand them something or guide them somewhere.

“Isolation and social distancing for a person who is not sighted is a challenge when trying to keep your distance from others,” Marinaro said.

So are things like personal outings into the community and getting some exercise in crowded public places — both of which prove extra tricky for the vision impaired right now. 

Marinaro said she would like to get down to the Hollywood Beach Boardwalk with Zeus, a yellow Lab who serves as her guide dog. But obviously, the dog can't judge proper social distancing during a stroll on a busy walkway. 

“He has not been getting a lot of work lately; he has basically been furloughed,” Marinaro said of her guide dog. “I will take him out for a walk. But if I hear someone, we will navigate around other people and be respectful of their space." 

“People who are not sighted rely on public transportation, so our options for getting a change of environment are not really there,” she added.

Francesca Marinaro served as a lector at the 2018 annual Mass and reception for local persons with disabilities held at St. Gabriel Parish in Pompano Beach.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Francesca Marinaro served as a lector at the 2018 annual Mass and reception for local persons with disabilities held at St. Gabriel Parish in Pompano Beach.

Add to that the issues of social distancing and mask wearing in public places that everyone has encountered but which sighted persons can at least try to evaluate for safety in terms of virus transmission. 

When she does go out, Marinaro tries to go with family members who can judge the situation. 

“They are able to look around and say if everyone is wearing a mask or going down the aisles correctly," she said. “But if I am on my own, I have to trust that everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing.

“There is a great ethic of care to beat this pandemic, and I hope people will eventually see that putting on a mask is important,” Marinaro added. 

Since the national lockdowns and school closures in mid-March, Marinaro has also refrained from meeting her students in person. Transitioning to video-based communication platforms, like the popular Zoom software or the cellphone based Facetime application, initially required some coaching from her family and friends.

One of the conundrums for a vision-impaired person is knowing if you are centered in the picture and how the camera is rendering you — suddenly there are familiar concerns about how one comes across over video chats. 

“It never really occurred to me how important it was for other people to see me, and so I have learned to position [the camera] in different ways,” Marinaro said. “When I am on a camera, everything becomes more performative and makes me self-conscious that I don’t see what is going on.”

Marinaro said meeting up with a friend or inviting someone over for a cup of coffee are clearly off the table right now, as they are for most everyone else. 

She lives independently and normally spends a lot of time visiting her parents and shopping and taking walks with them — until the pandemic complicated life. 

Her parents, both retired Catholic school teachers who live nearby, are another concern, she added.

“My parents are in that high-risk age bracket. I want to interact with them when I can, so I don’t want to expose myself unnecessarily,” she said.

As time has gone by, they have become a little more lax on social distancing. “But we are very careful with people outside our family,” Marinaro said. 

“My family is Italian, and telling us that we cannot hug is not something that makes us happy. We knew we weren’t going to be able to be in the same room and not hug. And that we would have a problem with that.”

Marinaro has been reading the Bible each morning and watching the Mass online rather than venturing back into church in person. She has even found enrichment through commentator-narrated services broadcast from the Vatican. 

“I would listen to the English voiceover, and it was fascinating to me how much I had forgotten,” she said. “There was a time when I had partial vision, and I realized how much I had forgotten about the physical gestures (of the liturgy) and to have someone providing commentary; and describing all of that lent a dimension to the Mass that I had forgotten since I was 12 or 13 years old.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just turned life upside down for the disabled: Marinaro said she realizes that people everywhere are adapting to the experience. 

“This pandemic has turned attention to the social isolation of people and how important it is to have a network when you are single,” she said. “We have found ways to connect with others to deal with that social isolation.

“The goal of all the things I do (differently) now is: How am I going to maintain that when my life returns to something like what it was before the pandemic? Once a day I repeat to myself, ‘This can’t last forever.’”

Comments from readers

Palma Gartland - 08/09/2020 12:31 PM
This young lady, Francesca Marinaro, is an inspiration to all of us. Here I am complaining, moaning, struggling with CoVid-life issues, sometimes making mountains out of little hills. Yet, Francesca deals with life heroically, relying on the grace of her faith, meeting each challenge in the best way she can. I did not feel a hint of despair in her thoughts or comments. May God Bless her! We all need to be made aware of the hardships that people, like Francesca, have to bear each day. This helps us to focus on what really is important in our lives and be grateful for the many blessings God has given each of us. Thank you, Francesca, for sharing your story with us!
Dolores Hanley McDiarmid - 08/06/2020 10:55 AM
Tom, thank you for the informative and inspirational article about Francesca and other people living with blindness/visual impairments. I am so happy to read about Francesca, who I have known since she was a young child at St. David's Catholic School, and hear how she is intelligently navigating life during the pandemic and making use of the variety of materials provided by Xavier Society for the Blind to continue growing in her faith. Thank you again for your interest in people living with visual challenges!
Xavier Society for the Blind - 08/05/2020 10:56 AM
Great piece on how the "new normal" and social distancing affects people with visual impairments. Thanks for sharing. We're blessed to be able to provide Francesca with the braille materials she requires to learn about, develop and practice her Catholic faith during these unprecedented times.

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