November 29, 2021

For disabled, virus can complicate life even further

Kevin L. Smith/staff reporter

Rachel Anderson of McGraw checks her mail Monday. A pair of disabilities — a neurological disorder and severe food allergies — means Anderson has been in virutal isolation since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Other people with disabilites report complications ranging from increased anxiety to problems reading lips.

Consider how difficult COVID-19 has made your life. The isolation, the anxiety, the social distancing. And those masks.

Now imagine life when you must read lips to communicate — lips behind a mask.

Imagine life when friends take your arm as you walk down the street because you can’t see — and now they can’t touch you.

Imagine life when you have an anxiety disorder — and a pandemic ratchets up the anxiety.

Imagine life when you’re so isolated your only company is a few cats.

The nearly 4,400 people with disabilities the U.S. Census Bureau reports live in Cortland County don’t have to imagine it.

That’s their lives.

Access to Independence of Cortland County tries to help, but support groups have become virtual, and work to modify homes to accommodate someone’s disability stalled for months.

“People want to feel safe in their homes,” said Aaron Baier, executive director of Access to Independence, and that can be difficult for homes that need to be modified.

It was hard at first, then people started getting restless. And Access to Independence could only slowly get back to normal. In-office staffing is still at half capacity and work to help people once done in person is now done over the phone, or by videoconference.

“We’re hoping to remedy everything soon,” he said. “We are still trying to keep that social connection the best way we can.”

Life alone

Rachel Anderson of McGraw is one test result away from confirming her neurological disorder is multiple sclerosis. The coronavirus pandemic has delayed that test.

The disorder combined with a cluster of severe food allergies mean the 41-year-old woman can’t risk human contact.

Outside time is occasionally driving around town in her car — alone. She gets to work for a couple of hours a week in her office, and she’s in quarantine until at least January.

“My doctors want to avoid potential exposure so I have to quarantine as much as possible so I don’t have to go to the hospital,” she said. “Worst-case scenario for a food allergy if it occurs, I have to go to the hospital and be put on a ventilator.”

She went to a doctor’s appointment a couple of weeks ago. “It was the first time anyone has touched me since March.”

“It’s hard because the rest of the world is reopening, but I’m still in quarantine,” Anderson said. “I’m used to being part of the society, but I can’t. I want to go see a movie or walk around the city of Cortland, other than just being home.”

She feels guilty asking for help, but Anderson can’t go to a grocery store, she asks if she can add some items to their shopping list. Catholic Charities of Cortland puts food for her in a cooler on Anderson’s porch to avoid contact.

Anderson said she’s recently been approved for outside visits, as long as people are wearing masks, and she can go to the drive-through pharmacy, but she’s restricted to a 10-mile radius of McGraw.

“People with disabilities want to be in society and function, but with COVID you just can’t right now,” she said.

The three cats make quarantine life easier to bear, Anderson said, but the lack of human interaction “is making me feel forgotten.”

No guiding hand

“No two people are identical,” Baier said. “In the world we live in, it’s hard to be 100% accessible with the limits we have. I face that every day now, and unfortunately people with disabilities have the same issue.”

In Baier’s case, 20 years of retinitis pigmentosa has left him with little vision. His biggest challenge is social distancing.

“I’d walk down the street or in a grocery store and couldn’t see where I was going,” he said. “People were understanding and mainly helpful.”

Anxiety compounded

The problems with Larry Woolheater’s knees, sides and wrist are tough enough. The anxiety and depression? Brutal, particularly complicated by a pandemic.

“It’s been frustrating and confusing with everything,” said Woolheater, 61, of Cortland. “It’s been hard to keep up with everything because it keeps changing so quickly.”

“It was difficult talking to people through a phone or video chat because it’s not the real face-to-face you’re used to,” he said.

Woolheater said he’s not a stay-at-home kind of guy. Pre-COVID, he took any opportunity to distract him from the anxiety and depression. Now he can’t.

“Isolation creates a lot of problems for people,” Woolheater said. “You’re trying to find something to do, but what is there to do?”

His family checks in a lot, and he tries to visit people at a distance, going for walks and maybe the odd trip to a store. The breathing techniques help.

“I feel like I’m doing all right, but I see areas of improvement,” he said. “I’m starting to realize the term ‘normal’ is subject to change.”

Read the lips

Linda Stock’s hearing has done nothing but worsen since she was 15. She’s now 67; the two cochlear implants in her right ear have failed. The implant in her left ear works, but even that’s been malfunctioning.

“It’s still challenging because it’s not normal hearing, it’s electronic,” she said.

Accents and mumbling are still difficult to make out. Stock has mastered lip-reading to supplement what she can hear.

Put a mask in front of the mouth.

“I’m dealing with my disability with great difficulty,” she said. “When people are wearing masks, I can’t lip read because the sound field is blocked from people’s voices.”

Stock’s husband, Richard, has been her translator.

“He’s been incredibly helpful in assisting me in communicating with others,” she said.

Large gatherings were never easy, so if there’s an upside to the pandemic for Stock, it’s that large gatherings remain a thing of memory.

“I’m not missing anything,” she said.