By Mary Ann & Will Grignon
In Lee County Florida, the Southwest Florida Council of the Blind (SWFCB) has made it a mission to enrich the lives of those with vision loss.
In our own little piece of paradise, because of the efforts of the SWFCB, those of us with vision loss can enjoy an audio described live performance at two local theaters, use accessible voting machines at any voting location, enjoy monthly social events hosted by various members, participate in a book club, attend our meetings where speakers inform and inspire, and much more.
In order to enlighten and inspire those who are new to vision loss, and in keeping with our mission, each year since 2018, we have held a low vision expo aptly named Living the Good Life with Vision Loss. It is our belief that with tools, knowledge, and encouragement a good life with vision loss is not only possible but entirely achievable.
Each year, we gather with vendors, service providers, local companies and our own members who demonstrate technology, tips and tricks and talk about their own achievements as authors, choir members, artists and crafters. This year we had 24 exhibitors and folks were waiting at the door to register for the event.
Since the inception of this event, we have had no less than 100 people walk through our exhibit venue and the feedback is all we could hope it to be. At the end of the day, we’ve provided tools, knowledge, and a sense of hope for those who had heretofore been isolated, scared, and at a loss as to how they, too, could live the good life with vision loss.
The hardest part of putting on such an expo is getting it off the ground. Once it is up and running, it almost has a life of its own and a momentum from year-to-year.
The first consideration is the venue. It has to be big enough, configured for an expo layout, and be accessible by paratransit. In past years, we have held the expo at the Ft. Myers Library, but this year we held it at the North Ft. Myers Recreation Center because they allowed us to reserve the room months in advance, giving us plenty of time to plan and publicize.
Next, you have to pick a date. Lee County has a “season” (mostly from January to May), so we picked February 5 for this year’s event.
When first getting this event off the ground, we formed a committee and allotted ourselves six months to work out all the details. We progressed on a multi-track approach.
Some of us reached out to local providers such as Division of Blind Services (Florida’s version of PA’s BBVS), the local Lighthouse (Florida’s version of PA’s PABs), our local paratransit provider, our County Elections Board, the local Center for Independent Living, guide dog puppy raisers and a guide dog school, and other blindness/disability-related entities.
Others reached out to vendors of low- and high-tech adaptive devices, braille, non-24, and other merchants of interest to persons with vision loss.
Other worker bees reached out to our membership to secure volunteers for our “tips and tricks” section, where SWFCB members shared their experiences and expertise in such arenas as the kitchen, crafts, arts, and using the iPhone and other adaptive devices.
Then there were those whose responsibility was to manage public relations and advertising the event. Our biggest help came from the Talking Book Library in Daytona who sent out cards to all their patrons in our county and the counties immediately adjacent (we reckon that 80-90% of our attendees heard about our Expo from this one source). We also developed an electronic flier and sent it out to local assisted living facilities, eye doctors, and the offices for students with disabilities at local colleges and universities. Finally, we posted our event on Internet calendars and with community bulletin boards hosted by local radio and TV stations.
For the event, we set up registration outside of the main room, in the hall, where it was quiet enough for our welcome team to record attendees contact information. In the Expo room itself, we set up tables running along the walls leaving an empty space in the middle of the room, with two chairs per table. We started with service providers, then had a section for vendors, and ended up with our member tips-and-tricks section, so attendees could progress in a counter-clockwise direction and eventually visit all the participants.
This year, we placed numbered plastic displays at each table and handed out a “roadmap” of the room, so attendees could find the tables that interested them the most. Most attendees came with sighted guides, but we provided SWFCB members to assist our guests in finding their way and availing themselves of refreshments.
Finally, we had a “rest area” with chairs and free bottles of water. We have tried to offer coffee and pastries in the past, but it got messy and someone actually demanded to know why we weren’t offering tea.
To induce attendees to provide their contact information, we offered door prizes to be drawn from the list of all registrants. This year, door prizes included an Amazon Dot, a festive gift basket, and a digital talking thermometer donated by Accessible Pharmacy Services for the Blind. In addition, all registrants will receive an invitation to a membership event to be held at a local park in April.
Like any big event, planning, organization, committee work, and keeping to the schedule are key for success. And, as noted, once you hold one Expo, the next ones should be much easier. In fact, we have service providers and vendors who look forward to and come back to our expos year after year because they say it’s a great place to meet a lot of people with vision loss.