‘Tech Pals’ Overcome Vision Problems, Age Differences, and Smartphone Anxiety

Photo: Anne Perzeszty (l) and Leslie Guevara (r). Photo credit: Don Horvath.

By Lisa Kava

Anne Perzeszty, 86, considers herself to be tech savvy for someone her age. But she was overwhelmed when she purchased a new Samsung cell phone last fall. ”I immediately hated it,” she told West Side Rag in a phone interview. “I wanted to throw it away. There were too many bells and whistles; it was just loaded with features.”

Perzeszty has a condition called macular degeneration, which causes loss of central vision. While intimidated by the phone’s features, her vision impairment added an extra challenge. “With macular degeneration I have learned how to navigate the outside world, but it is very difficult for me to see close up,” she said.

Perzeszty is involved with Lighthouse Guild, a nonprofit organization located at 250 West 64th Street, which provides services to blind and visually impaired individuals. She signed up for a new intergenerational program run by the organization called Tech Pals, where young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 help mentees above the age of 55 with their smartphones. The “pals” meet at the Lighthouse Guild’s Technology Center from 10 AM to 2 PM every Saturday for one-on-one training. All mentors and mentees are visually impaired or blind.

Perzeszty was paired with Leslie Guevara, 22, a college student with the genetic condition iris nerve retinal coloboma. While Guevara can see black and white, much of her vision is blurry, and glare hurts her eyes. She uses both a magnifier and glasses. Upon learning about Tech Pals, the idea of helping others with vision impairment resonated with her. “I have always been good with technology,” she told the Rag in a phone call.

Guevara says her own vision challenges make her sensitive to those of her mentees. She enjoys sharing tips she uses in her everyday life. “The first thing I did was to change the settings in Anne’s phone,” Guevara said. “Dark mode makes the contrast with white words easier to see. Guevara also introduced Perzeszty to the easy voice recorder app. “It is like any other recording app. I use it for everything. Now Anne uses it for her Trader Joe’s and Costco lists. It is so much easier than struggling to read a shopping list when we can just listen.”

“I had a challenge and Leslie had the tools to help,” Perzeszty said. “I felt comfortable with her immediately.” Each week they work together on a different aspect of the phone. “She really helped me with my confidence. I could not see the buttons on my phone,” Perzeszty said. “She set up the accessibility function, she made the type bigger, she set up google assistant, and showed me how to ask questions.”

Judith Katzen (far left) and mentors. Jason Eckert, (blue shirt, right) executive director of the Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation (RDPFS). Photo credit: Ekaterina Svetova.

Judith Katzen, director of rehabilitation at Lighthouse Guild, thought of the idea for Tech Pals during the summer of 2022. In a phone conversation with the executive director of the Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation, which provides funding to Lighthouse Guild, Katzen learned about Cyber-Seniors, based in Canada, where typically sighted young people mentor typically sighted seniors in technology. “We studied their model and thought we can take this concept and make it happen with the blind and visually impaired community,” Katzen explained.

Katzen hired a program manager with a background in teaching technology to blind and deaf individuals. She then interviewed graduates of Lighthouse Guild’s youth programs for mentor positions. Guevara and the others selected participated in online training with Cyber-Seniors in September, 2022. The program went live in October. Tech Pals mentors get paid for their services. “For many it is their first job,” Katzen said.

Beyond technology help, Perzeszty and Guevara enjoy the personal relationship they have developed. Guevara tries to establish a connection with her mentees from the beginning. “I want them to feel at ease and I always try to find a common interest. Anne told me she was nervous about her granddaughter traveling by subway, so I told her I take the subway all the time.”

The duo often chat about family when Perzeszty’s eyes get tired and she needs a break. “Leslie will talk about her younger sister, and I will throw in some stories about my daughters. We have things in common beyond vision impairment,” Perzeszty said. “I think the intergenerational concept is brilliant. The younger generation has the challenge of finding a common language and teaching us. The older generation must respect the younger generation and what they have to offer.”

“Working with Anne has been so gratifying,” said Guevara. “One time, as she was walking into the technology center, she was on a video call with her daughter. I showed her how to do that. It was neat to watch her in action.”

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