What It’s Like to Be Visually Impaired During a Pandemic

In order to be safe, the pandemic has changed many aspects of our existence. Take the grocery store, for example: we now socially isolate ourselves when in line to pay, and in some places, we follow new walking-traffic patterns to avoid human interaction. However, for those who are blind or visually challenged, who may not be able to see or feel for arrows on the floor directing foot traffic, such safety precautions provide further barriers to properly navigating the pandemic-era world.

“I was unaware that there was clear plexiglass in front of the cashier, and I nearly knocked it down when attempting to pay. Nobody seems to know what a white cane is for, and even if they do, they don’t appear to care.” Penny Rosenblum, PhD, director of research at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), has read several examples of obstacles faced by people who are blind or visually impaired during the pandemic in her research for a future report.

“I could go on and on with examples,” Dr. Rosenblum says, “but for many, living in a sighted world where many don’t understand your visual impairment is emotionally exhausting and often leaves you feeling left out or left behind on a day-to-day basis is emotionally exhausting and often leaves you feeling left out or left behind.”

People who are blind or visually impaired are also more likely to contract the virus because they are unable to follow basic hygiene precautions, such as finding hand sanitizer in public places, frequently touching objects to identify them, and relying on public transportation, which can be crowded if it is available at all. This lack of accessibility in all spheres of life is a safety issue that has resulted in fundamental requirements not being met—something that must change.

Getting out has become even more difficult due to a lack of transit options.

Audrey Demmitt, 60, who has had gradual eyesight loss over the previous two decades, says the pandemic has made her already small world even smaller, due to limited access to safe transportation. “By nature of our infirmity, [those who are blind or visually challenged] are already isolated,” she explains. “Because we don’t drive, we don’t go anywhere if we can’t get a ride or if we reside in a location with limited public transit alternatives.” There is no public transportation where she lives, south of Atlanta, and Uber and Lyft have grown unreliable. “You might get a ride to your destination, but you might not get a ride back.”

Even in locations where public transportation is available, many people are afraid to use it. According to a study performed by the AFB of approximately 2,000 people, 63 percent of respondents were concerned about public transit as a result of COVID-19. And for many of these people, as well as those who don’t live near public transportation, the cost of getting to essential places like the grocery store (given that many areas in the country aren’t equipped for grocery delivery) and doctor’s appointments has become a major challenge and a safety concern. It’s especially acute for those who live alone and are distancing themselves from guides, aides, and loved ones who may have assisted with transportation prior to the outbreak.

“For [many] visually challenged people, isolation wasn’t new, but the pandemic made it a common experience for everyone.” —Audrey Demmitt, 60 years old

Furthermore, without a seeing companion, some people are hesitant to leave their house for a trip around the block or to explore a nearby park, resulting to increased loneliness. “During the pandemic, everyone’s social activities, such as going to the gym with a friend or participating in community activities, came to a halt, but for some visually impaired people who don’t feel comfortable navigating the outside world on their own, it meant they stopped leaving their house at all,” says Dr. Rosenblum. “Many don’t feel secure wandering about without someone with typical vision to guide them.”

While some people are lucky enough to live with family members, many blind or visually impaired people in their latter years do not, according to Dr. Rosenblum, and they may have encountered the most challenges during the pandemic. “They frequently don’t know how to utilise technology [such as online forums or Zoom], and if they live alone, they don’t have somebody to teach them,” she explains. And, given that people with vision impairments or who are blind are already at a higher risk of loneliness and despair, this effect could be particularly harmful.

It’s more difficult than ever to navigate public places safely.

During the epidemic, visually impaired people have faced a number of challenges, including transportation. New obstacles come once they’re out of the house. Dr. Rosenblum’s example, according to Neva Fairchild, a national ageing and vision-loss specialist for the AFB who is also blind, is that navigating grocery stores is particularly difficult.

“Many people employ the ‘human guide technique,’ which is when a visually impaired person clutches the arm of a guide above the elbow,” Fairchild explains. A blind person will frequently go to the grocery shop and request assistance in this manner, she claims. However, many grocery store employees have been prohibited from touching clients during the pandemic or are justifiably scared of doing so.

Customers who may have been more willing to help before the outbreak are also hesitant to do so now. “Others have been hesitant to help because they want to maintain their distance,” Fairchild says. “Normally while I’m in line, someone will assist me by telling me when it’s my turn or which direction to go, but it’s been crickets during the pandemic.” She claims there have been a few occasions when she has unintentionally bumped into people who have accused her of invading their space and violating the safe distancing guidelines.

Experiences like those described by Fairchild, according to Dr. Rosenblum, can make a visually impaired person feel particularly alienated. “Instances like this heighten emotions of loneliness and isolation,” she says, noting that similar circumstances have become more common since the pandemic began.

Line-navigation issues have spread to COVID-19 testing and immunisation sites. “The majority of the locations for testing and vaccinations are drive-through only. And those that are walk-up have a shuttle that will drop you off blocks away from your destination “According to Dr. Rosenblum “You have to get yourself from the bus stop to the immunisation site, and because everyone is at least six feet apart, you can’t rely on other people’s sound and touch as much.”

“Telehealth was not designed with persons who are blind or visually impaired in mind.” — Neva Fairchild, NFB’s expert on ageing and visual loss

Furthermore, according to Fairchild, the most common way to get a vaccine is to book a time slot online, but the technology for doing so typically does not use voice activation tools like iPhone Voiceover, which works by describing exactly what is happening on the screen and uses Bluetooth technology to browse and navigate web pages using voice commands. Fairchild claims that this lack of capabilities applies to a number of platforms that have grown in popularity for obtaining remote health care throughout the pandemic.

“In general, telehealth hasn’t been designed with visually impaired people in mind,” adds Fairchild. “There are so many factors that make it tough,” she adds, “finding the log-in button, being able to simply input information into a form, figuring out how to aim your camera to whatever it is that the doctor needs to see during a virtual session.” “I couldn’t fill out a simple health questionnaire since the website wouldn’t let me use my iPhone’s Voiceover to accomplish so.”

Fairchild believes that telehealth websites and apps may be improved if voice integration could be utilised to enter data. She hopes that as telehealth grows in popularity, the technology will be improved to allow for voice activation, so that individuals who can’t see will no longer be excluded.

What’s going to change for the better?

“One significant and positive improvement is that more virtual discussion groups and seminars are available for visually impaired people,” adds Dr. Rosenblum. During the epidemic, the American Council for the Blind, for example, developed the ACB Community, which offers virtual groups for grief counselling, mindfulness, and yoga, according to her. A Sunday circle for counting your blessings, a craft talk (containing a different craft each week), and an app how-to instruction (including new apps each week) are just a few of the group’s weekly recurring events.

According to Fairchild, the visually impaired community benefits from the fact that more organisations and organisations are giving virtual events in general. “I know a blind woman who joined her church choir during the pandemic, something she couldn’t do before because she didn’t have a way to get to the church because she didn’t have transportation,” she says, adding that greater access to more virtual events and activities may be encouraging visually impaired people to be more adventurous. “Some folks I know who are mostly sedentary have opted to attempt their first yoga session since it’s something that’s available online and they can do it at home,” she says.

Carlos Vasquez, a 43-year-old Florida resident who is visually impaired, is the administrator of a Facebook group for blind and visually impaired persons, and claims that activity has increased dramatically in the last year and a half. “People are coming together more [online], and there have been a lot more conversations in the group,” he says.

Demmitt adds that there is a silver lining to the rush to accept new technologies and work to learn and adapt. “As more virtual platforms were used during the epidemic, it encouraged everyone—including the visually impaired community—to learn how to use them, and that’s a benefit that will persist beyond the pandemic,” she says. “We’re getting pretty proficient at several abilities that will help us move forward,” says the team.

However, this upskilling will not address the issues and obstacles that persons who are visually impaired or blind face during the pandemic. For starters, witnessing individuals can inspire us to act with compassion rather than fear and judgement. Additionally, having grocery store shopping assistance where guides assist through conversation rather than touch, reliable and safe transportation, and making websites and apps accessible through voice-activation technology would better ensure that people who are blind or visually impaired have their needs met now and in the future.

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