Blindness and Social Distancing

I recently spoke to a good friend about how Covid-19 had affected all of our lives. We live on different continents, but life is remarkabky similar for us and millions of others as we all #StayAtHome.

My friend was interested to know how I was finding social distancing with limited vision. She knows that I have spent the last few weeks adapting to the new Covid-19 norm, just like everyone else. Yet, not exactly like everyone else.

What this post is, and what it is not

My friend pointed out that my experience of life in the pandemic might involve a different set of challenges to hers, and she was surprised I hadn’t written about it sooner. My reasons were mainly that the magnitude of what the world is facing, which would have been unimaginable even two months ago, is not something I’m qualified to write about. It’s bigger than all of us, and I couldn’t decide if it was even appropriate to share my experience of it, or if anyone would be interested enough to read it when there were more pressing things occupying our thoughts. But after my friend said she’d be interested, I thought others might be too, so I began to write this. Not with a view to changing anything, but rather to encourage people to think a little, about the additional difficulties faced by those who are blind or have a visual impairment in the context of social distancing.

I’m aware it might seem like I’m just having a bit of a moan sometimes, but I promise that’s not the case. Not here anyway. This post is not meant to be negative, critical or a call to action. Equally, it’s not a ‘top tips’ or ‘how to do things better’ kind of post. It’s more of a ‘this is how things are right now for someone who can’t see much, and others might find it interesting to consider the current situation from a different perspective,’ kind of post. (Admittedly, I may have to work on a snappier title for this category).

The events in recent months have changed lives everywhere, but those changes look different for everyone. The differences for those with a visual impairment is our focus for this post.

Finally, this post is not really about me. I have always shared on my blog that despite being legally blind I really am one of the fortunate ones. My ability to live as I do with my blindness, is made easier by the support I have, and the resources available in the country in which I live. I am always mindful that not all blind or visually impaired people have access to the same support and resources, which is why raising awareness of what I’m about to share is so important to me.

#StayAtHome

For me, staying at home is the most straightforward of the measures we have been asked to take. Our little apartment is my haven. I know where everything is (unless it’s been moved by little hands), I’m familiar with the layout and I can touch surfaces, walls and objects without judgement. Being asked to stay home with my family and look after the kids is not so different to my normal routine as I am a stay at home mum. Of course we don’t go out and my eldest doesn’t go to school right now, but that aside, it’s not a world away from what we’re used to. I know this is not the case for all my visually impaired friends. I think I do OK I’m terms of independence, doing what I need to do and being where I need to be, but I’d be lying if I said I achieve this alone. My husband and I work as a team and our family is able to operate as it does, as a result of our teamwork. Others with a visual impairment have help with their home life from people who don’t live in their household. That help can be in the form of preparing meals, housework or admin to keep everything running smoothly. Whether it’s from friends and family, someone who is employed or a non-profit organization, many people are suddenly finding themselves without that support. In those cases, staying at home would be a very different story.

The VI Social Distancing Conundrum

I’ve read a couple articles lately where blind people have said things like “Social distancing? nothing new there.” They refer to the fact that little or no vision can result in feelings of social exclusion at the best of times. There’s more truth in that than most of us would care to admit in 2020, and there are ways that the introduction of social distancing could ampifly that.

One significant change I’ve already touched upon is that many organisations providing support for blind people at home have been forced to stop their services. The effect of this is two-fold. A rehabilitation officer might have been visiting your home weekly to help you relearn how to do things like cook and clean, because you are losing your vision, or perhaps they’ve been teaching you to use a cane. Learning these vital skills is now on hold. Not only this, but when a person is faced with failing vision, that interaction with a non judgemental individual, who is well informed about sight loss, also has enormous psychological benefits. Those too, are now on hold.

If you read my post ‘The Bright Side of Blindness’, you might remember I spoke about how blindness can bring out the best in people. One example is that when I use my cane, I regularly receive offers of help from strangers. Social distancing means that through no fault of anyone, less people will offer help and those who do, must do so from a distance. They can’t simply guide you across a busy road by holding your arm or support you down a flight of steps. It is of course not only right, but crucial that people maintain their distance, but it makes the seemingly simple task of walking somewhere, less simple, for someone like me.

Exercise is something else that has changed for us. Currently, we are still allowed to go outside for exercise, but pre-pandemic, it is something many visually impaired people enjoyed with a bit of support. Running with guide runners, cycling in tandem and attending a class is no longer possible and running or cycling alone is not an option either. An online class may work, depending on the style of teaching, but it would of course be made more difficult by not being able to see the screen.

From the few examples I’ve mentioned here, you can see how a combination of reduced emotional and practical support at home, no longer being able to participate in your chosen exercise and help from strangers being less forthcoming, could all add up to feeling very socially distant indeed.

The Grocery Mission

It seems I mention supermarkets in my posts with alarming frequency… I’m not obsessed with food shopping. Well OK, maybe just a little. But you have to agree it’s a universally relatable topic as we all need to buy food at some point. Nowadays it is one of the few legitimate reasons we have for leaving the house, so of course, I’m going to talk about it.

Supermarkets have implemented sensible and necessary measures to allow shoppers access to their essentials, whilst observing social distancing etiquette. There are now orderly, well spced queues to enter, controlled numbers of shoppers in the store at once, and tape on the floor to indicate the appropriate distance to stand from the person in front of you at the checkout. These are absolutely the right measures to take. But let’s see how this could play out for a visually impaired shopper.

Firstly, you can’t see that there is a queue so you head to the entrance as usual. You hear people shouting to let you know there is a queue, but it is confusing and hard to know which direction to head, in order to find the back of the line. Nobody can take your arm to guide you to your spot. When you eventually find it, you can’t assess how far you are from the person in front of you and you can’t tell when the line shifts forward. You’re starting to feel a bit stressed now and others around you are probably starting to feel sorry for you, which kind of makes things worse. Once inside the shop, there is nobody to guide you and help you find the things you need. Anyone who does try to help must keep their distance. They can give you verbal directions, but they can’t pass you a can of beans. So you grab what feels like a can of beans, but equally, it could be a can of custard (who knows?!) After a few rounds of ‘guess the food’ with intervals of ‘avoid that sound, it could be another person’, you make your way to the checkout. You know there is tape indicating where you should stand but you can’t locate it with your cane. You ask for help from what you imagine is a person, but it could well be a pillar. (You may laugh, but I’ve asked many a pillar in Morrisons where they’ve moved the pasta sauce to!)

You finally pay and complete your grocery mission. As you leave, you pray you don’t bump into anyone. That’s always a bit awkward, but nowadays, its more serious than that.

Online shopping is the preferred option of many visually impaired friends, but we now compete for delivery slots with the hoards of shoppers who have jumped on the online grocery bandwagon since the pandemic began. If we are lucky enough to get a slot, we risk being faced with a plethora of seemingly random substitutions for the many out of stock items… four large artichokes anyone?!

Usually, groceries and shopping for the household is my responsibility. I am fortunate to have a sighted husband who can take over the out-of -the-house shopping for now, not only because it’s easier, but it’s also crucial while we are trying to ‘slow the spread’. Why? I’ll explain further down the page. But remember not all visually impaired people have that kind of support and the supermarket scene I have described is simply their reality. It’s not all bad news though. My local supermarkets have daily times for the elderly, pregnant and disabled shoppers only, which can alleviate some of the stress mentioned above. I also hear some shops back home have special opening times for NHS staff only. These excellent initiatives will indeed make a world of difference to those who need them.

Touching (ALL the) Things

Here’s the thing about us blind people, we have to touch things ALL THE TIME! I use my sense of touch to navigate my surroundings, locate and identify objects (and my children!) and generally to get anything done. I think the official advice is that the virus can live on certain surfaces for varying amounts of time, so avoid touching handrails, door handles and countertops. That’s easier for my sighted friends than for me! The management of the building where I live has advised people to use a tissue to cover their finger when pressing buttons in the lift. Sound as this advice is, I would find it difficult. Lifts are dimly lit and when I’m in a lift, it’s one of the rare times I muster my limited Braille knowledge to find the button I need, and that is made trickier by covered hands.

A few days ago I heard an expert on a news podcast advising people to touch only what they need to, when shopping. He said something like “If you are going to buy bread, get the loaf you are going to buy and try not to touch the things around it like other products or shelving. This is why I said earlier, that my husband doing the shopping will help to ‘slow the spread’, because he can follow this advice. In order to buy a loaf of bread I need to touch the doorframes at the shop’s entrance to find my way into the building, I have to feel for the shelves to navigate up and down the aisles. I need to touch all the products to find the bread section and then feel all the bread to find one that feels like the one I’m looking for. Then I have to feel the conveyer belt to place my bread on it and then feel for the card machine even to make a contactless payment. The list goes on. So without wanting to, I may have to touch multiple surfaces which may harbour who knows what? And I would be spreading whatever was on those surfaces to the next thing I touch. Oh, and just like everyone else, my local shops are out of hand sanitizer too. And through all of this, I am trying not to touch my face (which apparently I do about 50 million times a day!!! Who knew?!)

So as much as we want to follow the guidelines like everyone else, a lack of vision makes it difficult, if not impossible to do so, to the extent we would like.

It’s just a thought…

As I said earlier, this post isn’t a complaint or a call to action. I’m grateful and in awe of those who work hard to ensure essential resources can continue to be available and critical services remain operational. I am humbled by the way all the fantastic organisations and individuals have responded to keep life going for us all in this global crisis.

It’s occurred to me, whilst writing this, that in these unprecedented times, it might be a comfort to hear other people’s stories. After all, we are all unique and have a different story to tell, even when faced with the same threat. In a strange way, it reminds us that despite our differences, we are all in this together. I mean everyone. The whole of humanity. I don’t usually go for melodrama, but it’s the truth. This pandemic is so huge that our differences, which I often write about, pale in comparison. It seems a virus doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of our differences. This pandemic has affected everyone from royalty to refugees, and everyone in between. It’s never been clearer than now, that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, what you do for a living, the colour of your skin or whether you can see, we are all human.. we’re just people. We should appreciate differences, but not allow them to define a person, and dictate how we feel about them or how we treat them, because in the grand scheme of things, they don’t make us any less human. They just shouldn’t matter.

One day, hopefully very soon, the world will once again be a happier, stronger place than it is today. When that day comes, let’s try to hold on to this idea, that in the best of times and in the very worst of times, regardless of our differences, we are always, all in this together.

As always thank you for reading. Stay safe and my best wishes go out to you and your loved ones.

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