"I didn't know that there was clear plexiglass in front of cashier, so I almost knocked it down because I hit it when trying to pay. Apparently, nobody knows what a white cane means, and even if they do they just don't seem to care." That's just one example of many outlining challenges that people who are blind or visually impaired have faced during the pandemic that Penny Rosenblum, PhD, director of research at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), has read in her research for a forthcoming report.
"I can go on and on with examples," Dr. Rosenblum says, "but for many, on a day-to-day basis, 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," she says.
People who are blind or visually impaired are also at a higher risk for contracting the virus because they are unable to put into practice proper hygiene measures, such as having trouble locating hand sanitizer in public spaces, frequently needing to touch objects to identify them, and relying on public transportation—which can be crowded, if it's available at all. This lack of accessibility in a variety of life areas is a safety issue that has led to basic needs not being met—and that needs to change.
Limited access to transportation has made getting out even more difficult
Audrey Demmitt, who is 60 and has experienced gradual vision loss over the past two decades, says that her already small world has gotten a lot smaller during the pandemic, in light limited access to safe transportation. "[People who are blind or visually impaired] are already isolated by nature of our impairment," she says. "We can't drive, so if we can't get a ride somewhere or live in an area without great public transportation options, we just don't go." Where she lives, south of Atlanta, there isn't a public bus system, and Uber and Lyft have become unreliable. "You may get a ride to where you want to go, but you might not get one back."
Even in areas where public transit is available, many do not feel safe using it. A survey of nearly 2,000 people, conducted by the AFB, found that 63 percent of respondents had concerns about public transportation because of COVID-19. And for a number of these folks, along with those who don't live near public transit, the cost associated with getting to necessary places like the grocery store (given that many places in the country aren't outfitted for grocery delivery) and doctor's appointments has become a great challenge and issue of safety. It's particularly pronounced for those who live alone and are isolating away from guides, helpers, and loved ones, who may have helped with transportation pre-pandemic.
"Isolation wasn't new for [many] visually impaired people, but the pandemic made it a shared experience for everyone." —Audrey Demmitt, 60
Furthermore, without a seeing companion, some don't feel safe leaving their home for a walk around the block or exploring a neighborhood park, leading to more isolation. "Participating in social activities like going to the gym with a friend or engaging in community activities came to a sudden halt for everyone during the pandemic, but for some visually impaired people who don't feel comfortable navigating the outside world by themselves, it meant they stopped leaving their house at all," says Dr. Rosenblum. "Without someone with typical vision to guide them, many don't feel safe walking around."
While some are fortunate enough to live with family members, Dr. Rosenblum says many blind or visually impaired people who are older do not and they perhaps have faced the most difficulties during the pandemic. "They often don't know how to use technology [like online forums or Zoom] as well, and if they live alone, they don't have someone to teach them," she says. And considering individuals with visual impairments or who are blind are already at a higher risk for experiencing loneliness and depression, this effect may be extra damaging.
Safely navigating public spaces is trickier than ever
Transportation isn't the only hurdle that's gotten more difficult for visually impaired people to manage during the pandemic. Once they're out of the house, new challenges arise. Neva Fairchild, a national aging and vision-loss specialist for the AFB and who is blind herself, says navigating the grocery stores is especially challenging—much in line with the example Dr. Rosenblum shared.
"[For grocery shopping] many people use what's called the 'human guide technique,' which is when the visually impaired person holds the arm of a guide above the elbow," Fairchild says. Often, she says, someone who is blind will go to the grocery store and ask for assistance in this way. But during the pandemic, many grocery store workers have been disallowed from or are understandably afraid to touch customers.
And the same hesitation goes for customers who may have been more keen to offer assistance pre-pandemic. "Other people have been less willing to help because they want to keep their distance," Fairchild says. "Usually when I'm in line, someone will help me by telling me when it's my turn or which way to go, but during the pandemic, it's been crickets." There have also been a few times, she says, when she's accidentally bumped into people and they blamed her for invading their space, violating the safe distancing protocols.
Dr. Rosenblum says experiences like what Fairchild describes can make someone who is visually impaired feel especially isolated. "Instances like this magnify feelings of loneliness and isolation," she says, adding that such situations have also become more common during the pandemic.
The difficulties of line-navigating have extended to COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites as well. "Most of the testing and vaccination sites are primarily drive-through. And the ones that are walk-up have a bus that will drop you off blocks away from where you actually have to be," Dr. Rosenblum says. "You somehow have to get yourself from the bus drop off to the vaccination site and, again, everyone is at least six feet apart so you can't rely on the sound and touch of other people as much."
"Telehealth hasn't been made with visually impaired people in mind." — Neva Fairchild, aging and vision loss specialist, AFB
Additionally, Fairchild says the primary way to get a vaccine is to book a time slot online, but the technology to do so typically doesn't use voice activation tools, like iPhone Voiceover, which works by describing exactly what is happening on the screen and using Bluetooth technology to browse and navigate web pages through voice commands. This lack of capability, Fairchild says, extends to many platforms that have become more popular for receiving remote health care during the pandemic.
"Telehealth, in general, hasn't been made with visually impaired people in mind," Fairchild says. "Finding the log-in button, being able to easily input information into a form, figuring out how to point your camera to whatever it is the doctor needs to see during a virtual appointment... there are so many things that make it difficult," she says. "For one health form, something as simple as entering my birthdate I couldn't do because the website wouldn't allow me to use my iPhone's Voiceover to fill it out."
What would make it better, Fairchild says, is if telehealth websites and apps were made in a way that allows voice integration to be used to enter data. She hopes that as telehealth continues to thrive that the technology will be updated to enable voice activation so that it no longer excludes people who can't see.
What's changing for the better
"One big, good change is that more discussion groups and talks are offered virtually for people who are visually impaired," Dr. Rosenblum says. She says that the American Council for the Blind, for example, launched the ACB Community during the pandemic, which offers virtual groups dedicated to grief counseling, mindfulness, and yoga. The group's weekly reoccurring events include a Sunday circle for counting your blessings, a craft chat (featuring a different craft each week), and an app how-to tutorial (featuring new apps each week)—to name just a few.
Fairchild says the fact that more places and groups, in general, are offering virtual events is benefiting the visually impaired community. "I know a woman who is blind, and she joined her church choir during the pandemic, something she was unable to do before because she lacks transportation and didn't have a way to get to the church," she says, adding that greater access to more virtual events and activities may be helping people who are visually impaired be more adventurous. "There are some people I know who are primarily sedentary who have decided to try their first yoga class because it's something offered online and they can do it at home," she says.
Carlos Vasquez, 43, who is visually impaired and lives in Florida, is an admin of a Facebook group for blind and visually impaired people and says engagement has been way up the past year and a half. "People are really coming together more [virtually] and there's a lot been more conversations happening in the group," he says.
Demmitt adds that in a sense, the urgency to embrace new technologies and work to learn and adapt has allowed for a silver lining. "As more virtual platforms started to be used during the pandemic, it forced everyone—including the visually impaired community—to learn the new skill of how to use them, and that's a benefit that will outlast the pandemic," she says. "We're getting really good at some skills that will really help us moving forward."
But this up-skilling certainly doesn't solve for challenges and obstacles people who are visually impaired and blind are experiencing during the pandemic. For starters, seeing people can all act with more compassion instead of the fear and judgment. Additionally, having grocery store shopping assistance available where guides help conversationally (as opposed to with touch), reliable and safe transportation, and making websites and apps accessible with voice-activation technology would better ensure people who are blind or visually impaired are having their needs met—now and in a post-pandemic world.
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