Navigating the world as a visually impaired person has its challenges, yet things have become even harder during the COVID-19 pandemic. I appreciate that daily life has been changed for everyone, yet I hope to shed some light on the particular barriers that visually impaired people now have to contend with. I’m registered as partially sighted and have used a long cane for the past three years to navigate the world. Since the beginning of the pandemic, my independence has been limited due to certain changes.
What is it like to navigate the 'New Normal' as a visually impaired person?
Imagine this, you enter a shop you know well and previously could navigate around. You are now faced with various signs that you know are important, but you can’t read them. When you try to enter the shop you get stuck. That entrance is closed due to the one-way system, but you have no idea where the other door is.
When you finally get into the shop you know there should be hand sanitiser, where is it? At the same time, someone brushes past you. What if they had coronavirus? What if you’re asymptomatic and have now put them at risk? You can’t see enough to stay two metres away from people so are reliant on others moving out of the way. Have you found the hand sanitiser yet? You notice another poster and stickers on the floor, this adds to the already overwhelming surroundings that you’re trying to make sense of. All you want to do is buy a few items of food. Surely that shouldn’t be too hard? You decided to head to the aisle that has bread. A member of the public says you’re going against the one-way system and need to go the other way You have no idea which way you should be going.
After a long time, you’ve made it to the tills. You have some of the items you needed, but you couldn’t find it all. Is this the queue? Am I too close to the person in front of me? When should I move forward? Your eyes are frantically trying to take in this new information and make sense of it. Luckily, the person in front of you says the till is free. After trying to navigate around the new obstacles you reach the till and are able to pay for your items.
Now what? Which entrance should you be going out of? Your eyes are sore and tired from trying to take in this extra information. All you wanted was a few bits from the shop.
Making things a little easier for visually impaired people
I think it’s really important to note that not every visually impaired person will need the same assistance, some people won’t need any. Don’t treat us like we are all the same, but here are some things that we might benefit from.
If there is a track and trace QR code we need to scan, please let us know. Describe where it is in relation to where we are, offering assistance if needed. We want to protect others. If you see someone with a visual impairment enter the shop, ask us if we need any assistance.
I’ve noticed that some footpaths have been extended to allow for social distancing. This can be very disorientating if the layout has changed. Since the end of lockdown, I’ve struggled to navigate around routes which might be marked out with cones or a sign. Similarly, my train station now operates a one-way system which has meant I rely on passenger assistance, even more, to ensure I get to the right platform.
I appreciate that not all visual impairments are visible, some of us might be wearing a sunflower lanyard to show we have an invisible disability. We also could be using the please give me space lanyard which is for people who might need support to stay socially distanced from others. Knowing these different symbols can allow you to recognise individuals who may need assistance or extra consideration.
How can I support a visually impaired person?
If you’d like to offer assistance to a visual impairment here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Approach the person and say who you are
- Offer assistance
- Ask how they would like to be assisted
- Ensure you are both safe by wearing appropriate PPE
- Use guiding techniques (RNIB)
- Respect their decision if they say no
- Don’t touch or grab them
- Don’t make assumptions
When I have been in an unknown situation it’s greatly appreciated when someone offers assistance. This has included support to find the right size when in a clothes shop or being guided to the correct till. It is the small gestures which has enabled me to be more independent. I think it’s really important to emphasis that visually impaired people are capable of being independent. However, the new measures that have been implemented often require you to see the new information. If this is inaccessible to us then we will face barriers that weren’t there previously.
At the end of the day, visually impaired people just want to go about their daily life and claim back that portion of normality. We might need support to navigate things, yet we’re still valid customers.
Chloe Tear is a 22-year-old disabled woman with cerebral palsy, chronic pain and is registered blind. She has written her award-winning blog for 7 years and aims to use her lived experiences to challenge public attitudes and create a positive change within society.
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