Today I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about my perspective on social distancing as a visually impaired person. Over the last few weeks I have heard many from the sight loss community speak up on this topic and discuss their thoughts and experiences in relation to social distancing. So today I thought I’d weigh in on this subject myself.
It’s not one I’ve had a great deal of experience with to date, I’ve been strictly self-isolating since March due to having a complex endocrine illness (Septo Optic Dysplasia/Pituitary Insufficiency). But, over the last week I have been going out a little more than usual. Last week I took a trip to a nearby garden centre and today I made my first trip in over 3 months to my local shopping centre with my mother.…. That was an experience, to say the least.
After spending an hour trying to negotiate floor markers, barrier systems at queues, avoiding the eager hands of people wanting to stroke my guide dog and hearing countless people tell me “it’s over there!” I was mentally drained.
Social distancing has become the new “norm” for all of us. But, for many it probably doesn’t feel very normal at all. As someone who can’t see, social distancing only adds another layer of complexity into the mix. I’m used to having to navigate through different spaces and have become mentally robust over the years. I have learned to expect the unexpected and mentally brace myself for new challenges every day. But, social distancing? Well this is an entirely different ball game.
I am severely sight impaired (legally blind) I have no sight in my right eye and only central vision in my left. I have no peripheral vision, meaning that I can only see what is directly in front of me. I also have Nystagmus, so I find focusing on things like text and objects difficult. I am unable to see far away objects that exceed the distance of 6 metres or anything that isn’t already in my direct line of sight. So, you probably can decipher where my difficulties lie already.
I live with sighted people who are able to drive and assist me. I still have some remaining eyesight, enough to see colour, shapes and close up objects. I have lived with sight loss since birth, I have grown up to understand how to adapt to unfamiliar situations. I am very privileged to work with a wonderful guide dog and I have mobility aids that enhance my mobility. Yet, even for me, I have still come up against challenges.
Social distancing to an extent requires looking. You need to look to read signs, to see markers on the ground, to check where you are, to make sure you aren’t too near another person and to see where you need to walk for queues and barriers. Many of the measures that have been put in place for social distancing are not accessible and when you can’t see this makes being able to social distance very challenging.
Social Distancing Signs and Posters
One of the biggest challenges I have faced is trying to see the numerous signs and notices displayed everywhere telling you about social distancing rules and company guidelines. The only reason I knew there were so many is because my sighted mother told me about them. There are signs telling you where you have to queue, how many people are permitted in lifts, how to pay, where to exit and so on.
These signs are not accessible by default to people with no or severely limited sight. Although many of them are brightly coloured and large to make them stand out. But, because there are so many of them it comes rather overwhelming.
None of these signs are accompanied with things like audible announcements to inform you of individual store protocols surrounding social distancing. If I was out alone, I would almost assuredly need to rely on assistance from staff or other sighted people.
For me, this is by far the most challenging aspect of social distancing. One of the key ways society has adapted to facilitate social distancing is through placing markers and arrows on the floor as guides.
There are markers at queues and till points to ensure you stand 2 metres apart. There are arrows in shops and businesses to ensure you negotiate the shop in a one-way circuit system. In short, everywhere you look there is sure to be an arrow.
But, when you have a visual impairment, especially one that impacts your peripheral vision like mine, this is really complicated. There is a constant need to look down to see the floor markers and many sighted people in fact were commenting on how difficult the system was.
There are also arrows facing in and out of shop doors and entrances, indicating which way to enter and leave a shop. This becomes even more precarious if there is only one door to access a shop.
Again, these markers aren’t accessible to those with visual impairments. They aren’t tactile or raised like stair edges or curbs so that you can feel them with your feet. Not only that but not all of them are distinctive in colour and shape.
Of course, as someone who works in retail I can understand that businesses have had a lot of logistical things to consider. With time restrictions and immense pressure to reopen, it can be hard for businesses to consider every single eventuality.
Bollards, Queue Systems and Barriers
Another dilemma I have faced when out is trying to negotiate my way through barriers and one-way queuing systems. Many shops are now operating one-way queue and shopping systems with bollards and tape to section things off. My guide dog Unity’s valiant efforts to guide me through these obstacles has helped hugely. However, even for us it hasn’t been without difficult and at times has been perplexing. Unity can guide me, but she needs instruction.
I first have to find the point where I have to queue and often these barrier systems span far down the length of the shop or outside the shop. It takes time and concentration to be able to find it. I have required the help of a sighted person to instruct me where to go.
It’s safe to say I’ve found being able to shop totally independently without any assistance from sighted people pretty much impossible.
Seeing Other People
Another issue I’ve faced is being able to distance from other people. My eye condition makes it difficult to see far ahead or to either side of me. When out, I’m constantly aware that I might get too close to someone by accident. I’ve had to drastically slow down my walking speed. I’ve now ordered a small bell to attach to Unity’s working collar to alert people of my presence should they have not seen me.
So far, most people have been very conscious to give me the space I need. However, there have been the odd few, who have been showing less regard for social distancing. I often worry that if they aren’t aware and I don’t see them that I’ll bump into them and run the risk of catching or passing on the virus.
When out I’ve taken to wearing my Sunu band, this is an echolocation device that detects objects in your path and feeds back information to you with vibrations and haptic gestures. I’ve programmed it to alert me to objects at a 2-metre distance. So that I can try and ensure I keep my distance from others.
Guide Dogs Can’t Socially Distance
Although guide dogs are wonderful and incredibly intelligent dogs. They can’t social distance. They haven’t been trained to social distance or to know what a 2-metre distance is. Unity has been my rock and her help has given me more independence and confidence than I could have ever dreamed of. But they too have their limits.
People Stroking My Guide Dog
On my few recent excursions, I have noticed that some people are still very eager to stroke my guide dog. Of course, guide dogs are not supposed to be petted, regardless of Covid 19 and social distancing rules. Yet people still do it.
But in this current climate I find myself amazed at how people are okay with flouting social distancing rules to stroke my guide dog. Yet, I don’t see the logic in people’s thinking. They may not be touching me, but they are touching my guide dog that I am in constant close contact with. They are also coming well within the 2 metre distance to do so and compromising theirs and my own health in the process.
Businesses and establishments have been under immense pressure from all sides. They need to think of quick ways to enable them to open businesses, to adhere to government guidelines and to kick start the economy.
So, things aren’t going to be perfect. There will be glitches in the beginning. There are so many things for businesses to consider and unfortunately the needs of visually impaired and other disabled shoppers have been forgotten.
But it’s important that we disabled people as a community and our non-disabled supporters work together to advise and encourage society to think of effective ways to help disabled people live in this new way of life.
I didn’t write this blog today to cause alarm or upset. I believe that in time we will learn to adapt to this situation and adopt habits to adjust. I also believe that, with encouragement, society will learn to adapt social distancing measures to accommodate people living with sight loss.
But, I wanted to write this blog to make people from the sight loss community aware of some of the challenges they may face when getting back out into society. Because I think it’s important to be both physically and mentally prepared for it.
It’s going to be challenging and at times it might seem strange. But you aren’t alone in this, there are plenty of people who can relate to how you are feeling.
My advice to you….
- Stay safe, remain aware and seek help from those around you if you can.
- Talk about the issues you face with social distancing when out and continue to advocate for more accessible solutions for social distancing measures. We may be living in these new circumstances for some time yet, so it’s important we raise awareness of the inaccessibility we are facing in this new way of living.
- Don’t forget to take care of your physical health, but also your mental health too.
We may have to distance physically, but we can still come together in other ways as a community and be closer than ever.
How have you found social distancing? Do you have any comments to add to this topic? Let me know in the comment section below.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not sponsored.