For most blind persons who are in some cases also deaf, communication is first and foremost using touch, which can easily convey simple meanings. With a little practice, it is possible to create and communicate more complex things as well.
But in the lockdown world, and with the fear of the Covid-19, communication for blind people is proving to be a challenge.
Most people do not seem to be aware of the problems of blind persons. When they do not respond to verbal queries, because they are not aware that somebody is trying to speak to them, this causes confusion for others. And if they try to communicate by grasping somebody else’s hand, people get frightened. This has always been a problem, but it has got much worse, due to the fear surrounding the contagion caused by Covid-19.
Human proximity, guidance and touch are the very cornerstones of how those with severe sight loss engage safely and productively with the outside world.
For most people, the new, socially distanced normal represents a shift in how we operate and interact as a society.
Nevertheless, for blind people, the consequences of social distancing go far beyond even that.
This is because the requirements of social distancing fundamentally run counter to many common practices that enable people with significant visual impairment to function in mainstream society.
As lockdowns are being eased across the globe, decades of work by charities and campaigners who have long fought to promote the independence of blind people, risk being seriously undermined.
The buzz around the “new normal” is understandable and unavoidable but it must not be allowed to drown out its grave impact on people worldwide living with blindness.
Visually impaired Clemence Mupasi who works at Council of the Blind in Bulawayo explores the particular challenges the virus has thrown up.
“A blind person cannot practise social distancing because many are physically unable to evaluate their relative distance in relation to other people, let alone ascertain if someone is wearing a face covering.
“Many stores have been operating visually signposted outdoor queuing protocols and one in, one out systems. Both are highly problematic for visually impaired shoppers wishing to enter a store alone, or with a sighted companion,” said Mupasi.
He also added that in some cases, blind people often end up reflecting more favourably on the early days of the lockdown.
“At least back then, the pavements were clearer, as most people obeyed government stay-at-home orders. Now, as lockdowns ease, more crowded streets pose additional difficulties for visually impaired people,” said Mupasi.
The United Nations states that persons who are visually impaired are among the hardest hit by Covid-19. Even under normal circumstances, blind persons worldwide are less likely to access health care, education, employment and more likely to live in poverty and experience violence.
Covid-19 further compounds this situation, particularly for the blind who are in fragile contexts and humanitarian settings.
They face a lack of accessible public health information, significant barriers to implement basic hygiene measures, and inaccessible health facilities.
So, can anything be done to improve the plight of those with sight loss in a socially distanced world?
Part of the key lies in improved communication. Monalisa Ndlovu, who is also visually impaired, feels that guidance for businesses to be mindful of those with eyesight problems is insufficient.
“I usually ask for help to find the items I need in a shop, but getting that vital assistance has proved challenging recently. With restrictions around social distancing looking set to be in place for the future it is crucial that the government shares specific advice for organisations to help support people with sight loss during this time,” said Ndlovu.
Prior to the pandemic, the need for greater access to good vision was already a topic of concern. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) World Report on Vision, at least 2.2 billion people globally have a vision impairment or blindness, of whom at least one billion could have been prevented or has yet to be addressed.
In an effort to assist those who have a chance to regain their eyesight, Vision Impact Institute revealed that while gains have been made over the years to ensure that more people who are in need of eye glasses can access them, there is a danger that good vision could become less of a priority in a world already stretched paper thin. The recently celebrated World Sight Day with the theme, Hope in Sight, provided a platform to create awareness about the importance of good vision as the world works to rebuild economies, societies, and education systems heavily impacted by Covid-19.
“As we build back economies and societies it will require a collective effort to strengthen systems to a level better than they were pre-pandemic. Good vision can be a catalyst. Good vision is a problem with a solution. When we solve for good vision, we impact so many other issues that need attention, especially at this time,” said Kristan Gross, global executive director of Vision Impact Institute.