The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult adjustment for everyone. Between businesses struggling to stay afloat, mass unemployment, and rising depression and anxiety, every person in the pandemic has struggled immensely. But what many of us don’t realize is that the pandemic offers unique challenges for the blind.
To understand why, we must take into account the issues that blind people consistently face. Even without the considerations of the pandemic, blind people often struggle more than sighted people on various matrices. A Norwegian study published in 2019 showed that people with a visual impairment were more likely to experience loneliness than sighted people. Similar studies have shown that blind people are at greater risk for depression; most likely due to feelings of isolation or a lack of independence. In fact, the feeling of independence is crucial for blind people. Many of them can navigate without assistance with the help of a cane or guide dog, take care of their errands and personal finances themselves, and have a good grasp on modern technology. In the US alone, 44.2% of blind people are employed. Being able to do the things that sighted people often take for granted is essential not only to a blind person’s day to day functioning, but also to their mental health. Feelings of independence foster a sense of confidence and security that lifts a person’s overall mood and encourages a more positive outlook.
So, what is independence to a blind person?
For a blind person, much of their independence comes from their ability to ‘see’ without their eyes, using a concept called spatial mapping. Spatial mapping is the ability to mentally create a 3D map of the surrounding environment. Essentially, it lets us know where things in our environment are relative to each other. Everyone uses spatial mapping for motion planning and collision avoidance, but blind people use it as their primary form of navigation. The difference between the spatial map of a blind person and a sighted person is in how it is formed. Sighted people retain a spatial map through the processing of their visual stream (i.e. the filtering and interpretation of the information that goes from their eyes to their brains). Naturally, blind people aren’t able to use the visual stream to create a spatial map, so they rely on a mixture of light (if they have light sensitivity), hearing, touch, temperature, and, most importantly, memory. Essentially, blind people do with various parts of their brains what sighted people can do with their visual streams. But because they can’t see where things are, they have to take the time to memorize where various obstructions may be. This is usually done with the help of a cane or a guide dog.
How does the pandemic interfere with blind people’s independence?
While the pandemic has created a new environment that is difficult for everyone, blind people are finding it particularly hard to adapt. This is because of their unique way of spatial mapping. Since blind people memorize where things in their environments are in relation to each other, changes in those environments can be confusing at best and hazardous at worst. With the pandemic has come new layouts and restrictions to enforce social distancing, which drastically changes environments that were one familiar to blind people. Floor markers, screens, and one-way systems all interfere with a blind person’s ability to navigate by themselves. While a cane or a guide dog can help avoid tripping hazards, they don’t necessarily alleviate the pressures of navigating in a socially distanced world. A blind person can’t tell if a certain seating area is restricted, or if alternate seats are being used, leading to greater uncertainty and restricted mobility. And with that restricted mobility comes the need to ask for help from a shopkeeper or caregiver, which leads to a lack of independence. And with that lack of independence comes spikes in depression and anxiety, as well as increased isolation-when you can’t navigate around the outside world, the simplest solution is to stop going out altogether.
But a lack of independence isn’t the only reason that blind people may not appreciate help from a guide or shopkeeper. 40-year-old Sajid Ali described his experience shopping in the pandemic while being visually impaired to BBC:
“They said they were not sure they could help because of ‘current things going on…’ I guess it was a contact thing, because of having to take someone’s arm for guiding.”
In the UK, most shopkeepers are equipped to guide blind people as they go about the store. But because of social distancing concerns, blind people may feel nervous to ask for this kind of help due to hygiene concerns, and shopkeepers are becoming more reluctant to offer it. In addition to this, many blind or visually impaired people navigate by touch, and choose what to buy based on scanners on their phones or reading braille. All of this requires touching and getting close to items that may already have been touched by an infected person, elevating the risk of contracting COVID-19.
These factors combine to create an environment where many blind people have abandoned going out to shop altogether. According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK (RNIB), the number of blind people who shop unassisted has halved during the pandemic. In countries with less considerations for visually impaired people, that number is likely even lower.
What other health concerns are blind people facing?
One major concern that many blind people are facing is the unique difficulties surrounding guide dogs and their training in the pandemic. Most blind people navigate unfamiliar areas using either a cane or a guide dog to alert them of obstacles. But, as with their owners, guide dogs have been subject to a drastic change in routine. Both dog and owner have been forced to stay home due to work from home guidelines and the risks of becoming infected with COVID-19. Since many blind people can navigate their homes using the aforementioned spatial mapping techniques, guide dogs are not typically harnessed at home. Popular blind YouTube sensation Molly Burke explained the issues that arose from this for her guide dog, Gallop, in a series of videos, stating:
“With any skill in life, if you don’t use it, you lose it. And I think that he just stopped practicing being a guide dog. He wasn’t in harness because I’ve been very COVID safe…he doesn’t work when he’s at home, he’s just a dog at home. And so, because he’s been spending the last ten months of his life as a dog and not as a guide dog, he’s lost what guiding is.”
Molly is not alone in facing this issue: many guide dog owners have noticed habitual shifts and difficulties with their trained guide dogs. Guide dogs rely on regular outings and a stable routine in order to safety guide their owners, and the pandemic has stripped that away from society as a whole, causing many of them to lose the skills that they were taught to help their owners. For a guide dog owner, this is an extremely stressful situation. Guide dogs cannot just spontaneously remember their training once they begin to lose it. They have to be retrained by the organization that supplied them in the first place. However, many of these organizations have had to shut down or delay operations due to COVID safety standards, meaning that there is a shortage of trainers available to help. Also, not every dog can be retrained. Older dogs, like Gallop, often have extreme difficulty being retrained and are instead retired, which creates its own slew of issues.
Typically, when guide dogs are retired they have to be phased out of their training and are sent to live with a loved one, while the owner is placed on a waiting list to get a new dog. This is the situation that Molly is in. However, even getting a new dog has become more difficult. As she explains:
“These dogs need to be trained in public settings. So, when public settings are closed or have limited capacity, you can’t train them. Guide dogs’ main thing is being trained for navigating busy areas, navigating around obstacles, being in public spaces and finding routes to guide.”
With the current COVID-19 restrictions, areas that are usually crowded and important to navigate are much less dense. Training a guide dog under those circumstances would equip the dog to navigate in our current COVID-filled world, but not after. When we do eventually find ourselves back in a pre-pandemic environment, these guide dogs would not be trained to handle it. As such, much of the current guide dog training has been temporarily halted or has had to be adjusted, making the number of available dogs even smaller. This means that many of the guide dog owners are being forced to retire dogs that can no longer guide them, parting with their closest companions with no good estimate of when they may receive a new one. For Molly, the best possible date for a potential match would be spring or summer of 2021. For others, the wait is even longer.
In the meantime, this means that these guide dog owners are forced to switch to using a cane to navigate, which is not the form of navigation that they prefer or are used to. This is extremely anxiety-inducing and further restricts their mobility. Much of cane usage involves the movement of the cane user, typically using large sweeping motions to search for hazards. For someone not used to this, it can be a steep learning curve, involving many scrapes and falls. Along with the physical hazard comes the extreme emotional toll this takes on the guide dog users. For guide dog users, their dog is instrumental in how they view the world around them. Having that stripped away can be disorienting and panic-inducing. Beyond that, a guide dog is usually their owner’s best friend. But when they have to be retired it is strongly recommended to rehome them with a loved one because of the potential difficulties for the dog once their training is phased out. This is often an emotionally draining experience, similar to losing a close friend.
So, blind people with guide dogs are losing both their means of ‘seeing’ and, in some cases, their best friends. On top of that, they are markedly less independent due to the ever-changing world of the pandemic, and risk coming into contact with coronavirus every time they have to read braille. Overall, the picture painted for blind people in the pandemic is a bleak one.
So, what can be done to help?
The best thing that can be done for blind people at the moment is simply offering them your support. If a friend or loved one is blind, they would likely greatly appreciate offers to help them with their chores and errands, COVID safe social interaction, and a safe space to vent. With the reduced independence that arises from the aforementioned issues, blind people are becoming even more prone to depression and anxiety during the pandemic. If someone you love is blind, reach out to them and treat their mental health issues as you would anyone else’s. Differently abled people do not want to be coddled, only listened to and understood.
Another important thing that can be done to help is to learn about and raise awareness for blind issues. Many prominent organizations that cater to blind people have social media accounts and websites filled with helpful information for sighted people who wish to learn more. Some, like the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in the UK have even launched awareness campaigns. RNIB’s World Upside Down campaign in July 2020 focused on advertising many of the problems blind people face when social distancing and included a social media campaign in which prominent brands such as Amazon and Kellogg’s shared images of products turned upside down, to raise awareness for how confusing and disorienting the lives of blind people have become during this pandemic. Promoting and paying attention to media campaigns boosts posts from organizations like RNIB and allows them to reach more people. Of course, awareness must precede change in order to truly help the people it is pledged to. RNIB and other companies have suggested that one way individuals can help blind people is to write their local legislators and insist on regulations that take disabilities into account, such as disability-friendly shopping services, routinely disinfecting braille on signs, and potentially imploring businesses to keep their décor and social distancing markers ‘fixed’ to a certain extent so that blind people do not have to adapt to rapid changes. With unemployment rates soaring among blind people during the pandemic, some have also suggested increasing disability payments may be necessary.
Finally, one vital way to help the blind as they struggle through the pandemic is to donate to the services that help them, especially guide dog services. Many guide dog services, like the Mira Foundation, help blind people immensely by matching them with a guide dog for free-a process that can cost hundreds of dollars otherwise. However, nonprofits like Mira have been hit hard during the pandemic and are struggling to provide their usual support with a dire lack of funds. Donating even a small amount can be a great help to a struggling nonprofit.
Essentially, while blind people are struggling disproportionately and uniquely throughout this pandemic, the best way to help them is never with pity. Like anyone else, they need to be heard, have their voices amplified, and have their organizations supported. In the meantime, their issues need to be kept in mind and treated with compassion. Next time you see a person who seems to have trouble with social distancing, take the route of gently asking them to step back, and remember that not everyone can see the floor markers.
Find the MIRA foundation at https://www.mira.ca/en/
Find RNIB at https://www.rnib.org.uk/