The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, but those of us who are blind or visually impaired have been compromised in ways the sighted community may not realize.
People who are blind or visually impaired already experience loneliness and isolation at much higher levels than the general population. With the pandemic, there is a whole new set of physical and psychological barriers when it comes to maintaining our independence.
As a result of COVID-19, governments and businesses have adopted necessary security measures, such as social distancing and limited capacity rules, to curb the spread of the virus. But people with visual impairments like me don’t have the ability to adapt to these rules because they are communicated in a way we can’t observe. For example, in many stores and other places there are now directional arrows, signage, and recorded measurements to ensure distance – but you have to be able to see them to know they’re there. Our guide dogs don’t understand them and our white canes can’t smell them. Unlike sighted people who have learned to navigate a socially distant world, we have been left on our own.
Two things are happening to us because of this lack of inclusion. First, we are the victims of numerous reprimands and humiliations in public. People who play by the rules and don’t want to be infected quickly curse people who don’t physically move away. Because so many sighted people have flouted the rules out of ignorance or politics, rule-abiding people have become quick to lash out because of their own fear and anger. I have heard people say things like “You are way too close to me!” and “What’s wrong with you?” There have been many other insults that I cannot repeat.
Transportation has become a new obstacle and an opportunity for additional verbal attacks. I can’t get on a public bus and ask my guide dog, Dime, to find me a seat, as many seats are off limits within the distance. Of course, Dime can’t read signs, so his years of training and precision practice are now ineffective without the intervention of a stranger, who might yell obscenities at me.
A simple trip to the grocery store is now bewildering, exhausting, and even dangerous, so I avoid it.
You might not think public criticism is such a big deal. But I’m not much of a rule breaker. More than most, I want to be active in my community and I desperately want to respect safety measures so that I can do my part to not spread COVID. It is more difficult for me to avoid close contact with people in public than for a sighted person. And not doing so doesn’t just open me up to criticism – it could increase my risk of contracting the virus.
The second thing that happens is that we start to isolate ourselves, because of the treacherous conditions of being in the community. A simple trip to the grocery store is now bewildering, exhausting and even dangerous, so I avoid it. When you are blind or visually impaired you automatically lose a great deal of your privacy, which I took for granted until I began to lose sight over 15 years ago. It is necessary to seek help in many situations. This eliminates anonymity in public places. But asking for help during the pandemic can have dire consequences for us. And since many of us rely on public transportation to get anywhere, isolation from the pandemic is exponentially worse than for a sighted person.
As far as the blindness community goes, I am one of the lucky ones. I have a husband and some friends who can help me get what I need. Many of the blind and visually impaired people I have spoken to in recent months are food insecure.
For some, it is because they have lost an income or a job and simply cannot afford to eat enough. But for many, it’s not about the money; it’s because they’ve isolated themselves and won’t go to the supermarket as often. Many of us end up rationing our food so that we don’t have to go out in public to get it. Delivery of food and other household items is the new way to shop in this pandemic world. Bear in mind that older people, who make up a large portion of the blindness community, may not have access to the internet or the devices needed to place orders online. And they often don’t have computer or application skills, making food delivery nearly impossible. As a result, many choose to stockpile and ration what they have, rather than asking for help.
I am extremely grateful to my guide dog, who has helped me over the past five years. Before COVID, Dime and I had mastered most public situations. I received Dime in 2015 from Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide dog school in North America, and we are the perfect partner. I live and work at a university in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Dime goes with me everywhere.
Having a guide dog has played a crucial role in making me more independent. However, during the pandemic, Dime works much less because I no longer go to campus daily to teach. Culture shock affected Dime as much as I did. She now scratches her bed and nudges me often. She misses work. On the few times that I have returned to campus since the pandemic began, Dime was extremely excited to be working again. She flourishes when she sails. His drive to get me to my destination is incredible and his energy is wonderful. She knows of several routes around campus under different names that I gave them. When she’s not working, she just isn’t so happy.
People may not realize that dogs are often a social bridge for their owners and other human beings. Guide dogs certainly serve as a catalyst for conversation between the visually impaired and sighted people who otherwise would probably never speak to us. Dime is very comfortable in anyone’s office at the university where I work. I have students who come into my office and say, “I just need to de-stress with Dime.” It serves a community purpose that goes beyond my own needs. While having Dime with me this year has been a great comfort, COVID has removed the social bond it normally provided to me.
I was not totally devoid of contact with the outside world during the pandemic. Like all professionals in the world, I use Zoom. But since Zoom is a visual aid, it is not an effective substitute for face-to-face meetings for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. It’s the same as a conference call for us. We cannot see the faces or the visual aids that people share. I never even turn on my camera, which surprises my sighted friends.
Like all professionals in the world, I use Zoom. But since Zoom is a visual aid, it is not an effective substitute for face-to-face meetings for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. It’s the same as a conference call for us.
The promise of a vaccine inspired hope that “normalcy” may soon return. However, it could take months or even years before we eliminate social distancing. And for a blind or visually impaired person, the thought of going through another year of this is scary. So, due to my own isolation, I reached out to others via Guide Dogs for the Blind to see how they were doing. My outreach has confirmed that most of the blindness community are struggling with the new barriers to their independence created by COVID.
By talking to others, I was inspired to try to improve the situation. Working with Guide Dogs for the Blind, I’m hosting a town hall for their group of former guide dog users from across North America to share best practices and enlist them to help educate the public. seeing on our problems.
While I don’t like being a disability poster child, I feel the pandemic has left me with no choice. Any uncomfortable situation should be our opportunity to educate others. It is our responsibility to share information that can help others understand how important communities are to all of us. We must help those who are alone and in difficulty. As part of this effort, Guide Dogs for the Blind is creating a radio public service announcement to help educate the sighted community that people who are blind or visually impaired may need help understanding and adhere to social distancing.
I implore everyone to remember that we all need to ask for help in certain situations, and if you’re one of the lucky ones who don’t need help with social distancing, contact and ask someone. ‘one with a guide dog or white cane if they need assistance. When you do, you will be helping to keep us all included in the community at a time when many of us feel excluded.
Collaboration and compassion could help us all see ourselves more clearly, both now and when the pandemic has passed.
Dorianne Pollack is a member of the alumni council of Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide dog school in North America. She lives with her husband and guide dog, Dime, in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she works in the Department of Disability Resources at Northern Arizona University, where she supports and provides accommodations for students with disabilities. She has a long career in public schools as a teacher, principal and member of the school board. She holds two master’s degrees – one in rehabilitation counseling and another in curriculum and teaching.
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