Every Indian has been impacted by the Covid-19 epidemic, yet Visually Impaired and Blind (VI/B) people have been facing extraordinary challenges during this trying time. Blind and visually impaired people are heavily reliant on the sense of touch in a world where touching objects such as money, doors, walls, and buttons has become hazardous.
Everyday tasks have become increasingly difficult for the blind community in India. As you read on, imagine yourself navigating without sight and severely limited touch. How would you cope with these seemingly insurmountable challenges?
Personal Protective Equipment isn’t made for VI/B people.
Disposable gloves – those sticky blue or white nitrile ones that a non-visually impaired person struggles to put on – are woefully difficult to put on when a person cannot see the opening. Many blind people feel the need to wear disposable gloves when leaving home since the first lock-down in India because of their constant need to touch their surroundings.
Prior to Covid and mask-mandates, most VI//B people relied heavily on their sense of smell to identify hazards in public and to find the kind of stores and restaurants they might be seeking out. Without the ability to immediately smell trash piles, walking on the streets of India has become more hazardous. Limited sense of smells makes it more difficult to find bakeries, dairies, and vegetable shops.
Shopping – an already lengthy process for the blind – is now more challenging.
Most visually impaired people have some vision and can read price labels and product descriptions with the help of magnifiers or high powered glasses – but only from a few centimetres from their face. Braille readers need to touch packets to read labels and will expose their hand and skin to many packages before finishing their shopping.
These techniques help them maintain their independence in normal times. Now, though, many visually impaired people are concerned by having to touch multiple items, moving them closer to their eyes, and spending longer in a potentially virus-laden environment.
Notices pasted on doors and walls are not in Braille – a blind person would simply come across a locked door of their local shops and not know the reason. The notice could say anything – from “use other door”, “quarantine in process”, “shop closed temporarily”, “call for delivery”, etc. But a blind person wouldn’t know!
Navigating between work/home/doctors/etc is more treacherous in Covid times.
Visually impaired or blind people cannot read Braille on buttons in the lift because of the plastic covers over buttons. Many apartment and commercial complexes changed the layouts of their entry and exit gates to accommodate temperature screening, much to the inconvenience of blind people who have a “walking memory” of how the layouts used to be.
Some have tried keeping one hand designated to “public” activities like using rails to guide themselves down stairs, along walls, and reading braille. However, this is nearly impossible, as most visually impaired people must use both hands on their mobile phones to give them audio instructions to navigate, reading signs aloud, etc.
Keeping an appropriate distance from others while waiting in queues, crossing streets, seated in metros or buses, paying for their transportation, etc is nearly impossible for most blind Indians. They simply have to put their trust in others to maintain distance for them, but as we all know, personal space is a concept that is difficult to practice in India- even during a global pandemic.
Before Covid, people would usually offer a hand or elbow to guide blind people in public. However, strangers are now much less likely to assist.
Many VI/B Indians have or will lose their jobs.
Eyeway Helpdesk is a counselor-based helpline that has been assisting India’s blind community cope with Covid-19. Their take on the situation is,
“As Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the country, the blind community continues to be the worst hit. With social distancing becoming mandatory to contain the deadly virus, blind people are forced to stay at home. This means that many of them, who previously worked in the unorganized sector have now lost their source of income.In the Unlock Phase 1, some visually impaired people got an opportunity to report back to work. However, limited public transport facilities have left the blind workforce dejected.”Project Eyeway, SCORE Foundation
Contactless delivery for medicines and groceries aren’t blind-friendly.
Grocery delivery sites have changed the way they operate, and most have become contactless. When delivery drivers leave packages at deemed-to-be-safe distances, blind people will have difficulty safely finding the delivered goods.
Public health announcements aren’t helpful to the blind community.
News that is delivered to the general public is not adequate for blind. For example, news channels may announce, “wear masks with the colored side to the front”, or “keep a two meter distance from others in public,” but these guidelines are nearly impossible for blind people to follow.
Resources made for the general public in forms of government or hospital websites, videos circulated on WhatsApp, lists of hospitals open during this pandemic, comprehensive symptom checklists, etc. are very rarely distributed in Braille or blind-friendly audio formats. Misinformation and myths about Covid-19 are likely to be spread among the blind community due to lack of reliable blind-friendly information.
Mental health is doubly impacted.
How would you pass time during the lockdowns if you could not read books or newspapers? Could you understand much of what you hear on TV and news channels without the ability to see? Most of us would have lost all morale and hope without these distractions over the last many months.
Aside from not having many ways to pass the time, many blind people in India are daily wage laborers that have had no work for months. The inability to provide for themselves and their families has made many blind people feel even more vulnerable and helpless. While Covid-19 has taken a toll on us all, the extra burdens that blind people have faced in 2020 have severely impacted their mental health and wellbeing.
So, how do we help?
The nationwide emergency lockdown effects – like the sudden disruption of support systems, including personal assistance, and potential economic hardship – will have serious consequences in health and wellbeing of people with visual impairments or blindness.