Guest blog: Social Distancing with a Visual Impairment
3 August 2020
Guest blogger Hannah, from Blind Mum vs The World, shares her thoughts on social distancing with a visual impairment.
Hiya everyone, my name is Hannah. I am 22, registered Blind, and the owner of a beautiful guide dog called Hetty. I have many conditions that affect my vision but the two that impact me the most are Albinism and Nystagmus. To look at me, you wouldn’t know I was albino. I am fair haired and pale skinned but people don’t often realise as I don’t necessarily fit the stereotypes. Nystagmus on the other hand is very obvious (if you have good vision!) to notice. The condition causes involuntary eye movement which means that I struggle with depth perception, balance and coordination. It also affects my close vision, often when I’m viewing a piece of text the words and letters appear to be moving.
COVID has highlighted just how uneducated the public are about visual impairment (VI). Making this information common knowledge would be such a benefit to the entire VI community. I’d like to share some of the simple things to look out for and how to approach different situations.
How to help someone with VI
Mobility aids are used by most blind and VI people, especially if they are out on their own. Both a white cane and a guide dog are very easy for a sighted person to spot and the first thing to signal that someone may need a little extra support. This gives the sighted person the opportunity to take a little more control of the situation in a positive way.
It isn’t surprising that most people who have some kind of visual impairment will struggle to follow social distancing at all times. Simply because we can’t see where you are well enough to be confident about how far away we are. One of my conditions, Nystagmus, really affects my depth perception and is a good example of why someone could find it hard to judge distances.
Move a safe distance away
If a person is getting too close to you there are a few things you can do. The first is move. That may sound a little harsh but if you are able to move and can do so safely, please do. That person may not even realise that they are too close to you, so removing yourself from the situation is the most helpful thing you can do. It is a super quick and easy fix!
Talk to them
The second thing you can do is to speak to them. Social distancing in a queue can be quite challenging for us because all the sign posts are on the floor. It is also tough to judge because everyone has a different level of vision depending on their impairment. Long story short, we won’t all see the markers on the floor and if we do see them, the placement might seem different to us. In that situation you can speak to them, let them know where their marker is and even direct them to standing in the safest spot. Don’t overthink what you would like to say. Sometimes people are nervous to address a disabled person in case they take offence. But as long as you are not rude we would always appreciate you addressing the situation with us directly. For example, “excuse me I’m not sure if you were able to see, but the social distancing marker is a few steps behind you, to the left.” They will soon let you know if they can see what you are pointing out or if they need further assistance.
Hannah’s guide dog, Hetty, taking a well deserved break!
Just ask us!
Approaching and speaking to people with VI is one of the best things you can do to help. Just by speaking to them and asking if they need any help, you could really make a difference to their day. One of the big difficulties for me is crossing roads, I find it so comforting when a stranger sees me waiting at a curb trying to judge when to cross and reassures me that it is safe to do so. Something small like that will save me from standing there for a very long time. Asking us how much we can see isn’t offensive, we would rather you ask than assume. And if you don’t know how to help, why not ask that too? Everyone will find different things helpful and asking how you could help them most effectively is so so appreciated.
My advice for people with VI
My most important piece of advice if you have VI, is that you learn when to ask for help. If you don’t ask, you don’t get and learning to use the network of people around you to support and enhance your independence is the best way to become more confident.
Never be too scared to try
My other piece of advice is to please, please never assume that you can’t do something because of your visual impairment. Explore all your options and look at how to adapt things so you can try them. It is hard to learn how to be confident and independent but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It’s easy to have things done for you and made easier for you when you are disabled and that is wonderful, and accessibility is what we need for the future, but it can also prevent people from reaching their full potential. Rather than assume that you need the support, try it without and who knows what you might achieve. Learn to grow and adapt your life to your eyesight. It doesn’t need to define who you are- it’s a bit of a cliché, but it really is true. Try to see your eyesight as something that is life changing and not life limiting.
Hannah walking with Hetty and her daughter
Asking for help can be scary but it has gotten me where I am today. I have been working full time from the age of 17, been on day trips with friends and holidays abroad. I was an army cadet from age 12 and have done things like rock climb on the side of a cliff and shooting a riffle. I’m now living with my partner and our two beautiful kids. I never imagined I would do these things but I had people with me every step of the way ready to support me.
You don’t have to go and try all these things tomorrow. Start small, maybe give karaoke a try (I’d suggest Queen or classic ABBA by the way!). Just take a little step back and realise how far you could go if you just held someone’s hand on the way there.