How we are helping blind and partially sighted people during coronavirus
RNIB has found our services are needed more than ever since coronavirus and the UK lockdown. As government and society has responed to the pandemic, blind and partially sighted people have faced a new set of challenges.
In response to their needs, we have grown the reach and offer of our services – particularly the RNIB Helpline – and worked with governments and supermarkets to ensure people have had access to essentials and vital information. From the loosening of lockdown and the changes society is undergoing, including the many changes in the way we travel and shop to plans for street alterations, blind and partially sighted people are facing new challenges.
RNIB will stand by you through every challenge.
RNIB’s services are needed more than ever in these uncertain times.
Since March 2020 and the initial lockdown in the UK, we have been listening and acting as the needs and concerns of blind and partially sighted people have changed as the crisis has developed. While lockdown in the UK has posed problems, we know the challenges are only increasing as our community adapts to a world where social distancing is paramount and not all essential information and services are accessible.
As Kim Pearson, one of RNIB’s sight loss advice service advisers, relates: “We have had an increase in calls from blind and partially sighted people who are struggling with different aspects of the lock down. We’ve been able to support them in a number of ways. Some people are finding it difficult to access essential supplies, such as food, either due to the social distancing regulations or because they are having to self-isolate.”
Information is increasingly vital and RNIB has been working with government to ensure blind and partially sighted people are kept informed and have access to help. It is a fast-evolving situation complicated by the different responses from different nations. Our helpline is the gateway to our services for the whole UK and we urge anyone in our community who needs help to call us on 0303 123 9999.
Matt Stringer, who has been CEO of RNIB since May 2019, explains: “We know that RNIB’s services are a lifeline. The safety of our customers, employees, volunteers and people in our establishments is paramount, but we continue to support delivery of critical services to our customers – from our helpline to ECLOs (Eye Clinic Liaison Officers). But we are also working to ensure we get government and key organisations understand the challenges blind and partially sighted people are facing.
"This work has ranged from giving supermarkets guidance on how to help make shopping accessible to successfully asking No 10 to ensure accessible communications is essential. We have made progress and want to thank everyone who has helped and supported our efforts, but we know there is much, much more to do as the UK continues to be transformed by the pandemic.”
Four key ways RNIB services have grown and adapted
1. Our helpline is open for longer and has bigger call capacity
RNIB’s Helpline remains open on weekdays (from 8am-8pm) and, on Saturdays, we extended our times since the start of the pandemic (from 1 September 2020, the Saturday opening hours have reverted to to 9am-1pm). Staff work from home in order to support our customers and, in addition to the usual advice and support about anything to do with living with sight loss, our team can offer further support to anyone with sight loss who becomes isolated or is concerned about accessing information, products or services.
Our team of advisers will help to connect people to sources of local support and find solutions with anyone who calls us. Not all the information about COVID-19 is accessible so we are working with public information providers to ensure it is, including image descriptions online. If anyone is finding it challenging to access key information, we can help. For instance, essential information is now available as audio recordings on our Infoline, accessible through a helpline call.
2. More opportunities to connect online or by phone
As people are spending more time at home, we're offering more opportunities to connect with others via telephone and online. By contacting the RNIB Helpline you can sign up. You can also join our popular regional Facebook groups where many people are sharing local information, useful hints and tips and interesting things they have been up to.
3. Supporting hospital eye care services
As hospital eye care services are affected, our ECLO service is mostly delivered by telephone, so eye clinic patients can continue to access practical and emotional support. We are working with several other organisations, including the NHS and other charities, to focus our support where it is needed most.
4. Distributing more digital books
We've increased the number of books you can borrow in USB format from our Talking Books Service and, responding to production and delivery challenges, we also encourage as many customers as possible to receive books through our new RNIB Reading Services online library. RNIB’s books services are an essential source of information, education – particularly as students have had to learn from home – and entertainment.
Supermarket shopping – ensuring access to essentials
Early in March, it was clear our customers’ main concern was getting groceries. Access to supermarkets, particularly during initial surges in panic buying and limited online opportunity, was difficult for blind and partially sighted people. Many are not on the Government’s priority list for delivery slots, despite the additional challenges many people experience with social distancing.
RNIB’s response was immediate.
Our CEO Matt Stringer wrote to all the major supermarket CEOs and relevant retailers, including Marks and Spencer, asking them to consider the needs of blind and partially sighted shoppers both in-store and online. RNIB followed up sending guidance for helping blind and partially sighted shoppers.
These initial conversations are paved the way for close consultation with many of the major chains, providing guides to staff on accessibility which now form part of some supermarkets’ staff training.
We also asked shoppers to share a shorter version of the guide with their local and smaller shops.
“We know it is vital to make shopping as accessible as possible – particularly in the current circumstances – so I’m pleased retailers are engaging with us,” Matt Stringer, RNIB’s chief executive, adds.
“We are encouraging all retailers to follow our in store best practice guidelines, but we also urge shoppers to be vocal about any shortcomings.”
Key elements highlighted by the guidance for retailers include requests for awareness, changes to the shopping environment which can be considered, alternatives to guiding and the challenge of social distancing.
In addition, we launched a public petition with Thomas Pocklington Trust, Guide Dogs, Vision UK and Visionary, which was signed by 22,563 people. We’re continuing to work directly with supermarkets and the Government to make people with sight loss can get the essentials they need.
Speaking to Channel 4 news, our director of development Keith Valentine, said: "The charity sector can’t do this on its own. It needs some sense of understanding in Government and amongst supermarkets that this is a genuine problem, but a problem we can solve together."
How RNIB is campaigning for a more accessible society
Thanks to our campaigning Justin Tomlinson MP, Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, has confirmed the appointment of a senior lead for accessible information following a letter to the Prime Minister highlighting inaccessible Government updates.
RNIB wrote to the Prime Minister in April, with other charities, highlighting inaccessible government updates on coronavirus, and asking him to appoint someone as a national lead to urgently tackle this issue. In response, Justin Tomlinson MP, confirmed the Director of National Resilience Communications has been appointed as the senior lead for accessible information.
We look forward to working with the new national lead to ensure accessibility is entirely embedded in how government puts communications together. We want to be involved in helping make sure their communications and guidance are accessible, when appropriate.
However, the situation is changing rapidly and it is important the Government and local authorities to both understand and adapt their plans as they make changes in response to the impact of the pandemic.
For instance, it’s important that as lockdown eases blind and partially sighted people have equal access to the tools helping everyone get out and about again, like NHS coronavirus testing. Any contact tracing app should be accessible.
Also, temporary changes are being made to street layouts, largely to encourage cycling so that people don’t have to use public transport.
Streets layouts can cause difficulties at the best of times for visually impaired people.
We’re worried the speed of change means there’s a risk some schemes could make walking more difficult for blind and partially sighted people. At the same time, councils have the chance to run local hire e-scooter schemes which could lead to more obstacles on pavements.
We want to ensure that any temporary changes to our streets that may appear across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales allow blind and partially sighted people, and those with other disabilities, to be safe and cross the roads using pedestrian crossing facilities. Consequently, we are urging people to write to their local councillor to ask that they make sure any changes that happen locally don’t affect people's ability to get out and about.
RNIB Connect Radio gives audiences the information they need to know
RNIB Connect Radio, which broadcasts 24 hours a day and can found on Freeview 730 and online, is one of the easiest ways to access a range of information and entertaining shows for blind and partially sighted people. Since March, it has broadcast a daily coronavirus update show, which runs from 10am until 12pm and is repeated at 4pm-6pm, includes important updates about RNIB services and plans and how people are supporting each other as they face new daily challenges.
Special programming has put the focus on supermarket and shopping information, eye health services and in May, anti-fraud week gave listeners the opportunity to hear from experts offering advice to protect them against the new scams and frauds arising from coronavirus.
Currently exiled from their studio, the radio team has found some innovative new ways to record output, explains station manager Yvonne Milne.
"Our team are even recording interviews under the stairs, in their bedrooms and under duvets," she says. "The reason is that it changes the quality of the sound of the recording, so it doesn't sound thin or cold but warm and welcoming. We use sound-proofing in studios to get good sound quality, but all that changes when we are recording in our homes.
Yvonne adds: "We are also using apps like Skype to connect with interviewees, including blind and partially sighted people talking about how the current situation is impacting on them and the difficulties they face. At a time when they might feel particularly isolated, Connect Radio is a reassuring voice that tells them they are not alone."
RNIB Connect Radio is about news but it is also about entertainment. Other appointments to listen include The Talking Books Show, which broadcasts two books each weekday (8am, 2pm and 10pm). There’s Tech Talk, a show about accessible technology, Yoga for people with Sight Loss (on air every weekday morning at 7am) and a whole range of music shows presented by blind and partially sighted people.
The station has won a silver prize in the Sony Radio Academy Awards (the radio industry Oscars) and praise for producing "some of the most moving and well-produced human-interest content the judges had heard in a long time". In 2010, volunteer presenter Gary Moritz received a Finalist’s Certificate in the New York Festivals International Radio Programming and Promotion Awards, one of the most prestigious in the industry.
As well as via Freeview 730 and online, you can find Connect Radio through smart devices eg Say "Alexa listen to RNIB Connect Radio".