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2020 was a year like no other

As we begin a new year and reflect on the year past, we’d like to share some of the campaigning successes you helped us achieve and thank you for your support.

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For most of us, 2020 was dominated by coronavirus, which – along with safety measures to reduce its spread – drastically changed our way of life. Access to food was harder, and finding accessible public health information became even more difficult, changes to our streets and lack of clarity around who could act as a guide made getting out for a walk harder, and social distancing is a near impossible task when you have little or no sight.

However, with your support, we were able to work together and find solutions. Below are just a few examples of our 2020 achievements.

Access to public health information

When the country went into lockdown in March 2020, the Government had to reach everyone with crucial public health information. However, many of its communications were not accessible, from letters sent by post, to social media messages, graphics and videos. In response, we started our ‘Info for all' campaign.

Accessibility lead within government

Along with other sensory charities we wrote to the Prime Minister highlighting issues like the inaccessibility of their communications on social media, the inaccessible letters they had sent to households informing them of the lockdown, and lack of BSL during the daily briefings. We were featured in the press and as a result, we secured the appointment of a senior lead in government for accessible information on coronavirus, and have been working closely with them on improving how they communicate.

Accessible shielding letters

Letters sent out on mass to the population at the beginning of the pandemic were inaccessible. Our research found a quarter (26 per cent) of blind and partially sighted people had struggled to get written information in a format they could read. We worked with the Government to provide alternative formats to public health information, available through our helpline.

Although there is much more to be done – people should be being sent these letters in their preferred format automatically – we are pleased there have been some steps forward and all of the most recent  ‘shielding’ letters in England and Wales have gone out with information on where to find alternative formats.

Following RNIB Scotland's engagement with the Scottish Government, accessible information including audio files about COVID-19 are now available on the NHS Inform website.

Coronavirus home testing

We’ve also been working with the Government to make sure the testing process for coronavirus is as accessible as possible, supporting user testing research being carried out by the Department of Health, and our recommendations are with the Test and Trace team.

While we wait for improvements, we outlined some of the key parts of using a home testing kit, so that people can know what to expect and be better prepared on how to take a test successfully.

Government social media

At the beginning of the pandemic, most images and video shared by the government on social media were inaccessible to screen reader users. Some 17 per cent of blind and partially sighted people said they had struggled to access online information about the pandemic. We produced a guide for Government and businesses on how to make sure their communications are accessible.

The @RNIB_campaigns Twitter account began replying to inaccessible tweets from the Government or essential services, sharing our guide and highlighting how to make their communications accessible. One of our tweets even got a direct reply from the Armed Forces Minister James Heappey MP thanking us and promising to improve their processes.

Our monitoring shows there’s been a step change in the accessibility of social media communications from the Government. Now, while there’s still a long way to go, the Government is routinely including alt text on its posts and many videos include audio description.

We wrote to all MSPs and MPs with a brief social media guide outlining how to make their social media communications accessible. Casework load in politician's offices has increased exponentially since lockdown, so we shared details of our RNIB Helpline that they can refer blind and partially sighted constituents to and have offered to help in any other way we can.

Access to supermarkets

As lockdown began, with more people isolating, online shopping became more and more difficult due to high customer demand. This meant that many blind and partially sighted people who had relied on this service for years were left without access to food or essential supplies.

80 per cent of blind and partially sighted people who responded to our survey reported the way they shop for their essential shopping changed under lockdown, with half as many blind and partially sighted people visiting stores independently.

We worked with other sight loss charities Guide Dogs, Visionary, and the Thomas Pocklington Trust to launch a petition to put pressure on the Government to address this gap in provision. And you got involved. Thanks to the 22,563 of you who signed the petition, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in England recognised specific challenges faced by people with sight loss and other disabled people. They secured priority online delivery slots from major supermarkets and allowed RNIB to refer blind and partially sighted people who are struggling to access food or supermarkets during lockdown through to reserved delivery slots. In Scotland, third sector collaboration eventually secured 100 priority delivery slots provided by the RNIB Helpline and fulfilled by Iceland.

These priority online shopping slots in England are still available as we move through various tiers of restrictions and lockdowns. People in England who qualify can be referred to the shopping slots through our Helpline on 0303 123 9999. In the rest of the UK people can be advised on what options are available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Social distancing

As coronavirus turned the world upside down, one of the key pieces of Government advice has been to social distance from others. However, this is particularly difficult to follow if you find it difficult to see how far away other people are, or if printed signage about new queuing systems is inaccessible.

World Upside Down campaign

In response to this challenge, we launched our World Upside Down campaign and shared research into the impact that social distancing was having on blind and partially sighted people. This research shaped our recommendations to MPs and the governments of the UK.

Our Top Tips film on how people could help with social distancing was a huge success and our social distancing quiz helped people understand the particular challenges a blind or partially sighted person might have with social distancing, and importantly, how to help.

Please give me space

Many blind and partially sighted people shared feelings of anxiety around being unable to socially distance and how this has directly affected their wellbeing. We heard about blind and partially sighted people being confronted in the street by other members of the public for not social distancing. We worked hard to raise public awareness across the UK through our World Upside Down campaign but it was inevitable we wouldn’t reach everyone.

We developed an idea for a product – like a mask or a lanyard – which people could wear if they found social distancing difficult, or were particularly anxious about others getting too close, for example, those who had been shielding. Our research showed that nearly two-thirds of disabled people said their confidence in social distancing would likely increase if they wore a visual indicator, and 80 per cent of people thought an indicator was a good idea.

We got backing for the idea from the Cabinet Office and the Minister for Disabled People Justin Tomlinson MP, a number of members of the Senedd in Wales shared it on social media, and our ‘Please give me space’ social distancing tool was shared on the Government website and is available for people who need it on the Hidden Disabilities Store.

Sighted guiding

One of the recommendations for the World Upside Down campaign was for the Government to clarify the rules around sighted guiding. 66 per cent of blind and partially sighted respondents feel less independent now compared to before lockdown. Many people depend on a guide to get out and about but one in four (25 per cent) blind and partially sighted people told us they didn’t have someone in the same household who can guide them. After a coordinated campaign, Scotland led the way in providing guidance on sighted guiding.

In England, we worked with MPs and civil servants to raise the issue in Parliament, sharing case studies and statistics, and met with Minister Helen Whately MP to push for clarity.

Eventually, we were able to work with civil servants and other sight loss charities to write new guidance clarifying sighted guiding was allowed and sharing how to minimize any risks. We’ve been revising this guidance with the Department of Health and Social Care as what we know about the virus has changed. We also worked with governments across the UK to secure clear guidance for residents in all four nations.

Access to our streets

As lockdown began to ease over the summer of 2020, the government told local councils to look at changes to our streets to keep the community safer from the virus, for example reducing the need for public transport by encouraging walking and cycling, and increasing the amount of pavement dining.

Accessible streets

We were worried that the speed of change to encourage walking and cycling could mean changes were rushed through without consulting with blind and partially sighted people. This could mean inaccessible changes were made, affecting the walking journeys of blind and partially sighted people. Across the four nations, RNIB developed advice and guidance to encourage a better understanding of the needs of pedestrians with disabilities and shared it widely with government bodies.  As a result of our campaigning in Wales, the Welsh Government’s ‘Creating Safer Public Spaces’ guidance told councils that they must consult with blind and partially sighted people when making any changes to street layouts.

About 500 of you supported our advice, using our online template letter to ask your councils to ensure changes wouldn’t negatively impact the walking journeys of blind and partially sighted people, influencing lots of schemes around the UK. Thank you!

E-scooter trials

E-scooter rental trials were brought forward by a year in England to reduce public transport use. We were worried about the potential impact these vehicles could have on blind and partially sighted pedestrians because they’re fast-moving and difficult to hear. We’ve also seen a really big impact on journeys in London caused by dockless bikes.

We ran a survey of blind and partially sighted people to understand the potential impact, worked with other sight loss charities to produce guidance for local authorities and for e-scooter companies on how to make schemes as accessible as possible and gave evidence to the Transport Select Committee in Parliament. In Scotland, Glasgow City Council had been seeking permission to trial rental e-scooters. However, RNIB Scotland successfully lobbied councillors and approval was not granted for the trial.

We launched an online action for blind and partially sighted people to contact their local councillors or MPs to share their concerns about these rental schemes and the potential legalisation of privately owned e-scooters.

We will be a stakeholder in the UK government evaluation of rental e-scooters and will use the concerns you shared to inform our feedback. We know not many people are out and about at the moment so if you have had any experiences with e-scooters, please keep on sharing them with us.

On-street dining

When legislation was going through Parliament to keep everyone safe and increase the amount of outside dining, we worked with MPs and Lords to speak up for blind and partially sighted people in Parliament and make sure we could edit the statutory guidance to ensure on-street dining was only introduced where it wouldn’t affect blind and partially sighted people’s ability to travel independently.

Wales Pavement Parking Ban

We supported a grassroots petition calling for the introduction of a nationwide ban on pavement parking in Wales. As a result of this petition, Welsh Government agreed to give councils additional powers to enforce fines to motorists who cause obstructions on pavements from 2022.

Accessible voting

Behind the scenes all year we’ve been working with the Cabinet Office in England and their counterparts in Scotland to make voting accessible.

Our latest research based on experiences of blind and partially sighted people in the 2019 General Election found thousands of blind and partially sighted people are still not able to access their right to vote independently.  Just over one in ten blind people and less than half of partially sighted voters can vote independently and in private, despite a legal case in May 2019 finding the current provisions made to enable blind and partially sighted people to vote are unlawful.

Amendments to the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill that RNIB Scotland lobbied for this year passed with support from all the parties represented in the parliament. As a result, there will now be pilots to develop an alternative method of voting which is accessible to blind or partially sighted people.

In England, after we supported the Cabinet Office with user experience testing, we secured a commitment that for elections in 2021, the Government will be organising trials to test new ways of supporting blind and partially sighted people to vote independently. We will also be working with the Electoral Commission to improve training for polling station staff.

Eye Health

To stay safe during the pandemic many eye care appointments had to be postponed or offered remotely. RNIB is working with the health service to ensure that the whole eye care workforce is utilised and patients receive information, support and treatment safely and efficiently. We supported NHS communication efforts to reassure people using eye care services through news articles, radio interviews, social media as well as telephone calls from Eye Clinic Liaison Officers encouraging people to take care of their eyes during the pandemic and to access eye care services when needed.

We’ve been working with the NHS nationally to transform eye care services to increase capacity to ensure patients receive sight saving treatment when they need it.

Campaigning locally

In addition to our national campaigns, our team of Regional Campaign Officers have been working alongside blind and partially sighted people and our amazing campaign volunteers to make change happen at a local level.

They work with local decision makers such as local authorities, NHS Trusts and transport providers to ensure services and support are as inclusive as possible, as well as rolling out our national priority campaigns – like streets and accessible information – at a local level.

This year our Regional Campaigns Officers and campaigns volunteers have won campaigns to get accessible crossings installed, changed proposed street changes schemes to make them more accessible, fought for local vision rehabilitation services, trialled the UK’s first signal-controlled crossing on a new cycleway, liaised with local businesses to make their social distancing measures more accessible, worked with the council on an audio guide for blind and partially sighted tourists, got new tactile paving installed, changed an NHS Trust’s entire approach to accessible communications, ensured a new bus station has good colour contrast and wayfinding, made new cycling infrastructure safer, and shaped local e-scooter schemes to try to make them as accessible as possible, among many other things!

One of our amazing volunteers in the East Midlands led on setting up a national campaign discussion group for our volunteers and supporters to come together during what was a difficult year. What started out in the East Midlands has now become a national forum for people to share ideas and experiences and decide on campaign actions. If you’d like to become a volunteer campaigner, we’d love to hear from you. Check out the opportunity on our volunteering webpage.

Looking ahead

As we continue to be impacted by coronavirus in 2021, we’ll be building on these achievements. In the short term, we’ll continue to push to make sure the country’s response to coronavirus works for blind and partially sighted people. For example, as the coronavirus vaccine is rolled out across the UK, we will be working with the government to ensure information about the rollout is accessible to blind and partially sighted people.

Scotland and Wales will be heading to the polls to vote for representatives in their national governments, and in England, much of the country will be voting in local elections. We’ll be using our manifestos to push the political parties to make sure they put the needs of blind and partially sighted people at the top of the agenda.

We’ll also be launching new campaigns for you to get involved with, from safe streets to accessible voting – so watch this space!