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RNIB NI warns of "double lockdown" for people with sight loss

As lockdown eases, The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is warning that blind and partially sighted people’s independence is increasingly under threat.

Image: Joe Kenny smiling at the camera.
  • As lockdown eases, blind and partially sighted people are increasingly anxious about venturing out.
  • Visually impaired people rely on others to maintain a safe distance, but nearly half (44 per cent) of public report breaking social distancing rules.
  • Now, two thirds (66 per cent) of blind and partially sighted people feel less independent than before lockdown.
  • Amazon,, Kellogg’s, Barclays, P&G, TalkTalk, Financial Times, LEGO and British Gas join campaign.

Social distancing, which relies heavily on sight, has made it nearly impossible for people with vision impairment to navigate safely and independently in a world turned ‘upside down’ by measures and rules that are often inaccessible.

In response, RNIB has launched the World Upside Down campaign today (Monday 6 July), calling for people to think about the challenges blind and partially sighted people might face and make small changes to keep everyone safe. Its launch sees Europe’s biggest advertising display, the Piccadilly Lights, running upturned displays in London every hour as a representation of the World Upside Down that people with sight loss are facing.

Andrea Begley, Chairperson of RNIB NI, said: “This is a particularly difficult time for blind and partially sighted people like me who are used to navigating a world not designed with us in mind, but social distancing has really turned our world upside down. A lot of the strategies and tools we use to get around safely – like being guided – are not allowed under current rules, and many have been left stranded.

“We’ve heard from many people who are incredibly anxious about how to manage the situation and we’re concerned that this will have a real impact on people’s quality of life. The "new normal" risks causing a double lockdown for people with sight loss.

“We’re asking the general public to help us safely social distance whilst getting on with life. By being aware of the challenges we might face, and simply asking if assistance is needed, you can help us keep our independence and stay safe.

“We also want the Government and businesses to take action so that measures designed to protect us are inclusive to everyone, not just to those who can see them.”

There are approximately 55.600 people with sight loss in Northern Ireland and more than two million people across the UK, many of whom trust in others to help them social distance effectively by moving away.

But, in an RNIB poll of the general public, nearly half (44 per cent) of people admitted to breaking social distancing rules.

The charity has also heard from many blind and partially sighted people who say that difficulties with social distancing have negatively impacted their lives. In an RNIB survey of people with sight loss, two-thirds (66 per cent) of people said they feel less independent now than before lockdown, and four in five (80 per cent) said the way they shop has changed, with half as many continuing to shop independently.

Joe Kenny (42), who is completely blind and Louise Neeson (38), who is partially blind, live in Belfast and have a son, Oisin who is three years old. They are both very concerned about social distancing as the lockdown starts to ease.

Louise says: “Lockdown has been extremely challenging for us as family. It has been very isolating. One of the big issues we have faced is shopping, at the start booking a delivery slot was very, very difficult. It has been our biggest challenge by far”.

As lockdown is changing, Joe and Louise are facing more challenges in terms of local shops.

Joe says: “They were great at the start but some local shops have stopped prioritising us and instead are prioritising regular customers.

“When we can get to shops now with lockdown easing, there are new challenges for social distancing like obstacles on the floor and trying to follow a one-way system.

“Some shops are going back to normal but life hasn’t gone back to normal for us”.

The couple says their local store is using a red and green light automated system but someone who is blind or partially sighted cannot see that. A couple of shops have automated tannoy systems but Louise has found they are not switched on all the time.

She adds: “I had to stand at the door until someone brought me into the shop. I went to the till and asked at if they could switch on the automated announcements and they said ok but it’s as if they had just forgotten about it”.

Social distancing is a massive challenge for them with staff in some shops being reluctant to guide them around. However, the couple say that some shops have offered them help immediately and staff have not minded guiding them.

Joe explains: “I am worried that if this goes on, it might affect blind and partially sighted people in the future, especially with social distancing. I worry that maybe a couple of months down the line, people will be reluctant to offer help because it is being drilled into us to stay apart”.

Social distancing has been a massive challenge for everyone and having children, the situation is particularly challenging but Louise and Joe love their local park which gives their son Oisin a chance to run about and enjoy himself.

“We don’t have a garden and we love the Ormeau park. It gives us a chance to expend Oisin’s energy and we recently went to see a live band. Everyone was keeping their distance and it was just great.”

However, there are new hurdles ahead because Oisin is due to go to nursery soon for three days a week with the issue of social distancing being central but the couple are also really glad for him to be with other children.

Joe, who works for the Stroke Association, is a guitar player and is a regular on the music scene in Northern Ireland but he has not had a gig since March and this has impacted him financially and emotionally.

“I miss the music terribly. Music is what I’ve got to do but I am confident it will be back soon”.

As social distancing continues, there is one very special day that this couple will push ahead with: their wedding in November.

Louise says: “Joe and I were set to get married in May but we’ve moved the wedding until November this year. It was really hard but we have got it all rebooked and most importantly, the dress is all sorted and it’s very exciting looking forward to the wedding”.

And Joe is excited too, “We are not changing the date so even if it ends up having to be a very small wedding, we’ll be going ahead with it. We are very much looking forward to it”.

As part of its World Upside Down campaign, RNIB is working with organisations across the UK, such as Amazon,, Kellogg’s, Barclays, P&G, TalkTalk, Financial Times, LEGO and British Gas, to share images of upturned items on social media to highlight the issue. It is also asking people to lend their support by turning their social media profile pictures upside down and testing themselves with the charity’s online social distancing quiz.

About the research

A survey was run by Opinium in June 2020 to research public attitudes and understanding of current social distancing measures. The survey received results from 2,002 UK adults weighted to be nationally representative. Full results as below:

  • Across the UK almost two-thirds (65%) think the rules are clear, however nearly half (44%) admitted to breaking the rules over the last seven days
  • Men were more likely to admit to breaking social distancing rules (49% of men, compared to 38% of women)
  • Younger people are also more likely to admit to breaking the rules compared to older people (61% of 18 to 34-year-olds versus 32% of those aged 55+)
  • Despite many breaking the rules, 90% believe it’s important to continue social distancing
  • When interactions between sighted people and blind or partially sighted people occur in public spaces, four-fifths (80%) think it should be up to sighted people to avoid getting close to those who are blind or partially sighted, and the vast majority (91%) said they would be happy to help in some way.

This RNIB survey ran from Tuesday 28 April to Monday 11 May. There were 26 questions in total covering access to food, accessible information and social isolation. In total there were 471 responses across the UK from various people covering different levels of sight impairment.