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NI Retailers Come Together to Support Customers with Sight Loss

Retail NI, the Federation of Small Businesses in NI and a wealth of local shops and businesses have mobilised alongside sight loss charity RNIB to ensure blind and partially sighted shoppers and patrons are protected at the present time.

While the majority of the public is excited at the prospect of getting back out to the shops again, many of the 56,400 blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland are anxious.

Social distancing has proved extremely difficult when shopping and eating out, as has navigating new street and store layouts and an array of new pavement furniture as people dine outside pubs and restaurants.

As we move out of lockdown, people with sight loss are telling RNIB that they are anxious and less confident. Some are avoiding going out altogether with a sense of loss of independence.

RNIB has welcomed the renewed support of NI’s retail world as a wealth of prominent retailers have stepped up to the mark to ensure blind and partially sighted people feel more confident when shopping.

“As a blind person, independence is something that has been hard fought for and I don’t want the pandemic to rob me of that.”

Andrea Begley, chair of RNIB NI’s Action and Advisory Committee and former winner of the BBC talent show The Voice UK, said while she’s not confident going out alone just yet, she hopes she will regain her confidence and independence soon.

She said: “To be honest, as independent as I use to be, I’m nervous about being out. I have been out and about with other people guiding me, but I definitely wouldn’t be 100 per cent keen on going out completely on my own just yet.”

Glyn Roberts, Chief Executive, Retail NI, said:

“Last year, we were alerted to the issues that people with sight loss in NI were facing, particularly around social distancing. We shared RNIB’s simple guidance with our 2,000 strong membership and called on all retailers to follow suit.

“The re-opening of the retail world should be for everyone and we want to offer reassurance that our stores and businesses are doing all they can to meet the needs of everybody.”

The Federation of Small Businesses NI Regional Chair, Brendan Kearney agreed saying:

“After what has been an incredibly difficult period for businesses, thankfully much of the economy is now able to re-open. However, mitigations to control the spread of the virus, such as one-way systems, social distancing and hand sanitising, are still required to keep people safe. Many of the aids which encourage this good practice are often visual, and therefore not suitable for those who are blind and partially sighted.

“We would encourage business owners, as they re-open their doors once again, to consider how they can support those with sight loss, including providing non-visual guidance and support in their premises.

“Small businesses are at the heart of the community, and that is why it they have such an important role to play to ensure that everyone is supported and feels comfortable when they visit their businesses. To help them to achieve this we will be sharing guidance from RNIB with our 6,000 members in Northern Ireland, containing useful tips on how to support blind and partially sighted people as we re-open our economy but also seek to contain coronavirus.”

The Kennedy Centre, Belfast, alongside Victoria Square, Foyleside and Fairhill Shopping Centre, is just one of the many NI shopping centres who have pledged its support having raised awareness amongst staff and in circulating RNIB’s best practice guidance to its 43 stores and kiosks.

John Jones, Centre Manager for the Kennedy Centre, said:

"We are delighted to be able to join with the RNIB to encourage our retailers to support the blind and partially sighted members of our community who have found shopping in the current climate very difficult.

“All our retailers were more than happy to get involved and have implemented some good tips for their staff to help assist the blind and partially sighted who visit our Centre. We look forward to liaising even closer with the RNIB in the coming months."

Charlotte Bennett, 47, a white cane user who lives in Aghyaran near Killyclogher, County Tyrone said her biggest fear about returning to the shops is being berated by other customers. She explained: “Before lockdown, I would go on the bus by myself to certain shops or to get my hair done at the local college. I would meet up with friends, family and other blind and partially sighted people.

“I’m glad the shops are opening back up again for the economy, but I don’t know if I would feel confident going into a shop again on my own.”

Andrea, who has glaucoma, agrees: “Things are clearly improving; the pledge of support from NI retailers alongside the issue of RNIB guidance and the vaccine uptake does instil confidence in me.

“I am a shopper; I love shopping. Buying stuff online as a visually impaired person can be difficult as there are accessibility issues, so I really do want to be physically out shopping.

“It’s great to see the RNIB guidance being taken on board and implemented and in general, the people of NI are so friendly and helpful, so I feel people with sight loss here do have an advantage. I still wouldn’t feel comfortable going out on my own just yet, not without a guide.