Shop RNIB Donate now

How can someone with sight loss social distance safely in-store?

Lady proudly holding her white cane standing in front of supermarket display

Image: Lady proudly holding her white cane standing in front of supermarket display

RNIB Northern Ireland has been working with local retailers to ensure blind and partially sighted shoppers can socially distance safely in store.

We are calling on all retailers to do the same.

Growing numbers of people with sight loss are contacting RNIB about the challenges they face regarding social distancing and, in particular, when it comes to shopping.

There are 55,600 blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland and more than two million across the UK.

As currently advised, social distancing is close to impossible for blind and partially sighted people to manage.

Those who haven’t been able to keep their distance have reported being confronted by passers-by, or are so nervous about breaking the rules they have lost confidence and are concerned about leaving the house. They are afraid.

For example, when food shopping, how do you social distance when you can’t see tape on the floor, read the signage, or indeed judge how far you are from other people? In a recent survey carried out by RNIB, 66 per cent of blind and partially sighted respondents feel less independent now compared to before the lockdown.

Seventy-four per cent of respondents were either very, or quite, concerned about getting access to food while 21 per cent of people reported that they had to ration food.

As lockdown eases, other retail opens and thoroughfares become more crowded, this will only get worse. To add to the problem, blind and partially sighted people are not automatically on the government shield list of people highly vulnerable to coronavirus, who qualify for priority treatment from supermarkets.

RNIB Takes Action

The RNIB is calling on the Government to take a number of measures, including issuing guidance to service providers, businesses and employers to explain how to make social distancing measures accessible, and communicating to the wider public why people with hidden disabilities such as sight loss find it more difficult to social distance, and reduce the stigma on people unable to do so.

RNIB’s best practice guidelines for stores and staff will help blind and partially sighted people to shop safely and RNIB has already secured the support of SPAR, EUROSPAR and ViVO branded retailers, and Centra, Supervalu and MACE.

The Guidelines

Staff are advised to introduce themselves by name and offer help while socially distancing, and to remember it may not be apparent from an appearance that someone is blind or partially sighted.

The guidance also covers online delivery, advising drivers to step back and give clear and specific instructions such as: “Your shopping is in several bags to your left on the porch.”

Retailers Unite

Retail NI’s Chief Executive Glyn Roberts welcomes the latest news from RNIB and said: “Once again, the retailers of Northern Ireland are coming together to ensure they are delivering the best possible service for local people, and in this case, blind and partially sighted people.

“I commend Musgrave NI and Hendersons for circulating RNIB’s guidelines to staff and retailers and for ensuring that blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland are getting access to the groceries they need.

“I would implore every independent retailer in our province to strive to do the same.”

Elaine Orwin

Elaine Orwin has an eye condition called juvenile macular dystrophy and is a member of RNIB Northern Ireland’s committee.

She has praised RNIB and the Northern Irish retailers for their commitment to this issue.

Elaine said: “The main issue for blind and partially sighted people when shopping is observing the two-metre social distancing rule, and also getting support when they are in-store. Obviously, people can’t guide you at the present time and this is difficult.

Elaine, who is a guide dog user and a white cane user, added: “I want to say thank you to RNIB for tackling the shopping issue and trying to make things better for blind and partially sighted people.

“Thank you for enabling me to shop safely and independently.”

RNIB Northern Ireland Director, Dr Jacqueline Witherow commented: “Current social distancing rules make going to the supermarket incredibly difficult for many. Limitations on access to online shopping have meant that people with sight loss have been excluded from priority slots – putting thousands of people in an impossible situation. That is why we are so pleased that these local stores have chosen to go the extra mile for the 55,600 people in Northern Ireland living with sight loss.”

Dr Witherow added: “More and more people are turning more to their local stores and it’s brilliant that these stores have stepped up. This demonstrates the value of being part of your local community. Therefore, we are delighted our local retailers have taken the proactive step of working with RNIB.”

Support and information on shopping, and many other issues, are available from RNIB on our helpline – 0303 123 9999, or email [email protected].

  • Access to groceries was an immediate problem highlighted with RNIB’s helpline receiving an average of over 100 calls a day on this issue. Where new Perspex screens, one-way layouts, and new signage or markings were introduced on the floor in supermarkets to enforce social distancing, these were largely inaccessible for blind and partially sighted people and introduced additional hazards while also creating social pressure for people to stick to rules that aren’t accessible for them.

RNIB research

This 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. 313 respondents were from England, 15 from NI, 68 from Scotland and 74 from Wales.

A variety of people responded covering different levels of sight impairment, different mobility aid users and a range of ages. Fifty-nine per cent of respondents were severely sight impaired, 29 per cent were sight impaired and 12 per cent have a sight condition but are not registered. This means the sample is slightly skewed toward blind respondents who make up roughly half of the blind and partially sighted population.