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Social distancing having a devastating effect on blind and partially sighted people’s independence

Our new research shows social distancing is near-impossible for many blind and partially sighted people.

Social distancing measures have been particularly felt by people trying to access food. Meanwhile, inaccessible signage and the social pressure to keep to the rules are causing additional stress and worry.  

RNIB is concerned that some of the challenges blind and partially sighted people have faced in accessing supermarkets may be replicated more widely as services begin to open up again after lockdown. We’re calling on the Government to take action early and protect blind and partially sighted people’s independence.  

RNIB Director of Services, David Clarke, said: “The unique challenges of social distancing for blind and partially sighted people have hit hard, with two thirds reporting feeling less independent since lockdown.

“As lockdown eases but social distancing continues to be enforced, the visual nature of restrictions risks a disproportionate impact on blind and partially sighted people, restricting their ability to access services and transport.

“We have received hundreds of calls to our Helpline during lockdown from blind and partially sighted people about challenges accessing supermarkets, and we are concerned this is just the tip of the iceberg. As shops and services begin to open up, visual cues simply don’t work for blind and partially sighted people, so its essential businesses know how to enforce social distancing accessibly.

“Social distancing is near-impossible for many blind and partially sighted people which makes it difficult to go out and get food, exercise or attend medical appointments, while isolation is impacting people psychologically as well as practically, adding to stress.

“Keeping two metres away from other people is really challenging when you have blank patches in your vision or you can’t see how far away other people are. Some people with sight loss have been confronted by passers-by as they have been unable to keep their distance, while others are so nervous about breaking the rules they’ve lost confidence and are unwilling to leave the house.”

What did the research find?

It is very hard to know how to keep 2 metres away from people when you can't judge distance... I can't see the markings on the floor so have been shouted at... I ended up in tears. It's not my fault I can't see the floor markings. 

  • Three quarters of those surveyed (74 per cent) said they were concerned about getting access to food, and a shocking 21 per cent reported having had to ration food.
  • Two-thirds (66 per cent) of blind and partially sighted respondents feel less independent now compared to before lockdown
  • Many blind and partially people depend on a guide to go out, but one in four (25 per cent) have said that they don’t have someone in the same household as them who can guide
  • Pre-lockdown, 28 per cent of respondents said that they got their shopping by navigating around shops themselves. Now, 14 per cent of respondents go to the shops themselves
  • Pre-lockdown, 18 per cent of respondents got their shopping by someone going to the shops for them. Now, 49 per cent of respondents get their shopping this way

“I feel I mustn’t go out because I can’t social distance on the street due to my blindness”

What needs to happen

We are calling on the Government to:

  • Issue guidance to service providers, businesses and employers to explain how to make social distancing measures accessible so that the experience we’ve had with supermarkets doesn’t happen all over again as more shops and restaurants begin to open up
  • Communicate to the public why people with hidden disabilities like sight loss find it more difficult to social distance, so that other people keep their distance, making it easier for blind and partially sighted people to get out and about
  • Create tailored guidance for blind and partially sighted people on social distancing, including clear rules around guiding, to help people feel more confident that they are able to get around safely and recover their independence

What you can do

We’ve created this video explaining to sighted people why it might be difficult for blind and partially sighted people to social distance. Please share this on any social media accounts you might have to encourage people to be understanding of hidden disabilities.

You can also share this guidance around best practice in-store for supermarkets with your local stores.

Read the full report.