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"Thank you for enabling me to shop safely and independently"

RNIB Northern Ireland has helped blind and partially sighted shoppers have safer access to groceries by working with local retailers.

Access to groceries has been the biggest issue facing blind and partially sighted people since the outbreak of coronavirus and the implementation of lockdown.

New research from RNIB shows how social distancing is near-impossible for many blind and partially sighted people, while inaccessible signage and fears about how the public will react to them are causing additional stress and worry:

  • 66 per cent of blind and partially sighted respondents feel less independent now compared to before lockdown.
  • 80 per cent of all respondents reported that the way they shop for their essential shopping has changed since lockdown, with half as many blind and partially sighted people visiting stores independently.
  • 74 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 had to ration food.

Lockdown has affected everyone’s access to services, but the nature of social distancing rules means it has disproportionally affected blind and partially sighted people as the social infrastructure and norms many rely on - such as access to supermarket online delivery slots - have been lost or eroded.

An immediate problem

Access to groceries was an immediate problem highlighted by our helpline with RNIB’s services 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.

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 had to ration food.

There are 56,500 blind and partially sighted people in Northern Ireland and two million the UK, and many would usually rely on online grocery shopping but have been unable to secure delivery slots thanks to massive demand during the crisis.

They are not automatically on the government "shield list" of people highly vulnerable to COVID-19, who qualify for priority treatment from supermarkets.

In response, RNIB has introduced new best practice guidelines for stores and staff to help blind and partially sighted people shop safely and has secured the support of SPAR, EUROSPAR, ViVO, Centra, Supervalu and MACE branded retailers.

Staff are advised to introduce themselves by name and offer help while socially distancing, and to remember it may not be apparent from their 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 in the porch.”

Welcome news

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

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

She 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 so pleased that SPAR, EUROSPAR and ViVO retailers and Musgrave NI stores and have chosen to go the extra mile for the 56,500 people in Northern Ireland living with sight loss.”

Dr Witherow adds: “More and more people are turning more to their local stores and it’s brilliant that local 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, is available from RNIB on our helpline which can be contacted by phone on 0303 123 9999, or email [email protected].

About this 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. 59 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 towards blind respondents who make up roughly half of the blind and partially sighted population.