The impact of the year-long coronavirus crisis on blind and partially sighted adults and children will be examined in a major Scottish online conference that begins today.
Issues discussed will range from social isolation and loneliness, delays in sight-saving eye care, how home-schooling is affecting children with sight loss, and providing emotional support for those coming to terms with sight loss.
Mental Health Minister, Clare Haughey MSP, will address over 100 sight loss professionals at the two-day event this morning.
“We know the coronavirus pandemic has been especially difficult for those with sight loss, affecting their mental health and increasing feelings of isolation and loneliness," Ms Haughey said. "That is why we are working closely with stakeholder organisations to better understand and respond to the mental health inequalities that have been exacerbated by the outbreak.
"Through our Mental Health Transition and Recovery Plan, backed by a £120 million Recovery Fund, we are committed to addressing the impacts on the mental health of people with long-term physical health conditions and disabilities, including sight loss.
“This conference is a great opportunity for vision impairment organisations and those they support, to come together and share their experiences, the challenges they have faced, and also to reflect on any more positive opportunities that the pandemic may have brought. We look forward to continuing to work with the NHS, Public Health Scotland, local authorities and the third sector, to ensure that everyone in Scotland living with sight loss receives the very best possible support.”
Also speaking this morning, Kirin Saeed from Edinburgh will tell participants about her own experiences as a blind woman in coping during lockdown.
“For myself and many visually impaired people, the last year has changed our lives in so many ways," she said. "We have had to master technology, learn to be even more resilient and become a stronger community supporting each other with everyday little things like chatting on the phone. We have also realised the importance of all those services we take for granted which, for now, we can't access in person. The coronavirus crisis has taught us the need to support the vulnerable and made our society stronger for it.”
The conference, 'Working Collaboratively Towards a Scottish Vision Strategy', has been jointly funded by RNIB Scotland, Sight Scotland and the Thomas Pocklington Trust. Other major sight loss charities taking part are Guide Dogs Scotland, Visibility Scotland and Visionary.
Around 178,000 people are living in Scotland with a degree of significant sight loss.
James Adams, Director of RNIB Scotland, said: "We've still to assess the full impact of the coronavirus crisis on one of the most vulnerable groups in our community. Many of the ongoing problems people with sight loss faced have been exacerbated during this period, from inaccessible health information to a lack of clarity over guiding rules.
"We need to learn from this experience so not to build new barriers into the post-coronavirus world. The 'Spaces for People' initiative for instance, while welcome in encouraging active travel and re-designing our streets, could inadvertently create new obstacles for people with disabilities if not properly thought through."
Mark O’Donnell, Chief Executive of Sight Scotland and Sight Scotland Veterans, said: “The pandemic has been hugely difficult for thousands of blind and partially sighted people in Scotland, and too many have been isolated and excluded. This has shone a light on where sight loss is leading to inequality in our communities, but also on how changing and innovating the way we provide support and services can help address this.
"We are excited to be participating in this important conference where we will discuss what more we need to do now to create an inclusive Scotland for people living with sight loss.”
Charles Colquhoun, Chief Executive of the Thomas Pocklington Trust, said: "We know, through our work, the many challenges coronavirus has brought to blind and partially sighted people across the whole UK from socially distancing, food insecurity, new and often poorly-conceived road layouts to the continued inaccessible communication on things like vaccines and testing. We will continue to work with partners to look at how these can be addressed.’"
Tomorrow, speakers from NHS Scotland and the Scottish Government will outline how digital healthcare can re-shape the way services are delivered in future, including the launch of the new Electronic Patient Record system that will integrate existing systems and support new ways of working in hospitals.
The conference will also consider a looming potential shortage of trained rehabilitation officers in Scotland who help people newly diagnosed with sight loss to maximise their independence.