People who are blind or visually impaired already experience loneliness and isolation at much higher levels than the general population. With the pandemic, there is a whole new set of physical and psychological barriers when it comes to maintaining our independence.
Due to COVID-19, governments and businesses have adopted necessary safety measures, such as social distancing and limited-capacity rules, to curb the spread of the virus. But people with visual impairments, like me, don’t have the opportunity to adapt to these rules, because they are communicated in a way that is impossible for us to observe. For example, in many stores and other places, there are now directional arrows, signage and taped-off measurements to ensure distancing ― but you need to be able to see them to know they’re there. Our guide dogs don’t understand them, and our white canes can’t feel them. Unlike sighted people who have learned to navigate in a socially distanced world, we’ve been left to fend for ourselves.
Two things happen for us as a result of this lack of inclusion. First, we are on the receiving end of a lot of chiding and humiliation in public. People who follow the rules and who don’t want to get infected are quick to insult people who do not physically distance. Because so many sighted people have flouted the rules out of ignorance or politics, rule-abiding folks have become quick to lash out because of their own fear and anger. I’ve heard people say things like “You’re way too close to me!” and “What’s wrong with you?” There have been numerous other insults I can’t repeat.
Transportation has become a new obstacle and an occasion for more verbal attacks. I can’t get on a public bus and ask my guide dog, Dime, to find me a seat, because many seats are off-limits as part of the distancing. Of course, Dime can’t read signs, so her years of precision training and practice are now rendered ineffective without intervention from a stranger, who might shout obscenities at me.
A simple trip to the grocery store is now unnerving, exhausting and even dangerous, so I avoid it.
You might not think that public criticism is such a big deal. But I’m not really a rule breaker. More than most, I long to be active in my community, and I desperately want to abide by the safety measures so I can do my part in not spreading COVID. It’s harder for me to avoid close contact with people in public than it is for a sighted person. And failure to do so not only opens me up to criticism ― it could raise my risk of contracting the virus.
The second thing that happens is we begin to self-isolate, because of the treacherous conditions of being out in the community. A simple trip to the grocery store is now unnerving, exhausting and even dangerous, so I avoid it. When you’re blind or visually impaired, you automatically lose much of your privacy, which I took for granted until I began to lose my sight more than 15 years ago. It’s necessary to ask for help in many situations. This eliminates anonymity in public settings. But asking for help during the pandemic can have disastrous consequences for us. And since a lot of us rely on public transportation to get anywhere, the isolation of the pandemic is exponentially worse than it is for a sighted person.
When it comes to the blindness community, I’m one of the fortunate ones. I have a husband and friends who can help get me what I need. A lot of blind and visually impaired people I talked to over the past few months are living with food insecurity.
For some, it’s because they lost income or jobs, and they simply can’t afford enough food. But for many, it isn’t about the money; it’s because they have isolated and won’t go as often to the supermarket. Many of us end up rationing our food so we don’t have to go out in public to get it. Delivery of food and other household items is the new way of shopping in this pandemic world. Consider that older people, who account for a large part of the blindness community, may not have access to the internet or the devices needed to place online orders. And they are often not computer- or app-literate, which renders food delivery nearly impossible. As a result, many are choosing to hoard and ration what they have, rather than ask for help.
I’m extremely grateful for my guide dog, who has helped me for the last five years. Before COVID, Dime and I had mastered navigating most public situations. I received Dime in 2015 from Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide dog school in North America, and we are the perfect match. I live and work at a university in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Dime goes everywhere with me.
Having a guide dog has played a crucial role in making me more independent. However, during the pandemic, Dime is working significantly less, because I no longer go to the campus daily to teach. The culture shock has affected Dime as much as it has me. She now scratches at her bed and nudges me often. She misses working. The few times I’ve returned to campus since the pandemic began, Dime was extremely excited to be working again. She thrives when she is navigating. Her drive to get me to my destination is incredible, and her energy is wonderful. She knows multiple routes on campus by different names I’ve given them. When she’s not working, she’s just not as happy.
People may not realize that dogs are often a social bridge for their owners and other human beings. Guide dogs certainly serve as a catalyst for conversation between visually impaired folks and sighted people who would probably otherwise never talk to us. Dime is very much at home in anyone’s office at the university where I work. I have students who fly into my office and say, “I just need to de-stress with Dime.” She serves a community purpose that is greater than my own needs. While having Dime with me this year has been a great comfort, COVID has deleted the social connection she normally provides for me.
I’ve not been totally devoid of contact with the outside world during the pandemic. Like every other professional in the world, I use Zoom. But because Zoom is a visual medium, it is not an effective replacement for in-person meetings for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. It’s the same as a conference call for us. We can’t see faces or visual aids that people share. I never even turn on my camera, which surprises my sighted friends.
Like every other professional in the world, I use Zoom. But because Zoom is a visual medium, it is not an effective replacement for in-person meetings for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. It’s the same as a conference call for us.
The promise of a vaccine has inspired hope that “normalcy” might soon return. However, it could take months or even years before we eliminate social distancing. And for a blind or visually impaired person, the thought of enduring another year of this is agonizing. So, because of my own isolation, I reached out to others via Guide Dogs for the Blind to see how they were faring. My outreach confirmed that most everyone in the blindness community is struggling with the new barriers to their independence that COVID has created.
Through talking with others, I was inspired to try to improve the situation. Working with Guide Dogs for the Blind, I am organizing a town hall meeting for its alumni group of guide dog users from around North America to share best practices and to enlist them to help educate the sighted public about our issues.
While I don’t like being a poster child for disability, I feel the pandemic has given me no choice. Every uncomfortable situation should be our opportunity to educate others. It is our responsibility to share information that can help others understand how important communities are for all of us. We need to help those who are alone and struggling. As part of this effort, Guide Dogs for the Blind is creating a radio public service announcement to help raise awareness in the sighted community that blind or visually impaired folks may need assistance in understanding and adhering to social distancing.
I implore everyone to remember that we all need to ask for assistance in some situations, and if you are one of the lucky ones who does not need help with social distancing, reach out and ask someone with a guide dog or a white cane if they need assistance. When you do, you’ll be helping to keep us all included in the community at a time when many of us are feeling excluded.
Collaboration and compassion could help us all to see each other more clearly, both now and when the pandemic is past us.
Dorianne Pollack is a member of the alumni board for Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide dog school in North America. She lives with her husband and her guide dog, Dime, in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she works in the Disability Resources Department at Northern Arizona University, supporting and providing accommodations for students with disabilities. She has a long career working in public schools as a classroom teacher, principal and school board member. She holds two master’s degrees ― one in rehabilitation counseling, and another in curriculum and instruction.