Health and Healthcare Systems

Social distancing has left the visually impaired particularly isolated – it’s time to reach out

Visitors maintain social distance as they line-up at a souvenirs shop at Disneyland Paris as the theme park reopens its doors to the public in Marne-la-Vallee, near Paris, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in France, July 15, 2020.   REUTERS/Charles Platiau - RC2NTH9LSY2K

Those with visual impairments might struggle to adapt to new precautions surrounding COVID-19. Image: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Meredith Wilkinson
Senior Lecturer in Psychology, De Montfort University
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  • COVID-19 has forced governments and businesses alike to enforce new regulations, such as social distancing.
  • However, those with visual impairments are struggling to adapt to these changes, struggling to keep socially distanced and be aware of other precautions.
  • A UK report shows that those who are visually impaired and shop independently has fallen to 14% from 28%.

The pandemic is affecting everyone, but it has been particularly tough for visually impaired people. A report by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) notes that two-thirds of visually impaired individuals feel they have become less independent since the start of lockdown. This could have a negative impact on their mental health.

Visually impaired people already experience loneliness at higher levels than the general population. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to experience detrimental health outcomes as a result of self-isolation.

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Getting out into the community is important for counteracting these issues. We should therefore consider what the barriers are to visually impaired people maintaining their independence during the pandemic – both physical and emotional – and what can be done to overcome these.

Tackling a changing environment

Many businesses and public spaces have introduced new layouts or restrictions to try and limit the spread of the virus. These adjustments may make places harder for visually impaired people to navigate – meaning they may go out less.

Studies have shown that individuals with visual impairments create spatial representations of environments in their head. If an environment has been changed to help control COVID-19 – by introducing screens, one-way systems or other measures – this may disrupt mental maps.

Indeed, the RNIB notes that the number of visually impaired people navigating around shops by themselves halved during lockdown, falling from 28% to 14%. At the same time, the proportion of people relying on someone else to shop for them has increased from less than a fifth (18%) to nearly half (49%).

One suggestion for overcoming this problem is for more shops to offer a click-and-collect service, so that individuals can purchase items without having to navigate a new floor layout. A second method could be to ensure things are not altered any further until shopping returns to normal, allowing people to create new mental maps.

If a sighted guide is required to help someone get around a new environment, the visually impaired individual being guided needs to be consulted on what would be most helpful. Sighted people not understanding visually impaired people’s needs – in particular their need for independence – has been shown to be detrimental to their wellbeing.

Workplaces also need to be considered now that the government is no longer encouraging people to work from home. The most likely impact for visually impaired individuals will be structural changes such as the placing of new screens and floor markers in offices and other workplaces. Again, avoiding continual change could help visually impaired people build new mental maps that take into account new safety measures.

Allowing visually impaired people to safely return to work is likely to have both practical and psychological benefits – getting businesses functioning again and, importantly, letting visually impaired people reverse the decline in their independence. Employers therefore should do what they can to facilitate people returning.

Social distancing is difficult

Another reason visually impaired people have been going out and interacting with people less is because of concerns about social distancing. Having a visual impairment makes avoiding close contact with people harder, and failing to social distance leaves these people open to criticism. It also potentially raises the risk of contracting COVID-19.

To help, the RNIB has launched the World Upside Down campaign. Targeted at the sighted population, it’s aiming to show why visually impaired people may find social distancing a challenge. The hope is that fully sighted individuals will then be more supportive of people with visual impairments.

COVID-19 Global Health Pandemic Preparedness and Response
The campaign aims to show why visually impaired people may find social distancing a challenge. Image: RNIB

The now compulsory use of face masks in shops in England may also go some way to alleviating concerns among visually impaired people about catching the virus. For this to work, it’s critical that masks are worn correctly.

Helping those feeling isolated

Mental health services are providing a crucial service to the visually impaired during the pandemic, particularly if people are feeling isolated. There’s a specialist RNIB counselling service that people can ring for emotional support, and the RNIB is creating more opportunities for visually impaired people to connect with others online or over the phone.

But these services, while excellent, are not unlimited. Advice published in Nature suggests other things could be offered: perhaps online mindfulness or meditation programmes to help mitigate mental health complications arising from being isolated, or support groups on social media for connecting visually impaired individuals with one another.

These measures, though, look to treat the symptoms of isolation, not the cause. What needs to be kept in mind is that before the pandemic, many people with visual impairments led independent lives. It’s critical that whatever is implemented as we recover from the pandemic enables people to return to independence.

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