By Clive Wood
By now, the reality of lockdown is no doubt sinking in for us all. Virtually everything we knew about everyday life has changed and there is probably very little people are thinking about other than how they are going to get through the next few weeks and months. But as someone with sight loss and guide dog owner, I would urge the public to remember the impact that this lockdown and isolation will have on people who are blind.
The first issue we face are the simple practicalities of everyday life, particularly going out to get supplies. I realise how I had taken for granted being able to ask someone if I can take their arm if I need to be guided – not being able to do so makes navigating the supermarket really difficult, as staff are unable to give me sighted assistance (which is absolutely right).
Many of us shop online, but not everyone can. But if you are used to shopping online, as we all know, supermarket delivery slots are like gold dust at the moment and I haven’t been lucky so far – unfortunately, being blind does not entitle you to a priority slot, though Guide Dogs and other charities like the RNIB and Thomas Pocklington Trust are campaigning for this to change.
For those of us who can get out and about, it is also extremely difficult to observe the two metre, social distancing rule when you can’t see how close people are. This is probably one of the biggest challenges for me. It’s absolutely the right thing for us to do, however, going for a walk with my guide dog, Winnie, does cause me some anxiety. She is a fantastic guide dog and will guide me around people – but not necessarily two metres away! I listen out for footsteps or voices to try and determine if anyone is coming in my direction. It’s so much quieter out there at the moment so that helps, but I have to hope that other people are staying a couple of metres from me as having someone sighted to guide me is just no longer an option.
Over 42% of people with sight loss feel they are ‘left out of everyday moments’ that others might take for granted, such as socialising, family life or work.
The times we live in also mean there is a very real risk of many people with sight loss becoming lonely and socially isolated. A Guide Dogs report shows that even under normal circumstances over 42% of people with sight loss feel they are ‘left out of everyday moments’ that others might take for granted, such as socialising, family life or work. This feeling of isolation is compounded, as six in ten people who are blind or vision-impaired believe that society has ‘little understanding’ of the challenges they face in their daily lives.
I know first-hand that in the current situation we’re living in, feelings of isolation or being left out only increase. Even just a quick check-in could make a huge difference to someone with sight loss. I know for me – and I’m sure for many others with sight loss – meeting, talking, laughing and sometimes crying with someone in person is so important. Of course, hearing a voice at the end of a phone or computer is reassuring but it doesn’t replace sitting down with someone else over a cup of tea or glass of wine.
I’m so thankful for the people who take the time to check in. Living alone, albeit with Winnie, gives me too much time to think about what I would do without those brief interactions at this time. Winnie is an absolute joy and she is helping to keep my spirits up just because she’s there… but she’s not a great conversationalist. I have had a couple of times where it’s all pretty overwhelming. Fortunately, Winnie is wonderful at picking up on times that I’m feeling upset and will always come up with a toy and cuddle up to me. She has made such a difference to my life, but at the moment I appreciate her even more, if that’s possible.
The one walk Winnie and I have each day is a highlight for both of us, giving us both the opportunity to stretch our legs and just be able to say hello to other people, even if we are having to raise our voices to maintain social distancing rules
For those of us who are guide dog owners, there is also the issue of ensuring our much-loved companions get enough enrichment and stimulation during lockdown – an issue that all dog owners face. The one walk Winnie and I have each day is a highlight for both of us, giving us both the opportunity to stretch our legs and just be able to say hello to other people, even if we are having to raise our voices to maintain social distancing rules. Maybe we should call it physical distancing!
These are without doubt extremely worrying times for us all, and we each have to navigate our way through challenges the best we can. But I would urge the public to remember those living with sight loss and reach out to anyone they know who has a vision impairment to offer practical or emotional support. This simple act of kindness could make a huge difference to someone’s life and help prevent them from becoming cut off from the world around them.
Clive Wood is a Policy and Campaigns Manager at Guide Dogs and is a guide dog owner.
Guide Dogs has launched the COVID-19 Sight Loss Information line for those living with sight loss or their families. You can call on 0800 781 1444, between 10am and 4pm, Monday to Friday.
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