During the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, most societies around the world have imposed restrictions and regulations to limit the spread of the coronavirus, such as social distancing, face masks and increased hygiene. Most people do their best to abide by these new rules, but for some people, these regulations might impose just another access barrier.
We’ve all encountered people who are not following the guidelines. But what do you do when you’re not 100% sure? It is easy to assume that people are not respecting the regulations set in place, but the truth is that they may have a good reason to be doing so. Seeing someone who doesn’t abide by the guidelines can easily make you anxious, but before reacting try to consider what the reasons might be for the person to handle things differently.
It’s estimated that more than a billion people globally have some type of disability. Whether someone is taking their mask down to lip-read or sitting down in a strange place because of a mobility need, there are dozens of reasons people in public may need certain accommodations that they wouldn’t need in ordinary times.
A person with a vision impairment already faces plenty of accessibility barriers when navigating through public spaces, which have only increased with regulations due to Covid-19. On top of that, they often have to deal with other people’s judgement when not abiding by the guidelines and regulations. To get a better understanding, let’s try to look at the experience of going to the store during the pandemic for an individual who is blind or has low vision, and break down the specific challenges that people with a visual impairment might encounter.
By the entrance to a store, people are met with signs explaining the precautions that shoppers should take while shopping in the store. But if you are visually impaired and can’t read the signs, you might be missing critical information such as a limit of the amount of people allowed in the store. In fact, it can generally be difficult for people with a disability to find accessible and updated information, so some people might not be informed about the newest developments in regulations and guidelines.
To limit physical contact between shoppers, many stores and other public places are introducing one-way traffic on entrances, exits and aisles. The way of traffic is signalled by signs, but if you can’t see the signs, it’s pretty much impossible to abide by the way of traffic.
Most stores and other public places have conveniently placed hand sanitizer by the entrance as well as around the room for shoppers and visitors to keep their hands clean and virus free. But as a blind or visually impaired individual, there is no way of knowing where the hand sanitizers are located if you’re not very familiar with the layout of the store.
In most places a social distance around 6 feet or 2 metres is advised. But for people who are blind or have low-vision, keeping proper distance can be challenging for a variety of reasons. It can simply be because the person cannot see you, but another reason can be that poor depth perception makes it hard for an individual with low vision to determine distance. Keep in mind that guide dogs are not trained to social distance!
Shoppers who are blind or have low vision often request assistance from staff to complete their shopping, which makes it difficult to keep social distance. If they are not comfortable breaking social distance, visually impaired shoppers might attempt to complete their shopping without staff assistance, or their request for assistance might be denied by the staff because of social distancing measures. It is therefore not uncommon to see both blind and low-vision shoppers breaking social distance while receiving assistance from staff, or that they are shopping without staff assistance and are more likely to ask fellow shoppers they meet around the store for assistance.
Depending on their level of vision, people with a vision impairment are usually relying more on their hands to navigate their surroundings or select the right items. In a time where we should be touching as little as possible it can be unnerving to see people touching surfaces to locate the shopping baskets or the register, touching different items on the shelf to find the right product, or picking up several items to be able to get them close enough to read the labels.
Most stores have added distance markers on the floor to help shoppers keep a proper social distance while waiting in line. But once again, this is a sign that many people with a visual impairment can’t see and therefore can have trouble following. If they are accompanied by a guide dog, it will usually be trained to walk along in the line, but as mentioned previously, it is not trained to keep social distance.
At the register, many stores have implemented plexiglass barriers to keep their employees and customers protected with the high amount of people that staff interact with everyday. When interacting with the staff member behind the register, it is common sense to position yourself so the plexiglass barrier is between yourself and the employee. But if you can’t see the barrier, it can be difficult to position yourself correctly and locate the hole in the barrier if you need to give or receive something from the staff member.
These are just some of the regulations and guidelines that can be challenging for people who are blind or have low vision. Always keep in mind that people with a vision impairment and other disabilities have very different experiences, and they don’t all have the same challenges. Even though it’s easy to jump to conclusions about why someone is not following the guidelines, try to think twice about what the reasons behind it can be. People with disabilities generally live with access issues that have been increased with the implementation of covid-19 regulations and guidelines. It can already be a daunting experience to venture out, without having to deal with the judgment from fellow citizens, when they are not able to follow the guidelines. We’re all doing the best we can to get through these challenging times, and by standing together we’ll come out stronger on the other side. If you’re in doubt, remember that you can always ask if someone wants your help - just be sure to respect their answer, even if the answer is no.