Lockdown has been challenging for all. As Robert Armour finds, a year on, those with sight loss fear the chasm created through inequality could widen.
A year living though the pandemic has changed the lives of visually impaired people in ways they never thought possible. For them, it has meant they have had to master new technology, learn new ways of doing things that weren’t so easy in the first place as well as supporting others not coping so well.
Now one year on, James Adams, director of RNIB Scotland, says the pandemic has shone a light on where sight loss is leading to inequality in society while at the same time made services adapt, change and innovate to support people better.
Where the community faced huge inequalities before, it now faces the double bind of services being pressured through economic downturn as well as rising unemployment. If those with sight loss suffered more than most disabled people, it doesn’t show signs of abating.
Yet Adams remains sanguine that these issues will push forward the agenda of the sight loss community.
"Covid gave us all a sense of what it's like to feel more vulnerable and unsure, more dependent on others.
"It highlighted some serious gaps in our provision last year, gaps that were troubling enough in normal times but very alarming during a period of crisis,” he said.
“Vital information that sometimes wasn't initially available in formats like audio and braille, confusion over social distancing and guiding – not priorities for most people, perhaps, but absolutely essential to those who are blind and partially sighted."
The pandemic has highlighted the daily struggle facing people with sight loss, confronting things others take for granted.
Public health communications, for example, aren’t always accessible and many have struggled to get the information needed. Not having this readily available has left fear and anguish, and also led to isolation.
Blind and partially sighted people are still not receiving vaccination details from health boards in formats that are accessible to them, such as braille. This is leading to missed appointments that can be difficult to reschedule.
RNIB says alternative formats should be routinely and automatically sent to those who need them, using communications preferences recorded by GPs. But a year since the first lockdown, alternative formats have only been available to people who seek them out.
“It’s the very basic that are often overlooked yet can have devastating effects on people with sight loss,” says Adams.
Kirin Saeed, who is blind and lives in Edinburgh, said accessing the right information was difficult. “I’m in my 50s and at every stage there were barriers in the road. Initially, despite my own efforts and those of my carers, it was stressful finding out where and when I could get vaccinated,” she said.
“When I got the letter I couldn’t read it and was lucky a carer had dropped by. There was confusion and mixed messaging and my fear is that I’m not on a proper list going forward.”
Employment still remains one of the biggest challenges facing the sight loss community. With around 35,000 people in Scotland registered with sight impairment, and with unemployment set to reach levels not seen for decades post-Covid, there are fears the community could be impacted far worse than others, an issue RNIB Scotland is actually aware.
“Employment is something we believe can be addressed through reasonable adjustments in the workplace,” says Adams. “It is not an insurmountable challenge facing employers but it can be for employees with sight loss. It is a real fear people with sight loss will suffer disproportionately in the labour market when the economy restarts.”
RNIB Scotland will push for these issues to be given priority in the run up to the Scottish Parliament elections in May – as well as a commitment that voting itself will be more accessible for blind and partially people.
The charity also wants a pledge there will be no cuts to essential services for vulnerable groups, and demands that when full NHS eye-health services are resumed there is an emphasis on preventing avoidable sight loss.
It is concerned, too, to ensure that the new post-Covid emphasis on active travel – which could see the legalisation of rented e-scooters – does not infringe on the rights of people with disabilities to go safely outdoors.
RNIB Scotland will also call for a looming shortage of specialist school-teachers for children with sight loss to be addressed as a matter of urgency. No solution will be instant but Adams believes much can be achieved by continually keeping the issues of those with sight loss on the political agenda.
"There are huge challenges ahead but over a year on from the first lockdown I think much has been achieved and won’t stop until we return to a Scotland where no-one is left exposed at the margins.”
Sylvia Paton’s story
Sylvia Paton (59) from Edinburgh is registered blind and a guide dog user. She took medical retirement from the civil service and in 2016 was awarded an MBE for her services at work in healthcare and for charities, including RNIB Scotland.
Like many people with sight loss, Sylvia encountered particular difficulties during the Covid lockdowns.
“I think my experiences over lockdown have been very typical of many people living with sight loss,” she said. “I’ve lived alone for many years so I’ve always been reasonably confident and independent. I was therefore very surprised at the impact that lockdown had on me.
“The feeling of isolation and of being all alone crept up on me very unexpectedly. We were told that we couldn’t have visitors in our homes and we couldn’t visit others in theirs. I was suddenly faced with the fact that while I didn’t require any type of formal care, I do rely on my friends and family when they visit to read things and sometimes help me learn how to use new gadgets, describe things, etc. Having very little or no contact with others soon highlighted just how much I missed and appreciated the help and support that is normally available to me in my day to day life.
“Without public transport I worried about how I would get to medical appointments. What support would be available when I got there? Mostly things were very well organised and staff were very helpful, but I needed someone to take me so I felt that had an impact on my independence and privacy.
“Loneliness became an issue I’d never had before. Using technology can be difficult and frustrating. I can’t see who is who on video calls, for instance. Video and telephone calls don’t provide the same emotional support as face to face contact. There are just times as humans that we need to be with other people. I miss my friends, family and in particular my grandchildren.
“I don’t feel able or confident to get out and about in the same way I usually do. Social distancing is very difficult and stressful. I don’t know where other people are, what direction they are travelling in – are they travelling towards me, away from me, will they respect my space, do they realise that I don’t see very well and that a little extra space would be helpful?
“Staff in shops are usually helpful. Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said for all customers. Everyone has had their own stresses and agendas going on during lockdown, so sometimes they pay little or no attention or respect to others around them and that frightens me. I prefer to go to the supermarket, though, as I found online shopping very difficult. Delivery slots were difficult to find, even though stores gave priority to people with sight loss. I had difficulty finding the information so I gave up. I have a family member take me shopping as my sighted guide. That works well for me. I get great description and can ask questions and get back instant answers without having to find a member of staff or book an assisted shopping slot. I can go when it suits me without restrictions.
“Hopefully when this pandemic is over we will have learned an awful lot, not least about respect and appreciation for others and the help and support that we provide for each other”