James Adams director of Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Scotland on how it has responded to Covid 19
This is an especially trying time for everyone. But RNIB Scotland is here for blind and partially sighted people and their families and carers. We want people with sight loss to know they are not alone and that help is available.
Like so many other charities, in just a couple of weeks RNIB Scotland had to totally reconfigure the range of services and activities that we provide to blind and partially sighted adults, children and young people. It has been an incredibly challenging time. Our organisation has had to undergo perhaps the biggest transformation it has in its 152-year history.
But in this current period of uncertainty it's more important than ever that people with sight loss have confidence that help and support is there when they need it. So we've worked hard to ensure they still have access to our services, and that the outside world, too, appreciates the need to ensure what it offers is also accessible to all.
Most vital of all is the necessity for clear information. We have campaigned as a matter of urgency to ensure that all communications are accessible and have produced guides on this. Another key area of concern, especially for those living alone, is access to food and medication, particularly difficult when social distancing restricts close proximity to sighted guides. We have urged the Scottish Government to include people with sight loss on the list of vulnerable groups eligible for priority online shopping.
In this current period of uncertainty it's more important than ever that people with sight loss have confidence that help and support is there when they need it.
We have extended the hours that our telephone helpline (0303 123 9999) is open for, from 8am to 8pm on weekdays and from 9am to 5pm on Saturdays. This can give advice and information and refer people on to other services.
Information and entertainment continues to be available from our RNIB Connect Radio station, available on Freeview 730 or online. Our station presenters are all working from home too, sometimes even broadcasting inside cupboards or under duvets to maintain good sound quality!
Our Eye Clinic Liaison Officer service, which offers practical advice and reassurance to people coming to terms with sight loss, remains in place, although this, too, is being done by phone and email. Our ECLOs now also provide a Stay InTouch Service, making weekly appointment-based calls to check in with those who are particularly vulnerable.
Technology now plays a more vital role than ever, for information, keeping in touch with friends and family, and leisure. Our Technology for Life support service can be accessed via our Helpline and those eligible who need equipment to help them through this time can apply for funding from ourTechnology Grants Programme. Our resource centre, selling a wide range of aids and equipment, also remains open for orders online.
The lockdown can have serious implications for blind and partially sighted people in terms of social isolation and need, increasing demand for activities and pursuits. Probably everyone in the country is now reading more and RNIB's Talking Book library can still post or download the thousands of titles we have available in audio.
The social and leisure interest groups set up under our Connect initiative are also still happening by phone. We are holding morning conference calls seven days a week for a general chat and raising of sprits, and evening calls three times a week. On Mondays we hold a 'Sharing personal stories' call; on Wednesdays we swap recipes and ideas for meals; Fridays we have a virtual quiz; Saturdays it's football focus; and on Sunday morning we have a time to reflect on the previous week and look forward. Book groups, a film club, even a choir all continue to meet.
One positive consequence of telephone groups is that more people are joining these from areas where there weren't previously enough people to form a face-to-face group - something worth considering when shaping our community support post-lockdown.
For the future, there will be a lot of lessons learned about how society will function. For us, it is firstly to get a full picture of how the coronavirus situation has impacted on blind and partially sighted people and understand what needs to change. Ensuring information is provided in an accessible format is of fundamental importance during a health crisis. Accessing food and medicine, the most basic of needs, remains a considerable challenge for people with a visual impairment.
Once we have managed through the current situation, there needs to be debate on how situationally vulnerable people, who are not necessarily medically vulnerable, can be protected in any future pandemic. So, too, the way in which society manages social care provision and how the registers of blind and partially sighted people held by local authorities can be mobilised for the future.
The RNIB Helpline is available to help blind and partially sighted people and their families and carers on 0303 123 9999.