Thoughts from the front

Thoughts from the Front is a collection of posts by members and associates of China Vision, reflecting their experiences and thoughts about disability, China, and related topics.  

About the writer:

Ellen Bassani is a trustee of China Vision. She lives in the UK and has worked for many years as a disability equality trainer. She has facilitated DET workshops for visually impaired people in China. 

A Blind Person's COVID

It’s been hard for all of us, this lockdown, social distancing and fumbling for hand sanitizers.  Suddenly, life as we knew it had changed for us all, and quickly.  At the same time as acknowledging these wide-ranging effects of the virus in general, I’m here to ask that society might spare a particular thought or two for the visually impaired citizens whose everyday lives especially depend on reliable order and infrastructure.  Trust in strangers has taken years to hone.  Now strangers pose a death threat through illness.  Routes to work and shops, once familiar, now seem too daunting.

I’m a nearly blind, nearly seventy, high-risk woman who’s not been out by myself, excluding walks in the park, since March the 10th. This pandemic has managed to shake my confidence, while lone travelling to other countries failed to do so.  Risk assessing every visit or trip out exhausts even the hardiest spirit.

A walk in the park is part of my bid to stay healthy.  Since lockdown, I bother less about staying fit.  Why?

If sight is limited, such a walk requires endless concentration.  Every second the tactile and auditory cues are being sifted for information. Am I going in the right direction?  Has my cane hit an obstacle or a land mark? Any false decision and I’m over the bank and rolling towards the lake.  Since COVID, another layer is added to the effort of concentrating.  Where are my fellow park users?  The paths are soft under foot so the approaching footsteps can be missed.  Many walkers, thoughtfully call from three metres distance, “coming on your left.”  It feels uncivil to turn my face away as they pass.  A light-hearted quip about the awfulness of the current situation, banishes offence. Though I recently thumped a four-year-old on the head with my stick arm.  Social distancing was not quite grasped by the youngster.  It was the shout of pain that registered my bulls eye.

Government guidance encourages us to cough or sneeze into our elbow.  Guess where I hold when guided?  On future outings, the shoulder might be the place to grab, or here’s a novel idea.  Ask the guide to take the end of your cane and lead you.  The cane would be parallel to the ground.  This gives reasonable distancing.  I’m sure it looks silly.  But hay, these are outrageous times.

A friend shops for me.  I’ve been spared the stress of abiding with the distancing rules.  The shop may be located, but how, if visually impaired, is the cue of customers identified?  It’s embarrassing to unknowingly walk up the back of the person in front.  Blind friends have experienced abuse for overstepping the two metre mark. 

Inside the store, what happens then.  A severe visual impairment makes it impossible to shop unassisted.  Not everyone can on-line shop.  The stores have made provision, but the job of connecting with the helper both physically and humanly is clumsy when conducted through a mask, shields and gloves.  The trolley, like the cane could be the vehicle for distancing. Thus guidance without touching is achieved.

To navigate footpaths if sight is limited continues to be stressful, COVID or non-COVID.  Planners who’ve encouraged bars and restaurants to provide outdoor seating, fail to consider the impact this will pose for a long-cane user.  Street furniture, signs and bollards are always challenging.  Imagine trying to navigate through a cluttered space that was once open.  Tables, sharp sided seats and sprawling feet offer yet another bruising encounter.  Where’s the social distancing here.  Drunk people will find this precaution hard to remember.

Despite these pitfalls, isolation is the biggest threat to the wellbeing of any of us especially those with a disability.  Not all elderly or visually impaired users can manage Zoom.  There is the telephone. Yet it’s not enough to remind me that I still have a place in my community.  Comfort is gained in the sighted world from seeing faces.  For a blind person, comfort comes through touch.  It’s a blind person’s form of eye contact.  Take it away and I, like others, slide too deeply into myself. 

We know this will pass.  Yet the day-to-day grind can wear away even the most positive soul.  We’re in it together and together we’ll find solutions to the challenges.  When the whole shut-down business becomes too much, I remind myself of the real disasters that many people have had to face and endure.  Good luck to all of you out there who continue to struggle and yet survive.

Ellen Bassani July 2020

 

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