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Here's what it is like to navigate the pandemic for people with vision loss

Tips and advice for how sighted folks can be a help, not a hindrance.
Shoko Kitano  Manager, Foundation Programs (Western Canada)
Shoko Kitano, CNIB manager of foundation programs in Western Canada.

During this pandemic, the lyrics of the song "Signs" by the Canadian rock group Five Man Electrical Band have likely not been more relatable since they were penned in the 1970s:

"Sign, sign; Everywhere a sign; Blockin' out the scenery; Breakin' my mind; Do this, don't do that; Can't you read the sign?"

But what if you can't read the signs or the stickers on the floor, or see the hand sanitizer station?

"When the pandemic hit last year, of course, everything went upside down for the entire world, and everybody was getting used to the 'new normal,' but when you throw in the vision loss lens to that, everything gets more complicated," said Shoko Kitano with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) Foundation.

In addition to being the manager of CNIB's programs for Western Canada, Kitano is visually impaired herself.

Some examples of pandemic complications are the ubiquitous arrows on the ground at grocery stores and other essential businesses.

"If those things are not verbally informed, or not tactile, then there is just no way for the vision-loss community members to know what the protocol is," said Kitano, who lives in North Vancouver and works out of the CNIB office in New Westminster.

She added that each store's protocols are laid out differently.

Kitano said it doesn't seem common knowledge that a white cane or guide dog means the person is visually impaired.

"When somebody is using a white cane or a guide dog, if the general public doesn't know what that means, they may just shout at them, 'Hey, you aren't following the [COVID-19] rules!' or 'You are too close! Don't you know you have to keep socially distanced?'"

Some folks with vision loss rely on sighted guides, who hold onto their arms or their elbow to help navigate unfamiliar places.

Even if the guide is within the same bubble as the person with sight challenges, the general public doesn't always understand that and may think the pair are not following physical distancing guidelines.

"Once again, that awareness piece has been one of the biggest challenges," she said.

Not knowing who is wearing a mask and who isn't within one's orbit is another challenge.

Kitano said she can sense when someone is coming too close.

"You have to speak up if that person is making you uncomfortable," she said.

To put on a mask correctly, Kitano said she feels where the nose piece is and follows the straps to see which side faces out.

She noted that some people have hearing loss and low vision, so not reading lips due to masks is also a considerable challenge for some.

"I have heard some deaf-blind participants say that is a very difficult thing," she said.

What can people with sight do to help?

The number one thing members of the sighted public can do if they encounter a visually impaired person is not making assumptions.

"Don't assume anything," Kitano said.

The degree of vision loss each person has varies greatly, she noted.

"Oftentimes, we hear the misconception that if you are blind, you see black — you see nothing — which is not the case. Actually, 90% of the vision loss community has some kind of sight including light perception — being able to pick up light and shadows — so there is information coming through visual clues."

She said people who use a white cane know the way around their communities.

They have learned the routes for where they need to go and how to navigate via landmarks.

"If the general public wants to ask if the person needs any help, just keep a distance — don't go in their face — and say, 'I just wanted to ask if you are doing OK and do you need any help?' And they will tell you."

The key is always to ask what the person needs, rather than assuming.

If you see someone you know personally who has vision loss, it is best to announce yourself, as voices aren't always enough to identify someone.

"Say, 'Hi, it is Mary. How are you?'" Kitano said, adding if you have a common name it can be helpful to add where you know the person from.

"It is Mary, from work, or Mary from the gym," for example.

"I am pretty good with recognizing people's voices, but the thing is, when the person is outside of the usual context... it is hard to put the two together — the voice and the name," she said.

CNIB encourages folks with vision loss to call in to each store ahead of time to find out what protocols are in place.

It can be helpful for a store employee to meet the person at the entrance to explain where the hand sanitizer is located and what the protocols are.

Here are some other tips from CNIB.

A matter of trust

Kitano said trust is an issue visually impaired folks have to wrestle with, pandemic or not.

If someone is guiding you, you have to trust they are taking you where they say they are, for example.

"Trust is such a huge part of living with vision loss in general," she said, adding things like trusting other people to wear a mask is an extension of that.

Online, something sighted people can do is use descriptions with photos so that what is pictured can be understood by everyone.

"That would be super helpful. Myself, for example, I can't really make out what the picture is about, but I still like to use social media. I am on Instagram, Twitter, and so forth. Being able to listen to the description of the picture or images really helps me to stay connected and be included."

She said writing out what the picture includes, whether it is a blue sky or mountains, or people, for example, works well. Or describe what action is happening in the photo.

Helpful tech

Some technology has proved especially inclusive in the pandemic, Kitano said.

Zoom has been very useful for visually impaired communities because it is accessible using many platforms, including smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers.

Zoom integrates with other technology that users with visual challenges use, such as voice over, screen reader and magnification software.

"I was very surprised. Zoom is used in mainstream society... and we just started using it like crazy once the pandemic hit," she said, noting many blindness organizations, such as CNIB use it.

Although people with vision loss or blindness are not a priority group for COVID-19 vaccines, Kitano applauded the provincial government's efforts to make the registration and booking system online accessible.

CNIB had previously lobbied the province to make the vaccine strategy inclusive and user-friendly.

"I think that is great," she said.

CNIB estimates 500,000 Canadians are blind or partially sighted.

The organization has about 2,400 registered participants in B.C.