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What It Means to be Blind During a Pandemic

In an age of social distancing and not touching anything, how are people who are blind and visually impaired navigating - and how can sighted people help?

Side-by-side photos of Jerry Berrier and Kate Katulak, both in professional head shots, smiling for the camera. Text beneath their photos reads,

People with visual impairments are navigating the Covid 19 pandemic right alongside their sighted friends and family members. At the same time, they’re also faced with some unique challenges of their own.

To raise awareness of some of these issues, and to learn how communities can support their blind neighbors and loved ones during this uncertain time, we caught up with Jerry Berrier and Kate Katulak. 

Answers have been lightly edited for clarity. 

What are some of the challenges you’re facing in day-to-day life as this crisis unfolds? 

Kate: Social distancing leaves just about everyone feeling bored and lonely, and I think this can be even more extreme for people with visual impairments. 

A friend recently remarked that she’s been uplifted by the number of people she sees outside, waving and smiling to one another in her neighborhood where everyone usually keeps to themselves. It’s difficult to create this level of connection when blind. My social world is always limited to what I can hear and that range becomes a lot smaller when everyone is staying far from one another.

Not to mention, many museums, gyms, and other groups have begun offering free activities and entertainment online since everyone is stuck at home. But many of these experiences are visual and don’t include audio description.

How can people help their visually impaired friends, family members and neighbors during this time, while abiding social distancing and other health guidelines? 

Jerry: Grocery delivery services are under a lot of stress and the delivery times are really long right now. But it’s also harder for me to get to the grocery store. I’m afraid to use shared-ride services to get there, and other places, because I don’t know whether the driver or last passenger in the vehicle might have been ill. So I’d say it’s always a big help to offer to deliver things that are needed.

Kate: My advice for families, friends and others who want to support individuals who are visually impaired is they should just be willing to offer help when it’s needed and step back when it isn’t.

For those who often get around with a sighted guide (or act as a sighted guide for someone in their life), how should they proceed in the age of social distancing? 

Jerry: Some people are recommending the sighted guide take one end of a cane and the blind person the other. That creates at least a few feet of distance between the two, but it certainly isn’t an ideal way to be guided. Another way, we can ask someone to verbally direct us to where we need to go, rather than physically guiding us.

Is there anything essential places like grocery stores should know when it comes to properly serving patrons with disabilities during this time? 

Kate: I wish delivery services would prioritize people with disabilities or those who rely on them as their only source of supplies. Many typically sighted and otherwise non-disabled people are choosing not to physically go to the stores, and for good reason. But for those who can’t hop in the car when grocery delivery isn’t available, this might mean going without essential food and supplies.

Jerry: They need to know we are afraid too. We don’t want to violate social distancing guidelines any more than they do. I have not had to deal with this personally, because my wife is sighted and able to drive, but I know other blind folks who have requested a sighted guide and have been refused. I don’t know how to respond to this, because I don’t blame people for refusing. The reality is, when things get tough, our needs are sometimes forgotten and we are left behind. I think we need to learn to be more creative in how we request services.

What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about how people with disabilities are being affected by the pandemic? 

Kate: Regardless of ability or disability, we need to remember to be kind to one another. Uncertain times can bring out the worst or best in ourselves. We may not be able to be the best versions of ourselves all the time, everyday, especially now. But we can choose compassion and kindness over intolerance and animosity.

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