Focus Befriending Volunteer, Devika Nair, shares her thoughts on social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on people living with sight loss. 

Research conducted by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in May this year reported that almost 75% of blind or partially sighted people had concerns about getting access to food during the pandemic; two thirds of respondents felt they had lost their independence. There have been accounts in the news from those who are blind or partially sighted who have been 'yelled at’ after unknowingly breaking social distancing measures. This can be directly attributed to the general public’s lack of awareness for people with low vision and a lack of understanding of guide dogs and white canes. It is therefore disappointing that the impact of the pandemic on people who are blind or have visual impairments is not more widely discussed.  

As lockdown eases but social distancing measures remain, the value of sight on our ability to keep ourselves safe must not be overlooked. For people with low vision, tactile information and human proximity for guidance are vital to engage with the external environment. Social distancing measures unfortunately remove these sensory inputs and hence undermine the practices that enable people with visual impairments to stay safe outside of their home environment.  
We can all play a part in minimizing the ramifications of social distancing on people living with blindness or partial sight. Primarily, we must do more to educate the general public and raise awareness. The public should be educated on the significance of white canes, which should include teaching in schools as well as national campaigns to remove any possible stigma.  
Secondly, we must reach out to help those in our communities who are living with vision loss. This could include something as simple as letting a neighbour know when you have a grocery delivery slot and asking if they need anything. If you are able, you could offer to do their shopping for them. Alternatively, they may prefer you to accompany them as a friend and verbally navigate them or hold either ends of a trolley, removing potential hazards in their way.  
Whilst we continue to protect our physical health, we must not neglect mental health, especially of those who are living with visual impairments. I volunteer for Focus, a local Birmingham charity for the blind and partially sighted. Through this I have been working as a telephone befriender; once a week I ring up my befriendee who lives alone and have gained a valuable friend through this. She is anxious about leaving her house, and hence is still socially isolated. I hope that I can allay any anxiety or loneliness she might be experiencing. This is an amazing initiative from Focus and I strongly encourage you, if you have half an hour every week, to sign up to the programme. You would help someone who is partially sighted and may be experiencing loneliness, but you will also make a great friend in the process.  
Most importantly, in order to keep both blind and sighted people safe, we must continue to observe social distancing measures. RNIB has advice on how to help with social distancing
 for those who wish to learn more. Above all, we must treat each other with kindness and respect as we all navigate the ‘new normal’.