“The perils of navigating a world with coronavirus as a blind person”
June 5, 2020 | 4:07pm
Sarah Stephenson-Hunter, University of Oxford advising disabled staff, is worried about returning to work.
I have lived with a visual impairment all of my life and lost all my remaining vision in 2011. Being visually impaired had a major impact on my childhood, including disrupting my education and making it more difficult to do the things after school that my sighted friends would.
The pandemic has highlighted to me just how little awareness there is in society of what it is really like to live with a visual impairment and I’m more committed than ever to try to change this.
I find the daily task of traveling to and from work stressful and often emotionally exhausting.
But over the years I have successfully used public transport to commute between Nottingham and Birmingham, and more recently around Oxford.
I can tell you that getting around Oxford as a totally blind person using a white cane is no mean feat.
It may well be a beautiful historic city but it is a nightmare to get around with its often-narrow cobbled streets, randomly abandoned bicycles and swarms of tourists. More often than not I would arrive at work feeling emotionally drained, and in need of a lie down.
Life under lockdown has been tough for everyone, but I think the specific needs of blind and partially-sighted people have been ignored.
Working from home for the past few months has most certainly had its upside, and I’m in no hurry to return to the old “normal.” The switch to permanent working from home was therefore quite an easy one.
I have a laptop fitted with a screen reader, which lets me access all of the things I need to do, and aside from having had my ergonomic chair and keyboard at home, I have not really needed any other specific equipment or adaptations.
The switch to video meetings has also proved relatively straightforward.
Platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have good levels of accessibility, so I’ve been able to use these in much the same way as my sighted colleagues. Although I do have to check on occasions that I’m looking into the camera and not facing the opposite wall!
I have very mixed feelings about returning to the workplace. I have been shielding since the start of the outbreak, with other health conditions, so I have missed face-to-face contact altogether.
But as much as I miss impromptu chats with colleagues in the kitchen, the thought of using public transport to return to the office doesn’t fill me with desire to change my current work situation anytime soon. I have already heard from many of my visually impaired friends that they have found getting out and about during the lockdown incredibly difficult.
It is great that some of the restrictions are being lifted but I still have serious concerns around how I’ll be able to get out and about. It has been particularly hard knowing that others have been able to go out and exercise when I’ve not been able to, especially as I’m a keen runner and can’t see myself running outdoors with a guide for a long time yet.
Even with some vision, sticking to social-distancing rules is incredibly difficult. As many of the tools used to keep us apart are visual cues such as markings on the floor, many colleagues don’t go out at all or find themselves incredibly stressed, and are sometimes humiliated on a simple trip out for daily fresh air.
Where members of the public were once so happy to help and take you by the arm and guide you, they are understandably much less willing to do so in the current context. Some friends have even reported getting verbal abuse from people for not keeping their distance, even when they have a white cane or guide dog.
If I do manage to make it safely to work, the thought of trying to adhere to possible one-way systems on staircases, not coming too close to other people, waiting to use the shared kitchen, and so on, all seems like a layer of stress and anxiety that I don’t want to have to deal with anytime soon.
So, it is with a great deal of relief and acknowledgment of my privileged position that the signal I’m getting from my employer is that there is absolutely no sense that I will be forced to return to the office anytime soon. When the time does come, I will only return when I feel it is safe and realistically doable, given my specific situation.
This pandemic has shown the benefits of working from home, and I will be interested to see the long-term impact on employers’ attitudes to working from home as a reasonable adjustment for people with disabilities. It may not be right for everyone, but I could certainly see myself adopting working from home as a more regular practice going forward.
I hope that, going forward, people are more willing to try to put themselves in the shoes of others and not take for granted the freedoms and opportunities they have even in a lockdown.
Sarah Stephenson-Hunter advises disabled staff at the University of Oxford in the U.K.
This essay is part of a MarketWatch series: ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’
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