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Understanding COVID-19 Social Distancing Challenges for People With Vision Loss—and How to Help

May 29, 2020

Long lines curving around buildings, markers every six feet, one-way arrows painted on floors. These and other safety steps have become part of everyday life during the COVID-19 pandemic. While intended to keep us safe, such measures are designed for people who can see them.

Darran Zenger, MSW, is not one of those people. Zenger has Usher syndrome and describes his vision as "like looking through two straws, each smeared with Vaseline on the end."

He expertly navigates the world with the help of a white cane and his guide dog, Lou. He cooks, uses a smartphone, takes public transportation, and considers himself adaptable to just about any situation.

But social distancing, also called physical distancing, is presenting challenges never imagined by Zenger and others with visual impairments that cannot be corrected with standard eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication, or surgery.

"Social distancing obviously presents a radically different world for people with visual impairments," explains Lisa Ord, PhD, LCSW, director of the John A. Moran Eye Center Patient Support Program.

"Heightened tensions brought on by fear of the coronavirus make it more important than ever to be aware not everyone can see physical barriers or read signs," Ord says. "And public spaces with blocked-off chairs are confusing to guide dogs who may be getting mixed signals—their owners might say one thing, but the barrier prevents the guide dog from moving."

The Invisible Barriers of the Coronavirus Crisis

For Zenger, everyday shopping can be especially fraught with frustration.

"I shop with a sighted person," he says. "I also take my white cane, so it's a signal that I may not be able to tell exactly what's in front of me. My friend can tell me where the six-foot markers are, but what's hardest for me are the transparent barriers between the checkers and myself."

Card readers present another challenge.

"I like to enter my id on the card reader," he says. "But the first time I encountered a clear barrier, I didn't know it was there, or that the card reader was in a different position, or that the checker was wearing a mask, and that's why it was so hard to hear what she was saying when I kept touching the barrier. It turned into a really frustrating situation. If I'd been alone or with Lou, it would have been even worse."

Vision Loss Combined with Hearing Loss

Rob Morrow's vision is 20/300 in one eye and 20/400 in the other. (Vision of 20/200 is considered legally blind.) He has limited vision in some environments and no vision in bright sunlight. He is also profoundly deaf, and though a cochlear implant helps, he sometimes has trouble understanding words.

"My first outing after the coronavirus struck was to a busy Starbucks," he says. "At the time, I was completely unaware of the required social distancing. I normally have a difficult time standing in line because it's hard to determine where others might be in relation to me. I ended up getting too close to someone, and he yelled at me. Because of all the background noise, I couldn't understand what he was saying, so I moved closer, and then he got louder and actually pushed me away. I finally understood what he was saying, but I was so embarrassed I left."

Morrow shops alone and has encountered many challenges, from maintaining distance and navigating the invisible barriers to accidentally learning it was no longer OK to bring personal shopping bags.

"I don't have family or friends to help me understand all the changes and new requirements, so it's taken me weeks and several hard experiences to figure it out," he says. "My anxiety level increases before I even venture out."

How You Can Help

Ord has heard from many of her patients that they are feeling especially isolated.

"They may be experiencing depression and the ongoing frustrations of shopping, so if you know someone who could use help, don't hesitate to reach out," she says.

If you see a visually impaired person who might be confused by social distancing—and by the added challenge of hearing people talk through their masks, Ord offers the following tips:

  • If someone with a white cane or a guide dog seems to be confused or struggling, please don't touch that person or grab an elbow. Just speak up and ask if you can help.
  • Describe the surroundings. If you're waiting in a line, you can tell the person when the line is moving and verbally guide them to the next marker.
  • Describe any barriers—what and where they are—with as much precision as possible. For instance, instead of "over there, to your left," say "two feet to your left."
  • If the person is looking for an empty chair in a waiting area, tell them where it is.
  • Are there written signs with policies or directions posted? Let the person know and read the sign to them.
  • Remember that masks muffle voices, so speak clearly and slowly, but don't raise your voice unless necessary because of background noise.
  • If you're getting on an elevator and there's a passenger limit, let the person know how many people are allowed and if it's OK to enter.

About Moran's Patient Support Program

Moran's Patient Support Program offers a variety of professionally moderated support groups and vision rehabilitation services to help patients of all ages, families, and caregivers find ways to understand, accept, and move past the limitations of vision loss.

Although Moran's in-person support groups have been suspended temporarily because of COVID-19, a comprehensive, one-hour "Orientation to Vision Loss" seminar is available online. The seminar is open to everyone—including friends and family of those adjusting to vision loss.