RARE Daily

Navigating in a World of Social Distancing When You’re Blind

April 7, 2020

Being blind, I rely on touch as a primary navigation tool. Now, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the simple act of getting around to a dangerous pursuit.

Though it may sound contradictory, to maintain my independence, I have had to embrace asking for assistance from family, friends and, appeal to the kindness of strangers.

The ability to ask for assistance or, more importantly, take a person’s elbow and be led has allowed me to travel by myself, experience the world, and meet and connect with so many marvelous strangers.

Thousands of people have assisted me during this journey of vision loss. In some cases, strangers have become good friends.

I wonder what the future will hold for the blind and visually impaired. How do we get assistance with the requisite social distancing? Will the need for proximity and personal touch raise too much fear for other to be willing to help or offer assistance?

While all of us look forward to the end of this pandemic, social distancing, and the return to normalcy, it will take time to regain that lost sense of being comfortable in close proximity to others.

I wonder what the new reality is going to be for the blind community. I don’t want to spread any germs, especially to kind strangers who I have met along the way.

Is wearing a mask going to be forever necessary for us to get a stranger to lead us by their elbow? I hope not. But the fear this fear of personal contact created by this pandemic is going to make navigating the world as a blind person far more difficult.

When I needed help in the past, I relied on flashing a smile as a sure way to approach someone for assistance. That won’t work if I am wearing a mask.

We in the blind community are a pretty resilient bunch. We will manage to work our way through this. That being said, if you happen to see a visually impaired person wearing a mask, let me encourage you to take a moment and ask them if they need assistance. You can offer your elbow to lead them.

All I ask is that you make sure it’s not the same elbow that you used to sneeze into.

H. Eric Hartman is director of advocacy for the Choroideremia Research Foundation

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