When Covid news first started circulating, it was disconcerting to hear about—a disease with no cure?—but it wasn’t impacting my life, it wasn’t even in the US yet. Then cases started spreading to Europe and Washington and Chicago… but not New York. Still, it was embedding itself more firmly in my consciousness as people debated masks and how many people died from the flu vs. this new disease.
In March, I was still having my usual experiences—you know, people forcibly assisting me across the street and what not—but I also felt, in retrospect, like it wasn’t as intense as usual. People were asking before touching or just talking to me. Then New York State got its first cases, shortly followed by the city. From there, everything moved quickly, school going online, crowd sizes being restricted, things closing down, etc. And for me, though it was disconcerting, I was taking it lightly. Since we’re supposed to be social distancing, people definitely wouldn’t be grabbing me on the street. But now, over two months later, with articles being published daily on what life might look like post-Corona, I’ve begun thinking about the potential impact on blind people with more seriousness.
Blind people are already a marginalized group. Regardless of your race or economic standing, people often, and ironically, only see your blindness. Physical prowess, romantic appeal, mental agility, etc, are all often judged at a glance. Sometimes, it’s determined that you have a higher than average ability in some area (music, for instance, because of those superhuman ears) and no ability in others (baking? No way, it would be too scary dealing with heat when you can’t see). These impressions are often determined without communicating with or spending anytime with a blind person. Sometimes, a Sighted will know, or have met a Blind. But you do have to take that with a grain of salt. Just as hanging out with one Sighted doesn’t tell me all of your capabilities, neither does knowing only one Blind. But, like racial minorities, one blind is often viewed as representative of the entire community. And, even when people want to bridge barriers and mend any misconceptions, they often don’t know how to interact. There must be a secret or trick. It’s often not even thought to just… say hi. With all of this inability to act around blindness, and now, with the added fear of a blind having Corona, I worry that the societal divide might grow wider.
During the thick of the shutdowns, blind people were being turned away from drive-through windows because they walked, rather than approached in a car. Being unable to drive, coupled with a desire to minimize contact (so, perhaps not taking that Uber), that would be the only way for us to have access to some restaurants. The argument was safety but, as written in this NFB article that further elaborates on the situation, we interact with cars constantly when crossing streets, both busy and otherwise. Restaurants are also required by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) to offer reasonable accommodations. So refusing service probably doesn’t comply.
For me, personally, I’ve been extremely hesitant about taking unfamiliar routes. I had a doctor’s appointment last week that I asked my mom to accompany me to. I knew how to walk there from my dorm and so, if no one could go with me, I knew a roundabout way of getting there. But now, being home, I was unfamiliar with the train transfer I would need. And, where I would normally be perfectly fine asking for directions, I really didn’t want to interact with strangers. They also may not have wanted to interact with me. (Though, the need to help the blind might have won out.) But with stories of people rebelling against masks and asymptomatic carriers, it did not sound all that appealing to me.
I also began wondering about grocery shopping. Would workers feel comfortable being so close as I held their arm while we navigated the store? Would I? Even if I held the cart, and they guided it, we would still be far closer than six feet. How many people might try to turn me, or any blind, away (in spite of the law) because of this? Or be abrupt with their assistance?
For the past two months or so, I was staying with a friend (I needed her wi-fi since we had to leave the dorm; I figured I could stay with her and take my time figuring out set up at home). I barely went outside in that time. I don’t know my friend’s Queens neighborhood, and while she knows a few places around her, neither does she, having spent more time traveling in Manhattan. So we either relied on her aunt for groceries, my father, or delivery services. The problem with delivery services came, however, first, when they (rightfully) went on strike. And then in finding a time slot. It was a game of choosing your groceries with enough time that they probably wouldn’t be taken out of your cart, then the frantic search at exactly midnight to find a slot within the next three days. I recently found this article, talking about the trials faced by blind people in the UK, detailing a similar problem. With the time it takes to listen to a screen reader tell you about the grocery item, and then select it, many people were having trouble adding things to their cart before a sighted person who could just visually skim. And the same problem arose when it came time to find a time slot.
For many people, the solution is simple: just have family do it. But for many blind people, independence was, and still is a struggle. There’s also this misperception that there’s always a sighted waiting in the wings. For example, when I was having trouble uploading an assignment this semester, I asked if I could email it to my professor instead. His response: he suggested I find someone to upload it for me (this came after he said he would upload the other assignment himself, because it had to be on that platform). Just finding someone to do it is not a solution. In this instance, I did have people who would gladly help, but that wasn’t the point. For many disabled people, the answer is often to just have someone else do it. But, while we’re often not opposed to asking for help if we need it, we also value our independence (which people seem to not mind casually disregarding).
So this all now leaves me wondering what post-COVID life is going to look like. I’ve read articles that talk about automated check-ins at hotels to minimize human contact, but will those machines be accessible? If there’s a continued movement toward social distancing/minimizing crowds, how hard or easy might it be to get assistance (blind or not)? Not only in a casual, “Can you help me find this restaurant that I’m probably standing right outside of” way, but in a “help me navigate this airport or grocery store” way. And these changes may be temporary… but maybe not.
When Googling to see if anyone’s talked about potential post-Corona experiences for the blind, I came across this article about a deaf-blind person’s experience. This is a disability of which I have very little knowledge, so it was interesting to read his perspective. You guys might find it interesting as well. I also wanted to leave you all with a video by a blind Youtuber I loosely follow talking about social isolation and blindness. One of the things she mentions is how hard it is when Sighted people can communicate via images: Facetime, family photos, etc and touch, one of the blind person’s mainstays is gone. If we’re isolating, we’re not hugging), so we’re even further isolated. So many things are inaccessible, we’re not taking comfort from giffs or playing the popular games, like Animal Crossing. I agree with her to some extent, but I think it’s especially hard on her since she lost her vision later in life. So I wonder how much of the frustration comes from remembered vision. Though I do think that, in some ways, Sighted people do have it easier when it comes to staying connected. But it’s hard for all of us, especially if you live alone.
I also now wonder how many young people’s push for independence will be derailed because of worried parents. And how many people will still find themselves stuck inside as the new Corona-fied world struggles to find a place for us; a world built on a foundation where our place was already pretty tenuous.