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Charity warns of ‘double lockdown’ for people with sight loss in Wales

As lockdown eases, blind and partially sighted people are increasingly anxious about venturing out says RNIB

As lockdown eases, The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is warning that blind and partially sighted people’s independence in Wales is increasingly under threat.

Social distancing, which relies heavily on sight, has made it nearly impossible for people with vision impairment to navigate safely and independently in a world turned ‘upside down’ by measures and rules that are often inaccessible.

In response, RNIB has launched the World Upside Down campaign today (Monday 6 July), calling for people to think about the challenges blind and partially sighted people might face and make small changes to keep everyone safe. Its launch sees Europe’s biggest advertising display, the Piccadilly Lights, running upturned displays in London every hour as a representation of the World Upside Down that people with sight loss are facing.

Eleanor Southwood, Chair of Trustees at RNIB, said: “Blind and partially sighted people like me are used to navigating a world not designed with us in mind, but social distancing has really turned our world upside down. A lot of the strategies and tools we use to get around safely – like being guided – are not allowed under current rules, and many have been left stranded.

“We’ve heard from many blind and partially sighted people who are incredibly anxious about how to manage the situation, and we’re concerned that this will have a real impact on people’s quality of life. The ‘new normal’ risks causing a double lockdown for people with sight loss. This is not fair or acceptable.

“We’re asking the general public to help us safely social distance whilst getting on with life. By being aware of the challenges we might face, and simply asking if assistance is needed, you can help us keep our independence and stay safe. We also want the Government and businesses to take action, so that measures designed to protect us are inclusive to everyone, not just to those who can see them.”

RNIB Cymru Director, Ansley Workman said: “We have raised the issue of social distancing for blind and partially sighted people in Wales with the Welsh government. We welcome the ‘Safer Public Spaces’ guidance the government published which explicitly states that local authorities must consider the needs of people with sight loss when making any changes to the layout of public spaces. This will make a real difference to the lives of people with sight loss in Wales.”

There are 121,000 people with sight loss in the Wales, many of whom trust in others to help them social distance effectively by moving away. But, in an RNIB poll of the general public, nearly a third (31 per cent) of people admitted to breaking social distancing rules.

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The charity has also heard from many blind and partially sighted people who say that difficulties with social distancing have negatively impacted their lives. In an RNIB survey of people with sight loss, two thirds (66 per cent) of people said they feel less independent now than before lockdown, and four in five (80 per cent) said the way they shop has changed, with half as many continuing to shop independently.

Tafsila Khan from Cardiff has Retinitis Pigmentosa and is registered severely sight impaired. The mother-of-three, who also uses a cane, has been finding the easing of lockdown very challenging for her independence, confidence and general well-being.

Tafsila said: “Recently I had to return a package and my children were unable to come with me and I didn’t have Personal Assistant support until later in the week. This meant I did not go independently as I was nervous about what was going to be there.  I feel nervous as I don’t know if I would have been standing in the right place or too close to someone.”

“I am waiting with anticipation for someone to shout at me for not social distancing.”

“This is not me, and I was independent before lockdown. I used to ask for assistance at shops. I don’t know if I can ask for assistance now or what to expect. Even some of the little changes that are being made are stopping me from doing things I would have done in the past.”

“Using a card machine in a shop is hard as I don’t know where they are, due to shields covering the check out. Now my PA has to do it for me as I don’t want to be feeling around for it. Even if people aren’t looking at me, I have anxiety that they are looking at me and if they do say something it will make me less independent.”

As part of its World Upside Down campaign, RNIB is working with organisations across the UK, such as Amazon, Very.co.uk, Kellogg’s, Barclays, P&G, TalkTalk, Financial Times, LEGO and British Gas, to share images of upturned items on social media to highlight the issue. It is also asking people to lend their support by turning their social media profile pictures upside down and testing themselves with the charity’s online social distancing quiz.

Ms Workman continued: “Eighty-nine per cent of people we talked to felt that continuing to social distance is important, and ninety-one per cent agreed that sighted people should proactively help those who can’t see to social distance effectively. Just being aware of the people around you and offering to help can have a positive impact and help build someone’s confidence, rather than damage it.”