‘I don’t want to be scared anymore:’ physical distancing tough for the blind

‘I don’t want to be scared anymore:’ physical distancing tough for the blind

Maintaining a two-metre distance from members of the public is a challenge

The physical distancing rules put in place across Canadian society are supposed to shield everyone from the ravages of COVID-19, but Nick D’Ambrosio doesn’t feel protected.

Maintaining a two-metre distance from members of the public is a challenge for the 49-year-old, who has lost most of his eyesight and now travels with a white cane.

Neither that mobility aid nor his remaining vision are up to the task of keeping him at a safe distance from others, either in the Montreal-area drug store where he’s stocked shelves for 22 years or while running essential errands further afield.

Other potentially protective measures — such as the widespread distribution of hand sanitizer dispensers or the installation of floor markers intended to manage crowds in public spaces — also leave him and other Canadians living with vision loss on the margins, D’Ambrosio said. Sometimes the only way to locate the new additions involves soliciting sighted assistance from strangers — thereby further increasing exposure to the novel coronavirus.

D’Ambrosio said he’s fortunate to have supportive colleagues and loved ones who help mitigate his personal risk, but the additional barriers add another dimension of anxiety for blind Canadians navigating an already troubling time.

“I’ve been scared for a good portion of my life and I don’t want to be scared anymore,” D’Ambrosio said in a telephone interview. ”But does the anxiety linger in me at times? I’d be lying to you if I say no.”

While the ravages of COVID-19 are being felt across all of society, a growing chorus of voices has been sounding the alarm about the virus’s impact on people with disabilities around the world.

Earlier this month, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for governments to place greater focus on the unique needs of their disabled citizens.

“People with disabilities are among the hardest hit by COVID-19,” Guterres said in a statement. “They face a lack of accessible public health information, significant barriers to implement basic hygiene measures, and inaccessible health facilities. If they contract COVID-19, many are more likely to develop severe health conditions, which may result in death.”

Canadians living with vision loss are among those feeling a disproportionate impact from both the virus and the measures meant to protect against it, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Canadian Council of the Blind.

The online questionnaire, surveying more than 500 blind, partially sighted and deafblind Canadians, identified myriad concerns involving nearly all facets of everyday life.

Nearly half the respondents said they did not feel safe when leaving their home since the pandemic began, largely due to difficulties observing physical distancing protocols or failure of the able-bodied population to maintain a safe distance. Other concerns included the accessibility of COVID-19 testing sites, the ability to use public transit safely, heightened economic vulnerability and the increased toll that social isolation will take on mental health.

Council President Louise Gillis said blind Canadians have even been subjected to public scorn, being “hollered at” for inadvertently running afoul of public health measures that are inherently difficult for them to observe.

In nearly every case, she said, the community’s fears stem from pre-existing systemic issues now exacerbated by COVID-19.

“We seem to be more vulnerable when something happens,” she said.

For Penny Leclair, who is deafblind, vulnerability comes from an increased sense of isolation and the withdrawal of key social supports over the course of the pandemic.

The 68-year-old North Bay, Ont., resident said she feels excluded from many of the workarounds most of society is turning to for social connection, such as video conferencing and other platforms that rely on sound and sight.

She’s also cut off from the intervener services she relied on before the outbreak, since they’ve been scaled back and concentrated on people living alone.

Delegating all outside tasks to her husband, she said, has left her wrestling with both a loss of independence and powerful feelings of isolation.

“For deafblind people, touch is a must and dependence on an intervener is a part of life — not social,” Leclair said in an email interview. “The intervener is not just a family support person, they are eyes and ears for deafblind people.”

For Barbara Amberstone, a legally blind Indigenous elder living in Victoria, the greatest frustration comes from proposed coping solutions that she said leave large swaths of the community on the margins.

Most efforts to respond to COVID-19 have involved the use of technology, she said, noting everything from reading government information to maintaining social connection depends on an internet connection and accessible hardware and software. Such reliance on tech is further entrenched in the vision loss community, she added.

But Amberstone said those who can’t afford or access the technology, including those living in poverty or remote parts of the country, are now coping with an additional layer of isolation on top of those already imposed by the pandemic.

“It’s so privileged,” Amberstone said of the national response. “There’s so much that poor people and disabled people are left out of.”

The council report found public awareness and more effective messaging from all levels of government are needed to limit the effects of COVID-19 and its aftermath on the vision loss community.

D’Ambrosio agrees, saying the unique challenges he and his peers all face can’t be ignored forever.

“Right now we’re at the very early stages and things are changing daily,” he said. “So I don’t know if this is the new norm, I don’t know if this will persist … but eventually our rights will have to be heard.”

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported an additional 456 COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Five new COVID-19 deaths in Central zone, two in Red Deer

Province reports 456 new cases of COVID-19

A 36-year-old Eckville pedophile  was sentenced to 18 years in prison and given a 10-year-long-term supervision order for abusing nearly a dozen children over a decade.
Black Press file photo
Updated: Central Alberta pedophile sentenced to 18 years in prison and declared long-term offender

Eckville man abused nearly a dozen children as young as two over nearly a decade

Businesses are getting creative to keep cash flowing. (File photo)
Central Albertan lobbying government to help those affected by CERB repayments

Catherine Hay says she received a letter in November saying she had to completely repay the benefit

World Juniors’ referee Mike Langin makes a called during the Canada vs. Slovakia at the 2021 World Junior Championship at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Dec. 27, 2020. (Photo by Matthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada)
Former Sylvan Lake man lives his dream at World Junior Championships

Mike Langin was one the 25 Canadian officials who worked during the tournament

The newly built Parkland Regional Library Services. (Photo Submitted)
Parkland Regional Library system moves into new offices in Lacombe

“Someone with a Parkland Library card can borrow from 350 libraries in Alberta,” Ron Sheppard

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

A memorial for the fatal bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335 near Tisdale, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards
‘End of the road:’ Truck driver in Humboldt Broncos crash awaits deportation decision

Sidhu was sentenced almost two years ago to eight years after pleading guilty to dangerous driving

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy’s Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. Public opposition to the Alberta government’s plans to expand coal mining in the Rocky Mountains appears to be growing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File
Alberta cancels coal leases, pauses future sales, as opposition increases

New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt welcomed the suspension

File photo
Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit recovers valuable stolen property

Property valued at over $50,000 recovered by Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit.

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy’s Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File)
First Nations seek to intervene in court challenge of coal policy removal

Bearspaw, Ermineskin and Whitefish First Nations are among those looking to intervene

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau vows to keep up the fight to sway U.S. on merits of Keystone XL pipeline

Canada’s pitch to the Biden team has framed Keystone XL as a more environmentally friendly project than original

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
No Pfizer vaccines arriving in Canada next week; feds still expect 4M doses by end of March

More cases of U.K. variant, South African variant found in Canada

Health-care workers wait in line at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Canadians who have had COVID-19 should still get the vaccine, experts say

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were found to have a 95 per cent efficacy

An empty Peel and Sainte-Catherine street is shown in Montreal, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Poll finds strong support for COVID-19 curfews despite doubts about effectiveness

The poll suggests 59 per cent remain somewhat or very afraid of contracting COVID-19

Most Read