We call for public to help those with sight loss trying to social distance

As lockdown starts to ease and communities across the country begin to enjoy fewer restrictions around travel and socialising, we highlight that lockdown being lifted doesn’t mean greater freedom for everyone.  

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Just 22% of the public ‘completely comfortable’ offering to help someone with sight loss while social distancing is in place. 

Sight loss and social distancing

Coming out of lockdown highlights a new set of challenges for people with sight loss to overcome – with social distancing measures limiting independence and increasing isolation. 

Guide dog owner Jonathan Attenborough from Perth explains: “Social distancing is the most challenging aspect for me in the whole Covid-19 situation. Not being able to socially distance is a major challenge to my independence and keeping myself safe.

“I’m less confident getting out and about than I was. Now that lockdown is lifting, other people are trying to get their life back to what it was, but it’s a whole new world for people with sight loss. It’s a lot for us to adjust to and it would really help if people have an awareness of how they can play their part.”

Research conducted by us in the first week of May* found:

  • Just 22% of the general public would feel ‘completely comfortable’ offering to help someone with sight loss while social distancing measures were in place. Reasons included not knowing how to help from two metres away (50%) and being concerned about making physical contact (37%).
  • Although 78% of GB adults understood that those with sight loss would face additional challenges while social distancing, 65% hadn’t considered this prior to taking the survey.

These concerns are valid - the support people with sight loss have previously relied on, such as sighted guiding which can involve taking someone’s elbow, is not compatible with social distancing. This has left people with sight loss concerned about accessing essential services such as supermarkets and public transport.

To help combat the increasing isolation felt by those with sight loss during lockdown, we are launching a campaign called ‘Be There’, which gives guidance to encourage the public to feel confident in their ability to offer support whilst maintaining social distancing. 

1. Keep your distance, but don’t disappear

People with sight loss may find it challenging to social distance, so if you see someone with a guide dog or a long cane then you can help them by making sure you keep 2m away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also offer your help.  

As guide dog owner Louis Moorhouse, 18, says: “My guide dog Kizzy hasn’t been trained to social distance, that’s why we need help from the sighted public. If you see us coming towards you, please don’t be offended that we might not be observing the two metre rule or attempting to stop – we just don’t know that you are nearby so you have to do the social distancing for us if you can. If we don’t acknowledge that, please know that we are still grateful, we might just not know what action you have taken to help keep us safe – feel free to let us know you are there!”

2. Say hello and offer your help

Simply by letting someone with sight loss know you are nearby; you are giving them the opportunity to ask for any help if they need it. People often feel unsure about their ability to help someone with sight loss, but their request could be a simple as finding out where a shopping queue starts, or if there is a safer place to cross a road.

Anne Ruddock, 69 from North Yorkshire says: “It can be really challenging at the best of times when you can’t see what’s going on around you. At the moment, it’s vital that I get more verbal information from people around me, as a lot of the environment around us is built on visual cues, which I can’t rely on. By saying ‘hello’ and offering some extra help could make the world of difference.”

3. Describe the scene

We’ve all had to adapt to unusual sights during lockdown – people standing apart in long lines outside of supermarkets for example. But those with sight loss haven’t always witnessed this to the same extent, which can be isolating and confusing. By describing what you can see to someone with sight loss, you can help them to understand the environment and navigate accordingly. 

Guide dog owner Jonathan Attenborough explains “I don’t always know there is a queue because my dog Sammy takes me to the door of the shop, not the end of the queue. Shops have introduced visual indicators and one-way systems and if you can’t see they’re a major challenge.”

At the moment, it’s vital that I get more verbal information from people around me, as a lot of the environment around us is built on visual cues, which I can’t rely on. By saying ‘hello’ and offering some extra help could make the world of difference.
Anne Ruddock, Guide dog owner

As part of a separate survey, people with sight loss had previously told Guide Dogs that concerns about travelling once lockdown restrictions begin to be lifted included their ability to social distance whilst using transport (84%) and access to support whilst using transport (61%)**.

 Guide Dogs Director of Operations Pete Osborne said: “Lockdown being lifted isn’t the start of greater freedoms for everyone. In the past couple of months, we have consistently heard that people with sight loss are concerned about social distancing - even the most confident are lacking confidence in the new environment. They are concerned that people will avoid them and be less willing to help and have told us that not knowing what the new environment looks like is making even doing normal routes a stressful experience.

“Our concern is that if social distancing policies are to continue indefinitely for all our safety, they actually have the potential to do harm. At an extreme, they could lead to people with sight loss being avoided in public and assisted to stay at home, not assisted to live independently.

“That’s why, in addition to telling the general public how they can help, we’re also asking the government to work with us and the wider sight loss community to make sure that sighted guiding, which is crucial for independence and reducing social isolation, can be provided safely.”

*All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2071 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 2nd – 3rd June 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

** 328 people have completed the Guide Dogs our transport survey in May 2020, online via the Guide Dogs Engaging Networks platform. 92% of these are people with sight loss and the remaining participants are people who care of people with sight loss. 33% of respondents currently have a guide dog. 

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