The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
I vividly recall my lunch date with an old friend, on March 13, 2020. While seated, it occurred to me we should get separate bowls of chips and salsa rather than share. I thought, “Welcome to COVID-19, Penny!” Since then, it has been a tailspin trying to adjust to our new normal.
As a low-vision person, COVID-19 has impacted my life in the same ways it does my sighted counterparts. But it has also affected me in other ways. While my sighted husband, friends and family can take a solitary drive to see new scenery, I’m limited to areas I can walk or bike to, and can no longer use Uber or the city bus. I experience feelings of social isolation — I miss restaurants, hiking in groups, or traveling to conferences and visiting friends. Not driving has shrunk my already small world.
My experiences are not unique however. This was confirmed as my colleagues and I reviewed the data from a research study called Flatten Inaccessibility (afb.org/FlattenInaccessibility), which examined the impact of COVID-19 on 1,921 U.S. adults with visual impairments.
COVID-19 has exposed both systemic and new issues in the lives of those with visual impairments. Consider:
• Inaccessible technology: Before COVID-19, many apps, websites and programs were not accessible enough for those who are blind or low vision. With the quick transition to work from home and increased online shopping, more visually impaired people found these tools were now essential. While we haven’t solved the problem of inaccessibility, we now have a large data set that provides clear examples of the inequalities.
• Transportation access: Between stay-at-home orders and personal safety concerns, many Americans limited their travel. While drivers only have to worry about contact with others when they get to their destination, those who rely on public transit, paratransit, ride-hailing or taxis are vulnerable to COVID-19 from the moment they leave the house. Communities need to provide ways for those who don’t drive to get safe transportation.
• “Drive-thru” and “curbside pickup” discriminate: To maintain both safety of workers and those seeking services, the societal assumption is you hop in your car and run errands. This doesn’t work for those with vision loss. Communities must have alternative plans, be it porch delivery, walk-up, or bike-thru.
As its lead author, I encourage you to read the Flatten report and hear from the participants whose voices are shared anonymously by the inclusion of over 50 quotes. What can you do to improve the situation for those with disabilities, aside from writing your legislators, reaching out to a tech company to let them know their products aren’t accessible, or explaining to your doctor why the telehealth app isn’t working effectively?
One of the most important things that anchored me over the last seven months was the people in my life, both personally and professionally. When my co-authors and I were deep in data analysis, we were a support for each other, laughing and crying together as we learned about the challenges many of those with visual impairments faced due to COVID-19.
The study findings are too important to be placed on a shelf; we need to take action. Let us know how you’re using the results of the Flatten Inaccessibility report to create a world of no limits for people with vision loss. Use the hashtag #FlattenInaccessibility to share with anyone you think may be affected. Together, we will get through this!
L. Penny Rosenblum is the director of research at the American Foundation for the Blind. She recently retired as research professor in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies at the University of Arizona, where she had worked since 1999 and earned her Ph.D. in 1997.