SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – Utah’s visually impaired community said they have experienced a lot of obstacles with little help from state leaders regarding precautions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the National Federation of the Blind, there are 55,000 people living in Utah with either complete or partial vision loss. Those individuals usually use touch as an alternative method to participate in any activity that those with sight usually do with their eyes.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, blind Utahns found themselves in the midst of confusion, fear, and nowhere to turn.
Everette Bacon, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah, said there were multiple issues that arose for those without sight once the “stay-at-home” directive went into place.
Grocery stores, restaurants, and medical facilities started following state and health mandated guidelines which literally left the visually-impaired in the dark, and fighting for their needs to be taken into consideration.
“Drive through testing sites were announced, but blind individuals had no transportation to these sites,” said Bacon. “I spoke with UTA directly about possible assistance, but this never came to fruition.” After six weeks, the health department finally offered to provide transportation to a testing center if requested by phone.
Many grocery stores started changing their hours and offered special times for seniors but blind and disabled individuals were not included. Bacon said after calling multiple stores and working with the mayor’s office, they were eventually able to open the special hours to them as well.
Limited transportation and getting assistance when going to the store also became an even bigger problem than before, especially when public transportation reduced their services and many blind individuals started to fear riding public transportation over safety concerns.
“Delivery was a definite challenge at first because delivery slots were rarely available for the first 6 weeks of the pandemic,” said Bacon. “There were no designated delivery slots for disabled or underprivileged shoppers and the delivery fees are always a factor for those on a fixed income such as Social Security Disability Insurance.”
Bacon said when all of the restaurants went to only serving drive-through, those who do not drive faced challenges of being denied service because they were not in a vehicle.
Bacon said it is not just the physical limitations they have experienced but anxiety and mental health have definitely been an issue for many blind individuals.
“There are many new stressful situations blind folks are facing,” Bacon said. “Now that stores and restaurants are more open, there are printed signs and markings on floors for people to maintain social distance. Blind individuals have no way of being able to adhere to these new normals and must rely on the public for understanding.”
Bacon said the public seems to be helpful but there have been situations where they have experienced discrimination and targeting for simply not being able to meet these new normals, despite their willingness to.
Sandy England who has been blind for nearly 40 years said what the community and leaders do not understand is everything they do is modified. Creating apps for people to download and follow doesn’t help them at all. They have talking computers, but the programs are not friendly with a lot of websites and especially those with a lot of pictures. They also have compatible iPhones, but they do not function the same as everyone else, and apps are often very difficult to navigate.
England said some companies like Uber have tried to be accommodating, such as allowing their drivers to go and pick up food if you can call and have it scheduled for pick up.
“There is just no support system for the blind, people who have other disabilities, or for the seniors who live on their own, said England. “Thank goodness for the senior centers because they allow you to pick up lunch and take it with you, but this doesn’t help those who have no one to drive them.”
According to Bacon, the Utah Division of Services for the Blind has been doing the best they can to help bridge the gap, but things are definitely very different.
“Many clients of the agency need training that is specialized and is performed in a structured environment. The agency has been delivering daily virtual sessions that are in-depth but are definitely not the same type of services our clients are used to receiving.”
The National Federation of the Blind of Utah said they will continue to offer virtual meetings on a weekly basis and their population the best they can. For a list of resources, you can visit nfb.org or you can reach them by phone at 801-323-4372.
(disclaimer: Sandy England is the mother of the writer of this article)