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Life as a deafblind person during a pandemic

Photo of Charlotte Little, a young woman with long light brown, wearing a black coat and holding a long red and white cane in front of her.

NESS's first blog, written by Charlotte Little, a young law graduate and Director of NESS. 

As the lockdown measures begin to ease in Scotland, are we considering the needs of deafblind people?

Scotland went into lockdown on 23rd March, over four months ago. These disruptive but essential measures have drastically affected our lives, overthrowing the routines of people young and old, non-disabled and disabled. We were banished to the safety of our homes in a bid to protect the NHS and countless lives. People panicked, stockpiled, or downplayed the seriousness of coronavirus.

For months, many disabled individuals have struggled to access slots for online shopping, too afraid of entering the shops themselves due to the queues, one-way systems, and mandatory two metres distancing. The use of face coverings and masks have posed another communicative barrier for D/deaf and hard of hearing people, many of whom depend on lip-reading to understand hearing people. Boris Johnson’s daily coronavirus briefings came without sign language interpreters, excluding BSL users from vital and potentially life-saving information about a public health emergency. Disabled and Deaf people were forgotten about and left to fend for themselves.

The rules around social distancing meant that many blind and partially sighted people couldn't ask for assistance or guiding from staff or members of the public, whether that's picking up groceries or travelling by bus. Relying on the public to give us enough room (approximately six feet) was a daunting and unrealistic ask, and we surrendered to the comfort of our four walls.

These past four months have been bleak, uncertain, and frightening. After years of confidence-building as a young hard of hearing woman with deteriorating peripheral vision, the effects of lockdown threw me back to square one. I relied on my friends and family for food shopping, and I spent most days inside. Because of my sight loss, I was unable to socially distance independently, fearful of catching coronavirus and passing it on. It was hard to keep busy once I finished my university course, and I felt like any degree of independence I did have, was snatched from me. 

Four months later and the four nations are well under way in easing the lockdown measures, hastily ploughing through each phase in an attempt to kickstart the economy. Life is beginning to return to normal, but social distancing is still mandatory, and masks are required in stores and public transport. The acts of ignorance and disregard for public safety shown by some non-disabled people are enough to deter deafblind people from joining the rest of society. Because blind people have to rely on others to socially distance, and because D/deaf people can no longer rely on their lip-reading abilities, this has placed an onus on the public to accommodate these individuals. Maintaining social distancing in restaurants, pubs, and queues is near impossible for a blind or partially sighted person, whether they be a cane user or a guide dog user. I’ve read many horror stories of guide dog and cane users being shouted at by others for not maintaining a two-meter gap, or for ‘skipping the queue’. In addition to this, ‘deaf-friendly’ masks are not standard practice in supermarkets or food stores. 

While there have been improvements for the blind and partially sighted community, in that people are now allowed to guide a blind person if necessary, this hasn’t reassured my hesitations as a deafblind person. My double whammy of a condition means that I can’t understand most people wearing a traditional face covering, as I need to be able to lip read. Having two sensory losses to consider is exhausting, and before lockdown, I meticulously planned every inch of my journeys. Masks are crucial in the fight against COVID-19, but public service employees need to be provided with disability training and specialised masks before deafblind and Deaf communities can feel safe.

What have your experiences been like?

If you are in contact with NESS and would like to contribute to a NESS blog, please get in touch by phoning NESS on 0345 271 2345, SMS 07593 102004 or emailing libby.hillhouse@nesensoryservices.org.