You’ve heard about the isolation that came with lockdowns, the restrictions on already limited mobility, the struggle to access groceries and essential services, navigating Zoom, and other challenges in working or studying from home during the COVID-19 pandemic for older Australians or those with disability. What’s been discussed far less are the specific barriers for those of us in the blind and low vision community in navigating the world of COVID-19 restrictions, testing and safety measures.
These concepts were not in our collective vocabulary – we simply hadn’t had to contend with them in Australia before 2020. We stumbled our way through new technology, found local testing sites, took note of capacity limits, and understood that markers, signs and placards were set up to enforce 1.5-metre social distancing rules. Yes, they were frustrating, but eventually we adapted, all these things became the norm.
But accessing testing when we felt unwell, standing 1.5 metres apart, checking-in everywhere we went, not entering hospitality venues and retail stores at capacity, and following markers on the ground to the correct exits are all harder when you are blind or have low vision. As Lila Seidman wrote in Medical Xpress, “Visual cues during the pandemic are difficult to navigate for those who can’t see. It is impossible to tell whether someone is six feet away or wearing a mask.”
It’s important to remember that not all of us with a visual disability use a cane or a seeing-eye dog, the two most commonly understood indicators of blindness or low vision. As someone who doesn’t use either, I have what is known as a hidden or invisible disability. This has been a challenge for me my entire life because I don’t “look disabled”. I managed social distancing and QR codes but would miss capacity limit signs and often walked into stores the wrong way because the enter and exit signage wasn’t clear enough. I heard from fellow Vision Australia clients that they also struggled with capacity limits or entered a store where they should have exited, but more distressingly, faced societal prejudice when they couldn’t maintain social distancing or accidentally jumped the queue, even when they were “visibly” disabled. Strangers, who may have offered to help in normal times, were less inclined to do so. Although that was understandable given how little we knew about the virus initially, it was another obstacle our community had to overcome on top of all the other challenges we faced due to the pandemic.
An additional hurdle for some in our community is using QR codes and apps such as the COVIDSafe app. It was promoted by the Federal Government as an important tool to protect ourselves, but when it was launched, it became clear that those who were blind or had low vision were unable to use it, as reported by Bruce Maguire, Vision Australia’s lead policy advisor. “Our research tells us that people who downloaded the app but were not able to install it due to accessibility flaws often simply deleted it. Failing to build apps that are accessible from the outset makes people feel excluded and frustrated, and can lead to a loss of confidence and trust in the developers and in this case, the Government.”
Vision Australia also heard from many clients that they struggled with using QR codes to check-in. Chris Edwards, Vision Australia’s manager of government relations and advocacy, told ABC News that “the two issues that people are talking about are: scanning independently and, if they can’t, people understanding within the shops about how to support a person to provide that.” Check-in challenges ranged from simply locating the QR code sign, because they were never in a consistent location, to being able to line up our phone’s camera with the code, or knowing that our check-in was successful without an auditory confirmation.
And lastly, we come to accessible testing. When Melbourne was in lockdown the first time, I felt unwell and knew I should get tested. I searched for testing sites near me, but they were all drive-through, which did not allow you to attend if you weren’t in your car. I can’t drive and did not want to catch public transport, nor did I feel it appropriate to use taxis or rideshare services. I called the Department of Health and explained that I had a disability, lived alone and needed to get tested. They told me they would send a nurse to my house to test me. I waited for three days. My story is certainly not uncommon in the disability community.
As the pandemic continues to evolve, wave by wave, we are asking Australia to do better. Universal design means thinking about everyone’s needs when you solve problems and create systems – including people with disability. We need a seat at the table to create a COVID response that’s designed for all Australians – not just the ones that can see.
Libby Lake is a well-travelled disability advocate from Melbourne with ocular albinism and other disabilities. Libby is passionate about improving diversity, access and inclusion, as well as the understanding of intersectionality between disability, chronic health conditions and mental health illness. Libby is represented by Champion Health Agency, to create a positive impact through her lived experience.