COVID-19 considerations for the vision loss community

September 2, 2020

Living through a pandemic isn’t easy for anyone. For those who are blind or who have significant vision loss, the obstacles are even more complex.

Avid traveler Eric Hartman can’t wait to continue his globe-trotting ways again after the pandemic ends. Here he is in front of Stonehenge, England’s famous ring of standing stones.

Eric Hartman’s frustration was palpable. The Director of Advocacy for the Choroideremia Research Foundation was attempting to attend a virtual conference for those living with vision loss, but the New Orleans man couldn’t access the online content. Diagnosed with choroideremia when he was 11, the now 63-year-old artist has only one degree of central vision remaining in his right eye. He relies on a screen reader to help him navigate websites, and the screen reader relies on developers building websites with accessibility in mind. That hadn’t happened here. “I spent a half an hour searching for the recorded sessions I was interested in,” said Hartman. “Finally, I just threw my hands up.”

Seemingly overnight Americans have taken their lives online. Conferences, like Hartman’s, have gone virtual. Working from home is the new normal. Schools everywhere have transitioned to distance learning. Travel is now done from an armchair. For those with vision loss, even the simplest of activities—grocery shopping, grabbing a bus, or traveling to see family—have become extraordinarily complicated. They can mean unnecessary exposure to the virus, an inability in some situations to maintain social distancing, and even a deepening sense of isolation without the touch points of family and friends. And like it was for Hartman, an inability to access important information.

Make it accessible
Encountering roadblocks when attempting to access online information is nothing new to those with vision loss. The sheer speed of the transition to a virtual world, however, caught some businesses and organizations unprepared to provide accessible content, resulting in online experiences that unintentionally locked out those living with vision loss. Chris Danielsen, Director of Public Relations at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), isn’t surprised. As someone who has been living with blindness most of his life, he’s intimately familiar with the challenges that accessibility can present.

Chris Danielsen, National Federation of the Blind

In June, the NFB and one of its members, MBA candidate Mary Fernandez, sued Duke University, alleging discrimination against blind students. The suit hinges on Fernandez’s inability to receive accommodations that would have allowed her to access information while pursuing a master’s degree at Duke. “These are the types of problems we’ve been seeing in education for some time,” said Danielsen. While the activity at the center of the Duke lawsuit predates the pandemic, Danielsen says the suit helps illustrate the ongoing struggles those with vision loss face. “What happened with COVID-19 is that you had a lot of institutions that had never thought about spinning out distance education in the first place,” he said. “So, not even having done that preparatory work, adding accessibility was a whole other level.”

Danielsen says it’s key to assess whether or not the platform being used for distance education is compatible with the screen reader technology the student is using. Is it coded in such a way that the screen reader can tell how to navigate the page? To answer that question, developers can use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. For example, do all of the images have alt tags? These tags are essentially hidden text that tells a screen reader what the image is, so that screen readers can properly describe it to the student.

The sheer speed of the transition to a virtual world, however, caught some businesses and organizations unprepared, resulting in online experiences that unintentionally locked out those living with vision loss.

Another roadblock to educational success is the lack of hard-copy braille material. During the Advanced Placement (AP) testing season in 2020, blind students, who typically rely on hard-copy braille readouts of math or geometry problems, found it nearly impossible to complete their tests. Danielsen says that while some might have a refreshable braille display at home, that only solves part of the problem. “A refreshable braille display can only display one line of braille at a time,” said Danielsen. “If you’re dealing with things like graphics, complex math equations, or things where you really need to see more than one line of braille at a time, you’re really at a disadvantage.” When kids are at school rather than home, teachers of the visually impaired (TVI) typically emboss the materials test-taking students need, but that didn’t happen this year.

Public transportation and COVID-19
Education is not the only challenge the pandemic has created for those in the vision loss community. A significant number of people rely on public transportation. For many, it may be their only way to get to the grocery store, work, school or a medical appointment. Buses, trains, and light rail, however, provide few ways to successfully distance from each other, which puts riders at increased risk of exposure.

The NFB’s Danielsen points out that many public transportation systems have a supplementary paratransit service. “You typically have to make an appointment to use it and it’s not the most efficient system in the world,” Danielsen said, “but some states are continuing to make that available, particularly for essential trips like to the doctor and so forth.”

Then, there are taxis and ride share options like Lyft or Uber. While certainly more convenient than public transit, they are also more expensive. Danielsen says that Lyft is trying to allay that cost. “They’ve been providing us with codes that blind people, who need to get essential services, can use to make the ride a little bit cheaper, more affordable,” he said. He notes, however, “One of the big concerns that we’ve had is, what if a blind person needs to get tested for the coronavirus?” Danielsen asked. “How much luck are they going to have if they call an Uber, a Lyft or a cab and say, ‘I need you to take me to this coronavirus testing site’?” He says the NFB is making sure to connect people who are blind with volunteers who will take them to the grocery store, medical appointments, and other essential destinations.

Minimizing infection risks from public surfaces
Regardless of your destination or mode of transportation, one thing is true for everyone during the pandemic: the need to keep hands as germ-free as possible. For those with vision loss, says Danielsen, that’s no easy task. “It’s very hard for a blind person to go through the world without using our sense of touch. And so, we’re just having to balance that risk with doing the things that we all should be doing anyway: washing hands, using hand sanitizer, and trying to maintain distance where we can,” Danielsen said.

Hartman agrees. When the pandemic first reached the United States, he tried to navigate his world with a hands-off approach. “I found myself not wanting to hold the railings on stairs, but I live in a huge converted factory that’s all apartments,” he said. “There are 268 apartments in my building and the last thing I wanted to do was touch those railings.” Hartman soon realized, however, that not using a hand railing was unsafe for someone with vision loss. Now, he simply makes sure to sanitize and wash his hands each time he touches public railings.

Eric Hartman, of the Choroideremia Research Foundation, on one of his many travels.

When it comes to keeping as germ-free as possible, Hartman adds that for those who use a cane, like he does, there is an additional consideration. “You have to be diligent when using a cane,” Hartman said. “You fold it up and now you’re touching the whole cane. You have to think about disinfecting the cane and disinfecting the elastic strap that you use to fold it up.” He has another pro tip: keep all touching of public surfaces relegated to one hand. Since the Louisiana artist is left-handed, Hartman uses that hand for his cane and isolates touching to his right hand, which he hopes minimizes any risk.

Next up: Vision loss and voting during COVID-19
This fall, Americans will be voting in a presidential election, which may pose significant challenges for those with vision loss. While vote-by-mail is a good solution for sighted voters, a blind voter would have to ask someone else to mark the ballot, eliminating the voter’s right to a secret vote. And that, says Danielsen, is not an acceptable solution in an age where we have the technology for different, more equitable solutions.

“We have been advocating for a while for an accessible absentee ballot process,” says the former lawyer. “It’s an online system where a blind person goes into a screen reader-accessible website and marks the ballot.” The voter then emails the vote to the board of elections or prints it out and mails it in just like a regular absentee ballot; a more private, independent, and safe option. “We’re trying to get as many states on the bandwagon as we can to put accessible solutions in place. So, I have a feeling a lot of our activity in the next few months is going to be around voting,” Danielsen said.

Looking ahead
It’s never been more important for those with vision loss to become advocates for themselves, in ways both big and small. And with back-to-school just around the corner, it is particularly important that anyone continuing to experience access issues speak up early and often until the organization or school district resolves the problem. Your best allies in these efforts, besides the law as defined by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), are the advocacy organizations already established in the vision loss community. You will find a robust list of those groups on the Eye Want 2 Know resources page.

It is a time of vigilance in our world. That vigilance is even more paramount for those with low or no vision, who continue the work of advocating for online accessibility, safe commutes for those relying on public transportation, and fair voting practices. Key to those efforts are the allies: the family, friends, and organizations essential to successful advocacy. As a company committed to the vision loss community, Spark Therapeutics stands as one of those organizations, helping where and when we can in these complex times.

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