Everyone has had to adapt at a rapid pace over the past year because of the COVID-19 crisis. Many adults are working from home while students school from home; many go-to pastimes are on pause and we've all had to learn to make masking and social distancing second nature.
But for those with visual impairment or blindness, social distancing is no easy task.
Jake Koch, Gresham resident and community outreach specialist for Guide Dogs for the Blind's Boring campus, has experienced this first-hand. Even with his guide dog, Koch, who has bilateral microphthalmia — a physical disorder of the eyes, resulting in small, partially developed eyes, which renders him legally blind — Koch says he sometimes has to rely on other people to help him keep his distance.
"Apart from being a professional in the industry, I do also travel with a guide dog and am visually impaired myself," Koch explained. Koch travels with a 6-year-old black lab named Forli. "Pretty quickly, I realized that (socially distancing would be a challenge). I'm an avid traveler. I travel both for work and for pleasure, whether it's local, regional, national, so I'm out and about. I'm an extrovert. I enjoy being out and about in the city and around friends and in public places, so at first it was a bit overwhelming. (At first) nobody really knew anything about the novel coronavirus, including myself."
What also became quickly and overwhelmingly apparent was that guide dogs would not be able to perceive all of the safety precautions humans have in place during the pandemic.
"In the past 10 months of traveling through public spaces, what I've learned is the dogs, unfortunately, don't understand the concept of social distancing," Koch said. "I think the primary reason for that, in my personal and professional opinion, is social distancing is a social construct; it's a social norm. It's not black and white; it's not factual like a curb or a set of stairs that are really obvious (obstacles that signal) you need to stop here or you're going to get hurt. The way a dog perceives social constructs is they go 'what is the safest, easiest path of least resistance that I can get my handler and myself through the environment.'"
"Our guide dogs don't understand directional arrows, signage and taped-off measurements to ensure social distancing, and our white canes don't feel them," added Dorianne Pollack, alumni board member for Guide Dogs for the Blind. "Unlike sighted people who have learned to navigate in a socially distanced world, we've been left to fend for ourselves."
An added challenge that makes navigating social spaces during the pandemic even more difficult for those with visual impairment, is because everything has evolved so quickly, yet the ADA hasn't been able to catch up. This has led to inconsistencies in markings and signs for distancing in public places like grocery stores and to Koch, seeking supplemental ways to better get around and safely.
"I've ended up taking a hybrid approach," Koch said, explaining that he has been using both Forli and a white cane to navigate. While guide dogs see and avoid objects, white canes can help the user detect and avoid would-be obstacles and people. This way, Koch has the dog to get him to his destination and the cane helps him orient himself to other people.
"The average cane offers 4 to 5 feet of detectable space," Koch explained. To achieve 6 feet of separation, he added, sometimes he will simply ask someone around him if he is distanced enough. He also always wears a mask for safety when he has to be in public places.
For the most part though, like many who are immunocompromised, have other conditions that make them at greater risk or are simply trying to help slow the spread, Koch has grown accustomed to using things like grocery delivery instead of shopping in the store. He has also taken to walking, when he can, to avoid public transportation where it is harder to make sure others are keeping their distance.
"The people moving around me is where it gets tricky," Koch said.
In "normal" times, Koch says he typically gets quite a few people who come up to him and want to pet Forli, offer help or ask questions. Nowadays, while petting Forli is discouraged, Koch said: "Pandemic or not, if anybody wants to help, I appreciate people asking: 'May I assist you?' and self-identifying."
Koch explains that while saying "How can I help you?" tends to sound somewhat ableist, implying the person with visual impairment needs help, asking "May I assist you?" is a more empowering offer of help.
Folks who wish to help someone with visual impairment in public spaces might be of assistance by kindly approaching the person and saying "I just wanted to inform you that you aren't six feet away. May I help you?" Use specific directions such as "take two steps left" and never touch the person.
At Guide Dogs for the Blind, staff have worked very hard to ensure clients who must visit are safe and also offer guidance and assistance to their 2,200 graduates out navigating similar circumstances to Koch.
"We use video conferencing to help navigate people," Koch explained. He added that Guide Dogs for the Blind has also partnered with the 'Be My Eyes' app, which offers assistance to those with visual impairment to do everyday things like reading labels and navigating.
"My normal is managing my blindness in a sighted world," said Guide Dogs for the Blind client Bruce Gilmour. "However, COVID-19 has imposed big changes and adjustments to my normal. Aspects such as curbside pick-ups, online ordering, social distancing, language barriers, using touch to see in a no touch world, knowing where to stand appropriately at a transit stop, etc., have challenged my normal. Consequently, daily affairs developed around being independent and self-reliant have resulted in isolation, increased anxiety, and some really compromising scenarios where the public have lacked a complete sense of civility. Yes, indeed, we are all in this pandemic together which has put a lot of pressure on the nice values of normal like being kind, calm, and patient."
"Change is hard for everybody," Koch said. "Things changed very quickly. I think that's what was very overwhelming. Be kind, be compassionate and offer assistance if it is needed. Also, feel free to step back or forward (from a person with visual impairment) to keep distance."
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