The Challenge of Social Distancing with Sight Loss

In recent weeks, many countries around the globe have slowly begun to emerge from lockdown and restore some form of normality to society post COVID-19. While social distancing measures are still common practice and caution is being taken to avoid a second wave of infection, this is a significant shift in the right direction, which brings with it a renewed sense of optimism and promise for the future. However, for the 2.2 billion people living with complete or partial sight loss worldwide, social distancing in the public domain presents an unprecedented challenge, and one that is impacting them disproportionately compared to the rest of society1.

An article published in Forbes magazine addresses some of the most pressing concerns for people living with visual impairments and blindness as they struggle to reintegrate into society, considering specifically the dangers of using public transport and other common habits, such as handling food items to read fine print labels and using hand railings and other guides to safely navigate their way2. The very nature of social distancing contradicts these instinct reactions and adds to an ever-growing list of barriers to independent living for the visually impaired and blind community. Furthermore, many of the guides in place to encourage social distancing are visual cues and found on the floor, such as designated unidirectional walking lanes and queuing positions, making them largely inaccessible to people living with partial vision or blindness.

The results of a survey conducted by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)highlight the stark and distressing reality of the COVID-19 pandemic on the visually impaired and blind community in the United Kingdom3. Through its research, the RNIB discovered that 74% of participants struggled to access food, while 66% of respondents feel less independent as a result of lockdown3. As many people living with visual impairments have poor depth perception and thus cannot accurately judge their distance from other people, they can feel very hesitant to visit public spaces for fear of being judged or condemned for unintentionally breaking social distancing protocol.

David Clarke, RNIB Director of Services remarked “Keeping two metres away from other people is really challenging when you have blank patches in your vision or you can’t see how far away other people are. Some people with sight loss have been confronted by passers-by as they have been unable to keep their distance, while others are so nervous about breaking the rules they’ve lost confidence and are unwilling to leave the house.”

Sight loss, as often described by people living with it, is an “invisible” disability because it is not instantly recognisable and there is a misunderstanding about what the white cane represents. Therefore, it is imperative that there is detailed government guidance for businesses and the general public to recognise the unique challenges facing the visually impaired community at this time, and provide clarity on how we can best support their autonomous living in a more caring and compassionate society.

While the easing of restrictions is a step in the right direction, we must not lose sight of those who may be feeling left behind, but instead ensure that we are helping them to adapt to this new way of living.



  1. World Health Organisation, Blindness and Vision Impairment. Available at Accessed June 2020.
  2. Forbes, Blind People’s Social Distancing Nightmare To Intensify As Lockdowns Ease. Available at Accessed June 2020.
  3. RNIB, One in five people with sight loss rationed food during lockdown as loss of independence begins to impact says RNIB. Available at Accessed June 2020.


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