COVID-19 has been particularly tough for visually-impaired people. A report by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) notes that two-thirds of visually-impaired individuals feel less independent since the start of lockdown. This could have a serious negative impact on their mental health.

Visually-impaired people already experience loneliness at higher levels than others. They are also more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to experience detrimental health outcomes as a result of self-isolation. So, we need to consider their barriers — both physical and emotional — and what can be done to overcome these.

Tackling Changing Environments

Many businesses and public spaces have designed new layouts or imposed restrictions to slow down the spread of the virus. However, these adjustments may unintentionally make it more difficult for visually-impaired people to navigate, causing visually-impaired people to venture out less.

Studies have shown that individuals with visual impairments create spatial representations of environments in their heads. If an environment has been changed to help control COVID-19 – by introducing screens, one-way systems, or other measures – these changes may disrupt their mental maps.

Indeed, the RNIB notes that the number of visually-impaired people navigating around shops independently halved during the lockdown, falling from 28% to 14%. At the same time, the proportion of people relying on someone else to shop for them has increased from less than a fifth (18%) to nearly half (49%).

One way to surmount this problem is for more shops to offer a click-and-collect service so that people can purchase their merchandise without needing to navigate a new floor layout.

If a sighted guide is required to assist a visually-impaired individual to navigate a new environment, that visually-impaired individual being guided needs to be consulted as to what would be the optimal way to help maintain that individual’s independence, which is crucial to psychological wellbeing.

Social Distancing is Hard to Do

Another thing standing in the way of visually-impaired people going out and interacting with people is concern about social distancing. A visual impairment makes avoiding close contact with people more difficult. And failing to social distance leaves these individuals subject to criticism and potentially raises their risk of contracting COVID-19.

The sighted population needs to be sensitized and educated as to why visually-impaired people may find social distancing a challenge.

Helping those Feeling Isolated

Mental health services need to be expanded for the visually-impaired, particularly for those who feel isolated. Other helpful measures include online mindfulness or meditation programs to help mitigate isolation and support groups on social media for connecting visually-impaired individuals with one another.

As difficult as communication while mask-wearing is for most of us, it is much more so for the hearing-impaired who rely heavily on lip-reading. Another problem is hearing aids. With guidelines that require mask-wearing, difficulties often arise when it comes to wearing hearing aids and communicating effectively.

Rochester Regional Health clinical audiologist Lindsay Saltsman, Au.D. explains the challenges those in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community are facing and provides helpful insights to maximize communication in this compromised environment.

Wearing a Mask Together with Hearing Aids

The problem is that hearing aids are worn around the ear, as is a mask. This presents a struggle for those who need to wear hearing aids and a mask simultaneously. “Since most masks are worn around the ears, there are a few issues that arise for those who wear hearing aids. They may lose them or experience increased discomfort from having too much behind their ear,” said Dr. Saltsman.

To mitigate these problems, Dr. Saltsman recommends the following:

  1. Make sure the mask fits properly to reduce the risk of hearing aids falling off.
  2. Thinner straps are better because they will give the hearing aid more space.
  3. Wear masks that tie around the head so they don’t interfere with hearing aids
  4. Remove the mask carefully to avoid removing the hearing aid as well

Masks Compromise Communication

Since a mask covers the mouth and much of the face, it removes the ability to observe lip-movement and facial expressions, thus presenting an obstacle to verbal communication. “Body language and lip-reading are important in improving communication. That’s why being face-to-face with someone is so helpful, especially for those with hearing loss,” said Dr. Saltsman.

To mitigate this problem, Dr. Saltsman recommends the following:

  1. Reduce background noise– Find a quiet place to talk, and avoid having music or television noise on in the room. Extraneous noise impedes the ability to hear, even when wearing hearing aids.
  2. Rephrase, don’t repeat– Often when you are talking to a hearing-impaired individual you will be asked to repeat. If so, better to rephrase than repeat verbatim, because it is likely the hearing-impaired individual didn’t understand you. Using different words increases the likelihood of being understood.

Talk a little louder and slower– For someone wearing hearing aids or lip reading to communicate with you, speaking fast or mumbling makes it more difficult to get your message. Talking slower and louder improves communication.