Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the blind: What the pandemic is like when you can’t see

Filed Under: Costs, Patients

Looking down at a person's shoes at the edge of a sidewalk
- photo by Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

George has left home only a few times since mid-March. Single, in his early 40s, he lives in New York City. For the past two decades, George has steadily lost vision and is now blind.

Before the pandemic, he worked full-time as a manager in a large Brooklyn-based company, with several employees working for him. He likes his job and looks forward to work. His company hasn’t decided when the offices will reopen. Everyone still works remotely.

George says he’s lucky to still have a job and its accompanying benefits. But there is another component of work for which no amount of Zoom meetings can compensate.

“I miss having conversations and laughing and working and collaborating, and all of the things that come with being in an office,” he said. “I really miss the personal interactions.”

Office likely to reopen in late summer

George does not want to use his real name because he doesn’t have official permission to speak about his job. He expects his office will slowly reopen in late summer, or maybe even early fall. “We might be mandated to work from home two or three days a week,” he said. “But I’m very much looking forward to being at work.”

George is outgoing and has a well-honed sense of humor. He had a pretty active social life before the pandemic. He went out socially with friends or family at least four times a week. ((This mean since the pandemic started? )) He’s had a couple of close friends over on a few occasions. But he limits outside contact because family members are in a high-risk category.

As a teen, George noticed changes in his vision. Doctors said he had retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease with no cure. By his early twenties, his eyesight declined rapidly. Soon even walking unaided around his neighborhood became difficult.

He learned to navigate the city with a white cane. Mobility trainers taught him to listen for the rush of parallel traffic to know when to cross streets, and how a cane can tell you what or who might be in your path. “The cane gives you a lot of information,” he said.

At first, he waited until he left his block to unfold the cane and use it. He didn’t want people he knew to see him.

Can’t be sure if people are wearing masks

Now, in the era of Covid-19, he’s reluctant to walk outside for a different reason. “I can’t be sure if people are wearing masks or are social distancing,” he said.

Riding subways is problematic for the same reasons. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority requires riders to wear masks, but there is zero enforcement. “I have major concerns about people who are using the subway systems and the bus,” he said. “It’s going to be a struggle, and it’s going to be very difficult to manage social distancing. To think that we are going to be able to stagger New Yorkers’ work days? I don’t think it’s realistic.”

Even before the pandemic, George wasn’t enthusiastic about the subway. It was at least a 30-minute trip on a crowded line. “My cane has been knocked out of my hand multiple times,” he said.

He has cycled through various transit options. The MTA’s Access-a-Ride Paratransit Service costs the same as a subway fare. It is available 24/7 for people with a disability. Regular users describe it as notoriously problematic. All rides must be scheduled 24 hours in advance. Before the pandemic, riders shared often the same vehicle.

“Which is fine,” said George. “Except they would go way out of the way. Sometimes it would take me upwards of two hours to get to work.”

E-hailing app for on-demand rides

In 2017, George took part in the MTA’s pilot e-hail program. Designed for active Access-a-Ride participants, it allowed a user to download an app to a smartphone and arrange for cab rides in real-time. The on-demand service cost the same as a subway ride. Not only were commutes shorter and more efficient, users also had the freedom to travel at will. They could go out after work and make last-minute plans without fears of being stranded.

Just before the pandemic, the MTA announced it would cut back the service. Rides would be capped to 16 per month. The service would be free, until a fare reached $15, when riders would pay the balance of the fare. Since the pandemic, the MTA has postponed those changes..

But the popular program is widely expected to be curtailed in the near future. “It’s not supposed to be cut completely,” said George. “But it is supposed to be revised to a point where it is not necessarily helpful.”

Jobs and the blind

Technology plays a huge role in allowing George to work, travel and even obtain the necessities of life. His education and tech skills put him in a somewhat rare category — a blind person with a full-time job.

In the U.S. about 1.02 million people are blind and another 3.22 million have a visual impairment, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 44 percent of blind and visually impaired people have jobs, compared to 79 percent of sighted people, according to the American Community Survey.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, programs such as JAWS, which reads text on computer aloud, and ZoomText, which enlarges screen text, were more common. For the past several years, the built-in accessibility of iPhones and iPads made smartphones easier for people with disabilities.

Most of this technology is not particularly intuitive, and learning it can be challenging. But George found a natural talent for it; not only for learning it, but also for helping others how to use it.

George said working remotely means his employees are often busier, but less productive because the work goes slower. “It’s a very stressful time,” he said. “We are stressed out, our clients are stressed out, our staff is stressed out. There are so many different facets of this we have to manage.”

Being with friends is a way to manage stress. Even as New York enters Phase Two, George is still reluctant to go out. “Activities that I enjoy, especially during the summer, are not going to be available for awhile.” He expects even outdoor dining won’t be especially safe or appropriately distanced. “I’m not even really looking forward to that,” he said.