As the world's second most populated country emerges from lockdown, millions of Indians who suffer from blindness attempt to navigate a new world. Reliant on touch, they are thwarted by physical distancing rules.
As India began to relax coronavirus restrictions and slowly resume public life, Jagan Negi, a twenty-three-year-old blind student in New Delhi, decided to venture beyond the safety of his home and visit Connaught Place, the capital's bustling commercial hub.
As someone dependent on touch, physical distancing rules made the trip an even more difficult ordeal for Negi, who was also unable to judge distances between individuals.
"I wore a mask but found it extremely difficult to navigate. Very few people volunteered to help and it was frustrating," Negi told DW, adding that amid the pandemic, others were less likely to help him cross busy intersections or enter public transport due to fears of possible viral transmission.
Similarly, Jasmine Singh, an accounts officer, found the task of shopping for essential groceries both challenging and embarrassing. "As someone who cannot see, I have to touch objects and surfaces much more than the average person. I could make out that people felt uneasy because of the hissing sounds they made," Singh told DW.
Vandita Anand, a blind instructor, explained that not only do others perceive her as a potential carrier, but that she herself cannot see whether others are adhering to distancing rules.
"Some see me in the high-risk category and people are apprehensive about being around me. That is something I have to live with. Besides, I don't know myself if others are wearing their mask and staying 6 feet (1.8 meters) from me," she said.
Call for inclusive policies
India is home to a third of the world's blind population. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that India has around 63 million people who are blind or suffer from low vision. The majority of blind people in India are either unemployed, dependent on government welfare, or work as daily wagers in the informal economy.
For millions of Indians who suffer from visual impairments, the new normal has posed new challenges to everyday life.
"It affects education, employment, public dealing, financial management, travel and digital access. These are new challenges that the pandemic has thrown up for blind people," George Abraham, the CEO of Score Foundation, an organization which helps the visually impaired, told DW. "We were never counted in the government's grand scheme of things, but now we need to ensure that we are heard. Authorities need to be reminded that we need care," he said.
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Pandemic prompts digitalization
The global pandemic has given rise to digitalization across various aspects of life, including shopping, work and communication. However, for the blind and visually impaired, having to navigate digital platforms can be a daunting task.
"Many blind and visually impaired people must use speech software or screen readers to be able to use the computer. A majority of websites are not accessible with screen reader software and this is a major barrier for online transactions," Praveen Kumar, a social inclusion advisor with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), told DW.
Physical distancing rules have also hindered the examination process for many blind students. Under normal circumstances, special assistants would sit closely to students suffering from visual impairment and transcribe their exam answers. In some cities, the COVID-19 crisis has forced educators to connect with blind students remotely.
"We are scaling up our efforts to provide accessible digital books, digital literacy along and other devices on subsidy programs. Being on the right side of the digital divide is essential for survival in the COVID-19 era," Dipendra Manocha of Saksham, an initiative for empowering disadvantaged youth, told DW.
When India enforced a nationwide lockdown in late March, the government had reportedly instructed health authorities to make all COVID-19 related information available in both braille and in audio format. "But that was never followed up. Thousands of people I know lived through distress and hardship. We hardly got information and that is because our inclusion is never the priority," Prashant Verma, general secretary of the National Association for the Blind, told DW.
To fill the gap, a network of volunteers and NGOs arranged for medicines, rations, financial aid and other essentials to be delivered, especially to those living in remote areas.
Many visually impaired people feel that authorities need to take action and provide secure, risk-free spaces for the blind amid the pandemic as the sense of touch is critical to their survival.
"This virus will be with us for a while and therefore policies and programs have to be tailored to help us, not hinder us," said Abraham, adding that an uncertain future awaits.