As we pass the two-year mark since the start of COVID-19 restrictions, the American Foundation for the Blind’s (AFB) recently released study, The Journey Forward: Impact of COVID-19 on Blind, Low Vision, and Deafblind U.S. Adults, captures reflections on experiences during a year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, through the Summer of 2021. Although the data gathered from the 488 survey participants revealed challenges specific to COVID-19, it also provided insights into the systemic issues that people who are blind or low vision encounter on a regular basis.
The Journey Forward is a follow up to the Flatten Inaccessibility study, which examined how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted adults who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind during the pandemic’s early days in April 2020. The Journey Forward explores how individuals were still being impacted and what had changed a year later. Survey questions differed, however, with Journey Forward focusing on issues that had evolved or had been introduced since the earlier survey, such as access to COVID-19 testing and vaccines, healthcare, food and supplies, as well as access to voting in the 2020 elections.
As in-person access diminished and more everyday life activities shifted online, reliance on web-based services grew and barriers to digital inclusion became more apparent. Where these interfaces were inaccessible to people who are blind or low vision, there were critical obstacles to meeting one’s basic needs. Study participants reported risks and consequences to both physical and mental health. The use of telehealth was attempted by 70% of survey respondents during this period and 57% of those 330 respondents reported having accessibility challenges with telehealth platforms. Almost half (45%) of all survey participants reported they experienced challenges with having food, groceries, or supplies delivered. More than 40% of survey participants reported accessibility problems with online ordering apps. A year and a half into the pandemic, people were reporting these issues with little evidence that solutions were on the horizon.
While restrictions may have started to lift by the time Journey Forward was conducted, many concerns expressed at the start of the pandemic continued and other challenges emerged. Participants shared concerns around transportation, safety, and access to basic needs such as healthcare and food. Even during the best of times, transportation can be a major barrier to receiving medical services, to maintaining social networks, and to retaining and attaining employment. During the pandemic, new issues emerged, including significant reductions in transportation availability, the inability to discern if other passengers were adhering to mask and social distancing mandates, and compromised access to healthcare as many facilities were only offering drive-up or drive-through services, requiring access to a vehicle.
Despite the problems, Journey Forward participants also reported some positive experiences during the pandemic. They enjoyed a wide range of seminars, concerts, and other entertainment via streaming services. They demonstrated a great capacity for resilience, leveraging problem-solving and social connections to meet the unique challenges of the pandemic for those who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind.
The Journey Forward identifies a host of problems that are systemic as well as specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, including isolation, unsafe or uncertain transportation, and compromised access to medical care and meals. Certainly, in times of emergency such as a pandemic, everyone, from policymakers to software developers, needs to be mindful of those with disabilities, who should be included in conversations upfront.
Individuals who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind gave voice to their experiences in The Journey Forward, but are we listening? The report concludes with recommendations that can be valuable in shaping the experiences of those who are blind or low vision today and in the journey forward.
The full report is available at www.afb.org/JF.