Communicating In Pandemics When Blind

COVID’s been tough for us all, but it’s been even more so for the disabled, vulnerable and the blind. The difficulties faced by people who are blind and visually impaired as they adapt to a world of social distancing, have not been widely understood, as often these guys are just so stoic they don’t want to make a fuss—but that doesn’t mean this community hasn’t had even more challenges than usual  (as in this very touching BBC piece on how the blind in Italy have been coping).

In Scotland, Jim McCafferty has worked at the Scottish Braille Press in Edinburgh for over 33 years, initially as a transcriber and currently as proof-reader. I recently sat down with him to understand how he has been experiencing Lockdown, especially around communication. This is what he told me:

Coronavirus has made us visually-impaired people think of ways to enhance our ability to communicate. For more years than I care to remember, I have been involved with the local Scout Association in my home city. In recent months I have had a number of emails informing me that my Safeguarding training has to be updated, and that this is now mandatory.

“Said emails also provided a very long link to enable me to do this online… but I could not click on this with either of my trusty BrailleNotes, so I contacted a local Scout official for help. One other visually-impaired person whom I just happen to know, also has to update his Safeguarding training too and, thanks to our local contact, we will now both be undertaking training via the telephone. Face-to-face would be preferable, but of course this is not possible at the moment.”

‘Through no fault of those concerned, attempts were unsuccessful’

So that was a success in the end, I’m glad to say. Another project that looked a real challenge for Jim at the start was him participating in an important Board meeting for UKAAF, the UK Association for Accessible Formats and which is all about Making every document an accessible one, of which he has been on as an Ordinary Member representative since 2011.

Historically, UKAAF has had eight Board meetings per year, four face-to-face and four via Teleconference,” he states.

“Recently we have begun to use something I had never heard of — Zoom. Thanks to Richard Orme, who joined the UKAAF Board last year, I was initiated, though, so I now use Zoom for all Board meetings, as well as for the Editorial Working Group for `Format Matters`. Personally I dial in to meetings, but I know from the friendly banter of my fellow Board members that they are online and can see each other!

“In the middle of June, I participated in a meeting organised by Royal Blind, a charity that provides services to visually-impaired people. Here, Microsoft Teams was the order of the day which, again, I had never heard of. However, a member of Royal Blind’s Admin staff and another from their IT Department were extremely helpful in endeavouring to get me connected with the technology. Through no fault of those concerned, attempts were unsuccessful, but I was able to access the meeting via my landline.”

Jim says he’s enjoyed experimenting with all these different means of communication (telephone and online video), and says he endorses them. “Braille will always be my preferred method of communication,” he confirms. “But these other ways of keeping in touch will definitely help me to communicate with people more effectively.”

Talking to Jim reminds me that it’s so easy to ignore the needs of the blind and visually impaired. A good way to change up your thinking, I’ve found, are innovative campaigns like UKAAF partner RNIB’s thought-provoking #WorldUpsideDown, which turned the Piccadilly Lights upside down to shine a light on some of the issues that social distancing has brought about for people with sight loss.

I’m glad to be reminded of these issues for my fellow citizens and UKAAF members. And while I hope social distancing doesn’t last a second longer than it needs to for all our safety, I do hope blind and visually-impaired people continue to be supported to navigate it as well as Jim was.

Carina Birt and Jim McCafferty – UKAAF Board Members

Leave Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.