For many Canadians vision loss is a reality, with nearly 1.6 million Canadians living with some form of vision impairment.
Issues like isolation, access to employment, and difficulty in doing many of the daily activities most people take for granted are just a few of the challenges people with vision loss face. “Another big challenge for people with vision loss is navigating the ‘built environment,’” says Louise Gillis, National President of the Canadian Council of the Blind. “If a curb isn’t properly marked and you’re walking with a cane, you could end up in the middle of traffic. Another difficulty is trying to cross the road when crossing signals don’t work. Even trying to catch a bus can be hard if the bus station is poorly marked and getting off at the right stop is a challenge if there are no audio announcements for stops. Furthermore, while most Canadians love patio season, it can be a real hazard for people with vision issues because it makes the sidewalks so hard to navigate.”
COVID-19 exacerbates obstacles
Gillis says that the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly hard on people living with vision impairment. “The vision loss community was too often marginalized and already socially and economically depressed prior to the arrival of the pandemic,” she says. “The present situation has only served to magnify those barriers and obstacles.”
Apps that can help you find your way around by describing the environment, get the right bus route and tell you the price for an item are all incredibly helpful.
Gillis notes that issues related to COVID-19 that were merely inconveniences for many Canadians are huge barriers for people with vision loss and are preventing them from leading independent lives. “In stores there’s plexiglass around payment areas and most have no marking around where the opening is, so somebody with low vision can’t see where to pay and is bumping up against the barrier. Another issue is that people with vision issues can’t clearly see the directional arrows in the stores or the social distancing markers. How can you stay six feet apart from someone if you can’t see?”
Empowerment through technology
Assistive technology is a crucial key to accessibility. In fact, technology plays such a dominant role in empowering people with vision loss to lead fulfilling lives that the Canadian Council of the Blind created the Get Together with Technology Program (GTT). The program provides a variety of technology training for people who are blind or have low vision and increases access to assistive technologies.
Smartphones and mobile apps have also had a major impact on improving the quality of life for the visually impaired. “Apps that can help you find your way around by describing the environment, get the right bus route and tell you the price for an item are all incredibly helpful,” says Gillis. Some companies even offer free apps that make their products and services easier to use.
Gillis says that businesses can further help increase accessibility for those with low vision by offering discounts on services, especially vital services like data plans, which are crucial for individuals with vision impairment who rely on GPS apps to get around. Donations and sponsoring things like sporting events can also have a huge positive impact on non-profits. Gillis suggests that organisations should also consider forming accessibility advisory committees to help make buildings, products, and services more inclusive.