The Impact of COVID-19 on the Blind and Visually Impaired in Indonesia

By Tommy Hari Firmanda

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused chaos throughout the world. Various reports state the virus first started in China in November 2019, before it spread to other countries around the world, including Indonesia. A few months have passed since its first outbreak, yet it was only a few weeks ago that the Indonesian government both at local and national levels begun to take serious measures.

With the number of cases increasing significantly since March, the government finally introduced policies including physical distancing, urging people to stay at home, closing schools and universities, calling employee to work from home, banning public gatherings and religious activities.

The measures taken by the government were welcomed since news from other parts of the world have frightened Indonesians, with stories of how severe the impact of the virus is for people who contract it.  People with disabilities also welcome the government response.

As someone with visual impairment, I share the feelings and responses that the community of people with visual impairment have towards this pandemic and towards the government response. As many of you would understood, people with disabilities have been largely discriminated against and have not been given equal access to public services and to information, even in pre-pandemic Indonesia.

This pandemic as well as its impact have therefore affected our lives seriously. Unfortunately, there have been almost no government guidelines on how we people with disabilities must respond to this and how the government ensures that we are not going to be among the groups of people who would be severely affected by the virus. The impact of the physical distancing policy will affect the way we live our lives because many of us depend on the support of our guides. Like our fellow citizens who have no disabilities, the pandemic also has its impact on the social economic and livelihoods of people with visual impairment and the blind.

The first and biggest challenge is the limited access for people with visual impairment and the blind to information about COVID-19. The government has ignored the fact that many blind and low vision have low literacy skills. Many cannot read as a result of having no access to education. For those with access to education, they require all information to be in braille or information in the form of text or pictures, in paper and online versions.

The Government websites that contain information about Covid19 are not accessible which make it impossible for visually impaired and blind to read by screen-reader software. Also, those who live in poverty or students who live in dormitories do not have a Television at home which prevents them from getting information.

What is also important to be understood is that lacking access to information has led the blind to be less sensitive to what is happening in their surroundings. As a result, knowledge and understanding of what a coronavirus is, the impact it has to people’s health, and prevention protocols are then ignored.

What is also important to be understood is that lacking access to information has led the blind to be less sensitive to what is happening in their surroundings. As a result, knowledge and understanding of what a coronavirus is, the impact it has to people’s health, and prevention protocols are then ignored. Furthermore, limited information has led to a lack of awareness of the need to maintain hygiene such as the necessity to wash hands, to cough on their shoulder and to maintain a 1.5m distance.

One of the characteristics of people with visual impairment is that we use of our sense of touch to recognize the environment. Blind and visually impaired use their hands to touch objects for identification, and this is against the health recommendation. Therefore, without proper guidelines, the visually impaired can be exposed to easily contracting the virus.

If information on the need to regularly wash hands is not conveyed, then we could predict the community will be among the most vulnerable. In addition, the habit of touching the face, particularly the eyes, due to the use of glasses for a long time and the emergence of itching, can be one of the means of spreading this virus. As we know, the T area in the face has a very potential for the virus to get into human body. Therefore, socialization about preventing the spread of coronavirus is needed not only through social media but also through door-to-door socialization to explain in detail the procedures for dealing with the virus. The information could also include access to health services or available and accessible markets.

We have read how this pandemic and the measures taken by governments have significant impact on people’s daily activities. One can imagine how challenging it will be for people with disabilities, like myself.

The blind rely heavily on the assistance of their support guide. Even during normal times, that is prior to pandemic, access for the blind and visually impaired has already been poor. For cane users such as myself, pedestrian accesses are poorly constructed with the lack of guiding blocks. In normal times, this increases our dependence on careers or peer supports. With physical distancing rules, it means that blind people will experience difficulties in accessing services. Also, they must hold on to the companion’s arms or shoulders when walking, and this requires them to be close to their companion.

The blind rely heavily on the assistance of their support guide. Even during normal times, that is prior to pandemic, access for the blind and visually impaired has already been poor.

The current measures suggest that people are being forced to live more independently, something that people with disabilities have long demanded; to be able to live independently. But with a lack of accessible infrastructure and inclusive policies, people with disabilities including blind and visually impaired have not been able to exercise their rights to live independently. It is unfair and discriminatory that during the pandemic, we are suddenly being asked to practice physical distancing and to live independently.

Universities also need to ensure that they are not ignoring the rights of people with disabilities to accessible learning. With education and learning now moving online, it is the obligation of universities to ensure that all learning materials are accessible using e-Learning platforms. While this is not easy for students who have no disabilities, you can imagine that this new practice of learning is very challenging for people with disabilities.

In addition to the things that I have mentioned above, there are other issues, such as limited internet connection, the absence of a companion to explain to students if there are pictures or videos during the lecture, as well as the behavior of the blind students themselves, such as falling asleep and difficulty concentrating for younger children. It is very critical to consider developing a model of the distance learning system, which is accessible for persons with disabilities in the future, to provide reasonable accommodation for students with mobility difficulties.

Many blind and visually impaired individuals also face economic challenges as they lose jobs. The majority of them, especially those without proper education work as masseuse, and with physical distancing people may stop using their services.  Those who work as musicians will automatically not be able to play music in the usual places. Likewise, the postponement of sports events both local and international made blind athletes have to find other jobs to survive.

This pandemic is only in its beginning, it is not too late for the government, universities and other institutions to spare a thought to consider the importance of including people with disabilities when making policies. The already marginalized and discriminated against must not be left behind during this pandemic. We have our rights to be getting information, health services, education and social services too.

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