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Visually Impaired Student Lifts Lid On Life During Covid Lockdown

visually impaired student David Parfett

A visually-impaired Liverpool Hope University student has lifted the lid on how his life has been impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak. 

From paranoia about queue-jumping, running the gauntlet of supermarket one-way systems, to not looking like a ‘stereotypical blind person’, David Parfett has much to contend with.  

And the 22-year-old wants to shine a light on the issues visually impaired people are struggling with right now, as the problems are often ‘invisible’ to the general public. 

David, in his first year studying Applied Social Science and Disability Studies at Hope, reveals: “When I turn up to the queue at Tesco with my cane and sunglasses, nearly every single person is looking at me. 

“Because I do have some sight, I might stand there and call my mum, or text her to see how she’s doing. 

“But I’m also being judged for doing that by members of the public - and almost given dirty looks. 

“I’m not a 50 year old man with huge black sunglasses. I’m 22 years old- and pretty much covered in tattoos. I don’t look like your stereotypical ‘blind’ person. And this actually causes problems. 

“I feel there needs to be a better understanding and appreciation of the issues visually impaired people face in the UK right now, if we’re to help them through these really tricky times.”

David, from Derby, was born with ‘congenital nystagmus’, where a person suffers involuntary movement of the eyes, combined with vision loss.

According to the charity Nystagmus Network, it’s the most common issue causing visual impairment in children in the UK, affecting 1 in 1,000 people. 

There’s no cure, but certain treatments - including surgery - can help to reduce the symptoms. 

Describing some of the new challenges he faces just to do a supermarket shop - and why he’s actually at a potentially increased risk of contracting the Coronavirus, David explains: “I’m constantly asked by supermarket staff, ‘Do you want to jump the queue?’ 

“I always say no - because I don’t have mobility impairment. Why should I jump a two hour queue? It’s common courtesy to everyone else there for me to stay in line - and I do have a certain fear of people saying negative things about me if I did skip the queue. 

“I’ve seen instances where those with guide dogs are given verbal abuse when the dog leads them right up to the front door of the shop, rather than to the back of the queue. The dog hasn’t been trained to join a queue half way around a car park! 

“And things are tricky inside the shop, too. 

“With tinned food, some brands all look the same to me. 

“If I want beans, I’ve got to bring the tin right up to my face to read what’s inside. I keep picking things up and putting them back until I’ve got the right one. 

“Yet because I’m handling more things, I feel like I’m at an increased risk of Covid-19. And it’s an issue I don’t think has been addressed in the UK. 

“I’ve got enough sight to do this quickly but I still fear for others in the visually impaired community, as some may have less sight and are at an even higher risk.

“It’s not just cross-contamination, either. I worry people will see me doing that and behave negatively towards me. 

“The first few times I went shopping I didn’t take my cane - typically, I’ve always tried to hide my visual impairment. 

“But it meant I didn’t notice the one way systems on the floor and I was eventually spoken to by staff. It can be extremely frustrating.”

It’s not just grocery shopping habits that have had to be adapted either. 

David, like every other university student in the UK, has moved to online learning methods while social distancing rules remain in place. 

He adds: “After having a Government DSA (Disabled Students Allowances) assessment, I get extra one-on-one study sessions with a visual impairment specialist and I also have note takers who help me with lectures. 

“So, when lectures do resume again for me next year, it’s going to be vital for me that these services remain in place if online teaching methods are going to be extended. 

“Even little things, like reading the buttons to load online Zoom meetings, can be tough. And I feel like it’s important for me to talk about these issues so that everyone is aware of them.”

There are further complications for David which mean he’s stayed in Liverpool during the Covid-19 shutdown rather than returning to his hometown Derby to be with his parents. 

His father suffers from a rare condition called Refsum disease, which causes a build-up in the body of a substance called phytanic acid. 

David’s father also has retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive, degenerative condition that ultimately robs a patient of their sight. 

And because he’s in an at-risk Covid-19 category, David has been forced to keep away. 

Meanwhile it’s also remarkable that David found a path to University in the first place. 

Having been in mainstream education up until he was 18, he eventually enrolled at The Royal National College for the Blind (RNC), a residential college for blind and visually impaired young adults, located in Hereford.  

David, who was elected as Student Governor at RNC, says: “The college gives students a second chance to get an education - to get the grades we could have achieved if we had been given the correct support all the way through mainstream education. 

“I went from Ds and Cs at GCSE, and was told never to do A-levels, to coming out with A stars and distinctions at A-levels which was what I needed to go to university, just by doing three years at a place that knows how to support visually impaired people correctly. 

“I really wouldn’t have done my A levels, let alone attend University, if it wasn’t for the college - and I’d call for the Government to ensure places like the RNC have the funding they need to survive this pandemic.”

A spokesperson for RNC praised David for raising the issues - and highlighted the ‘extreme problems’ the visually impaired (VI) community is facing during lockdown. 

The spokesperson said: “David is embracing the negative and standing up to highlight these issues for the VI community and with his commitment and determination, I’m sure he will influence change. We are very proud of him.

“On the whole, the VI community is hugely independent. And with assistive technology and good mobility they do not need to rely on much support at all. 

“However, lockdown has shrunk their world incredibly and without help, those with sight loss have become increasingly vulnerable.

“Shopping has become very difficult for many. Typically you might rely on getting close-up to read things, or to read the Braille on items, as well as generally using touch and smell or being guided by a shop assistant. 

“Social distancing rules prevent this and for some, shopping has become a very frightening experience. 

“David also raised the issue about those who don’t conform to the stereotype. If you don’t have a cane or use a guide dog, other people can sometimes make assumptions and even become very aggressive. 

“As going out shopping proved to be so problematic during the Covid-19 outbreak, the VI community moved to using assistive technology to shop online. However, another issue is that slots were reserved for the ‘extremely vulnerable’ category. So most people with VI did not qualify. 

“Even the daily Government briefings aren’t considering the visually impaired – there is never any audio descriptions of charts or graphics and the leaflets and films they have produced are not VI friendly at all.”

Published on 03/06/2020