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India's visually impaired population grapples with Covid-19 challenges

A visually impaired instructor taking online classes for Indian students.
A visually impaired instructor taking online classes for Indian students. © Murali Krishnan

For millions of Indians who suffer from visual impairments, the new Covid-19 normal poses new hardships in everyday life – such as how to respect social distancing rules when you can't see.   

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Mahesh Jain, an office clerk who works in Nariman Point, the commercial hub of Mumbai, wonders what life will be like under the new hygiene restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.  

“I dread the day when I need to get back to office," Jain, who was born blind, tells RFI. "Will there be someone to help me cross the road or board the crowded train to get to work? These questions bother me a great deal."

Touch is essential for the visually impaired and contactless mobility is a world unknown to them.

Education challenge

Sonu Khanna, 19, a college student from Delhi has her upcoming exams to worry about. Under normal circumstances, special assistants would sit alongside visually impaired students and transcribe their exam answers.

In the pandemic, with all students having returned home, many like Khanna have no software on their computers to be able to contact their teachers remotely. 

“It is difficult for me to do online assignments because I do not have screen reader software and I don’t know how to use it,” Khanna says.

Screen readers allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesiser or Braille display.

Job losses 

The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have come with diverse challenges for visually impaired people – from sourcing essential supplies to accessing medical treatment, employment, education and much more.

Estimates of how many blind people live in India vary. The government puts it at 5.4 million. But activists put the figure at 42 million while the World Health Organization says around 63 million people in India are blind or visually impaired.  

There is no actual estimate how many blind people have lost their jobs but the current turmoil has been especially hard for those employed in the retail industry and service sector.

With the pandemic upending the economy, many are unsure if they will get back to work especially with guidelines to maintain social distancing.

“The nature of work of millions of visually impaired people requires physical touch. This has become unviable and makes income avenues uncertain in the near future,” Prashant Verma, general secretary of the National Association for the Blind, tells RFI.

Policy of neglect

Organisations working for the blind say authorities need to do more to help as mobility restrictions due to the pandemic have deprived many blind people of their livelihoods and are threatening their future.

“I think education is going to be a challenge. Employment and public dealings is going to be a challenge as well as travel,” says George Abraham, the CEO of Score Foundation, an organisation that advocates and supports the visually impaired.

“India is going towards a digital world and digital access is going to be a challenge,” he adds.

Given that Covid-19 is not going away in a hurry, the visually impaired are demanding that the government tailor policies and programmes specifically for them.

Visually impaired persons at a demonstration demanding better government policies.
Visually impaired persons at a demonstration demanding better government policies. © G Husnain

For long, this constituency has been neglected. Their further exclusion, especially in the current crisis could leave them in the lurch.

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