Editor’s Note: The first full week of February is known as White Cane Week (WCW) in Canada. Since 1946, this important week has raised the public’s awareness of the abilities of Canadians who are blind. This year, we have decided to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and are featuring an article penned by our own Shauna Sproston. Shauna is a student at the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind and a recent university graduate. She is passionate about social justice, writing, learning, and sharing what she knows. Shauna appreciates connecting with others who are blind and empowering and encouraging them to be independent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all Canadians, particularly those who are living with a disability. As a person who is blind, I usually live an active and independent lifestyle. Since I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition in 2007 known as Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), my life has changed in many ways. Living with vision loss has taught me many valuable life skills such as problem-solving, self-advocacy, and thinking outside the box. I have gained insight in more ways than I could ever have imagined. I feel truly blessed by my peers and the relationships I have in the blind community. For me, life is about living, sharing, and growing, and giving back to others. Having worked as part of a guide dog team for over twelve years, I also value the confidence and partnership this experience has given me. I reside on the beautiful West Coast of British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. I love the outdoors, walking, yoga, swimming, and my social network of family and friends.
Like many British Columbians, I never anticipated how the pandemic might interfere with my daily life. I have experienced a new set of challenges in navigating my community and adjusting to the “new normal” as a person who is blind. The concept of social distancing has certainly been an adjustment for everyone! In March of 2020, it became apparent how challenging this task would be for my guide dog and I to navigate grocery stores and other public spaces. Although I have a small field of central vision, I am unable to identify the distance I am from others. Keeping a two metre distance has been extremely difficult for me. My guide dog, Barney, was trained to guide me around obstacles, and sees an object or a person as an obstacle to help navigate me around. Barney often guides me very close to other people. In these situations I have felt anxious for my own health and safety.
As a person who is immune compromised due to a Breast Cancer diagnosis in 2019, I experienced a wave of emotions regarding mobility and my independence during the pandemic. I no longer felt safe to shop for groceries on my own, go to the bank, or grab a coffee at Starbucks. There were non-tactile stickers on the floor everywhere I went in stores and businesses. I could not see the arrows or the stickers on the floor or the signs that were intended to advise patrons where to walk and/or wait in line. Everywhere I went, I felt confused, overwhelmed and disappointed that social distancing measures had not been made accessible for persons who are blind. Many businesses have covered their debit machines with plastic, making it difficult to find the number five button on the pin pad. I understand that this safety measure of wrapping the machine in plastic probably makes it easier for store clerks to sanitize, however it is not accessible for me as a person who is blind. Rather than completing debit transactions on my own, I have resorted to relying on the clerk to assist me.
For the first few months of the pandemic, I felt as if my independence and ability to navigate my community had been taken away from me. Despite life’s challenges I always persevere. I consider myself to be a strong, resilient, determined individual. I find ways to navigate the barriers that come my way. My lifestyle and routine were interrupted, and most of the activities I participated in prior to COVID were cancelled or put on hold. I followed the health guidelines of BC and only went out for essential reasons. Due to the feelings I had regarding my health and safety, I would have a family member accompany me on trips to the grocery store and medical appointments. When shopping I usually like to touch and feel produce and certain goods before adding them to my shopping cart. However, I no longer felt safe to touch anything, including the button at an intersection to cross the street. I carried a bottle of hand sanitizer with me everywhere I went. As an extra layer of protection, I wore a mask in indoor public settings long before it became a mandatory health requirement in BC. When health restrictions were loosened in the summer of 2020, I think many people were enjoying the ability to be more active and social. For me, I felt some relief, and a renewed sense of hope. I was also adjusting to my new reality and began to feel more comfortable navigating my neighbourhood once again.
I am not a person who enjoys sitting around being inactive, and by May of 2020, I was definitely experiencing cabin fever. I have a young guide dog, and it is important that we work on routes in our home area regularly. Instead of focusing on the list of things I was unable to do during the pandemic, I chose to focus on what I was able to do. I established a pandemic routine for myself. Walking has always been a favourite pastime for me, and I made a point of walking a 20-40 minute route everyday in my neighbourhood. I live in a central location of the Greater Victoria area which has many amenities such as shopping, restaurants, banks, and Transit bus stops. This has made it convenient during COVID, as I can walk everywhere I need to go, rather than taking the bus. Exercise is so very important for both physical and mental well-being. Being outdoors daily helped to rejuvenate my spirit. As summer arrived, some of us were able to socialize within a small bubble made up of family and friends. I cherished this time with my loved ones. As I adapted to social distancing guidelines to the best of my ability, I began to go places independently. I went to my local Starbucks with my guide dog. At first, it seemed daunting. However, I believed in myself and my abilities. I am also not afraid to ask for assistance or direction from staff and others in my community to ensure my safety and the safety of others. One of the most challenging hurdles I have worked through was navigating my local Save On Foods independently to purchase the essentials on my family’s grocery list. Five months ago I even made a trip on my own to the Lower Mainland. I travelled by BC Ferries to Vancouver to visit my eldest son for a weekend as I had not seen him in almost a year due to my cancer treatments and the pandemic.
Navigating my neighbourhood on my own during this pandemic is a work in progress. Rather than using my finger to press the button to cross the street, I now use my elbow to press the button. For me, the less I have to touch things during COVID the better!. I continue to wash my hands vigorously, and my hands have never felt so dry! Moisturizer has become one of my best friends! I continue to conduct a large grocery shop every two weeks with a family member, and I have found this to result in less trips to the grocery store. I now use online banking for all of my banking transactions. I rarely ride public transit, as the activities and classes I participated in before the pandemic have now moved to an online platform. Rather than taking yoga classes in person, I now take them virtually. It has been an adjustment for me to participate in virtual activities. However, I have found them to be very enjoyable and connecting with others is essential.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for me to navigate as a person who is blind, I have adapted to my new way of life. I have many things to be thankful for. I am healthy and motivated, and I do my best to maintain a positive outlook on life. I am learning a new screen reader and Braille through the Blind People in Charge program at the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind, both of which I did not make the time to learn prior to COVID-19. I have a goal to learn how to play the mandolin, and my partner is able to teach me. I am blessed to have these opportunities and the pandemic has slowed my life down in a positive way. It has given the opportunity to reflect on what matters to me in life. I continue to walk at least one route per day with my guide dog. A very interesting observation I have made since the onset of the pandemic is how I have not had people in public asking to pet my guide dog, something I experienced daily prior to the pandemic! I have recently graduated from university and I look forward to my future.
I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. I see laughter, I see family feasts and BBQ’s, I see social gatherings, trips to Vancouver to go shopping with my eldest son, I see lots of hugs for family and friends. I look forward to doing all of these things again. As a person who is blind, I look forward to having the freedom and the independence to do everything I did prior to the pandemic. I know this stressful and peculiar time we are living in will not last forever. In the meantime I will continue to live one day at a time and be thankful for my health, and the health of my loved ones. I will cherish the time I have with family and friends, even if most of those connections are made over a telephone or a computer. Be blessed, be happy, be safe, and be empowered to live the life you choose to live.