For many visually impaired people, navigating our town centre high streets can be particularly challenging. And as lockdown eases and temporary changes are rapidly made to street layouts, these problems are being exacerbated across the country.
Clearly, as shops re-open and introduce various safety measures, they have a great deal to consider. Similarly, local councils are introducing changes to protect the safety of the general public. Unfortunately, in both instances, the needs of people with disabilities are not at the forefront of those decisions and, in fairness to those concerned, they are often not aware of the impact certain changes may have on people with different needs.
So, what can be done to ensure the wellbeing of people with disabilities is not being undermined in order to make our high streets safer for the general public?
The RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) has produced advice for local authorities in England to help them make sure any changes to our streets are accessible.
In Southend-on-Sea, a local sight loss charity is working with the council and the local improvement district (BID) to help them understand these challenges. It is a model of co-operation that should, perhaps, be replicated across the country:
Southend in Sight works with the council to ensure high street accessibility for visually impaired
Gary England, a volunteer with local independent sight loss charity, Southend in Sight and its CEO Lucy Martin visited Southend High Street recently with Council and Southend Business Improvement District (BID) staff to look at ways to make the area more user-friendly for visually impaired people (VIPs) as they venture back out after lockdown.
Gary is himself visually impaired so was able to explain from first-hand experience some of the problems facing VIPs as they try to navigate a once-familiar space that has now changed whilst also having to manage social distancing, new queuing systems and barriers that they have not faced before. The charity is working with the council and the BID to meet some of the challenges they and local businesses are facing and Gary gave some valuable advice to Suzanne Gloyne, Southend BID Manager and Carl Robinson, Director of Public Protection at Southend-on-Sea Council, about ways to make the high street safer and more easily used by the visually impaired.
“Suzanne and Carl were very keen to learn about making the high street more accessible and paid great attention to our advice and ideas. It was nice to be listened to. Some of the challenges I and other visually impaired people face now are the new queuing systems that have been put in place in many shops and cafes which we are not always aware of. Barriers that are the same colour as the pavement or that merge into the background are difficult to negotiate and I advised Suzanne and Carl that contrasting colours would be more helpful. Signs about social distancing that are placed on the floor or are in small print are not easy for us to notice.”
Cllr Trevor Harp, cabinet member for health and adult social care at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, said:
“I’d like to thank both Lucy and Gary for giving up their time to explain to our officers the challenges people with visual impairments face while going about town in this new age of social distancing.
“We want everyone to be able to feel safe and confident to live as independently as they can during this pandemic. Their specialist insights are an invaluable tool in furthering our understanding how we can make our High Street as accessible as possible for people with visual impairments so that we can promote their independence while also benefitting local trade.”
Lucy Martin said:
“We know that many people have lost confidence over lockdown and this was a positive step to help those who are starting to venture out. If people see others struggling with one-way systems or feel they are too close in a queue, we’d remind them that the person may have a visual impairment and not be aware of the new systems in place and may just need to be asked if they need a little help and advice.”
Please note: At the moment, support from Southend in Sight is available over the phone. Unfortunately, face to face appointments are not being offered due to Covid 19. Please call: 01702 342131 to speak to a member of staff if you or someone you know needs advice or support for sight loss or visual impairment at this time.