Coronavirus News: Social distancing creates challenges for blind, visually impaired

EAST NORTHPORT, Long Island (WABC) -- Social distancing can be challenging for anyone out in public, but it can be especially difficult for people who are blind or who have visual impairments.

Heidi Vandewinckel, of East Northport, was born blind and relies upon her guide dog, Annie, to get around.

Annie, however, wasn't trained to social distance.

"When I'm walking I don't know that you're near me until you're within that six feet," Vandewinckel said.

Vandewinckel said she has heard about blind people being yelled at in checkout lines because they aren't standing on the stickers on the ground meant to ensure social distancing.

Guide dogs go through intense training beginning at puppyhood and are critical to helping the blind and visually impaired get around. However, the dogs have not been trained how to social distance, so they don't know, for example, how to pick a seat on a train that isn't near someone or to keep away from others on a street corner.
Vandewinckel is urging people to social distance themselves if they believe someone near them is blind or visually impaired.

"What I find is the most helpful is if someone says to me, 'You need to step back a step because you're within someone's six feet or is there anyway that I can assist you?'" she said.

The coronavirus pandemic has created unique challenges for the blind and visually impaired, especially because they depend upon touch to understand what's going on around them.

ABC News took an in-depth look at the ways the deaf and blind are coping during this time of social distancing.

They profiled a first-year student at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. who said he hasn't gone off campus since March 18.

"Sometimes I do feel lonely," said Philip Wismer. "My other friends that are completely blind are feeling very, very isolated. It's very difficult for everyone, but especially for deaf-blind people across the country."

Click here to learn more about the Guide Dog Foundation.

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