Advice for Blind and Partially Sighted People

Last updated 23 April 2020 12:00 BST

Sources of Current Information

You can hear the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, as well as current advice on protecting yourself, family and friends from Coronavirus, via radio and television news broadcasts.

In the UK, for the duration of the pandemic, the Government is holding a daily press conference which is to be carried live on BBC 1, usually at around 5:00 PM on weekdays and 4:00 PM at weekends. There is up-to-date information on the UK Government and National Health Service websites and we recommend checking these pages at least once a week, if not more regularly. You might also consider listening to the Newscast podcast from the BBC.

In the Republic of Ireland, please visit the Health Service Executive web pages on Coronavirus for the most up-to-date information.

Beware of information from others, particularly on social media. Though most information is offered in good faith, it is possible that it has been misinterpreted, even by people who you trust implicitly. Furthermore, it is very easy to confuse fact with speculation and, as information passes from person to person, the risk of inadvertently presenting speculation as fact increases significantly. If you are uncertain about the legitimacy of information from others or worried about its implications, ask them where they obtained it.

  • If the information has been obtained over the internet, ask them where abouts. Information from reputable news sources such as the BBC or official internet resources such as the UK Government or NHS websites is likely to be accurate, although it might also be prudent to clarify the date on which the information was obtained as the situation is changing rapidly.
  • Information from newspapers should be understood in the social and/or political context of that newspaper and, in particular, be aware that many newspapers carry a mixture of reports and opinion pieces. Ask someone to read the article if you are unsure so that you can apply your own interpretation and clarify the nature of it.
  • If the information has been obtained via social media, try to ascertain how the person who posted the information obtained it. If in doubt, verify the information by consulting local or national radio or television news programmes.

For more advice on ensuring the accuracy of the information, please read this BBC article.

General Health and Safety Advice

You should follow all public health and government advice. In particular:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water regularly (not excessively) – do this for at least 20 seconds. Always wash your hands when you get home and into work, and after touching objects which are potentially contaminated (including shopping, post and parcels). Use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available, but note that frequent use may dry out your skin. Consider applying moisturiser if frequent use is unavoidable.
  • Regularly disinfect surfaces and, if possible, disinfect items such as shopping, parcels and packages which are likely to be contaminated. If you are unable to do this (e.g. because paper will decompose under disinfectant), leave items to stand unattended for at least 72 hours, and wash your hands immediately after touching them.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze. Put used tissues in the bin immediately and wash your hands afterwards.
  • Avoid close contact with people who have symptoms of coronavirus by working from home, if you can, and avoid social activities such as going to pubs, restaurants, theatres and cinemas or any events with large groups of people. If you are unable to avoid close contact, try to stay at least two metres (six feet) away from anyone else.
  • Use online services, apps or the telephone to contact your GP surgery or other NHS services. If you are concerned that you may have Coronavirus, use the online NHS 111 facility or, if necessary, call NHS 111. In an emergency, call 999.
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean.
  • If you have either a high temperature or a new, dry, continuous cough, you should stay at home for seven days. If you live with other people, everyone in the household must remain at home for 14 days from the day the first person has symptoms.
  • People in high-risk groups (those aged seventy and older, or those with pre-existing health conditions) should not leave the house unless absolutely necessary. You should not visit friends or relatives aged seventy and older or with pre-existing health conditions if at all possible. If you do need to visit a high-risk individual, you should be especially careful to wash your hands thoroughly when entering their house.
  • Protect your mental health by staying in regular telephone or online contact with friends, family and your community. If you need to talk to someone, call Samaritans on 116 123 or email [email protected]. More mental health resources are on our Resources page.

Specific Health and Safety Advice for Visually Impaired People

As blind and partially sighted people, we often have closer physical contact with others than sighted people. As we navigate the world, we might touch more objects such as handrails, braille signage or walls in buildings. We often rely on public transport to run daily errands, unavoidably putting us in close contact with other people.

To protect yourself from Coronavirus, you should wash your hands or apply hand sanitiser gel after touching any person or object. If this is not possible, do not touch your mouth or your face before you have washed your hands. You may also consider using disposable gloves for some tasks.

Understand that anything you touch may potentially be contaminated. This includes personal items, including braille books. Though it is not appropriate to apply disinfectant to paper braille, it is perfectly acceptable (and, indeed, encouraged) to disinfect braille on plastic such as thermoform or self-adhesive labels. It is not a good idea to disinfect products such as CDs or USB memory sticks. When taking delivery of library books, for example, leave them to stand for at least 72 hours before reading them or, if they are audio books and you wish to read them straight away, handle them with gloves, disinfect your audio player immediately afterwards, and wash your hands.

Where possible, you should avoid using public transport. Ask friends or family members if they can give you a lift, use a trusted local taxi firm, or walk if you are able. If this is not possible, you might consider asking a friend or neighbour for help with shopping or errands. Remember that now is not the time to be proud: if you are offered help, even if you would usually refuse it, consider accepting it. If you have previously been offered help and you have refused it, consider asking those people for help now. If you have a good relationship with friends and neighbours, even if they have not offered you help, do not be afraid to ask them. Staying at home protects not only yourself, but anyone who might need to help you while you are out and about.

Some members of the public are offering to help vulnerable neighbours by pushing a note through the letter box. The Braillists Foundation, on request, is transcribing these notes into accessible formats – see our web page for friends, family, neighbours and supporters for further information. Do not be afraid to accept offers of help received in this way, but continue to apply due diligence. For example, if you need to pay for shopping that has been dropped off by someone else, you might like to pay in cash rather than allowing your neighbour to use your credit or debit card so as to minimise the risk of fraud. Remember to thoroughly wash your hands before and after handling money.

Many leading supermarkets have decided to open early or set aside certain hours of trading for elderly and vulnerable customers and key workers. Note, however, that vulnerable may only refer to the 1.5 million people who have been identified by the UK government and who should have received a letter, which may not include visually impaired people. Please check with your supermarket of choice if you are unsure.

To complement this, if you do need to use public transport, some providers such as Transport for West Midlands have temporarily lifted restrictions on the concessionary bus pass to enable free travel before 9:30 AM. However, please also note that many operators may be running a reduced service in view of staffing constraints and less demand. Contact your local bus operator or visit their website for more information.

Face-To-Face Help

As Visually Impaired people, we often need to accept more face-to-face help than others. For example, we might need someone to guide us around an environment, or we might need help with small personal tasks (e.g. locating a dropped object or reading correspondence). This presents significant challenges during the Coronavirus pandemic as, in many cases, physical closeness is a necessity in these situations and this prohibits remaining a safe distance away from the other person. You should consider using smartphone apps in place of face-to-face help wherever possible. For example, you could try Be My Eyes (free) or Aira (paid). If you don’t feel comfortable accepting help from strangers, consider using video calling apps such as Skype, Google Hangouts or Facetime to contact trusted friends or relatives.

Sometimes, however, face-to-face contact is unavoidable, especially if you need to be guided. In these cases, be mindful of the fact that people are being advised to cough into their sleeve. This should not prevent you from taking someone’s elbow, provided the other person is comfortable being within two metres (six feet) of you, as Coronavirus is not transmitted by physical contact. However, it is extremely important that you wash your hands as soon as possible after being guided and that you do not touch your face until your hands are clean, as touching your face with dirty hands does present a transmission risk. As an alternative to being guided by the elbow, you might consider instead being guided by the shoulder. You should still wash your hands after being guided in this way, but the risk of collecting germs in the meantime is reduced.

If you are not confident about asking for help, especially in these times, compile a short introductory script in advance and practice it. This should not be long but should state that you are visually impaired, that you require help (and what help you require) and how best to provide that help. In the case of guiding, if you are able to use a cane and follow someone’s voice rather than being guided, mention this. Environments are less busy than usual during the pandemic and so this technique may work for you in the current climate even if you are usually not comfortable with it.

If you are refused help due to Coronavirus, respond sensitively. There may be others who are prepared to help instead. If not, depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to point out that Coronavirus is not transmitted by touch. However, ultimately, remember that people are not obliged to help you. We strongly advised that you restrict travel to known routes during this pandemic so as to minimise your need to be guided out of unfamiliar situations.

Even on known routes, you may find that you are unnerved when walking because roads are significantly quieter and there are fewer people out and about. You should adjust to this in time. However, if you are unsure, take a mobile phone with you and, if necessary, have a friend or family member on the line while you are walking. Consider using your phone on speaker mode if you need to do this so that you are able to make use of both ears for social distancing. Be aware that it will be difficult for a visually impaired person to social distance – this is not your fault. People should still recognise the white cane and walk around you or, if you have a guide dog, the dog may be able to steer you away from people. If you do not usually walk with a white cane, do so. Equally, if you can hear people around you, consider waiting by a wall (or similar) for them to pass.

Technology and Cleaning

You should avoid sharing items of personal technology, including talking book players, mobile phones and braille displays. However, still make sure that you thoroughly clean these items on a regular basis. For braille displays, apply a small amount of denatured or isopropyl alcohol to a microfibre cloth and, with the braille display switched off, lightly wipe over all surfaces of the braille display.

To clean your mobile phone, apply a 70% alcohol wipe or Clorox disinfecting wipe, but only to non-porous surfaces such as the display and back of the phone. Do not allow moisture to enter the phone, for example through the charging port, and be aware that cleaning chemicals may damage fabric or leather surfaces such as phone cases. Do not, under any circumstances, submerge your phone directly in water or cleaning fluid.

If you are working from home, we recommend you regularly wipe down your workstation and clean equipment such as keyboards, mice and monitors.

Coronavirus lingers on hard surfaces, and mobility aids such as long canes and guide dog harnesses are particularly susceptible. We therefore recommend that you clean these after each use, ideally using a microfibre cloth with warm, soapy water applied. If this is not possible, canes can be cleaned with a Dettol wipe or equivalent but avoid using these on guide dog harnesses as it may damage the leather. If the tip of the cane is particularly dirty, it may be detached from the rest of the cane and left in a solution of water and bleach. For guide dog harnesses, remember to clean inside and out and the entire handle.


Clearly, shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be more difficult. If you have not done so already, consider setting up an account with an online grocery delivery service. Many of these can be accessed via PC, smart phone and even smart speakers such as Amazon Echo.

In the UK, leading supermarkets include Asda, Iceland, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s or Tesco, or place your Sainsbury’s order over the telephone by calling 0800 917 8557, 0800 052 5500 or 0800 328 1700. If you need help with online shopping, the RNIB Technology for Life team can be contacted via the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999. See also this RNIB page on supermarkets which is being kept up-to-date with information on special opening times for elderly and vulnerable customers and key workers.

In the Republic of Ireland, supermarkets include Lidl (via buymie app), SuperValu (1890 456 828 or 01 906 88 80) and Tesco (1850 744 844).

In addition to major national supermarket chains, local shops are still an option during this time and may be a lifeline if you are unable to secure a supermarket delivery slot in good time. The added cost may be offset against reduced transport costs. Some local shops are now offering home delivery – please contact them directly for further information. Similarly, consider contacting catering companies who may have additional stock due to the closure of pubs and restaurants.

Even if a home delivery option is not available, or you are struggling to use their online systems, you could consider asking for an email address for someone in the store such as a manager and email your shopping list to them. They may then be able to pick the items for you to collect so as to minimise your time out and about. To avoid hand-to-hand contact, ask shop assistants to leave bags on the counter for you to pick up.

If you do need to visit a shop in person, remember that many shops are no longer accepting cash payments during the pandemic. You will instead need to pay by card, ideally contactless. The limit for contactless payments in the UK has increased to £45. Be mindful of social distancing measures, such as limits on the number of people allowed in at a time and queuing at a safe distance. Many shops have lines on the floor to aid here which you may not be able to see. Please be sensitive, ask for verbal directions if appropriate but overall use good judgement.

Write out a shopping list before you go shopping. If you are able to print it out, do so. You can leave the list on the counter for a member of staff to pick up in order to avoid hand-to-hand contact. Alternatively, if you need to braille the list or use smart phone apps, dictate the list to a member of staff who can then pick the items for you. You can make a shopping list using Amazon Alexa which will then be readable on the Alexa app, but this may not be especially easy to use. You should instead consider using the Notes app or equivalent.

Recipe services are of course an option at this time. However, the recipe cards may not be available in an accessible format and it may be difficult to identify the ingredients without sighted help. If you are not comfortable using smart phone apps to get help, you may find that you put more people in danger by using these services than you would by going shopping.

Planning for Self-Isolation

It is crucial to have a plan in place in case you need to self-isolate. There is no need to buy more essential items than you need in preparation for this.

If you are a parent or live in a house with children, you might want to consider arranging childcare with a friend or relative. If you take prescribed medication, you should arrange with your pharmacy to ensure you can have it delivered if you have to stay at home. Keep a record of the phone numbers of friends and family, for instance by saving them in your mobile phone or ensuring that your braille, large print or audio address book is up to date.

If you are a guide dog owner, consider asking friends and family to free run your guide dog if you are required to stay at home. If you are unable to do this, contact Guide Dogs by email or call 0118 983 5555 for further advice.

You should also consider items to keep yourself engaged and entertained during self-isolation. Libraries are endeavouring to continue to operate (for a list, visit our Resources page), so you might like to order extra reading materials. Consider taking up a new hobby or learning a new skill if reading fiction titles does not appeal. If you already have a hobby, for example knitting or arts and crafts, ensure you have enough materials to be able to continue through self-isolation.

Local and national radio is a fantastic source of entertainment as well as information, with many stations planning special output during the pandemic. Stay tuned to your favourite stations for more information. For blindness-specific information in the UK, In Touch airs on BBC Radio 4 every Tuesday at 8:40 PM. An RSS feed is available here.

Make sure you have a portable radio and a supply of batteries. You could also consider purchasing a subscription to a streaming service such as Netflix, where many programmes have audio description, or undertake free courses. There are many high quality tutorials on YouTube, and some others are listed on our Resources page.

Many face-to-face services and events have been either cancelled or suspended during the pandemic, but many organisations are still able to offer advice and support online or over the telephone. Your local sight loss organisation may be able to offer practical support – please contact them for more information. If you do not know how to do this, please consult the RNIB Sightline Directory.

In the UK, organisations such as RNIB, Thomas Pocklington Trust and Torch Trust are still offering emotional support. In the Republic of Ireland, NCBI and Child Vision are still operating. If you need help with your assistive technology, many companies are able to diagnose and repair common faults remotely if your technology is internet-enabled, and most telephone and email technical support services will continue as usual.

Finally, we recommend you maintain a daily routine, and if possible incorporate some exercise.