Advice for Blind and Partially Sighted People

Last updated 1 July 2020 09:00 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, there is also 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.

Interpreting 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. If you are uncertain about how to time 20 seconds, you can ask Alexa or Google Home to “help me wash my hands”, or sing the song “Happy Birthday” at a sedate pace.
  • 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.
  • Wear appropriate protective equipment, such as a face covering or gloves, when outside your home. Remember, however, that gloves should be changed regularly. If this is not possible, use of bare hands in conjunction with regular washing or disinfecting is preferable.
  • Avoid close contact with people wherever possible. You should ideally remain at least two metres (six feet) away from anyone else. If this is not possible, a distance of one metre (three feet) is acceptable so long as additional precautionary measures are in place, e.g. use of screens or face coverings.
  • If you are able, you may still wish to work from home for the time being, and avoid social activities such as going to pubs, restaurants, theatres and cinemas or any events with large groups of people.
  • 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 a high temperature, a new, dry, continuous cough, or a change to your sense of smell, you must immediately Ask for an antigen test via the NHS. Neither you, nor anyone else in your household, may leave your home, other than to take the test, until the results of the test are available. If the test is negative, everyone may cease isolating immediately.
  • If the test is positive, follow any instructions from NHS staff, including full cooperation in contact tracing proceedings. This is not a punishment! If in doubt, you should stay at home until all symptems have fully subsided. If you live with other people, everyone else in the household must remain at home for 14 days from the day the first person has symptoms. Provided they are not symptematic, they may then cease isolation.
  • People in high-risk groups (those aged seventy and older, or those with pre-existing health conditions) may still wish to self-isolate for the time being. You should respect the wishes of friends or relatives aged seventy and older or with pre-existing health conditions in respect of visiting. If you do visit a high-risk individual, you should be especially careful to wash your hands thoroughly when entering their house and wear protective equipment,.
  • Protect your mental health, especially if you are self-isolating, 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.

Face Coverings

In the UK, it is now a legal requirement to wear a face covering on public transport. It is good practice to also wear a face covering when you are in close contact with others and, indeed, when out and about in general.

Exemptions exist for certain disabled people. However, it is not felt that people with a visual impairment should need to take advantage of this.

The only legal requirement for a face covering is that it should fully cover both the nose and mouth. Face coverings which comply with this requirement are now readily available at a low cost in most local convenience shops, supermarkets and online retailers. However, there is no specific endorsement for these and they are not viewed with any particular favour from a legal point of view. Consequently, homemade face coverings are also equally permissible. These may include, in the simplest case, merely wrapping a scarf or t-shirt around your head so that it covers the nose and mouth.

UK residents are explicitly advised against attempting to procure surgical masks for personal use, as this depletes the level of equipment available to frontline workers.

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, 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.

Be prepared to accept more help than usual, e.g. in order to safely socially distance. If you are offered assistance undertaking basic errands, such as shopping, you might like to consider accepting that help even if you would usually refuse it, as it may be safer than attempting to undertake them yourself. However, you should still 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.

Face-To-Face Help and Social Distancing

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.

In all cases where you require face-to-face help, it is polite to wear a face covering.

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.

It is understood that it will be difficult for a visually impaired person to socially distance – this is not your fault, and you should not refrain from travel because of it. As a guide, standing one cane’s length away from somebody should ensure that you are at least one metre (three feet) away from them. Aside from this, people should still recognise the white cane and walk around you. 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. You could ask a friend or neighbour for help with shopping or errands. Alternatively, 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.

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.

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 and wear a face covering.

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.

Public Transport

You should avoid the frivolous use of public transport. Instead, where possible, you could walk or ask friends or family members if they can give you a lift. However, if you do genuinely need to use public transport, it is still possible to do so, with the same level of assistance as was available prior to the pandemic. Remember, it is a legal requirement to wear a face covering on public transport in the UK, and it is not felt to be necessary for the exception for disabled people to apply to people with a visual impairment.

Be aware that the need to socially distance may adversely impact some routines. In particular, the maximum capacity of a bus or train is likely to be reduced in order to accommodate social distancing. You should therefore allow extra time for your journeys in case buses and trains are too full, and expect less choice in terms of seating. Some seats, particularly those near the driver, may be completely off limits for the time being.

When travelling by train, be aware that some Train Operating Companies are now mandating advance ticket bookings and seat reservations in order to manage social distancing. Catering services may also be reduced or unavailable entirely.

Assistance is still available throughout the rail network, but you should still allow extra time, and book wherever possible so that staffing levels can be better managed. You can do so over the telephone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 0800 022 3720. Passenger assistance staff will be fully equipped with PPE and will be able to guide by the elbow if this is what is required, but other options, such as guiding by voice, may also be offered. Allow plenty of time to discuss your requirements with assistance staff.

For further information, see this public transport guidance from Guide Dogs.

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.