This woman says being blind has helped and hindered her life during the pandemic

Shermeen Khan says many pandemic safety precautions - like arrows marked on the floor - have impeded her ability to navigate the world independently. But over a lifetime being blind, she has developed skills that give her an advantage during COVID-19.

Many pandemic safety measures threaten Shermeen Khan's ability to navigate the world independently

Shermeen Khan is an Ontario lawyer currently working in post-secondary education. (Submitted by Shermeen Khan)

In the earliest days of the pandemic, Shermeen Khan was visited by an unfamiliar feeling: she was having an easier time than others in the struggle to adjust to an online workplace.

"Certainly, having grown up a blind person, I never thought that I would be the person who could theoretically come out on top in one of these situations," said Ms Khan, a lawyer who works in post-secondary education. 

I don't think that moving to the online environment or the remote environment was as challenging.

 At a time when people around the world were having to learn new, physically-distanced ways of doing business, Khan felt like an old pro. You're having trouble reading visual cues on Zoom? Welcome to my world! 

"I don't think that moving to the online environment or the remote environment was as challenging - because I've never really relied on being able to visually perceive the makeup of a room," she told Tapestry. "I don't rely on looking at another person's face. And so in many respects, I was able to rely on the same things I always relied on, to figure out how to read a room, right?"

The cues Khan had always used include listening for an intake of breath before someone is about to speak, noting how frequently a person is interrupting or sounding flustered, and gauging the sound of someone's breathing - potentially a signal that they want to jump into the conversation. 

She said many of her colleagues were learning techniques she'd spent years trying to figure out. The "new normal" suddenly meant that people in need of special accommodations amounted to the entire workforce. 

Khan said some of the non-visual cues people were learning to discern are quite subtle, but anyone can develop the ability to pick up on them. 

"Am I perceiving this feigned confidence that I think we all struggle with from time to time? Is there lots of hesitation when they're responding?  All of these things [are] cues that I think we all do pick up on. And that's one thing I always wanted to make clear: is that certainly the capability to pick up on all of that is in all of us. It's just that I had a lifetime to practice it."

Arrows on the floor don't help blind people

As stores, restaurants, fast-food places and coffee shops have scrambled to add safety features during the pandemic, Khan notes there has been an unintended side effect for people who are blind: the world became harder to navigate.

You're not supposed to take anybody's elbow anymore because you could theoretically transfer COVID to them.

Many safety protocols centre on visual cues: think arrows painted on grocery store flows to direct the flow of traffic. It can also be challenging to gauge the distance between yourself and other people; lines taped two-metres apart on the ground don't help and guide dogs can't be instructed to respect physical distancing rules. 

Khan says it all combines to mean increased safety for some - and a frustrating experience for others. 

"You're not supposed to take anybody's elbow anymore because you could theoretically transfer COVID to them or be an unknown transmitter. Anyway, we don't touch each other anymore. So, many avenues for being able to really navigate a place independently - or even be able to assess your environment - were really compromised. So a lot of us really ended up relying on people in ways that historically we haven't had to do for a really long time."

Khan says a little creativity could go a long way towards keeping everyone safe. 

"What if it's just as simple as [being guided by] the person who has the least worry about offering an elbow to a blind person who can sanitize their hands in front of you? And you're escorting them to a table, which is all about a 45 second walk - have that person do it?" she suggested.

"My most accessible experiences have typically happened because I've encountered people who are sort of organically willing to work with me on the spot - and who are creative thinkers and just open to doing things differently."

Blurred boundaries

Shermeen Khan says one of her hardest pandemic adjustments had nothing to do with eyesight; it was something a little more existential in nature.

Working from home in a long-term sense felt very invasive to my personal space.

"For me, the working day started becoming a challenge not really for blind reasons. It became more of a challenge when I realized that I, for the most part, get to live two lives or two versions of myself in two different places," she explained. "Whereas now working from home, I had to be two people and have those two lives but in one place, and I really, really struggled with blurring those boundaries."

"Working from home in a long-term sense felt very invasive to my personal space, for some reason. There's a honeymoon period, where we were like, 'Great! You can do your Zumba classes and your gynecology appointment and your banking all online. This is wonderful!' And then, you know, that honeymoon was short-lived, and eventually you're, 'I don't want to do online soccer anymore. This is getting very boring and very stressful.'" 

Shermeen Khan is a member of the Waterloo Region Record's community Editorial Board. She is also a member of the Grand Philharmonic board of directors, and lives with her husband and daughter in Kitchener, Ontario.

Written by Mary Hynes. Interview produced by Tayo Bero and Arman Aghbali.


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