The pandemic has created many challenges for people, but for those who are blind or partially sighted, COVID-19 has proven to be particularly difficult.
After all, with the advent of such public health-imposed measures as physical distancing and public gathering restrictions over the past 20 months, Haligonians with partial vision have had to struggle with an increased feeling of social isolation and anxiety.
“People with sight loss can do most things independently, and they live independent lives and things are great,” says Jeff deViller, the Halifax-based CNIB programs manager. “(But) social isolation became much more prominent in the sense of clients recognizing they need more social interactions.”
As such, the CNIB adapted one of their volunteer offerings, the Vision Mate program, to ensure that people could still find support by connecting clients and volunteers by phone or online on a weekly basis.
“That was a great addition for us,” says deViller of the Virtual Vision Mate program. “The in-person is still significantly a bigger need for people living rurally who we were struggling to find volunteers for (but) it’s been a huge deal.”
The former Canadian National Institute for the Blind’s flagship initiative for one-on-one support, the in-person Vision Mate program aims to provide companionship for people who require assistance with various errands like grocery shopping, going for walks or reading.
“Basically what the volunteer program attempts to do is fill that blank space — here is someone who is designated to come, I can ask them to do whatever I need them to do and they are there to help me,” explains deViller. “The beauty of the program is that that often results in friendships (so) it’s a real win-win for people.”
Once the pandemic eliminated the ability to gather in-person however, the program was altered and focused more on engaging friendly conversation on a regular basis to battle social isolation — a real issue that affected everyone during the worst waves of COVID-19.
“We did see a real bump in volunteer interest in the middle of the pandemic,” adds deViller, who notes that the isolation caused by physical distancing created an awareness among people about the need for social interaction. “I don’t anticipate ever stopping the phone calls because yes, it’s been beneficial because of COVID, but it’s just beneficial period.”
The program is very flexible and volunteers are permitted to schedule chats at times convenient for both Vision Mates. Typically, the role takes approximately two hours a week and volunteers are supplied with a conversation guide to assist in getting started.
“There are still lots of Vision Mates looking for matches,” adds deViller. In-person volunteer roles have also resumed since restrictions have loosened in Nova Scotia. He notes applicants are required to go through an interview, a one-hour orientation, as well as a provide reference and criminal record checks.
“There’s a real trust that’s been established between us and the clients, and we need to respect that trust,” adds deViller.
While the CNIB’s Vision Mate and Virtual Vision Mate programs have both certainly helped to battle feelings of social isolation during a very challenging time — for those who are interested in signing up, it also promises to forge a gratifying friendship along the way.
“I would say that’s the biggest reward for sure — it’s the idea that you feel like you’re helping (but) it doesn’t feel like you’re working,” says deViller of the program. “It just also feels like you’re visiting a friend and it’s nice, fun thing to do.”
For more information on Vision Mates programs, visit the CNIB website.