Thirty-four-year-old Mudasir Andrabi was born visually impaired. Life had been difficult and he remained dependent on family friends to assist him as he went about his daily routine. But things have complicated after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the world still awaits an effective vaccine to the disease, the only safety from COVID-19 is maintaining a physical distance from others—something that Mr. Andrabi simply can’t do. “Social distancing and not touching surfaces are very tough for me,” he said. “After the outbreak, I was worried for those around me but I was also scared of how I would be doing things or go out because I cannot ask people for help anymore.”
The post-pandemic world has reminded Mr. Andrabi of the additional challenges he faced and has exacted a heavy toll on his mental health. “I am blind but I still wasn’t afraid all my life but now I am. I fear going out. I am stuck at home now,” he said. “I have been stressed since [the COVID-19 outbreak]. I don’t know what to do anymore. Sometimes, I have to ask people for help even for the most basic things like walking. I don’t know how to do these things on my own.”
For many like Mr. Andrabi, living in the times of COVID-19 has meant that they are on their own. “People don’t help me anymore,” he said. “They don’t hold my hand, they don’t help me in crossing the road. I feel pressurized because of these things. My life has suddenly changed.”
Heavy on the head
In Kashmir, there are also those who were blinded by government forces. Mohammad Ashraf Wani, a 28-year-old man from south Kashmir’s Pulwama is one such person, was blinded by metal pellets fired from shotguns by government forces during the 2016 civilian uprising.
Having lost vision in both his eyes, Mr. Wani discontinued his studies and chose a life of seclusion, going outdoors only for his weekly health checkups. That was until the pandemic broke out in the Valley. “Now, my routine checkups stopped,” he said. “I used to go for checkups every two weeks. But now, I don’t even take medicines anymore.”
The fear of contracting the infection and in-turn infecting members of his family, on whose support he is dependent, has added to his worry. “I am scared because my family can face a lot of trouble because of me,” he said. “I think about it all the time, I am already so dependent on people. I feel like if something wrong happens, even my family won’t look after me. This is the reason why I have stopped going out.”
Even as the country prepares to lift the lockdowns in parts or regulate those in varying degrees, Mr. Wani said this won’t help those who are dependent on others. “Even if the lockdown ends, my problems will not end till there is a vaccine,” he said.
A similar experience was shared by Firdous Ahmad Dar, 29, whose vision was also impaired by metal pellets fired by government forces. “If someone is ill at my home, I feel afraid,” he said. “I would have done things myself but without being able to see, it is difficult.”
Mr. Dar was given a job in the government’s Animal Husbandry Department under a rehabilitation scheme. The walk to his office has been nothing short of an ordeal. “I am even forced to go to the office during the lockdown,” he said. “I take my brother along who helps me. Due to the lockdown, I have to walk around 4 kilometers because public transport is unavailable.”
Since then, his mother has also become fearful around Mr. Dar. “My mother doesn’t even give me a glass of water in my hand, she keeps it far away and tells me to pick it up,” he said. “I sit alone at home, even my friends do not help me anymore. I am scared about the changes [in life] caused by the virus.”
Ignored by everyone
According to the National Association of Blind, Jammu and Kashmir (NAB), a non-governmental organization working for the welfare and rehabilitation of the visually impaired, there are more than 70,000 visually impaired individuals in J-K.
Naziya Hurra, programme officer at the NAB, said that visually impaired individuals across all age groups had been badly affected due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and that they were at more risk than those who have the ability to see.
“Most of the blind or visually impaired children are even neglected by their own parents,” said Ms. Hurra. “They don’t pay much attention to their blind children. Their education has been suffering broadly as have not received any study material during the lockdown and even their parents are not able to teach them.”
Ms. Hurra said that the pandemic had also worsened the mental health of visually impaired children and those adults who were completely dependent on assistance to carry on with their lives. “Blind people have been completely ignored by the government during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added. “Their monthly funds should at least have been delivered to their homes and they should have been provided with the orientation and mobility training during this time through which a blind person is taught to use a cane and become independent.”
Alone and disturbed
Asar Hussain, 16, from north Kashmir’s Kupwara district is a student of 10th standard. He was born with visual impairment and after several rounds of treatment over the years, doctors finally declared that his vision impairment was permanent.
For visually impaired students, the pandemic has meant a complete stopping of education since their learning depends on touch. “We used to receive our education through the braille system but now my studies are completely affected,” said Mr. Hussain. “Normally students at least study through online classes but even that is not possible for us.”
The current situation has made Assar disturbed and helpless, he said. “We used to receive funds through the social welfare department every month in our bank accounts. But currently, we cannot even go to a bank to take out our money,” he added, “who will even help us to go to the bank?”
“Due to the advancement in technology, nowadays, there are smart canes that could have helped us in becoming independent. But we are not even taught the use of smart canes due to which we will continue to remain dependent,” he lamented.