Olivia Norman and her guide dog, Tofu
Olivia Norman and her guide dog, Tofu Credit: Courtesy of Olivia Norman

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Olivia Norman posted the following message on her neighborhood listserv on Monday: “I can’t see you, here’s some ways you can help me social distance.”

Norman, 38, is totally blind so it’s hard to stay six feet away from individuals she can’t see. In a post on Nextdoor, Norman, who lives in Cleveland Park, asked her neighbors to be mindful whenever they see her walking around with her guide dog, Tofu, or others like her. She felt compelled to write the message because people always seem to be closer than six feet to her, especially the runners.

“People just don’t understand that I can’t see them,” Norman tells City Paper. “Or they’re not looking or they’re just not thinking.” Norman has severe asthma, which puts her at severe risk if she were to contract COVID-19, and is doing her best to follow social distancing advice. 

In a couple of paragraphs, Norman offered some tips. “If you see someone using a white cane or walking with their guide dog, please let us know you are there, or that you were coming up and which direction you’re coming from,” she wrote. “This will help us try and move out of your way. We can’t see you coming the way other pedestrians can so communication is key.” It is especially critical for dog walkers to speak up when they see someone with a guide dog approaching. If someone sees someone who is blind struggling to find, say, a crosswalk, ask them if they need help. Don’t make assumptions. Tips like these work even when the city is not in the midst of a pandemic, she noted. 

Social distancing means Norman and others like her cannot rely on touch to receive information. While the public health requirement has temporarily taken away a critical sense, she isn’t too upset. Social distancing slows the spread of the virus and keeps everyone safe, including her. Norman has been practicing social distancing at home so she is better prepared when she goes out. A friend recommended playing music six feet away from her so Norman gets a sense of what this feels like. She’ll also use her white cane to maintain some distance from others. “But on a narrow sidewalk,” says Norman, “you are sort of at people’s mercy so you have to hope that they maintain it.”

It’s difficult to practice social distancing on the streets and in the stores because nothing is set up for people like her who can’t see. This is why she limits her outings altogether. She’ll leave her house to walk Tofu but mostly depends on delivery services for food and other shopping. This past week, Norman only left her property twice. When Norman went to Walgreens to pick up a prescription on Wednesday she was reminded of the challenges. A clerk asked her to stand behind a blue marker taped on the floor. Because she couldn’t she it, someone had to help her find where it was and guided her through touch.  

Markers have been set up in essential shops like pharmacies and grocery stores to inform people how to practice social distancing, but these markers were not created with blind people in mind. Norman wishes they were tactile, perhaps rope under the tape, so she can feel them. “They haven’t thought about the blind at all really,” she says.   

While this time has exacerbated challenges she faced before, Norman remains optimistic. The positive feedback she received on her Nextdoor post brought comfort. “I think the people of D.C. are good and they do want to do the right thing,” says Norman, “and so I’m glad I can tell them how.”

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