by Nicholas A. Giudice, Ph.D.
(Editor’s Note: This is a condensed version of Nicholas Giudice’s original article. To read the full version online, visit https://tinyurl.com/y9totp2a.)
As a congenitally blind person, it has become obvious to me that my reliance on touch as a primary mode of experiencing the world puts me at odds with current best practices for avoiding the coronavirus. The principle guidance for safeguarding against COVID-19 is to (1) curtail physical contact with those around us (or the things they touch), (2) limit touching of our body (especially of the face), and (3) maintain a minimum proximity bubble during social interactions (ideally of 6 feet or more). In this essay, I discuss how an unanticipated consequence of following this guidance for staying safe is the effective demonization of touch, which has led to many unforeseen challenges for more than 12 million people in the U.S. (and over 285 million people worldwide) who are blind or visually impaired (BVI).
When you cannot see the world, touch picks up the slack for vision by taking on a dominant role in how it is explored, understood, and interacted with. For BVI people, perception inherently involves touch, either with the hands or the long cane. This physical contact provides critical knowledge about all matter of things: monitoring if one’s hair is a mess, identifying what is in the immediate vicinity, orienting to people or objects in the surrounding environment, etc.
Touch and vision communicate much of the same information about the world. Feeling or seeing the curve of my coffee mug, the 90-degree edge of my desk, and many other spatial attributes can all be perceived similarly from both sensory inputs. This sensory equivalence helps explain why touch fills many of the same shoes as vision for blind folks. In many ways, asking a blind person to curtail touching is like asking a sighted person to go about their day wearing a blindfold.
1. Touch and Physical Contact
The guidance to limit physical contact with any public-facing surfaces and to not touch those around us is incredibly difficult for BVI people. Part of the challenge is logistical; when your hands take on much of the work of your eyes, it is simply not possible to not touch doorknobs, railings, tables, and the like. This is concerning, as it is these common-use surfaces that are most likely to be vectors of COVID-19.
The best advice for anybody exposed to such things is to immediately wash their hands, for at least 20 seconds each time. Unfortunately, I have found that an unexpected outcome of this frequent hand-washing regimen is that the prolonged exposure to water desensitizes my fingers, resulting in me becoming functionally illiterate afterward.
For BVI people, physical contact plays many roles. Sometimes, it is purely functional. For instance, many BVI individuals hold on to the elbow or shoulder of a sighted guide during navigation. Touch also represents an important component of building rapport and developing interpersonal connections. Just as a sighted person may feel they are not fully engaged if they don’t make eye contact when talking, BVI people often derive the same sense of connection by touching the arm or shoulder when communicating.
The fear of touch has crept into even the most mundane of my daily activities. In the past, a friend or colleague might touch my arm to get my attention, guide my hand to check out some interesting thing we are walking past, touch my shoulder to direct me to move one way or another, or even draw the shape of something on my arm as part of an explanation. These subtle forms of physical contact are important to BVI individuals for supporting efficient communication and navigation. The loss of these small but significant forms of contact leaves me feeling adrift, unfocused, and less connected to those around me.
Physical contact during social interactions has other benefits for blind people. For instance, shaking a person’s hand confers information about exactly where they are in relation to me. A handshake also provides important knowledge about the other person that is readily perceived through sight. For instance, hand size and structure tells me something about general body type and weight; the elevation of the hand, in conjunction with voice, provides me with information about height; the texture of the skin, feel of the fingernails, and presence/nature of rings imparts information about style and self-grooming practices; intensity of the grip provides information about physical strength and confidence, etc.
When you cannot see the person you are interacting with, a battery of other sensory cues substitute for vision in building up an image of them. These subtle handshake cues are just one example of how non-visual information conveys relevant information about the physical characteristics of a person. I find that the new touchless modes of meeting and social interaction have left me more blind to the world than vision loss.
2. Face Touching
The guidance to limit body contact, and to not touch one’s face, represents a specific example of the above point posing particular challenges for BVI people. In many ways, a blind person uses their hands for self-monitoring much like a sighted person might use a mirror.
My hands are the surrogate mirror each morning when I want to check whether my beard is trimmed in a straight line, or if I have bed head, or to ensure that I don’t have a smidge of toothpaste on my lip, etc. This basic self-monitoring is important for daily grooming and for maintaining one’s hygiene. In the COVID-19 reality, these normal activities of daily life, when performed using touch, now represent heightened risks.
Can touching of one’s face expose you to the coronavirus? Absolutely. But should I stop engaging in self-monitoring tasks by means of touching my face, mouth, eyes, and nose? Absolutely not. Everybody will occasionally do such things, and blindly reducing our hands, and our use of touch, as little more than conveyance agents of the coronavirus is neither helpful nor scientifically accurate.
If we are to act (and react) realistically, face touching will inevitably happen in the course of daily life. This is a normal activity that does not inherently increase the risk of COVID-19 infection when done prudently. We should focus on the virus itself and how we can be best protected.
3. Social Distancing
The key safeguard for avoiding COVID-19 is to maintain good social distancing behavior. Following these guidelines, which involve keeping a 6-foot radius between yourself and anybody around you, is trivial when performed using sight, but if you try doing so with eyes closed, you will find it is extremely difficult.
I generally become aware of another person in my vicinity when I hear them talk, when I touch them with my hand, or perhaps if close enough, when I smell their presence (most people have a distinct scent). What can be perceived from these non-visual modalities is much less than vision, so the experience of the perceived world for BVI folks occurs at closer range than for their sighted peers.
The challenge of maintaining appropriate social distancing behavior without vision is twofold: (1) difficulty in gauging the distance of nearby people, and (2) challenges in maintaining this distance during movement. I find myself frequently violating the 6-foot bubble. While I can imagine technological solutions for addressing this problem, the standard tools of long canes and guide dogs are not up to the task. Canes are too short, and guide dog training is not consistent with following social distancing procedures.
My dog guide, Bernie, was trained in New York and was taught to operate in crowded situations by maximizing use of any available space. This includes going through any gap big enough for him and me to fit through, meaning that we often get very close to people as we navigate. This is increasingly problematic. As I approached an intersection on a recent walk, I heard this obviously freaked-out person start yelling at me to “watch out” and “to not get any closer or I’ll kick your [rear end].”
I understand that this incident is based on fear. However, I have found that people exhibit less concern if bubble violations occur when I am verbally instructing the dog. So, if I am aware of people around me when walking, I tell Bernie to “stay left/right” as I pass. This seems to put people at ease.
Two things strike me when thinking back over the past three months. First, although I knew that I relied heavily on touch, I didn’t realize its true magnitude in supporting my own self-monitoring behaviors, its role in how I interact with others and engage with the surrounding environment, and its impact on my emotional and social well-being until these interactions became associated with negative consequences.
Second, while I appreciate the value of the safety guidance being advocated, and understand people’s concerns about physical contact, I cannot comprehend why people are not more troubled about the growing fear and distrust of one of our primary sensory channels — that of touch. If the tables were turned and the primary safety precaution from the CDC involved significant limitations on use of visual perception – for instance, use of blindfolds in public – the result would be very different.
The reality is that most people have a deep-seated, visceral fear of losing their vision. As a blind guy, I do not share this fear, but I’m petrified about losing any of my other senses. The realization that touch is now something to be feared and distrusted is disturbing to me.
Touch may be a path of conveyance, but the result is contingent on many factors. We don’t villainize the sun because it can give us skin cancer (we put on sunblock) or avoid rock concerts because they can damage our hearing (we don ear plugs). The best approach is to be mindful of minimizing touching of people and to limit contact with public surfaces. When these physical interactions occur, there is no substitute for prudent use of sanitizer, thorough disinfection of frequently touched areas, and assiduous hand washing.
However, it is important to keep these things in perspective. Simply touching your face to scratch an itch, shaking hands with a colleague, hugging a family member, or coming within six feet of a friend is not synonymous with contracting the coronavirus. If you interact with a BVI person, don’t freak out if there is physical contact; don’t avoid assisting an older person who has tripped and needs a stabilizing arm, or shy away from helping a child who has fallen. These actions are what makes us human and what supports a civilized society.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if the negative touch response is an unintended consequence, or due to transference or overreaction — the COVID-19-induced backlash against touch is real. This response is likely to escalate as the economy starts to open, more people go outside, and social interactions become the norm. The result for BVI people is that many of the issues discussed here will persist and even increase, meaning that the new touchless normal is going to continue as the awkward abnormal for the BVI community.
I am accustomed to a world that minimizes the role of touch, as it will always be the underappreciated younger sibling to vision, but a touchless future where we no longer shake hands, hug, or express physical affection is not a future I feel excited about. I worry this trajectory will continue unless we accept the mindset that safe and healthy behavior is possible. Until then, I mourn the loss of the world’s feel around me.