LOS ANGELES – Will Butler breezed through the entrance of the Silver Lake Trader Joe's, bypassing a small line of shoppers waiting to get in. An employee monitoring access said nothing as Butler swept a red-tipped white cane to find his way inside.
Butler had no idea he'd cut in front.
"How would I find the line?" the legally blind 31-year-old asked.
This time, there were no problems, but that's not always the case. On Sundays, "when the line is super long and everyone's like really scared and grumpy, no one will offer any help," he said. On those days, Butler makes his way to the back of the queue, trying to maintain a socially distanced space without being able to see it.
Like so many challenges wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery store lines are just one of the new impediments thrown, literally, into the way of the visually impaired.
More than 188,000 people in Los Angeles County have "vision difficulty," including those who are "blind or having serious difficulty seeing, even when wearing glasses," according to U.S. census data from 2019.
The Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization based in L.A., serves nearly 12,900 adults and children across the county.
Those in the blind and low-vision community have long faced challenges now synonymous with the pandemic: social isolation, mobility limitations, classroom dynamics that are less than ideal. But the crisis has exacerbated those problems.
Friends aren't volunteering as many favors. Sighted strangers who may have previously lent a hand are more skittish to approach. Visually impaired children who learned daily tasks with a hand to guide their own are now relying on exhaustive verbal descriptions over video chats. And public transportation and ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft — lifelines for those who can't drive or live alone — now pose potential health risks.
"Everybody's feeling kind of shut in right now and out of touch with people, but we already have that isolation. So for us, it just has deepened even more," said Diane Wilkinson, 56, who has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative retinal disease.