Gathering the experiences of people living with sight loss during COVID

Gathering the experiences of people living with sight loss during COVID

RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) carried out a 6-week study of how people living with sight loss were affected by COVID. Surveys, interviews and focus groups helped gain a rich understanding of the challenges people faced and helped influence government policy and decisions.

The Coronavirus outbreak has had a huge impact on the lives of everyone living in the UK. However, blind and partially sighted people have had to face their own unique set of challenges as a result of the virus. RNIB were keen to hear the thoughts of customers during the Coronavirus pandemic in order to truly understand the issues affecting people with sight loss during this unprecedented time. Doing so has helped us support customers with what matters now, such as access to priority shopping slots, as well as shaping some new strategic goals for RNIB for the year ahead.

What we did

Living with Sight Loss in Lockdown was a 6-week research programme designed to listen to the experiences and opinions of blind and partially sighted people throughout lockdown, via a series of focus groups and surveys.

The research was concluded at the end of June 2020, just as the UK Government began to gradually ease some of its lockdown restrictions in England.

A survey was conducted for a 6-week period between 14 May and 24 June 2020. Questions in the surveys changed each week in line with topics being discussed in the focus groups.

The survey was widely promoted to blind and partially sighted people through our online customer group, Connect Voices, our external website and social media channels. Some responses were also collected through wellbeing calls to RNIB customers, via the telephone.

Three sets of focus groups were held on a weekly basis (between 11 May and 16 June 2020), with participants recruited via Connect Voices or through involvement in other RNIB activities.

The telephone interviews, survey and focus groups largely mirrored each other in terms of themes and questions that were raised. Topics included use of technology, social distancing, wearing of face masks and shopping.

What worked well

A total of 235 complete responses were collected through the online survey and a further 220 responses were collected through telephone calls, many as a shorter, abridged version of the full online survey. This resulted in a total of 455 responses. Some of the most engaged respondents in Connect Voices returned to answer the survey each week. The total unique respondents surveyed is around 400.

In total, 17 people with sight loss participated in our 2-hour online focus groups, which were facilitated remotely via Microsoft Teams. This proved to be an accessible way for people to participate using their preferred device. A majority (12) of these participants were registered as severely sight impaired (blind) and 5 were registered as sight impaired (partially sighted). 11 participants were aged 45 years or above and 6 were aged under 45 years. A number of the participants were new to involvement in this kind of way. We provided step by step guidance on how to use Teams before the focus groups got underway and also offered people the opportunity to do a practical test run with one of our staff members. We also dialled people in on their landline or mobile on the day for a few people who didn't want to use a laptop or tablet.

One participant in particular found the focus groups incredibly useful and appreciated the fact that they were spread over several weeks and so in-depth:

I was chuffed that RNIB invested the time and effort to do a 6-week focus group like that, it was fantastic. It was nice to be asked for my opinion on something regarding issues affecting the visually impaired in general. With the sessions being spread over 6 weeks, there was time to really get into stuff.

He found these sessions a great opportunity to speak to other visually impaired people and remember you're not alone: "I really enjoyed talking to like-minded people. It was good to hear that the thoughts and feelings I might have about certain things are shared by most visually impaired people and that I'm not on my own."

He values the opportunity to share ideas and understand what RNIB is working on: "It's good to discuss and develop any ideas that you might have or realise that it's already been tried, and it's satisfying to hear RNIB tell us that they're listening and taking all of this onboard."

He also went on to encourage others to step up and act for change: "The customer voice sessions are a great opportunity to meet people and feel part of something bigger than yourself. If you can do a little bit of work with a charity like RNIB to maybe further the support and opportunities for everybody, that's surely a good thing."

Feedback has been given to the UK Government throughout the pandemic. For example, the availability of online shopping slots was a real concern for members. The grocery industry reacted positively and made changes to support those who might struggle to visit the shop, or complete an online order when all available slots had been taken.

For the focus group participants, we made the point of starting each session with an update on the actions highlighted the previous week. This allowed us to close the loop and allowed participants to note how their voice had been listened to and changes made as a result, such as increased availability of online shopping slots. We have informed participants, however, that some actions will take longer to progress and they will be kept updated on this.


RNIB, like many organisations, had to react quickly to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown restrictions. We would have liked to have had more time to prepare, but it was important we started to gather information from blind and partially sighted people in that moment to understand how the national lockdown was impacting on their lives.

For many blind and partially sighted people, joining a group can be a way to meet and chat with other people, and online meetings can lose some of the networking and peer support opportunities. To get around this, facilitators would be available 10 to 15 minutes before the start of a focus group for an informal catch-up with participants, rather than launching straight into the question and answer session.

Participants were keen to share their stories of the lockdown, and this led to some of the early sessions overrunning. This improved as we got further into the 6 week programme as some participants arranged to keep in touch with each other outside of the formal meetings. Facilitators used a topic guide to keep the discussions on track and agreed some basic ground rules with the group to ensure the sessions could run as smoothly as possible.

Despite all the benefits to using digital methods of engagement, there are still some challenges that can't be overcome. Many of the participants reported they missed being in a room with others and having that human contact. RNIB will continue with some online focus groups in the future and will endeavour to bring people together when possible.


Sue Worthington (National Involvement Manager, RNIB)


Last Updated: 19 April 2023