How did one of New Zealand’s oldest charities respond during the COVID-19 pandemic?

By John Mulka

A year ago this time all Kiwis were significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the reality hit when our entire nation went into lockdown. Understandably many charities struggled, while others simply could not sustain themselves. So, how did Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind trading as Blind Low Vision NZ – a 130 year-old charity – become even more relevant to New Zealanders with sight loss?

It wasn’t easy. There was no playbook or manual to follow. Blind Low Vision NZ was venturing into unchartered waters, but we kept focused on our mission and that guided our way. As an organisation with a mandate to enhance independence for New Zealanders impacted by blindness, we knew the need for us would be at an all-time high during this unprecedented time of isolation. Government recognising the importance of our work gave us a prestigious honour by declaring Blind Low Vision NZ as an essential service.

On 25 March 2020, we suspended in-person programs, and our employees willingly accepted the reality of working from home. Months before the pandemic hit, we had commenced a culture of flexibility, so our team members were well positioned to work remotely, if need be. The transition was seamless and by the first day of lockdown our workforce was engaged, connected and active.

From there, we systematically started contacting  more than 14,000 registered members with sight loss to check in and ask how Blind Low Vision NZ could help. Those conversations leveraged every opportunity to ensure our participants stayed connected and felt supported. Our regular programmes shifted to remote based and using the availability of technology and communication tools to ensure we continued forward with our work. Further we engaged with nine other blindness consumer special interest groups across the country to ensure we were blanketing the blindness community with the necessary supports.

During the check-in calls with our existing and also new members who enrolled during the pandemic, we heard about the challenges that our participants have been facing, including the impracticality of physical distancing for some with sight loss. Many individuals – especially those living alone – rely on a sighted guide (a person who guides someone with sight loss) for essential services. Whether it’s going to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the doctor’s office or the bank, it is impossible to be a sighted guide while physical distancing. As a result, people with sight loss faced additional restrictive barriers due to their disability. To address the issue, we worked with a variety of partners to ensure our community were not left behind and further isolated from basic essentials.  In typical Kiwi fashion the community responded to us with empathy and kindness to ensure we could meet the needs of our members.  To the team of 5 million we say a heartfelt and sincere thank you.

We will not rest on our laurels, and know the pandemic will be with us well into 2021, and as an organisation we are ready, willing and able to adapt to meet the evolving needs of New Zealanders who are blind, deafblind or have low vision.

John Mulka is Chief Executive of Blind Low Vision NZ