The pandemic has increased isolation and loneliness. However, it may still have a positive legacy

Steven is deafblind and works in the Sense Campaigns team.

Over the years I’ve experienced loneliness and social isolation on a number of occasions. While the pandemic has undoubtedly led to me leaving the house less and being more socially isolated, the move to more online methods of keeping in touch has offered opportunities as well.

My name is Steven Morris, I’m 37 years old and I work in the Sense Campaigns team.

I was born with a rare genetic condition called Norrie Disease which led to me being totally blind from birth and developing a progressive hearing loss as I grew up.

Steven walking arm in arm with a woman. He is holding a white cane.

By my late 20s, I’d been to university and had a full-time job. Sadly, though, despite being surrounded by colleagues, I felt incredibly isolated and always dreaded the ‘so what did you do at the weekend’ question. Most of the time, the answer would have been ‘nothing’.

By this time, my hearing had deteriorated to such an extent that even with two powerful hearing aids, even the simplest conversation was incredibly challenging. I did have great friends at the time who did their best to include me but there are only so many times you can turn down an invitation to go clubbing (I was in my 20s, what can I say?) before the invitations inevitably dried up. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go, every time I said no it felt awful but the anxiety of not being able to hear what was going on was just too much. I even tried to find local groups with similar interests to me, such as book clubs but all of these took place in pubs with all the background noise.

A close up photo of Steven. His hair is cropped short, and he is wearing black-rimmed eyeglasses. We can see his cochlear implant.

When I was 30 my life changed when I received Cochlear Implants (CIs). CIs are devices fitted inside the skull during an operation. They work by turning sound into electrical signals and sending them to part of the inner ear called the cochlea. From here, the signals travel to the brain and are heard as sound.

This had an immediate positive impact on my life—although very noisy environments were still challenging, it was now much easier for me to have conversations either 1 on 1 or in small groups.

My new employer Sense was great and colleagues made every effort to include me in what was going on in the office, but even so, there was still plenty I missed because I just didn’t hear it! You know the kind of thing, the banter around the coffee machine about who got voted off from X factor that week, the outrage about a poor refereeing decision in the weekend’s football just to name a few examples. I also found getting to the office challenging due to my disability and would often not be at my best when I did arrive so struggled with the extra effort needed to hear in a challenging environment. As with a lot of workplaces, a lot of the social activities revolved around pub trips etc. which as I’ve said before presented challenges.

Like everyone, my world changed dramatically in March 2020 when we went into lockdown. At first, I really struggled with isolation. Because of the combination of my sight and hearing loss I need support to leave the house as my hearing isn’t good enough to safely judge things like road crossings. The rules on social distancing meant that my support worker wasn’t able to guide me during the early part of the pandemic so I was reliant on my key worker wife to support me in getting exercise. This led to me hardly leaving the house between March 2020 and July 2020. With not getting any exercise, I put on weight as well as the mental health implications of not getting enough fresh air. For a lot of this period, I was furloughed which also limited my interactions with other people.

Steven is wearing a stiped blue shirt, and speaking to a man holding up an iPad

It wasn’t until the summer that guidance was developed setting out how a blind person could safely be guided by someone who wasn’t part of their bubble.  This did enable me to go out more.

I’ve been fortunate recently in that the move online has actually helped me. Whereas before the lockdown I’d have to contend with getting to a work meeting, ensuring the equipment I needed to hear in the meeting was working properly and deployed in the best possible way to pick up as much sound as possible.  Now, I simply fire up my laptop and can access the sound of the meeting directly into my cochlear implants.

Similarly, I’m able to access different types of social activities online that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go to before. I love a quiz and so the Zoom quizzes that have become popular this year have been great. I’ve also started attending a local book club that I might have struggled to attend before lockdown as it would have been held in a pub with background noise.

While I, like everyone else look forward to a time when things return to something like normal, I hope some of the online activities continue post lockdown. This is only my own personal experience and I’m very conscious that the move online isn’t for everyone and can actually exclude some disabled people, but for me, it has certainly enhanced what has been a challenging lockdown period.

It’s important to note that technology is no substitute to face-to-face human interaction but it does offer opportunities to create a more inclusive society and I very much hope that online activities do continue for people like myself who value them.

I’m passionate about sharing my experience and raising awareness of loneliness among disabled people so that together we can tackle it. And that’s why, when you sign the Sense pledge, you’ll get my free guide and top tips on how to make life more inclusive for everyone.

Sign our pledge and join us in taking action to make sure that no one is left out of life.

Author: Steven Morris

Policy and Campaigns Officer at Sense