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Renu Walia – London Vision virtual intern

Hi, I am Renu and in March 2021 I joined London Vision as its very first Virtual Intern on a three-month placement. I am registered severely sight (SSI) impaired with a rare genetic eye condition called Achromatopsia. My condition basically means that I am ‘day blind’. No matter what the weather or lighting condition is, I will struggle to see during the daytime. I need to wear a pair of dark sunglasses to navigate outdoors during the day, and in some cases indoors where lighting is bright.

I have been partially sighted since birth and was registered SSI in May 2018. Having had a visual impairment since birth I have had to really work hard to become a confident and independent individual with a visual impairment. Through my journey of life, I have learnt to remain positive, optimistic and a strong individual,  and I have embraced many changes and challenges in my life.

New community

Up until recently I had not met many blind and partially sighted people, and had always felt somewhat isolated from this community, but I carried on with life with a smile. About 2 years ago I was introduced to the sight loss sector after visiting an event and in turn many more blind and partially sighted people. I now feel a part of a wider sight loss family I never knew I had!

I was also introduced to lots of useful assistive technology that I never knew existed. I took it as a challenge to learn and use new assistive technology for my personal development. Now, I use large icons and magnification on my phone, and my laptop or PCs I need to have high contrast and use voice over features on each device.

Embracing the white cane

I have newly embraced the white cane which I had never used in my earlier life. This was because there were cultural sensitivities around such tools, leading to me feeling embarrassed and vulnerable about using it. However, I now hold my cane with pride; I am proud of my visual impairment, it has taught me so much through my life and is one of the reasons I am a strong, positive, and optimistic person.

In fact, as a visually impaired individual, I often find myself supporting sighted people more than fellow vision impaired people. For example, I am frequently asked for directions (despite holding my white cane!) and I happily assist with a proud smile. These days, if anyone asked me if I wished to be fully sighted, my immediate response would be no. I can honestly say now I feel excited about achieving a lot more in life and I will continue to grow higher and higher. The sky is not the limit for me it is a goal for me to go above and beyond.

Work experiences

I have been working ever since I was 17 and my first job was working for Pizza Hut. I worked there for six years and I had my challenges but still thrived by remaining positive and strong. Since then, I have been working in administration for 15 years and with some reasonable adjustments, support and courage I have managed to achieve many skills and qualities that I thought I would never be able gain as a visually impaired person. However, in my professional life to this point I could feel something was missing until I came across the Virtual Intern role with London Vision.

 

The Virtual Intern role has given me a  chance to explore my passion for the sight loss sector and the opportunity to carry out tasks that positively impact blind and partially sighted people. Since being a Virtual Intern for London Vision, I feel I have achieved so much in such a short space time. The London Vision team is a pleasant team to work for and again I feel like part of a truly passionate team striving to make a difference.

My motto in life is: keep thriving, keep learning and best of all keep curious.

Renu Walia, April 2021

Renu’s internship is part of the Thomas Pocklington Trust internship programme

London Vision CEO moving to new role

After four years as CEO of London Vision, Cathy Low will be moving to our funding partner, Thomas Pocklington Trust, to take up the role of Director of Collaboration from 1 May.  Nicola Parks, currently Head of Strategy and Operations, will become the lead for London Vision.

Cathy was instrumental in the formation of the charity which was formally registered in 2019. She said: “It has been a real pleasure to see London Vision go from strength to strength. I will still have close contact with London Vision as part of my new role with TPT and know the charity will be in safe hands with Nicola. She will, however, be taking maternity leave in the summer so we are advertising an interim to cover this leave.”

For more information on the London Vision Chief Officer maternity cover role and to apply, visit this page.

Bhavini Makwana to represent London Vision on Tier safety board

London Vision will be represented on the new UK and Ireland safety board launched by Europe’s largest e-scooter operator Tier. The board will aim to raise the bar on safety standards across the sector. It is comprised of senior independent experts in road safety, Covid risk, accessibility and visual impairment, with leading figures representing Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety, UCL Centre for Transport Studies, Transport for All, and London and national sight loss charities.

London Vision is represented on the board by Bhavini Makwana, Engagement Manager for London Vision. Bhavini said: “London Vision is pleased to be a member of the Safety Board to work to improve safety standards on behalf of blind and partially sighted people”.

Read the full article here.

Challenges of celebrating Diwali in lockdown

Diwali is on the 14th November this year and celebrations usually start a few days prior. We decorate the house with colourful rangoli patterns (a colourful design using coloured rice powder), lighting divas (oil lamps), and making delicious Indian snacks and sweets. We dress up in bright traditional outfits, some of which are brand new or received as gifts and prepare for a big family get together.

We also perform rituals/pujas, visit the temple and our elders to pay our respects and seek blessings. This is followed by visiting more family and friends and in the evening reuniting with the whole family at one household for a fireworks display and to enjoy eating Diwali food.

Diwali in lockdown

However, as you can imagine, things are a going to be a bit different this year. The majority of normal plans have been put on hold, and many families instead will switch to Zoom celebrations. Temples have put together programmes, such as a virtual Diwali on the Square, and community groups are also hosting a variety of events and shows to celebrate over video conferencing platforms. Some celebrations have already taken place, with dancing, singing, activities and sharing stories of Diwali for children – with much more to come this weekend.

I am joining a family Zoom call, but everything is so visually orientated on video conferencing platforms I find it difficult to stay engaged. Unfortunately, most planned events are not audio described and I find that my interest levels quickly diminish, especially if I have been on MS Teams of Zoom for work at work during the day as well. As a result, I am not feeling the usual excitement for Diwali this year, though I am trying to get into the spirit of things!

Snacks and decorating

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the switch to online Diwali celebrations, I will still indulge in some of my usual rituals. I will certainly set some time aside to make my favourite Diwali Indian snack – chaklis – which are made from rice flour, yoghurt and spices. Using a specific machine to release the dough into spiral shapes, which are then fried: the crunchy snack is delicious. I will also light up my house with bright colourful divas. I now use the extra-long matches which means I can light up the candles and divas myself. I use one hand to hold the wick and the other hand to light it so that I can do this independently.

Rangolis

My children and husband have taken over decorating rangoli patterns as this is something I am no longer able to do. I do love the templates you can buy but I must admit I have not been out to even get any colours this year. I previously loved designing my own patterns and decorating them. When I was younger, and before my symptoms of Retinitis Pigmentosa developed, I entered competitions via my community and Gujarati classes and for several years I came second each time amongst over fifty participants. The colours can be made from dry or wet powdered rice, dry flour or powdered quartz. There are so many talented artists who create such beautiful designs.

In spite of 2020’s challenges, people will be celebrating the best way they are able, and I would like to wish all those celebrating a very Happy Diwali and a prosperous New Year. In the Hindu calendar, the start of the New Year follows Diwali, and we will be entering the Year 2077.

May it be full of good health, an abundance of joy, wealth and positivity. May the light guide you in the right direction always.

Bhavini Makwana, Engagement Manager for London Vision

woman with a dog

Purple Tuesday and the WelcoMe App

Purple Tuesday and the WelcoMe App

Today is Purple Tuesday – the UK’s awareness day for accessible shopping. Since the inaugural day in 2018, the aim of Purple Tuesday has been to recognise the importance and needs of disabled consumers and promote inclusive shopping. It’s named Purple Tuesday after the Purple Pound – which is the spending power of disabled people and their families. And did you know that this spending power is worth £274 billion, rising by 14% per year?

Despite this serious economic power, less than 10% of organisations have a targeted plan to access the disability market. Purple Tuesday was created in response, to encourage organisations to make public commitments to ensure sustainable changes are made to increase accessibility. The bonus for organisations is that it results in the opening up of products and services to the disability market.

Neatebox’s WelcoMe App

As part of Purple Tuesday, London Vision is highlighting Neatebox’s WelcoMe App – an app which is a game changer for businesses wanting to provide better and more inclusive services to their customers. The WelcoMe App combines a smartphone’s proximity awareness with an app that allows a visitor to interact with a service team prior to their arrival. Visitors can input their specific access needs into the app, and participating businesses will know how to assist visitors when they arrive. This also means that a visitor can interact with a service team prior to their arrival, and crucially, this interaction can be carried out automatically purely by the person approaching a building they want to visit.

Proximity-based tool

Invented in 2018 by Gavin Neate, CEO and founder of Neatebox, WelcoMe became the first staff training and awareness proximity-based tool in the world and has been gathering both users and venues since its launch. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has increased the need for WelcoMe even more. Many disabled and vulnerable people have become more anxious to leave home because of the pandemic and are nervous about being able to properly observe social distance rules in the venues they wish to visit. The WelcoMe App can alleviate some of this stress. By using the app, you can be certain that the venue will know you are coming and that you will be provided with the support you need.

User feedback

For example, users so far have been blown away with the service, with feedback like:

“I used WelcoMe having a mobility impairment and was met at the door by Judith who even had a fold out chair ready for me in case I needed it”.

And: “I had booked my visit to the bank with WelcoMe and it was confirmed before 9am. As usual I received fantastic service and four members of staff actually spoke to me this time. 10/10 for RBS Haddington”.

The idea for WelcoMe App

Neatebox’s founder, Gavin Neate, says the initial idea for WelcoMe came to him in 1996 when he joined Guide Dogs UK. Gavin worked as a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor (GDMI) for 18 years, and during that time he became increasingly aware of the value that technology was bringing to his clients’ lives, to the extent that by 2006 he was including Tech Talks in every single one of his classes. As a GDMI Gavin’s job was to circumnavigate problems but increasingly he saw a way in which he could use technology to help his clients in their day-to-day lives.

WelcoMe is a reflection of this. Gavin had noticed that staff, when called upon to interact with his clients, tended to miss out important pieces of information. This ranged from failing to introduce themselves, grabbing clients’ arms instead of asking about their guiding preferences, or even talking to guide dogs instead of their owners. On investigation Gavin realised that traditional staff training wasn’t providing employees with the pertinent information required to properly assist disabled people, and more often than not, training wasn’t provided at all.

Improving customer service for people with disabilities

Instead, the WelcoMe App addresses a very real need in improving customer services for all disabled people and is now available in limited venues in London. The secret to its roll out was explained by Gavin:

“For too long disabled people have had to wait and take what was given to them when and if it arrived. I wanted a business model that responded to our members. In the app we encourage people to take a more active role. We want them to tell us where they need us and to tell their local venues about the service. In this way we empower the users of our service to be in control of not only the level of service they receive in their favourite venues but to take an active role in suggesting new venues for the app”.

WelcoMe is available on both Android and Apple devices and can be found in the UK and Ireland under the name “Welcome by Neatebox”. Gavin is also keen to hear from people so please write to at hello@neatebox.com

Braille and me

Braille: perhaps the most well-known thing associated with blind people. It is a curious fact that the overwhelming majority of blind people do not use it. Another fact worth mentioning is that it has remained unaltered pretty much since Louis Braille took an existing tactile reading system and refined it into the one that bears his name.

So why don’t more people use it? Perhaps they don’t want to which is of course their prerogative. People are often heard to dismiss braille as redundant and moribund, particularly in the light of the availability of alternative means of accessing text. Over time there have been many of these: the human reader, the audio cassette, the CD, MP3 files, print scanners, screen reading software and, most recently, smartphone apps. All of these function in an auditory way. Unquestionably, the majority of people prefer the auditory to the tactile. Arguably the auditory is easier than the tactile as the latter involves learning a system and practise to improve speed and fluency.

Braille today

One wonders how widespread opportunities are to be taught braille today. I would like to think that our education system still provides blind and partially sighted children with the chance to learn this skill. Even so, Louis Braille’s system is still with us and that says a lot for it.

I was asked recently for an example of how braille proved crucial to me. I once enrolled for a Spanish GCSE course at an adult college. The exam comprised four components, the oral paper which tests spoken Spanish, the composition which tests written Spanish, the aural which tests listening comprehension and finally the reading paper to test reading comprehension. My intention was to access the exam papers with the help of a screen reader on a laptop. The exam board agreed to this but with one fundamental caveat: the reading and comprehension paper would not be marked, meaning that I would not be awarded the full qualification but could instead receive what they called an endorsed qualification. Their reason for not marking the fourth paper was that by listening to an auditory version of the text, I would not be reading: in other words, they did not class listening to text as reading. The same would apply for listening to a human amanuensis reading the text to me. Meanwhile, they did regard braille as a form of reading. Naturally, I wanted the full qualification and not some quasi, caveated and therefore inferior version whereupon I changed my mind and opted for braille exam papers instead, despite my reservations about my reading speed.

On the day of the exam I ran out of time but thankfully not badly enough as I was more than satisfied with my grade A. I was also grateful for having learnt braille at school, but supposing I hadn’t? Suppose one of that majority of non-braille users had wanted to study for a language qualification? They would have had to accept one of a much lower status.

Braille and Right to Read

So, is it accurate to assert that, without braille, blind people are in fact non-readers? Is it something which should concern us? On one hand, who cares so long as you can access the content? The Right to Read campaign is about getting publishers to provide alternative formats for their books including auditory ones, so clearly, they class listening as a form of reading. To conclude, braille has many uses in everyday life, but many of them can be fulfilled by other means, however, without good old Louis Braille, I would not have any of my modern language qualifications.

Liam O’Carroll, 8 October 2020

Is braille being usurped in the fast-paced technological world?

For Braille Week, Masuma Ali has written a blog about how she uses braille in her day to day life and work, and how it works in conjunction with newer accessible technologies.

“5 to 11 October 2020 is Braille week in the United Kingdom. Braille was invented by Louis Braille in 1809. At the tender age of 15, Louis Braille invented the system of reading and writing with six raised dots, better known to us as braille. It is used by blind people across the world, however, it is estimated that less than 8% of blind or partially sighted people in the UK are braille users.

This decline is a consequence of numerous technological advances available to blind and partially sighted people today. This has allowed people with visual impairments to access information in new and engaging ways; including reading with audiobooks, communicating using mobile tablets and computers with speech output, and using voice activated devices such as Amazon Alexa. This is something I can relate to: while I am a braille user, I couldn’t imagine taking seven volumes of Harry Potter on holiday, when I could have them all downloaded onto my phone instead!

Technology certainly has its place – such as in the above example – yet I have found that braille is still useful when it comes to a variety of areas. For example, braille is increasingly being used on food packaging, medication, and on buttons in lifts. This proves that even having the basic ability to read braille provides a further level of independence for blind and partially sighted people. Naturally, I also appreciate that not all blind people are able to learn braille for a variety of reasons, such as limited sensitivity in their fingers.

I believe braille and technology work well together, and it is a partnership that aids me in my professional and personal life. Professionally, the ease of preparing a presentation on the laptop using a screen reader, to then be able to swiftly transfer it to my braille note taker to deliver is a blessing. I just can’t seem to manage the art of presenting with speech babbling in my ear, so using braille is a great solution! Additionally, when socialising, I have found that braille doesn’t always need to be large and unportable, you can carry a standard deck of playing cards with you wherever you go, and playing cards is a great way to spend time with people.

Personally, I think that there is room for both technology and braille to exist in parallel, even in today’s technological world. Technology has made braille a lot more compact with the vast array of refreshable braille display options on the market, so it need not be cumbersome and unportable.”

Masuma Ali, Engagement Manager for Thomas Pocklington Trust

Unsure about how to offer assistance to blind people? Here’s how!

As part of Blindness Awareness Month 2020 which runs for the whole of October, London Vision’s Liam O’Carroll and Jonathan Ward have put together some useful tips for assisting blind and partially sighted people (if they need it), all (hopefully) without causing annoyance or offence.

The world at large

Try during small talk to discuss topics of general interest as you would with anyone else. Don’t assume blind people are desperate to discuss the subject of visual impairment: they may in fact be sick of having to answer questions like ‘have you always been blind?’ or ‘How did you lose your sight?’ and so on.

When a blind person approaches, please carry on with your conversation. If you go quiet at that moment, you will remove the very thing they were using to navigate around you so they will no longer know where you are. It will also make them self-conscious as it will seem to them as though they were the cause of the silence.

Work in hospitality or the service sector?

If you work behind a bar, counter or any customer help point, please do not keep quiet: how will the blind person know that you are ready to serve them?

Please let the blind customer know that you have brought over their drink, meal or whatever: please don’t just put it down without a word and go off.

If a blind person is paying for something, please don’t give their change to any sighted companion who may be present: please give change to the person who owns it.

Final thoughts

Remember everyone with sight loss has different needs and these may vary in different situations:

  • Be open and friendly and don’t be shy about asking what help people with sight loss need
  • Don’t forget to identify yourself as a member of staff or introduce yourself
  • Say when you are leaving the room and reintroduce yourself on your return
  • Don’t point or say it’s over there
  • Don’t worry about saying “did you see” or “see you later”
  • If a person with sight loss regularly uses your service let them know if anything has changed since their last visit
  • Support people to take part by telling them it’s their turn remember a person with sight loss won’t necessarily see body language or other social cues.
  • Ensure your websites and information are easily accessible and contain information about accessibility both of your service and local transport
  • Make sure your signage is large and clear and your facility makes the best use of colour contrast, lighting, and tactile indicators
  • Keep your facility clear and free from tripping hazards
  • Allow people with sight loss the time and space to be independent
  • Consider facilities for guide dogs such as water bowls and spending areas

We hope you’ve found these tips and suggestions useful! A polite offer of help can sometimes really help alleviate the stress of crossing a road, or enable someone to make a choice in a shop or a cafe. Please do remember that blind and partially sighted people don’t always need your help – don’t be offended if your offer of assistance isn’t taken up!

Want to know more about sight loss? Visit our Living with Sight Loss pages. 

Check out this blog for tips on guiding, including guiding in a pandemic!

Bhavini Makwana and the new BAME Vision Committee

London Vision’s Bhavini Makwana has recently been appointed Co-Chair, alongside Adam Mapani of Moorfields Eye Hospital, of the newly formed BAME Vision Committee. The new role sits alongside Bhavini’s existing commitments as an ambassador for Retina UK (she is also Chair of the Retina UK London peer support group), and as a Trustee for Transport for All. Bhavini works extensively to raise awareness of Retinitis Pigmentosa (the condition she has) and blindness and sight loss in her own Asian and wider communities.

Bhavini brings her own lived experience to all of her roles and is always keen to amplify the voices of others in the BAME community, especially around sight loss. She recently launched her own podcast, wherein she shares her own experiences of sight loss, as well as of other people in the BAME community.

The BAME Vision Committee aims to reach and engage with local communities from BAME backgrounds to highlight the importance of looking after your eyes, attending appointments, and taking precautions to maintain eye health. The theme of this year’s National Eye Health Week is General Eye Health, and their messaging focusses on the everyday steps people can take to maintain their health, and in turn, their eyesight. In response, the BAME Vision Committee have put together a document aimed at people from a BAME background, focusing on general eye health and conditions that disproportionately affect BAME people.

Illnesses such as diabetes are more prevalent in BAME communities in the UK, and when improperly managed, diabetes can lead to sight-threatening conditions such as diabetic retinopathy. A key National Eye Health Week message promotes the importance of having regular eye examinations – did you know that glaucoma, high and low blood pressure can be picked up by your optometrist in an eye exam? These conditions can be managed, or even avoided if picked up early enough. That is why it is so crucial to have regular eye examinations – every two years, unless advised differently by your optometrist.

The BAME Vision Committee’s document for National Eye Health Week acknowledges that the prevalence of diabetes, glaucoma, high and low blood pressure is higher in BAME communities. The document outlines the general eye health guidance aimed at people from BAME background, and contains information about exercise, alcohol, smoking and attending eye health appointments in the context of the ongoing pandemic.

For more information about anything relating to eye health, sight loss, support or services then please do get in touch with Bhavini Makwana on: bhavini.makwana@londonvision.org

You can download the BAME Vision Committee document here. 

National Eye Health Week 2020

As part of National Eye Health Week which runs from 21 to 27 September 2020, the BAME Vision Committee (of which London Vision’s Bhavini Makwana is the Chair) will be live on Tarla Mashru’s Gujarati Show on NuSound Radio discussing the importance of having regular Eye Tests and Check Ups.

Join them on Wednesday 23rd September 2020 from 10.15am

You can listen to NuSound Radio here.

They will be talking about why it is important to have your eyes checked regularly and who is eligible for a free NHS Eye Test. They will discuss what conditions can be diagnosed in a routine eye examination and giving helpful suggestions for maintaining eye health. They will focus on glaucoma – a sight threatening disease which can be controlled by eye drops. Do you struggle using eye drops? Tune in for tips and helpful advice for people that use eye drops for glaucoma and other conditions.

If you would like to learn more about the work of the BAME Vision Committee for National Eye Health Week 2020, download this document. 

Guest speakers on Wednesday will include:

Bhavini Makwana – Chair – BAME Vision Committee – and Engagement Manager at London Vision

Jayshree Vasani – Dispensing Optician

Subhash Suthar – Glaucoma UK

For further information, please contact Bhavini Makwana at bhavini.makwana@londonvision.org