Striving to give people with sight loss an even playing field

Striving to give people with sight loss an even playing field

NCBI works to provide the practical, emotional and social support so that people with sightloss can reach their full potential, says Chris White.

Just imagine waking up one morning, opening your eyes to complete darkness, rubbing your eyes,hoping to see the light, colour, anything. Then the panic.

After being rushed to A&E you are informed you may never be able to see again. This despair became a reality for 12-year-old Kevin Kelly in 2001.

After losing his sight in his right eye two years previously, the unthinkable happened; Kevin’s vision failed in his left eye. Despite emergency surgery as a last attempt to save what was left of his sight, it was confirmed that he would never be able to see vivid colours or the faces of the people he loved again.

“My life changed forever,” said Kevin, now in his 30s.

I went from being able to read and write, see the school blackboard, being on sports teams to feeling isolated, vulnerable and helpless in a world of darkness. NCBI was central to kick-starting my recovery from this life-changing event.

For Kevin and thousands like him, the National Council for the Blind (NCBI) is the first port of call afterlosing their sight.

Last year we worked with 6,392 people — all with their own story of sight loss, and a minority of those are entirely blind. NCBI offers community-based services to help people to adapt to sight loss and to live confidently and independently.

Whether it is an elderly lady who has noticed her vision deteriorating over time, a parent who has just learned their new-born baby has been born blind or a man in his 30s who has to now give up his job due to losing his sight overnight from illness or accident: we’re there to offer a suite of services and support.

In short, these services include social and emotional support to help the person adjust to their new circumstances.

Practical support such as long cane training and cooking skills to boost independence to teaching how assistive technology can help in their everyday life, accessing magnification aids and digital supports.

We are always striving to respond to people’s needs like our new innovative Eye Clinic Liaison Officer scheme (ELCO) in partnership with the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, Children’s Health Ireland (CHI ) at Temple Street, and the Mater Hospital.

The ECLOs are based in the hospital and offer timely practical advice and emotional support to help patients understand their diagnosis and discuss next steps.

The scheme aims to bridge the gapbetween the hospital and partner organisations, education providers and community-based services. Already, more than 250 supports have been provided to patients and their families through the ECLO service.

The NCBI operates across the country against a backdrop of 48,848 visually impaired people on waiting lists for their first appointment with an eye specialist. Out of that number, 28% of the people have been waiting more than 18 months, and 7,434 are children.

Given that, up to 80% of blindness is preventable according to the World Health Organization, it is unacceptable that patients have to wait so long to be seen.

And unsurprisingly, the longer they wait, the worse their condition can become.

For NCBI, we are a vital resource for information and support while patients wait and accordingly have seen an increase in demand for our services in 2018. We are able to meet this level of demand, thanks to the growth of our retail chain from 96 in 2017 to 109 last year alone.

This expansion led to a 14% increase in profits, which in turn helps fund our frontline services as the statutory grants we receive don’t cover the full cost of delivering these services. So by supporting our shops, customers generate funds for not only our services but also our drive to support the environment through the re-use and recycling of fashion and furniture.

NCBI believes in helping to give people with sight loss an even playing field so that they can reach their true potential. We do this in many ways including, the NCBI Gerard Byrne Bursary, now in its second year, which is an annual sponsorship to support students financially across their full-time degree as well as offering an additional six month paid internship in an appropriate field.

Also, the NCBI began a Workplace Partnership Programme in 2018 pairing companies with prospective employees who are blind or visually impaired. These candidates can avail of tailored career advice, CV preparation, and interview preparation.

NCBI is always keen to work with new companies within this programme as we believe it is vital to tackle the depressingly low employment rate (24%) amongst those who are blind or visually impaired.

It’s safe to say last year was the busiest in NCBI’s long history. Recent developments within the organisation have brought much-needed energy to the delivery of these vital services for people just like Kevin, and we will continue to do so for years to come.

Chris White is the CEO of the National Council for the Blind (NCBI)

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