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Opinion I am now blind - here are some tips for the sighted to help us along

Robert Thompson lives with significant sight loss and here, he describes how he handled the diagnosis and learned to live again.

LIFE IS A journey, or more correctly – a series of journeys, as life phases come and go. Some are enjoyable but others, well, we would choose to avoid them if we had the choice. One such journey for me has been that of learning to live with the loss of sight.

While born in County Laois, my adult life has been lived in Dublin where I have worked in business, having been able to do normal things including driving. Early retirement became an option but shortly afterwards there was quite a sudden and significant deterioration in my sight.

Thus began a new life journey. I had gone from seeing people to not being able to see them and a host of other constraints leading to the onset of depression. However, as I emerged from that tunnel, I was soon to discover new possibilities and new ways of doing old things through a combination of a lot of experience, a little knowledge and a fair amount of ingenuity.

The transition from those early dark days is described in some detail in a book I have written entitled ‘Insights into an Unsighted World’, referenced later in this article.

Since then my sight has deteriorated to virtually non-existent but now have the privilege of having a guide dog. Nevertheless, my engagement in various projects just seems to be continuous, some with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI). One of my ongoing endeavours is seeking opportunities to raise awareness among sighted people on how best to interact with vision-impaired people (VIPs). The world of sight loss is often misunderstood by the sighted community; indeed, I was one of the unaware people until I found myself in that world.

Sight loss – a spectrum?

This was something I overheard from a bystander some years ago in an airport on seeing my cane, ‘He’s blind, I think!’… Those last two words were added rather judgementally and in a tone suggesting that I might just be a bit of a chancer.

Such was the observation of me having made my way to a priority desk, something that much of the sighted world believes a visually impaired person would not be able to do on their own.

But please bear with us. To the sighted, there can sometimes be no understanding of what each VIP can or cannot see, because of varying eye conditions, or what the person has learned to do by means other than visual.

The symptoms and levels of sight vary between different eye conditions – take macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, for example. The former can cause central vision loss, while the latter can cause visual issues in low-light situations.

While now blind, I have learned to cut timber with reasonable accuracy using electric saws – without sacrificing a body part. Yet I find difficulty getting butter and marmalade on my toast without making a mess. So please be prepared for the unexpected as to what a VIP can and cannot do.

More equal or less equal?

It was once said to me, affectionately in the context of a friendship, ‘you are not a very convincing blind person’. On other occasions I’ve heard, ‘but your eyes look normal’. It can be difficult for people to recognise visual impairment, so the obvious question for the sighted is how do you look out for it?

In public, many VIPs will be recognisable by a guide dog or the use of a white cane, of which there are two types, symbol cane and long cane.

Less known to the public, the symbol cane is used to convey low vision or the need of assistance in certain situations. The more frequently seen long cane is used in contact with the ground so the user can navigate their way along. This conveys anything ranging from quite significant to total sight loss. Also, there are VIPs with vision impairment without any identifying factor. Please engage with us all as equals.

In general, we will ask for assistance when needed, but there are situations where offers are most welcome. For example, if you see a VIP acting a bit lost, most likely we are not loitering with intent, so this could be your move. Engage with a simple question like ‘would you like some assistance?’. Don’t assume anything, so listen carefully.

Are there some tips?

NCBI has produced a short video to help with public understanding of sight loss and my book gives a much wider understanding than can be included here. But here are a few basic thoughts:

  • Having engaged with a VIP, ask how they would like to be guided rather than grabbing their arm except in face of imminent danger.
  • When giving directions, avoid words like ‘do you see…..?’, or pointing in a certain direction.
  • On approaching steps please alert them in advance whether they are going up or down and provide directions to any handrail that may exist; then please allow them the independence to negotiate their way without physical assistance, unless required.
  • In social settings, please be conscious that VIPs can easily become isolated for lack of seeing who is there or where people are – your move again!

Have you ever seen a VIP using their mobile phone in public and wondered if they really are vision impaired? Thanks to speech software and technological advances there is now a variety of assistive software to widen our horizons on mobile phones and computers.

Even allowing for ghost buses, bus apps are easily accessible to VIPs. But there are limitations and hurdles. Consequently, offers of assistance may be helpful and are appreciated.

Robert Thompson has lived with very significant sight loss for many years and has accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge on visual impairment and its impact. ‘Insights into an Unsighted World’ is available from the NCBI and Irish Guide Dogs online shops, with proceeds going to both those organisations.


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