My name is Cathy Low and my experience of sight loss started in adolescence when I was diagnosed with an incurable, inherited, degenerative eye condition called Stargardt disease which results in central vision loss.
I have some peripheral vision but cannot see anything if I look straight ahead. I cannot see detail, read without assistive technology or recognise people even when they are very close to me. Despite this, I have been the CEO of London Vision for the past year.
I am probably amongst the minority of people who can genuinely say I love my job. At London Vision we support blind and partially sighted people who live, work and study in London. I meet people with sight loss every day who do inspirational things. Living with sight loss can often mean that the simplest things such as walking down the street, negotiating the London Underground system, going shopping and just getting into work, can cause challenges which those without sight loss can only imagine (but probably don’t). And yet, every day blind and partially sighted people in London are doing ordinary and extraordinary things, and inspiring others, like me, to do them too.
A day in my life, whether it involves going to work, meeting friends, taking part in a gym class or seeing a band requires planning, resilience and sometimes a lot of luck. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job took place last week at the London Vision Working Age Forum, a network which enables blind and partially sighted people to provide and receive peer support by networking with other like-minded blind or partially sighted people. The Forum meets on one evening a month and the format of these events is simple, it features a speaker (or several) who have lived experience of sight loss, from birth or acquired, followed by discussion and networking.
The topic last week was ‘The Employment Journey’ and involved speakers talking about finding a job, the Access to Work programme, dealing with employers and how to progress in their career.
What emerged from the speakers, from audience perspectives and from conversations during networking was enlightening. We found that having sight loss makes us good problem solvers – we must overcome all kinds of uncertainties as soon as we get out of bed in the morning, and daily experiences of problem solving has made us more resilient and able to adapt to changing circumstances. We also found that our memories were well developed through living and working in a world without reliance on visual cues.
I found that the biggest revelation for me was that even if you were to lose your sight suddenly, you will have already developed a range of skills you were not previously aware that you possessed, making you more prepared than you may have realised beforehand. We don’t tend to put this on our CVs or in application forms but maybe we should. These should be skills that employers will value, and with a staggering 75% unemployment rate amongst the blind and partially sighted community, this needs to be a much more widely understood message.
London Vision facilitates a number of different networks, such as the Working Age Forum, Students’ Network and the London Vision Impairment Forum, and they all work to create connections between Londoners with sight loss, providing peer support. The focus for World Sight Day 2018 is ‘Eye Care Everywhere’, and you can’t really argue with that. But when you have an eye condition that no amount of eye care can alleviate, you need to approach things in a different way. Peer support should be part of the eye care everywhere story too. Don’t under estimate the life changing potential of peer support.