2019 marks the 150th anniversary of Wakefield District Sight Aid (WDSA). With its long history of supporting people living with sight loss in the Wakefield District, the charity continues its crucial work and is evolving to meet the changing needs of service users. This small local charity has a tiny team with big hearts, who work tirelessly to improve the lives of those who they support. As they reach this momentous milestone, it’s important to celebrate the work of local sight loss charities and remind ourselves how their work, which often stays under the radar, makes a real difference to the lives of the 2 million people living with sight loss in the UK. There are many non-profit sight loss organisations around the country all supporting blind and visually impaired people in their local community. Their mission statements, structure and services may not be exactly the same as those of WDSA, but there is always a common goal. These organisations all work to improve the lives of people who are living with sight loss.
What does a local sight lose charity do?
Often, the availability of human and financial resources can shape the provision of services more than the charity’s staff would like. In reality it’s about putting the available resources to the best use, providing the highest quality, practical, needs-based support alongside services that focus on emotional wellbeing. Specific services may differ across organisations but having listened to their services users, WDSA currently provide the following services to best meet their needs:
General advice and support. Staff are available Monday – Thursday to offer advice and discuss service users’ needs, by phone and in person. There are a variety of resources and materials in the office, including leaflets, a Reading Hub with facilities for reading documents, and a range of specialist equipment which can be ordered through through WDSA.
Home Visits. WDSA has an experienced sight loss advisor who visits service users at home to assess for, provide and give guidance on the use of assistive equipment. She can also make referrals or signpost people to other agencies when appropriate.
Referrals for talking books and talking newspapers. WDSA can provide a listening device on loan, free of charge and manage the referrals process..
Administration of British Wireless for the Blind Fund equipment. Stereo equipment can be provided on loan, which enables people on qualifying benefits to enjoy a variety of recorded media in their homes for free.
Equipment Demonstration and Advice Days. These events enable people to come and experience a range of equipment and assistive technology, get advice from representatives from other organisations and WDSA’s specialist staff team.
Tech Mate project: support with assistive technology. A new service designed to help with technology, regardless of your current level of knowledge. Support is available in the office or a home visit can be arranged. WDSA has a range of devices and software to help service users make the best decision for their needs.
Campaigning and awareness-raising on sight loss related issues. WDSA believes it is important to represent members’ interests regarding relevant local matters. An example of this is in 2017, they applied pressure to local bus route operator Arriva Yorkshire when they decided, without consultation, to re-route one of their buses so it no longer stopped outside the WDSA premises. Arriva Yorkshire listened, and announced that they were reinstating some stops in the area, including the one oursiide the WDSA office.
Community outreach work to reduce social isolation. Regular coffee mornings are held at venues around the district. There is also a younger members group who meet at coffee shops and restaurants in the city centre.
Befriending service. A valuable service for members who find it difficult to get out and about. It’s run by specially trained volunteers, who make regular calls or visits to people who may not be able to attend other social groups, or who are feeling isolated.
Friends on the Phone. This popular service works by matching small groups of 3 or 4 people together, who agree to share phone numbers and decide between themselves when and how often they are going to chat. It’s a great way make new friends and since its launch in 2018, many new friendships have flourished.
Quarterly newsletter. This is distributed to over 1,000 members and stakeholders locally, and includes the latest charity news, upcoming events, sight loss related news from the local, national and international media, a quiz, and signposting to other services and events of interest. The newsletter is available in large print, audio CD, audio USB stick, and Braille, as well as by email. In addition, all service users receive a birthday card each year. This may seem like a a small thing, but recipients continually report how much it means to them.
Signposting to other services and support. WDSA works closely with Wakefield Council and other local organisations and they promote each other’s services to make sure members get access to the full range of opportunities and support that are available in their area.
Partnerships with relevant organisations. WDSA believes strongly in the power of collaboration and welcome opportunities to partner with other organisations. They are looking forward to working with the Live Well Wakefield service to deliver an Expert Patients Programme especially for visually impaired people. They are also excited to be working with The Hepworth and The Art House during their 150th Birthday year.
As you can see, the nature and scale of services are wide ranging. It’s hard to believe that all this can be delivered to their 1,000 service users by the small staff team and army of volunteers. They are not only determined to continue their work, but to improve the services they offer and develop them to make sure they are meeting the needs of the current service user. Although the ultimate aims of the charity have changed very little in the last century and a half, the world around them has. In 2019 our modern society is fast moving and WDSA strives to provide support that is relevant tor today’s service users.
Why is this work important?
WDSA is the only organisation of its kind in the Wakefield District. Local Authorities, hospitals and opticians meet certain, specific needs of those with failing vision, but there are gaps between these services which is where the local sight loss charity plays their role. When a person is diagnosed with sight loss at the hospital, there might be an Eye Clinic Liason Officer who is there to provide support, but not always. Being told you are losing your vision is emotional and couple of leaflets doesn’t provide much reassurance. These people need practical and emotional support sooner, rather than later. Local sight loss charities aim to provide this.
How do these services help?
I have been partially sighted my whole life, but a couple of years ago I finally decided to seek some help as my vision began to deteriorate at a more noticable rate. I had no idea who to contact or what help I needed. I came across WDSA through an internet search and gave them a call. Their wonderful Sight Loss Adviser visited me and showed me simple ways to adapt my home to make life a bit easier. She also showed me new ways of doing things where the old way just wasn’t working anymore, like making a cup of tea. These seemingly minor things made a huge difference. Tactile markers ensured I knew which setting the washing machine was on and the temperature of the oven. A liquid level indicator meant I no longer wondered if my teacup was going to overflow. You get used to finding these little things hard and don’t often stop to ask if there’s a better way. She also gave me a symbol cane. This was significant on an emotional level as well as on a practical one, which you will know if you have read the The Cane and I series where I discuss my journey to accepting the cane. She also referred me to the sensory impairment team at the local council who put me on a waiting list for cane training, which was something I knew I needed, but didn’t know how to get started with.
Through WDSA’s Younger Members Group I’ve met people who understand my situation more than most. This is a group of visually impaired people who are of working age, who chat via a WhatsApp group and meet up in coffee shops to chat and plan future events. There have been talks of a range of activities including horse riding, crafting, baking, indoor skiing and much more. For people who are newly diagnosed or young adults who are leaving school or college, it is a great to spend time with members of this group and get to know people who are living independent and fulfilled lives, not letting their visual impairment slow them down.
I also recently attended a Demo Day where I had the opportunity to quiz representatives from Optelec and Dolphin about their products and found out more about services offered by Guide Dogs and Age UK. Aside from being a very useful afternoon, it was also great to meet service users from a wider demographic. From chatting to those around me, I found that a number of people were there for tea, biscuits and a good natter, with absolutely no intention of road-testing any equipment. I thought this was a good thing. It meant this event provided so much more than an exhibition of talking scales and magnifiers, as much I enjoyed the tech side. You see, when your vision is failing, interacting with people becomes more difficult and getting out and about can be a real challenge. Social isolation is a very real problem amongst those with sight loss. Demo days and coffee mornings hosted by WDSA, provide an opportunity for people who might suffer loneliness in their daily lives, to get out of the house and maintain some social interaction. This is because their normal concerns about going out, don’t apply at these events. Some may worry about navigating the route from the bus stop to the venue, but staff and volunteers are always on hand to help. Some may not be comfortable talking about their sight loss, feel self conscious squinting at leaflets and nervous about drinking a cup of tea in public. Not only are there plenty of people to help, but everyone at these events are familiar with sight loss and the difficulties it can cause. It all makes for a safe, comfortable environment where nobody feels judged or singled out for their disability. This is incredibly important because if we can encourage people to talk, make social connections, and feel emotionally well, they are more likely to, and can better access the services which will help with the practical elements of living with sight loss. The support they will then receive can help acquire the skills they need to take control of their lives once again.
Choosing how to live
Having the choice to live how you want is something we might ordinarily take for granted. In many cases, sight loss cruelly takes away that choice from previously independent people. Local sight loss charities, together with local authorities and other organisations, play a crucial role in supporting a person with sight loss to regain that choice. It starts with relearning small skills, making tea, identifying your belongings and looking after yourself. Then building up confidence and emotional well being to try bigger things, like going to the shop, using public transport and even getting back to work. Not being able to choose what to have for dinner because you don’t know how to identify your food, not being able leave the house because you don’t have a sighted guide and don’t know how to use a cane or don’t have a guide dog, not being able to earn a living because you no longer feel able to do your job – nobody would choose these things. But it is reality for so many. The good news is, it can be temporary if the right support is available and accessed. It’s a long journey, but with continued support, people who suddenly find themselves with little or no vision, can learn the skills they need to choose to live how they want.
Let’s keep local sight loss charities running…
WDSA is a small charity which relies on voluntary donations and grant funding. Wakefield Council provide a contribution to the home visiting service each year which covers about 10% of the operating costs of the charity. They receive no central government or national partner funding. Occasionally they receive a generous gift or legacy payment, but it has been 4 years since the last time this happened. As it stands, the charity has enough money to keep operating until 2021, that’s less than 2 years away. The RNIB reported that there are approximately 2 million people living with sight loss in the UK and by 2050, that figure will rise to 4.1 million. With this in mind, charities like WDSA will need our support more than ever to keep services running.
Speaking of running…
In celebration of its 150th anniversary, WDSA’s CEO, Hayley, will be running the 2019 London Marathon to raise money for the charity. Hayley, like the rest of the team at WDSA is passionate about the work they do and will fight to ensure it continues.
Find out more about Wakefield District Sight Aid.
Hayley will be running the London Marathon on Sunday 28th April 2019. If you would like to support her by making a donation, please visit her fundraising page or give the WDSA office a call on 01924 215555.