Thursday, 22 June 2017

Blind in Britain

If you look at Face Book and Twitter, you would be tricked into thinking that Britain is a terrible place to live if you have a visual impairment. Whilst people with disabilities in this country face barriers on a daily basis, quite often in relation to accessibility, I feel that it is important to highlight how great it actually is to be blind in Britain. I recognise that it is only so good thanks to people constantly campaigning for change, but after being out and about last weekend it really hit home how lucky I am to live in such a disability friendly country.

To give you a bit of background, on Saturday I needed to travel through London to get to my final destination and I needed to repeat the process in reverse on Sunday. Travelling through London solo is something that I have only done once before and that was with Calvin my Guide Dog who gives me more confidence when I’m out travelling by myself. This time it was just me, my cane and the added anxiety of the recent terror attacks. Firstly, before I have even started my journey, I am able to get 1/3 off of my ticket fair with my disabled railcard. There is assistance at my local train station that helps me board the train, find a seat and notifies St Pancras that I am on my way. I am met immediately at the other end by assistance who guide me to the underground and their staff. Straight away someone is available to assist me on to the tube and alerts Paddington to my arrival at the other end. However, once I have boarded the tube and travel a couple of stops an announcement informs us that the train will terminate earlier than planned and advises everybody to get off at the next stop. Quickly I am infused by a wave of panic as I know there is no assistance waiting for me to help me continue my journey. The tears start flowing and the general public rush to my aid, several people willing to help me. Before they can, a member of the underground staff lets me know he has called for another staff member to help me. I make it to Paddington and although I have missed my train connection, I am offered assistance instantly to get the next train that departs in 3 minutes time. They phone ahead to Reading to ensure that I am still met despite travelling on a later service and can get another connection to reach my final destination. When I reflect, it was completely unnecessary for me to have worried in the slightest and it turned out to be the perfect warm-up for the following day.

On Sunday, my return journey started off badly with a 20 minutes train delay. I made it back to St Pancras with the same seamless assistance as the previous day, only to discover that all trains back home had been cancelled. If this was Saturday I would have been hysterical, but this time I was able to keep my head. The StPancras staff member I was with was so helpful in ensuring I found an alternative route home even though his shift was just about to finish. I had to get back on the underground and made my way to Euston. Unfortunately I had narrowly missed my alternative train and had to wait nearly an hour for the next service. In this time someone was able to assist me to use the toilet and I watched in awe as the assistance hub worked tirelessly to make sure people caught their trains. They were clearly under staffed, but even when people arrived with very little time before their train they went above and beyond to enable them to catch it. A journey that was meant to take me about 3 hours instead took me over 6 and a half hours. It was mentally and physically exhausting as well as challenging. Nevertheless, I made it home thanks to dozens of people helping me on the way, both paid members of staff and the general public.

Unsurprisingly, the 6 and a half hour journey gave me lots of thinking time. The list below demonstrates some of the reasons why it is so good to be blind in Britain:

1. Train assistance
2. Disabled person’s railcard (1/3 discount on train fair)
3. National bus pass
4. Tactile markings on the pavement indicating a safe place to cross
5. Tactile spinning cone underneath controlled crossing boxes indicating when it is safe to cross
6. Braille in lifts
7. Braille on medication
8. Talking cash points (ATMs)
9. Audio description on TV, in the cinema and at the theatre
10. Guide Dogs and their right to access all public spaces
11. Disability benefits (DLA, PIP, ESA, Blind person’s tax allowance, disability working tax credit)
12. Access to Work Scheme
13. Discounts for leisure activities usually buy 1 get 1 free (cinema, concerts, theatre, theme parks and other attractions)
14. Specialist visually impaired hotels (Windermere, Teignmouth)
15. Specialist holiday companies (Traveleyes, Seeable)
16. Multiple charities that offer services (RNIB, VICTA, Look, Blind in Business etc)
17. RNIB library (free books in Braille, large print and audio)
18. Accessible menus in many restaurants (large print/Braille)
19. Access to top eye hospitals (Moorfields, Manchester Eye Hospital etc)
20. Accessible banking (talking pin century reader, bank statements in an accessible format)
21. Accessible voting
22. The general public (people aren’t scared to help)

Some people will grumble that the above doesn’t always work or go to plan and they are right, we don’t live in a perfect society. My argument is that we are incredibly privileged to have the option of such a vast variety of services and facilities that allows the visually impaired community to lead independent and fulfilling lives.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Norrie Disease

As previously mentioned on my blog, I have a rare genetic condition called Norrie Disease which primarily affects the eyes. It is only meant to affect males, but somehow I defied the odds and was the first female in the world to be diagnosed with the condition. My older brother and 2 uncles also have/had Norrie Disease. Ever since I have had access to the internet I recall Googling, desperate to find out more information about this condition that has not only had a massive impact upon my life, but my family’s too. It is surprising to think in this day and age that even now it is difficult to find accurate and detailed information about Norrie Disease. At the moment I am waiting for genetic testing in order to try and fully understand how I have managed to present with the condition and I am also keen to learn how my genetic makeup will affect my children if I am lucky enough to have them one day. I am certain that I am a carrier of Norrie Disease, so it is something that could potentially impact on my family in generations to come. Norrie Disease has stolen my vision and it is beginning to steal my hearing. Whilst I am an individual who is intent on not allowing their disability stopping them from leading a fulfilling life, I can’t escape from the fact that I have Norrie Disease and always will.

Last Saturday, something exciting happened. It was the launch of The Norrie Disease Foundation. It is the first UK based charity setup to support those affected by Norrie Disease. Their aim is to connect Norrie Disease families as well as promote vital new research into the condition. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the launch. However, I am very grateful to those who have put in the hard work to make this much needed charity a reality. I am looking forward to seeing what The Norrie Disease Foundation can achieve and getting involved with the Norrie community.

To visit The Norrie Disease Foundation website, just click here.




Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Race Time Again

It is the eve of my outdoor season once again. When I sit back and think about how long I have been involved in athletics, I am surprised that I haven’t given up on it yet. There are a lot of things that have happened in the sport that make me want to throw in the towel. The one element that stops me is the fact that I know I have not reached my full potential. I desperately want to represent Great Britain at a championships. I can’t believe it is nearly three years since I got the opportunity to compete for England at the Commonwealths. Paralympic sport moves so fast it is difficult to know whether I will reach the necessary standard to fulfil my goal. However, I intend on training week in week out for the foreseeable future. Training dominates my life. At times it is tough to try and justify the commitment when I’m not exactly winning medals or breaking records. I could probably be successful if I took up another sport, but I love to run, I love to sprint, I love athletics in general.

I had a positive indoor season, reducing my 60m PB from 8.77 to 8.63. Since last winter I have lost about ten pounds in body weight, but I am managing to lift heavier than I have ever done in the gym before. I have four months of racing ahead of me with the only target being to run as fast as I can. I fully expect to break my 100m PB of 13.61. Perhaps not instantly, but it will happen in the coming months.

There is a new rule for T11 athletes, which now requires us to wear eye patches as well as blacked out shades in races to reduce cheating. This is not a problem for me other than sourcing some eye patches since I can’t see anything with my shades on anyway. Even without shades I can’t see anything when I run. Yes I have light perception in my left eye, but when moving at speed my eye fails to detect anything and blacks out. In some ways I am pleased that the IPC recognises that there is a problem with my classification. It now has athletes who have useful vision and who are able to walk, run and train unaided. Originally I thought the most vision you were allowed to have in the T11 classification was light perception. I am not sure what the limits are now. All I know is if that you are able to train unaided then you have an advantage over me even if you are blindfolded in a race. This is because you are able to:

Train without a guide thus giving you more feeling and chance to develop control over your body
Learn new drills/exercises visually making them easier for you to pick up and enhance your running ability
Generally be able to do drills/exercises that simply aren’t safe or feasible for a totally blind athlete to do, again increasing your running ability

Racing with a blindfold is not scary once you master the fear and trust your guide runner. Put Usain Bolt in a blindfold and I am certain he would still be able to run under ten seconds, as he has visually learnt the art of running and doesn’t need to see in order to implement his technique. The only trouble would be finding a guide runner fast enough for him! Whilst I feel disadvantaged in my classification at the moment, I accept that nobody is cheating under the current rules. If a classifier has deemed somebody to be a T11 then they are a T11 and there is nothing I can do about it. It is just unlucky for me that I am at the more severe end of my classification. I just feel it is important to write down my views. The classification system is there to make para-sport as fair as possible and it unfortunately is never going to satisfy everybody as no two people have exactly the same disability.

All of that aside, I am hoping to have a good season. I am looking forward to seeing how fast I can go…

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Fine At Nine

Last month Calvin turned nine years old. In theory this means that he has entered the final year of his working life as my Guide Dog since it is well-known that Guide Dogs don’t tend to work beyond the age of ten. However, I just don’t think he is ready to retire. I have spent the last year analysing his work and general well-being. He hasn’t changed a tiny bit. He still walks at a nice speed, has a spring in his step as he trots along and is always excited to have his harness put on and come out with me. Personally, as it stands at present, it really wouldn’t be in Calvin’s best interest to retire. Being a Guide Dog is all that Calvin has known and for the last seven and a half years he has been my partner in crime. Being separated and introducing a new dog into our world when Calvin is still keen to work makes no sense to me. I understand that it is important for Guide Dogs to have the opportunity to be regular dogs for a period in their lives, but Calvin already experiences ‘normal’ dog life anyway, which may have contributed to him still enjoying his work. Not only does he get free-runs, he is often walked on his lead too.

It could be argued that I am being selfish for wanting Calvin to work beyond his years. I admit that I am dreading the day Calvin says no more. Whilst Calvin has caused me a million and one stressful moments, he has given me a level of independence, confidence and happiness that I never had as a cane user. We know so many routes. Calvin has learnt everything with me. Prior to him, I could walk around the block at a push. Now I can effortlessly walk back to my parents two and a half miles away. It is going to take a lot of hard work teaching a new dog everything Calvin and I know.

I keep asking myself do I really want another dog? Could I bond with another dog? Could I love another dog? It reminds me of starting a new relationship. Calvin is going to my parents when he retires because I can’t imagine not having him in my life. However, can you really properly move on to a new relationship when you still have your ex in your life? Is it fair on you or your future partner? Ordinarily I would say no. Calvin is like my first love. He will always be special to me because he is my first everything. Nevertheless, I know deep down that we can’t be a partnership forever and in the long-term it is best for the both of us to move on. It will break my heart when Calvin retires. Tears will be shed. Then I will brush myself off and start a new relationship. It won’t be the same as the one I have had with Calvin, but hopefully it will be as pleasant and as long lasting.

In the meantime I intend on enjoying every single moment with my bestest boy in the whole wide world!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

5 Star Reads

Since getting my iPhone last year, I now rate every book I read on my Good Reads app as soon as I have finished it. It is nice to keep a log of what I have read, see what other people read and check out reviews. In honour of World Book Day I have listed 15 books I have read and rated 5 out of 5 stars on Good Reads. They are in no particular order, but cover genres such as Thriller, Young Adult, Dystopia, Romance and even Science Fiction. I highly recommend every single novel!

1. The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
2. I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
3. Beside Myself by Ann Morgan
4. Never Say Goodbye by Susan Lewis
5. Invisible Girl by Kate Maryon
6. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
7. Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris
8. Damaged by Cathy Glass
9. Thunder Dog by Michael Hingson
10. My Best Friend’s Girl by Dorothy Koomson
11. Try Not To Breathe by Holly Seddon
12. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
13. If You Could See Me Now by Cecelia Ahern
14. The Sisters by Claire Douglas
15. While My Eyes Were Closed by Linda Green

Happy Reading!

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Traveleyes

Traveleyes is a company that organises group holidays for not only visually impaired people, but sighted travellers too. Their slogan is ‘share the adventure’. To make it enticing for both visually impaired and sighted travellers they have two main selling points. If you are visually impaired, you can book on to a holiday as an individual with the knowledge that you will be provided with sighted assistance throughout your trip and therefore have the opportunity to explore the world independently, a task that would otherwise be quite challenging or near impossible. If you are sighted, you can book on to a holiday at a substantially discounted rate, sometimes up to 50% less than what a visually impaired traveller is required to pay. It is then expected that you are prepared to ‘lend your eyes’ to the visually impaired participants throughout the trip. Ultimately, everyone gets to discover a destination with likeminded people.

Traveleyes have been on my radar for some time. I have been lucky enough to travel to lots of countries over the years, but when I holiday with my family we rarely go on organised excursions opting instead to stay around the hotel or self-explore. This has always been fine and something I plan on continuing to do. However, I also want to experience the world in a more adventurous manner. So last year when I saw Traveleyes release their holiday to The Gambia and one of the tour highlights was seeing monkeys in the wild (my favourite animal), I was immediately interested.

The thought process had to be quite quick since Traveleyes always emphasise how popular their holidays are at the bottom of their promotional emails and I know through word of mouth that places get snapped up pretty fast. So, within less than 24hrs of the trip being advertised, I decided that I definitely wanted to go and to my surprise my family were keen to come too, making us two sighted and two visually impaired travellers. It was the weekend so I registered our interest through the website and found out on the Monday that the trip was already fully booked, but we would be placed on a waiting list. I honestly couldn’t believe at just how speedily the places did go. The following week we were informed that they had increased the number of places available due to popular demand and we could now go. A deposit was paid with the full balance due 12 weeks prior to our departure date.

Right now, I should be boarding the plane to The Gambia. Only I am clearly sat at home writing this. For months I have been looking forward to visiting a new country, experiencing its wildlife and culture and generally getting some winter sun. Hence, I was deeply disappointed when The Gambia hit national news a few weeks ago when the former Prime Minister refused to step down and military action was being threatened. At the time I felt a little selfish that my main concern was worrying about whether or not my holiday would be cancelled and whether or not I would receive a refund when hundreds of people were fleeing their homes in fear that a war would break out in their country.

Traveleyes were prompt at releasing a statement regarding the trip when the news first broke and assured us that our safety was their main priority. The holiday wasn’t cancelled immediately. Despite the Foreign Office declaring it is now safe to travel to The Gambia, Traveleyes were advised by their suppliers to cancel. This was only last week and already we have a full refund, which softens the blow a little.

I was hoping to blog about travelling with a company like Traveleyes, but it looks like it will have to wait for another day. If you would like more information about Traveleyes, you can visit their website here.



Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Year That Was

It is New Year’s Eve again and once more I am in a pair of Disney pyjamas reflecting on the year that was. Perhaps some things are destined never to change. However, each year we face the unknown and learn that little bit more about ourselves, other people and life in general…

2016
This year has taught me so much about myself. I know at the beginning of the year I was feeling quite low. When reading my blog back, I was surprised that a black cloud hung over my writing as well. It may not have been apparent to a casual reader, but knowing myself better than anyone, I sensed the lack of sparkle and drive in my posts. It wasn’t until the summer that I noticed a marked difference. It was as if I had a giant jigsaw puzzle in January with no idea where to start, then all of a sudden come July, I didn’t find one corner piece, but all of the corner pieces and everything just started to fit together.

July was a poignant month. Birthday celebrations with true friends, a long awaited PB over 100m, racing in GB kit in front of 50.000 people at the London Anniversary Games and training for a job that I not only love because it is varied and stimulating, but that fits perfectly into my lifestyle. These four instances have made the second half of 2016 worth living and I mean that whole heartedly. As this year draws to a close, I am feeling genuinely positive about 2017. I have discovered I am a strong person. I may get knocked down, but there is no way that I am staying there forever.

A couple of other bits to note about the year: I joined the 21st century and got an iPhone! How I ever managed to function without one before, I will never know. I also got a Fitbit, technology may just be a wonderful thing after all. The final mention needs to go to my partner in crime, Calvin. He decided to wrap 2016 up in memorable fashion by spewing up in my bedroom whilst I was out at the gym earlier. Demonstrating his Labrador logic, he helpfully re-consumed 95% of the contents! Yuck!

2017
It hasn’t even started yet, but already I am feeling a little smug about the year ahead. It is going to be full of new adventures and achievements of that I am certain. Now I have started that jigsaw puzzle, I need to finish it. I was listening to my beloved Westlife the other day and a lyric grabbed my attention and is going to be my ethos for the year ahead. ‘If you believe the wonder of a fairy tale, you can take the future, even if you fail’.

If you are reading this, thank you. Thank you for taking an interest in my life. I hope 2017 provides you with a happy ever after…