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Giving Dorset — Lighten their darkness

The Dorset Blind Association is one of the county’s less well-known charities, but it has been in existence since the end of World War 1 and was a finalist in the Dorset Charity of the Year Awards this year. Tony Burton-Page went to meet the team who is helping to improve its services and raise its public profile.

Daren Morris and his ‘sighted friend’ Michael Davidson collecting for the Dorset Blind Association. They have also raised funds by mountain-climbing and marathon-running.

Most Dorset residents will have heard of the two most famous charities for the blind, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and the RNIB. But Dorset has had its own local charity for blind and partially sighted people since as long ago as 1918, providing them with practical support and helping them to maintain an independent and social life despite their loss of sight.

The charity began, as the date of its foundation would imply, as a result of servicemen returning from the Great War with sight loss after the horrors of trench warfare. Then, as now, it did not receive any government funding: in those days it relied entirely on donations, although nowadays funds mainly come from any grants the charity is able to obtain, in addition to any income it raises from its transcription services.

One might be tempted to ask whether there is a need for another charity for the blind – after all, the RNIB and the Guide Dogs have a nationwide presence. If, however, you were to ask this question of Jonathan Holyhead, the Chief Executive of the DBA, he would reply that there certainly is a proven need for this local charity.

‘We don’t replicate the activities of the other charities – we’re complementary to what they do and to what the medical services do. Our role is definitely non-medical; we’re not here to cure the problem but rather to provide a bridge between the medical side and the social services. We don’t go campaigning and we’re not a political organisation; we provide practical support and, on an even more basic level, companionship and friendship where it’s needed. We’re a local Dorset charity for local Dorset people, responding to local needs and requirements, and in a rural county like Dorset people’s needs vary from place to place.’

There are about 6000 people registered as blind or partially sighted in Dorset, but it is estimated that for every one person actually registered, there could be up to three others with sight loss of a degree that impacts on daily life. Many eyesight problems are an age-related issue, and in Dorset more than 80% of those registered are over 75, so it is probable that sight loss will not be the only health issue with such people.

This remarkable document reader can magnify text to any size required by the user

‘A few years ago, we decided to change the emphasis of what the charity should do. Nowadays we face outwards – we’re taking things to people rather than expecting them to come to us, which is what happened previously. Since we were then based in an office in the depths of Poole’s old town, this didn’t happen as much as we would have liked – hence our move to Bournemouth Road in Lower Parkstone, where a lot more people pass our front door and where we are generally more accessible. This means that many more people are aware of our existence, and at the last count we were in touch with two thousand blind or partially sighted Dorset residents. Most of these are over 75 and living on their own and any children they may have probably don’t live in the same locality; this isolation can lead to loneliness, which can then lead to depression. We try to break that cycle by giving support which makes life a little bit easier to live.’

That support can range from providing sophisticated computer equipment to offering simple human companionship. At the top end of the DBA’s equipment repertoire is a photocopier-lookalike which can scan any document placed on it and read it aloud in a gratifyingly English accent and a surprisingly unrobotic voice. At the other end are basic devices which only cost a few pounds, such as a talking watch, a re-recordable talking tin lid and a liquid level indicator. The latter is one of those deceptively simply inventions which can make a huge difference: it consists of two sets of metal prongs which make a circuit when the liquid comes up the container on which it is placed. The circuit makes it beep, and when it beeps you stop pouring, so you can make yourself a hot drink in safety – something which many people with sight problems do not dare to do in case they scald themselves, thereby necessitating a visit to the doctor, which presents a new set of problems.

As for companionship, there are over 300 volunteers supporting the DBA staff (in addition to the eleven core employees) who provide the social contact and interaction which can be missing for the visually impaired – going for a walk, talking about the weather over elevenses, as well as everyday physical things which are trivial for most of us, such as going through the mail and extracting the junk, checking that food in the fridge has not gone past its use-by date, and so on. The home visiting service has been greatly helped over the past few years, partly by the charity’s acquisition of two Sight Equipment Vehicles, which act as mobile resource centres taking aids and equipment out to all parts of Dorset.

Jonathan Holyhead, the Chief Executive of the Dorset Blind Association, and John Andrews, its Chairman, outside the headquarters at Lower Parkstone

One of the newest services provided by this charity is a ‘Help Desk’ at the Eye Unit of Bournemouth Hospital. ‘If someone has been told that there’s nothing more that can be done for their sight, that’s a huge emotional hit’, says Jonathan, ‘and many people will be alone when they hear this news. This is when the Social Services step in, but the process can take weeks, if not months, so we’re now able to provide immediate practical, impartial, non-medical advice, counselling and support. The desk is run by Tiffany Deacon, who is partially sighted herself. The DBA aims one day to be able to replicate this service at the Eye Unit at Dorchester Hospital.

‘I think of us as a light switch,’ explains Jonathan. ‘But we’re not a “flick-it-and-you-get-a-bright-light” switch, we’re more like a dimmer switch: we provide slow, steady, continuous and increasing support which makes a gradual difference to people’s lives over time.’

[To contact the Dorset Blind Association, please telephone 01202 712860. Donations to the DBA can be made either directly or by visiting www.justgiving.co.uk/dorsetblind]

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