In this post we talk to Eleanor to find out a bit more about her and her time with MySight York. She is a member of the Forum Steering Group and brings some valuable perspectives and experiences to the group.
Helen: Hi, thanks very much for taking the time to speak to me. Can you start by introducing yourself?
Eleanor: I’m Eleanor. I am totally blind. I’m a member and trustee of MySight York, and have come from there to the York Disability Rights Forum.
H: Thanks, if you are comfortable doing so, can you tell me a little bit about how being totally blind affects your life?
E: It affects it profoundly. but not always, in the ways that people imagine. To take a small example. People sometimes think I’m walking too close to the curb. If there is a curb, I’m quite safe. I feel it. If there is no curb, I’m in danger of wandering into the road.
H: Thanks for sharing that example, I think it really highlights the sometimes unexpected ways that disabilities can affect us. Could you tell me a little bit about My Sight York, what you do and how you got involved with them?
E: MySight York was started by a group of visually impaired people back in 1979, I think. It now has a staff of about 10, mostly part time. And it aims to have half the trustees with a visual impairment. But at the moment, I think we’re four out of 11.
Before the pandemic, it was running an Equipment and Information Centre. It can’t do that at the moment, but it can have equipment delivered to people’s doors. And then somebody will ring up the recipient, and see whether they know how to use the equipment and give them some help.
They run a counselling service over the phone. They run various telephone and zoom groups. They have a number of trained volunteers, I think nearly 100 in all. And since the pandemic, they’ve all been recruited for the keeping in touch project. Some of them were previously running activities and doing fundraising. And through the keeping in touch project they have kept in touch by telephone, with quite a lot of people, each volunteer only ringing one or two visually impaired people.
Before lockdown, they were doing some work funded by the National Lottery to enable visually impaired people to take part in mainstream activities, things like swimming and cycling, giving them the initial support they needed. Some were able to manage without support. After the first few weeks, where it looked as if continued support would be needed efforts were made to arrange that. I haven’t been closely involved with that particular project – I think it was working quite well, but it’s only reached a small number of people. And that has been suspended for the time being.
So actually, My Sight is doing quite a lot.
H: That sounds like so great projects! So coming back to the forum, what are you enjoying about being part of the forum?
E: I find it stimulating to work with people who have a range of disabilities. I’ve done it a bit before. And it’s not easy. Meeting everybody’s needs is rarely easy and sometimes impossible. Especially when needs conflict, as over the question of curbs. But, although our needs are different (and visually impaired people do have a range of needs which are specific to them) there are some aspects of being disabled in a society, most of whose members are not disabled or don’t think of themselves as disabled, which are common to most people with disabilities. There is the sense of being excluded. People with different disabilities may be excluded in different ways and from different things. But most of us share that experience, which may not be constant, but we all have it from time to time. And we’re all patronized from time to time. And we meet people who think they know what is best for us. And sometimes they do, but often they don’t. And we meet irrational discrimination. I think that’s probably a bit better than it was a few decades ago, but it’s still there, particularly in the field of employment, I think,
And our needs are just not taken into account. Now, our needs are so various that is really very difficult to take the needs of all disability groups into account. Now there are some basic things which will make a difference to a lot of people which could be done and often are not, like providing things in clear print, providing good lighting.
But when lockdown was first announced, sweeping changes were made to the whole of society. And I really don’t think it would be reasonable to have expected the government to take the needs of all groups into account immediately. But they were a bit slow in responding to the needs that were made known to them. And I believe it’s still difficult to get hold of information on COVID if you are deaf and that there isn’t sign language interpretation at the prime ministerial presentations. And yet, I’ve heard that there are sign language interpreters in Scotland, but not in England. Apparently, the money to pay for them is not forthcoming, or people just don’t think it’s important.
H: And talking about the pandemic, how else have you noticed that kind of discrimination or that kind of different experience that disabled people are having compared to non disabled people?
E: Well, there’s a couple of things that really affected me. The first was that my My Sight volunteer visitor couldn’t come. And that, initially, sighted guiding wasn’t allowed which meant that it was very difficult for me to go anywhere. Unless I knew the route perfectly. Or to undertake anything for which I might need face to face help. And initially, I didn’t know how I’d manage. I live in a community with lots of friendly neighbours and if I needed help, I knew who to ring up and ask, but I realized that they weren’t going to be able to come so I was going to have to be more self reliant. And what I couldn’t do by myself would have to remain undone.
The area where that affected me most was making payments because at the same time, changes were made to the bank’s website, which rendered it inaccessible. My volunteer visitor had introduced me to online banking, but I hadn’t really dared to do very much on my own. At the start of the pandemic, I did try and I did succeed in making a couple of payments to existing payees before they changed the website.
H: Yes, it’s not something I don’t think a lot of people will have thought about, so it’s a really interesting example. And speaking of that kind of awareness, what do you wish more people knew about being visually impaired or blind?
E: Well, there is a difference between having some sight and having none. Of course, every partially sighted person has slightly different vision. But in some ways, life is simpler if you have no vision at all. I thought that would be so while I still had a little bit of sight, and I think it is so.
What else do I wish people knew? Well, that the fact that my eyes don’t work, doesn’t mean that my ears don’t work, or that my legs don’t work, or that I can’t speak or think for myself.
H: And another big question – if you could change one thing for disabled people, what would it be?
E: Well, naturally, I think for disabled people nationally, I would make it easier to claim the benefits to which they’re entitled.
H: As you know, we did a survey in September, and found that people were concerned about transport, physical accessibility and attitudes and awareness. And I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about how being blind affects how you use things like public transport?
E: The biggest change I would like to see is audio visual systems on all buses. We have them on a few buses in York, but on the routes that I use, we don’t have them and First are delaying their introduction as long as they possibly can. The primary legislation is there. The secondary legislation has not I think been passed so they haven’t been forced to do it. And that would make quite a big difference to me.
It’s also quite difficult to get timetable information. I’ve looked on websites and found it quite difficult to negotiate the tabular information with a screen reader. I have a phone number, which used to give me good information although I haven’t used it in a while. But it helps to have some idea what I’m asking for. When I ring up, the sort of questions that I find it difficult to answer with the information at my disposal would be how do I get from New Earswick to the university by bus? And the only way that I would find that out probably is to ask people who’ve lived here longer than I have. And they probably wouldn’t give me complete information, but I piece it together from the information they did give me until I felt I knew enough to be able to try the journey on my own. Or alternatively, that the journey would be too difficult and I’d better take a taxi.
H: Attitudes and awareness around disability is such a big topic, and one that seems resistant to change. It seems to be hard to get people to genuinely understand and engage with our perspectives. Have you noticed that changing at all over the last 10 years?
E: I think it changed more over the previous 10 years. Over the last 10 years, we’ve had the Equality Act, but it hasn’t been implemented very solidly, and people have been given the chance to forget. And also people have come under other pressures with austerity and all that. So I think we’ve slipped back a bit. It hasn’t affected me personally very much. But I have the impression that some people have felt it rather more.
H: Thank you so much for your time, we’ve covered so much and it’s been really interesting, thanks.
The MySight Offices are currently closed to visitors, but staff are still working and are available by telephone and email. For support, advice or information, contact them on:
Telephone: 01904 636269
MySight York information correct at time of publishing.