- Work Rhiannon has made the most of the DWP Access to Work Scheme which enabled her, over her 25 years working in academia to make the workplace a productive environment for someone experiencing sight loss. The scheme has provided essential assistive IT solutions such as the screen reader “JAWS”, and allows Rhiannon to have the services of a reader two days a week. This mode of working has enabled Rhiannon to found and co-direct a leading health economics research centre. The Centre for Health Economics and Medicines Evaluation (CHEME) has 25 research staff and 10 PhD students. Rhiannon is currently co-editing an Oxford University Press text book entitled “Applied Economic Evaluation for Public Health Practice and Research”.
- Talking Technology. Rhiannon could read print up until the age of 17. She attended mainstream schools and never learned to read Braille. During her time as an undergraduate she relied on enlarging print via a photocopier, until switching to using screen readers and text to speech technologies in her early 20s. She uses the JAWS screen reader program effectively, benefitting from regular specialised training funded by the Access to Work Scheme. The trainer who continues to work with Rhiannon is Rebecca Ballard who can be contacted on this link. As the university has upgraded their software suite, Rhiannon has had to keep pace, often having to learn completely new systems. For example, the JAWS software works well with Outlook e-mail and Diary, but, come on Microsoft – changing screen layouts and moving buttons around for the sake of cosmetic improvement is not helpful! Using IT effectively can be challenging, but incredibly enabling for people with limited vision, Rhiannon says “Hats off to Apple who have made text to speech available on all their products allowing me to use social media like Twitter and Facebook, however the dictation function has led to some amusing misunderstandings – I particularly liked the shopping list containing “Mask A Pony” cheese, or the post that mentioned my “Guy Dog” Jazz. Learning to use an IPhone with speech is not easy, but it is so worth it. It’s a way of storing music, keeping in touch with friends and family through text, and keeping up with news and events through Twitter. The village where I live has its own community page, which I can “read” on-line in a way that I could never read a notice board or newsletter. Being able to access to social media through this technology is, in my opinion, one of the most important factors in participating fully in community life!”
“As well as high-tech solutions, there is also a place for traditional low-tech applications. I have set myself the task of learning braille so that I can label the contents of my food cupboard. The sooner I can read labels the better – The cat was less than impressed when I fed him a tin of peaches the other week.”
- Emotional and Mental Health Impact of Sight Loss
In Rhiannon’s experience, sight loss over an extended period of time involves a grieving process. As with any degenerative condition, and to some extent with the normal aging process, it is all too easy to look back and grieve for the things we can no longer do.
Rhiannon says “Looking back, I went through a lot of heartache in my 30s and 40s, which, if I had had the level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence that I have today, I could have dealt with better”.
In 2011 Rhiannon undertook an 8 week course in “Mindfulness” at the Centre for Mindfulness Based Practice and Research at Bangor University, which in her view has given her the single most helpful set of skills, allowing her to be present in the moment, non-judgemental, and to deal with continued sight loss in a more effective way. She continues to use these skills on a regular if not daily basis. The book that Rhiannon found exceptionally helpful and would recommend to anyone wishing to learn more about mindfulness is by Professor Mark Williams and Danny Penman – “Finding Tranquillity in a Frantic World” – which is available as an audio book for people who prefer a non-print format. (For further information visit www.mbct.co.uk )
It is estimated that 80% of human communication is non-verbal. Rhiannon has found that as her sight has deteriorated, her me One of the best pieces of advice that I have been given was by Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public health with whom I worked in Liverpool in the 90s, and that was simply to look in the direction of the face of the person to whom I am speaking, even if I couldn’t see them. The importance of this to a blind or visually impaired person cannot be underestimated as it ensures that you don’t look as though you can’t see, you would be surprised how that improves the quality of communication from the sighted person. My father, also a doctor, was keen that I tried to maintain good posture as I grew up. Posture can deteriorate with sight loss – it is also essential to maintain good posture when you train with a guide dog.
- Looking Good When You Can’t See
Rhiannon has not been able to see herself in a mirror for more than 20 years, has never worn make-up based on the premise that no make-up is better than make-up applied badly! “This is an important factor that people who have not lived with, or lived with someone who has experienced sight loss rarely consider. I can normally rely on my daughter to stop me leaving the house if I chose a colour combination that might turn heads for the wrong reason, but on one occasion, head buried in whatever she was doing at the time, said “Yes mum you look fine” and allowed me to travel all the way to London for a meeting wearing purple tights! What has worked for me is buying good clothes in sales, and sticking to a limited colour palette – in my case Autumn Colours. Take advice from your family and friends as to the colours that suit you best, and stick to the ones that work. I like chunky jewellery and to help with the glare, I wear sunglasses when outside – there’s absolutely no harm in buying the most glamourous ones you can find.”