Dispensing with the EU

Now that the UK has left the European Union, I thought that I would ponder on the benefits visually-impaired people have derived from the EU.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get on a political soapbox! I’m just giving some thought to specific issues affecting the visually impaired which won’t have been covered in the mainstream media.

The most obvious benefit has been the EU directive requiring medication to be labelled in braille. I have mentioned before how much this has helped me. For those of you who haven’t read every single blog since the beginning (Really, you haven’t? What have you been doing with your time?!), I take a lot of prescription drugs. I have a strong painkiller that comes in two different strengths. The stronger capsules are in a pink box and the weaker in a yellow one. I cannot see the difference and for years I had to ask someone which was which. I would then put an elastic band round the box of stronger capsules. The EU directive solved the problem far more neatly and restored my independence. Once all medication was labelled in braille, I could tell which box was which for myself.

It is true that even now there are occasions when tablets are dispensed without braille but, generally, the rules are adhered to and I am sure I’m not the only person to be grateful for this.

Of course, if we hadn’t joined the EU, the UK Government might one day have decided to bring in a law stating that all medicines should be labelled in braille but I somehow doubt it and as many of our drugs are imported, it might have been difficult to enforce the rule even if they had.

What else?

I believe the EU was involved in changing the rules on copyright, and this made life a lot easier for those who, like me, depend on braille.

Let me explain.

It used to be the case that, if you gave me a print book and I scanned and brailled it, even if it was for my own use, I would technically be in breach of copyright. This was frustrating and it took a lot of negotiation to change but now an individual can transcribe printed material without the author’s permission provided it is for their own use and not for profit.

You might be surprised how difficult it has been on occasion for the RNIB to get permission to transcribe certain books into braille. I think this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding. I don’t think people operating in the world of print realise that no one makes any serious money out of braille production. The RNIB, who are probably the biggest producer of braille books in the UK, subsidise the cost of those books so that people like me can afford them. If they charged the true cost of production they would be prohibitively expensive.

I’m pleased to say that there are authors who positively embrace the idea of having their books produced in alternative formats. One of these is J. K. Rowling and the RNIB managed to publish the Harry Potter books in different formats at the same time they were published in print.

Why is this important? Because when your friends are talking about the books they’ve read, you want to join in the conversation and not have to wait years to read the book in question.

Of course, now, with the Internet, streaming services, and companies like Audible, it is easier to keep up with the latest best-sellers. However, I still maintain that we miss out on the special experience of browsing a bookshop and buying whatever takes our fancy on the day.

Never mind, I’ve just received my latest batch of six books from the Talking Book library and am enjoying Pepys’ diary. I have no need to feel I’ve missed out on anything because 1660 was a long time ago!


When you aren’t around children much you forget how noisy they are en masse! So why were my PA and I venturing into the lions’ den?

It’s because we were invited to speak to a local Cub pack. They will be working for their “Disability Awareness” badge in January and they wanted an introduction to braille. So we set off in search of said Cub pack…

We arrived at the front entrance of the school where they meet. We spoke to a couple of people who re-directed us to the back of the school. We walked round the perimeter, across the car park at the back, and eventually we found them.

When we entered, we encountered around twenty 8-10 year-olds. I think exuberant would be a good description!

I started by saying a few words about Louis Braille and handed out cards with the braille alphabet on. I then showed them some children’s books in braille which I borrowed from the ClearVision Project for whom I proofread.

Two of the books were print books with braille interleaved on clear plastic. I heard one child pipe up,  “I think I’ve got the hang of it now!”

My PA went over, and turned back the print pages so they could only see the braille. Then she brought some Cubs over to hear me read.

They also loved the tactile books made by volunteers who sew and embroider to embellish the pages. I love these books too, and particularly like the page in Little Red Riding Hood with a door that actually opens and closes. (Little things amuse me!)

They enjoyed trying out my talking kitchen scales. I had provided two clementines for them to weigh.

I then got them to pair up. One child had to close their eyes, take the arm of their partner and let them guide them round the room. I was impressed by the enterprising ones who took their “blind” charges up the steps onto the stage.

They asked lots of interesting questions. One observant girl noticed I was wearing glasses so I tried to explain that I have a tiny amount of sight. She also noticed I was wearing a necklace and wondered how I got dressed and put on jewellery. Another shared his grandmother’s experience of using a liquid level indicator. I’m afraid I just put my finger in the cup when I want to know how full it is!

At the end I was given a rousing chorus of “Bravo!”

We waited to hear them sing “Jingle Bells” and then sallied forth again into the car park.

It was a lively evening. we enjoyed it and hope they did too!

By the way, for those who read my blog regularly: the John Lewis Christmas ad is audio-described. Thought it would be!


You may not have noticed but we are in the midst of an election here in the UK. If you are reading this from outside our borders, be grateful it isn’t happening to you!

The impending election made me start to think about whether we, visually-impaired people, are disadvantaged in the electoral process.

One year, the RNIB made a point of advertising the fact that the three main parties had had their manifestos put into braille. They made it easy by giving you the numbers to ring so I rang and obtained all three documents. There was quite a lot to read, (I think Labour’s was the longest) but I did read them all the way through.

The RNIB haven’t, so far, mentioned any braille versions of the manifestos this year. I’m not sure I can muster sufficient enthusiasm to chase all the phone numbers this time but I suspect the same could be said for a lot of sighted voters. How many people do search out all the relevant manifestos and read them? I’m guessing it’s only a small percentage of the electorate.

Then there are the leaflets that come through the door. I have a sighted PA who would read these to me if I asked but am I going to ask? Probably not. It takes time that I could put to other uses. Many visually impaired people won’t have anyone to read these to them, though.

When it comes to canvassing on the doorstep, I am definitely on equal terms with my sighted neighbours. I can engage in a political argument…sorry, I mean, discussion…as well as anyone else and, provided they don’t turn up while I’m watching Ghost Adventures on television, I may do so.

The physical act of voting raises more issues. I know  a number of visually impaired people who opt for a postal vote which they can get a trusted friend or relative to help them fill in.

This is a good idea but I like to exercise my democratic right to attend a polling station.

There is a system of assistance in place for visually impaired voters who want to vote at a polling station. I can ask at the desk for someone to help me and a member of staff will take me to the booth, read out all the names and put a cross where I ask them to.

I personally have no problem with this and I trust them to act according to my instructions. Of course, if there are other voters around, it isn’t entirely private. The booths aren’t sound-proofed. As I tend to be quite open about who I vote for, I don’t mind this but I could understand others not being happy with it. There are templates produced by RNIB which you can line up with the names on the ballot paper and which enable you to put your own cross on the form. I was only offered this once and I didn’t find it very easy to use but it did, at least, mean my vote was secret.

Latterly, I have gone to vote with a friend and been quite happy to let her put my cross in the desired box for me.

I don’t know if there is a perfect system but it is certainly the case that casting a totally secret vote when you can’t see where to put your cross is a challenge. This will matter to some more than others but perhaps we should be giving more thought to this question. After all, that little cross is at the heart of our democracy.


How accessible are churches and other places of worship?

I’m not just talking about physical access, for all that lifts and ramps can be very important for those, like me, who have mobility problems. I’m talking about whether, once inside those places of worship, you can participate in the activities that go on there alongside able-bodied people.

I’m talking about inclusion.

One important area of my life is church. What I’m going to say may apply to places of worship of many faiths but I can only speak from my own experience here.

An important element of the Christian faith is the written word. If you happen to have a printed bible handy, just look and see how many pages it contains. It’s probably a single volume with around 900 pages. Now let me tell you about my braille bible. The New Testament alone is in five very thick braille volumes. I do not possess the entire Old Testament (I have a mere thirty volumes) because in my previous house I had nowhere to put it all. I could probably find space in my current home but a braille bible is so huge, I would still have to store it in various different parts of the house.

(An aside: years ago when I worked at the RNIB braille production unit in Goswell Road, we used to gather round a tea trolley twice a day for a break. Many people have never experienced this delightfully old-fashioned custom. It was a great opportunity to chat and we would regularly muse on various issues relating to braille and sight loss. I remember one day that we had a discussion about how much space you would need for the Gideons to leave a braille bible as well as a print bible in every hotel room. We envisaged guests having to climb over vast piles of books in order to get into bed!)

But, yes, braille bibles are really big and cumbersome, multi-volume works. You can imagine the problems this causes when I want to take a bible with me to church. When I attend bible study, I only take the appropriate volume along with me. When I take my turn on the reading rota and read in the service, I copy the reading out beforehand and just take the braille print-out with me. This is far preferable to heaving a large book onto the lectern.

Of course, this kind of participation can only happen if there is good communication. I need to know the bible passage well in advance.

I remember the first time I read the lesson at my current church. I was solemnly escorted to the lectern on the platform. It took me a while to get there! (These days I read from a lectern on the floor of the worship area.) Once I was at the lectern, no one could see me at all, because I am so short. (Neither I nor my escort realised there was a step to stand on for just such occasions.) The congregation knew I couldn’t read a print bible, so when they heard a disembodied voice ringing round the room, many of them assumed, I discovered later, that I was reciting the reading from memory! The illusion was shattered when I started reading from the lower lectern, however, because everyone could see that I actually had a sheet of paper with me.

That’s a little about the challenges of bible reading for the visually impaired, but what about hymn books?

Many churches these days no longer use hymn books, instead projecting the words of the songs onto large screens. This solves some problems but creates new ones. It makes it easier to introduce new songs and does away with the business of handing out hymn books and tidying them away at the end of the service. Not everyone can read ordinary print, and large-print hymn books can be heavy and unwieldy, especially for elderly people with arthritic hands. The use of screens can help solve these problems and also leaves people free to raise their arms or clap their hands, if they are worshiping in churches where such practices are the norm.

The words on the screens still have to be big enough for everyone to read, of course, and the screens have to be positioned so that everyone can see them. If they are not raised sufficiently high, you may not be able to see them if you are behind someone who is much taller than you are. My brother-in-law tells me that in his church, there was a lady with bad arthritis in her neck for whom it was very painful to raise her head to look up at words on a screen. You have to choose your text and background colours carefully, too, because some combinations are very hard to read.

Frankly, though, if you are visually impaired, screens are not much help.

In our church, we have a printed order of service which is also projected on a big screen at the front. This is where I am very lucky. Not only can I read braille but I have the means of braille production. I am sent an electronic copy of the service in advance and I can braille it during the week, along with the hymns, so that I can fully participate in the service on Sunday. I do possess a braille hymn book but it is in eleven volumes so I prefer to copy out the hymns and take single sheets. I have a large collection by now so often don’t have to braille any new ones.

My ability to braille documents enables me not only to take my place on the reading rota but also to lead bible studies and chair meetings. As I have mentioned in this blog before, braille is essential for these activities. I can braille notes for a bible study and I have the agenda, minutes and any relevant reports literally at my finger-tips in meetings.

Whilst I am pleased to be able to play my part in church life – and, with access to braille and assistance from fellow church-goers, I hope to continue to do so for many years to come – I am aware that not everyone is so fortunate. What about those older people who, when they can no longer see the screen or read the admittedly large-print order of service, find themselves unable to join in?

I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions but we should keep asking them, always making sure we consult those most keenly affected. We need to listen carefully to their answers.


Not everyone was happy when the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act came into force here in the UK.

The Act states that public buildings should have “reasonable adjustments” made for the benefit of disabled people. The social commentator Rod Liddle was vehemently opposed to beautiful old buildings being mangled, as he saw it, by the inclusion of lifts and ramps. He saw no reason why someone in a wheelchair should not have to go to a back door and press a buzzer or be lifted bodily out of their wheelchair and carried into, say, a busy restaurant, in front of the other customers.

I wonder if he would feel quite so sanguine if it was happening to him but the point is this is not just about physical access. It’s about human dignity and the message society is sending out to disabled people.

There used to be a BBC Radio 4 sketch show called “Yes, sir, I can boogie” which included material by disabled writers. One skit had an able-bodied person turning up at a theatre. The theatre-goer is outraged to be told he can only see the show if he is prepared to be winched up in the service lift and sit at the back of the auditorium. It made the point nicely. This is the sort of thing disabled people have put up with for years.

Access is not just a question of physical obstacles. For those of us with sensory impairments, there are other issues as well. Someone with a hearing impairment may need a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter or a hearing loop system.

Visually-impaired people need … well, what do we need?

Some buildings thoughtfully provide braille labels on doors but if you don’t know they are there or where to look for them, you will never find them. I’m certainly not going to feel around doors in strange buildings, assuming I can find the doors, on the off-chance that there are braille labels!

If there was a national standard for braille labelling in public places, it might be made to work effectively.

If, for instance, all doors were routinely labelled and those labels appeared, say, near the door knob each time, it would help some visually impaired people to navigate their way around. For example, it might make it possible to find a hotel room independently. Because the whole building is often unknown, however, some visually impaired people, myself included, would need more help than this. I would prefer a sighted person to guide me around, certainly in the first instance, and, if the stay was short, quite probably the whole time. It can take a while to learn your way around strange premises.

A problem that particularly affects visually impaired people is large, open-plan spaces.

At Swindon railway station, for example, there used to be a taxi rank virtually outside the front entrance. You now have to cross an open area to get to it. This is not helpful and is potentially dangerous as cars are coming and going all the time. I always book assistance and so have a member of staff with me but more mobile and independent visually impaired people who would have been able to get a taxi without official help in the past are now more dependent and at much greater risk.

Even the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) comes unstuck sometimes. I attended a course at their headquarters in London a few years ago. When the course was over, I was put in a chair in reception while, supposedly, a taxi was call for me.

After a long wait, I decided to approach the reception desk to ask what was happening. Where was it though? I had to cross a huge open area, head for the general sound of talk and hope for the best. I was not impressed.

I feel, therefore, that when architects, developers, building managers and whoever else this responsibility falls to, are thinking about access, they should consult with a wide range of disabled people. They will need to be flexible and to understand that we are individuals. What suits one visually impaired person may not suit another and they may need to include a variety of solutions.

Of course, no one is expecting every building to perfectly fit the needs of every single disabled person, but more could be done.

We should continually strive for inclusivity, even if that means doing things differently sometimes or taking a leap of imagination to try to understand how it feels to be treated as a second-class citizen. After all, no one wants to be consigned to the service lift of life.

Spelling – what a capital idea!

I went to a school for the blind when I was 7 and started learning to touch type when I was 8 or 9. It was considered so important that everyone learnt it, because it was one of the ways in which we would need to communicate in the sighted world.

(And, of course, in those days, many visually-impaired people did become audio typists.)

I loved it. We often typed to music to ensure we got a good rhythm going. I remember typing “All the dancers had red dresses,” and “Cut the flowers for the wedding,” as well as many other finger exercises.

One of the things we had to learn was where to put capital letters. In those days, UK Standard English Braille did not use capitals. (US Braille always did, as far as I know.) This was, I imagine, to save space. Braille is very bulky and the number of dots you would need just to indicate capitals would have added to that bulk.

In the beginning, capitalisation was not difficult. We learnt to put a capital letter at the start of each sentence and at the beginning of proper names.

I don’t recall if having read print when I was still sighted helped me with any of this. Given my age, I suspect it only helped up to a point.

After capitalisation, the next problem was spelling. Braille has many contractions. That is to say, lots of words aren’t written out in full. There are signs for simple words such as “and”, “with” and “for”, but there are also more complex contractions. For example, the letters “rcvd” stand for the word “received”.

Both Linden Lodge School and my senior school, Chorleywood College, taught spelling as a lesson in its own right. In fact, at Chorleywood we had weekly spelling tests in the lower forms. But as I’ve tried to show, learning braille creates ambiguities it comes to spelling. What is the right way to spell “received” when, in different contexts, “rcvd” and “received” are both correct?

If the standard words you find in a dictionary are difficult enough to spell, then brand names introduce a whole new level of complexity for the visually impaired. Sighted people see these words all around, on adverts and shopfronts and in social media. We don’t.

Let’s take a simple example.

There used to be a chain of electrical retailers called Comet. Or was it Kommet, or Commet, or Kommit?

It was hard for me to tell. I might guess they would use an initial K to stand out from the crowd, but it would only be a guess. And it would be wrong.

It gets even more complicated with the current trend for inserting capital letters in the middle of brand and trade names, such as ClearVision.

Then again, there are some new words, such as the Japanese import “emoji”, which I have never seen written down in print or braille. This came up when my brother-in-law edited my last blog. I had no idea how to spell “emoji” and I got it wrong.

Now, you might think that this is no big deal, but actually, it is. If you are trying to give the impression that you are an educated professional, it doesn’t look good if it turns out that you can’t spell.

There is no easy answer to this. I am pleased to say that contemporary Unified English Braille does use capitals, but spelling is still a challenge.

This is one reason why braille is still so important. Literacy is about reading. You don’t learn how to spell through listening to a text.

(Disclaimer: Of course, sometimes my errors are just good old-fashioned typos, so perhaps you shouldn’t give me too much benefit of the doubt when I get things wrong!)

Braille production

I promised in my last blog that I would tell you a little bit about the practicalities of my work as a braille transcriber and proof-reader. Here’s a brief overview of how I do what I do.

Organisations and individuals commission me to convert conventional print documents into braille. They would like the braille version to work for a visually impaired person just as effectively as the printed version works for a sighted person, so I need to have a detailed knowledge of not just the content, but also the layout and format of the printed original. My visual impairment is pretty severe, however, so I can’t see or read the print version. I therefore work with a sighted personal assistant (PA) and it’s part of her job not just to read print documents to me, but also to describe how they are structured.

Most of my work comes to me in the form of email attachments. When a new piece of work arrives, I print a copy off for my PA and save the file. We then go through the document together and she will describe the layout, with particular emphasis on the types of headings that it contains. In print, those creating documents can use a whole battery of tools and techniques to emphasize particular lines and words, including colours, different fonts and font sizes, underlining, italics and emboldening.

Braille is more limited. There is a hierarchy of headings, such as centred, justified on the left with a blank line above it, and indented with or without italics. I have to decide which will be most helpful in a particular document. This means thinking about how it will be used.

Will it be read at home, or in a business meeting?” Does the customer need to find certain items quickly?

If the print version uses lots of different coloured headings, is this just for the sake of a pleasing appearance or is there some other significance? Can this be simplified in the braille version?

Once I understand the layout of the original, I run the file, usually a Word document, through a translation program which produces a braille version I can read and edit on my computer.

I read through the translation line by line on my braille display. This is a tablet in front of the keyboard with pins which come up to form braille signs which I can feel with my fingers as I move the cursor through the document. I can edit the braille cells using the A, S, and D keys under the fingers on my left hand on the qwerty keyboard, and the J, K and L keys under my right, which become equivalent respectively to each of the six braille dots.

Technically, I should produce the braille document to correspond exactly with the print version, otherwise I am in breach of copyright. However, there are sometimes errors in the original and these become a complete nonsense if translated into braille. For example, there is a braille sign for the conjunction “and”. If the print version misspells this word as “nad”, a sighted reader will usually be able to recognise that this is a mistake and work out what the word should be. If you feed “nad” through a braille translation program, though, the output will not resemble the sign for “and” in the slightest and the resulting pattern of dots simply won’t make sense to a braille reader. Where there is this kind of error, I will correct the braille version, though I never change grammar, however poor it might be.

Once I am satisfied that the braille is correct and that it is a faithful representation of the original print version of the document, I run off a hard copy on a braille embosser. This is a noisy machine which embosses dots on both sides. I then collate and tag the document, or my PA comb-binds it, if required.

Another part of my job is proofreading material produced by others. I am the proofreader for  a charity called the ClearVision Project which produces children’s books in braille. They take print books and interleave the braille on clear plastic. This enables a visually-impaired child to read with a sighted adult and vice versa. I loved reading these books with my nieces when they were young. ClearVision also produce chapter books for slightly older children which my assistant and I thoroughly enjoy proofreading together. She acts as “copyholder,” reading the print while I check the braille. To make sure we keep as alert as possible, we take turns to read a page each aloud.

And that’s pretty much it. Do get in touch at info.swindonbraille@gmail.com if you have any questions or if there is a braille job that you would like me to carry out for you or your organisation. Over the years, an interesting variety of work has come my way, including transcribing into braille for a PhD student the communications between Mission Control and one of the Apollo space flights, and proofreading the braille version of the Little Oxford English Dictionary in a mere 40 volumes!

Joining the dots…

As this is, after all, the Swindon BRAILLE Services blog, I think it’s probably high time that I talked a bit about braille. I’ll tell you next week about how I actually do my job as a braille transcriber but let’s start this week with a quick explanation of what braille is and how it works. 

Braille is a tactile system of six raised dots arranged in different ways to form letters, contractions, word-signs and symbols. It was invented to help visually impaired people to read and write by the Frenchman Louis Braille, and there is a good Wikipedia article about him here, as well as a general article on the braille system itself. (As you can see, the modern convention is to use an initial capital “B” for Braille, the name of the man who invented the system, and a lower case “b” for braille, the writing system that he invented.)

The six dots are arranged in a block known as a cell and are numbered in two columns, top to bottom, so that the top left dot is 1, the middle left dot is 2, and the bottom left dot is 3. The right-hand column is then numbered as top dot 4, middle dot 5, and bottom dot 6.

Louis Braille was French and so developed his system to work in the French language. Today, there are many different national variations and, because I live and work in the UK, I will describe the version we use here in this country.

There are two grades of braille. Grade 1 is the alphabet plus punctuation. Grade 2 incorporates other signs as well.

For instance, in Grade 2 braille, there are combinations of dots representing frequently used words such as and, with, the, of and for. Each letter of the alphabet also stands for a word if written spaced from other words. Thus “B” stands for but, “C” for can and so on, through to “Z” which stands for as.

In addition, in Grade 2 braille, if you put a modifier in front of various letters, other words are formed. For example, “dot 5 W” stands for the word work. Dot 5 isn’t the only modifier, either. For instance, there are a series of words formed by placing dots 4 and 5 in front of a word. In fact, dots 4-5 in front of W create the word word!

Combinations of dots in the lower part of the cell often stand for punctuation. Thus, when all the dots used in the pattern which normally indicates the letter “f” are lowered by a row, the pattern instead becomes an exclamation mark. If, in addition, you put a dot 5 in front of this lowered “f” pattern, you get a plus sign.

I hope that this brief whistle-stop tour gives you some idea of how braille works. If you would like more information on Grade 2 braille, read the Wikipedia article on English Braille. It is mostly concerned with the version of Braille used in the United States, which is slightly different from that used in the UK, but some of the differences are briefly explained.

As a child, I was desperate to learn to read again, having lost my sight just at the point when I was discovering the joy of books. Thus motivated, I learnt the basics fairly quickly. I think I was reading age-appropriate material within a school term, possibly a little sooner. I was only seven years old, so my fingers were very sensitive. It can be much harder for older people or those with conditions such as diabetes, which affect sensitivity, to learn braille. When I taught at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) vocational training college, I found that people who had done manual work often had calloused fingers and found it almost impossible to feel the dots with which braille cells are constructed.

Sport and Drama

Learning to ice-skate and stepping out onto the stage for the first time… Judith Furse continues her account of what it was like to be a young child living away from home at a special boarding school for young people with visual impairments.

We had the opportunity to participate in a number of sporting activities at Linden Lodge School. I learnt to ice-skate.

At my first lesson I was too terrified to let go of the rail until the teacher left us and my friend Debbie, who was a proficient skater, persuaded me to go round with her. She skated backwards, encouraging me step by step until, without realising it, I found I’d skated round the entire rink.

After we came off the ice we were allowed to spend our pocket money in the café. We sat at the tables, chatting over cold drinks and biscuits and feeling very grown-up.

Perhaps my most vivid memories, though, are of doing drama . The headmaster at Linden Lodge, a Welshman called Mr. John, had a true thespian’s voice and always made good use of it. He loved drama and put on a play each year, with the scripts written out for the cast in braille.

My first role was quite humble. I played a fairy with very few lines.

My big break came in a play entitled “The Magic Seashell.” My friend and I starred as two girls who, while playing on the beach, find – guess what – a magic seashell. This leads them into an underwater adventure in which they rescue Neptune and his daughter.

I loved it!

I loved being in the imaginary world created by the scenery, costumes and lights. Oh, and Mr. John played a Welsh whale who came from that village with the very long name*. I suspect that he created the part just so that he could say the name!

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games and it wasn’t easy having to leave home, but the braille education I received at Linden Lodge School enabled me to read and learn again, and that meant the world to me.

* The village is called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. According to Wikipedia, this means “St Mary’s church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the fierce whirlpool of St Tysilio of the red cave” in Welsh.

Linden Lodge

Feeding mulberry leaves to silk worms, waving a dried snake skin around to frighten the other children, and sneaking out after dark… Judith Furse shares her memories of being a small child living away from home in a special school for those with visual impairments.

I thought I would return to my schooldays again…

After it became too difficult for me to remain at my mainstream school, I spent seven months at home. Unable to read, bored and frustrated, one day I cracked. My mother phoned the Essex Local Education Authority (LEA).

“I have a child here who is sobbing her heart out because she can’t go to school. What are you going to do about it?” she demanded, or words to that effect.

It worked. The LEA pulled themselves together enough to do their job and get me into a special school.

This was Linden Lodge School in Wimbledon, which took boys and girls from the ages of 5 to 18, all of whom had a visual impairment and some of whom had other disabilities such as learning difficulties. It was housed in a purpose-built, light, airy building with lovely grounds and had its own heated indoor swimming pool.

I started there at the age of 7 and ¾. I recall that the “three quarters” was very important to me at the time!

I threw myself into learning braille. At last, I could read again!

Many of the staff were young and forward-looking, though there were some exceptions, such as the scary house matron who taught me to do hospital corners when making my bed.

My first class teacher was a kind lady called Miss Garling. She encouraged us to use our imaginations and write stories and poems. She had a beautiful speaking voice and I loved it when she read us stories.

One of my most vivid memories is of the Nature Table. This contained, among other items, a snake’s skin, and we delighted in chasing each other round the classroom whilst waving this natural artifact. We also had silkworms which would cling onto your finger if you put it anywhere near them. There was a mulberry tree in the grounds and we collected its leaves to feed them.

The grounds were wonderful. There was grass, trees, flowerbeds and play equipment, including swings, slides, climbing frames and a see-saw.

A gap in the trees led to a round lawn, also surrounded by trees, which I seem to recall was known as “the Bowling Green.” The Scouts camped there, but we Brownies never did. Perhaps they thought the girls wouldn’t want to rough it, but my friends and I thought it would be fun to find out what the grounds felt like in the dark.

One night, after lights-out, we crept downstairs, opened the door into the junior playground and made our way into the grounds proper. I have no idea how long we stayed out there but it was quite magical being out in the deserted school grounds in the middle of the night.

When I told my parents about this adventure, some time afterwards, they were absolutely appalled!