In this week’s blog, Judith Furse explores some of the myriad difficulties facing the visually impaired shopper and shares some poignant and amusing memories of the shopping experience.

Do you remember shopping on the high street?

You bought meat at the butcher’s, fish at the fishmonger’s, and fruit and veg at the greengrocer’s. I can recall shopping with my mother when I was a child. As my sight deteriorated, I found I could still identify the shops we visited by their smell. Even the wool shop had its own individual perfume, sweet and moist, like opening the airing cupboard at home and sniffing the fresh laundry.

This technique was all very well, and vivid enough to my childish mind, but it wouldn’t be much help in a modern supermarket. Supermarkets present a particular challenge to the visually-impaired. These days, when I go to the Co-op, the only aisle I can reliably identify by its scent is the one containing cleaning products.

Many chains do offer assistance to visually impaired shoppers, which is a great idea in theory, but not always so wonderful in practice. One visually-impaired friend of mine gradually came to realise that the person the store had allocated to help him shop could see perfectly all right but couldn’t actually read, which made selecting products somewhat tricky!

It can sometimes be useful to take examples of packaging with you so that the helper can easily see what you want. It is easy to forget names and brands when the information isn’t constantly being reinforced by seeing them.

Then, of course, there are shopping centres.

These often consist of large stores with glass fronts. If you have only a small amount of sight, all the stores look the same and finding the entrance can be nearly impossible. Most shops are self-service, too so, unless you have a helper, you are at sea in a maze of rails and shelves.

Shopping for clothes has its own problems. You have to find someone to assist you whose judgment about colour and style you can really trust. I have heard of ingenious visually-impaired people who snap garments on their mobile phones and send the pictures to trusted friends and family. I prefer to take my long-suffering support worker and friend with me. She patiently helps me sift through rails of outfits and tells me honestly what she thinks when I try the clothes on.

It’s nice when she says, “Oh, that looks good on you, Judy,” but probably even more helpful when she tells me firmly, “That really doesn’t suit you at all!”

Internet shopping has been a great help to those of us who find physical shopping difficult, but it still has its limitations. For example, where clothes are concerned, I like to touch them before making a purchase. If I don’t like the feel of the material, I’m not going to enjoy wearing the item of clothing. Then again, however well styles are described on line, it is still incredibly difficult to visualise them accurately. What you imagine you are buying, based on the description your read on the Internet, is often very different from what turns up when your purchase finally arrives.

What I mind most, though, is not being able to mooch around shops, browsing the merchandise. My visual impairment means that I never have the experience of something catching my eye in a shop window, or of chancing upon that unusual gift in a craft shop somewhere. This might seem like a small matter, but it is a surprisingly poignant loss. I should like, therefore, to salute my friends and family who, over the years, have tried so hard to ameliorate this loss for me.

But let me finish with a funny story.

Back when I was a teenaged schoolgirl boarding at Chorleywood College, we used to hold illicit midnight feasts in the dormitory from time to time. On one occasion, we decided to go a little “upmarket” and, among other things, include cucumber sandwiches in our menu. One of the visually-impaired girls in our form was despatched to buy the ingredients. She entered a shop in the village and was surprised to be greeted warmly and offered a chair. She sat down.

“So, how can we help you?” she was asked.

She started to suspect that something was not right.

“This is the greengrocer’s?” she asked.

“No, we’re an estate agent,” came the reply.

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!

Early Days

Judith Furse gives a moving and occasionally funny account of what it was like to lose her sight as a small child.

I have already alluded to my schooldays and, from time to time, I will tell you more. In this blog post, though, I’m going to go right back to the beginning.

I started to lose my sight when I was six. I lost all the sight in my right eye without anyone noticing. My left eye simply took over. I was aware that I couldn’t always read what was on the blackboard but thought that in some way it was down to my own stupidity, so I didn’t mention it. When my sight loss was finally recognised, I was given glasses and was able to continue for a while at a mainstream school.

There was an amusing but worrying incident during this time.

In those days, (I don’t know if it happens now), Local Education Authorities (LEAs) arranged for eye tests to be carried out at schools in their catchment areas. This involved a healthcare professional of some variety holding a card over one of your eyes while you read a chart and then swapping over to test the other eye. The professional in question carried out this procedure on me and informed my mother that my sight was fine.

My mother said, “But she has no sight in her right eye!”

Much embarrassment ensued. The poor lady said I must have been peeping round the card or perhaps I had memorised the chart. I don’t recall how I did it but some might think it shows initiative, or perhaps sneakiness, to pass an eye test with such a serious sight problem!

I loved most lessons, but especially reading, painting and drawing, and I carried on managing quite well until I was seven.

Around that time, I remember having headaches during which I saw flashing lights. The print on the page would go very small and I would be unable to read. My mother told me the headaches were called migraines, but I don’t recall whether I was officially diagnosed as having these. I suspect that these effects were linked to deterioration in my eyesight and the gradually increasing stress that this caused me as I continued trying to read.

Eventually the time came when I couldn’t see to read. In those days there was no official policy of integrating pupils with visual impairments into mainstream education but my school, St John’s Church of England Primary School, were very accommodating and they did their best for me. They had no spare staff and no knowledge of teaching visually-impaired children so I just muddled along. I wasn’t allowed to go out in the playground in case I got knocked over but a few wonderful school-friends stayed in and read to me in playtime.

After I was registered blind, though, the fight to get me into a special school started and I spent seven long months at home unable to read and getting my education through listening to schools programmes on the radio. I will talk about my first experiences at a special school another time.

Three cheers for the postman!

Working out who’s at the door can be difficult when you have a visual impairment. Some callers don’t make it easy! Thankfully, though, Judith’s postman is a shining example of how to get it right.

This week I should like to tell you about my postman. You may think this is a strange topic for a blog but bear with me.

Over the years, many postmen have trudged up many paths delivering bulky, heavy braille packages to me. Most have done this with a good will. Recently, my regular postman has called out, “Hello, it’s Posty!” to identify himself when I have opened the door in response to his ringing on the bell.

Occasionally, a less cheery mail delivery person has simply grunted and pushed the packages at me. It is impossible for me to know whether he is naturally grumpy or just doesn’t know what to say.

Anyone who announces themselves when I open the door gets a metaphorical gold star from me. Having to guess who is calling at your door is very unsatisfactory! However, my current postman gets several gold stars. Not only does he announce himself by saying “Hello, Judith, it’s the postman,” (and yes he did ask my permission to use my name), but he also describes the post to me.

For instance, he told me recently, “You’ve got two parcels labelled ‘Articles for the Blind’, one white A4 envelope, an NHS letter, and a pizza leaflet. Shall I put that leaflet in the recycling for you?”

We generally have a brief chat and then I go back inside feeling cheered.

Lately, he has taken in interest in braille itself and so I wrote out the word “postman” for him with the print letters underneath. He read it as he walked down the road and called back to me, “I notice A is one dot. Does that mean B is two dots?”

It is, but it isn’t quite as simple as that! The letter C isn’t three dots, so I am going to write the whole alphabet out for him.

I don’t expect every person I interact with to instinctively know all my needs. Not everyone will have had disability training. It is exciting though to find someone who has thought about what my needs might be and goes about meeting those needs in a cheerful and friendly manner.

Getting the Feel of It

Some museums are really getting it right when it comes to making their exhibits accessible to those with visual impairments. The British Museum is leading the way and Judith Furse applauds their efforts.

Recently,  my niece and I visited the British Museum. It was wonderful!

I’ll tell you all about it in a moment, but I have to say that visiting museums and historical buildings hasn’t always been this enjoyable. Too often, access has been difficult, with long, steep, flights of steps to negotiate and endless galleries to plod through, while my experience of the exhibits themselves has been limited to listening to friends and family reading the printed descriptions of the items while I try and work out what on earth it is that everybody else is looking at.

Sometimes I’ve struck lucky, though.

A visit to Sheldon Manor some years ago was a case in point. From the moment I stepped through the door, the owners, Major Gibbs and his wife, took me under their wing.

The first thing Major Gibbs said to me was, “Have you tried our seventeenth-century harp?” As though I was in the habit of entering other people’s homes and twanging their antique stringed instruments without their permission!

I was invited to touch the medieval embroidery on a bed cover and there was a heart-stopping moment when Mrs Gibbs placed an object in my hands with the words, “This is a sixteenth-century rosewater bowl from India.”

It felt gorgeous, but I was terrified that any moment I was going to drop it. It was a relief in the end to hand it back!

It was a hugely enjoyable visit but, looking back, it stands out as being unusual. Most museums and historic buildings I went to weren’t like that. Over the years things, though, things have changed. The National Trust are trying to make their properties more user-friendly for everyone and museums are getting more imaginative about helping the visually-impaired access their collections.

Which brings us back to the British Museum.

One Saturday in February, my niece and I went to their exhibition about Ashaburnapal, king of ancient Assyria. I booked tickets in advance through the museum’s access office and we duly turned up at the appointed time.

We were taken into a tutorial room where, along with others who had booked for the occasion, we were given a fascinating talk by a curator and a professional audio-describer and a number of objects were handed round. It was so amazing to hold a cuneiform tablet in my hand and feel the embossed symbols on it. We were also able to hold an earring mould and a bell which would once have adorned a horse.

Many objects in the exhibition were too fragile, ancient or precious to be taken out of their protective display cases, of course, but we were given tactile representations of engraved tablets whose originals we couldn’t touch.

After the lecture, we were taken up to the actual exhibition where the audio-describer talked us through the exhibits. There were some great sound effects, too, such as the noise of battle to accompany the military items on display, and bird song and lute music when we got to a picture of a garden scene.

Thank you, British Museum! As a lover of history, holding ancient objects is absolutely magical and it means so much more when, without this opportunity, I would have been left solely to rely on my imagination.

Bad Practice

Even when they’re trying to help those with a visual impairment, people don’t always think things through. Judith Furse shares some of the funnier – and more frustrating – examples of these near-misses and outright failures.

Some years ago, when my mother was still alive, she and I were watching (or, in my case, listening to) Countdown on television one day. The adverts came on and she suddenly remarked, “That’s good.”

“What is?” I enquired.

“They provide braille statements,” she said.

“Who do?” I asked.

She named a utility company.

I rang the company concerned and told them, “I think it’s good that you provide braille statements. I also think it’s good that you advertise the fact but, as your TV ad has music and no voice-over, if I hadn’t been watching TV with a sighted person, I would have been none the wiser.”

They thanked me for my input and I never saw the ad again.

Having a sense of humour, I find this incident quite amusing, but it’s frustrating, too.

I also saw the funny side of things when I attended a patient user-group for an eye clinic. The manager stood up to start his PowerPoint presentation. He began by apologising that the figures in red weren’t as clear as he would have liked.

I spoke up.

“For those of us who can’t see the screen at all, please could you explain what you are referring to?”

To be fair, he did, and, of course, it was reasonable for him to assume there were people there who could see the screen. Given that this was an eye clinic, though, he really should have also guessed that there might be people there who couldn’t.

It’s not that those providing these services are being deliberately difficult. They just don’t think. This is particularly concerning where eye-care professionals are concerned.

I once went into hospital for treatment on an ophthalmic ward. One of the first things that I did was learn the way from my bed to the toilet. This wasn’t easy as it was some way down the corridor from the bay my bed was in, but I managed it.

When I came round from the anaesthetic after the operation, I was in a completely different bed, in a completely different room. Fortunately a nurse did think to tell me this but, to me, this was bad practice in action. Most people are groggy enough after surgery, but if you also have any impairment to your senses, your disorientation is even more aggravated.

I have had years of doctors and nurses in outpatients calling my name and then marching briskly off down a corridor without checking to see if I could follow them.

In all fairness, I should acknowledge that I have encountered some excellent practice too.

When I was being assessed for a hip replacement, for example, I told the nurse of my anxiety about finding my way to the bathroom. Sure enough, when I was admitted, I was right next to it, and they didn’t move me to another bed during the whole time I was there.

Again, my ophthalmic consultant for many years always came and took my arm and personally guided me from the waiting area into her consulting room. There we would have interesting conversations about how I coped on a day-to-day basis.

I mention this last point because, too often, the medical model of disability only looks at symptoms. Most healthcare professionals have no idea how disabled people actually live their lives.

The Missing Braille Documents

Braille is incredibly useful to the visually impaired but, to Judith Furse’s great frustration, there is still a lot of information which is not available in this format.

I have written before about how much I rely on braille for quick, easy and independent access to information. It’s really valuable and important to me. Braille makes my life so much easier, so why, WHY is it still so difficult to get some information in this format?

The fact is that only a tiny percentage of the information that’s available in ordinary print ever finds its way into alternative formats such as braille. So while I receive bank statements and energy bills in braille, I am still fighting to get medical letters in this format.

Yes, that’s right. My doctor sends me letters in print which I can’t read because I am visually impaired. I have to get someone else to read them to me, thereby immediately compromising my confidentiality.

It’s humiliating and it’s frustrating, and it’s only one example among many.

In an age when sighted people have easy access to printed descriptions of products and directions on how to use them, it is maddening not to be able to read cooking instructions on food packets, or easily distinguish shampoo from bath foam. I mean, could you tell the difference just from feeling the bottle or smelling the contents?

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m a member of a book group. One of the things we like to do is read plays together, with each one of us reading a different character. My friends do their best to include me, but that means we can only read plays that I can get in braille. You’d be surprised how many aren’t available in this format.

It’s a similar story with my poetry group. There’s a theme each month and each of us chooses a poem related to that theme and reads it aloud at our next get-together. It’s nice to read other people’s choices in advance so that you’re familiar with them, but friends often choose poems from collections which, because they are so large, are unlikely ever to find their way into braille. Poetry in braille is a niche market. The choice is limited.

And then there is question of how I get to read newspapers.

Yes, most newspapers and many magazines are available on line these days, and I’m grateful that text-to-speech software means that I can access them on my computer, although navigation can be slow and clumsy. What I really miss, though, is just being able to pick up a paper and glance through it. I don’t think sighted people realise how much general knowledge they quite casually pick up in this way.

Braille newspapers and magazines exist, of course, but so much that is available in print never finds its way into braille.

Braille Education

Should visually-impaired children be taught in special schools or in mainstream education? Judith Furse weighs up the pros and cons and decides that, despite all the disadvantages, when it comes to literacy, special schools had the edge.

I lost nearly all useful eyesight while I was a still very young. I had been registered blind by the age of seven and sent off to board at Linden Lodge School, a special school for the blind. It broke my parents’ hearts to see me go, but they’d been told by those who knew about these things that it was for the best. They cried when they left me there. I cried too.

Linden Lodge took children from the ages of five to eighteen, but a few boys and girls were put forward each year for selection for the “grammar schools” for the visually-impaired. In those days, the boys’ school was at Worcester and the girls went to Chorleywood College. I passed the selection process and at the age of eleven started at Chorleywood.

You’re probably wondering what was it like, being educated in those special schools.

I certainly didn’t want to go to boarding school, but that’s the way things were done in those days. It meant leaving home and having the emotional wrench of saying goodbye to my family at the start of every term. I made wonderful friends among my contemporaries at Chorleywood, but there were still times when I was desperately lonely and unhappy, especially in the early years. After all, I was just a child. The staff at both schools were professional but distant. Discipline was strict and the ethos, especially at Chorleywood, highly academic. Some of the teachers unbent a bit as we got older but we certainly didn’t have the sort of relationship with the staff that I get the impression kids have today. It was a “them and us” situation.

Looking back, were there any advantages in attending a special boarding school?

Yes, there were, and one in particular stands out: I had an education immersed in braille.

I remember how desperate I was to learn to read again after I first became blind. I had just discovered the joy of books only to have it snatched away from me when my sight deteriorated. To make matters worse, I had also missed seven months’ schooling as I waited at home while Essex Local Authority dithered and dawdled over getting me into a special school.

Despite all the emotional upheaval of leaving home, I learnt to read braille at Linden Lodge School and it was a precious thing. We used it for all subjects and were encouraged to use it to read in our leisure time. Thanks to braille, I could enjoy books again. And because I had the ease and fluency that comes with good training and abundant practice, I was able to do well at school and later go on to complete a degree in Law.

Visually-impaired children in mainstream schools do not get this privilege. Compared to ours, their access to braille is limited and their teaching assistants sometimes lack the detailed knowledge of braille that our teachers and instructors had. As a result, their reading speeds often fall short of the speeds we were able to attain.

With stretched resources there is a temptation to use audio more and more, but this is not literacy. Try it for yourself. Listen to a book and then see how many characters’ names you can spell correctly. See how much of the sentence structure and punctuation you can reproduce accurately.

You wouldn’t say to a sighted child, “I’m going to take your books away and from now on you will learn spelling and grammar by ear only,” so why would you do that to a visually-impaired child?

Braille versus Audio

Has modern audio technology made braille redundant? “Very definitely not!” says Judith Furse. In her experience, braille is still essential.

I need to be able to access information quickly, easily and quietly to get safely and effectively through my day. As someone with a severe visual impairment, that means that I rely on braille.

Let’s start with getting up.

The first thing I do is take my medication. I have two different strengths of a strong painkiller. These are colour coded. I used to have to ask someone to identify which was which and then put an elastic band around the stronger one. Since the European Union issued a directive, however, all medicines are now labelled in braille. Because I can read braille, I now don’t have to involve anyone else in administering my medication.

Next, I may need to take food out of the freezer for later. I shop at the Co-op and they label their ready meals and other own-brand products in braille. No more guessing or finding myself eating lasagne when I fancied cottage pie!

I start work. I am a braille transcriber and proofreader. I have speech access software on my computer but I also have a braille display. It is invaluable. Without it, my work would take at least twice as long and I would waste a lot of paper printing out proofs for checking.

If I want to find out what is on TV or radio, I turn to the braille guides. The audio versions available on line take forever to search through! The braille versions are much quicker.

I often chair meetings at church and at the local Amnesty International group. Without braille agendas, minutes and other necessary documents I would not be able to do this.

Braille enables me to participate in poetry and book groups where we read poetry and plays aloud. I can read the lessons in church and sing the hymns thanks to braille bibles and hymn books.

Besides reading for pleasure I also have a diary, recipe books, and address books, all in braille. I label CDs and tapes in braille. And I continually write notes to myself in braille.

Now you might ask, why do I still rely so heavily on braille when there is so much available in audio formats these days? After all, you can get audio labelling devices, you can listen to books on disks or streamed from the Internet, and you can Google information on your smartphone and listen to the results through its speech function.

You can do all those things with audio – and I regularly do too! But I couldn’t chair meetings without having the agenda actually under my fingers. Even if I wear an earplug so that others don’t have to listen to the distracting chatter of an audio source, I can’t read, skim or search minutes or discussion documents nearly as quickly as I can with braille.

Braille enables me not only to access information swiftly and independently, but to actively participate in life. I wouldn’t be without it.