The voice of the people

Post date: 
Monday, 16 November 2015
A picture of a smiling woman, surrounded by plants.

We report on RNIB’s survey of over 1,000 blind and partially sighted people.

Over the past decade or so, has life changed for blind and partially sighted people? Economically, with benefit cuts on the one hand and cuts to services on the other, it is fair to assume that things have got worse. However, disability rights are – or are supposed to be – now firmly written into legislation: and technology has also made some potentially vast changes to people’s lives too. So what’s the update, from RNIB’s most recent comprehensive survey of more than 1,000 people?

A new world: or not?

“The last big random survey of blind and partially sighted people was around 10 years ago and a lot has changed since then,” says RNIB research officer John Slade. “We already knew from other research and more general population surveys that the recession, political change, welfare reform and cuts and technology may all have affected blind and partially sighted people.” Accordingly, Slade and his colleague Rose Edwards collected data from over 1,200 people who were all registered as blind or partially sighted.

The answer is that overall – and depressingly – not much has got better and that for some people (especially those of working age) matters are actively getting worse. My Voice, the report from their research, obviously covers the views and experiences of a vast range of people, and both Slade and Edwards are keen to stress that fact; and it is also a survey, rather than an analysis of why this particular situation has come about. But the generalised picture that the report gives is of a lot of blind and partially sighted people who are isolated in their homes, living on less money than their sighted peers, and relying on friends and family to provide them with care. They’re also being given remarkably little information about their own sight conditions: and although technology is making a difference to some, older people in particular are (unsurprisingly) not able to make the most of this opportunity.

Public attitudes 

Overall, the respondents felt that their sight loss – and therefore all the issues associated with it – was the ‘biggest barrier’ in their lives. “When we were combining their responses to questions about travel, employment, technology, leisure and access to services – they said sight loss was the most frequent reason for experiencing problems,” Edwards explains.

As well as their relative lack of work and money, they received very little support with either physical or psychological issues – and despite all the legislative advances and the recognition of disability hate crime, over a third reported ‘negative attitudes’ from the public at large, saying things like ‘[It would make every day better] to be accepted with a disability. Knowing what’s out there, being understood and being given a chance to get on with my life’.

Younger people and those registered blind had received particularly poor treatment, and it was most commonly coming from strangers or shop staff. “I don’t think questions like that have been asked before. It’s certainly interesting to have that insight into how people feel they’re treated, especially people of working age,” says Slade.

Jobs, money and transport 

Out of the report’s comprehensive set of findings, Slade particularly highlights the issues of employment and of transport. “The evidence is that employment levels for blind and partially sighted people overall have gone down, and that transport is the biggest problem people face. In 10 years, that hasn’t changed.”

In fact under a third – 27 per cent - of the respondents of working age were in work (including four per cent describing themselves as ‘self-employed’) compared to 33 per cent (including five per cent self-employed) in 2008. The more acute a person’s lack of vision the more likely they were to be out of work. Of the people with ‘poor functional vision’ (not enough to recognise the shapes of furniture in a room) only 10 per cent were in employment.

It is not surprising, therefore, that financial hardship was particularly acute for people of working age. Nearly half the respondents aged between 30 and 49, and over a third of those aged between 50 and 64, felt they did not have enough money. Nearly half the people of working age said they could not afford a week’s holiday away from home or an emergency expense of £500. “Older people might have lost their sight later in life, after building up some level of financial security,” Edwards points out. Money problems were not restricted to this age group though – more than a quarter of all the respondents said their disability benefits were not covering the costs that their sight loss had caused.

Although most of the survey was quantitative there were a couple of open questions, and when people were asked what made the biggest difference to their lives, by far the biggest issue was transport – with knock-on effects for a huge number of aspects of daily life, including employment and social opportunities; 40 per cent of the respondents were not able to make all the journeys they wanted or needed to. Again, despite the changes in legislation, many of those problems were caused by the physical environment. Two-thirds of the people of working age had walked into ‘street furniture’ such as benches, parked cars, advertising boards or wheelie bins in the past three months, and a third of those had been injured by it; a third of older people had had a similar experience (and presumably the difference is because a number of older people were reluctant to leave the house at all).     

Next steps

Having collated the information, Slade and Edwards are now keen to publicise it as far as possible. “We’re producing an interactive survey tool so that people can select their areas of interest in this research. Then in the New Year we’ll be hosting a series of events across the UK to promote the research so that people can start using it. Rather than us telling people what the solution is, we can put the information in their hands,” says Slade.

Key findings

This survey covered blind and partially sighted people with widely varying experiences and views. However, across the population 14 key findings stood out:

  1. People’s residual sight is unstable, often changing over a long period of time.
  2. Blind and partially sighted people have a lower feeling of wellbeing compared to the rest of the population.
  3. Most people do not receive any emotional support in relation to their sight loss.
  4. Only a small proportion receive key elements of practical support.
  5. Most people rely on some form on care, which is often informal and unpaid.
  6. The proportion of people in employment has decreased.
  7. Blind and partially sighted people of working age are struggling financially.
  8. Travel and transport remains a major issue, especially because of obstacles on the                     pavement.
  9. People feel cut off from the people and things around them.
  10. Many people do not have much choice about how they spend their free time.
  11. Access to key information is an ongoing problem.
  12. There is generational divide in the use of technology.
  13. Public awareness and attitudes towards sight loss is poor.
  14. Sight loss is the biggest barrier that people face.

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