“We can turn this around and do what we want in life”

Post date: 
Thursday, 14 December 2017
Image shows Cat in her therapy uniform, massaging someone's feet

RNIB’s Kirsty James and Nicki Kelly speak to Cat Wilson in a recent Connect podcast, about the barriers to employment she faced after losing her sight and how she overcame them to retrain in a new field.

Catriona (Cat) Wilson, 48, is a self-employed complementary therapist, who lost her sight when she was 29. Cat has diabetic retinopathy, optic eye disease, cataracts and glaucoma. 

Nicki: So Cat, tell us your story…

Before I lost my sight, I was a hairdresser and had never met a blind person in my life. I didn’t know visually impaired people could go to work or college. So after I lost my sight, I assumed I would have to sit around for the rest of my life and just rely on other people to help me.

About two or three years later, a work coach at my local job centre told me about Manor House in Torquay, which was where people with sight loss could go to develop their skills to gain employment [Manor House closed in 2004]. I decided to give it a chance.

The night before my visit, I cried because I was so nervous. I had never been on a train on my own before and wasn’t very good with my cane. I thought that I couldn’t do it. But once I arrived, I ended up meeting a few other young visually impaired people and it made me realise that I wasn’t the only young person with sight loss.
 

I decided to go along for the assessment and ended up staying for the week. By the end, I didn’t want to go home! It opened my eyes, excuse the pun, about what visually impaired people could do.

Nicki: What did you learn while you were there and how did you get into complimentary therapy?

My assessment results showed that I should do something in administration or have an office-based job. However, I just didn’t think that was me and was slightly disappointed.

Then one of the mentoring staff mentioned a lady who had also been to Manor House. During her visit, she had decided that complementary therapy was what she wanted to do and went on to open up her own business. Something just clicked and I knew that it was also something I would love! I liked massaging people’s scalps when I was a hairdresser and I quite often massaged my friends too.

When I went home that day, I did some research and felt confident enough to apply for college to get my qualification. Throughout my studies, I went to Loughborough College, Truro College and Royal National College for the Blind (RNC).

Kirsty: How did you find being blind at college?

I was thrown it at the deep end when I went to college really as I hadn’t studied for years. It was also my first time away from home, which was quite daunting. I did have a lot of issues at Truro because they had never had a visually impaired person doing the course before. Fortunately I had a great learning assistant who was really encouraging. It was also when I got my first guide dog, so that helped a lot too.

Nicki: How did you go from doing your courses to getting employment? Did you face any barriers when you were applying and going to interviews?

It was quite difficult 11 years ago. Luckily everyone knows me where I live and a lot of my friends are beauty therapists, so I started off working at a local hotel just for a couple of hours a week.
 

But when I went for job interviews, I used to have a support worker come with me and she would be asked questions like, “How is she going to manage the stairs?”

I was a bit defensive in those days and said, “I can manage the stairs fine with my guide dog, thank you.” But now I think a lot of people are just scared, because they look at you and probably don’t know how it’s going to work.

For my current role, I approached somebody I’d known for years. She knew about my vision impairment and we spoke about what support I needed. Now I work in a salon with my own clients and I absolutely love my job.

Kirsty: How do you think that someone facing the same challenges can overcome them?
 

I think it’s just about educating people and demonstrating that you can do what you want to – even if you get knocked back.

Nicki: You’ve just got to keep pushing, haven’t you?

Yes, I have a couple of PAs that help me and I remember saying, “You are helping me, but I don’t want you to do things for me.” I think it’s also about educating your friends and family.

Even with clients, when they arrive I’ll mention, “I don’t know if my boss has told you that I’m visually impaired, but I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and I’m very capable”.
 

I do need help from time to time and I’m not afraid to say it, but when you first lose your sight you think, “No, I can do that on my own!” And that’s whether you can or not, but you eventually change your mind-set.

Kirsty: Work can also be more tiring with a visual impairment, can’t it?

I didn’t realise that until I was at RNC. I remember telling my head tutor (who was also visually impaired) that I was absolutely shattered. She said, “Cat, you have to concentrate a lot more just to get up from your chair and walk out of the door, compared to someone else that can see. So, as you’re taking on all this work, of course you’re going to be tired.”

Kirsty: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Complementary therapy has changed my life; it has helped me with all my illnesses and conditions, and has allowed me to help others. It has given me confidence and knowledge, and it isn’t just a job – it’s my passion.

Hopefully people going through similar things to what I went through will realise it’s just a negative situation and positive ones are out there. Be inspired to think, “Yes, we can turn this around and do what we want in life.”

This interview originally aired on RNIB Connect Radio.

Further information

  • Complementary therapy can be used in addition to conventional medical treatment, such as massage, reflexology and herbal medicine.                                                          
  • If you’re blind or partially sighted and worried that you will be unable to find work or stay in your current job, there is help and support available from RNIB, other voluntary organisations and the government.

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