Expert series blog: Does losing your sight mean losing your voice?

20 June 2014

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Rebecca Sheehy, Older People's Impact Team Manager at RNIB, shares the work of a project giving older blind and partially sighted people a voice in civic society.

An internal study undertaken by the European Blind Union of Sight Loss Organisations across Europe found a lack of older people with acquired sight loss on the boards of these organisations. This finding and other evidence of the isolation of older people with sight loss, inspired a European project that sought to support older blind and partially sighted people become more civically engaged and as a consequence stay heard. 

The project, called Visal, funded by the European Commission Lifelong Learning Programme, is trying to address this by supporting people through a seven week programme of sessions that support them to look at their spheres of influence and their personal impact. Participants look first at their own personal network - Who is in it? How can it be widened? - Before looking further outward to how to influence service providers and then finally decision makers. This is happening in the UK, Austria, Slovakia and Croatia.

The project is gathering interest and has been selected as one of 15 good practice interventions in the social sector by the EU-project IROHLA (Intervention Research On Health Literacy among Ageing population). 

In the UK we have undertaken four programmes mainly based in sheltered housing environments. The project has identified how isolated people can feel even in these supported environments.  Outcomes have included personal revelations, in that it has given people confidence to think differently, to go out for that fish and chip supper rather than have it brought in. Participants have identified things they want to change in the places they live - it inspired a petition to the local ring and ride bus scheme which was under threat of cuts.  A video link to the group in Bratislava gave participants a sense of an even wider community that they belong to, not just the sheltered housing scheme or their local city but to that of older people in Europe.

As part of the project participants have formed a working group, whose ages range from 73 to 93, and who are organising a conference about this project and other topics. They have designed the agenda, identified and invited speakers, chosen caterers and will be speaking. They've called the conference "Life is on the other side of the door". We also aim to bring a participant to the international conference being held in Bratislava in October to share their experiences.

Over the seven weeks a group emerges that supports and encourages each other. Each participant adds their own content to the programme that enriches it and improves its impact. What is also evident from listening to their experiences is that in order for people to meet each other and build relationships, they need opportunities to do so and a reason to do so. Just living in the same building and meeting occasionally through functions isn't enough. Introductory programmes like this that focus on developing skills and friendships have a real role to play in allowing people to connect to their communities, and stay heard.

Regarding the conference: I'd invite you to come but I'm not on the working group so I'm not in a position to ask. However if you are interested in the conference above, the international conference in Bratislava,  the training we are going to deliver on the programme in September or the toolkit that has been designed by Age UK, Dutch Visio and RNIB please get in touch with me or Julia Barrand by emailing [email protected].

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