Expert series blog - Reflections on 20 years in the sight loss sector

9 May 2014

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Stephen Remington, who retired as Chief Executive of Action for Blind People in April this year, reflects on his 20 years of working in the sector

'I have been asked to reflect on my years working in our sector, from 1994 to 2014. That is a long time and the reflections could fill a book, perhaps they will, but for now I am just going to highlight three areas.

First has been the welcome shift towards promoting empowerment and independence for blind and partially sighted people. No longer do we see our roles as being to do things for people but rather to help people find the tool kit, the tool kit they want, that will give them the best possible chance of meeting their needs and achieving their aspirations. Each person's individuality is respected; it is no longer a question of fitting visually impaired people into the boxes designed by our organisations for our convenience. Increasingly, our work is tailored to specific need.

This has rightly gone further. Through Membership and other formal means blind and partially sighted people have more ability to influence our organisations, joining Boards, co-producing, designing our work jointly with us, taking power. As a currently sighted person I hope there will always be a place for people with sight to contribute to the cause but the trend to more governance, employment and volunteering by blind and partially sighted people in our organisations is excellent.

RNIB Group has adopted a new strategic priority - Being There. Given that we can never be everywhere for everyone, our resources and support should be targeted to where they can achieve most impact. It is obvious that the earlier our offering can be available to people the more impact it will have.

National, regional and local organisations already ensure that there is information and support in a large number of UK eye clinics, for so many people the point of diagnosis or poor prognosis. But many of these are under threat from funding cuts and there are still a large number with no such cover at all. It must be the highest priority to maintain cover where we have it and to secure it where we do not.

We must be aware, though, that this early intervention will raise expectation about what will be available later. What I call "downstream" services are already only patchily available around the UK. If we shift resources to being there as early as possible we may be able to provide even less than now of the important services that people will still need later.

Also reflect that if the certification/registration system worked properly and social services were able to pick up their responsibilities promptly there would be less, or no, need for us to be there at that earliest stage in the journey. In my view it is therefore imperative that third sector organisations provide support in NHS settings only where the service is sustainably funded by others. This early intervention saves the state money and state agencies should find the modest investment. Our role can be to provide trained and networked people but our voluntary income should be used to campaign for this support to be available everywhere at public expense.

Working for better partnerships has always been on my agenda. I am delighted that partnership is a declared change priority in the RNIB Group strategy to 2019. This will offer so much opportunity to reach more people with greater impact and to build a better sector.

In around 2000, a few of us pulled together three different cooperative strands to create VISION 2020 UK. This would provide the national entity of a global movement, driven by the World Health Organisation. After Australia we were the second such national entity to be created. It would be a framework in which everyone concerned with prevention of sight loss and support for its impact could meet, talk and above all act together.

Vision 2020 UK recognised the need for a national agenda on sight loss and was enthusiastic when one of its members, RNIB, proposed putting resources into developing what became the UK Vision Strategy. As almost everyone knows, RNIB's leadership of and financial support (among other contributors) for the UK Vision strategy has been essential to its creation and continuing success.

There are still a few barriers to partnership. These are well known to those with the power to remove them and I do not intend to set them out here. I have always believed that third sector leaders have a duty to place collaboration ahead of competition and I look forward to hearing of ever more successful partnerships ahead.

I have been inspired throughout by the dedication of past and present Action colleagues in every part of our organisation. I have been constantly re-energised by the needs and demands, the plight and the potential of visually impaired people in every walk of life. I have been thrilled by our achievements and cowed by how much is still to do. It has been an exceptional privilege to be part of the great Action team, the RNIB Group and the greater sector and I thank everyone who has supported me throughout my working years in this field.'

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