Young Scots with sight loss have their say on council elections
With the Scottish local authority elections taking place today, one seldom heard from group of voters are voicing their hopes for the future
For young people who are blind or partially sighted, the role councils can play in levelling the playing field is crucial. Accessible education, transport, streets, information and leisure facilities - all council functions - can let them take part in a society that is equal and inclusive. Without it, they might face a lifetime stranded at its margins.
"People don't usually think of a young person having sight loss," says James Adams, director of the national charity RNIB Scotland. "But almost 5,000 living in Scotland do, and they are going on to be part of a fast-paced world that places ever more importance on qualifications, flexibility and mobility. So it's essential that local authorities step up to help ensure they can reach their full potential."
With most children with sight loss now attending mainstream schools, education is something they all feel strongly about, especially specialist support in the classroom.
"My experience in school wasn't great," recalls Stephen Asher from Edinburgh. "I went through a lot of bullying because of my sight. And whenever I needed classroom material enlarged it would always make me feel I was a nuisance or a problem."
Now 24, Stephen has hypermetropic myopia ("The best way I describe my eyesight is if you have a camera that goes out of focus and is blurry," he says). "Having a specialist teaching assistant made all the difference. Just having someone there to talk to and for support if it ever got too much, or if there was something I was frustrated about."
After education, employer misperceptions can be another obstacle.
Eilidh Morrison (20) from Aberdeen has retinitis pigmentosa and ocular molar apraxia. She is urging employers to take the time to get to know the person and what they can do.
"Don't underestimate us," she insists. Eilidh taught herself braille at school when she was also doing her Highers. "Taking that step back and getting to know someone as a person and what they are capable of outweighs the things they may find difficult. There are always solutions to problems and ways around things. There are people with sight loss working as teachers, scientists, civil servants, programmers. Giving people a chance is the best way to make us feel you're accepting us."
Abdul Eneser (19), a law student at the University of Strathclyde, agrees. "Misconceptions are deeply rooted," he says. "However, we come with different skills, because we've always had to think how to do things differently. We're always thinking outside of the box."
Sport and leisure facilities can also seem unwelcoming. Again, greater staff awareness can make a huge difference.
"For me, there's nothing more anxiety-inducing than going into a new place and having to find who to talk to and where I need to go," says Neil Atkinson (23) from Livingston, who was diagnosed with the condition Stargardt’s macula dystrophy at the age of eight.
"Everyone with a visual impairment I've come across knows how to ask questions and how to explain the things they need for support - as long as the person who's receiving this information is approachable and understanding. It can make just one or two people feel a million times better."
All four hope other young people with sight loss will use their vote on Thursday. Eilidh, herself a Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, urges council candidates to engage with RNIB Scotland's election manifesto.
"Our local authorities are key to helping blind and partially sighted people live as independently and inclusively as possible. We can play a full role in society with just that little bit of extra support and understanding."