Young people with sight loss in Scotland will get a chance to make their voices heard
What's it like to be a young person who's blind or partially sighted in today's Scotland? To strive to keep up in the classroom alongside your sighted peers? To try to be part of the youth's highly visual world of social media and computer games?
An award-winning Scottish youth forum, relaunching itself today, is poised to give them a voice.
Haggeye first began in 2007 as part of the national sight loss charity RNIB Scotland, with three-year funding from the Big Lottery. Since its launch, young people from all over the country have met to socialise and campaign on issues such as accessible transport and the need for more educational material in formats such as braille and audio.
But these activities were suspended during the covid lockdown period. Now, as restrictions ease, RNIB Scotland hopes the forum will allow the same voice for more young people with sight loss, aged 16 to 27, who often feel isolated and lack confidence and self-esteem.
"Haggeye empowers its members to speak out about what it's like to be young and have sight loss in today's society," explains Rachael McMurchy of RNIB Scotland, "and also to have a say in shaping public policies that affect them.
"The last year or two has been more challenging than ever for young people who are blind or partially sighted. We want to ensure they still have that platform to talk and campaign about what matters most to them, to build up their skills, socialise with others, and increase their self-confidence."
Kerry Burke (17) from East Kilbride agrees. "Growing up in primary and secondary schools with fully sighted peers really affected me socially," she says. "It was a huge blow to my confidence when everyone else in the room had no problem doing all the tasks while I sat there struggling."
Kerry has albinism, with nystagmus and photophobia as secondary conditions. "My sight loss means that I lack detail, have extreme sensitivity to bright lights and glares and need additional time to process visual information. My vision may also become blurry at times, and I have reduced depth perception."
Now in her senior year at high school and as a prefect, she can reflect back on the difficulties she has experienced. "I think a surprising thing is how differently you address your disability in the class with teachers, and outside with friends," she says, "Discovering how to feel comfortable in asking for what you need vision-wise, while also being sociable is a delicate balance.
"As a minority, it's easy for our needs to be overlooked. Haggeye creates a platform where our voices can be heard as a whole community. I hope we will be able to grow as a group of people from around Scotland who are passionate about campaigning for their rights and can make those changes that help us in our day-to-day lives."
Eilidh Morrison (20) from Aberdeen has experienced much the same.
"At school, from Primary 1 to 3, I didn’t really have friends," she says. "You don’t expect five-year-olds to have friends immediately. In Primary 4, I moved to a school with a visual impairment unit and had a good experience there. There were other young people who I could talk and relate to."
Eilidh has the sight loss conditions Retinitis Pigmentosa and Ocular Molar Apraxia. "I have tunnel vision and can only see three per cent in the direct centre of my eye," she explains. "I also can't scan left to right, so reading and writing in a line is challenging for me.
"I found exams quite hard. On one occasion I was left sitting for the first 30 minutes of the exam without the equipment I needed, which was very stressful. When I was in my second year, my teacher mentioned Haggeye to me because I showed a passion for wanting to change things. She said I could meet other people who felt the same way.
"I think a forum for young people with sight loss is important because a lot of those who are blind and partially sighted might not know others with sight loss. Haggeye allows people to come together and find out they aren't alone. Its members make friends, share their passions and can talk about their experiences."