- Post date:
- Tuesday, 9 January 2018
Last year, the University of Warwick bestowed Fred and Etta Reid a joint honorary degree for their services to the blind and partially sighted community.
The couple received the award, an accolade Nobel Prize winners and former Secretary-Generals of the United Nations have also won, in recognition for helping to establish the Kenilworth Readers Service in 1970. Since then, the couple have continued to run the life-changing service.
Fred and Etta spoke to Connect about their successful careers, their family life and their reaction to winning the accolade.
Fred, a blind activist since the age of 14 said, “We met at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh. Sitting beside me in my first Latin lesson was this very attractive young lady and I thought to myself, ‘Oh she’s not bad’."
Etta, had been born with sight, but suffered burns to her face and eyes in a road accident, leaving her with no vision. Fred was also sighted as a child, but lost his sight at the age of 14 following a double retinal detachment.
“I started pursuing Etta and she gave me the brush-off several times, but gradually we established a relationship, much against the authorities’ desires at the time," Fred said.
After leaving school, Etta went to London to study physiotherapy and Fred went to Oxford to study for a PhD and it was there that they married and lived.
Working and studying
“Quite a lot of people did physiotherapy, whether they were totally blind or partially sighted and all the books that we needed were in braille,” Etta said. “Luckily, I managed to get my first job at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford which was brilliant.” Thanks to this positive experience, Etta went on to work as an NHS physio for over 30 years.
For Fred, studying was not as easy as it had been for Etta as braille was not available for much of what Fred needed to read.
To help him study, Fred gathered willing students who were happy to read to him. After he finished his studies, the couple moved from Oxford and had a short stay working in London, before settling in Kenilworth, Warwickshire.
Fred started working at the University of Warwick as a history lecturer and had to once again gather a group of volunteer readers.
“It always struck me that it should not be as difficult as that,” Fred said. “I was very aware that there were lots of other blind people who were getting no help at all. We knew an elderly blind lady in Kenilworth who had to ask the butcher to read her mail to her. Her letters would lay on the table for days, not being read.”
Setting up the Kenilworth Readers Service
“One day my doorbell rang and a man said, ‘My name’s Ted Herbert, I’m the Head of Careers Advice at Coventry City Council. I have got a young unemployed lad who really needs to do some voluntary activity as a bridge into employment, and I was wondering if he could read for you?’”
The reality was, by then, Fred did not need any more readers, but other blind and partially sighted people in Kenilworth never had offers to read to them.
“We sat and talked about it for a while and we developed a model of how a reading service might work, and off he went and within weeks he said, ‘Right, I’ve got it set up’. That was the start of the Kenilworth Readers Service,” Fred explained.
“It’s just marvellous. A volunteer reader goes into people’s homes and they’ll read whatever the person wants reading,” Etta said.
When the couple’s three children were old enough to be read stories, Etta created her own way of reading to them. “The children’s first little books were not in braille, and I thought ‘Well, now that we’ve started this Readers Service, I could ask the readers to come in, read what was on each page and I could put some braille at the top of each page,’” she said.
“I didn’t do every word because I already knew the stories, Goldilocks and all those. I tried to remember the proper words that were on the page, for the sake of the children. So we went on with that system for quite a long time.”
Being honoured by the University
Every year, the University of Warwick gives honorary degrees to individuals of high intellectual or cultural distinction and to those who have served their community. Receivers of the award include Nelson Mandela and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor Rowan Williams.
Last summer, Fred and Etta joined the university’s honorary degree alumni at a prestigious ceremony.
“We were totally gobsmacked when the University said it would like to award us a joint honorary degree,” Fred explained. “We turned up in our gowns and our caps and we both made little speeches of thanks before being given the award.”
They were allowed to invite six family members to be at the graduation. “We got a full three course lunch and you’d have thought our son had never had a decent meal in his life before,” Etta recalled, laughing.
Both Fred and Etta did not think they would be recognised in this way for setting up the Kenilworth Readers Service.
“I would never have dreamt in my wildest dreams that I’d ever get an honorary degree from my old university," Fred said.
"I’ve never wanted to have a knighthood or a CBE or anything like that. I don’t believe in these kinds of honours, but the respect and recognition by your peers is worth everything. It’s just wonderful and I feel very humble.”
Helen May, Community Partnerships Officer at the University of Warwick, said: “The award is to recognise Fred and Etta's amazing contributions in their respective fields and for their incredible work helping to improve the lives of local blind people with the Kenilworth Readers Service."
Anyone living in and around Kenilworth can request a reader by contacting Sue Ling at [email protected].
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