The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is celebrating 150 years of work today.
Founded on 16th October 1868 by Thomas Rhodes Armitage, a physician who had lost his own sight, the charity was initially set up to improve the availability of literature for people with sight loss, but went on to include improving their education and employment prospects,
Today, over 170,000 people are living in Scotland with significant sight loss, and two million across the UK - a figure set to double by 2050, warns RNIB, mainly because of our ageing population and the increase in sight-threatening conditions such as diabetes.
While some of the barriers to equal participation in society for blind and partially sighted people have been broken down, the charity says, many still remain. Only one in four blind or partially sighted people of working age have a job. Four out of every 10 blind and partially sighted people are not able to make all the journeys that they want or need to make. Only 17 per cent of people experiencing sight loss are offered emotional support in response to their deteriorating vision.
Sandra Wilson, chair of RNIB Scotland, who lost her own sight at the age of four, said: “Since we began in 1868, RNIB has helped to vastly improve the lives and prospects of those who’ve lost some or all of their sight.”
In the Victorian era, when RNIB was launched, the lives of the blind were usually bleak, she went on. "Without a welfare system, those who couldn't work and had no families to support them had only the poorhouse to turn to. But life there was a very harsh and frugal one.
“What work was available was mainly limited to piano-tuning or selling matches. But new technology has helped people gain more independence. Today people with even severe sight loss work as broadcasters, school teachers and civil servants.”
Reading the very few books available in braille in 1868 was limited to those who’d been taught the raised dots system. Today, RNIB’s ‘talking books’ audio- library has 30,000 titles to lend out. “When our library service began in 1935, a single book was recorded on up to ten 12-inch long-playing records,” said Ms Wilson. “Today they can be sent on a memory-stick or just downloaded over the internet.
“But this largely happened because RNIB kept pushing for technology to accommodate the needs of people with sight loss.
“Our vision of the future is a world free of barriers for people with sight loss. Working with our partners in other charities, business and government, we want to make sure everyone can access the advice and support they need, that nobody feels alone in a world that includes and values us all. It’s an ambitious vision but one I’m confident we can achieve.
“RNIB has helped to build a kinder, more inclusive world for blind and partially sighted people. But there’s still more to do.”
To mark its anniversary, the charity has included a short video of its history, ‘150 years in 150 seconds’, and is sharing one story a day for 150 days on its website highlighting different experiences of sight loss from across the UK. It has also produced a light-hearted short film quoting visually impaired children, including Paul Abiri (12) and Lleland Paton (5), both from Edinburgh.