Here are the details of the amazing 12 shortlisted individuals and organisations in the RNIB See Differently Awards - Coronavirus Heroes.
Anne Wilkins is a soprano with sight loss from Bridgend. She used her singing talent to help lift the spirits of her neighbours, as well as strangers far and wide, during the pandemic. In May, during a "clap for the NHS", Anne sang a mesmerising rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". She was accompanied by her great friend Sian Davies on keyboard and her neighbour West End actor Alyn Hawke filmed her recital and shared it online. According to Anne: “We posted it and it had 62,000 views, I couldn’t believe it!” Since then, the views have rocketed, with Anne admitting that she’s “stopped counting”. "My neighbours all said how much they enjoyed the singing and it brought them all together and after the first time I sang, they asked for more." Alongside singing, Anne volunteers as an RNIB campaigner and braille teacher. Having been born with Retinopathy of Prematurity, she hopes the global coverage of her singing will help blind and partially sighted musicians get a “fair crack of the whip” in the arts.
Carl Galloway, 40, is a former steel worker from Wolverhampton, who has been nominated for his amazing work creating PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) using a 3D printer. Carl has always been driven by a deep-seated desire to look after others, yet, when he lost his sight through Wernicke Encephalopathy six years ago, he initially feared that it might end his ability to help those in need. When the care industry was struck by the coronavirus pandemic, Carl was determined to help however he could. Using 3D printers and voice recognition software, he designed and produced PPE from his own home, donating it to hospitals and medical personnel. As demand grew, so did supply. Carl “spent 14 weeks isolated in a two-bedroom bungalow, surrounded by printers”, manufacturing lightweight butterfly clips for face masks, creating safe, practical PPE for those who needed it most. When Carl’s physiotherapists alerted him to the positive national press his 3D-printed butterfly clips had garnered, he was, he proudly relates, “amazed”. After all, as he tells us: “If you can make others happy, that’s all that counts."
Lizzie has Glaucoma and is partially sighted. This year she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, but this has not stopped her raising large amounts of money for charity. In 2019, Lizzie signed up to the London Marathon for RNIB. She was training and fundraising up until the end of January 2020, when she had to defer her place due to her cancer diagnosis. Despite the pandemic, Lizzie started going on her treadmill at home in March, just walking a little bit at first and focusing on getting stronger. Then at the end of April, she took on the 2.6 challenge. Her achievement was remarkable - she completed her 26.2 miles between her fourth and fifth chemo cycles. Over the last two years Lizzie has raised over £24,000 for RNIB, Macmillan and Guide Dogs. Finding it hard at first to go running as a partially sighted person, she felt determined to help other visually impaired people participate in sport. Lizzie feels touched to have been nominated. "I’m humbled by the fact that somebody has nominated me for this award. I feel emotional about it because it’s just really taken my breath away, I’m really honoured."
During lockdown Ellie, Lexy and Theo, aged 10, 17 and 13, respectively, wanted to help bring other young people with vision impairment together. The trio, who are all blind since birth, created The Tactile Times, a free braille newspaper to combat the isolation that many blind and partially sighted children felt during lockdown. The trio also built a related website, initiated a Whatsapp group, and sent out weekly events updates to their subscribers. The newspaper, which is "by young braillists for young braillists," is available both online and in print. It contains relevant news, events and entertainment, as well as contributions from other young people. The paper helps young braillists to find interesting things to learn and helps them to stay connected and motivated. The wider VI community has been incredibly supportive too. For example, The Braillists Foundation has contacted the team to say they would like to help grow and expand the readership. When asked how he would feel if the team won Theo told us: “I would be proud of all that we've accomplished together, and I would be happy that this would help to get more readers and contributors for the newspaper."
When alerted to the fact that a solely visual system for managing customer numbers in store was not accessible for people with sight loss, Aldi UK responded by updating its traffic light system to add audio prompts. Britain’s fifth largest supermarket readily took up this challenge at the height of lockdown and collaborated with RNIB to update the system with a series of beeps to let blind and partially sighted customers know when they can safely enter stores. Aldi UK’s actions ensured that people with sight loss can adhere to vitally important social distancing rules and shop confidently. This major retailer has demonstrated a commitment to inclusivity for blind and partially sighted people and continues to recognise and respond to the challenges people with sight loss face during the pandemic.
At the beginning of lockdown, Amazon recognised that staying connected could make a difference to people’s lives. Technology is a vital tool that allows blind and partially sighted people to feel less isolated and maintain their independence. This has never been more important than during the pandemic, and understanding this, Amazon donated 1,000 Fire tablets to be distributed throughout the sight loss community. RNIB led the distribution and worked together with Glaucoma UK, Macular Society, Guide Dogs, Scottish War Blinded and Visionary to make sure the tablets went to the people who needed them the most. With built-in accessibility features, the tablets have helped people living with sight loss keep in touch with friends and family, as well as access a variety of information and entertainment resources and tools. Amazon has shown its commitment to supporting blind and partially sighted people with inclusive design at such a crucial time.
The National Theatre of Scotland recognised just how important it was to provide access to the arts and culture to isolated audiences across Scotland and beyond. It developed "Scenes for Survival" - a programme of digital performances exploring personal journeys of lockdown life, created with accessibility as a priority. The shows were made available to audiences, for free, throughout the summer months. The programme has garnered more than 16 million views across all platforms to date. Audio described versions of shows were available to audiences on its YouTube channel and website. All Scenes for Survival videos are also subtitled, while the series is being regularly updated on its website with individual British Sight Language (BSL) introductions to performances. With a falling number of theatres offering audio described performances, and in a difficult time for the arts, audio description and other accessibility options impressively remain an ongoing priority for the National Theatre of Scotland’s work. The Scenes for Survival programme was created in association with BBC Scotland, Screen Scotland, BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine project and Scotland’s leading theatre venues and companies, with support from Hopscotch Films.
Building on its commitment to accessibility, Ulster Bank wanted to ensure the needs of their blind and partially sighted customers were met throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Recognising the increased challenges of lockdown, it was the first bank to successfully implement RNIB’s best practice guidance on social distancing and accessible information for their blind and partially sighted customers. Its accessibility features include a mobile app with voice-over and talk back features; cheque books offered in large print, audio card readers, and communications available in audio, braille, or large print, depending on the customer’s needs. As the pandemic progressed, it educated branch staff using the best practice guidance and then excelled further by recording a dedicated video to refresh staff knowledge about the various accessibility features already in place within the bank. Ulster Bank demonstrated a clear understanding of how a blind and partially sighted customer may need to interact with its services and implemented these features to allow an inclusive customer experience for everyone. It has illustrated principles of inclusion and continual improvement when needed the most.
Although we can’t single out any one person at the station, the entire team at BBC Radio Lancashire has been incredibly supportive of the sight loss community and their stories. They have covered everything from the efforts of a local fundraising volunteer, to the services RNIB was providing during lockdown, the importance of RNIB’s Bookshare, National Eye Health Week and the LEGO Braille Bricks project. Since January, stories about the experience of people living with sight loss have featured nearly once a month. This has not only helped to raise awareness of support services available, but also educated the public around the challenges blind and partially sighted people are facing.
Frances has consistently kept up to date with the sight loss sector’s work to help blind and partially sighted people stay safe during the pandemic and throughout the course of the year. She has used this information to highlight various services for people with sight loss, including the work of the Legal Rights Team at RNIB, which she mentioned in an exclusive investigation about the support that has been provided for customers to access the vital benefits they are due. Frances tirelessly worked this year to cover the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate impact on the country’s disability communities. Her exclusive investigation into disabled people going without food after being missed off the government’s coronavirus vulnerable list supported the RNIB’s campaign for visually impaired people to be included on the list. She is currently shielding but has reported from her home on a host of key issues facing disabled people in the pandemic, including social care cuts in lockdown, calling for guidance for shielders. She has also continued to talk about the challenges faced by blind and partially sighted people on Twitter. She has responded to tweets and created further awareness about developments with the government on accessibility, online shopping prioritisation, as well as RNIB’s World Upside Down campaign.
A journalist who has sight loss, Gus has a great understanding of the challenges blind and partially sighted people have faced in the past few months and has worked closely with RNIB to raise awareness of these issues to the wider public. In particular, he has worked with us to highlight the fact that coronavirus information has often not been provided in accessible formats, as well as the challenges social distancing has presented for people with sight loss. Gus’ ability to engage audiences on this issue was evidenced by his article on social distancing, becoming the most popular piece that he has written for Forbes (up to that point), particularly impressive due to its mass readership. We feel the level of engagement has led to increased awareness of the challenge of social distancing and would certainly have highlighted the topic to members of the public who had not been previously aware.
Hannah Miller from ITV Granada has covered the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on blind and partially sighted people in the UK multiple times this year. From covering issues with social distancing and safely obtaining food and vital products, she has also highlighted the work RNIB did working with government and retailers to prioritise online shopping. In a national press conference question, Hannah challenged the Government directly about the safety of a worker living with sight loss. She chased several departments about how social distancing guidelines are supposed to work for blind and partially sighted people, as well as repeatedly asking about access to food and online shopping slots. Hannah’s reporting has ensured that one of the biggest challenges faced by blind and partially sighted people in lockdown was highlighted at all levels, from public to parliament. Feedback from blind and partially sighted people who appeared in Hannah's reports showed how "sight loss aware" the team at ITV Granada is, and how deeply camera crews and producers understood the challenges faced by blind and partially sighted people during lockdown.