What VICTA has meant to me
For me, VICTA has been a fantastic way to build up a social group of other young, like-minded visually impaired people: a group of people who can learn from each other in a number of different ways. This learning might be anything, what sports and leisure activities are out there, how people go to the cinema, how people read, how people go out to a club and so on. For me, this question of how was really important to answer.
When I was 19, due to a rare genetic condition called Lebers Hereditary Optic Neuropathy I lost the vast majority of my sight. This meant I went from being fully sighted to having a very low contrast across my full field of vision. When I was initially told I could go blind, it did take me back. I remember the specialists coming into the ward I was staying on, wrapping the curtain around my bed and breaking the news to me. I did not really react at first, the main reaction came when my friends and family left at the end of the visiting period. It was a very emotional moment. In my very personal experience of sight loss, you don’t know how you will react to something like this until it actually happens to you. You might think it will be scary, sad and so on, but you can’t really know how it will be until it happens.
For me, the same evening I got a bit emotional about my sight loss, I also came around to the idea that it was not the end of the world. I realised there were still many things to live for, friends, family, a nice day and so on. I was also sure I would still be able to do the things I enjoyed doing, I was not sure how I was going to do them, but I had a feeling I was going to be able to. It is very strange how life affirming sight loss was for me, I was never particularly the most positive or optimistic person, so I really do not know where this came from.
Anyway, I was now in a position to go forward and find out how to do things. I was 19, had very conveniently just finished my A-level exams with enough sight to be able to complete them and had the perfect opportunity to learn how to live with a visual impairment. If anything, in a very bizarre way of looking at things, if I knew my sight loss was going to happen, I could not have picked a better time for it to happen. I like to think of the following year as a gap year in which I learnt to be blind. I like to think it is something I mastered in a year. While most people go travelling, I had the fun of getting used to living with a visual impairment. One thing was for sure, I saved a lot of money on plane tickets.
In the subsequent year I learnt how to use a screen reader and how to touch type, learnt to use the long white cane, investigated the idea of getting a Guide Dog and decided it was not for me, learnt grade 1 braille, got a tandem bike and much more from the local charity for the blind in Cambridge, Cam Sight, the Cambridgeshire County Council’s Sensory Services. With these skills, I then decided that the best way to hone them would be to go to university a year after losing much of my sight. I have written thoroughly about this experience in a blog I wrote for the Through Scarlett’s Eyes website. Basically, it was a tough experience, but in many ways, I got everything out of the experience that I wanted to. I did hone those skills I learnt in my baby steps into the blind world gap year. I learnt that often you need to take ownership of your own accessibility needs, because although there may be systems in place to make things accessible, the result often would not be accessible and in order to meet deadlines you would need to take things into your own hands. I learnt so much while at university. I graduated from university with a 2-1 four years after losing the majority of my sight. This is still one of the things that I am most proud of.
In fact, one of the most difficult things about university was the socialising. This was one of the first times I had an opportunity to socialise with people roughly the same age as me while not being able to see their faces. This was a very strange experience and I initially found it very difficult to break the ice. I had a member of staff from study support who would guide me around and take notes in my lectures and seminars. She was fantastic at her job and I found it easy to talk to her, but found it very hard to talk to my course mates, socialise with them. Perhaps it was partly because I was not living in halls. Instead I was living at home, having made the decision to go to university close to home. I thought it was hard enough having to learn how to learn with a visual impairment, let alone having to learn a whole new city.
However, I feel the main reason I found it hard to socialise with people is because I found it difficult talking to people without being able to see their faces and they probably found it difficult to approach me, probably fearing how to physically approach me, what to say and so on. Some of these people may have never come across a blind person before; I never really had until I lost most of my sight. Some of the interactions were shocking; one person asked me what sort of music I like, whether I like artists such as Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder. To this day, I do not know whether this was meant to be insulting, malicious, or he was completely unaware of what he was saying. There was also someone who I knew at sixth form college, we were in some of the same classes and I only realised she was on my course about 18 months into the course when we were on a trip to Paris.
Eventually I got speaking to one of my course mates and I was invited out to an end of class party. After one or two many wines, inhibitions were lowered and friendships were made. We were not paralytic but we were in a social setting, having a good time and it certainly broke the ice. It broke the ice so much so that later on that evening after we moved onto a pub, one of my new friends decided it would be a good idea to pick up my hand and place it on his girlfriend’s breast. I was instantly shocked and removed my hand. The rest of the group thankfully thought this was poor form too and I am pleased to say it did not go down well with anyone. To this day, I do not know why he did that. Perhaps he thought I was missing out on some visual cue about women, or maybe he was quite a sexually liberal fellow and was trying his luck. Perhaps there was some kind of strange thing going on in his head. Who knows? Anyway, I kept in touch with this group throughout the rest of my time at university, but always found the academic side of far easier and far more rewarding.
While I was at university, at around the time of my 21st birthday, about two years into living with a visual impairment, I decided to immerse myself in the blind world a little more by taking part in visually impaired sport. I was never particularly great when I could see, so I thought that I could not be any worse now my sight has gone all screwy. Initially, I wanted to give blind football a go, so I went to this Cambridge City Council disability sport taster and gave blind football a go. It was just myself at the taster and despite trying to get the right people together, nothing really happened on the blind football front.
However, off the back of this drive to get a blind football team set up in Cambridge, a few goalball taster sessions were put on in the city. On the 13th January 2012, I took part in my first goalball training session in a grotty school dining hall and little did I know that the sport and that particular club were going to go on to become such a huge part of my life which continues to this day. The first year was a huge struggle to recruit players or to get funding once the initial city council funding went. However, the core of initial players kept the club going and we persisted until eventually, at a post-Paralympic training session, three new players turned up and shortly afterwards we got funding that secured the club’s long-term future.
This was a fantastic moment in the club’s history. From this point, the club has not looked back and the Cambridge Dons Goalball Club has gone from strength to strength. At this point in time, we are one of the biggest goalball clubs in the country. We have youth, novice and intermediate teams and have GB players involved with the running of the club and the coaching of the training sessions. We had an elite team finish second in the league and second in the National Cup Competition in the same season.
Personally, after only three tournaments I was invited to join the GB development squad and began training with the GB team. In only my second season of goalball, my first full season, I was playing at the top level of the game. This was beyond my wildest dreams. I had never really played team sports and was learning so much through my experiences, the nuances and importance of teamwork, the psychology behind it and so on. This was a level I unfortunately could not keep up and after nine months, I stepped down from GB training and continued playing at elite level domestically until last season when Cambridge stopped having an elite level team. I am now the Chair, coach and player at the Cambridge Dons Goalball Club and I love the club for a number of different reasons.
For the most part, the reason I love the club and the sport is for the social connections it has given me. I have made many of my closest friends through playing goalball and without goalball I would not know anything about an organisation called VICTA. It was through goalball that I found out about VICTA and was told to apply to their activities.
Through goalball and VICTA my social life exploded. And as I said at the beginning, you learn so much through having friends and just doing very normal things with them. Although professionals and professional organisations have helped me adjust to living with a visual impairment, the amount of invaluable information my friends from goalball and VICTA have shared with me is huge and should not go understated. I believe the growth in my confidence and capabilities as a blind person comes from my involvement with these two great organisations.
Just by seeing how visually impaired people do things on a day-to-day basis you can learn how to do things in a very normal environment. You can laugh at each other as you do stupid, clumsy things. You can create havoc and dance wildly in a club together. You can climb mountains together. Travel the world together. Go to the cinema together. Go shopping together. Go for a meal together. I have personally learnt so much by doing some amazing things and some very normal, fun things with friends I have made through VICTA. For this, I will always be thankful towards an organisation such as VICTA.