Belgium EVS November 2017

It’s definitely on its way to feeling like Christmas here. As well as the weather turning bitter, (I actually think it might rain more in Belgium than it does in Wales), the city is gearing up to the holidays in a big way. Jazzy and I have come to accept that the landscape of the city centre changes pretty much daily in the run up to Christmas, with new obstacles in the form of stalls and chalets appearing every day. The market will eventually span three market squares, more than living up to its reputation as the biggest Christmas market in Europe.

Apart from the Christmas market, Liege also holds a weekly market every Sunday on the river. You can find everything from fresh produce, to hand made clothes, to pets at La Bat. There’s a great atmosphere, even if it’s drizzling, and there’s a long-held tradition of grabbing a beer after doing your shopping, so what’s not to love?

What I also found out recently is the differences between Christmas traditions here compared with back home. Even though Santa still brings gifts for children on Christmas eve, much more importance is placed on Saint Nicholas. He also brings presents to children who have been good throughout the year on the night of the 5th of December and Saint Nicholas’s feast is celebrated on the 6th. In the run, up to Saint Nicholas’s eve, children leave their shoes by the door where they might find small gifts or sweets left inside during the night, and on the night of the 5th they generally leave some food out for Saint Nicholas and a carrot for his horse, However, any children who haven’t behaved during the last year could expect a visit from Saint Nicholas’s alter-ego, who only leaves Cole for naughty children and is sometimes called Whip father.

While the city is busy preparing for the festive season I’ve been settling into something of a routine at work. I mentioned in my previous blog that my main project for EVS is working for an international association for visually impaired people managing their communication. I’ve been able to sink my teeth into this in the last few weeks, writing content for their newsletter and social media about our recent events. I’ve also been pushed out of my comfort zone a little when I’ve been asked to take very active roles in events. For example, I was put in charge of ice-breakers for an intercultural, intergenerational training course we ran last week. It was much harder than I initially expected, finding activities suitable for the groups diverse needs, but I gave it a go and it wasn’t entirely awful.

I’ve also somewhat started my second project, which is working at a youth centre for refugees once a week. This has proved a little tricky initially because so many of the kids and young people are genuinely terrified of Jazzy. The multicultural nature of the youth clubs means that not everyone is aware of guide dogs and have very different views about dogs in general. Because of this, my first few weeks volunteering at the youth clubs have been mainly focused on getting them used to me and Jazzy and letting them get more comfortable with being around us. It’s challenging, but really rewarding when someone manages to overcome their fear.

I feel like my progress in French has stalled a little recently; I’ve missed some of my regular lessons because of work commitments and if I’m honest my enthusiasm has lessened as the lessons have gotten harder. Never the less it’s an essential part of living here so I soldier on and try not to cringe too much at my appalling conjugation.

I grew increasingly worried about Jazzy at the beginning of the month when she seemed to be more and more distracted and generally ineffective when working. I reached out to the local guide dogs school, who were amazing in meeting me and giving me lots of helpful pointers about Jaz. It’s easy for me to forget how sensitive she is sometimes because she’s generally so relaxed, especially when it comes to her sensitivity to my behaviour. The experience only reminded me again how important it is for me to be aware of my own feelings and behaviours, if for nothing else so that I can be mindful of how my state an affect Jazzy. I’m really glad to say that with a bit of reassurance and a lot of encouragement, she is back to her usual cheeky self-swaggering around town like top dog.

Unfortunately, my Italian housemate decided to leave the programme at the beginning of November; she was struggling to adjust to living away from home and wasn’t happy in the situation. It was a shame but not a surprise if I’m honest. Since then, myself and my remaining French flatmate have continued living together in companionable harmony. We aren’t close, but we live together very comfortably which I’m really grateful for.

Overall the last month has been a little more challenging as the honey-moon phase of excitement wares off. My boyfriend visited for a long weekend which was wonderful, but did make me feel a bit moor homesick afterwards. I’m also still really keen to improve my social network as much as I can. It’s a little tricky because of the language barrier, but I’m hopeful that as my French improves so will my social life.

I have also invested some time into finding some way to be active regularly. I visited a local horse-riding school which seemed promising at first, but unfortunately it seemed that the sight of me standing there with my white cane made the ‘blind’ word all too real and they didn’t want the responsibility of me riding at their school. It’s not like this kind of thing is exclusive to Belgium, but didn’t make it any more fun to experience. Thankfully I have a lead on another school that seem much more promising and that I’ll hopefully visit in the next couple of weeks, so keeping fingers crossed for now.

Later this week I’ll be returning to the UK for the first time since I moved to Belgium. I’m going home to attend the final development day of the Change100 programme I completed during the summer. I have to admit that I’m looking forward to being back in London again and specially to reuniting with my fellow Change100 interns and colleagues. I’m sure trying to get through Kings Cross at rush hour will soon burst my romanticised bubble though, no doubt of that. Other than heading home for a few days the next last few weeks of the year are set to be pretty busy as we hold two dinners in the dark, awareness raising events that involve diners trying to eat a three-course meal in complete darkness, and I’m also attending the European Day of Persons with Disabilities conference in Brussels. By far the most terrifying prospect of the next few weeks though is the fact that I somehow volunteered to make mince pies for my French class as part of our multicultural end of term Christmas dinner. Here’s hoping I don’t give everyone food poisoning in the process!

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Belgium EVS: October 2017

So, I moved to Belgium…

I still can’t really believe it. This morning I experienced a surreal moment when walking to work, chatting to a local I met on the bus, when I just wanted to laugh so much at how bizarre this all is! I’ve been here a month already and it still hasn’t sunk in yet.
I’m here for nine months taking part in the European Voluntary Service programme. It means that I get my accommodation for free and some pocket money for food and living costs, in exchange for volunteering for a set number of hours per week. In particular, I’m taking part in the EVS programme that is specifically adapted for visually impaired people, which basically involves having mobility and accessible French lessons included in my programme. In other words, it’s a dream come true!
I had a lot of questions before coming here that included everything from whether there was a convenient place to toilet Jazzy near my apartment, to whether my mental health would be able to cope with moving to a different country on my own where they speak a different language. The answer to both those questions is yes; I thankfully don’t have to walk a mile in the rain before she can have a wee, and so far, I’m feeling better than I expected.
It’s been an adjustment for sure. My one-to-one French lessons were initially incredibly difficult because neither I or my teacher were clear on the most effective and most accessible way of teaching me. Seeing as I managed a very impressive D in my French GCSE, I definitely needed a lot of teaching. Thankfully I think we’ve now found the perfect combination of recording vocabulary and using online exercises to practice grammar which means that my French is coming along slowly but surely. I’ve also started attending adult learning classes twice a week for French, which helps reinforce what I’m learning and is also a great way to meet people. My grasp of the language has now progressed enough that I can ask someone what number bus is approaching and ask the driver to let me know when we get to my stop; two very important questions!
I’m quietly confident in my mobility skills and Jazzy’s ability to pick up routes, so that at least wasn’t a huge concern before I got here. I needn’t have worried either because we’re picking it up really well, helped I think by the fact that we both seem to enjoy finding our way around new places. Jazzy is prone to making a few more blips than usual, but it’s not something I’m concerned about at the moment. I’m also hoping to make contact with the local guide dog centre soon which will hopefully be good for advice about Jazzy but also meeting new people.

In terms of my living situation, I’m sharing an apartment with two others adapted EVS volunteers, one from France and the other from Sicily. There is something of an age gap between us, both of them being twenty-nine, but I’m glad to say that we get on well and we live in pretty companionable harmony. It’s nice to have other people who are completely new to Belgium as well and it’s a real asset for me to have a native French speaker correcting my pronunciation. I still giggle when I think about our first night in the apartment; we were investigating what goodies the previous occupants had left behind, including ridiculous quantities of rice and pasta, when we found something like a year’s supply of sanitary towels and tampons. Exchanging the English, French and Italian names for feminine hygiene products was definitely a novel way of breaking the ice!

 

I’ve started one of two volunteering projects so far. I’m managing the communication for a charity that supports visually impaired people both locally and internationally. My tasks include writing content for their website, social media and newsletters, as well as supporting them with any awareness raising sessions or events. During my second week of work I was asked to observe an awareness raising session where my colleagues would explain a little about visual impairment, different mobility aids and sighted guiding. I wanted to contribute so I decided to prepare some information in French about owning a guide dog. Thankfully I presented the information clearly enough that everyone understood my meaning. It was definitely a good achievement!
One of my neighbours approached me soon after I arrived to ask if I’d be interested in holding English conversation sessions every week. I agreed, if somewhat nervously, because I’ll give anything a go once but I really have no teaching experience and have even gone so far as to promise that teaching is the one thing I’d never do in the past. Never the less I turned up last week after watching some ‘teaching English conversation’ YouTube tutorials hoping for the best, and proceeded to spend the hour explaining Frank Sinatra’s song ‘My Way’. It was surreal, bizarre and brilliant. It turns out that one member of the group really enjoys singing in English but often has no idea what he’s singing about, so for the first few sessions it seems we’ll be translating some of his favourite tunes.
Other highlights of my first month have included meeting other EVS volunteers placed all over Belgium during a national EVS training event, attending the annual lights festival in Liege that saw the city centre come to life with candles, lanterns and fairy lights, and of course sampling (too much) local beer, chocolate and cheese. It seems to be a vibrant place with events happening every week; last week I went with a neighbour to an autumn celebration at a local cultural centre. The city hall type building was decorated with an array of autumnal decorations and hosted activities including Tango dancing, aromatherapy and mindfulness that you could pick and choose as you wished. There is also a large fair happening in the town in the moment which is present until the end of November, when the largest Christmas market in Europe will take over.
My overall impression is that locals are extremely friendly and helpful, very happy to go out of their way to help if they can. I think this is reflected best by the fact that everyone around me available to support me are doing so as volunteers, including my French and mobility instructors who have practically seen more of me than their own families during the last few weeks. My neighbours are also extremely welcoming, as well as my colleagues and fellow students at the French lessons.
I’ve found that the times when I feel the most homesick or unhappy are when I’m cooped up in my room, bored. Admittedly this hasn’t happened much during this first busy month, but I’m making a conscious effort to push myself out of my comfort zone as much as possible to meet new people and get involved with lots of different things. I would like to find something active to do locally, whether that be going to the gym or joining a local group, and I would also like to do all the touristy stuff in my city. I’m also hoping to do some travelling while I’m here, making the most of the connections to neighbouring countries like France, Germany and the Netherlands, but it’s probably best I get to grips with where I live now first!
On the whole, this first month has been exciting, challenging and very rewarding. By the end of November, I hope to have progressed in French, I hope to have integrated into the local community a bit more by expanding my social network, and I hope to be more physically active. Oh, and visiting the local chocolate factory is top on the list too!

Change100 – Half Way Through!

Two years ago, I was having lunch with a friend in a small café in Voxel and practically turning green with envy. Why? Because she was telling me all about what it was like living and working in central London.
London has always been the dream. That and NYC are at the top of my bucket list of places I want to live in one day, so to be sitting across one of my friends who was living out that dream right then, I could think of nothing cooler. I remember spending the whole journey on my way to see her fantasising about the amazing stories she would tell me about all the places she had been, the people she had met and the things she had done. I don’t think she realised at the time how very inspired I was. So much so that I even wrote down the name of the internship programme that she’d gotten this opportunity through in my phone.

Fast-forward to last week when I met up with the same friend, again in central London, only this time I was the intern. After writing that note in my phone that day in Voxel, I applied for the Change100 Programme earlier this year and was accepted onto the scheme. This is how I came to be working in central London months after I graduated – a dream come true.

Change100

The Change100 Programme is an internship scheme for disabled students and graduates. Their aim is to change the employment landscape for students and graduates with disabilities or long-term health conditions, by offering them paid work experience tailored for their interests and needs. The scheme is run by Leonard Cheshire Disability, a UK charity supporting disabled people in the UK and around the world to fulfil their potential and live the lives they choose. The programme runs for a total of six months, including a three-month internship and three months afterwards when you will receive ongoing support and mentoring.

The application process is designed to give applicants as much experience as possible, while also giving the support and guidance needed for applicants with disabilities. You are required to submit an application, much like a job application, which if accepted will mean that you are invited to an assessment centre. At an assessment day, you are asked to give a short pre-prepared presentation, take part in a group problem solving activity and attend a formal interview. If you are successful at the assessment centre you are accepted onto the programme, which is when the Change100 team will proceed to try to find you the perfect work placement.
They try to match up your skills, interests and preferences with a bank of internship placements available that have already been submitted to them by employers all over the country. When they think they’ve found you the right fit, they offer the employers to chance to choose an applicant from the programme. This is when you are then told that you’ve been selected by an employer and are given the details of your internship. Its then up to you to negotiate with your employer things like start dates and any adjustments you might want to ask for before starting your placement. The Change100 team also present a disability awareness briefing to your employer, if you are happy for them to do so.
As part of the programme you are given a contact within the Change100 team which you can turn to for any support or advice you might need during your internship, and you’re also invited to attend peer development days once a month which include workshops on topics like managing your disability in the workplace. You are also assigned a mentor within your employer organisation who is there to be your point of contact within the workplace during your placement, as well as providing ongoing support after your placement has finished.

My experience

For the last few weeks, I have been interning at a charitable organisation based in central London working within their conference and programmes team as an assistant. My role is to support the team in organising and running their biggest event of the year, their annual three-day conference. I have been having the best time! My colleagues within the team and the wider organisation have been incredibly welcoming and respectful and I feel like I am getting really valuable experience, I could not have asked for a better placement.

I found the Change100 recruitment process largely positive, only encountering a couple of accessibility issues that the team were happy to work with me to resolve. It’s been such a valuable opportunity for me to practice interview skills and attending an assessment centre, as well as the actual experience of being in a workplace. I am glad I took the chance to push myself out of my comfort zone, completely relocating for the internship and joining an organisation that I knew almost nothing about before I started. I am also working in a field that I had no previous experience in, so that has been a learning curve and interesting as well. The whole programme has been challenging but massively rewarding so far and I am only half way through!

I have found the peer development days really beneficial in terms of receiving support during the internship, as well as getting the chance to meet the other interns on the programme. It just so happens that I found a fellow intern who is doing her placement within an organisation two buildings away from me, so we now meet up for lunch every week to catch up and chat through how our respective placements are going.
I am also benefiting a lot from the mentoring aspect of the programme. Change100 recommend your mentor be someone who is not a directly a member of your team, so that you can have a point of contact within the organisation but who is separate from your immediate day-to-day. Your mentor will also continue supporting you after you’ve finished your placement, doing things like providing career advice or contacts that might be useful for you to get where you want to be. I’m personally finding it really helpful having someone at work who I know I can turn to with questions, but who isn’t a part of my actual team, and I’m also learning a lot from my mentor about how to achieve my personal ambitions and goals when it comes to work.

I would absolutely recommend the Change100 Programme to any students and graduates with disabilities. We all know how difficult it is to find employment these days, without the added barrio of having a disability to content with as well. So any work experience you can get to demonstrate your skills is going to be hugely beneficial, because it will be something you can refer back to in future applications and interviews to demonstrate to prospective employers your capabilities and strengths. That’s what I’m hoping anyway!

I will be writing future posts on my experience applying for Access to Work, the government funded scheme intended to support disabled people in employment, and look out for a Dog Blog coming up all about Jazzy’s perspective getting to grips with our commute.

Change 100

I’ve been keeping this under my hat for a while now, but some exciting things are soon ahead for Jazzy and I and I’m excited to share them here.

AS you might know, I graduated from University with a 1st in English Literature in 2016. Since then I stayed in the city I studied in, hoping to find work. I would like to work in Communications, doing things like writing press releases, managing social media platforms etc. I’ve had some experience working in the Corporate Communications team of my University while I was studying, but unfortunately haven’t been able to find work in the sector since graduating.

The process of looking and applying for work as someone with a disability is a topic I’ll expand on in another post, but for now I’ll share the fantastic news that I’ve finally gotten an internship for the summer which will hopefully go a long way to helping me into full time employment.

I’ve gained this internship through the Change 100 Programme, a scheme run by Leonard Cheshire Disability aiming to help disabled students and graduates into work by offering internship opportunities and mentorship. It’s a relatively new programme that is gaining success every year, this year partnering with organisations to offer 140 internships to disabled students and graduates around the country. Find out more information about the Change 100 Programme via this link:

https://www.leonardcheshire.org/support-and-information/life-and-work/skills-development/employment-programmes/change100

Undertaking the internship means relocating for Jazzy and I as we’ll be working in London. We’ll be living just outside the capital and commuting in every day, working five days a week for three months. Inevitably it’ll be a big change for both of us and though it sounds a little daunting I’m excited and confident we’ll both take it in our stride.

We’ve already taken steps to ensuring a smooth transition, having mobility and orientation in London and escalator training for Jazzy. It’s important to take my guide dog into account whenever big changes like this are on the horizon. Thankfully Jazzy is an adaptable and confident dog; she is very quick to learn new routes and enjoys doing it so I don’t foresee any problems where she is concerned.

I’ve also had my first experience of applying to Access To Work; a government funded scheme intended to level the playing field for disabled people in work by providing accessibility equipment and support for a disabled person so that they need not depend on their employer for those adaptions. Access to Work has a somewhat mixed reputation and from my experience with them so far, I’m not sure that reputation is unfounded, though my dealings with them are currently ongoing so I’ll update on my experience with them in a later post.

For now, I think that’s as much as I can say at this point. I start my internship in a couple of weeks so I’ll be sure to keep my readers updated with our progress adapting to working in the big city. Until then, wish me luck!

Getting back in the saddle

My mum says that from the time I could walk and talk I showed a huge fascination with horses, so much so that everything from my favourite toys to the painted stencils on my bedroom walls were all horsey themed. To be honest, not much has changed now. I mean, my bedroom walls were painted over long ago, but I still have as much, if not more love for horses than I did then.

I started riding lessons when I was about seven. Some of my favourite memories of being a kid are of our Saturday mornings at the ranch. Mum and I used to ride at our local school. It wasn’t a specialist RDA school or anything, but back then I had significantly more vision than I do now, so not much was made of my visual impairment when I started riding because there wasn’t really any need to. 

Riding lessons continued pretty consistently while I was growing up, until our local ranch closed so the lessons came to a halt (excuse the pun). I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I’m sure there was maybe a three year gap until I started riding regularly again when I was thirteen.

This time we encountered a bit more trouble trying to find me a riding teacher. By then my vision was deteriorating so that I was severely sight impaired. We again approached a local teacher but I remember my dad having to argue my case pretty fervently for me to have lessons; the teacher in question was reluctant to have me at her school because of insurance and health and safety concerns. Thankfully we managed to persuade her to let me ride; I ended up having lessons regularly at that school for around four years and the teacher and I ended up getting on really well.

During that time, my teacher and I developed a number of tactics that enabled me to ride safely and independently, whilst also progressing my skills. I would count the horses strides so that I would know when to turn e.g. sixteen strides in trot along the length of the school before a right turn and ten strides along the with before another right turn and my teacher would stay central throughout and be constantly talking so that I could orientate myself by her voice. She encouraged me mostly to learn to interpret the horse’s movements for myself, so that I could tell by feel if I was walking straight etc. It did a lot for my balance and coordination, especially the dressage stunts involving riding over poles and very precise turns.

I’m really grateful to my parents for helping me pursue horse riding because it’s something that I not only love so much, but it also helped ground me when I was losing a lot of sight as a teenager. At a time when a lot of things were changing for me, when I suddenly couldn’t do a lot of things any more, horse riding was a constant that never changed. It was something active; something physical that took my mind off other things. It was also something I was good at and that I could take pride in at a time when my self-esteem was taking a bit of a beating.

There’s something about horses, being so powerful yet so gentle that really fascinates me. I can think of few things more peaceful than grooming a horse. At the same time, I can think of few things more exhilarating than sitting on a horses back as it canters at top speed. It’s thrilling and so freeing. I struggle to put it into words. 

I was lucky enough to own my own horse for a couple of years, but with me leaving home for University we sadly weren’t able to keep him for very long, and a negative experience with uni’s equestrian society meant that I hadn’t ridden a horse for around four years… until today!

Mum and I found a Groupon voucher for a 30-minute private lesson and 1 hour hack at Matchmoor Riding Centre, so we dug out our boots and hats and trotted off to Bolton excited and a little nervous. We didn’t need to be though, because as soon as we got in our saddles it all came flooding back and neither of us stopped smiling the whole time we were there. It really is like riding a bike, it all comes back to you straight away. It’s definitely rekindled my desire to take up riding regularly again as well, I didn’t realise how much I miss it until this afternoon. 

RDA

The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) is a UK charity bringing education, therapy and fun to the lives of disabled people. They hold local RDA groups all over the country that can be a great place to start if you’re interested in horse riding and you have a disability, but they also offer disability awareness training and specific teaching qualifications to riding schools as well, so even if there isn’t an RDA group near you there may be RDA trained teachers at nearby schools. The RDA’s slogan is ‘it’s what you can do that counts’ which I really like; it promotes an ethos that they focus on people’s abilities, rather than their disabilities. Check out their website via the link below:www.rda.org.uk

Cyprus with Seable and VICTA

I was recently lucky enough to spend the week in Cyprus on a trip organised by VICTA Children and Seable Holidays. Along with nine other visually impaired people and four sighted guides, I spent a week making the most of everything Cyprus has to offer; from sun bathing to pottery making we did it all!

The trip

Though it could appear daunting to go on holiday with a group of people you may never have even met before, I can say from personal experience that VICTA and Seable are so welcoming and friendly that the atmosphere of their trips are great from the get go. The ethos of VICTA trips is to encourage as much independence as possible, so while sighted volunteers are on hand to guide where needed, they also encourage us to help ourselves and each other as much as possible.

Upon arriving in sunny Cyprus after a stress free flight, we made our way to the hotel and spent the rest of that day orienting ourselves around the building, our rooms and most importantly the pool, before having dinner at a local restaurant.

Our first full day in Cyprus was our chance to try some arts and crafts. We visited a local centre where we learned from local artists all about glass making, tapestry, mosaics and much more. We also were able to try our hands at a bit of pottery and magnet making ourselves. Personally, the pottery instructor told me that he’d never met anybody as terrible at pottery as me, so I won’t be taking up that career any time soon but I’m glad to say that others in the group had better luck. We finished off the day with an afternoon on the beach and more wonderful food.

The next day was all about Paphos, as we explored the archaeological park in the morning and roamed the harber in the afternoon. This was personally one of my favourite days of the trip as I was just blown away learning about the history of the ancient ruins and local mythology. The House of Dionysus, one of the ruins we visited, was extremely accessible having braille information and small scale tactile representations of the mosaics. That evening myself and a few others decided to sample the local delicacy of maze, which consists of lots of small dishes being brought out to share among the table. The food was stunning, though I think we were all more than full by the end. I believe we got up to ten courses all in all!

The following morning we waved goodbye to Paphos and made our way to Troodos where we’d spend the rest of the week,not forgetting to stop for a wine tasting on the way. The afternoon was spent hiking on Troodos mountain lead by a local guide. The weather was fantastic and the nature beautiful, the views weren’t half bad either so I’m told 😉

For our last full day in Cyprus we visited a local botanical garden, a sweets factory and rose factory. The botanical gardens were again beautiful, full of all sorts of fantastic wildlife. The sweets shop was a sweet-tooths heaven; jams, marmalades and sweets of all kind, all home made and made from local produce. And of course the rose factory was fascinating. Not only did it smell beautiful, but the owner who came to speak with us about her business was obviously very knowledgable and passionate about her work and was extremely accommodating in letting us feel and sample all of the different products they produce. I just couldn’t resist spending my remaining euros in their gift shop and I got some lovely suvineers.

All in all it was a very relaxed trip, full of fun and laughter. I can definitely say that I’ve come away from the week with great memories and really good friends. I would absolutely recommend VICTA and Seable to anyone for their services, information about which I’ll post below.

Who are VICTA and Seable?

VICTA (Visually Impaired Children Taking Action) are a national charity serving visually impaired children and young adults and their families. They organise residential weekends and international trips throughout the year that are intended to raise the independence and confidence of young VI people. I’ve been attending VICTA events since I was around 15 and have made countless friends and made fantastic memories through the experiences I’ve had with them. They plan activities for a range of age-groups, from family weekends for young children and their families to international trips for 18 to 30 years old like the one I attended to Cyprus. Check out their website for more information: http://www.victa.org.uk

Seable is an award winning social enterprise organising accessible and active holidays for individuals, couples, families and small groups. They can arrange trips to a number of locations including Sicily, Slovenia and Roam and will taylor your holiday to your spesific access needs. They are an invaluable service for those of us who have disabilities but who also want to see the world by going on fun, interactive and relaxed trips where your disability won’t stopd you from doing anything. So far I’ve attended two Seable trips including the recent one to Cyprus, but fully intend to go on many more and would recommend anyone who likes to travel and who has a disability to consider them before booking your next holiday because I promise you won’t regret it. Click on the link below to check out their website: http://www.seable.co.uk

Skiing with DSUK

I first tried my hand at skiing when I was 17. I went on a school trip with New College Worcester, The residential school for the blind I was studying my A-levels at. That trip stands out in my memory as the first time I experienced true freedom, and I’ve never forgotten it. The second time I got to ski on real snow didn’t disappoint. I hoped that it would be like riding a bike, and thankfully it was. By my second session with my instructor I was automatically snow plowing without thinking about it.

I’ve always been a bit of an adrenaline junkie; I love rollercoasters, have always wanted to skydive and generally enjoy throwing myself into anything new and dangerous. So it’s probably no surprise that skiing is right up my street. But I’m sure many of my readers are probably wondering, how exactly can you ski when you can’t see?

The answer is very simple… Just like everyone else. I keep an upright posture, my arms extended and slightly bent at the elbows; I snow plow to stop and push down hard on my big toe to turn. Oh yeah, and I’ve got someone shouting directions skiing behind me.

What I will say is that it requires lots and lots of trust. My safety when skiing independently depends on my guide being my eyes at all times; being clear and loud with their instructions and confident in their directions. I’ve been very lucky to have fantastic instructors on both skiing trips I’ve attended.
My boyfriend and I attended a Disability Snow sports UK (DSUK) trip toNeiderau, Austria earlier this month. DSUK are a national charity that organise several skiing trips a year in Europe and the USA which are open to anyone with a disability. No previous skiing experience is required, obviously I had skied before but my boyfriend had no more experience than an hours session at the Chillfactore in Manchester. This made absolutely no difference to our enjoyment of the trip however. By the end of the week both of us were skiing at a similar skill level and we’d barely landed back in Gatwick when we were already planning our next trip.
The activity week was attended by 10 people with disabilities, five qualified instructors and a handful of volunteer helpers. We stayed in a four-star hotel for seven nights and had six half days of skiing with a one-to-one instructor each. The atmosphere of the whole trip was incredible. Everyone got along brilliantly, there was a real range of characters and several unforgettable moments. My personal highlights include A quiz night that had me almost crying with laughter, attaching ski poles together with masking tape so that my instructor could hold one end and I could hold on to the other as he guided me faster down the slope than I could have imagined, and “borrowing” The witches hats and broomsticks spotted earlier in the week being used by a ski school of toddlers to play some snow Quidditch. 
I would definitely recommend skiing, and DSUK to everyone. I love skiing so much because I spend so much of my time being physically guided by others, human or canine, that being able to move through space at a considerable speed entirely independently gives me a sense of freedom like nothing else does. DSUK are a fantastic charity with a wonderful ethos that made the trip relaxed, memorable and most of all fun.
DSUK are based in the Cairngorms in Scotland and also have instructors dotted around the country at various indoor ski slope’s including Manchester, Hemel Hempstead and Tamworth. These experienced instructors can teach you to ski or snowboard whether you need shouted directions or a tethered sit-ski. One of our group is visually impaired and has Limited mobility, so he used a headset and a sit-ski to fly down the black slopes. Hopefully that will be me one day!
Find out more about DSUK here: http://www.disabilitysnowsport.org.uk/

An open thank you letter

To The counsellor I went to speak to in March 2014,
You may never see this letter, you may not even remember me. But make no mistake that I remember you.

In my first year of university, when life was unbearable and I had nothing left to give, I went to you for help. I gathered the last vestiges of my resolve and forced myself out of the bed I hadn’t left for six days to attend the appointment I’d already rearranged with you twice. 
I remember sitting on the chair in your office, my cane in one hand and a box of tissues you’d handed me in the other, feeling empty; feeling dead; feeling black. I remember the nervousness with which you guided me to my chair and your uncomfortable laugh when I explained that you would need to complete your survey with me as I wouldn’t be able to write my answers myself. 
You asked me to wrate my feelings on a scale, zero being not at all and 10 being all the time. I remember being surprised at my own answers when I responded to statements such as, “I feel hopeless or worthless” never scoring less than 7. 
I knew I was in trouble, that’s why I went to you. I knew that staying in bed for over a week was not normal. I knew that missing countless lectures and cancelling numerous appointments for fear of leaving my room was not normal. I knew that ignoring phone calls and messages from concerned loved ones to avoid admitting what I was doing was not normal. I knew that a black cloud had gripped me, and I went to you to give it a name.
When you ask me why I was there, I told you everything. In a monotone voice and divoid of emotion. Continuous obstacles and injustices had warned me down to the point that the only thing left was anger, and as I told you what had happened during the last few months and how it had made me feel I think you saw how much that anger was consuming me.
I told you how the support I had expected had not been delivered. I told you that I felt isolated and unable to identify with my peers. I told you how, despite feeling unable to leave my room for the last 10 days because of the anxiety that gripped me at the thought of interacting with people, I didn’t want to give in. I told you that I wanted to be there. I told you that I wanted a degree. I told you that I wanted to prove myself, to myself and to the world. 
I wanted you to offer me support, to tell me that it was normal for me to feel this way and that the way I had been treated was unacceptable. I wanted you to tell me that my feelings were justified and that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted you to reassure me that you understood, that I hadn’t failed. But you didn’t.
Instead you told me that “maybe University might not be the right place for me”. You suggested that perhaps I should consider dropping out of my degree, as I had confided in you that I was so close to doing. You admitted that maybe I would be better off going home and giving up.
Thank God I ignored you.
You telling me that I shouldn’t be at university only rekindled the determination in me that had been stamped out by repeated disappointment. Your words rang in my ears and reverberated around my head for months, years afterwards. Your pitty and doubts in my ability became the fuel that only drove me to push myself harder; to get myself better; to believe in my self because you didn’t.
You are not alone in thinking that people like me are not worthy or not capable of achieving. The cane in my hand predisposed you to judge me before I had even started speaking, as it does for so many people in society. Those of us living with disabilities continuously face the misconceptions and misunderstandings of those who do not live with our challenges. But this attitude extends wider than just speaking to my friend rather than me when we are out, or ignoring my refusal of the help you have offered. This attitude leads to systematic failures that put barriers in the path of people like me from living normal lives and achieving our goals. 
Every time you take me by the arm and lead me somewhere I don’t want to go without my consent, you undermine my autonomy and disrespect my personal space; every time you fail to provide me with material in an accessible format, you reinforced the feeling that I and my needs are an afterthought; every time you tell me, that because of the adaptions I need, I am being difficult and giving you more work than you already have, you are reiterating the message that I am not welcome. I am not worthy of the time and effort it would require you to include me. I am an inconvenience that should be reprimanded for having the audacity to expect to be given the same opportunities as those who don’t need The adaptions necessary for me.
You epitomised this attitude for me, and as a result you made me stronger. Your ignorance reawakened and the stubbornness that defines so much of my character, not because it is part of my nature, but because it has to be. Your audacity to suggest that I would be better off giving up on my dream, despite me specifically explaining to you that this wasn’t what I wanted, thickened my skin and hard and my resolve to prove you wrong.
For so long your words were my motivation, though a part of me still believed you. So when, in my third and final year, everything again became too much and I threatened to crumble beneath the pressure to disprove your assumptions, your words again reverberated in my head and convinced me of their truth. 
But you didn’t win. I did. This time when I asked for help I received the reassurance and support you denied me. With that support I was able to again pull myself out of the darkness and overcome the final hurdle that would get me to my goal.
I am graduating with a first class honours, because of you. Whether it was your intention or not, your words have gotten me through the last three years and helped me achieve what I always hoped I could do but often thought was impossible. So I want to thank you for meeting me that day and for judging me as so many others do, because in doing so you gave me a reason to make myself and everyone around me proud. You forced me to find the self belief and self-worth I had lost, you shocked me out of my depression and inspired me to be the person I knew I was, but that you were too blind to see. 
Thank you for giving me the strength to prove my capabilities to anyone who doubts me. Thank you for motivating me to do my absolute best to show exactly what I can do. Thank you for reminding me that I alone can determine my worth. Thank you for having such low expectations of me and challenging me to exceed them. Thank you for inspiring me to continue facing my challenges head on and reminding me why I thrive on doing so. Thank you for teaching me that my disability doesn’t define me, and that it is my responsibility to demonstrate this to anyone who thinks otherwise. Thank you for reminding me why I wanted a degree in the first place. Thank you for driving me to work so hard that I not only exceeded your expectations, but also exceeded my own. 
Thank you, in short, for ignoring my own words and deciding my capabilities based on your judgement of my disability. Because in doing so, you’ve reminded me that nobody has the right to decide my limitations but me.

#HowISee

93% of people registered blind or partially sighted can see something, meaning that only a very small percentage of visually impaired people are completely blind. The RNIB’s #HowISee campaign aims to raise awareness of this fact and dispel the misconceptions that surround visual impairments such as using a guide dog or white cane means that you are totally blind, or that not using a mobility aid means that you are fully sighted.
Watch the #HowISee video here

 

I am one of the 93%. I have been registered blind since I was seven years old, but I have a limited amount of residual vision which I used to its full advantage.

 

I have a condition called Lebers Congenital Amaurosis (LCA) which means that my retinas don’t function properly causing my Visual impairment. I also have Nystagmas meaning an involuntary movement of the eyes as they try to focus.

 

My condition has meant that I have never been fully sighted, but when I was a child I did have a considerable amount of residual vision which meant that I could read, see colour and use magnification for a time.

 

The nature of my condition however means that my site has been gradually deteriorating since birth, culminating in a sudden deterioration in my teens. This left me with light perception in my right eye and a small amount of residual peripheral vision in my left. My site has stabilised since, though there is the possibility that it could deteriorate again.

 

I try to use my remaining vision as much as I possibly can, which is something I have had to learn to do. It was only when I received mobility training from a rehab worker who is actually also visually impaired herself two years ago that I was able to teach myself to utilise the remaining vision that I have.

 

With the peripheral vision in my left I, I can distinguish contrast and rarely I can make out a bright colour. This doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be surprised how useful even that is in daily life. It means that I can follow a building line by distinguishing a white building from a darker one; I can see distinctive road markings such as a zebra crossing; I can find the counter in a Starbucks by spotting the bright lights. All these things help immensely in my orientation and are things I use on a daily basis when getting around independently.

 

This is my experience of visual impairment, my experience of LCA. But that is not to mean that everyone’s experience is the same. Out of all the visually impaired people I know I don’t think I know two people who see the same thing. Not even people with the same condition as me. I know others with LCA who have enough residual vision to read print and yet others who are totally blind.

 

I am often asked if I am my guide dogs trainer because I apparently “don’t look blind”. I’m not entirely certain if this is because of how are use my residual vision to get around, or just because I am a reasonably confident young woman who doesn’t fit into the traditional stereotype of a plain old blind man with a white cane. Either way this always feels like a bit of a backhanded compliment to me, because besides the fact that I’m not totally blind so why would I look as such, what does blind look like anyway?

 

I have mentioned previously on this blog that the spectrum of visual impairment is huge, as is is the spectrum of ways that people live with their visual impairment. This is why it’s problematic to put people in boxes such as guide dog user must be totally blind, or symbol cane user must be able to read small print.

 

The important message that the #HowISee campaign is trying to convey is not to judge a book by its cover, or a blind person by their mobility aid (or lack there of). Everyone is an individual, even blind people 😉

 

Join in the campaign by explaining how you see the world and sharing your own stories of any awkward moments or misconceptions you’ve experienced using the #HowISee hashtag throughout August.

Through Scarlett’s Eyes guest post

I recently wrote a blog about the importance of allowing visually impaired children the freedom to learn from their mistakes which was published on Through Scarlett’s Eyes as part of their young persons voice month.

 

Through Scarlets Eyes is a blog dedicated to supporting the parents and families of visually impaired children.

 

Charlotte, mum of Scarlett Who is registered blind, created her blog to share her story of raising her blind daughter. Her blog provides support, information and resources for parents in a similar position to herself.

 

Charlotte is an amazing woman and a fantastic writer. Her blog is an invaluable space for parents of visually impaired children to share their thoughts and help each other as well as being a great resource for anyone seeking information about living with and raising a visually impaired child.

 

Check out the link to my guest post here and while you’re there why not take a look at some of the other posts written by Charlotte and the other contributors.
Until next time 🙂