Elaine’s vision for helping those with sight loss
The lockdown was never going to be easy for Elaine Orwin, a retired primary school teacher from Northern Ireland who was diagnosed with juvenile macular dystrophy at the age of 4. But the fact that it coincided with the retirement of her beloved guide dog, Chaz, made life very difficult indeed.
Elaine, 58, said, “I’d had Chaz for 9 years, but I’d agreed that he should retire in March. All of a sudden I lost the amazing mobility provided by a guide dog and was reliant on a cane. Coming on the back of the pandemic and the lockdown it made things so much more difficult.
“Going out and about safely was almost impossible. I was someone who was used to getting on trains and buses – a really busy person – so it made the situation extremely challenging both physically and emotionally.”
Elaine, who lives in Bangor, a seaside town about 14 miles from Belfast, is no stranger to adversity. Her visual impairment – she can see movement in her peripheral vision, but little else – didn’t stop her becoming a teacher for 25 years. And since retiring she has become an active volunteer at several organisations including The National Lottery-funded Macular Society.
As the leader of the Macular Society’s Bangor branch, Elaine was well aware that the lockdown would pose an immense challenge to many people with macular disease, the biggest cause of sight loss in the UK.
She said, “Our group was meeting in a community hall in Bangor once a month before the lockdown. For some of them the Macular Society meeting was the only time they would get out of the house.”
When the monthly meetings were cancelled due to the pandemic, Elaine set up a regular conference call for the 30 members of her group. She said, “They love it! We might talk about where to get groceries or silly things like me trying to cut my husband’s hair.”
The Bangor group will also benefit from a Macular Society befriending scheme that is being rolled out across Northern Ireland thanks to a £40,000 grant made possible by National Lottery players. The money will help train befriending volunteers and match them with anyone who has a macular condition who is seeking regular phone contact.
The scheme was already operating in other parts of the UK, but local volunteers will make it far more effective. Elaine said, “For some people – especially elderly people – it’s lovely to hear a local voice and that’s what’s happening thanks to The National Lottery.”
As the lockdown begins to ease and more people venture out of their homes, there is another challenge facing visually impaired people: how to maintain a safe distance from other people. The BBC has reported that people with sight loss have been struggling when they go out and some have been verbally abused because they find it hard to observe social distancing rules.
Elaine said, “How do you judge social distancing in shops and on public transport when you can’t see? The Macular Society is working with other sight loss organisations to make people feel safe by informing providers – retailers and public transport providers for example – of their needs.”
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Photo credit: Reach
30th July 2020
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