Ceri Jackson explores the policies being developed to help people suffering from sight loss
Nearly 100,000 people in Wales are living with sight loss Every day about five people in Wales (100 or so in the UK) start losing their sight. It is predicted that by 2050 the number of people with sight loss in the UK will double to nearly four million.
Sight loss impacts on every aspect of a person’s life, from physical and mental health, the ability to live independently, to finding or keeping a job, and family and social life. The following figures illustrate these realities:
- Nearly half of blind and partially sighted people report feeling ‘moderately’ or ‘completely’ cut off from people and things around them, with 43 per cent saying that they would like to leave their homes more often.
- 66 per cent of registered blind or partially sighted people of working age are not in employment.
- More than three quarters of older people with sight loss live in poverty.
- Older people with sight loss are almost three times more likely to experience depression than people with good vision.
- Sight loss has been identified as one of the top three causes of suicide amongst older people.
The ‘good news’ is that over 50 per cent of sight loss can be avoided. In 1999 the World Health Organisation launched Vision 2020 – a global initiative to eliminate avoidable blindness by 2020 and to improve support and services for blind and partially sighted people. The UK Vision Strategy was developed in response to Vision 2020, and is a cross-sector initiative that aims to bring together all those who want to take action on issues relating to vision.
In Wales an advisory group of professionals working across the public, private and third sector have produced the Wales Vision Strategy Implementation Plan 2012 to 2014, to co-ordinate the delivery of the UK Vision Strategy in Wales, working towards the three priorities of:
- Improving the eye health of people in Wales.
- Delivering excellent support to people with sight loss.
- Inclusion, participation and independence for people with sight loss.
We have seen really significant progress in the last few years. This is particularly true in relation to eye health, culminating in the publication earlier this year of the Welsh Government’s draft Eye Health Care Plan for Wales. This incorporates many of the Wales Vision Strategy’s key objectives in relation to improving eye health and the Welsh Government’s commitment to taking these key issues forward is heartening.
Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go. Progress on improving support and independence for blind and partially sighted people has been particularly challenging. Two of the most frequently raised issues are access to social services (particularly rehabilitation) and access to public transport.
The Wales Vision Strategy group recently organised a conference in Cardiff to focus on those two areas. It was attended by 80 delegates from across Wales, including policy makers and service providers from the private, public and voluntary sectors. With the next phase of the Vision Strategy (2014-2018) due to be developed shortly, the aim was to start a dialogue with those who perhaps had not been so involved before and to agree collectively what we could all do moving forward.
We heard from a number of high-profile speakers, including Lisa Dunsford, the Welsh Government’s Deputy Director of Primary Care, Simon Nicholls Principle Transport Planner with the South East Wales Transport Alliance, Steve Milsom, Deputy Director for Social Service Policy and Strategy at Welsh Government, and Simon Mohammad, Head of Operations for Cardiff Bus.
For me the most powerful parts of the day were when we heard directly from blind and partially sighted people about their experiences. Having worked in the sight loss sector for twenty years, I’m still affected by hearing of people who are left stranded at train stations because the assistance that they booked fails to materialise; people who have to pay to get a taxi to their bus stop up the road, because the journey is inaccessible on foot for someone with sight loss; people who have struggled on alone for years after losing their sight, and are only made aware of the support that can and should be provided by social services when they come into contact with a local sight loss charity.
For some of the policy makers and service providers at the conference, it was probably the first time they’d heard first hand these harsh realities about day-to-day life with sight loss in 21st Century Wales. It was both motivational and inspiring, and many key stakeholders made significant commitments during the day of what they and their organisations could do to help deliver the changes that the people in Wales living with sight loss so badly need.
For me, it’s simple. Everyone who loses their sight should have access to timely mobility and rehabilitation support, to enable them to live a safe and independent life. No-one should be left trapped in their homes, or reliant on the goodwill of others, because of the inaccessibility of public transport.
We have some great examples across Wales where services are working well. However, we need to make that experience the reality for all blind and partially sighted people in Wales.