Rhian Nowell-Phillips outlines what can be done to further support those with visual impairment in Wales.
There are an estimated 110,000 people in Wales suffering from sight loss and this figure is expected to double over the next 25 years as people live longer.
These stark figures also hide the fact that an estimated 50% of sight loss is due to preventable or treatable causes and that early intervention can significantly improve the prognosis of many eye conditions. The thought of losing our sight is probably one of our worst nightmares and yet over one in ten of us have never had an eye test!
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Sight loss impacts on every aspect of a person’s life: their physical and mental health, their ability to live independently, their ability to find or keep a job and their family and social life.
Losing one’s sight can have a profound effect on your ability to find or stay in a job, access education or training or even use public transport. You are more likely to be living in poverty and suffer from depression and you will be twice as likely to fall and be injured as sighted people.
Our primary focus in RNIB Cymru is to eradicate preventable sight loss in Wales and to ensure that those who live with vision impairment are able to live independently with the same access to employment and education opportunities as any other person.
As sight loss impacts all aspects of a person’s life our first priority is to ensure that everyone who needs it can access high quality specialist care, which is based on clinical need rather than the current referral to Treatment Time targets (RTT). This arbitrary target relating to the patient’s first appointment can mean that patients with degenerative conditions can continue to lose their sight unless follow up appointments are also monitored to ensure people are receiving the right treatment at the right time.
For those diagnosed with a visual impairment, the news can be devastating, this is why the support of a sustainably funded Eye Clinic Liaison Officer Service (ECLO) is vital to help and support people at a time when they are their most vulnerable.
RNIB Cymru, with support from the Big Lottery, currently funds five ECLOs in four Health Boards across Wales and there is evidence that the emotional and practical support provided by the service leads to real savings in health and social care budgets and provides an important bridge between health and social care.
Often sight loss is a very gradual process, but seemingly simple, everyday tasks can be difficult to relearn in your own home and so good rehabilitation support is important to ensure that people can continue to live independently. We hope that the new social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014, will ensure that this provision is strengthened across Wales, and we will be pushing the next Welsh Government to secure the future of rehabilitation support.
We would all agree that education provides one of the most important foundations for any child or young person, although you may not be aware that up to 80% of learning is visual. It is therefore vital to ensure that all blind and partially sighted children are given timely and appropriate access to a Qualified Teacher for Visual Impairment, (QTVI) to ensure that they receive the specialist support they need to develop at the same rate as their sighted peers.
The qualification for teaching sight loss has been made mandatory in England, but sadly, there is no course currently available in Wales and existing provision is extremely oversubscribed.
We are also calling on the next Government to introduce the Additional Learning Needs Bill early in the next Assembly term, this piece of draft legislation has been waiting in the wings for a long time and it is extremely important to ensure that there is a statutory foundation for ensuring that blind and partially sighted children and young people are fully supported throughout their education.
There are many things that sighted people take for granted in our everyday lives, we don’t realise that everyday routines such as getting and keeping a job, accessing the support and information we are entitled to, using a computer or even tackling public transport can be a daunting challenge for those with sight impairment.
Blind and partially sighted people are less likely to be in paid employment than other disabled people which means that they often live in low income households and are often unaware of their entitlements to benefits, advice and information. Whilst these are largely issues not yet devolved to Wales it is important that we continue to work with others to help ensure that people receive the support and information they are entitled to.
After the elections Welsh Government will control the new rail franchise and although the draft Wales Bill has been shelved for the time being, it contained powers over bus regulation which is likely to be the case in any new legislation for Wales.
We want Government to ensure that we have a more integrated and inclusive approach to public transport, where accessible timetables, audio announcements and relevant driver training are a requirement for all operators and the importance of public and community transport, particularly in rural areas is embedded within Government policy.
We live in a society with an ageing population; we also know that prevalence of sight loss increases with age. This means that many people will also be living with other health issues, including chronic health conditions which are not linked to their sight loss.
As people live longer there will be increasing pressure on healthcare and the built environment, such as housing and care facilities to cater for those with sensory loss. We believe that future proofing and adopting Visibly Better Standards in housing developments and embracing accessible healthcare standards now, will help ensure that people can remain independent for longer in the future, which will directly benefit society as a whole.