Tag Archives: visual impairment

And the prize goes to…

It’s prizes season again.  You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a good thing.  After all, prizes are generally considered to be positive things, to be greeted with squeals of excitement and delight whilst perhaps clapping hands together or indulging in a little skip.  Rather like surprises, in fact.  I wonder if that’s why the word ‘surprise’ includes ‘prize’ in it?  Well… sort of, anyway.  But enough of this etymological digression – interesting though it is – and back to the matter in hand.

In this case, the fact that it’s prizes season again fills my heart more with dread than joy.  I should probably explain at this point that it’s student prizes that I’m talking about here.  Part of my job involves the annual calculation of exam results to figure out which students are the lucky winners of certain prizes.  Apparently, the fact that they’re studying at what the TEF considers to be a ‘golden’ university [pauses to stifle a snort] isn’t enough, and we need to award them prizes as well.  Although to be fair, the prizes have been awarded for long before the TEF was even thought about.  Anyway… this particular job involves me spending hours running lists of data, linking it up with other lists of data, and then staring at row after row and column after column of Excel spreadsheets in order to work out in an extremely long-drawn-out and sometimes quite literally painful fashion, which students should be awarded which prizes.

I don’t know whether any of my eye buddies find the same, but for me Excel is visually pretty horrible to work with for extended periods of time.  All those lines and columns are an effort to focus on, and spending long periods of time scrolling back and forth through rows and columns of data make my eyes ache.  I’m getting through about three times the amount of eye drops I usually use in a day at the office, and my eyes still ache more than usual by the time I get home in the evening.  If it wasn’t so intense over such a short period of time, it probably wouldn’t be as bad.  But because this work has to be completed relatively quickly due to various deadlines, I pretty much have to just crack on with it.  As a result, I find that Excel in large doses is even worse than Dreamweaver, a program which I find quite appalling in terms of accessibility.  Even before my eye issues, I found the size of the font on the menus and files within Dreamweaver difficult to read.  These days, it’s horrendous, and I simply can’t use it for long periods of time.  Of course, there’s always the magnifier, but that’s not particularly user-friendly either, especially when trying to move between files fairly quickly in order to get stuff done.  Maybe I should start thinking about those ideas for a new job again, which I explored in New vision, new job…?

Of course, what makes prizes season worse is the fact that back in June 2014, just two weeks after I’d returned to work after my long period of sick leave following my first retinal detachment, I was starting to work on prizes again when my retina detached for the second time, leading to a mad dash back to the hospital.  So now, prizes are associated in my head with a particularly grim period of my life.  Unfortunately, being aware of this and understanding that it is merely an association does nothing to block out all the unpleasant memories.

However, I managed to plough through the dreaded task of poxy prizes last year and will hopefully manage to do so again this year, amidst much swearing, gnashing of teeth, and pausing to administer eye drops.  The final year prizes are almost done now, so it’s just first years to go once the results are published.  And as to who the prize is going to… well, quite frankly, I think it should go to me once all of this is done and dusted.  I might just award myself a £50 book voucher.  Or perhaps bake a celebratory cake instead…

Note to self: Must remember to stock up on eye drops in prizes season.  And lottery tickets.  Lots of lottery tickets.

Second note to self: Even prizes are better than more eye surgery.

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Reduced vision; increased insight

An entirely rational fear of going blind probably isn’t something which most people in their late thirties and early forties even give a passing thought to.  However, after multiple retinal detachments, it’s now pretty much top of my greatest fears list.  I fear more for my ‘good’ left eye than I do for my bad right eye, because I rely on it for everything.  If my left eye was in the same state as my right, I wouldn’t be able to drive, I wouldn’t be able to see people’s faces properly, I wouldn’t be able to read, or do my job, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy beautiful colours, or watch the birds in my garden, or admire art exhibitions, or go geocaching… the list is endless.  Sometimes I get very gloomy and depressed thinking about all the things I wouldn’t be able to do, and other times I just try not to focus on it (pun intended).

However, my sight problems have also made me think a lot more about how I might do certain things if the worst ever does happen to my ‘good’ eye, and it’s also made me wonder how people who are blind or severely visually impaired manage with certain tasks.  A while ago, I explored one aspect of this in terms of how visually impaired (VI) people cope with cooking.  You can read about this in my posts Dinner in the dark and Blind baking.  The latter also contains a YouTube video of my sister attempting to bake a cake with her eyes closed: I defy anyone to watch it and manage not to laugh, although hopefully it will also make people think.

As a result of all this wondering about how people cope, and internal torture as I contemplate my own visual future, I seem to have developed an increased awareness of VI people when they cross my path as I go about my daily life.  A few times now I’ve seen a guy with a white cane on campus at the university where I work, walking purposefully along, swiping his cane from side to side in front of him.  One day, he was walking along a very narrow, uneven path, flanked on one side by a bank down to the road and on the other side by a somewhat unruly hedge.  I wanted to stop him and ask him how he managed it; whether it was difficult using the cane and how he copes on the rest of campus.  I often notice things on campus and mutter to myself, “That would be a nightmare for a severely visually impaired person!”  Of course, I didn’t stop him.  Mainly because a lesser fear of mine is that of talking to people I don’t know.

Instead, I went home and listened to a podcast about how severely VI or blind people navigate.  I learned that they rely on sound a good deal, and that some tap their cane along the ground and  listen to the sound coming back to help them orient themselves  and get around.  I learned that weather conditions can have a huge impact on navigation.  Apparently snow is the worst, because of course it covers paths making it very easy to rapidly become completely lost.  One person said that she hates the rain because it dampens down sounds and makes it much more difficult to hear things properly.  She said that she can’t wear a hood as that blocks out even more sound, and she can’t use an umbrella as it’s too difficult to navigate with a cane or a guide dog in one hand and an umbrella in the other.  So as well as the annoyance of the rain making navigation more difficult, she also inevitably gets soaked.

Some time after listening to all this, I was standing waiting in the railway station one day when I spotted an older man with a white cane making his way through the door.  He walked past me and then stopped, fished his wallet out of his pocket, and proceeded to hold several bank cards very close to his face and scrutinise them carefully.  This took a few minutes, but he must have found the one he needed, as he put the other one back in his wallet and moved to return it to his pocket.  As he juggled wallet, card, and cane, he then dropped the card.  Immediately, he knelt down and began running his hands across the floor, searching for it.  Just imagine for a few minutes, having to run your hands over a filthy station floor in order to locate an object you’ve dropped, without knowing what they may come into contact with as you do so.  I quickly moved to find it for him, but then realised that he probably wouldn’t a) be able to see me properly, and b) realise that I was trying to help him.  So I said (which seemed a bit of a weird thing to say), “Do you want me to pick it up for you?”  “Yes please!”, he answered with relief in his voice, adding apologetically, “Sorry”.  I wanted to say, “No, no – don’t be sorry!”, and ask him how much he was able to see, and what was wrong with his eyes, and how he managed on the train… but I didn’t.  Instead I just said, “Don’t worry”, as I retrieved his bank card from where it had fallen almost underneath one of his feet, and placed it in his hand.  “Thank you”, he said, before moving off slowly to the ticket office.

Afterward, I wondered how long it would have taken him to find his card if I hadn’t picked it up for him, or whether anyone else would have helped him.  There were a few people around, but they all seemed busy with ticket machines / children / timetables and didn’t appear to notice.  Public places present so many more difficulties and variables than the home environment, and it seems just sheer common sense that people would surely help if they’re fortunate enough to have decent vision and see someone else struggling.

Visual fields

Living with peripheral vision loss can be a tad embarrassing at times.  It’s caused me to let out a loud girly squeal whilst using the photocopier at work, when the Dean (no less) suddenly appeared on my bad side, seemingly out of nowhere, and boomed “Good morning!” at me.  It’s resulted in me leaping a foot in the air and bashing my knuckles on the hand-dryer in the loo at work, when a student materialised out of thin air at the hand-dryer alongside me.  It’s caused me to berate my good friend when she spotted me in the distance one day and ran to catch up with me, grabbing my right arm as she did so and thereby scaring the living daylights out of me.  I frequently jump violently and then swear with equal violence under my breath when a cyclist whizzes past me as I walk along the paths on campus.  After stumbling over students’ bags in the entrance to my workplace on several occasions, I now walk round and use a different door if I need to enter or exit at the time a lecture is due to start or finish.  Last but not least, I’ve acquired some interesting bruises on my right shoulder due to various minor mishaps.

The loss of peripheral vision in my right eye is due to the 360 degree laser surgery which was done in an attempt to stop the retina from re-detaching and to try and save my central vision.  I suspect the three retinectomies (where part of the retina which won’t lie flat is physically cut away) probably haven’t helped matters, either.  Of course, unless people have actually experienced loss of peripheral vision themselves, it’s difficult to expect them to fully understand.  I thought perhaps a visual interpretation might help, and therefore sought the assistance of my personal patient photographer, who happily doubled up as a person with properly working peepers.  (It’s such a shame that the ‘h’ in ‘photographer’ messes up the alliteration there; however, I digress…)  Our highly scientific peripheral vision experiments when looking at the fields just down the road from my house, followed by extensive jiggery pokery with photo-editing software, led to the following results…

The picture below shows the complete field of vision of a person with properly working peepers, with both eyes open:

Fields

The visual field of someone with ‘normal’ vision.

The following picture shows the field of vision of both a person with properly working peepers and myself, when our right eyes are closed (so looking only through the left eye):

fov-res-w

Visual field of left eye.

The next picture shows the field of vision of a person with properly working peepers, whose left eye is closed (so looking through the right eye only):

fov-les-w-a

Visual field of right eye of someone with ‘normal’ vision.

The final picture (below) shows the field of vision in my right eye, with my left eye closed:

fov-les-w-e

Visual field of my right (RD) eye.

If you compare the last two pictures, you can get some idea of how much peripheral vision I’ve lost in my right eye.  If you look at these pictures in conjunction with the images in my earlier blog post, Do you see what I see?, this gives the most accurate representation possible of my waffy vision as it is at the current time.  So with that in mind, if you could kindly avoid sneaking up on me on my right-hand side, that’d be just grand…

Note: Grateful thanks to the patient photographer for producing these images for me and putting up with extensive peripheral vision analysis in the process.

 

 

 

 

Rats and opera glasses

It was on a sunny Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago that I spotted the little blighter myself.  His huge hairy brown backside swayed gently from side to side as he sauntered brazenly down my garden path in the broad daylight; his tail trailing casually along behind him.  He didn’t even bother to take cover in the shrubbery.  “Great”, I muttered to myself as I sighed in resignation and proceeded to fire up the laptop and google ‘pest control, Canterbury City Council’.  My irritation increased as the web page informed me that the council no longer offered a pest control service, and advised me to search under several accredited bodies for a reputable private service instead.

I should probably explain at this point that rats have been recurrent unwelcome visitors to my garden throughout the ten years that I’ve lived in my little house.  When I say ‘recurrent’, it could be worse – the last time my neighbours and I had to call out pest control was about 2012.  However, about a year before that we had a most unpleasant episode when they burrowed down (the rats that is, not pest control) and got into my neighbour’s cavity walls and up into his loft.  That frantic sound of scrabbling in the walls is not one which is easily forgotten, and my skin still crawls at the memory.  So clearly we don’t want that to happen again.

After spotting The Intruder (it seems appropriate to use capitalisation here), I became ever so slightly obsessed with staring out of the window whilst clutching a hefty baseball bat, ready to rush out and whack it over the head the second it had the audacity to appear.  Okay, so maybe the bit about the baseball bat isn’t strictly true, but the first part certainly is.  I’d already undertaken a meticulous examination of my garden and spotted the exact place where I suspected it was making its unwelcome and illegal entrance.  (Maybe I should build a wall there, and get the other rats to pay for it…)  In the absence of Rat Cam, I had to rely on my own dodgy vision to track the blighter’s movements.

A couple of days later, early in the morning, I spotted a suspicious looking brown shape loitering in the middle of my lawn.  As it was so early, I wasn’t wearing my specs.  I therefore grabbed the closest instrument of magnification I could lay my hands on, which just happened to be a pair of antique opera glasses.  I raised them to my eyes with trembling hands and baited breath and spotted… the blurry shape of a blackbird, pecking about in the lawn.  I exhaled, and then set about trying to sharpen up the image seen through the opera glasses.

I figured that the glasses must have been at the optimum setting for my eyes pre-retinal detachment.  I closed my good eye and looked through them using just my bad eye.  The image was very blurry, but surprisingly I managed to improve it by turning the little dial to the right as far as it would go.  Obviously it was still blurred as I was looking through my waffy RD eye which has silicone oil in it; but it was better than I expected and certainly better than when I just have my specs on.  I then closed my bad eye and tried looking through my good eye without adjusting the settings.  It was horrendous!  In order to get it back into focus, I had to turn the dial almost all the way to the left.  I then closed my good eye and opened my bad eye again, but was back to a blurry mess once more.  I tried to adjust the opera glasses so that I could get a decent overall image whilst looking with both eyes, but it was impossible.

At this point, I had to stop as the experiment was beginning to make me feel a little dizzy and queasy.  However, it gave me a greater understanding of why the optometrist had said that my vision in each eye is so unbalanced that it’s impossible to fully correct it with glasses.  It also made me wonder whether this unbalanced vision, coupled with the fact that I’m still apparently right-eye dominant despite the vision in my right eye being extremely poor, is the reason for my frequent headaches, which are sometimes accompanied by a slight feeling of nausea.

Anyway, I’m hoping that Rat Man (aka pest control) will be able to do his stuff and dispatch The Intruder swiftly, in the same manner that Hamlet disposed of Polonius.  At the cost of two full-price return train tickets to Moorfields, the service certainly isn’t cheap, but I guess that’s to be expected when hiring a hit man…

Looking out on the garden through a pair of opera glasses.

Rat-hunting through the opera glasses

Paintings for sale!

“What can I do to help my eyes?”, has been a recurring and increasingly desperate question put to various surgeons during my hospital appointments over the past couple of years.  To my dismay, I’ve always been told that there’s nothing that I can actually do, although there are certain things which are certainly best avoided (have a read of “Don’t get a head trauma”, if you’re wondering what).  However, one positive thing I am able to do is to fundraise for Moorfields Eye Charity, and this is the main reason I’ll be taking part in Eye to Eye again, in March 2017.  Although this isn’t helping my eyes directly, there’s a possibility that the results of research undertaken by Moorfields may benefit me in the future.  And if it doesn’t, at least I know that it will be helping other people suffering with sight-threatening conditions.  With this in mind, it seems like a good idea to have  a bash at selling some of my paintings and donating the proceeds to Moorfields Eye Charity.

Although I’ve sold a reasonable number of paintings in the past, I haven’t ventured down this route for many years.  Two of the little galleries which took my work have now unfortunately closed down, and the third has expanded into an enterprise which no longer has space for the likes of me, exhibiting work for sale at jaw-dropping prices by well established, proper artists who are actually able to make a living out of putting oil on canvas.  Selling work through galleries probably wouldn’t be the best method of raising money for charity anyway, as usually they insist that paintings are framed first (which can be pretty expensive), and they commonly take between 20% and 30% commission.  Having said that, nothing quite beats the confidence-boost of being contacted by a gallery with the news that a complete stranger has parted with their hard-earned cash in return for one of my paintings.

But I digress.  The point is that I now have quite a collection of paintings propped up against the walls of my spare room, which I’d be happy to part with in order to raise money for a cause which is very important to me.  I’m not going to start putting price tags on them as I was always hugely embarrassed at that aspect of selling my work and asked the galleries to price them for me.  A painting is only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it at the end of the day.  They’re all oil on canvas, and  if you hover over each image, you should be able to read the titles and dimensions.  If you’re interested in any of them, please drop me a message or an email, or just comment on this blog post.  Feel free to share, if you think others may be interested.  There are no prizes for correctly guessing which were painted before my retinal detachments and which were painted afterwards… 😉

Note: An explanation of ‘Eye Chart’ can be found in the blog post, Oil on canvas.

 

 

Blind baking

During a conversation with my sister one day, when we were mulling over how to persuade a few more people to part with their hard-earned cash and donate to our fundraising efforts for Moorfields Eye Charity (https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/rd-ramblers), I suggested the idea of making a cup of tea whilst blindfolded and taking a photo of the results to put on Facebook.  I wanted to somehow get people to think about the fact that even the simplest and most mundane of everyday tasks could potentially be extremely difficult for someone who is blind or visually impaired.  I thought it would be great to make it a challenge and get other people to join in and post photos of their efforts in return.  My suggestion was met with a gasp of horror from Lucy, and the disapproving exclamation of, “Errr – health and safety!  You could end up pouring boiling water over your hand!”.  I was slightly crestfallen but had to admit that she did have a point.  Anyway, she must have felt a bit bad about pouring cold water over my idea as a few weeks later she came up with a far better one herself: blind baking.  Obviously, I’m not talking about pastry cases here.  Along with assistance from her talented filmmaker and kitchen guide, Ginny, she proceeded to prepare a cake whilst keeping her eyes tightly closed (she promised she didn’t peek!) and making a fair amount of mess in the process.  The film of their efforts can be watched here, and you can read Lucy’s comments on her experiment below.

I can’t really compare this experience of baking a cake with my eyes closed to that of being blind, but it was an interesting experience!

I had put all the ingredients ready first, so could remember roughly where I had put them, but I had to feel for the different shapes and sizes of packaging.  The main difficulty here was that I was conscious of avoiding knocking anything over whilst feeling for the right packet.

I chose a yohurt pot recipe because all the ingredients are measured in the yoghurt pot or cup, so it’s really easy (with your eyes open!).  I normally hold the cup over the bowl, but found that with my eyes closed I needed two hands to do the actual measuring – one to hold the packet of whatever I was tipping into the cup and another to feel for when I’d reached the top of the cup.

Having managed to get the ingredients in the bowl and mix it to something I hoped resembled cake mix, I realised a mistake: I hadn’t got the cake tin out ready.  I had decided that a cake tin was more practical than cupcakes, but had forgotten to put it ready.  As we ran out of video space by the end, we finished there and I opened my eyes to get the cake tin, grease it and fill with the cake mixture.  However, had I carried on with my eyes shut, I would have had trouble finding the right sized tin in my very full cake tin cupboard.  I think to cope with practicalities of being blind or partially sighted, you must have to really minimise your whole home in order to be able to find things by touch.

So, I managed to prepare a cake with my eyes closed, relying a lot on guidance from Ginny, who was filming, and familiarity of my kitchen.  It was a very thought-provoking experience and the main thing which stayed with me was that the process of preparing the cake was do-able, but the thing I would really miss would be seeing the end product.  Our running commentary gives an idea of what it was like, and I don’t think I made that much mess really, did I?!?!

Huge thanks go to Lucy and Ginny for doing this, and for allowing me to share the video.  If you’d like to give it a go yourself (note: it’s not compulsory to keep your eyes shut whilst doing so), the recipe is as follows:

Using the same size cup or pot of yoghurt, add the following and mix together:
1 cup yoghurt
1 cup oil
1 cup egg (1 egg = 1/2 of a standard cup measure)
1 cup caster sugar
3 cups self-raising flour
Add flavouring of  your choice, for example:
1 cup dried fruit
1 tsp mixed spice
Mix together and pour into greased loaf tin.  Bake at 180 degrees for 30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. (Note: the video shows the recipe being made with a standard 1/3 cup measure.  A larger cup mix will take longer to bake.)

Lucy's 'does exactly what it says on the tin' picture of her yoghurt pot loaf cake

Lucy’s ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ picture of her yoghurt pot loaf cake

 

Dinner in the dark

Candlelit dinner

Candlelit dinner

It was the evening before I was due to make the dreaded return to work after the Christmas break, and I was already suffering from what I call the ‘Sunday evening ‘Songs of Praise’ feeling’.  UK readers will know what I’m talking about here – it’s how you felt as a child, contemplating the horribly inevitable return to school at the end of a weekend, about the time that ‘Songs of Praise’ was broadcast on the television.  All of a sudden, the lights in my living room flickered and I was plunged into a darkness which exceeded even my mental gloom.  I suppressed a scream before stumbling to the cupboard under the stairs and locating my torch, which fortunately I knew was stored within easy reach, just inside the door.  I stomped to the fuse box to discover that all of the switches were happily pointing to ‘on’ and practically sticking their tiny tongues out at me as they did so.  I decided to refrain from resorting to computer helpdesk mode and switching them all off and back on again, and instead stomped over to the kitchen window, raised the blind, and saw… nothing.  It was like a blackout during the Blitz, but fortunately without the doodlebugs.  I wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or alarmed that my entire neighbourhood appeared to be out of power.  Suspecting that it might continue for a while and unsure of how long my torch batteries would last, I went in search of candles and matches.  My increasingly noisy growling stomach dared me to even think about presenting it with a cheese sarnie instead of a proper hot dinner and, after all, I thought, “how difficult can it be to cook dinner by the light of a couple of candles and a flickering torch?”

I rapidly discovered that it was more tricky than I’d anticipated.  I dropped a handful of pasta, managing to miss the saucepan completely; narrowly avoided slicing the top of my thumb off whilst chopping a courgette; and had trouble in determining exactly when my veg was properly cooked, even when peering at it by the light of the torch.  At one point I only just caught the pasta before the water boiled over, then proceeded to drop a fair quantity of it down the sink whilst draining the water.  However, dinner was cooked, served, and eaten by flickering candlelight, as I metaphorically patted myself on the back and smugly informed my now silent stomach, “Told you I could do it!”.

When the lights suddenly blazed back on, about an hour later, causing me to blink and scream once more, I was somewhat dismayed to discover bits of congealed pasta on the kitchen work surface which I’d obviously dropped whilst serving up, scatterings of raw onion at the back of the hob, and blobs of  melted candlewax welded to the kitchen worktop.  I set about clearing up the mess, but – as is often the case these days – it caused me to wonder exactly how blind people manage with the business of cooking.  So off I went to ask a couple of people…

A friend of a friend, whom I believe has been blind from birth, kindly got back to my curious questions with the response, “I do indeed cook but I can entirely understand why it would have been tricky with no practice at such things.  There are indeed gadgets, but it would also be true to say that we humans are very adaptable creatures so there are all sorts of amazing ways to get around things.”  Someone else, who rapidly began losing his sight from the age of 19, told me that he has a cooker and microwave in order to prepare easy and simple meals.  He explained that it’s a case of trial and error but he finds it always better to cook for too long than not long enough.  He also told me that he has talking kitchen scales, a one-cup hot water dispenser to make his cuppas, and ‘bumpons’ on his kitchen appliances.  After further investigation, I learnt that bumpons are little raised rubber buttons which are self-adhesive on the back so that they can be stuck on to an appliance (for example, on the controls of a microwave) so that the person using it is able to locate the correct settings by touch.

This led me to have a bit of a rummage around online in search of further information.  I discovered that the RNIB has a very interesting page explaining various things which blind or partially sighted people can use to help them with cooking, from basic tips on colour, contrast, and lighting, to talking microwaves, talking measuring jugs, and recorded labels to inform the user of the contents of a tin or its use-by date, for example.  The RNIB page can be found at:  http://www.rnib.org.uk/information-everyday-living-home-and-leisure-adapting-your-home/cooking.  I was both fascinated and encouraged to read about the various gadgets which are available, although I also imagine that it takes a fair bit of practice to become adept at using some of them.  Nothing beats hearing people’s experiences though, so if anyone reading this post happens to be blind or visually impaired, it would be great if you could tell me a bit about your experiences of cooking in the comments below…  🙂