My name is Harriet and I am Communications Assistant at NAB. I thought I would share some of my experiences of being visually impaired, the challenges I face, and the ways I overcome these.

Life Beginnings

I have been blind from birth so haven’t known anything else. I was born severely premature at 24 weeks and spent almost 6 months in hospital. However, I haven’t let my visual impairment stop me from doing anything or living life to the full. I enjoy keeping busy and have an active lifestyle. I have two younger siblings: a brother called Edward who is 22 and a sister called Bethany who is 28. Edward has almost finished his final year at Cambridge University studying Philosophy and Bethany, who lives in Banbury, is a support assistant to a disabled boy at college.

Farm Life

I have lived in Northamptonshire all my life and spent my childhood growing up in a rural area on a farm which I loved. I really enjoyed being outdoors: smelling the fresh air, feeding the lambs and pigs and riding my pony that I had at the time. I loved playing games with my brother and sister as well: I had a playhouse in the backyard so I spent many happy hours in there playing tea parties, pretend school games and other such figments of the imagination.

School and Education

I attended a local village mainstream school for primary school, but for secondary school I went to a boarding school called New College in Worcester. This is a school specifically for visually impaired students from the ages of 11 to 18. This meant I had access to all the equipment I needed in order to have a good education. In my opinion, one of the advantages of going to this school was that the classes were small, meaning that the teachers could give you lots of attention if needed, and it was easier to ask for help if you were struggling. However, I didn’t like the boarding aspect of being at school and missed being at home. I was lucky enough to go home at weekends though, which I always looked forward to.

When I wasn’t in lessons I spent most of my time at a boarding house called Dorothy Macque, which at the time was an all-girls house. I shared a room and had some lovely roommates, most of whom I am still friends with to this day. Among the usual subjects such as maths and English, I also had lessons where I was taught skills specifically related to visual impairment such as cooking and mobility. My mobility lessons involved learning how to navigate the world using a white cane and how to negotiate obstacles and cross roads safely. We also had a regular lesson called Design For Living (DFL for short), where we learned how to use different equipment in the kitchen such as talking microwaves and how to make a cup of tea using a liquid level indicator. This is a small gadget that sits on the edge of the cup and emits a series of beeps and vibrations when the cup is almost full so there is no danger of spilling water.

After I left school I decided to go to University to study Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire. I chose this particular course because I have always enjoyed writing from a young age and wanted to expand my knowledge and develop my skills in this area. Although the course was difficult at times (I usually had to complete four or five assignments during a term), I enjoyed doing it and definitely learned many things about writing that I wouldn’t know now if I hadn’t taken it. In terms of accessing books, I found this aspect harder than others because of the limited availability of books in braille, but I had note-takers who scanned the various books electronically for me so I was able to read them on my BrailleNote machine. I didn’t participate in many activities during University, but I did join the choir where we performed in some beautiful venues including Bath Abbey. I graduated with a 2:1 degree in 2011 which I was very proud to achieve.

Technology

I was taught to use technology from a young age and it has certainly evolved a lot throughout my life so far. I learnt to touch type during primary school, which means I can use a normal QWERTY computer keyboard using a wide range of keystrokes. It also has a screen reader that has a voice that reads the content on the screen. When I was in sixth form at school I was introduced to BrailleNote which is what I mainly use today. This is a braille computer which enables me to read and write documents, access the internet and read my emails all in braille. I love braille and have known it all my life. I don’t remember learning braille, but I’ve been told that I used to feel and sort through a lot of seeds in order for my fingers to become sensitive to it. This is important from a young age because it can be hard to learn braille when you’re older as your fingers are less sensitive.

I also use an iPhone with a braille display called ‘Brailliant’, which completely transforms the way I use the phone. The way it works is that the display pairs to the IPhone via Bluetooth and means I can control every aspect of the phone using the display and I don’t have to use the touchscreen at all. I can also type in braille on the phone using the braille display too. This makes navigation a lot quicker for me and has also helped me to enjoy using it more. An iPhone is accessible for visually impaired people without a braille display too: it has a built-in screen reader on it called Voiceover, which is a voice that reads all the content on the screen when you tap it with your fingers. However, for me personally I find using the touchscreen alone an extremely slow way to navigate and type on the phone so I find it doesn’t work for me. I don’t use my IPhone as a phone either: I just use it for browsing the internet and various apps. The mobile phone I use is called a Blind Shell Classic 2 and has been designed especially for visually impaired people. The reason I prefer this phone instead of an iPhone is because it is operated via a keypad and doesn’t have a touchscreen. It is still a smartphone and it has the capability to do some of the things an iPhone can do, just in a slightly different way.

Life with Sparky

In August 2017 I qualified for my first guide dog Sparky. It took me two and a half years to become matched with him and I had to work extremely hard on my mobility during that time. You may not realise this, but before you can even be considered to go on the waiting list for a guide dog, your mobility has to be at a very high standard and you have to know at least three routes that you can get to with your cane first, and that you could then get to with your dog too. Also, Sparky doesn’t just take me anywhere: I have to direct him and give him specific commands when I’m walking with him.

For example, when I cross the road it is up to me to tell Sparky when it is clear to cross. He does have traffic sense but if there was a dog on the other side of the road he would run across it regardless of traffic! Walking with Sparky is a completely different experience to using a cane. With my cane I was able to feel the physical landmarks of the shop buildings, whereas with Sparky I walk in the centre of the pavement so I have to rely on the bubbles under my feet to know when to cross a pelican crossing for example. So when I was training with Sparky, I was re-learning the routes in a way. It takes about a year to trust the dog and become comfortable walking together.

Sparky has made a huge difference to my life in so many ways. Since I’ve had him I find more people talk to me now. For instance, if I’m waiting in a queue or in a supermarket, which didn’t used to happen as much before. I also really enjoy looking after him and groom him daily, which he enjoys. I love discovering new walks with him too and he definitely enjoys all the new scents to sniff whenever we explore somewhere different. As well as being a fantastic guide dog, Sparky is a lovely companion too. He is very soppy and is always ready for a hug. He sleeps in my room with me at night and always sleeps well, though he does snore occasionally! I am very lucky to have him and look forward to continuing our adventures together over the next few years.

Keeping active

I like to exercise regularly and keep active; not only because it lifts my mood but I also enjoy it. Although we don’t currently live there, we have a farm that we have to visit every day so I love walking there. There is nothing like breathing in the fresh air of the countryside and smelling all the beautiful flowers around me, especially on a sunny day. I also go to the gym twice a week and enjoy spending time on the different pieces of equipment. My favourites are the cross trainer and running machine because I like altering the inclines and changing the speed to suit my own pace. It also gives me the feeling of walking on my own which I enjoy. I do resistance weights and muscle strength exercises on a mat while in the gym too which all add to my healthy lifestyle. I also love swimming and usually do 30 lengths each session. It’s also lovely to spend a few minutes relaxing in the steam rooms afterwards then finish the session with a leisurely shower.

Hobbies and interests

I have lots of hobbies and interests, including listening to different types of music, reading and listening to radio, particularly The Archers on BBC Radio 4. I have listened to the Archers all my life and the reason I love it so much is because the drama is set in a village in a rural area just like I have grown up in, so I find it easy to relate to. Not only that, but the storylines that take place in it teach me things about the world and I gain much knowledge from listening to it.

I enjoy reading a wide variety of books, particularly teenage fiction genres, books set during the First and Second world wars and stories set in Ireland. I much prefer reading books in braille rather than listening to audio books because it allows me to build up an image of the characters in my own head rather than having someone else’s interpretation. I receive books from the RNIB Library Service: they have a facility on their website where you can compile a request list of books you would like sent to you. Once the book is finished, it can either be recycled or sent on to someone else to read. I choose not to read e-books because personally I believe there is nothing like holding a physical book in my hand and sitting in bed to read it.

Another passion of mine is live music and I love attending concerts whenever I can. My favourite venue that I go to a lot is called The Stables near Milton Keynes. This is an amazing small venue with two performing spaces: a main theatre and a more intimate room called Stage 2. One of my favourite genres of music is folk music, and the Stables plays host to many folk concerts. I mainly attend concerts in Stage 2 because that is where emerging talent and young folk singers perform and those are the singers I enjoy seeing the most.

I also like going to pop concerts and have seen many singers over the years including Adele, Ellie Goulding and The Sugababes to name a few. Although I can’t see the singer or band on stage, I can still pick up on the atmosphere and love singing along with the crowd when the singer is performing one of my favourite songs. When it comes to booking tickets, I usually see whether a free companion or discounted ticket is available so that someone can accompany me. I tend to stick to venues where this option is available, but I find the amount of venues where this is offered at is increasing now.

Cooking

I have an interest in healthy eating and cooking, particularly creating simple recipes. I have various pieces of equipment that aid in making kitchen tasks easier, such as a Jay hook which assists with opening tins and some talking scales. The scales work by a voice announcing the weight of the ingredients as they are being poured into the bowl. It is also possible to change the measurements from grams to ounces if you wish. I also have a blog called Harriet’s Blind Kitchen which has many simple, healthy recipes that visually impaired people can try cooking, whatever their ability. Let me know if you give any of them a go!

Getting out and about

I enjoy having a cup of tea in local cafes with friends when I get the chance. The staff are usually very helpful when finding a table with space for Sparky to fit under. In terms of reading the menu, the friend I am with usually reads it, but if I was on my own I am sure the staff would be happy to read it for me. I also enjoy visiting museums, and often attend monthly touch tours that are held at the Oxford University museums. Each month covers a different topic, such as storytelling, the life of insects and exploring ancient Egyptian artefacts. At these touch tours, people have the opportunity to handle a variety of different objects and learn more about their origins. I also like visiting National Trust properties and have advised staff on how they could improve the accessibility of these houses for other visually impaired visitors.

Volunteering

I am also a volunteer for Guide Dogs which I very much enjoy doing. I am a member of the Daventry Guide Dogs group which is a local fundraising branch of volunteers who fundraise in Daventry and the surrounding area. Every month we hold a meeting where we discuss different fundraising ideas, and I also help at supermarket collections. Sometimes, the group organise their own social events too which are always fun to be part of. It is a great joy to be part of the Daventry Guide Dogs community of volunteers and I have made some wonderful friends through it. I would encourage anyone to volunteer especially if you’ve never tried it before: it’s a fantastic way to meet new people and you never know where it could lead to!

Employment at NAB

In April 2021, I started my first job as Communications Assistant at NAB for one day a week. I had previously been a volunteer for NAB before I started this job by contributing articles to their Viewpoint magazine, so it was good to be given this opportunity to have a job with them. A large proportion of visually impaired people of working age are unemployed, so I feel very lucky to have this job. My role also involves writing articles for the NAB website and social media channels on a variety of subjects relevant to visually impaired people. I find it very rewarding and it is good to know that I am helping and giving advice to other visually impaired people through my own experiences.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog and finding out more about me. I look forward to reading any comments you may have!