Blogmas day 16 – let us howl

Our visit to the Wolf Conservation Trust near Reading, whom we met there, and what we learned!

So, I’m going to break with the Christmas posts to tell you about what I did last night – because it’s cool, and also I’d like more people to find out about the Trust.

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will know that S and I are interested in Wolves. I published the walking with wolves post earlier in the year. While I was researching that trip, I also discovered the UK wolf conservation Trust website, and last night, S and I went with some friends to their Howl Night!

The first part of the evening is a presentation about wolf communication. We learned about ways in which they communicate with other wolves using long-distance communication, such as howls, as well as other verbal forms of communications, such as barks, growls, whimpers, yips and woofs! We then went on to look at body language – the positioning of the ears, tail, and posture, as well as the eye contact. Real footage from the centre’s wolves was used to demonstrate points about what was happening and what the wolves were trying to communicate.

The centre is home to 10 wolves in four packs – two packs of 3 and two packs of 2. After the presentation had finished, we went outside to see, and howl with them!

The first pack we saw was my favourite – Mosi and Torak. Mosi is one of the older wolves at 11 years of age, but that didn’t stop her being the most vocal with her howls! She deposed her sister Mai as alpha female, which led to her sister being moved out of the enclosure when they were younger. She was eager to respond to us with howls and interested in her visitors! Torak is a tall and proud wolf with a handsome, masculine head and the most mournful howl that you have ever Heard! He was more aloof and stayed to the back of the large enclosure, but that didn’t stop him joining in with a howl!

The next pack we came across was the arctic wolves, Massak, Pukak and Sikko. Sikko is the only female in this pack, where she lives with her brothers. They were born during a severe snowstorm in Park Safari, Quebec, and abandoned by their mother, who got out of her den with one other pup, but didn’t accept these three back as they had been touched by humans, who revived them from severe hyperthermia. Pukak loves his food and sometimes paws at the fence in anticipation. Massak is the dominant male and often lets his brother and sister go to greet visitors first. All of these wolves have thick, white coats to protect them from freezing arctic temperatures.

The next pack we saw was Mai and Motomo. Mai was separated from the pack with her sister and now lives with Motomo, an unsocialised wolf from Devon. Though partially spayed now, Mai and Motomo had been getting on better than expected as, soon after they were put together, Mai was found to be pregnant. We saw their offspring in the next enclosure. Apparently Mai likes to howl to Motomo when she is away on a walk. Motomo was only hand-reared for two weeks of his life, so he can’t be handled by the volunteers as he is still very scared of humans.

In the last large enclosure are Mai and Motomo’s offspring, now 6 years old. They were very playful when we came up, chasing and growling at one another. Nuka is the dominant male and the most adopted wolf at the trust. He already knows which humans he doesn’t want to have around him! Tala is a very friendly and inquisitive wolf, who is often put in her place by her sister Tundra, the dominant wolf in the pack. Tala’s inquisitiveness sometimes leads to the destruction of things such as Christmas trees put in their enclosure for children’s events! Tundra is a wary wolf who is less likely to come and greet visitors. If her brother and sister do silly things like playing in the pond, Tundra just looks on and doesn’t join in.

The wolves are well-cared for and have plenty of space to run around. As well as looking after the wolves in its care, the trust also supports other projects to help wolves in other parts of the world – both in terms of caring for captive wolves and educating the local population. The centre is also involved in research projects to enable people to better understand these wonderful animals.

If you’d like to support the Wolf Conservation Trust, there are plenty of different ways for you to get involved. If you can get to Reading, there are Howl Nights or wolf walks throughout the year. You can also make a donation, adopt a wolf, give a child a junior membership, or buy a wide range of wolf merchandise from the store. I’d already got myself a pair of earrings and a necklace online, but last night I also came back with a mug, a keyring, another pair of earrings and a hoodie! All for a good cause, so that’s ok 😉

Are there any nature or conservation organisations that you like to support?

Christmas tree in Stockholm

Listen to the podcast episode

I’ve also produced a podcast episode about the wolves. You can look for Unseen Beauty on Apple podcasts (previously known as iTunes), or wherever you get your podcasts. Alternatively, you can listen to it here:

The calendars

Going back to Blogmas and the advent calendars- what was behind your door no. 16?

L’Occitane – this time it was another soap – the last of the 3!

M&S: this time I got a hair spray, which I won’t use, so that’s something for Mother Christmas!

We still haven’t finished our Christmas shopping, so you can guess what we’ll be doing later!

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I got in the media by accident – twice

Two stories of accidental media coverage

I got in the media by accident – twice

They say you never know who’s watching. This is especially true if you are blind and can’t see who’s watching!

Now that I have my own business, some positive media coverage is always welcome, but I managed to get myself in the media twice without even knowing it – first by gatecrashing a statement on national TV, and then because I asked a policeman a question nobody had asked him before.
I’m not proud of these things, but they did make me laugh – that is after I’d got over the embarrassment of the first one.

So, you need to know that I used to work in central London, where there are sooo many people. My guide dog and I got around well, but tourists were a constant problem for us. Not because I’m against tourists in general, but when they get into big groups, they have a habit of taking up the whole pavement, even when it’s really wide, and not letting anyone through. This is a pain when you have to get to work, and it makes a guide dog’s job even harder. I did on occasion let people know my frustration, especially when I worked at an office close to the London dungeon, which always had massive, sprawling queues outside.

Anyway, on one cold, rainy morning I was making my way into the office and as was often the case, there was a crowd of people outside my office. Sometimes big busses used to let people off there, so this was nothing too unusual. I just jostled my way through, a bit grumpy about people who were hanging around the entrance so other people couldn’t get in.

When I got to my office, my colleague said she knew I had arrived because she had seen me on TV. One of the senior staff had been giving a live press statement outside the building and I had had no idea! Oops! If I’d known, I would have gone and got a coffee instead of marching straight through – but I didn’t know!

After that, a cab driver near to my home said he’d recognised me from the TV, as did a journalist that I met on the tube a few months later! Not really what I wanted to be known for – my hair was a bit wild because of the wind and rain – but after that I was always more cautious when approaching our front entrance!

The second time was another wintry day, but this time there was snow. The outer London boroughs generally get more of the stuff than Central London. I worked in Central London, and as it took me about an hour and a half to get home, there was already a nice, thick, blanket of snow on the ground. I was wearing my office shoes – so not the best – but I was happy enough to tackle the walk home! Cindy, my guide dog, loved the snow, especially when we got home and could play snowball games in the garden.

Anyway, as I was walking out of the train station, a guy stopped me, said that he was a policeman, and asked if I wanted a lift home! I was happy about the idea, but I wasn’t about to hop in the car with any random guy claiming to be a policeman, and I knew that the Met Officers carry Braille ID cards. (I knew this because an officer had stopped me to ask what the Braille on his badge actually said!)

I think the police officer was a bit taken aback that someone had asked him for ID, but he produced it, I was satisfied, and we hopped into the back of the police car to be driven home. I was glad of the ride because the snow had started to melt with all the people trampling over it, and then it had frozen over again, becoming quite slippery in places.

I told my colleagues about my ride home and we thought no more of it until the story appeared in the local news! Of course it had been hyped up a bit – something like “police rescue blind woman stranded on her way home” rather than “police offer lift to woman who was minding her own business walking home”, but I was fine with their raising the point about the Braille ID cards, because it’s important that blind people know about them. You don’t want to just let anyone into your house or take you somewhere claiming that they work for the police. The only thing I wasn’t so impressed about was the fact that they said “a woman in her 30s” when I was only 29 at the time!

Do you have any accidental media stories? Let me know in the comments!

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Tips on style, products, and organisation from Jane – a Rehab Officer for Vision Impairment

Tips on style, products, and organisation from Jane – a rehabilitation officer for Vision impairment

You may remember Jane from my article about a holiday with a difference article. I decided to do a more in-depth article with Jane because she works as a Rehabilitation Officer for Vision Impairment and I thought she would have some good tips in relation to style, clothes, and appearance for people with different levels of visual impairment. My tips work for me, but I know very little about what tips and tricks people with partial sight use, or what other low-tech solutions are on offer. If there’s something that I’ve hated with a passion since I was a child, it was a one-size-fits-all mentality. In this interview, the answers are all from Jane, apart from the paragraphs in brackets, which are my thoughts.

1. Can you tell us something about yourself and your job?

“I work as a Rehab Officer for Vision Impairment (ROVI). I work for a local authority and have been in the job for 5 years.In preparation for this, I completed two years vocational training at Birmingham City university.
I assist people who have sight conditions in maintaining their independence. This can be people who are new to sight loss, or people who’ve never been able to see. There are many ways in which people can be referred to us, such as through the hospital system or they can refer themselves. We don’t work with children, because that’s a different department, so all of my service users are 18 and over.”

2. What are some of the most common questions that people ask you about looking after their appearance, clothes, hair, nails, shopping etc?

“Many clients are frustrated that they can’t check their own appearance. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help, and in other cases there is nobody around who can give the help.”
(Kirsty: I can believe this. I lived on my own for over 10 years, and my dog never got into style and fashion feedback! Now my boyfriend does check my make-up if he’s around, but I can understand that many guys wouldn’t be interested in helping with this task! Even if they were interested, some friends and relatives aren’t comfortable about giving really honest feedback – and let’s be fair – some blind people aren’t good at taking it! But when I say “do I look ok?” I mean it – I’d much rather fix anything that wasn’t right before I leave the house, than wander round looking odd.)
“If people have some useful sight, a magnifying mirror can help, particularly for tasks like shaving or applying make-up. Some of my clients use this one. Try to avoid really cheap mirrors because I’ve found they can have a distortion in the glass.
Also, good lighting above the bathroom mirror can make things much easier.
I also get questions about hair styles. My advice is usually to start with something simple that’s easy to manage. You can always build up your skills when you have some free time, or else go to the hairdresser for something more elaborate if you have an important occasion coming up.”
(Kirsty: I would say this applies to make-up too. I know I’d rather do a simple look well, than attempt something really complicated and do an average or a bad job of it. The time for building up your skills is not half an hour before an important night out – it’s those evenings in when you are not under any pressure. When I want to try something new, I get feedback on it first before incorporating it into a look for going out.)
“If you’re learning make-up, or even if you’re not – you could stick to paler colours, because then mistakes would be less noticeable.
If you’re on your own and you aren’t sure what colour something is, or whether something looks ok, there is a phone app called “be my eyes”, which puts you in touch with a sighted volunteer. Video apps on your phone also mean that you can call a friend on Skype or Facetime and ask for some advice. If you don’t want a video call, you could send a selfie.”
(Kirsty: This is true – I had a friend checking outfits, make-up and jewellery with me once when I was planning for a date. It didn’t matter that she lived miles away – the video conference made it feel as though she were in the room with me!)
“If you would rather rely on image recognition than a person when you want to find out what something is, you could try the TapTapSee app. This won’t tell you whether you look ok, but it can help you tell the difference that feel similar by identifying what they are.
Matching clothes is another issue that often comes up. People don’t want to go out wearing outfits that don’t match, and there are a number of things that you can do. For example, there is a device called the Penfriend. You record messages on labels to say what things are, and the device replays the message when you scan the label in the future. This can also be useful when you want to know the washing instructions. You have to have someone read these out the first time, but then the job is done, and there are special labels for the Penfriend that can go through the washing machine.
Some people buy a lot of black trousers or skirts, and then any top or shirt that they put with them will look ok. Some people sew different shaped buttons into clothing so that they know what colour the garment is. Others make a habit of not buying a lot of the same item in different colours. In addition, there are colour detector devices, which identify the colour of clothes, and even apps that do the same thing.
Some people keep certain types of clothes together to make them easier to find (all the jumpers together etc), and others keep going out clothes and scruffy clothes separate. If you have shoes of different colour that feel similar, keep them apart, or keep them in shoe boxes. ”
(Kirsty: I have never seen colours. I understand the concept of light and dark, and that’s about it. Still, I think it’s useful to learn what colour things are, even if the colour names are just words to me, because then I can learn which ones can go together, or which ones suit me.)
“Other people ask questions about how to know when clothes are clean.”
(Kirsty: I don’t struggle with this, but it is annoying if you get a coffee stain on something and you don’t know whether it came out in the wash. I once took a red-wine-stained dress to the dry cleaner’s, and they didn’t tell me they hadn’t got the stain out when I picked it up. This was really annoying! I guess really all you can do is ask if you can’t be sure. On the subject of washing, we have different baskets for the different colours. I do the washing, but my partner has to put his clothes in the right basket!)
“As a sighted person, it can be hard to bring up that someone doesn’t look ok. Most people would want to know if their skirt is tucked in their underwear, but what about if someone’s top is inside out, or if they have lipstick on their teeth? Do you point this out? How will the other person respond?”

3. What tips could you give someone who wants to know more about current trends if they can’t see the pictures in adverts?

  • It’s good to ask your friends, someone the same age, and definitely someone you trust and who can distance themselves from what they like or would wear.
  • Youtube is a good source of information. Some Youtubers are better than others at describing things, but some go into detail about what clothes or make-up products look like.
  • Well-written blogs are the same – you won’t get much information if people only post a load of images, but some are quite descriptive.
  • There are personal shopper services at places like House of Fraser or Debenhams – the service is free and they are not pushy about whether you buy.
  • If you find a brand that you like, you might like other things from them and it’s easier to choose the right size.

4. What things are still good to know, even if people don’t ask?

“I think sometimes, whether or not they have a visual impairment, people don’t think about the way things change as you get older. Some of the lipsticks that you wore in your 20s might not look as good in your 50s. Your skin changes, so as well as needing different skincare products, the tone can change as well. Do you still want to keep the same hairstyle? This isn’t just limited to blind people, but not seeing people of your own age ageing around you can mean that you don’t think about these things as much.”

5.What advice do you give people about shopping for clothes/make-up/accessories?

  • Find someone who will give you an honest opinion – whether that’s a personal shopper or a trusted family member or friend.
  • Dresses can be easier, because you don’t have to find a top to match!
  • Try to pair things that are the same style – don’t mix formal trousers with a scruffy top.
  • Some things can be dressed up, others can’t
  • Have input on the things that you can decide. You might need advice on colours, but you know which fabrics feel good to you and how long/short you want things to be.
    • 6. What tips have you come across for marking things in the bathroom or organising toiletries?

      • Some people stick labels on products, although this can be a pain if the products get wet. Others mark the packaging in some way, or use an elastic band to make the shampoo feel different from the conditioner
      • If you share a bathroom, have your own space, so you only have to think about identifying your products.
      • This wouldn’t work if you want to keep to the same brand, but you could make a point of buying bottles that don’t feel the same.
      • Some products are already tactile – such as the raised letters on Radox bottles.
      • Some companies, such as L’Occitane, put Braille labels on their products.
      • I’ve already mentioned the Penfriend – I’ve seen someone using it to label smaller items such as lipsticks.
      • Don’t have too much stuff out

      (Kirsty: I would really struggle with the last point – I’d rather have to remember a lot of stuff than not have too much stuff out, but everyone is different and you have to do what feels right for you! If you do want different products that feel the same, you could buy the shampoo one week, mark it, then buy the conditioner. I don’t do this now, but I used to do it all the time when I had nobody to ask!)

      Band-It products are An alternative to regular elastic bands. You can also buy the Band-Its from RNIB.

      Here’s a note about the Band-its from Hannah who designed them: “Band-its are thick elastic bands with distinctive tactile shapes around the edge, such as cubes, cylinders and lines. This makes them easy to tell apart by touch and not just by colour, which is particularly useful if you have very limited sight. The thickness of the bands also means the colours are very prominent on the bottles. They are also suitable for use in a wet environment, such as a bathroom.”

      7. What are a couple of common frustrations, either from people who have lost their sight or who have always been blind, and what solutions have you found?

      (Kirsty: When I asked this question, I was thinking about my experiences with powder make-up products, and how I’m not too fond of them. I solved this by using cream products. ~Also, at school, I was hopeless at painting my nails, but I got other students to do it for me in exchange for help with homework! I didn’t do the homework for them, but it was a bit like extra tuition in exchange for something I couldn’t do myself.)

      Problem 1: not being able to find things.
      Solution: having designated places for things, having your own space where other people won’t move things, and remembering to put things away. The iPhone has the “find my iPhone” app, and you can also get devices to attach to things such as keys. The devices can be tracked so that you can follow it to the keys. Maybe you could also declutter!

      Problem 2: where can I go if I need help? There isn’t always someone around
      Solution: it’s good to build up a network of friends with similar interests. Not just so that you can ask them things, but if they are your friends anyway, they won’t mind helping out once in a while, and you can find ways to help them too. Also having a network means that you’re not asking the same person all the time. There is also the “be my eyes” app.

      Problem 3: I’m not good at taming my brows.
      Solution: if you don’t feel confident about plucking your brows, you could have them plucked for you, in the same way that people get their eye lashes tinted or a professional wax or tan. Work out which things you want to do yourself, and which you want to get done professionally.

      8. What kind of questions come from the men in terms of looking after the way they look?

      “Sometimes men are concerned about shaving. If you don’t feel comfortable with a razor, an electric shaver can be a good alternative. A magnifying mirror can help if you have some vision, but also don’t be afraid to rely on your sense of touch to feel whether you got all the hairs.”
      (Kirsty: Blind people can use shavers – I do – but it’s about finding out what people are comfortable with and getting the job done in a safe and comfortable way.)

      9. Do you ever get asked about tanning?

      (Kirsty: I asked this because this comes up in so many beauty discussions, but I’m really not interested. This is the colour my skin is, and that’s ok for me.)

      “I understand why some people would be worried about self-tanning, especially if you can’t see if it’s gone on easily. I know people that have had success with spray tans, where the tan is applied for you.”

      10. Do you know any good resources (blogs, magazines, accessible books etc) for blind or partially sighted people looking for style tips?

      Tell us in the comments if you are aware of any other links and resources that you think should be added to this list!

      Thanks to Jane for her time and tips!

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How accessible is healthcare?

My experiences of healthcare – a post from the perspective of someone with a visual impairment

I find it much easier to write product posts, which in a way are more impersonal, but I do also want to have some opinion pieces on the blog that tackle issues around accessibility and the challenges and solutions I’ve found as someone with a visual impairment.

Healthcare isn’t something that I really think about much. I do have a health condition that I need to be aware of, but generally I’m reasonably healthy and I haven’t spent much time in hospitals or at the doctor’s.

Still, a recent trip to the hospital got me thinking about the accessibility of healthcare for people with a visual impairment. These experiences are my own, and this isn’t an investigative piece to represent the views of other blind people.

I think the worst experience I had was when I was about 14 or 15. I went to the doctor or nurse, I can’t even remember now, for a general check-up.

Doctor: Do you need contraceptives?
Me: NO.
Doctor: Oh, no, I suppose it would be more difficult for you.

What exactly? Surely not the physical act! Or did she mean it would be more difficult for me to find someone who would want to be in a relationship with me? I was incensed!

“No”, I said, in my “you’re-tedious-stop-wasting-my-time” voice, with the disdain that only a teenage girl can pull off. “I just don’t need them”.

I have never usually held back, but at that moment I didn’t know what to say. I wish I had said more. I certainly would now, but you know how it is when something takes you by surprise and you’re lost for words. Still, that could have completely destroyed someone’s self-confidence if it had happened to someone else. I was just annoyed, but I still remember it 20 years later. You know the saying – people may forget what you did, they may forget what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.

I don’t think any kind of training could have fixed that. Any reasonable person would know that’s not a cool thing to say.

Just to clarify, I am not complaining about teenagers being offered contraceptives, but those who don’t need them shouldn’t have to justify why not!

However that was a long time ago now. The care that I received in the hospital recently was great. Everyone I met explained what they were doing, and when I needed to go somewhere else, people just guided me there. Prior to the operation, there were forms that needed to be filled out by hand, but someone was available to do that.

I don’t have a guide dog now, but when I did and I was visiting someone in a hospice, nobody tried to prevent my dog from coming in. I think they were happy to see her and a waggy tail was welcome in a place where people were going through a sad and difficult time!

Technology makes it easy for things to be accessible. For example, my doctor’s surgery and my dentist send out appointment reminders by text (the dentist does email as well). This means that the information is automatically accessible to me because I can read it with the speech software on my phone or laptop. Access to the internet also makes information available that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to access without help, and this helps in terms of being able to read up about anything related to my health, animal health, or the research being carried out into sight restoration. More about that in another post.

In terms of patient letters, I did have to ask for it specifically, but I got the preparation letter about the operation and the surgeon’s letter by email. This wasn’t standard practice (it would save so many trees if it were), but I just had to request them so that I could have them in a format I could read. It would be helpful if this could be extended to all correspondence, not just the letters that you are anticipating and can request by email. I take it for granted that my business is paperless and it will take a while before large organisations catch up!

When I moved to a new area, shopping around proved to be the best way to find a new dentist. I initially registered with one practice, but I found the guy so dismissive and unhelpful, that I decided not to let him loose on my chompers. I don’t think that had anything to do with visual impairment though, just poor customer service. Still, I’m glad it happened, because I then went somewhere much better. My dentist is kind and helpful, and she shows me what she is going to do, the tools that she is going to use on me, and the plaster moulds of my teeth so I can feel the difference between how they were and how they would be after the treatment.

My eye condition is stable, but I do have check-ups at the eye hospital. The consultants are great, but to be honest some of my more frustrating experiences have been there whilst going through the preliminaries. If I can’t see you at all, then it makes no sense to make me do the “how many fingers can you see” exercises. Fortunately one of the doctors has put a note on my record so I don’t have to do that, but some more initiative at the beginning would have been nice! If I can’t make my eyes look in a certain direction because I have nothing to focus on, repeating the instruction won’t help. I understood the first time! I just can’t do it! I do find these visits kind of tiring, but they are worth it because at the end you get to speak to someone who knows a lot about your eye condition and current research.

Generally I attend appointments on my own, but I did take my partner in once because he had some pictures of an allergic reaction I’d experienced. I also took him to the appointments about my operation for moral support. Most of the time it was fine, and people still addressed me because I was the patient, but I think many people with disabilities know what a pain it is when people start talking to the person with you, when they should be talking directly to you. We don’t go along with that, and they soon learn that they need to speak to me!

Perhaps this is something that people could learn in some kind of awareness training, although as someone who has grown up in a world where most people I meet, including my teachers, colleagues, and new friends had never met another blind person before meeting me, I think most people are smarter than we give them credit for, and I don’t believe that awareness training necessarily solves every potential problem. If everyone followed the rules of not making assumptions about people, asking questions when they’re not sure, and talking directly to the person, whether or not they have anyone with them, that would be a great start! I often feel more comfortable with people who’ve had no experience of visual impairment, than those who have been working in the field for so long that they think everyone is the same in terms of how they do or perceive things.

The systems used in some surgeries for letting people know when it’s their turn are not accessible. I mean the ones where you have to wait for your number to come up on the screen. I can’t see those, so in those cases I asked someone from reception to let me know when it was my turn. I guess there is the risk that you could be forgotten, but this never happened to me and my current surgery doesn’t do that – you just have to wait for your name to be called.

I am very happy about the ruling that requires medication to have Braille labels. This makes life so much easier for me to know what things are without having to label them myself. Hopefully we won’t lose that when we leave the EU – that would definitely be a step backwards in terms of accessibility to information. The information leaflet is not in Braille, but as long as I know the name of the medication, I can go online to look for the leaflet.

Overall I’d say my experience of the healthcare system has been good. I think that people with disabilities have a responsibility to be approachable and explain what they need or what would be helpful, rather than expecting other people to know – because seriously, how can they? Everyone is different.

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