Facebook memories, free coffee, and 7 years of working for myself full-time

So, yesterday Facebook reminded me that 7 years ago, the guy outside the station gave me free coffee.

I didn’t know his name and I don’t think he knew mine.

He sold coffee outside my local station and, as I started and finished work late in an attempt to miss commuter traffic, there wasn’t usually a queue when I got there. This was a good thing because I was often late. I don’t like mornings anyway. Mornings when you have to go to a job that you don’t want to be doing any more – that’s a recipe for lateness!

So, there were no other customers and the coffee guy and I got chatting. He knew I was counting down the days to finishing life as an employee. To be fair, some of my colleagues knew about this countdown too. One of the lawyers used to joke with me and asked me most mornings how many days it was.

Saying goodbye

When it was 50 days away, it seemed like for ever! Then it was 30, 20 – then single figures! It was getting real!

On the last day, the guy selling coffee said he knew how long I’d been looking forward to this day and the coffee was on him! Such a nice thing to do!

I think things are always hard in the last few days of a job. I’ve never left a job to not have one – it was either to move to another job or to go self-employed. But you either find everyone that you ever knew wanting you to do stuff that apparently only you can do, just before you leave, or you end up doing the most boring things ever because everyone thinks it’s pointless for you to start something new. Or someone who hates you decides to give you a really awful project to do as a “parting gift”.

I’ve experienced all of these. But as I sat there on the train, drinking my coffee and doing the commute for the last time, I was excited!

A manager (not my manager, but one who often made time for me and helped me out) took me for lunch. I did very little work. I had a speech planned, but in the end couldn’t be bothered with most of it. Those who mattered knew how I felt, and those who didn’t, didn’t matter!

I went for hot chocolate with my team mate, one of the few people I’d genuinely miss, and then I got back on the train for the last time as a commuter.

I reached down and patted my golden retriever girl. Things would be different for my guide dog too. NO more cramped trains. Visits to the park in the daytime. I thought she might miss some of our friends, but she’d probably like self-employed life too. We’d both had a little taster of it when I tried to work from home once in a while, but that’s really not the same as doing it full time.

And all of that was seven years ago now – it feels like much longer than that! I’ve moved house twice, once to a new town, started a relationship, got engaged…

First months

The business isn’t actually seven years old this month – I began it in the April and worked on it part-time. But it really felt like it was happening when I handed in my laptop for my old job, gave back my security pass, and said goodbye to the people who were now my ex-colleagues!

I’d given myself 9 months to decide whether it was going to work out. After all, I had no idea. I had a concept and a couple of customers already, but no guarantee that the idea was viable. I was the sole breadwinner, so I needed it to work. Perhaps if I had been really happy in my last job, I wouldn’t have felt as empowered to leave, but I knew I was taking a risk. The couple of people who said I was crazy actually inspired me to prove them wrong, and everyone else was pretty supportive.

I decided that if things weren’t working out after 9 months, I had a couple more months to find a new job before things got really desperate! “Working out” didn’t mean earning the same as I used to, but it did mean that things were going in the right direction and I thought there was a realistic chance of English with Kirsty providing me with a reasonable income and way to pay the rent, have some kind of social life, and facilitate me doing the things I wanted to do.

I worked really hard during those first months. Too hard actually – I didn’t make time for friends or take any time off. So that was my first lesson. I’d always thought my time management was pretty good, but I can get hyper focussed on something to the detriment of everything else. I still made sure my dog was taken care of and basic things like that, but life had got a bit out of balance!

Once I’d got into the swing of things, I loved it. I knew I’d love working from home and not sharing my office with anyone. I was disciplined enough to make it work, and I enjoyed having the ultimate responsibility for decisions. If something goes wrong, it’s my fault and I’ll do better next time, but I’ll never again have to pay lip-service to something that I think is a really stupid idea!

Seven years later

I’ve learned a lot since then! I’ve learned that some months are better than others, and you need to take a longer-term view, not letting how you feel about yourself be determined by how busy you are on any given day.

I’ve learned that not everyone who offers training in the areas that you need will do a good job, but there are some fantastic people out there.

I’ve learned that quality of life is more important than climbing the career ladder in the traditional sense, especially if the latter is making you miserable. Yes, it’s still hard when I see what other people are doing now who carried on in the direction that I was going. Sometimes it’s hard not to compare myself to them – usually if I’m having a bad day anyway! But I chose a different path, and there’s a lot to be said for going to work with a smile because you enjoy what you do, and not having the awful Sunday night feeling where you’re dreading Monday morning!

I’ve learned that you don’t only need people in your own industry in your network. There’s a lot of support to be gained from other self-employed people, even if you’re working on completely different things.

I’ve learned that things change, and you have to keep your eye on the ball – things that worked in 2012 are not working now, but there are some new ideas that are working really well.

I’ve learned that people who annoy you before they’ve even signed up will probably continue to annoy you if you decide to work with them. First impressions can tell you a lot, so try to attract the people with whom you’re going to enjoy working!

I’ve learned that some of the best parts of my job are when you see how you’re making a difference to someone’s life.

I’ve learned that it’s good to take stock of where you are and where you want to be – stopping some activities when they’re not adding value, and realising when it’s time to grow. That’s why I added a second website this year called EwK Services, for all my translation, communication, and accessibility consultancy services.

I’ve seen my website grow from something with four or five pages, to one that has a blog, a podcast, and plenty of resources for people who want to learn English.

I’ve developed new skills in marketing, podcasting, bookkeeping – if you don’t outsource, you learn to do things yourself.

I’ve written and published two books.

I’ve met really interesting people from different countries and with fascinating stories.

I’ve found a way to use my German skills –something I always wanted to do, but never managed when I was employed.

I’ve become a teacher – something I’ve been wanting to do since I was about 5!

I’ve been able to move and not remain tied to a physical place – after all, my customers are in at least four different countries and they don’t care where I am as long as I have a good internet connection. This is also great when there’s snow outside, or when I’m managing other health issues – working from home really is the best option for me.

I’ve learned to celebrate the small wins – and the big ones too! To recognise them and acknowledge the work that went into achieving them.

I’ve got something that I have built. I ask others for help when I need it, but this is something that I started, at a time where online training wasn’t as common as it is now.

It definitely hasn’t been easy. Starting something from scratch never is, especially when it means you have no guaranteed set income each month as you do in paid employment. You have to earn it!

There have been setbacks, such as the time when I moved and the stupid phone company didn’t get my internet connection sorted out quickly. There was the time when I could no longer use the site where I’d found a lot of my customers and my main marketing strategy had to be replaced, pretty much overnight. There were times when big customers’ contracts came to an end and they had to be replaced or there’d be a gaping hole in my earnings. There was the time when I had more requests than I could handle – mainly because I was under-pricing my services. But all of these things taught me something as well and gave me tools to use if something similar happened in the future.

It’s good to plan and look forward. But sometimes it’s also good to look back and remember the journey so that you can see how far you’ve come. This little Facebook reminder helped me to do that yesterday.

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Blindness and not being able to drive – getting around without my own car

When I was growing up, my grandparents always had a car. It was only Granddad who could drive it, so if Nan and I needed to get somewhere when Granddad was at work, we needed to walk, take the bus, or wait. I think this taught me that a car was a good thing to have, but when you don’t have one around, you don’t just have to stay at home.

The car certainly came in useful for things like going to riding lessons and meeting my friends who didn’t live in the village. But certainly when I was at primary school, Nan walked with me in the morning – whatever the weather – and Granddad usually came to pick me up in the afternoon. If it was really bad weather, he’d bring the car, but most of the time we walked. It wasn’t far. And really it was nice to spend time with them.

As I got older, I could have lifts, but I had to pay a small amount if I wanted to go into town. I thought this was really mean at the time, but I suppose it taught me that parents aren’t a taxi service. When I see what some kids – and girlfriends for that matter – expect of their parents and partners, I can kind of see my grandparents’ point. Nobody should be taken for granted. Having said that, my friends didn’t charge petrol money, so getting lifts with them was more cost-effective!

At high school transport became more of an issue because my friends lived further away. I did my a-levels at a school quite far away, and then nobody lived nearby. But people were accommodating and if I was doing anything with people from school, I was usually invited to stay over with one of my friends. There was a lot more to do in the big city than the little village where I lived!

At that time I used to hang around with people who were mostly older than me. Many of them had cars. Some didn’t, and not just because they couldn’t see. I couldn’t contribute to the driving around, but I never felt left behind. I tried to find other things that I could do to help. Maybe it made me try to be a better friend so I didn’t seem the one who was taking favours all the time. But I never really thought much of it because most of my sighted school friends weren’t in a hurry to get a car and start driving.

Moving to London

It was a culture shock moving from my little village to the capital. But it was liberating too. As long as I could get myself to the nearest tube station, I could go anywhere. I just had to think about how to get from the tube station at the other end to where I was going. If it was things like work or favourite restaurants, I learned the way. If it was for one-off things, I met up with friends or took a taxi – most stations had taxi ranks outside. There are also travel benefits for blind people in London that you don’t get in the rest of the country.

I got to know the tube network really well. I learned about the trains. I planned how I would get around so that I could always leave when I wanted to, not when others did. If I was meeting someone for the first time, I suggested central places for us to meet, but made sure they were places that I knew too. I asked questions about places so that I could build up a map in my mind. I practiced things until I felt confident. I had bad days – tourists, roadworks, and confusing layouts will do that to you, but each day was a new start and if I fell, literally or metaphorically, I got up again!

I didn’t spend my time wandering round unfamiliar streets hoping for the best. Some blind people rely on their navigation systems a lot more than I did – but I worked hard to be able to afford that luxury and I don’t apologise for it because I don’t think I have anything to prove. Being able to afford to do all the things I wanted to with the least hassle was an incentive for me to work hard and move up the career ladder. I don’t enjoy getting lost!

It probably helped that this was pretty much the same as what most of my friends and colleagues were doing too. We all got the train home. Many of us got our shopping delivered because taking heavy groceries on the bus was a pain. We all walked a lot.

Also, not all of my taxi journeys were blindness-related. I was happy to pay for one instead of walking home late at night in the dark. It was just the smart thing to do.

When I moved out of central London, many of my friends were able to drive, but very few of them did if they wanted to go into town, which most of us did during the week for work. So cars were never the main way to get around.

Weekends were different. If you wanted to go into the countryside, you really did need a car. We often joked that my friends shared my dog – because they enjoyed taking her for long walks with me – and I shared their car.

Sometimes my friends offered me lifts – either because we were going to the same place, or they found out I was planning something that would be a nightmare on local transport, such as a really early flight when I was travelling alone. I tried to make it up to them in some other way – petrol money, lunch, a couple of beers – it depended on the journey. They never asked, but it felt like the right thing to do. Maybe that’s because of what my grandparents taught me.

Living outside of London

Since I’ve been with S, I’ve got used to being in a household with a car. I quite like it! No more crowded trains, apart from on the rare occasions when we go to London.

S knew from the outset that we wouldn’t be sharing the driving.

If he’s around, he does give me lifts, but I don’t see him as my taxi service. It’s always good to have multiple options when it comes to getting a job done. Public transport isn’t as good here as it was in London, but we do have taxis.

It is harder here because when people choose venues for things, there is a general assumption that people will be driving there – but hey, car pooling is good for the environment and I think it’s ok as long as you don’t take people for granted. I’ve paid for petrol before. I’ve paid for taxis so that friends don’t have to drive all the time. Sometimes I accept lifts from friends who want to be nice. If I can think of something nice to do for them, I’ll do it.

Ultimately, there are a whole host of reasons why some people might struggle with this more than I do. I have my own sight-related struggles. I don’t want to make light of anyone’s feelings of frustrations about not being able to do this, but I did want to share some of my coping strategies because they might help someone else.

Are self-driving cars the answer for blind people?

I’ve seen articles where some blind people are getting really excited about the idea of self-driving cars. But I don’t think they are the answer.

I certainly understand why it feels better to rely on technology instead of a person. My Seeing AI app is great for reading the post, reading labels on beauty products (most of the time), and checking out things in the kitchen. It takes away that step of the process where I need to find a functioning pair of human eyes. But a car?

My first problem with the idea that self-driving cars are the answer to our independent travel problems is that they’re not the only ones on the road. There are other people doing crazy things too. As a passenger, how many times do I hear friends cursing about some other driver being unpredictable, careless, or just really stupid?

The whole point when in charge of a self-driving car is that someone is supposed to be paying attention and step in if something is about to go wrong. I don’t want to be responsible for hitting someone’s dog or small child that wasn’t picked up by the sensors, or ploughing into a vehicle because it was the wrong colour (I read an article about that).

And to be honest, as a pedestrian, I wouldn’t be happy at a driver’s defence if I got hit by a driverless car with a blind person behind the wheel. Sighted people are not supposed to be sprawling out and watching Netflix when they’re at the wheel of driverless cars, so I think it’s a long way before we can see them as the vehicle of choice for people with no usable vision.

Maybe in 50 years someone will find this and have a good laugh – but given what’s available now, I have no urge to start planning for when I just put my destination into a driverless car and hope for the best.

I have been behind the wheel of a car once – a crazy friend decided to give me a lesson in a field in his car. It was fine, apart from the near-miss with the tree! We had a laugh and I learned some things! If I could see I think I’d probably be a fairly safe driver, but I can be pretty intolerant of other people’s stupid behaviour – even as a pedestrian!

I understand it must be hard for blind people who previously had sight and used to be able to drive. But then there’s always the flipside – they had this experience which I don’t. I always get tired of the “what’s worse” debate, because I don’t think you can really say. It’s comparing two very different experiences.

How to reduce the problems associated with not being able to drive

I’m in some groups for parents of visually impaired children and I do come across people whose children or who themselves really struggle with not being able to drive. The fact that I don’t find this so hard has nothing to do with me not finding my blindness a total inconvenience sometimes. I do. It’s just that driving isn’t high up on my list of reasons for why this is.

There are some things that I have done though that have made things easier for me as someone who is unable to drive:

  1. Think about transport when deciding where to live. London was great for me in this respect. As I moved further out, each time I had a good look at how easy it would be to get to the station from every property I looked at. Nobody wants to feel trapped or isolated, and choosing accommodation with easy links to the transport network will make life easier. This meant moving away from my family, but apart from the lack of job prospects, life for a non-driver in a little country village would have been much harder.
  2. Budget for additional transport costs. I set aside money for taxis because I knew that I would need them. I didn’t want to be a burden on my friends all the time, and anyone with their own car has to budget for transport costs too – petrol, MOT, road tax etc. If I pay for someone to drive me, I’m not being dependent. I’m giving them work. I can do it when I want to, not when someone else has time to help. It puts me back in control of getting the job done, even if I’m not the one driving there.
  3. Take time to get to know your local area.
  4. In some cases, it’s just easier to get the job done online!
  5. Build up a good network. Taking lifts from friends is still hard sometimes, but there are ways to make it a give-and-take arrangement, even if you’re not giving and taking the same things. Maybe you’re really good at something that your friend with a car can’t do. Maybe you can think of something to buy or do for them that would make them happy. If you’re doing something with friends, maybe you can be in charge of organising or sorting out another part of it while someone else does the driving. Also, if you’re not asking the same people for help all the time, it doesn’t feel like such a big ask!
  6. Plan! I plan less now because I know if I find some place for us to go or activity for us to do, it will probably involve S or one of my friends driving there. So we really just need the post code and the sat nav. But previously I got good at planning – finding the easiest way to get across London (I generally liked busy stations with lots of people rather than deserted ones), organised car sharing, planned to do multiple things in the same area to cut down on unnecessary logistical nightmares, or made the effort to make contact with people who would be making the same journey. Ok, planning and organising come naturally to me and I find there’s something quite therapeutic about them, but even if this isn’t the case, a good plan can go a long way to reducing the stress of travelling around.

Do you have any tips to add to this list?

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5 ways I’m kinder to myself now that I’m in my 30s

I don’t think something spectacular happens when you hit your 30s. I remember waking up on the morning of my 30th birthday thinking “I will never ever do this again” after one two many red wines (I’m sure hang-overs get worse when you reach the magic number!), but really it’s just the same as making the transition into any other year of your life. Having said that, I can think of some changes I’ve made since leaving my 20s, and here are five that are for the better.

1. Getting enough sleep

This is more to do with living with a partner I guess. If S goes away on a business trip, I tend to stay up till all hours finishing some task for work, studying, watching Netflix in bed… I’ve never been someone that needs a lot of sleep, but I think I have a better routine than when I was in my 20s.

Back when I lived in London, I was the first to suggest going out after work, and especially as I lived so far from the office, one of the last to make it home. I never thought anything of staying out till the last train and still making it back to my desk on time the next day, running on coffee and very little else.

Then there was the time when I was trying to do a full-time job and set up my own business. The thing that always had to go was sleep. There weren’t enough hours in the day for all the things I wanted to do, so I just made my days longer and cut out on the sleep!

If I got chatting to someone interesting online – no problem! I’d stay up all night and the next day I’d just have more coffee!

I can do these things now in my late 30s, but they catch up with me a lot quicker and I don’t honestly know how I kept up that kind of thing, often doing it more than once a week and then crashing at weekends!

I’ve always had a pretty flexible relationship with boundaries, especially if I’ve convinced myself that I can do something. I guess now I’ve just realised that just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Also I don’t have anything to prove.

Part of the problem in my 20s was that I wasn’t massively happy at work. It was a way to bring in the money to pay the bills and holidays, but I struggled to feel fulfilled, so looked for this elsewhere in my studies or voluntary work – which all happened at some time in the middle of the night! Yes, I’m a night owl, and it’s so easy to fall into those patterns.

Having no 3-hour commute also helps now. I can cook at a reasonable time and don’t have to fight to get my evening back because half of it has been eaten away by time on the train.

2. Saying no to things I don’t want to do

It’s not like I’m the world’s biggest people-pleaser! If I didn’t want to do something, I’d do all I could to avoid it – from the age of about 3!

But I think in the past there were times when I said “yes” to things because I thought I should be able to do them.

I refused to let the fact that I don’t drive stand in my way, so I’d agree to go to something with 2 train changes and a trek into some completely unknown part of town – because I wasn’t going to admit defeat. Now I just think “screw it! That’s more hassle than it’s worth and I’ll spend more time travelling than I will at the event! It’s not worth my effort!”

There were times when I didn’t want to admit that I don’t enjoy really loud places with big crowds – so I’d just go because I had convinced myself that I should be able to deal with it. Now, I can do it if I really have a reason to, but quality is better than quantity, so I’m more choosy about what I commit to. And far from being left out or having less things to do, my natural tendency to get involved in a lot of things means I still have plenty of options.

3. Having a better skincare routine

From the age of about 10 I had one of those plastic storage baskets filled with toiletries, perfume, moisturisers etc. It’s hardly surprising that the interest continued on into adulthood.

It’s not like I never bothered in my 20s, or that I went to bed every night in my make-up. But since starting the blog, I’ve learned a lot more about the products on offer, what my skin likes, and what you need for a good skincare routine. I think, apart from those few hormonal days when it feels like your skin hates you, I am reaping the benefits of this now.

4. Throwing out the shoes that I can’t walk in

It started off as an act of defiance. I was told that, as someone with a visual impairment, I should buy sensible sturdy shoes! So the first chance I got, I bought the highest, most painful heels I could find, and insisted on walking in them! Not all the time, but any time I was going out somewhere. I also kept a pair at work – because even I drew the line at running for the tube in heels.

I wasn’t bad at it either – yay for high pain tolerance threshold. The biggest problem was that my guide dog couldn’t understand why I suddenly wanted to walk more slowly.

To be fair, I didn’t have any shoe-related accidents as some of my sighted friends did. They did make life harder though – I remember on my 30th birthday celebration just taking them off and walking back to a friend’s flat in my tights because I was done with the shoes!

Of course I’ll get some nice ones for the wedding and I do need some new ones anyway, but I’m past the point of needing to prove that I can do something just because someone once told me not to! A true sign of growing up perhaps?!

5. Accepting help

This is still work in progress, but at least I’m getting better at it. I didn’t have any problems asking for practical help from my friends – like the time when I thought I had a mouse (I didn’t) and the time when the toilet cistern fell apart. But when it comes to anything involving emotions or generally not being ok, I’m usually the one who leaves it till the worst has passed and the solution has been found before I tell anyone that there was even a problem.

Relationship break-up? No problem! Wait a month or so before telling anyone so nobody sees you in bits!

The best way I can describe it is using a quote from a book I read – “it isn’t that I always try to keep things from people – it just didn’t occur to me to share”. I was too busy trying to fix things and overlooked the fact that I maybe didn’t have to do it all on my own.

That, combined with the fact that people always came to me with their problems. Somehow they just kind of expected me to be strong and coping with everything. I didn’t like to shatter the illusion! By the time we were done with the other person’s problems, I had no energy left to talk about mine.

Also, I’m not particularly emotional in front of others. That doesn’t mean I don’t have emotions, but I’d rather cry on my own somewhere than have to listen to people trying their best to help but somehow missing the point because they assumed everything was somehow connected with my visual impairment. Blind girls have the same kind of boringly normal problems too – just like anyone else their age!

If I’m angry, the whole world can know about it. If I’m sad, you may well miss it unless you know what to look for.

That isn’t good though, and living with S has taught me that you need to let other people in sometimes. Just because there have been times in the past when I felt pretty much alone with getting problems fixed, it doesn’t always have to be like that. Sometimes there are people there who would be more than happy to help if I’d let them.

Even last year when I had the accident at home in the middle of the night, I could and should have told people sooner. I had countless offers of help – the first message came within about a minute of my blog post about the whole stupid experience. There are people who want to help me, but I have to be willing to let them.

So yeah, still working on that one, but when you compare now with 10 years ago, I am getting better at it.

So how about you?

In what ways are you kinder to yourself than you were 10 years ago? Let us know in the comments.

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Our visit to Island Farm donkey sanctuary

​I’ve always like donkeys. I think they’re cool and I’ve supported various donkey charities over the years, but the only time I tried to visit one, it was out of season and the sanctuary was closed to the public. One donkey came up to the fence to bray at us, but it wasn’t the same as going inside!

So one of the things I put on our list of things to do on our week off was visit a donkey sanctuary. I discovered the Island farm Donkey Sanctuary near Wallingford in Oxfordshire and we drove there on a sunny day, earlier this week.

There is no entrance fee, but donations are appreciated and you can also support the sanctuary in other ways such as by adopting a donkey, or buying gifts from the shop. The sanctuary is open every day apart from Christmas day from 11 till 4, and they sometimes hold special events. There is one planned for the 2nd Bank Holiday weekend in May (2019) so check out the site if you’d like to go!

Visitors are encouraged to interact with the donkeys, though children should be supervised to ensure they don’t scare the donkeys and any treats should be given in at reception. It’s hard to make sure that all donkeys have a balanced diet if people give them too many treats, and some of the donkeys are on special diets, which means certain foods would be harmful to them.

When we arrived, we saw a lot of donkeys out in their fields. The donkeys are in various fields with groups ranging in size. Donkeys like company!

Speaking of company – going on a weekday during term-time was great, because when we were walking around, there was hardly anyone else there apart from a couple of visitors and people who worked there. I like donkeys more than people!

There was also some information around on the walls to teach visitors about donkeys, what they like to eat, differences between horses and donkeys, and further information about individual donkeys who live at the sanctuary.

After popping into reception, we were encouraged to walk around the grounds and see the donkeys. Many of them were behind electric wire fences. I did reach across to pat one who came right up to us, but I don’t suggest that anyone else does that! Also we later found that some of the donkeys were wandering around on the path area, so I could get up close and talk to a couple of them who were grazing or standing around in the sunshine. As someone who can’t see the animals, I’m always especially happy if I can get to meet some!

They didn’t solicit attention like your average golden retriever! Well maybe they would if they know you, or if they know you’ve come to feed them! But they stood still while I stroked and talked to them, with one of them twitching his ear in my direction. I think they like to know what’s going on!

Jack was definitely up for a stroke, and stood patiently while we had a chat.

Pollyanna must have been tired, because she was chilling out on the floor, happy for me to stroke her lovely silky coat!

Many of the donkeys come to the sanctuary with problems associated with neglect, such as skin problems, parasites, and worst of all, overgrown hooves. These are very painful and if not treated, can lead to problems with walking. This of course means extra vet bills to get the problems sorted out.

The donkeys seemed content, chomping at the grass, or trying to get their friends to play!

As well as around 120 donkeys, and over 50 more living with foster families, there are other animals at the sanctuary such as a couple of Shetland ponies, some chickens, goats, and a pig!

The donkeys have plenty of space to graze and enjoy the sunshine, and as they don’t like getting wet, there are also shelters for when it rains. Some of the ones whom I stroked had been enjoying a roll around, which keeps the pesky flies at bay, and also helps to remove any loose hair.

Some of the donkeys are active in the local community, attending fairs, starring in nativity plays, or taking part in country shows. This raises the profile of the work of the sanctuary and introduces new people to the donkeys. The donkeys have also starred in some TV shows – from animal rescue programmes to children’s TV.

I wanted to support one of the donkeys and decided to adopt Loppy, a 32-year-old mare who has what are believed to be the longest ears (around 45 cm) of any female donkey in the country. She came down from Scotland in 1996 and was bought at a livestock market and offered to the donkey sanctuary where she would have a good home. Loppy is an Andalusian donkey, which is in danger of becoming extinct. Loppy is one of the larger donkeys at 14.2 hands, but she is very gentle and friendly. You can read more about Loppy here.

You could sponsor a donkey at reception, but I chose to just do it myself online because I wanted to take my time and read through the individual stories.

I could complete the adoption process using my screenreader. The only slightly tricky thing was the payment types, because they were neither radio buttons nor check boxes, so a blind user can’t be sure which payment method had been selected because there was no feedback apart from the fact that it was highlighted visually. But I chose the one I wanted and hoped for the best – and it worked!

I would recommend this as a place to visit for anyone who loves animals or who wants to learn a bit more about donkeys.

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Are we really aware of what is going on around us?

This is a post that I started writing last year, then I got frustrated with it and shelved it to come back to it later. It touches on politics, though isn’t a political post. It’s still somehow as true as when I started writing it last autumn…

We live in our little bubbles and are then surprised when we come across people whose experiences are so different from our own.

I didn’t think this applied to me. I have a group of friends which is really diverse in terms of people from different cultures and backgrounds, many of whom face different day-to-day challenges from my own. Nowadays my friends are more my own age, but I also spend time with people who are older or younger than I am. Previously they were always older, but that was when I thought people my own age weren’t very interesting.

I would say my friends are also pretty diverse in terms of what they do for a living. IT professionals and teachers are perhaps over-represented, and I know a lot of people working in the legal field from my past job. But other than that, my friends and the people I talk with do a wide range of jobs.

I can’t really share why I even began thinking about this post, but I was taking part in some research. Apart from the thing that we were actually talking about in the focus group, my biggest take-away was the amount of negativity some people have towards social media. And that’s fine – I wasn’t trying to convert anyone. I see problems with it too, both in terms of the way individual platforms are managed and the way in which people use them. But most of my friends are on at least one social media platform – often more. Apart from a couple of people that I know, I genuinely don’t come across that many people who aren’t present on at least one social media site.

It’s the same when you look at internet access. According to some research that I was using in one of my classes, 95% of the people in the UK have access to the internet. But what about those other 5%? Who are they? What’s life like for them without something that I struggle to go even a few hours without? (I munched through all my data the other day and had to top it up because I couldn’t go just a couple of weeks without mobile data). But there are people who don’t have an internet connection at home. There are even people that don’t have mobile phones. What’s life like for them? In Germany the figure goes down to 85%. What about the other 15%? I have no idea.

Before the 2016 referendum, I thought it would be a done deal. We would vote to stay in the EU and then we would carry on as normal. That’s what all of my friends were saying. And then I was so shocked at the Brexit referendum result. I’m not here to make this into a political post, but I genuinely thought that it would be a clear-cut win for remain. Why? Because most of the people I spoke to on a day-to-day basis agreed with me and thought that the alternative would be a disaster. So I somehow had the impression that was representative. That turned out not to be true. Maybe some leave voters were shocked in the same way that the margin was so narrow – if all of their friends felt the same, the number of people wanting to stay may have also been a surprise to them.

We’re trained to think of diversity as covering things such as race, gender, disability, sexual orientation etc. That’s true, and for me at least, I don’t find that difficult.

But a key part of diversity in the wider sense that I think we often overlook is difference. People who are just different from ourselves. People who think differently or see the world differently – not because of something like another culture, but another political view or another view on what role technology should be playing in our lives, including the role of social media.

I don’t read the newspapers that those people read. Maybe I should once in a while. Not because I want to change my mind, because in many cases what these particular people believe is so different from what I believe, but at least knowing what they think and why might help me to understand them better. Or at least to be aware of their reasons. But that brings me onto the other thing that I find hard. So much now is based on emotional decision-making rather than actual facts. Article headlines and advertising are written to appeal to our emotional responses and not to our brains. I really struggle with this kind of discussion and I don’t have an answer to that!

I don’t have the energy for pointless arguments. Discussions, maybe. But they have to be built on measurable facts and logical conclusions – otherwise I get bored!

The discussion about social media and use of technology to communicate really opened my eyes. In a broader sense, the discussion was about how best to communicate information. And as is almost always the case, I think the right answer is somewhere in the middle of the scale between social media is evil and it’s the answer to everything. Use it to communicate your information to the vast number of people who will see it that way (including many people like me, who won’t see a big sign or a leaflet through my door). Don’t expect it to solve all your problems, but don’t see it as the enemy either. Take what’s good about social media, and work with that. Any kind of extreme views are usually unhelpful, whichever end of the scale they veer towards. And we as a society are becoming so divided with our us-and-them mentalities. The problem is, “they” are people too. We might not agree with them, but if we stop even listening to or acknowledging them, there are no communication channels open for dialogue. And that’s not a good position to be in. Seeing people as the enemy quickly dehumanises them.

Going back to the point about social media, or even discussions in general, we seem to be living in such a polarised society. I believe we should stand up for what we think is right, rather than trying to dilute it to make it acceptable to everyone. And there will be things that I will not agree with others on – particularly in the politically-charged post-referendum climate in the UK. There are people with whom I won’t discuss politics now because I know it won’t lead anywhere good. I’m much more likely to respond to a logical reason why my argument might be flawed than a “you’re an idiot because you think that and you must have been listening to fake news”. It’s ok to be passionate, but I find it hard when discussions become emotional rather than objective.

We had debating club in years 12 and 13 at school. I really enjoyed it, but I can’t remember whether I chose to join or whether it was mandatory. I don’t remember doing anything like that in years 7 to 11, and I think these are such useful skills. I didn’t always agree with the motions I was given to argue, but I enjoyed the challenge of looking for arguments to support or contradict them. I learned a lot from that.

Sometimes the only smart thing to do is to walk away – from the discussion, if you see it’s not going anywhere, or even from a friendship if the values that the other person is promoting are so far removed from your own.

But where did all the hate come from? Someone disagreed with us on Twitter, so we decide to make a big drama out of it. Someone has a different opinion, so that’s all the justification we need to start attacking them verbally? There are world leaders who lead by their bad example in this, but surely we can do better than that? We might still agree to disagree at the end, but there must be a way to do it that’s more classy than the mud-slinging that I see all the time on social media, and even the bad attitudes I sometimes witness in real life.

I think we all need to be aware of the echo chambers. We surround ourselves with people who think like us. Social media algorithms see what kind of content we respond well to and fill our feeds with more of that content. It feels good when we post things and others agree with us. None of these things are bad in themselves, but there is another part to our society – maybe people we go to work with or see every day at the school gates. We don’t have to agree with them, but we can’t just deny their existence or dismiss them because they don’t fit with our view of the world.

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Mainstream or specialist school – my thoughts and experiences

This is often a subject that evokes heated discussions. Sometimes objective, sometimes verging on the aggressive. People seem so easily caught up in the “us and them” mentality, whoever the us and them happens to be at any given time.

I don’t want to do that though. I have strong opinions on this subject, but I’m certainly not here to tell other people what to do, and I’ll listen to anyone who can stay civil!

Originally, the plan was always for me to attend a specialist boarding school for blind children. I really didn’t want to go. I liked living with my family and couldn’t think of any reason why I would want to go and live somewhere else with people that I didn’t know. Who would do that?

However, Before the time I was due to be sent away, my family had a change of heart. Thanks partly to the new technology I received, I was able to attend the local primary school. I attended four schools in total and was the only totally blind child and Braille reader there.

What was it like?

I can’t make a comparison as some people can who attended a mixture of specialist and mainstream schools. Mainstream school was all I knew. I had my specialist equipment – at first a Braille machine and the old BBC micro. Later I updated to a Braille notetaking device from which you could get printed or Braille copies of work, depending on whether you connected it to a normal printer or a Braille printing device. Later I moved to a laptop, and this is what I’ve continued with throughout my working life.

My books and any worksheets that I needed were prepared by an assistant so that I had them in Braille. I also had huge Braille books for my lessons – the German pocket dictionary was 10 large A4 volumes! The books that I studied for English A levels were 7 or 8 volumes each. I had so much to carry – at one point I was banned from carrying books for more than one lesson at a time due to worries about manual handling and the strain on my back! Now I do a lot more electronically, but I still maintain that it’s important for children to learn to read in Braille. Nowadays, electronic Braille displays are much more common than they were when I was at school.

At the beginning I had a learning assistant with me all the time. This lessened as I grew older and in the end I only had the support for maths, or practical subjects where I might be let loose with an electric saw or equipment for experiments in the science lab. During A-level lessons, I didn’t need any support.

My favourite subjects were languages – in my case English, French and German. I preferred science and humanities to the arts. Maths drove me crazy, although I still got a decent grade, and PE and games were the worst. Not because I was lazy, but I thought some of the activities I was asked to join in with were pretty pointless. I became more interested when I was allowed to do things that made sense to me, like using the gym equipment or going swimming. Cross-country in the snow was just the worst, and I didn’t enjoy learning about games that I would not be able to play. I enjoyed school because I didn’t struggle academically. Games was a reminder of what I couldn’t do, which is why I was glad when I could go swimming instead. And of course I had my horse-riding outside of school!

I’ve since learned that there are team sports for blind people, but I’m not sure I’d have been interested if I’d known about them before – too rough – too dangerous – I’d rather have had my head stuck in a book!

I always had friends, but I preferred smaller groups of good friends to socialising with lots of people and being part of a big crowd. I was never bullied, but I was never that fussed about being popular either. Some people would like me – others wouldn’t. That’s kind of how I go through life now. I saw no point in changing myself to fit with whatever expectation was popular at the time, and my main point of being there was to learn.

Having said that, I made some lovely friends and have good memories of the things we got up to.

I was often resistant to socialising in the way people wanted me to – that shows in the school reports – but part of the deal there was that I just didn’t like being in the noisy lunch hall or outside.

Apart from some differences, such as art, where I was allowed to work with clay rather than to draw things, I did pretty much the same as everyone else. I had friends who helped me, but I helped them too. I gravitated towards specific roles in group work, such as presenting or writing, rather than gathering the information from inaccessible books, but at the end of the day, someone needed to fulfil that role and often others were happy for me to stand up in front of the class because they didn’t want to.

Teachers learned that my friends shouldn’t be used to compensate for their lack of preparation – I needed accessible materials and it wasn’t ok to ask people to read things to me that were still warm because they’d just been dashed off the photocopier! Supply teachers didn’t always get this, but I think on some occasions nobody had even told them that I’d be in their class!

Of course not everything was easy at school. I had the same exam stress, friend troubles, achievements and disappointments as everyone else. I was strong-willed and determined, which got things done, but didn’t always make me popular! It said on my year 7 report that I didn’t suffer fools gladly, and that included adults who thought they knew best, but were suggesting things that had no chance of working. But somehow this set me up for life in a world where things aren’t always accessible and you do sometimes need to stand up for yourself to get the things that you need.

As a younger child, I was always involved in the school productions. Acting wasn’t my thing, but I wasn’t scared of reading in front of a hall full of parents, and that type of job was always going to be available!

For the last two years (12 and 13) I moved to a different school because my one didn’t have a sixth form. I wasn’t the only new girl, but a lot of the other people knew each other, and I was welcomed accepted there.

Maybe there are a few things we could have done differently. I’m an “all or nothing” kind of girl – so I can’t be kind of interested in things. I either like them or I don’t. I think at some point I gave up with maths because I just didn’t get it, and maybe we should have stuck at it and found other explanations for me for the things I wasn’t getting. But hey, I did ok in the exam, and we can always come up with smart ideas when looking back! Overall my grades were above average and I got the highest grades in the things that really interested me.

Being different

I guess I was different, but I never had a hard time because of it. I think I sometimes tried to take control of the difference – to be different because of something other than my blindness. Something of my choosing. So I was Kirsty, the one who loved languages. Kirsty, the horse-mad girl. Kirsty who got top marks in the exam. Kirsty – the Hermione Granger type who annoyed everyone by learning lists of dates off by heart, but who could get a class credit to benefit the whole class by reciting them. My hyper focus could be annoying, and a problem when others didn’t share my interests. However, on more than one occasion, the history class asked me to engage the teacher in an in-depth political discussion so that everyone else could chill out for half an hour! I was happy to oblige.

Kirsty who had the cool tech! Ok there were the obligatory “can you make the speech software say rude words” questions, but in time some of my friends were learning Braille too, and if a teacher’s talking, you can get a lot more down when typing on a laptop than you can with a pen and paper.

I wanted to own the narrative, and not just be different because I was unable to see. Obviously this was a big difference, but thanks to the good support I received and my friends, I didn’t feel at a disadvantage because of it.

Knowing what I do now about additional needs, I wonder whether other things were missed as my differences were generally assumed to be visual impairment related. I don’t think they were entirely. But neither do I think that I missed out on any help that I needed – I either asked for the help, or said all the right things and then continued doing things my own way (“I will try harder to socialise more…”)!

Advantages of attending mainstream school

I think for me, the biggest advantage was that a mainstream school set me up to thrive in a world that isn’t only made up of blind people. It’s a world where the edges aren’t rounded off for you and you will come across inaccessibility, things that are twice as hard for you as they are for others, and things that you need to speak up about.

Overall, I had a lot of really nice, kind, motivated teachers. However, none of the classroom teachers had worked with a blind person before and I had to work with them to establish how we would do things. I did lock horns with people in the education system at times, but it was never these classroom teachers who were doing their best to make their lessons accessible.

When I was about to leave high school, one teacher admitted how she had been apprehensive about working with me and how I would learn in her class. But we did it together. We tried things out, and if they didn’t work, we tried something else. Teachers learned to dictate as they were writing on the board and describe what they were doing as they demonstrated things in the science lab. I’m aware that this was extra work. One teacher used my report as a place to point this out, which wasn’t the appropriate place for it, but in general, most teachers did the extra work willingly and in doing so, made their lessons more inclusive.

I actually enjoyed working with people who had never taught a blind person before. They don’t think they know everything and are generally more willing to listen. Ok, they may not have the experience of blindness that teachers in a specialist school would have, but everyone is different, and one size doesn’t fit all.

So as well as the teachers learning about inclusivity, my classmates also saw someone working alongside them. Maybe I didn’t do everything in the same way as them, but unless there was a really graphical element to what we were doing, I was expected to meet the same standards as they were. I just did it with a laptop and huge folders of Braille!

They did absolutely help me – whether that was getting somewhere unfamiliar, reading inaccessible information, or doing visual parts of presentations. But I can also remember trades, such as me giving help with German in exchange for having my nails painted (I still can’t do it now!) or someone explaining what’s going on in the German video whilst I tried to translate and tell them what was being said.

I think it’s really important for non-disabled children to learn alongside children with disabilities so that the idea will be nothing new when those same children grow up to be adults in charge of recruitment. We can’t expect to have inclusion and integration if it doesn’t start at school.

I wouldn’t want to be segregated because of other characteristics. Most of the time I thought boys were annoying, apart from the quiet ones who wanted to learn stuff, but I wouldn’t have wanted to go to a school just for girls.

In year 12, we had a Japanese exchange student join our class for a while. We became friends and she taught us about Japanese food, language and culture. I had had no experience of any of these things before, and as well as improving her English and learning about life in the cold UK, she taught us a lot too. Diversity is a good thing and we can all learn from different perspectives, or people who do things differently to us.

Specialist schools

I can’t write a lot about this because I didn’t go to one. I know some people who did. Some of them are not that different from me. Maybe it was easier for them because they never had to think about anything being accessible. Their teachers were all familiar with blindness-related things. But bullying can happen anywhere, and blind kids can be as mean as sighted ones. As I’ve listened to other people’s experiences, I understand that it’s not as nice and easy as we may think.

On the plus side, these young people had more exposure to the blindness community and specific activities that had been organised for blind children. From mmy point of view though, I never missed this.

Then there is another group of people that seem to have difficulty adjusting to life after specialist school. They didn’t make sighted friends as a child, because there weren’t any around. They don’t know how to respond to people who are different to them because they only knew the homogenous group where everyone else was blind. They can then find it harder to socialise or integrate into the sighted world, or to cope when things go wrong. This isn’t true for everyone of course, but I’ve seen enough examples of it to identify a pattern.

Even though it may be uncomfortable at the time, I’d argue that it’s better for a child to learn how to self-advocate from a younger age, than to have all the obstacles taken away from them, and then fall at the first hurdle after school.

Specialist school may be good at developing blindness and other independence skills, but I’m not convinced that it prepares people as adequately for what comes next as a well-supported mainstream school experience can.

Children today

So, where does that leave us now?

I think choice is important. If mainstream education would be detrimental to a child’s learning, then of course there should be alternative provision to help them reach their potential. This could either take the form of specialist provision elsewhere, or a unit, allowing for some classroom time and some work in smaller groups or one-to-one.

If the local educational authority is not providing enough support, then I can understand why a parent would opt for an alternative. I was lucky. I got the hours of support and the equipment that I needed. It makes me sad to read how some children nowadays don’t. Ultimately though I believe we should strive to have a system that allows children with additional educational needs to learn in a mainstream classroom, both because of the skills they can develop there – skills that have nothing to do with academic learning – and because I believe an inclusive society starts in the classroom.

What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments!

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Do you want to be able to see?

I have a genetic eye condition. There’s a lot of research going on at the moment into it, in terms of possible treatments. I follow this research with interest. I like to be informed, but more than that, if the opportunity became available to get involved with the research, I’d be interested to know more.

One thing that makes me a less likely candidate for any possible treatment is the fact that I’ve never been able to see before, so my brain would need to learn to interpret any visual stimuli it received, either through gene therapy or implanted technology.

That would definitely be more hard work than someone would have to do if they had been able to see before. They would be able to relate what they were seeing to what they had been able to see in the past.

Still, I don’t know that It would be all bad to start from scratch. Yes, you’d have to learn about things like colours and depth perception like a small child, rather than drawing on your memories, but on the other hand, any sight would be a bonus. You wouldn’t keep saying “this isn’t as good as what I used to be able to see”.

Why I think that being able to see would be a good thing

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to see loved ones for the first time, or to look through my possessions and ask myself “did you really wear that colour lipstick?! I don’t know what colours I like because I’ve never seen them. How would I rate the advice about my physical appearance that I’d been given over the years? Would I make changes to my home décor? Would I discover a favourite colour I never knew I liked? What would I find aesthetically pleasing? How good would my visual special awareness be. Of course a lot of this would depend on the treatment and level of vision it afforded, but they are interesting questions nonetheless!

There would definitely be a learning curve involved, but I think of the many practical ways in which life would be easier. Getting around without using a cane, reading things without making sure they were accessible, finding things that were dropped or mislaid, using any website, irrespective of whether it had been designed accessibly.

However hard I work to lead a full and independent life, there are still times when I need to ask for help with things that others can just do without thinking about it. Yes, we all need help at times, but having a disability often involves a lot more planning to make sure you know exactly where you’re going, where something is, or how to put in place alternative strategies for doing things when the standard ways don’t work.

The first time I got really frustrated about being visually impaired was when I was about 9 and couldn’t go and bring the horses in from the big field to be ridden. Yes, there are things I could have done to make this task doable as a blind person. Plenty of blind people ride and have their own horses. But it suddenly struck me as a practical example of a task which was easier for my friends and would require more planning on my part. So I found something else to do and went home and cried about it where nobody could see!

This isn’t supposed to be a negative post, but I want it to be an honest one. Sometimes stuff is hard, and I don’t subscribe to this “nothing is a problem unless it’s a problem other people create for me” mentality. So in a practical sense, being able to see would make life easier.

I continued riding throughout my teenage years and we found other ways of doing things as you can read in my riding post. But sometimes it would be nice just to get on with things without all the additional thought and adaptations. I also touched on this in my I’m tired post.

Then there are the nice-to-haves. Not being able to see a beautiful view, wild animals, or the sunset isn’t going to change the practicalities of your everyday life, but there are some things that even the best descriptions don’t do justice to if you’ve never seen them before!

Many people name not being able to drive as being a major set-back for people who can’t see. I don’t really see it that way. Sure, life is easier now that I have a partner who drives, but I lived for many years in London, where many of my friends didn’t drive, and driving wasn’t essential. It’s a bit different once you leave the capital, but still I wouldn’t say not being able to do it is high on my inconvenience list. It’s maybe no bad thing that I can’t drive given my low stupid behaviour tolerance threshold. I probably wouldn’t be the most calm and forgiving person on the road!

But getting around new places without having to memorise everything would be nice, as would exploring the countryside or visiting new places without having to think about route planning and sat nav. And before anyone comes up with the objection that some blind people do that – I know they do, but I find it stressful! Things are rarely fun and stressful at the same time!

When I was a baby, my family were basically told that there was nothing that could be done about my eye condition, so they should just go home, not think about a cure, and get on with teaching me to gain the skills I’d need. In some ways I can see the value of focussing on the here and now, rather than hoping for something in the future that may never come, but it’s still good to be curious. It’s still good to find out what’s happening in medical research and see whether any of it is relevant.

I agree it’s not helpful for parents of newly-diagnosed children to focus only on what might happen, when they could instead have a very real influence on what will happen. It’s important to teach children how to find other ways to do things that don’t rely on sight, and to focus on all the things that they can do and enjoy, rather than the few things that they can’t. Blind children need to know that there’s a big world out there, which can be explored with or without sight.

Technology has opened up so many doors for us. Using my assistive technology, I can do things independently that I would have needed help with if I’d been born 50 years ago. That’s amazing! You definitely shouldn’t be defined by something that you’re physically unable to do.

But we live in a visual world. If your child wants to experience that for themselves, and the option becomes available – well they should have that option too in my opinion.

Do all blind people feel as I do about sight restoration?

Of course not! It’s a massive group of individuals and I’d be surprised if you could find anything that all blind people agree about!

However, I ask the question because often people generally assume that blind people do want to see, and it even surprised me that this could start such heated discussions.

I had wrongly assumed that most people see the question in the same way as I do, but not everyone does, and that’s ok. It’s their right.

Some people feel there’s nothing missing from their lives as they are now. I don’t really understand this, but it’s definitely something that should be respected.

Perhaps I see it differently because I’ve never really accepted blindness as part of my identity. It’s something that determines how I do certain things. It’s something that I’m often asked about. It’s something that has led me to focus on and develop my other senses more. But it’s not intrinsically part of who I am. I wouldn’t miss it if it wasn’t there tomorrow. Other people view this differently, and that may explain why they wouldn’t want to give something up that they see as part of their identity.

There can also be differences between the opinions of those who have never been able to see and those whose vision has deteriorated.

I’ve even had people say to me “you can’t miss what you never had”. This is true in the sense that I didn’t actually lose something that I had before, but if you live in a world where everyone around you has something that you don’t, and many services, leisure activities, and ways of accessing information are geared to having that sense – then even if you have never had it, there’s still a way in which you can miss not having access to it.

Not everyone feels that way though, and from my observations, there seem to be a higher number of people that have never seen who say they are not interested in seeing or anything to do with being able to see. They know no different and are content with that.

Another comment that often comes up in these discussions is that people don’t want to be “fixed” as though other people see them as broken if they aren’t able to see. I do understand this to some extent – it’s tedious if people focus on what you can’t do, even though in some areas you may have accomplished more than the person feeling sorry for you has. Though I’m sure it’s not their intention, if all someone can do when they meet you is talk about the things that you can’t do, it can devalue all the other things that you have achieved. That doesn’t feel good.

People should be accepted as people, and not seen as broken machines that need to be fixed. I can accept that. However, I see people working in medical research as allies, not as those who want to fix me.

Having said that, I am far less positive about random strangers who come up to me and try to start praying for me to be fixed. This is not ok!

In terms of the medical treatment and broken or fixed debate, there is part of my body that doesn’t work as it should, and if given the choice, I’d like to have something done about that, so long as I understand what’s involved and the risk of no dangerous side effects is not too high.

so what now?

Writing this post is not to say I’m dissatisfied. I have a wonderful partner, some amazing friends, a lovely home, a job that interests and challenges me, and plenty of things that give me enjoyment and fulfilment in my spare time. But there are days when I’m not ashamed to say that being blind is hard work or there are things that I would really like to experience visually. That’s why I follow the research and keep an open mind.

Life is good, but I’m not going to close my mind to something that could make it even better!

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I do expect everyone to be civilised in the comments!

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