World Braille Day – why I’m grateful for the invention of Braille

Today is World Braille Day. If you haven’t come across Braille before, it’s a system of raised dots that blind people use to read. It was invented by Louis Braille, who was born in 1809, and whose birthday was 4th January.

So, when others my age were learning to read and write, I was learning to read letters and abbreviations made up of combinations of 6 dots, and write them on a machine, a bit like a manual typewriter, which punched the dots into thick paper. I learned to type as well, but all of my school books and worksheets were in Braille.

I continued to use the manual typewriter, known as a Perkins Brailler, for subjects such as maths, but as I grew older, I moved on to an electronic Braille notetaker, and later a laptop for my schoolwork. Still I printed out a hard copy of my work for my teachers, and every file, whether it was a piece of work or revision notes, was sent to a noisy Braille printer, so that I had a hard copy of everything. All my work was in big folders, one for each subject, and my “pocket German dictionary” was 10 thick A4 volumes!

Braille takes up a lot of space. My grandad put up a big, sturdy set of shelves in my bedroom. They went up to the ceiling and were strong enough to take all my books – and I had many books!

I loved to read. People bought me books as gifts, and I borrowed them from Braille libraries. When I got older and became interested in German, a library for the blind in Germany let me borrow their books too.

Then, when I started learning French and German at school, I discovered they had their own Braille codes. It’s true, the letters are the same, but there were additional symbols for letters with accents. If you want to borrow books from the library, you need to learn the short-hand versions because as I mentioned before, Braille books take up a lot of space, so most books are written in the short-hand version. In English Braille, this means that there are single letter signs – p = people, t = that etc. There are also single character signs for words like the, and, and which. Then there are double character signs for longer words such as mother, question and every. Finally there are signs for groups of letters when they form part of a word such as th, ch, st, and er.

Unfortunately, these signs aren’t universal, so the English th sign is the German ch sign, and the English ch sign is the German au sign – so you basically need to learn a completely different code if you want to read Braille in another language! But, if you take the time to learn this, it opens up a whole new world of books.
I was late to the party with refreshable Braille displays – a board that sits under or next to your keyboard and displays a line of text in Braille created by tiny pins that move up and down. I got my first one when I got my first job, but many blind people use them for reading information or checking what they have written, either alongside or instead of speech.

Life has changed now and I don’t have the same relationship with Braille as I did when I was younger. Hours of commuting into London meant that I swapped Braille books for audio books, because the audio books could be loaded onto my phone, and there was no chance of bopping someone with a heavy Braille book on the train! Still, I don’t believe that children can learn to read effectively with only audio. The reason I was so good at spelling is that, like the sighted children in my class, I knew exactly how the words were formed and could imagine their shape in dots. Think of the English language and how many ways you can pronounce the same letters. Take OUGH – words like cough, through, thought, plough, though, and rough all use OUGH, but they are pronounced differently. If you can’t imagine how words are spelled because you’ve only heard them, you are likely to make more mistakes.

I don’t have this problem now because I’m an adult and I know how to read, but I only recently discovered that Netflix is spelled with an X – after all, flicks is a word and flix isn’t. The reason for this? I’d never seen it written down! I’m so grateful that Louis Braille’s system taught me to read.

It’s now a legal requirement for medication to have labels in Braille. Yes, I could label things myself – I do have a dymo gun type thing that prints out Braille letters onto clear tape, but it’s so much easier not having to worry when I have a pounding headache which tablets are for headaches. Let’s hope we don’t lose this when we leave the EU – that would definitely be a step backwards. The leaflets inside medication boxes aren’t in Braille, but knowing how the name is written means that I can look up any information online.

Also, some cosmetics and food companies incorporate Braille into their packaging design to make their products identifiable to blind readers – see the posts I wrote on L’occitane and The Co-op.

I do have an app on my phone that can read what things are in the kitchen, but we’ve labelled all our spices in Braille because it’s so much quicker for me to identify the one I want by touch.

To be honest, I mainly use online banking and online payment services now, but when these things weren’t available, I got all my bank statements, credit card statements, gas, electricity, and phone bills in Braille. I lived on my own for about 10 years, and it was liberating to be able to manage everything without having to ask for assistance with reading the printed letters, or the somewhat tedious task of having to scan everything so that I could use a character recognition programme on my laptop to find out what things were.

I have found Braille controls on lifts, Braille room signs in hotels, and more than once I’ve been to tourist attractions and been presented with information that I could read for myself, without having to rely on my friends or family to read things to me.

A number of restaurant chains such as Wagamama provide Braille menus. I really appreciate this, partly because it means I can browse the menu without having to ask for help, and although it is now possible to pull up menus from a restaurant’s website on my phone, it’s often really noisy in restaurants and hard to hear what the phone is saying. So having my own copy of the menu in Braille makes things so much easier.

It’s true that not every blind person can read Braille. Some people have enough site to read with a magnifier. Some people lose their site later in life and use other solutions to get information. Some maybe aren’t interested or never had the chance. Offering these people a Braille menu is about as useful as offering me a large print one – so it’s important to remember that everyone’s needs and preferences are different.

If I’m given the chance to have something sent to me by email or in Braille, I’ll probably opt to save the trees and not wait for the postman. But it’s important that the choice is there along with other formats such as large print and audio.

Some organisations offer a service where you can have Braille messages added to greetings cards, and it’s much nicer when you can read the message yourself, rather than receiving what feels like a blank card. Even more so when I lived on my own, and had to take pictures of the card or Facetime with someone to find out who it was from – handwriting recognition software is a very new thing.

For some people, Braille is their primary source of information. This isn’t the case for me – I rely on my laptop and phone for most things, but I certainly appreciate the Braille labels and Braille information that I come across, and I’m grateful to Louis Braille for inventing it. Whilst technology has replaced some of the functions for which I used to use Braille, I think the two should exist alongside one another, and it is vital that children are taught to read for themselves. What they choose to do after that is up to them. I type everything on my laptop, but some people prefer to input information entirely in Braille.

To sumarise, I agree with the title of this blog post from Victarnews – Braille or computers – I’ll have both please!

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The best posts of 2017 and plans for 2018

I’ve got quite a few new followers this month, so I wanted to show you what else I write apart from Blogmas posts! I also wanted to look back over the first year of Unseen Beauty. So, here are the most popular posts from 2017!

10. Holly’s story – from a puppy farm to a loving home The story of Holly the Labrador – I want people to know that buying puppies from puppy farms means there will always be work for mothers like Holly, and that’s not fair.
9. In celebration of grandparents and what we have learned from them This was a collaboration that I did with a group of other bloggers. I wanted to tell all my readers how much I’d learned from my grandparents, and I thought it would be fun to open it up to others too so that we could all share our grandparent memories!
8. Christmas 2016 This was my first proper post apart from my introduction, so I guess people wanted to check out my new blog!
7. L’Occitane review – bringing Braille labels to blind customers This was the first post that I did with a brand. I was interested in the idea of Braille labels and can’t tell you how excited I was about my first PR samples. That doesn’t mean I’ll chase any PR samples, but when you like a brand and they want to work with you, that feels really good.
6. My friend Cindy, the golden guiding girl This is probably the most open I’ve been in a post, and I think a lot of my Facebook friends read it because they knew and loved Cindy too. But I also wanted to give any readers who didn’t meet her the chance to find out about the golden retriever in my blog image.
5. 10 of my favourite youtubers I guess people were just interested in this one and looking for new Youtubers to follow!
4. Walking with wolves I really enjoyed writing this post because it was such an amazing experience to get close to two wonderful wolves. I really wanted to share this with my readers because it’s something that had been on my bucket list for ages.
3. Keeping fit when you can’t see I would get bored if my site were primarily about blindness, but it seems that people do enjoy these articles!
2. Make-up without sight – how one blind woman does it

I guess the thing here is write about something that nobody else is writing about, or that not many people know. That makes it interesting. Of course you need to make sure that people actually want to know about it and it’s not something that just interests you, but if you have an interesting or different perspective on a more general topic, it sets your content apart.
1. How do you apply eye make-up if you can’t see?

This was one of my first posts. I’ve tried out so many more products since I wrote this, but the general advice is the same. I think this one got a lot of hits because it was shared in several Facebook groups, which meant a lot more traffic.

Top favourites post – October – was it the pumpkin art?!

Top empties post – February!

Top Blogmas post – Christmas for dog lovers!

Plans for 2018

I’m going to keep some things the same in 2018 and also add in some new sections. I want to build on the things that people are already enjoying, so there will be some more animal posts, as well as others that focus on life as a blind adult, as people seem to want that. My favourite type of posts to write are about the products that I’m enjoying, and they do tend to get a number of comments, so I’ll keep up with the empties and favourites posts.

I’ve recently added a virtual coffee widget to my sidebar, so anyone who wants to support the site by buying a virtual coffee can do so. I saw this on the Emma Edit blog and thought it was a nice idea.

I have some new ideas about interviews that I’d like to bring you, brands that I’d like to work with, and a new feature on the accessibility of online shopping sites. You may think the reason I post a lot of Amazon links is that I’m just an Amazon affiliate. I am an Amazon affiliate, but the truth is that I do a lot of my shopping on there. Partly because having Prime makes things so quick and easy, but partly because there are a lot of badly written sites out there that I can’t use unless I ask for help from someone who can see because the people who designed the site couldn’t be bothered to label the graphics on their page controls properly. I want to highlight good practice and raise awareness when companies aren’t getting it right.

I have a lot of new products from my advent calendars, so expect some reviews on those!

I’d like to finish by wishing all my readers a happy 2018. I hope it will be a good year for you, full of happy memories. Thank you for supporting Unseen Beauty throughout the year. It just started as an idea in the bath and now I’m happy to see what it has grown into after the first year!

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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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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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Holiday with a difference – 3 sighted guides tell their stories

Three of my friends talk about their experiences as guides on Traveleyes holidays for blind and sighted people who want to travel the world!

Holiday with a difference – 3 sighted guides tell their stories

This is quite a long post today, but once I’d done the research, I didn’t want to leave anything out!
I met Helen from New Zealand, Jane from the UK, and Clara from the US on holidays that I booked through Traveleyes, a holiday company that organises holidays for blind and sighted travellers. The sighted travellers pay a discounted price, and in return they act as guides for the blind travellers.
The holidays gave me the chance to explore new places and meant that I didn’t have to rely on my family and friends wanting to go to the same places as me!
I met Jane on my first ever Traveleyes holiday to Spain, and we stayed in touch, meeting up a couple of times after the holiday for theatre visits and a trip to London.
I met Clara and Helen on a trip to Kas in Turkey. You can see a picture of one of my adventures with Helen as the header image on this post. We went shopping together and mastered some difficult terrain on a hike, which included crossing an old aqueduct with very big drops on either side!
Clara is pictured below and I too remember the race she described. We laughed so much that day! I’d decided that overtaking on the inside was not allowed!
I asked Jane, Clara and Helen 10 questions. Here are their answers:

1. How did you hear about opportunities to be a sighted guide on holidays for visually impaired people?

What made you decide to go on one?
Jane: in the mid-2000s, I was listening to Radio 4’s ‘In Touch’ programme one evening and heard an interview with someone who had recently set up a company providing holidays for people with sight impairment. My circumstances had changed some time before I heard the broadcast, meaning that I would be going on future holidays by myself. Being a sighted guide on a holiday for people with impaired vision seemed like a good way of going on holiday by myself but not being alone. I knew that I would be involved with what was going on and would not be left out or feel isolated.
Clara: I heard about Traveleyes from reading a travel article (I honestly can’t remember which one) and thought it would be an excellent way to go someplace new that I didn’t feel comfortable going to by myself. After reading the Traveleyes website I was sold! I felt like it would help me see destinations in a different and more detailed way and I felt like it would be a great way to meet new people.
Helen: I found Traveleyes through a link on a travel website (can’t remember which one). I was looking to have a week somewhere not too far from the UK. I am from New Zealand and was planning a trip to see my son and his family and was going to be there for a month. It is probably not every girl’s dream to have her mother in law staying for a month so I thought a week somewhere else was probably a good idea! I was immediately struck by the brilliance of the concept and signed up for a trip to Turkey which I had always wanted to visit.

2. What are some of the places that you have visited on this type of holiday?

Helen: I have been to Fes in Turkey, Sorrento in Italy, and most recently to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. In a few weeks I will join Traveleyes for a trip to Iceland for a week.
Jane: I have been on four holidays with the same company. I went to Andalucia, Crete, Rhodes and Sicily.
Clara: I went to Turkey, and did a horse-riding trip in Berkshire with Traveleyes.

3. Has the experience taught you anything about the way that you appreciate the world around you?

Clara: I learned that there is a lot more in our environments than what we first see. When traveling with someone who is visually impaired, I found myself wanting to see every detail so I could describe whatever my traveling companion was interested in. This meant I experienced the environment around me much more intensely.
Helen: I’m sure that I have experienced these places in a different and more in depth way while being a sighted guide than I would have if I had been travelling on my own or even with another sighted person. When you have to tell someone what you are looking at you really have to think about it, and take into account what they might be interested in.
I have also relatively recently taken up painting and this gives me an added dimension to the sights as I am always thinking about how I could paint something. Of course travelling is not only about seeing places or things, but experiencing them in many ways.
The trips are planned to give a wide variety of experiences and Traveleyes is good at taking into account the sighted guides as well as the Vis (visually impaired people).
Jane: when I was describing the surroundings to someone who had a sight impairment, I tried to include all the details that might interest them. The times that were the most absorbing were those when the other person and I were both particularly enthusiastic about what we were looking at.

4. Did you find that different blind people were interested in different information?

Helen: because you change partners each day you will also be changing the way you are describing things and having different conversations with each person. Blind people, just like everyone else, are individuals and have different interests, tastes, experiences and backgrounds. I remember a shopping trip with one woman who loved jewellery and another day with a guy who was really interested in the local food. I was happy with both those interests!
It’s great when there is an opportunity for tactile interaction – whether it is with something organic like plants or animals or even rocks, or something man-made such as statues, jewellery or ceramics. Swimming in hot pools or the warm ocean is another great thing for VIs – nothing to trip over!
There is also always plenty of time just for chat with your partner – about your life and theirs – interests, family, work etc just as with anyone you have just met and will be spending time with.
Jane: when I was on holiday in Crete, one person was really interested in an archaeological site and so was I. Someone else just wanted to go shopping. One young woman told me that I was talking too much, so we agreed that I would limit the information to details about where there were steps – up or down – and uneven ground.
Clara: I learned to ask my traveling companion what they would like described to them and what they wanted to experience when we were first paired together. Some of my companions had sight at some point in their life, so they might know what certain things (objects, colours, animals, etc.) looked like. Others were born blind so everything had to be described in terms they did understand. And some companions had limited sight. A lot of questions were asked. Overall, every traveling companion wanted to know and learn about something different. The majority of my traveling companions didn’t really care about colour. I had traveling companions who wanted to touch things to feel the shapes and textures. Some companions were more interested in the local food. Some were more interested in talking with the local residents.

5. Did you have any worries or concerns before you went on your first holiday?

Jane: I was concerned about not being good enough at guiding people but I seemed to manage just as well as the other guides. In addition, I worried about not fitting in; however, that worry was also ill-founded and I made friends on the holidays and am still in touch with some of them.
Clara: I had no idea what I was getting into other than what I had read on the Traveleyes website. I was definitely nervous that I wouldn’t be a good guide. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to describe things correctly, or that I wouldn’t warn my companion about a step and that they would trip and fall. It turned out that I really shouldn’t have worried at all. As soon as I met my traveling companions I found that all my concerns disappeared.
Helen: I was a little nervous that I would get things wrong, but when I met the first group at the airport, Amar (the owner and founder of Traveleyes), took me through the simple guiding procedures and I quite quickly got comfortable with it. Of course there are slight adjustments to be made with each partner, but with goodwill on both sides it is pretty quickly sorted out.

6. Have you had any funny guiding experiences that you could tell us about?

Helen: on one particular day in Fes I remember going for a walk with a guy and commenting on things along the way. When it came time to return to the town centre I got confused as to where we were but he was able to guide me! He had to rely on his memory and was used to navigating that way – I wasn’t.
Later that same day I was so concerned with watching where we were walking – the ground was uneven and I remember we were walking along the front of some shops and had to step down to the street. This guy was pretty tall and I forgot to look up so he banged his head on the eaves which were quite low. He forgave me later after I bought him a beer!
In Ecuador a very helpful waiter handed one of our group a braille menu. Our VI said he was very grateful, but did they by chance have one in English braille! Unfortunately they didn’t.
Clara: One of my favourite memories was running with Kirsty! Honestly, I couldn’t believe that she trusted me enough to win the race! Another favourite memory is horseback riding. I was helping my companion navigate through some trees and looking behind me, and in the process I ran straight into a branch myself! I definitely felt silly!
Jane: I guided one lady back to her room at the end of one day out and left her at her front door, searching for her key. Unfortunately, I had taken her to someone else’s front door and had left her before she realised she was in the wrong place. Luckily, she managed to find her way back to her own room – and I always check that the person is in the right place before I leave him or her.

7. What are some differences in the type and amount of assistance that people need?

Clara: Something I learned on my first trip was that every companion liked to be guided differently. Some liked holding hands, others liked holding onto a shoulder, others my bag, and others liked holding onto my elbow. Honestly, I didn’t really feel like I was assisting, but more like I was just hanging out with friends or experiencing something new with friends.
Jane: some people hardly needed any assistance at all. Maybe they just wanted to be able to walk by my side and to be told, ‘step down’, ‘kerb up’, ‘tree roots’, ‘uneven ground’. Other people would hold my arm, so that they could be guided. I would give them the ‘step down’, ‘kerb up’ commentary, if they wanted it. The important thing is to ask what assistance people need. On one occasion, I shared a room with one friend who has no sight. One day she was searching for something on the dressing table but could not find it, so she asked me where it was and I explained.
Helen: there are VIs who have lost their sight later in life, some who were born without sight and others who have varying degrees of sight, so they all need slightly different assistance. Those who have recently lost sight might for instance often need more than those who have never experienced anything else, as they are getting used to it. However it is generally easier to describe something to them as it can often be related to something they might remember. Some might need very little physical assistance but can’t read menus. Dealing with foreign currency can be tricky too.

8. What was your favourite excursion, and why?

Jane: I enjoyed all of the holidays and everything that we did on them. The company was good, the food was delicious and the sun always seemed to shine!
Helen: it’s hard to pick a favourite because each trip has been so different. If pressed I would probably say my first trip to Turkey. We were in a fairly small town at the end of the season and we were made so welcome by the locals. It was great weather and we experienced a good mix of activity and leisure.
Sorrento was brilliant too. I loved the cooking lesson there and would love to do that on every trip. Visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum was a real highlight for me, as was the limoncello.
Ecuador and the Galapagos was probably the favourite in terms of destination. It was the longest trip I’ve done and we did a lot of moving – never more than 2 nights in one place – and that is quite tiring. But to go to such an amazing and interesting place was an absolute dream come true.
Clara: my favourite excursion was the hike in Kas, Turkey. I think this is one of my favourites because there were so many obstacles (rocks, bushes, pokey branches, narrow trails, etc.) but there was this sense of challenge that everyone took up and conquered.

9. What are some of the things that you have learned about visually impaired people and how they do things after going on the holidays?

Clara: One of my first discoveries was on my very first trip as a sighted guide at the airport when I was helping my traveling companion exchange money. The person on the other side of the counter wanted to work with me, not my companion. I discovered it was because they could look into my eyes and communicate when they couldn’t do that with my traveling companion, and that made them uncomfortable. Through that experience, I learned that visually impaired people have many more obstacles than I imagined to navigate when they are traveling. On my trips I learned that the visually impaired people I was traveling with were much more independent than I thought they would be. I learned that order is important. I learned that it might take a few more minutes to accomplish a travel task, but that was ok because time wasn’t to be rushed when on holiday. And, on a funny note, I learned that when you show your traveling companions to their hotel room, you don’t have to show them where the light switches are.
Jane: ask people what sort of assistance they need, do not assume that someone needs assistance and force it on them. Say who you are when you speak to someone who cannot see you – do not expect them to guess. Say when you are leaving the room, so that the person knows you have gone and is not left talking to him- or herself. Some of my best friends are people I met on the holidays I went on.
Helen: I have been so impressed with pretty much every VI I have met on these holidays. All those I’ve met are so independent and outgoing. I guess they would not take part in such trips if they were not, but I know many sighted people who need more assistance than most of the VIs I’ve met. I think one of the things that a sighted guide has to remember is that you are not the first person to have described something to this person, or to have tried to explain something. It’s easy to forget but it makes it much easier if you just have conversations as you would with any person, while bearing in mind that they can’t see. Most guides get into the swing of things pretty quickly and if not I guess they don’t do it again!

10. Would you recommend a holiday as a sighted guide to other people?

Helen: Absolutely recommend it! Partly for me it is because I would otherwise be travelling on my own and it is great to have the company – and the organisation that goes with a guided tour. It’s a great way to see somewhere a bit different / difficult to get to as everything is so well organised.
One thing I do like to do is to get my own room. That does make the trip a bit more expensive but for me it is worth it. I am so used to living on my own that I would find sharing a room with a complete stranger – especially for longer trips – rather hard.
Clara: I would, (and have) highly recommend a holiday as a sighted guide. In my experience I have become more humble, I have pushed my own boundaries, and I have made lifelong friends. I had the opportunity to bring adventure and smiles and laughter and learning to my traveling companions. I have learned about a world that I can’t touch but in that same world are so many friends who I admire. Before my trips as a sighted guide so many wonderful sights and experiences escaped me. I have never looked at the environment around me the same since my very first trip as a sighted guide and that is a true gift.
Jane: I would recommend a holiday as a sighted guide. It is a good way of seeing new places and of appreciating those places from a different angle. Going on an organised holiday with people who have vision impairment means that you will get the opportunity to touch things – like archaeological treasures – to smell things, taste things and be involved with activities, such as cookery lessons, whereas you might not get the same chances as a sighted person on a run-of-the-mill holiday.

So what do you think?

Does this type of holiday appeal to you? Have you done anything like this before? Let me know in the comments. I may publish some posts about Traveleyes trips from my point of view, but this post is long enough already!
Thanks to my wonderful interviewees for giving such interesting and detailed answers.

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Seeing ourselves as others see us

My interview with Brendan Magill on his workshop to help blind and partially sighted people think about how they present themselves and how these choices affect the way that others see them.

Seeing yourself as others see you

Introduction

As a child, I wasn’t really interested in make-up and dressing up nicely, but I remember having a big basket of things for the bath and little bottles of perfume (my Nan was an Avon lady!)

When I went to High School, things began to change, and I became more interested in what I wore. I had my first venture into make-up and changed my hairstyle dramatically, which was a disaster, but at least I learned what I really didn’t like and could grow it out again!

I’ve always had friends and family who would give me honest feedback about how I look. My boyfriend knows that if I ask “does this look ok?” I’m looking for an honest answer before we leave the house! But what about blind people who don’t have anyone to give this feedback or who genuinely don’t care how they look? How can they get feedback if they want it, and what impact can not caring about their appearance have on them?

I know Brendan Magill because he runs a number of mailing lists for visually impaired people. The one most relevant to me is UKVISE, the list for self-employed visually impaired people.

When I discovered that Brendan had designed a workshop to help blind and partially sighted people understand more about how to present themselves at interviews and in the workplace, I decided to find out more about it. Why did he think this training was necessary? What mistakes had he seen people making?

I did a telephone interview with Brendan and this is what he told me.

1. How important is your own physical appearance and presentation to you as someone with a visual impairment?

I have congenital cataracts, but I’ve always had a useful amount of residual vision. My brother has the same condition and my dad was partially sighted. He could see more than us, but he always presented himself very well.

I can still hear my mum saying things like “head up, chest out, tummy in!” That was just what we did.

As my sight has been getting worse, I have come to understand why a lot of blind people don’t hold their head up high. There’s nothing to focus on. But still, it does look better if you sit up straight, with your head up, and face the person that you’re talking to. Not doing this draws attention to yourself in a negative way, because people wonder why your posture and body language are not the same as those around you.

I never thought about why I do some of these things. I just did them. I turned myself out well.

I went to New College Worcester. Whilst we weren’t pushed very hard to present ourselves well, we got involved in activities locally such as a youth club or dance classes. That was good for us because it helped us to become more social in the wider world, even though we were going to a special school for blind people.

When I got my first job, the first thing my dad did was to take me out to buy some new clothes for work so that I could look my best.

2. Why did you decide to create training to help visually impaired people to present themselves appropriately at work?

Throughout the following few decades I was always decently turned out when I went to work or into town. The result of this was that I seemed to get on very well in the community and people treated me well. I didn’t realise how much of that was happening until much later on when I started doing some IT training at RNC. I hadn’t thought about personal presentation much before then. I was teaching a group of students of various ages. I thought “some of these guys are actually quite scruffy! They won’t get a job looking like that.”

I was teaching them IT, but I said on certain days they had to come dressed as though they were coming to work. Some did and some didn’t.

One guy was in his 40s and he’d been losing his sight for a while. He used to come looking scruffy with a shirt he’d been wearing for a few days and a scruffy jacket. He needed a shower.

I took him into the office and had a chat with him about how he could spruce up his clothes. The following week was an improvement.

A few weeks later he finished his course and came back for speech day. He came to see me and was looking much better. Not only that but he’d got a job.

He probably did know that he wasn’t looking his best, but I think he hadn’t thought about it and how this would affect how other people thought of him.

The other one was harder. It was a girl in her early 20s, fortunately the same age as my own daughters. She used to come in to class dressed as though she were going clubbing with very revealing tops. She would do this even on days when she was supposed to be dressed for work.

I pointed out how revealing the top was. “If I could see more than I can, I would be able to see more than I should. You might want to dress like that on a night out with your friends, but it’s not the way to dress for work or college.”

After that conversation, I really needed to mention it to another member of staff. I talked to one of the female members of staff who was interested in the way people dress and present themselves. She was running a make-up session and said she’d include some tips about how you dress as well.

On speech day, the same girl came to me. She still looked gorgeous, but this time she looked presentable as well. She got a job too.

Those two experiences got me interested in the way people who are visually impaired are turned out. I started thinking about my own experiences, and watching what the blind and partially sighted people around me were doing. That’s when I got the idea for the workshop – seeing ourselves as others see us. This was nearly 20 years ago. I got a lot of advice from the female members of staff, particularly for the girls. I ran the workshop a few times for different organisations. I haven’t run it for a long time now, but I think it’s something that is very important.

It’s all about understanding that you can’t be totally free in the way that you present yourself. You need to fit in with the workplace as it is. If you can’t see how other people are dressing, you might not know what’s appropriate.

When you’re in work, you make friends with people. Blind people shouldn’t be afraid to ask their colleagues what they wear. But first you need the colleagues, and you won’t have those if you don’t pass the interview stage because of the way you look.

3. What would you say are some of the consequences of getting it wrong, and how can inappropriate personal presentation reduce someone’s chance of passing an interview or being fully integrated into the workplace?

If you turn up at an interview and are not presentable, you probably won’t get the job. Personal presentation is so important, particularly in jobs where you have contact with the public.

Regardless of your skills and experience, the interviewer might think “we don’t want someone like that turning up for work.”

If you’re already in employment, It makes you more segregated and you get known for the problem or unusual fashion choices, not for what you bring to the team.

Even if you know what’s appropriate, if you can’t see for yourself, you may need to get advice about what colours and styles can be worn together.

4. In general, have you found that sighted colleagues mention when something does not look appropriate or something is not right?

Most colleagues would be unlikely to tell you. Maybe it’s easier for girls, but first you have to build up trust and a good working relationship with them so that they feel comfortable about pointing things out.
There is a fear that things can be taken the wrong way. Sometimes colleagues don’t like to tell you about things that don’t look good because they don’t like to think they’re criticising someone with a disability. Also, they might not be sure how the blind person will react? Sometimes they even think that blind people don’t care. Sometime they’re right about that.

5. Why do you think that some blind and partially sighted people don’t have access to information about presenting themselves in the best possible way?

I think a lot of it is to do with political correctness. It’s seen to be wrong to criticise disabled people.

Families sometimes don’t know how to deal with it, or they don’t want to address uncomfortable issues.

6. What tips would you give someone who finds it difficult to go shopping for clothes on their own?

Start off by asking your family and sighted friends for help and advice. We need those sort of friends who can give us honest advice, and taking part in mainstream activities is a way to meet sighted people. Find a hobby or an activity that you can share with other people and explain to them what you need, rather than expecting them to know about blindness-related issues.

Sometimes the staff in shops can be really helpful, but the level of help available varies a lot between shops, and it’s hard to tell someone that they really don’t look good, which is why some shop assistants may be reluctant to do this. An honest friend or family member may feel more comfortable suggesting that you try something else.

Also, if you ask for the truth about how you look and the comment isn’t totally positive, take it on the chin and don’t be overly sensitive.

7. Do you ever get questions about make-up? How do you deal with those?

Very rarely. I used to refer them to my wife or my granddaughter. If you don’t know something, it’s better to say “I don’t know about that but I know someone who does.”

8. Where can we find out more about your work?

You can go to my website.

Final thoughts

So, you know that on English with Kirsty I talk a lot about various beauty products. I’m not saying that everyone should take the same interest in make-up etc as I do, not being able to see is not an excuse to not care about how you look because even if you can’t see yourself, the people around you can still see you.

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