Norfolk charity boss: 'My loss of sight won't stop me'
- Credit: Family picture
Walking into a table is not usually a life-changing event – but for Karen Norton it turned out to be the first sign of a hereditary eye condition.
“It was a bit of a shock,” said Karen. “I thought 'I’m a full-time teacher, I’ve got teenage children. But can’t change it. I’m going to have to live with it'.”
Retinitis pigmentosa gradually destroyed her peripheral vision but did not stop Karen continuing her career, bringing up her children – and now taking over as chair of the charity Vision Norfolk.
Karen, of Stalham, was diagnosed in her 40s and, 25 years on, is severely visually impaired with no peripheral vision and blind spots in the patch of straight-ahead vision which remains.
“The first thing I had to do was stop driving. That was my big loss, the independence of driving.
“I realised the headaches I’d been having, and the accident about 18 months before, when I hit a desk corner, could be linked.”
But it also led her to new activities and she now enjoys sailing with a group from Vision Norfolk and the county’s Nancy Oldfield Trust.
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Her sister had been diagnosed with the condition 10 years before and Karen, already a mother of two, was checked and told she could be a carrier, but had no signs herself. “And then, completely out of the blue, my daughter talked about this new test at the opticians. I did it and after extensive tests found I’d lost patches of my peripheral vision,” said Karen.
Gradually she lost more and more vision but is still able to enjoy crafting, and helps her daughter make gift bags and shower mitts for her soap business.
Karen taught at Stalham Primary School until retiring at 60 and said: “The children were amazing.
“They realised that they were my eyes. I always told them at the beginning of the year that I could see in the centre, very, very clearly, but I couldn’t see round the edges. So if they left things on the floor I was likely to tread on them.
“I had a very tidy classroom!
“I also had a camera in the classroom to help me – although the children thought it was CCTV and I could wind it back!”
Upbeat and positive Karen is quick to see the funny side of any situation – including literally missing the elephant in the room on a trip to London with her daughter to see The Lion King. Discussing a scene they realised she had not seen huge elephants, which were one of the centrepieces of the production, because they were not directly in front of her.
As well as being a classroom teacher, Karen was in charge of co-ordinating help for children with special needs. And for the final two years of her career she took her guide dog Holly into work.
“The children used to read to her!” said Karen.
So what does deflate her optimistic outlook? Is there anything she’d like people to help with?
“I get frustrated when people park on pavements,” she said. “It doesn’t just force people like me out into the road, but also people with pushchairs.
“But using a cane is good. My husband said it helps people realise why I’m dithering at the top of escalators!”
After retiring, Karen found more time to get involved in Vision Norfolk activities, and then the trust which runs it.
The charity was set up in 1805 by Norwich man Thomas Tawell, who was himself blind. Karen said: “I think he persuaded the rich and good of Norfolk to give land and money. He had this vision, for want of a better word.”
The vision continues into the 21st century.
“Our aim is to do anything we can to help visually impaired people in Norfolk,” said Karen. “In our centres, in their homes, everywhere.
“I’m passionate about helping our residents and tenants and trying to support as many people as we can.
“Coming out of Covid we have had to make changes; because of Covid but also for financial reasons. Like most charities fundraising has been difficult. Charities are having to think about new ways of working and new ways of fundraising. We don’t want to make huge great changes but we have got to rethink how we do things.”
She said Vision Norfolk had to make community workers redundant during the pandemic but new chief executive Andrew Morton is hoping to launch a replacement scheme.
“My aim is to help Vision Norfolk reach out to more visually-impaired people right across the county, and build up our services so that we can help more people to live independent and fulfilling lives,” said Karen.
“I’m really looking forward to getting out and about and seeing people again.”
She is also hoping to be matched with a new guide dog. Holly, now 10, has reached guide dog retirement age – although she remains a big support to Karen. “When my husband takes her out she’s a dog. When I take her out she’s still a guide dog."
The charity aims to help people with sight-loss enjoy independent and fulfilled lives.
Funding comes from legacies, grants and fundraising.
It supports around 4,000 of the estimated 35,000 visually impaired people in Norfolk – at its hubs in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn, in activities around the county, in their own homes and in purpose-built supported housing for 20 people in Norwich. Its Norwich care home for 37 visually impaired people is in the process of being taken over by a specialist provider.
Vision Norfolk advises on specialist equipment, runs one-to-one and group support sessions, social and well-being activities including sports, audio book clubs, theatre visits, discussion groups and gardening, and has a befriending scheme and a young people and families team.
The charity was founded in 1805 as a hospital and school for blind people. The Norwich Institution for the Blind and the Asylum for the Benefit of the Blind in Norwich were later renamed the Asylum and School for the Blind.
In the 1900s it set up mat-making, brush-making and knitting workshops, and sold crafts from a shop on Castle Meadow, Norwich. In 2010 the Queen opened the Bradbury Activity Centre at its Magpie Road headquarters - one of the most modern and well-equipped facilities for visually-impaired people in the country including an equipment centre, arts and crafts facilities and offices.
In 1988 the charity was renamed the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind, and then in 2020 became Vision Norfolk.