New chief executive of Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind throws down gauntlet to Norwich city planners
As swathes of Norwich city centre become ‘shared use’ the new chief executive of the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind (NNAB) has laid down a challenge for city planners.
Gina Dormer started in her role in August and has now “thrown down a gauntlet” for council officers.
“Walk in someone’s shoes with a visual impairment and see how it feels,” she said. “It is such a powerful thing. It might not cause a revolution but it shows you are willing.”
It comes as the NNAB says it is “disappointed” after contributing to successive council consultations, only to have no impact on the result.
“We have a challenge on our hands in regard to shared space,” said Ms Dormer. “We do participate very actively in consultations the council runs and they do seek our views on pedestrianised areas and shared space. One of the frustrating things is the feedback we give isn’t incorporated into what happens.
“I have expressed our views in very strong terms and while we appreciate these changes are happening we are really disappointed. It is good we are involved in consultation but we need to be more than a box being ticked. When we come forward with rational and logical reasons we would like to feel they are being taken on board.”
With more than 250 volunteers, the NNAB has a vast network of support available for the upwards of 30,000 people living in Norfolk with a visual impairment.
The charity currently supports around 7,000 people, but estimate another 15,000 in the county may need their help.
That support could include community worker support, referrals at eye clinics, or leisure activities.
“Lots of people will be shattered by the news of their sight loss,” added Ms Dormer. “One of the big shocks for people is they realise they can’t drive. That can shut off so many opportunities for people.
“With a few adjustments sometimes anything is possible. We want them to lead active and fulfilled lives and know anything is possible.”
But there are barriers to be broken down first, physically and sociologically.
Only around 10pc of blind people of working age are in employment, and access to support on diagnosis has to be improved, says Ms Dormer.
She said: “One of the challenges for us is making sure people are aware of us regardless of age and circumstance. I would love to look at where we are picking up referrals and where we are when people need us most.
“What I would like to do quite quickly is review the presence we have in eye clinics. We have four clinics in the county and a raft of volunteers, but we do not have coverage in one single clinic and people will drop through the net.”
It is about public perception, too. The recent Dementia Friends training from the Alzheimer’s Society is thriving in Norwich, and the NNAB are calling for a similar attitude to visual impairment.
“People may feel excluded from going to certain things because of their vulnerability,” said Ms Dormer. “One thing we could do more of is offer sight awareness training.
“When you see someone who is blind or visually impaired people there is this barrier about how to approach them. The training we offer gives you some guidelines.
“If people feel more confident about it when someone goes into a department store there isn’t such a clumsy approach.
“There is also a very high link between visual impairment and poverty. 10pc of blind people of working age are unemployed. That is stark because it can be a real barrier to using your skills in gainful employment.
“People have so much to give and sometimes these adjustments are really quite minor.”
The biggest issue for the NNAB service users remains navigation, according to Ms Dormer.
“Trying to negotiate their way around a really busy city centre or town centre crossing can present all kinds of risks.
“For visually impaired people, the risk of stepping out into the road without the guidance of a traffic light system excludes them from being able to do it safely unless they have a sighted person with them.
“They like their independence and do not want to be hand held in everything they do.”
To volunteer with NNAB call Martin Fleming on 01603 629558 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the charity can be found at nnab.org.uk or by emailing email@example.com.