From education to employment

Natalie’s incredible journey of sight loss

This year’s National Eye Health Week (NEHW) takes place from 23rd to 29th September 2019, and promotes the importance of good eye health and the need for regular eye tests for all.

It is thought that 2 million people in the UK are living with sight loss, severe enough to have a significant impact on their daily lives.

Natalie Mann is a mother, a former nurse, and has been visually impaired for the past 20 years. She is blind in her right eye and has some useful peripheral sight in her left eye. Her sight loss is due to three separate conditions – Bilateral Retinal Detachments, Glaucoma and Myopic Macular Degeneration. She has struggled to come to terms with losing her vision, was reluctant to face what was ahead, and had almost given up hope of ever being able to work again.

However, that all changed once she found help and support in the form of a specialised IT course for people with a visual impairment at East Sussex College. Natalie wants to tell her story to inspire others to take control of their sight loss, live in the now, and plan for the future.

Natalie said: “I struggled with losing my sight, wrestled with it, mostly. For a long time, I was on the ropes, but now I’m winning every round.

“Sight loss can make you feel incredibly insular and not just because you’re losing one of your major senses, also from the complete lack of support. Living with sight loss is multifaceted. It is a grieving process. I’ve grieved for the loss of my sight and everything else that gets lost along the way.

“I’m not the person I used to be and almost don’t recognise myself at times. My sight loss has forced me into becoming someone I didn’t choose to be, and, for a very long time (15 years, if not more) I didn’t want anything to do with the ‘new’ me.

“I felt lost.

“At times, things were so relentless, painful, and stressful – at one point I was losing more sight in my only good eye (my left) and going through childbirth which meant that I wasn’t able to see my newborn baby’s face in any detail. That was tough. I felt defeated. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to confront and cope with – ever.

“During the early stages of sight loss, following my retinal detachments, I had nine sight-saving surgeries in 12 months, clinic appointments and check-ups, a year of rehab, with some sight returning. But then I was diagnosed with depression and Glaucoma. At that point, I deemed myself unemployable. I felt like a round peg in a square hole.

“But there is a way forward, there is a life after sight loss.

“For years I had resigned myself to the idea that the working world was off-limits to me. What could I, an ex-Nurse with significant sight loss and low self-esteem, possibly have to offer an employer? But nowadays you’ll hear me say ‘This is what I can offer and this is what I’ll need in the workplace in order for me to achieve it’.

“It’s about learning how to adapt. Achieving the same goal but in a different way. It’s about putting your stubbornness aside and giving yourself permission to ask for help and get things wrong! It’s about surrounding yourself with like-minded people, people who understand. It’s about dealing with the past, living in the moment and planning for the future.

“A key factor to unlocking my new found happiness, fulfilment, and confidence was putting myself through the very painful, yet incredibly exhilarating, experience of therapy.

“I can honestly say it has been life-changing. Without counselling, I wouldn’t have had the courage to put myself through college and discover the second life-changing chapter in my life – an IT course for the visually impaired at East Sussex College.

“My confidence and happiness are at an all-time high. It has enabled me to face the fear of accomplishing new experiences and I’ve been given this huge window of opportunity to learn about the technology that will help me access the world again!

“Currently, I am learning how to use a computer with a combination of keys (in place of the mouse) on the keyboard and I wear a headset to listen to the screen reader tell me audibly what’s on the screen.

“It wasn’t as straightforward as that though. I had my reservations about starting at college; I wasn’t even sure how I would manage the walk from the train station to my classroom.

“However, I spoke to the course leader and arranged a drop-in day to suss things out. It became very clear, very quickly, that I was in safe hands. The course leader, Keith Eldridge and tutor, Dave Perrott, understood sight loss and everything that came with it.

“Some of my peers have some useful vision and others don’t have any at all, and this is accounted for on the course. One of the many special attributes to this course is that Keith and Dave tailor the content to the individual needs of the student on a one-to-one basis. For example, a light-sensitive student will need the classroom environment to be in complete darkness meaning that Keith and Dave have also learnt to teach in that same darkness.

“They go above and beyond in their role and offer orientation on the walk between the station to the classroom door. They continued with this until I had built a mental map of the route and with my cane eventually felt confident enough to walk the route independently.

“I felt liberated.

“No two people travel the same sight loss path, there is a vast array of reasons why people suffer sight loss. But there is hope. Further learning is available and accessible to people like me. To know I’m working towards something is a huge deal – I will work again, just you watch me.”

The specialist ICT courses for the Visually Impaired has been running for over ten years. It is a practical, hands-on course providing students, from across the region and as far as Surrey and Kent, with the opportunity to learn and improve basic IT skills using assistive software and hardware.


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