I’m in a reflective mood as I am just about to complete my first year working for Thomas Pocklington Trust as their North-West Engagement Manager, tasked with setting up and overseeing Sight Loss Councils in that region.

I remember seeing the job advert and thinking “interesting” then that quickly turned into “how exciting, what an opportunity to make a difference.” My previous role had been working in social care with adults with autism and learning difficulties, and without going into too much detail it was draining as funding became tighter and tighter.

However, Sight Loss Councils were new, innovative and creative, with groups of blind and partially sighted people coming together to form a proactive team that would ensure the voice of visually impaired communities could be heard. By raising awareness and influencing change in the issues that affected them the most in their local area, they could make that all important difference. They would be comprised of blind and partially sighted people wanting to get actively involved in improving the quality of the services available to them; working collaboratively and in partnership with local providers, councils and health professional along with local businesses and services operators.

I thought “was all this too good to be true?” Certainly not, there was an excellent example of it working in Birmingham and the difference they had made in working with bus companies, the NHS, and influencing Purple Tuesday meant there was every reason to feel confident that this model had a future and could be rolled out to other areas of the country.

So, I applied for the job and after a couple of rounds of interview was offered the opportunity of setting up a Sight Loss Council in Liverpool, which quickly widened out to encompass the wider Merseyside area.

It was at this point that the stark reality of what was involved hit home. Not only did we have to recruit a group of volunteers who were all willing to give their time and energy to become actively involved in the work we would be doing. We also had to find a way of networking within the sector to form the links needed to ensure we were able to sit on committees and forums and participate. After all, no point in having a voice if there is no one listening.

It’s at this point where I have to say this would have been a mountain to climb, had it not been for Phil Longworth, CEO at Bradbury Fields and Sarah Halliwell from Visionary. Both provided me with introductions to other providers in the area and from there the network started to grow. If anyone was to ask me how to you go about creating a network, my advice would be to write down people’s names and contact them within 24hrs of that first introduction. There may be times when they might not be the right person you need to talk to, but there is every chance they will know the name of the person you will need and can be that bridge.

It takes time to form an effective network as it’s not just about gathering contacts it’s about building trust getting to know each other and understanding how you can benefit each other. How they can assist you and how you can benefit and feed into the work they do. It’s a symbiotic relationship and over time will bear fruit, but it does need time to nurture.

Of course, the most vital part of the Sight Loss Council are the volunteers. In Merseyside we have some amazing people who are experienced, talented and above all else are dedicated to the work and the projects of the Sight Loss Council. All of them have sight loss in some form, and all have their own lived experience, but it is their uniqueness that enables them to have the insight of knowing how best to approach each challenge that arises. We don’t campaign as such, rather we champion the abilities, talents and experience we all collectively have as blind and partially sighted people. We don’t just identify problems; we positively work at finding solutions.

The Merseyside Sight Loss Council had their first meeting in May this year. In the 5 months since then we have been able to:

  • Help to develop a Merseytravel Passenger Charter, with the Merseyside Transport Committee
  • Contribute to NHS procedures regarding making reasonable adjustments to visually impaired patients accessing services.
  • Sit on the City’s Employment and Skills Council in an advisory role
  • Have an active role in the Corporate Access Forum
  • Sit on the Sensory Group for Sefton NHS Trust
  • We are a member of the Merseyside Vision Consortium
  • We are members of VISPA actively involved in VI sports
  • We are currently working with the Apple Store in Liverpool to provide a dedicated training session for visually impaired customers to learn how to use the accessibility features on their iPhones and iPads.
  • We are currently planning how we will be participating in Purple Tuesday at St John’s and The Croft’s Shopping Centres on 12th November.
  • And finally, we are working in partnership with a number of employment groups to deliver an Employment Engagement Event called Bridge the Gap to be hosted at Anfield by Liverpool Football Club early in 2020.

So, I will raise a glass to the first year and look forward to a productive second which will see a Sight Loss Council being set up in Manchester. Personally, this has been a fantastic year, as I have met and worked with some incredible people and been supported by a great management team at TPT, but above all else it is the work of the volunteers who have made this year a special stand out year. Thank you all, there are not many jobs that are as rewarding as this one.

It’s only a start, but already I think the Merseyside Sight Loss Council has made good inroads into ensuring the voice of blind and partially sighted people is being heard in its local area. However, for it to be a truly representative group we want to hear your views, what is it that you feel still needs to be addressed. We really do want to have as much input into the work we do from the wider sight loss community across Merseyside. So please contact us at [email protected] or through social media and once we identify a common theme it will be raised as a project for us to get involved in going forward. After all it’s your Sight Loss Council and your voice we want to hear the loudest.