I was full sure my life had ended, but it had just begun
The aim of our Employment Vision project is to assist blind and vision impaired people into employment or training. Guide Dog owner Jackie explains why the programme has made such a difference to her.
Many people have a fear and an uncomfortableness around blindness and sight loss preventing them seeing the blind or vision impaired person as a complete person. I am blind and have been blind for just over twenty-eight years. I lost my sight, and I was one of those people with poor expectations and sheer fear towards blind people. I was sitting in Sligo General Hospital weeping for the person I was; I was full sure my life ended that November night, when in reality, my life began.
I became a much better person and one that dreamed of a brighter future. My first task was to leave home in Donegal and do something small, so I moved to Sligo and did a computer and telephony course in the NTDI (now the National Learning Network). This built up my courage and I also took hold of my first white cane. This got me around Sligo, but I hid my identity when travelling home to Donegal. I would fold up my cane and take someone’s arm. Because of my perception of being helpless and the attitudes of other people around me thinking I was less than them, I still had a sense of shame around being blind.
Fast forward to January 2008 when I started training with my first Guide Dog, a little hyper black lab retriever called Bangles! I had now fully accepted my sight loss because of this dog. In the intervening years from 1997 to 2008 I had done my Leaving Cert., I had been to college and earned a degree and I had also spent three months in Alaska.
My life was coming together except in the line of work. Finding an employment opportunity was very difficult, and as the years slipped away so did my chance of becoming a member of the workforce. I found that fear people held over 28 years ago was still very strong.
A few factors hindered my employment prospects, such as, health and safety and no previous work experience, but then I couldn’t even get the opportunity to gain work experience to find a job. It just became a very vicious circle, a battle that I was losing. Its soul destroying when you know you have something an employer is looking for but because they are afraid of breaking you, they don’t want to hire you.
In 2020, the world was rocked by Covid. My world closed in even more. We now cringe with the words “social distancing”, something that I couldn’t do even with my Guide Dog, Rhum, at my side. The world very slowly opened up, but it seemed mine remained closed.
The one positive consequence of Covid was that people were able to work from home. This meant that employment was slightly closer than ever before for blind and vision impaired people.
The Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind was starting up the Employment Vision Project to give blind and vision impaired people a chance to find employment or training. I guessed they can match up dogs well so why not match employers. I never thought for one minute I’d end up on the Employment Vision team as an Assistive Technology Officer. My role is to offer training to people, offer technology advice, trial technology like the OrCam, envision glasses and the WeeWalk cane. I eat and breathe assistive technology and the thoughts of supporting and advising people filled me with joy. I was finally given a chance to show what I can do, and I want this same outcome for anyone who has signed up for the programme.
The Employment Vision Project is different to anything I’d personally experienced before. Projects I had previously attended were a box ticking exercise where all participants got a wee certificate of completion.
IGDB’s goal of providing life changing dogs has the built the trust of the people as they see what a dog can do. The Employment Vision team want to achieve employment, want to change attitudes and want to showcase future employees to forward thinking employers.
I had a fear of becoming blind, but I got over the fear, I had to, and I realised that it made me stronger and who I am today. I was given a chance to become a member of the workforce. I feel so proud to tell people I now work; I want that for others also. Employers should be more willing to consider hiring someone with vision impairment or sight loss. Ask questions, try to understand what someone like me could bring to their business and their team.
The community of the blind and vision impaired is an untapped resource. The level of highly skilled and qualified people on this project is simply outstanding, they just haven’t been given the opportunity to display their talents.
Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind say “Together we are changing lives”. Together we can change our attitudes. Having a visual impairment means we can do everything but just a little differently.