Volunteering gave me my life back

Laura Kennedy lost her sight overnight at the age of 31. It was a devastating diagnosis.

Head of shoulders photo of Laura Kennedy

She had developed the rare condition of Acute Retina Necrosis following a virus. Her full sight would never return.

A self-confessed workaholic, Laura worked as a PA to two directors in the NHS but as she lay in the hospital bed for five weeks and twenty operations/procedures later she just couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to continue with her career.

Like many young people who become blind and partially sighted, she had to leave her dockside apartment because of the lack of amenities around. Previously she drove and thought nothing to walking an hour to get to work. But with no facilities within a short walk, she had to move home. This affected not only her independence but her confidence.

Business as usual

Thankfully Laura worked for a forward-thinking employer who didn’t see her diagnosis as an insurmountable hurdle to Laura returning to work. While she recovered from the complications of her virus and went through the operations, her managers kept her job available, keeping her options open.  When she was ready to return to work, they put in place assistive technology, like ZoomText, that allowed her to do her job.  They provided an iPad which she uses to make documents larger. And during the winter, her manager personally guides her to a taxi to ensure she gets home safe. Living with full night blindness, winter’s early evenings and low light makes it more difficult for her to make the journey to and from her workplace.

Laura said:

“My colleagues have been so supportive. I love my job. When I was registered as blind I truly couldn’t see the way through. But these small adjustments and thoughtful practises allowed me to keep working and that means so much to me. 99 percent of my job I can still do.”

Volunteering with the Merseyside Sight Loss Council

Despite returning to work, her confidence travelling alone and attending social activities was low but Laura was adamant she wanted to give something back and make a difference somehow to the sight loss sector. She contacted the Eye Clinic Liaison Officer (ECLO) at the hospital who highlighted an opportunity for her to be involved in the newly forming Merseyside Sight Loss Council (SLC).

Merseyside SLC, funded by Thomas Pocklington Trust (TPT) and led by eleven blind or partially sighted volunteers advocates the needs, and campaigns on behalf of the blind and partially sighted people in Liverpool and its surrounds. Laura got involved right at the start and was instrumental in shaping its plans and priority areas.

Laura said:

“All volunteers on the SLC are blind and partially sighted as we have the lived-experience of our day-to-day challenges, understand the issues and know the local area. Since we launched at the end of March 2019 we have done so much!

“For example, we have met with Apple to give advice on accessibility training for app devices.  We have given blind people a voice on the Merseyside travel charter. And because I love shopping, I led on Purple Tuesday which took place on 12 November. This is the day we raise awareness in shops and shopping centres on the challenges blind people face when navigating around the retail space. It was so well-received by retailers who could see the difference they could make by adjusting a few things like simple layout and lighting.

“But it’s not just about the work we have done that has made this the most amazing volunteering experience for me personally. It has given me opportunities I would never have had and my confidence has increased massively.

“Skills I have gained from my work I have transferred to the SLC and vice versa. I work 9:00am-5:00pm Monday to Friday but I am happy to take SLC calls in the evening and use a portion of my annual leave to attend events. My voluntary work here has become so important to me. If one person benefits from me taking the time out to volunteer it is worth it.”

Mersey Sight Loss Council meeting, Laura is on the right hand side.

Building confidence

Laura recently attended the Visionary Conference in Birmingham, travelling alone on public transport for the first time since losing her sight all the way from the Wirral, to present at a forum on her experiences.

She said:

“This is a huge milestone for me. If I hadn’t been involved in the SLC – I would never have had the confidence to overcome my fear and make this journey on public transport to a new place nor present to a large audience. I feel I am getting my independence back.”

It’s three years since Laura lost her sight. She said:

“Losing my sight is obviously the worst thing that has happened to me but, in a way, it has also been the best thing that has happened. I cannot stress enough what a massive difference volunteering with the SLC has made to me.

“I just thought I was giving something back. I had no idea of the positive impact it would make on me in increased confidence, learning new skills, making new friends and opening up opportunities.

“I would absolutely encourage more blind and partially sighted people to volunteer. It has changed my life. In fact, volunteering has given me my life back!”

Jaldeep Katwala: getting a buzz from volunteering

Earlier this year we benefited from the time, skills and expertise of established journalist, Jaldeep Katwala, who delivered media training sessions to our Sight Loss Council members. Read his story.

Find out more about 'Jaldeep Katwala: getting a buzz from volunteering'
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