Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Article with Quays News

In mid-February, I was invited by Henshaws to be interviewed by a journalist from Quays News. The article was posted online today at the Quays News website under the 'features' section:

I transformed my life, despite suffering from blindness

by Jack Gordon-Brown

For most of us, the thought of not being able to see simply doesn’t register in our thoughts. It is perhaps the most important of our senses, allowing us to see everything from our own perspective, crucial to understanding the world we live in. Sight intertwines with the other primary senses; touch, taste, hearing and smell, to enable us to do the everyday things in life without a degree of bother.

For some people, life is not as easy. Kimberley Burrows has been severely visually impaired for the whole of her life. Kimberley was born with congenital cataracts, after they formed in her mother’s womb. Kimberley is completely blind in one eye, and has just 10% sight in the other. According to the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) definition, a cataract is ‘a clouding of the normally clear and transparent lens inside the eye. It can cause blurry or hazy vision and be a bit like trying to look through frosted glass’. If the cataracts are formed in the womb it is called congenital, and it can affect both eyes.

The condition Kimberley suffers from has impacted greatly on her life, making simple, unassuming tasks challenging, and her mum naturally has to help her with things such as shopping and washing, caring for her daughter on a permanent basis.

Being visually impaired has also significantly dented Kimberley’s confidence and anxiety levels. She readily admits that 12 months ago this interview would not have taken place. During our discussion it is hard to believe Kimberley’s assertion, given her confidence in answering a range of questions, and her general candidness when talking about the demanding troubles she has overcome.

This is a direct result of her now regular attendance at the Manchester branch of Henshaws, an organisation dedicated to helping people with sight loss and other disabilities to build their skill set and become more independent. Henshaws was first established in 1837 after local businessman Thomas Henshaw left £20,000 in his will to establish an ‘Asylum for the indigent blind’, making it Manchester’s oldest charity. Henshaws has had a massive impact in the area, helping hundreds of families each year, from young children through to adults without sight.

Kimberley’s positivity is true testament to the energy she has put in at Henshaws, especially when you consider that she has only been with the society since August of last year. Now 25 years old and with aspirations of taking an art foundation course at the Royal National College for the Blind, Kimberley’s future prospects look progressively bright. But education hasn’t always been as straightforward, especially in the early years.

"I went to two mainstream schools, the Primary school and the High school, and there wasn’t a lot of support available. There probably is nowadays, but back then, which is probably going back 20 years ago,  there wasn’t a lot of support. Things like the blackboard and the whiteboard; I was very blessed to have really nice friends who would read it out to me."

Kimberley is keen to stress how her teachers and especially her friends were supportive of her at school, but it was art that gave her real joy, "I found an outlet with art really, I enjoyed art and found I could do it independently, especially if it’s not still life and it’s coming from inside my head and my imagination."

However, despite her ability to make friends at school, Kimberley soon found socialising particularly difficult once she had left at the age of 16. She drifted apart from friends from both Primary school and then High school, with her best friend from the latter moving South.

Despite having incredibly supportive parents, Kimberley would often feel isolated, "I would always go out with my Mum and my Dad and if they weren’t free then I couldn’t go out anywhere. So I didn’t go out often at all, I had lots of panic attacks and was very anxious and I was very self-conscious about my visual impairment."

Kimberley freely admits that her visual impairment affected her confidence, causing her to be more ‘shy and reserved around others’, a period of time she describes as ‘very stressful’. Thankfully she was able to turn to Henshaws, although she only found out about the charity through pure chance.

"This time last year I was house-bound, I wasn’t going out anywhere since I left high school, and then when I was at Manchester Eye Hospital my mum pointed out a Henshaws side room. I’d never heard about Henshaws before, so I thought we’d pop in and see what support would be available, especially since I wasn’t really getting out a lot apart from to appointments. They forwarded me onto an enablement course that was six weeks long, and that gave me a little bit of confidence to start talking with other visually impaired people and towards the end of the six weeks I was coming out of my shell a bit more. I definitely wanted to come to the Henshaws centre."

From this point onwards, Kimberley has flourished at the centre, taking on a number of different activities with an expansive range of people of all different ages, who are also visually impaired. Attending Henshaws has led to Kimberley studying braille, a form of written language for blind people, in which characters are represented by patterns of raised dots that are felt with the fingertips. Such is the success she has had; Kimberley now counts it as one of her hobbies.

"It’s like texting, you are shortening words because if you had uncontracted braille, say if you wanted to read Harry Potter and the seven books, it would span on to about 15-20 books because it’s quite a thick medium. You just gently touch it and it forms words and I find it really intriguing. I’ve been learning since the end of August 2013. I’m on book 6 now, so I’m half way through. - but you just go at your own pace. There’s someone in the braille class who’s been going 10 years and is only on book 3, so it just depends really, but I am racing through because I am really enjoying it."

Kimberley hopes that in the future she will be able to read a full book of braille, an extraordinary feat. For now, she is content to listen to audiobooks on her iPad, a device which she praises with a markedly enthusiastic tone.

"The iPad has transformed my life. I’ve had it for nearly two years now, and it is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It allows me to check my e-mails, and partake in social networking. I use Facebook to keep in touch with my family and friends, and Twitter to talk to people I wouldn’t usually have contact with - so it’s wonderful. The accessibility on it is amazing, you have things like zoom, voiceover, and you can change the colour contrast. You’ve got speech and you’ve got Siri as well - so you can tell it what to search for and things like that, and it’s just an amazing piece of technology."

Despite her rapid progression at Henshaws that has opened up a previously unfamiliar world to Kimberley, it is her illustrating ability that really captures the imagination. Kimberley has had an obvious penchant for art from an early age, something reflected by her A* in the subject at GCSE level, even if she will never fully be able to see her own drawings.

Kimberley’s fan pieces of Paddington Bear led to a meeting with the author of the books, Michael Bond, after his daughter had spotted her drawings on the Paddington Bear Facebook page. Kimberley describes Bond as her idol, and she was able to travel down to London just before the Olympics to meet him, whilst one of her drawings remains in his home to this day.

This is not the only distinct recognition Kimberley has attained from her drawings. She was recently featured in the Salford Advertiser and the Manchester Evening News with a collection of her drawings. What is striking about each picture is the unerring intricacy involved, and it takes Kimberley around a month to complete a picture, highlighting just how much she immerses herself in each one of her works of art. It is certainly worth the effort, as Kimberley continues to express herself in ways that most could only dream of doing.

"In December, I entered a competition with the RNIB. I won their competition for the Young Illustrator of 2014, so for the next 12 months I will be producing an illustration for their Insight Magazine - so that is my main hobby. It’s very hard, it takes me about a month to complete a piece, but I am very determined and it is what I want to do and I enjoy it very much."

There are undoubtedly still hurdles for Kimberley to overcome. Employment is an obvious issue. Statistics show that two thirds of blind people are unemployed, whilst 90% of employers wouldn’t even consider blind people employable. Kimberley is keen to complete her guide dog training, but she knows all too well the wait she must have to endure. A friend of hers has been on the waiting list for three years, whereas she has been on for a mere five months.

Yet it is impossible not to be inspired by Kimberley and her utter devotion to master such a difficult subject, as she targets the Royal National College for the Blind, with an art foundation course her most favoured option. From then on Kimberley hopes to be a children’s illustrator, and with the deserved acclaim she has received so far for her drawings, it is difficult to imagine anyone turning her creative talents away.

You can view my article on Quay News by clicking on the thumbnail below: