Saturday, 31 May 2014

Skillstep: Week 1

I have now finished my first week of Skillstep, at the Henshaws resource centre in Manchester, and I thought I would share with you what Skillstep entails and the skills I have learned so far in the first 3 sessions.

What is Skillstep?

Skillstep is a 12 week training course, provided by Henshaws Society for Blind People, and supported by the Big Lottery Fund. It is a practical course and beneficial for those who are seeking employment or voluntary work, or for those wanting to go into further education. Skillstep also delivers the perfect opportunity to boost confidence and independence, and expand social circles.

Throughout the duration of the course, experienced trainers and guest speakers will visit the centre to help build on technology and IT abilities, route training and travel efficiency, personal and social development and vocational skills.

The end of the initial 10-week course is concluded with a 2-week work placement, based on your personal interests and skills. A nationally-recognised qualification is then gained, accredited by the Open College Network.

You can find out more about Skillstep by clicking here and can register your interest to the course via e-mail.

Enrolling onto the Course

I have been interested in the Skillstep course for a almost a year, after attending the 'Living with Sight Loss' enablement course last summer, from June to July, and expressing my interest to Lisa Young after she explained the benefits of it. As the co-ordinator post has only been filled in recent months, courses have only started to run again and I am part of the second group undertaking Skillstep with the new co-ordinator.

I wanted to be a part of Skillstep to help bridge the gap between now and the time that I train for my Guide Dog and go back into further education, hopefully by next September. I thought it would be an excellent resource to help identify my current skill set, improve them and acquire new skills. I also wanted to boost my independence and make some new friends closer to my age.

After having an IT assessment with Linda and Neil, from Bolton College, and an interview with Julie Parrish, the new Skillstep co-ordinator, I enrolled onto the Skillstep course on Friday, May 16th.

The course runs for three days a week - on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday - and each day is focused on a different area of learning. On Tuesdays, Maureen Cain from Trafford College visits to work on vocational and social skills. Wednesdays add a bit of variety to the course, with visits from a rehab officer, a Trustee of Henshaws, Transport for Greater Manchester, Department of Work and Pensions, and so on. Thursday, the final day of the week, is occupied by developing IT and technology skills with Linda and Neil from Bolton College.

My First Week

The course began on Tuesday, May 27th, with the group consisting of 8 members of varying ages and sight conditions. We began the first day by giving introductions of ourselves and were then given a brief history of Henshaws - Manchester's oldest charity, established in 1837 - as well as an overview of Skillstep and what we will be achieving over the course of the next 12 weeks.

We were introduced to Maureen Cain, from Trafford College, and she explained the work that she would be doing with us on a Tuesday which included social and vocational development. In the first session, we were introduced to rapport and how to establish connections through behaviours such as body language, tone of voice, language and active listening. Throughout the day, we were given exercises to demonstrate using these skills and the difference they make to building rapport with someone.

On the second day Gary Cassidy, a rehabilitation officer based at Henshaws, visited our group for the morning to discuss the basics of how the eye works and the most common eye conditions that cause sight loss in the UK. These include Glaucoma, Cataracts, Macular Degeneration, Retinitis Pigmentosa, Diabetic Retinopathy, Nystagmus, Hemianopia and Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Simulation glasses were passed around so that those with some useful sight could experience a few of the conditions mentioned.

In the afternoon, we were visited by Andrew Rose - a Trustee and a Member of the Board at Henshaws. He gave a speech on his sight loss journey, suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa, and how Henshaws and the Skillstep course benefitted him 4 years ago. It is a truly inspirational story of someone who has achieved so much despite their increasing sight impairment and it was wonderful of Andrew to share his time and his story with us. It really exhibited the goals that someone can attain when they accept their visual impairment and work with it to help others.

The third day was based around the computer, with each individual group member located at their own computer already set-up with the software they identified needing to use during the previous IT assessment. I am currently using ZoomText, as I much prefer the voice in that software, as opposed to JAWS which sounds rather robotic and is hard for me to understand with my hearing aids!

The computer is loaded with documents consisting of tasks for us to work through and demonstrate our basic IT knowledge of how to; open Word, save a document, find and open a document, add additional text to a document, and copy, paste and cut text. We then printed two copies of each task to be marked and added to our portfolio. I completed 10 of the 14 tasks in total and will continue with the final 4 tasks in the second session on Thursday, before moving onto the next section of work.

As a life-long Apple user, I must admit that the beginning of the session was a little difficult to get my head around - using commands and keys that aren't featured on a Macbook keyboard. By the end of the 5 hour session though, I had picked up a lot of the basics and was very thankful to work through the simple tasks to get used to the things I will be using in the IT sessions in coming weeks.

As Skillstep is an evidence-based course, a portfolio must be created in order to display the skills we have learned over the duration of the 12 weeks, to be accredited correctly. We were provided with a binder and dividers for us to organise our work with Maureen and IT work with Linda and Neil. I created a Braille label to identify my folder and Braille labels to divide my work.

At the end of the first week of Skillstep, I was absolutely shattered! It was a good feeling though, being in a routine and socialising with other visually impaired and blind people close to my age. I felt like I had made progress and a good start in the course. I am certainly looking forward to week 2 and will be sure to blog weekly posts regarding my Skillstep progress.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Henshaws Blog Post:
Arts & Crafts Group

My fifth blog post with Henshaws has now been posted!

In my latest entry, I talk about the Arts & Crafts group at the Henshaws Manchester centre and the techniques we have learned in the Friday sessions from 1pm to 3pm. As one of the Friendship Matters groups, the Arts & Crafts group has a huge social aspect to it too.

In one of our recent sessions, we were introduced to Living Paintings - a charity that produces touch-to-see books for the blind and visually impaired - which are accompanied with other media, such as audio CD, laminated images and Braille stories.

You can view my latest contribution to the Henshaws blog by clicking here or on the thumbnail above. My previous blog posts with Henshaws can be found here.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Interview with Fashioneyesta

I was recently e-mailed by Emily Davison, of Fashioneyesta, to do an interview for her website regarding my illustrations as the RNIB's Young Illustrator of the Year for 2014.

We discuss how I developed an interest in drawing, the things that inspire me, my aspirations for the future and my fashion style - among other things. I had a great time doing the interview and I'd like to say a big thank you to Emily for featuring me on her fantastic website!

You can view my interview by clicking here or on the screenshot above.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

John Lewis Birthday Composition

I have now completed my John Lewis composition which will soon be displayed in their Trafford Centre store, on the community art wall, to celebrate their 150th birthday year.

In February, Henshaws Society for Blind People was chosen by John Lewis to produce artwork to celebrate the 150th year of the retail store. I was kindly asked by Louisa Walmsley, of the fundraising team, to produce a piece on my own. Other pieces will be produced from the Arts & Crafts group and Parent & Toddler group in Manchester, Henshaws resource centre in Newcastle, and Arts & Crafts Centre in Knaresborough.

As John Lewis is a British institution, with their first store opening in Oxford Street, in London, I thought I would incorporate British iconography and celebrate Britain alongside John Lewis' birthday. I also portrayed the famous Trafford Centre dome, with it being a British landmark as well as the place where my composition will be displayed. As I primarily shop at John Lewis for gifts and toys, I wanted to include some of my favourite items from the online store - particularly a beautiful deluxe rocking horse.

The composition was created using coloured pencils, fineliner and metallic relief paints. It took over two and a half months to complete.

I'm incredibly grateful to Louisa for such an amazing opportunity, and I can't wait to see the full birthday display when it's unveiled in the Trafford Centre. I will be sure to post photos here when it's exhibited!

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Conference with GMPCC

Yesterday afternoon, I attended the Meeting the needs of blind and visually impaired people half-day conference, set up by the Greater Manchester Police Crime Commissioner, Tony Lloyd, and his engagement team, at the GMP Conference Suite in Sedgely Park. The conference was a follow-up to my initial meeting with the GMPCC engagement team about my experiences with hate crime and the responses I had gathered through surveys at the Henshaws resource centre in Manchester.

The aim of the conference was to give visually impaired and blind people the opportunity to share experiences, concerns, praise and recommendations for improvement in relation to the services they receive from Greater Manchester Police.

Among the attendees were representatives from the Manchester Guide Dogs team, the Salford Sensory Team, Manchester Blind Football Club, and the RNIB Regional Campaigns Officer for the North West, as well as blind and visually impaired people local to the Manchester area who wanted to share their views and experiences.

The event was live-tweeted by Kate. You can view the tweets and photos at the official GMPCC Twitter account and by browsing the hashtag #gmpccdisability. I also live-tweeted and typed out notes on my iPad to use for this blog post.

After registration and refreshments, the event began with an introduction from Uzma Babb, engagement manager of the PCC engagement team, about the conference and its aims for the day, the agenda, housekeeping rules and fire safety instructions.

The agenda of the day was to have table-top discussions regarding accessibility of GMP and communication, current reporting mechanisms, reporting hate crime, crime prevention and keeping safe. Engagement officers were based at each table taking notes of experiences and suggestions to then be fed back to the Crime Commissioner and the engagement team.

Tony Lloyd, the Police Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester, introduced himself and welcomed the attendees to the conference. He thanked us for coming along to the event and for sharing experiences and feedback to help shape accessibility and the reporting of hate crime.

“It’s quite right that our police service should serve all members of our community, including those with alternative communication needs. If that means finding ways to improve access to the police – whether at police stations themselves, when providing crime prevention advice, or when using the 101 non-emergency number, then these are things GMP need to look at.

We are all on a journey, here, not just the police but all services. We all need to work harder to find ways to remove the – often unnecessary – barriers faced by people with disabilities in our community.”

He ended his speech by saying that this was not a conclusion on meeting the needs of blind and visually impaired people in Greater Manchester, but just the beginning.

We then began our table-top discussions. We introduced ourselves around the table which included myself, Lindsay Armstrong - the RCO of the North West, Joanne Potter who has worked with Action for Blind People, and Ruth, Sue and Stan from the committee of the Manchester Blind Football Club. Gaynor Edwards was the member of the engagement team who was sat with us taking notes of suggestions, experiences and feedback.

First on the agenda was discussion of accessibility of GMP and communication. Gaynor informed us of all the ways in which the police can be contacted - via 999 for emergency calls, 101 for non-emergency calls,  Facebook and Twitter, the official websites for GMPCC and Greater Manchester Police, using the 'click to talk' button and accessing your local police station or police officer. Reports should be made through the website using the contact form, rather than though social media. There is also a newsletter than can be sent via e-mail to keep up-to-date with current news and events.

The GMPCC and Greater Manchester Police websites are accessible and have a SpeakIT Plus application installed through the 'listen to site' link located on the top left-hand side, which will read out the text and links on the website, if you are not already using speech-based software on your computer. There are settings to control the speed of the speech and information on how to change the text size on your computer's browser to make it larger on the website.

Moving onto the accessibility of information, some items such as leaflets are provided in large print but not every article is. If you were to request a leaflet or letter in Braille or large print, it would be provided in your preferred format - you just have to ask. I wasn't aware of this, and assumed that most information leaflets and forms would only be available in regular-sized print, so this is very useful to remember in future. The police can also be contacted over the phone for information if an audio format is preferred.

We gave our feedback on the accessibility of communicating with police, which included more home visits from community police - with tactile identification, and making people more aware that they can connect with police through social media, report online using the website, and request large print and Braille formats.

Before moving onto the next item on the agenda, I was kindly asked by Kate to pose for a picture to be posted on the GMPCC Twitter account!

Next on the agenda was looking at current reporting mechanisms, some of which had been explained previously in the first discussion. These are currently through the 999 emergency number, 101 non-emergency number (which has replaced the previous 5050 number), through Crime Stoppers, reporting to a police officer in person, in a station and through the GMP website using the contact form.

One person at our table was unaware of the 101 number so we had some further discussion into the change; it is a nationwide number, but it is not freephone. We also discussed police stations themselves and whether they are accessible enough for a blind or VI person - in which case, picking up the phone is more convenient for the majority of people, and a lot of the other contact methods are well covered by the police.

After a 10 minute break, we resumed our table-top discussions moving onto the next item on the agenda - reporting hate crime. Gaynor explained the difference between a hate crime and a hate incident: The Home Office defines a hate crime as any incident, which constitutes as a criminal offence, perceived by the victim or any other person, as being motivated by prejudice or hate. A hate incident has a similar definition but may or may not constitute as a criminal offence. The reporting of hate crime can be achieved by dialling the 101 non-emergency number, at the front desk of a police station, via a police officer, online using the contact form on the website or through a third party reporting centre.

Hate crimes and incidents are targeted at a person because of hostility or prejudice towards that person's disability, race or ethnicity, religion or belief, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and / or sub-culture identity. They can be committed either against a person or a property. A victim does not have to be a member of the group at which the hostility is targeted; they may simply be perceived to be a member of that group. Hate crimes can come in different forms such as physical attacks, threats of attack, verbal abuse, written or printed abuse, sexual abuse, graffiti and / or harassment.

We were then invited to share our experiences of hate crime and whether we reported it, and if not, what were the barriers that were stopping us from doing so. I shared my story of being a victim of hate crime 7 years ago and my reasons as to why I did not report it at the time. I felt like the attack was my fault, was too scared to speak out and didn't think I would be a valuable witness as I could not see the perpetrator with my severe sight loss. It caused serious depression and anxiety attacks, and I was mostly housebound for the 6 years to follow. Others around the table shared their accounts of their friends and family, and I shared my findings from my surveys of the hate crime experienced by some of the service users at Henshaws.

We talked more about third party reporting centres and which ones were local to us. A third party reporting centre is an independent, non-police centre that allows you to report incidents in complete confidence in an environment that you are more comfortable in - such as a religious building, school, college, housing trust or community centre. I believe that Henshaws is in the process of becoming a third party reporting centre too which is fantastic news!

The final item on the agenda for discussion was crime prevention and keeping safe. We each discussed individually how prevented becoming victims of crime - being members of our local home watch / neighbourhood watch groups, installing house alarms and shed alarms, carrying panic buttons, having locks on windows and doors and stickers on windows. I mentioned that I kept up-to-date with the GMPCC and Greater Manchester social media websites and received the newsletter via e-mail to keep as up-to-date as possible.

We also provided insight into how we kept safe - hardly ever going out at night, limiting the use of public transport at night, only visiting areas with good lighting, going to familiar well-known areas, hardly ever going to new places, avoiding dark side-streets and avoiding places where incidents have happened to other people. Gaynor informed us of how the police currently help others to prevent crime and keep safe - such as giving prevention advice, hi-vis patrolling and cocooning, and through social media and the official website.

The suggestions given from the table and through the surveys I had conducted wanted a greater police presence in local communities, officers to make themselves known to VI and blind members of the community, house visits every so often to be aware of what's happening in the local area and more police observation on transport (though this involves the British Transport Police and not GMP).

It was then time to wrap up the conference for the day. Uzma thanked us all for attending the event and echoed what Tony Lloyd had said earlier about this just being the start of things to come, rather than a conclusion.

I want to say a big thank you to the Police Crime Commissioner, Tony Lloyd, and the engagement team for organising the conference in response to my initial meeting with them. It was a fantastic event, extremely informative and I am very grateful that they took the time to time to organise it on my behalf. I also want to thank those who attended for making it such a success!

You can read more about yesterday's conference by clicking here and here. You can take part online to give your views and feedback regarding hate crime and GMP accessibility by filling out the short survey here - you can remain anonymous and it is optional to give your contact details.

The survey and poll available at the GMPCC website will remain live for the next fortnight, and then all of the responses will be collated and a report will be produced detailing the findings and suggestions for improvement.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Mobility Training

Following on from my previous post, I have also been receiving mobility training with a long cane for the past 10 months and had my final session and review on Thursday. I thought I would share the cane skills and routes I have learned over the previous 10 months and how it has made a major improvement to my confidence and day-to-day life.

I initially met Debbie Carmichael on the 6 week Living With Sight Loss enablement course, which was run by Henshaws, at my local community centre in the summer of last year. During the length of the course we had different people introduce their services and explain how they would benefit us as visually impaired people and, during one session, Debbie demonstrated the various canes and mobility aids available.

Shortly after my visit from the Salford Sensory Team, I began my mobility training with Debbie around my local area. I first tried out some of the different styles of canes and cane tips, and it quickly became apparent that I was most comfortable using the long cane with a roller tip. Debbie explained the technique that is used to identify obstacles using this particular cane and tip, which is called a walking 'in step', where the cane will go to one side as your opposite foot goes forward and then you switch between the two. So for example, if you use your right foot first you will sweep your cane to the left side, then walk forward with your left foot and sweep your cane to the right side. You repeat this using the left-to-right sweeping motion whilst walking forward. The cane will come into contact with any obstacles that are located in front or at either side of you, allowing you identify it and go around it safely.

We spent the first few sessions practicing walking 'in step' until I got the hang of it. Debbie then drove us to a quiet park to practice and I walked around the parameter using the sweeping motion of my long cane to identify when surfaces would change - such as grass, tarmac and the mosaic tiling in the middle of the park. When I was used to coming into contact with different surface areas, leaves, twigs and bits of rubbish, we then put into practice the basic skills I had learnt by walking up and down my street.

As I came to the end of the street and faced with a kerb, Debbie explained how I should hold my cane to make it more visible to passing drivers - by holding it at an upwards angle directly on the outside of the kerb. If any vehicles were to stop for me, I should pick up the sound of the engine running nearby to identify them and can then wave them onwards and wait for as much quiet as possible, before crossing. The reason behind this is that one vehicle may stop and allow you to cross, but a vehicle that is driving past on the the opposite side may not stop or know of your presence and cause an accident. It's best to wave the vehicle onwards and wait for as much silence before crossing.

After spending a few more sessions practicing how to hold the cane at a kerb and how to wave vehicles on, this flowed into the next lesson of learning how to cross a road and get back onto an upwards kerb on the opposite side. Following the decision that it is quiet enough to cross the road, a quick sweep of the cane is made to ensure nothing is in the way directly ahead when stepping off the kerb, such as parked vehicles, bits of rubbish, and so on. The road dips down first and rises upwards before levelling off in the middle and then dipping down again to meet the new street. This is useful to remember so that you know roughly where you are located in the road when crossing it. When the road dips down again, you know that an upwards kerb will be coming up ahead. This was the first time that I was able to cross a road without being guided by a family member!

We practiced crossing quiet side-roads near to where I live for another session or two until I felt confident enough to progress forward. When I felt comfortable with the basics of walking in step, identifying different surface areas, obstacles and kerbs, and self-assured enough to cross the road independently, Debbie then moved onto planning some simple routes around my area to help me get out and about and use all of the techniques I have mastered so far.

The first route that we practiced was to my local row of shops. I live on the end of quite a long street and at the opposite end, quite a distance away, resides a youth centre, a nursery, a school and a row of shops. These include a craft shop, cafe and bakery, butchers, hair salon, and small convenience store.

Implementing what I had learned in previous sessions, I was able to cross my street to the opposite side and make my way down the parallel street. With tell-tale clues such as lamp posts, grids and cracked pave stones, I am able to estimate roughly where I am on the route whilst making my way towards the destination of the row of shops. En route to the shops I pass the youth centre, butchers and hair salon and then continue to make my way down to the end of the street until I come to some tactile markings indicating a crossing for a busier road, rather than smaller side-streets which I cross earlier in the route. The street edge curves round and can be hard to indicate whether I'll be walking straight across to the next upwards kerb or out into the main road - so when I meet the tactile markings at the end of the street, I know to turn to the right and drop-and-drag my cane over the low kerb until it rises slightly and straightens off. This technique is called indenting, and is used in the knowledge that I will be crossing straight ahead rather than risking walking into the road from a curved edge.

I now had my first route planned! Debbie broke it down into small sections and we practiced it for a further 8 or so sessions until I had it perfected. The good thing about this route is that other places are situated not too far away - such as a library, post office and Co-operative store - so we would be adding more parts onto this main base route.

Following on from the route to the shops and memorising the order in which they are situated, it was then time to move forwards and add the library onto the base route. I know that I've walked past the shops as there is a small brick wall directly ahead where a house resides and a garden is surrounded by a fence made of low bricks. When my cane has made contact with the brick wall, I can then make my way around it using the inner-shore line and continue down the road. I will eventually feel a rougher surface area at the end of a very low kerb, indicating the car park to the Irlam Library. After listening to ensure no vehicles are pulling in or out of the library car park, I can then cross to the next kerb and keep walking until my cane sweeps into a large pole. This is where I turn into the library at 90° to the right hand-side and use the inner shore line of the grass verge to make my way to the steps.

The steps to the library can be distinguished by tactile markings. The tactile markings representing upcoming steps are slightly different than those found at crossings, in that they are vertical stripes rather than bumps. Shortly after locating the steps, Debbie explained the techniques of how to use the cane for identifying the next step when walking up them and coming back down. When walking up steps you should find the handrail first and move your other hand to the middle of your cane holding it upwards a few inches. Tap the step above and then tap the second step. Begin walking upwards, and swing the cane slightly so that it taps each step as you walk upwards letting you know how many more steps are up ahead. As the handrail evens off and you feel no more steps up ahead with your cane, you know that you have reached the top.

A slightly different cane technique is used when going down steps. When the handrail has been located, you move your other hand to the middle of your cane and hold it at a diagonal angle hovering above the next few steps. When you have walked down the majority of the steps the cane will hit the ground and straighten up indicating that there are no more steps to walk down. We practiced the cane techniques for going up and down steps for a session or two, before heading into the library itself and familiarising where everything is located. Audiobooks and large print books can be found at the front of the Irlam Library at the left-hand side. I practiced getting a book out from the library, though don't need to do this often as I have the Salford Mobile Library visit me every month.

Debbie and I practiced walking to the library for a few more sessions, and then built onto the route once more. In front of the library are a set of lights and a crossing which leads on to a florist and a pizza shop and further down the street resides a Tesco Express. I have never crossed the lights on my own before, so the next few sessions were focused on learning to press the switch and cross as quickly as possible while gaining confidence enough to do it without Debbie by my side.

When I felt confident enough that I'd practiced the lights to perfection, Debbie then planned the route to the Tesco Express and the easiest way for me to access it. As the main road is directly in front of the Tesco Express, the cars come in and out of the front to a car park situated on the left-hand side - so it is easiest for me to access it around the back of the car park. I can then make my way safely to the side of the shop and up the ramp into the main door. We practiced this for 3 or so sessions before then planning and adding the final part onto my route.

In my final sessions with Debbie, including Thursday's session, we walked the length of my route from my house, past the youth centre, the butchers, and the hair salon, further on to the shops, library and main road and instead turned to the right-hand side to make my way past the post office, pub and at the busy side-street next to the Co-operative. This is one of the busiest roads near to where I live, so we saved it for last.

When I have reached the tactile markings and have indented further up the road, I then have to wait for as much quiet as possible before crossing over to get to the Co-operative. This can take quite some time - so patience is a virtue! As well as cars turning in from the main road, there are also cars coming the opposite way from 3 different streets of houses and there is also a car park nearby. With so many cars coming from all different places, I need to be alert as to which direction they are driving in, whether they are stopping for me so that I can wave them on, and identifying as much quiet as possible (with the noise from the main road!) before moving across as quickly as I can. We practiced waiting and crossing and then making my way to the shop quite a few times to get the hang of it, and then moved on to the Co-operative itself - making my way inside and familiarising myself with where items are.

I now have have a base route to get to my local shops, library, post office and Co-operative and also have the skills to cross the lights to get to the florist and Tesco Express safely. I need to practice going out independently though, as this is something that I'm still quite apprehensive to do. I will have to practice the route with my mum by my side first, and then perhaps move on to having her walk behind me and increase the distance as time goes on. This will be perfect practice in between the waiting of my Guide Dog assessment.

I want to say a big thank you to Debbie Carmichael for her mobility sessions. I have learned so many cane techniques and feel a lot more confident with using my cane and not being guided as much. I have also noticed a difference in my walking speed and posture!

You can find out more about the Salford Sensory Services for visual impairment and what they offer by clicking on the bolded link.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Daily Living Skills

For the past 10 months I have been receiving regular sessions of daily living skills in and around my kitchen. I had my final session and review yesterday, so thought I would share all of the skills I've learned over the duration of the previous 10 months and how they have improved my everyday life for the better.

After the 6 week Living With Sight Loss enablement course that I attended in the summer of last year, run by Henshaws at my local community centre, I was referred to Lisa Young - who ran the enablement course - and she arranged regular daily living skills sessions at my home to help build independence, particularly around the kitchen where I lacked the most confidence.

Previous to my sessions, I was always spilling my drinks when attempting to pour them, found appliances such as the microwave, oven and kettle quite intimidating and did not have the skills to safely make snacks or small meals for myself, always depending on other people to help.

We first began the sessions by learning to pour liquids using a liquid level indicator. This was started by differentiating between different bottles by touch, getting used to the various shapes, sizes, necks and placements of the lid on bottles made of plastic and glass and cartons made of plastic and cardboard. We practiced pouring with cold water first, with Lisa filling the bottles with varying amounts so that I could get used to their weights and adjust to ways of pouring. The liquid level indicator is a fantastic tool to have and has helped my confidence with pouring liquids tremendously, as it beeps as soon as water touches the metal prongs signalling that you are nearing the top of the cup.

Following a few sessions of pouring cold water from different bottles, we then progressed onto hot water with me using the kettle for the first time. I got used to the shape and weight of my kettle first, and then learned how to plug it in, identify the handle and switch, and then boil the water. I put into practice what I had learned in the previous sessions when pouring, and then advanced onto making my own cup of tea and hot chocolate drink.

After mastering pouring liquids and using the kettle, Lisa moved me onto my next appliance - the toaster - where I would be working up to learning how to spread evenly. We started with the basics first, with me getting used to the feel of the toaster while unplugged. I learned how to identify the slots on the top of the toaster to insert the bread, the button to press down to activate the toaster, the buttons for defrosting and cancelling, and how to get the toast out safely afterwards (waiting for it to cool slightly, and running my hand up the cold side of the toaster and hovering above to find the bread - rather than directly touching the hot metal at the top of the toaster).

I proceeded to learn how to spread evenly. I toasted some bread once more for the next step, now feeling a lot more confident with using the toaster, and Lisa explained to me how to spread onto the toast evenly. By placing the corner of the toast between the L-shape of the thumb and forefinger, I had a grip on the toast so that it would not move unexpectedly, and learned to spread from the centre of the toast to the corner resting between my thumb and finger. The toast is then rotated so that another corner is between the thumb and forefinger and spread again from the centre to the corner. This is repeated until all 4 corners have been spread from the centre. A way to identify whether the whole of the toast has been covered is from the sound it makes - there won't be as much of a dry scraping sound when the toast it completely covered with spread.

I was now able to make my own hot drink and toast with a spread of my choice! We practiced both of these skills for a few more sessions before moving onto chopping and peeling fruits and vegetables safely. We started with peeling first using a peeler tool on the large surface area of a potato. It was easy to identify when the skin of the potato had been stripped away because of the different feel of the vegetable underneath - smooth and moist. After a full session of peeling a potato and carrot and feeling confident enough to move on, we then looked at how to chop fruits and vegetables as safely as possible.

Starting with a soft banana and a blunt knife, I got used to the downward motion of slicing for the first session focused on chopping. We continued this into the next session, and moved onto a sharper knife when I felt more comfortable. I eventually started to chop other fruits and vegetables such as a tomato, cucumber, and celery and moved onto vegetables with a harder surface like a carrot and potato. I was now able to chop and peel my own fruits and vegetables - though I feel a lot more comfortable with supervision from Lisa or my mum when doing this so as not to have an accident.

After a few sessions focused on chopping and peeling, Lisa then moved me onto my next appliance - the microwave. Lisa guided my hand around the inside microwave oven so that I could get a feel of where to place the plate or bowl. I then familiarised myself with the feel of the buttons outside the microwave, and Lisa placed bump ons onto the 'start' button, 'cancel' button and number 5 which is in the middle of the keypad so that I am able to find the other number buttons situated around it. Using a microwave pan I made scrambled eggs by stopping at 30 second intervals and breaking apart the cooked egg. This could then be served on toast, incorporating a previous skill I had learned.

In my final few sessions with Lisa, we rounded everything off with tackling the oven and hob. I got used to the oven first of all, learning how to open the grill door by pulling it downwards and proceeding to pull out the handled tray, and the oven door underneath at the right-hand side. I familiarised myself with the shelves and learned how to ignite the spark for the oven to work. Later in the session, I was introduced to the hob. The dials were marked up with bump-ons so that I have a tactile way of knowing which direction to turn them on, then move to low heat, high heat and off and I memorised the sequence of the dials for which dial lights which corresponding hob. Lisa invited me to feel the pans in my kitchen, and we then practiced filling with cold water first before moving onto boiling. At the end of the session, I boiled my first egg!

I now have the basic kitchen skills to pour drinks and prepare food safely. I still need supervision when chopping, slicing and using the hob, but now have more independence and freedom in my own kitchen for the first time. I'd like to say a big thank you to Lisa Young for the wonderful sessions over the past 10 months, for being so patient with me and for giving the confidence to start preparing my own food and drinks!

You can find out more about the Living With Sight Loss enablement course, Independent Living Skills and Kitchen Skills sessions at the Henshaws website by clicking on the bolded links.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Artwork at the RNIB Pears Centre

I recently donated a piece of my artwork to the RNIB Pears Centre in Coventry, after they got in touch with me via e-mail in late February. I restored the piece and sent it off, and the team have kindly sourced a frame to display it in and have also displayed it alongside my biography and short paragraph about the carousel piece produced during my GCSE art course in 2005.

I've now been sent a photo of the display to share with you all! I'm so thrilled with how it looks, and hope everyone at the RNIB Pears Centre enjoys it too. A big thank you to Liz Thomson and Sophie Edge for organising the photo to be taken and for displaying the piece. I'm very appreciative indeed!

The official RNIB Twitter account also tweeted about my donation!

Friday, 9 May 2014

Fourth Blog Post with Henshaws

My fourth blog post has now been
posted to the Henshaws Blog!

In my latest entry, I explain how I produce artwork and illustrations as a severely visually impaired person as well as providing images of my workspace located in my kitchen.

I explain how I equip myself with time and patience (due to only being able to work for 15-20 minutes at a time), how organisation makes a big difference, and reveal some of the tools I use - such as dark fine liners rather than pencils to outline images and a Daylight lamp to help illuminate the artwork.

There is now a handy new feature implemented to the left-hand side of the blog, enabling visitors to view entries by selecting the author. You can view and keep track of all of my contributions to the blog by clicking here!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Blog Post for Living Paintings

I was kindly asked to write a blog post for Living Paintings recently, a charity that produces touch-to-see books for visually impaired and blind people, explaining how I developed an interest in creating artwork and how I manage to do so as a severely visually impaired person.

I go into detail about what inspires my illustrations, how I organise my mediums, how I plan a piece before getting started, and also provide a few helpful tips on how to identify shades before using them and how to colour inside an image without going over the edges!

You read my blog entry by clicking here or on the above image.
A big thank you to Living Paintings for asking me to contribute to their fantastic blog!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Magazine Scan: Third Illustration for Insight Magazine

I received the new issue of Insight Magazine over the weekend! Here is the scan of my third illustration. I'm really pleased with how this turned out and am very grateful to the team for taking my feedback on board from the previous issue. I think this works really well and was also very easy for me to find when flicking through the magazine!

Young Illustrator

Kimberley Burrows, our young illustrator has enjoyed lots of media attention since the last issue, appearing in the Manchester Evening News and on ITV's Granada Reports.

We asked Kimberley to create an illustration about her journey to independence.

Kimberley explains: "This portrays me in my high school uniform when I was a teenager, looking towards the future of adult life and responsibilities - food shopping independently, washing clothes, preparing meals safely and managing money and paying bills.

These are skills that I'm still learning as a severely visually impaired adult.

An enablement officer based at Henshaws Society for Blind People visits me weekly to help me learn kitchen skills such as using appliances, pouring hot liquids, chopping, peeling and spreading and working up to preparing meals safely and independently."

The new issue of RNIB's Insight Magazine is out now. You can find out more about how to subscribe by clicking here.