Katherine’s Kayaking and White Water Rafting Experience

ELVis member Katharine Way, 54, from Waltham Forest talks about her experience participating in white water rafting in Lee Valley, and undertaking a four-week kayaking course with the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre.

“I have retinitis pigmentosa. My father and grandmother had it, and it’s been in my family for generations. I’m partially sighted and I still have a reasonable amount of sight. But there are plenty of things that I can’t do, like driving.

I grew up around water in Swansea, South Wales. As a kid I enjoyed many summers by the beach and swimming in the sea near the Gower Peninsula. I occasionally go back to visit, and when I’m feeling brave enough I take a quick dip in the water. My parents also owned a kayak. My father was blind so my mother would navigate. As a family we’d go paddling in the Brecon Canals and Llangorse Lake, which I always loved doing. What can I say? I love water! Growing up by the sea you do, and I always try to find water again.

When I saw the opportunity to participate in water-based activities with ELVis I couldn’t say no. I went white water rafting at Lee Valley in May. That was a real revelation because I was so nervous I nearly wimped out on the day. But then I thought, when else would I get the chance to do this and have all the help I need. So I talked myself back in to it, and I’m very glad I did because it was a really fun experience. The only thing I found completely nerve-racking was the swim test because I had to jump in to the rapids and stay afloat. I managed it, and after that everything else was a breeze.

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Photo of Katharine under taking the swim challenge during white water rafting.

On the other hand, kayaking is definitely splashier than white water rafting. My favourite part was getting to explore the waters surrounding Canary Wharf. During the first week of the course I found it tricky to paddle, but now I’ve gotten the hang of it and I feel more confident moving around on the water. I’ve even learnt it’s important to keep in rhythm with the other person who is paddling. Also, the kayaking instructors were great because they’re really patient and they explain everything clearly. If they need to do what they normally do in a different way they do it, which was great.

Taking part in both activities made me rethink the whole way I deal with my disability. I thought there were a lot of things I couldn’t do anymore because of my sight, like rowing a boat. So accomplishing something like kayaking you start to think that you shouldn’t assume that there are all these things you can’t do, but instead find a way of doing them safely. So it’s been quite a big thing for me to take part in, and it’s built my confidence. Plus, it’s been liberating and fun. Don’t forget that!

The skies the limits now as there are so many activities I’d like to do. Thank you East London Vision for organising and subsidising these activities for vision impaired people. It’s absolutely heartening.”

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Photo of Katharine (left) in a double kayak.

East London Vision would like to thank the Primary Club for funding, which has made it possible to run the kayaking sessions for our members.

Written by Katharine Way and Ray Calamaan

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Accessible Radio for the Vision Impaired

As the Assistive Technology Advisor at ELVis I am often asked about access to radio and television by people with varying degrees of visual impairment.

In many ways, access to electronic products by visually impaired people has improved considerably over the last 10 years or so. Smartphones and computers in particular are now accessible out of the box and third-party products exist so that Apple, Android and Microsoft devices are really pretty accessible.

Most of us would like to spend at least some of the time listening to the radio or watching TV. In this blog I will discuss some of the ways of accessing radio. I will cover Television in my next blog entry.

In the 1980s, most radios had an analogue tuner. You twisted a knob to tune the radio and used another control to change wave band. The list of bands might include AM, FM, longwave and shortwave. Most people I knew got used to the order of the stations in their home area so they could use the radio pretty effectively.

Since then, things have moved on. There is still AM and FM radio and you can buy radios with a tuning knob so many national stations and a few local stations are still available as they have been for the last 40 years or more. However, many stations now use a system called DAB which stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting. The radio can be tuned automatically and, if you can see, information such as the name of the station and the song being played is automatically shown on the radio’s digital display so you always have details of what you are listening to. This is very convenient if you can see the display. If you do not have enough sight to read the display however, finding out the details of the station is harder. There are many more stations than there used to be and some even have no DJs so song titles and artists are never announced.

In the past, Pure, one of the largest DAB radio manufacturers, produced a radio that was accessible. It wasn’t perfect for various reasons but it did allow the user to hear details of the current station as well as using features such as the wake up alarm independently. Development of this radio never continued despite reasonable sales and manufacturing ceased some years ago.

Unfortunately, there is currently no truly accessible DAB radio available to visually impaired people without enough sight to read a display and this is clearly quite disappointing. Many people feel that more legal pressure is required to force manufacturers to make their products more accessible. If you have sighted assistance, and you only listen to a few stations, most radios have presets where each preset has a button like on an old car radio. These can be used to listen to the radio though sighted assistance will probably be needed setting them up.

For accessible products it is necessary to turn to internet radios. Most stations now broadcast online and some only broadcast online. These stations can be played using accessible mobile phones or computers, but many people want a device which looks more like a traditional radio. Many manufacturers such as Roberts and Pure offer devices that look like a radio but they can access radio stations that are online. As unlimited internet has become more affordable listening to the radio in this way has become more viable.

The internet radios are sadly not accessible but there are some solutions.

I have recently being demonstrating the Amazon Echo and the Google Home smart speakers. These can both be told to play particular stations using voice. I can say “Alexa, play Radio 5” and Radio 5 Live will start playing. The amazon Echo is available for £50 or £150 for the larger version of this speaker. Google also makes a smart speaker called Google Home for around £129.

Manufacturers such as Apple are also bringing out high-end smart assistants so there is likely to be increased choice in this field over time.

Devices such as the Victor Stream available from www.humanware.com also have a very good internet radio built-in. This pocket-sized device also plays audio books and music and it’s primarily designed for personal listening. It costs around £250.

Lastly there is the British Wireless for the Blind fund at www.blind.org.uk they offer easy to see DAB radios but they also offer a specially designed tablet called Bumble Bee which allows users to access radio and podcasts. Until recently they offered a device called Sonata which had buttons rather than touch controls but Solutions Radio in Holland are not developing this further so while it still works, it’s not available to new users.

So, there are accessible internet radios available and DAB radios can have presets programmed so they are useable by a blind person with some sighted assistance. More needs to be done for sure, but it is good that there are now some viable choices in this area.

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Photo of Graham with the Google Home device on his office desk.

Listen to Graham talk to the Thomas Pocklington Trust about accessible radios.

Written by Graham Page

Your Eyes Be Active Information Event

Free food, games, and the opportunity to find out lots of information about local vision impaired services- this was what awaited us at the Barking and Dagenham Your Eyes Be Active event!

On Thursday 27th July, the ELVis team headed over to the Barking Learning Centre for the Your Eyes Be Active information day, run by the borough’s Disability Services, Enabling Independence Team and Sensory Team. This was a great opportunity for people to find out about the different local services that are available to help support people with sight loss, and to meet the people providing these services.

There was a wide range of stalls at the event. People were encouraged to think about staying healthy, with the opportunity to get their blood pressure checked as well as meeting groups that support VI sports sessions. There was also a stall demonstrating healthy cooking which had some very tasty salads on display. By happy coincidence, this stall happened to be placed right next to the ELVis stall, which made it very convenient when going up to get second helpings!

Others at the event included Guide Dogs, the local Talking Newspaper and several social groups. There was also one of the new Routemaster buses parked outside, giving people the opportunity to have a look around it so that they are familiar with these buses when they come across them in future. There were people demonstrating different technological gadgets (including ELVis’s Graham who had the Amazon Echo and the Google Home device), and others who gave careers advice to those looking to get into work.

As well as stalls, throughout the day people went to talks given by speakers on a variety of different topics. These ranged from how people have benefited from using employability services to an inspirational speaker who made people laugh telling them about some of his experiences throughout his life as a vision impaired person.

All in all, this was a fantastic day.  It was lovely for us at ELVis to meet and chat to lots of new people, and it was great to see so many different services, which all have a part to play in supporting the lives of our local vision impaired people. If you hear of any information event going on near you, I recommend that you go along and check it out- who knows what you might discover?  (And there might be free food, too!)

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Photo of the ELVis team (Nicola, Chris and Graham) at the Your Eyes Be Active information day.

Written by Nicola Stokes

Bhavini’s experience at the RP Fighting Blindness conference

The RP Fighting Blindness Charity held its first Families Conference earlier this month which saw around 30 families come together to meet others who have similar Retinal Dystrophies all going through the same situations.

Guest speakers shared their knowledge on the latest research, genetic counselling, support services available to both adults and children affected, as well as inspirational stories from those living with RP but have gone on to achieve their ambitions and not let their vision impairment hold them back. The members who attended were able to spend time with each other during the weekend and so did the children over activities that were planned for them. The workshops on offer for all to participate in provided additional sources of support and information.

As an ambassador for RP Fighting Blindness, I was invited to speak about my experience of living with Retinitis Pigmentosa. From a shocking diagnosis, moving to London, bringing up children, and then finally getting the support I desperately needed, I finally accepted and came to terms with my sight loss. I found ways I could relive my life; from volunteering, setting up a social group, organising charity fundraisers and now working for East London Vision.

“Was I nervous presenting at my first public speaking event? –most definitely. Would I do it again? – yes indeed.” I had learned that the biggest help and support I received was from another vision impaired professional who knew exactly what I was going through and how I felt. In fact, this is exactly what people said to me about my talk and how they could all relate.

Attending as a delegate was very useful, not only for me but for my family as well. My daughters met other children with vision impaired parents and children who were affected with sight loss too. It was a great opportunity for them to share their feelings over fun activity sessions and during times of socialising. Equally, my husband met other partners in the same situation and it was certainly a great bonding time for them. Moreover, I felt that my parents, who attended their first RP information day ever, found it extremely useful and engaging by talking to other parents and seeing how other people with RP cope and manage in different ways.

Overall, it was a fantastically organised weekend and very much-needed. It was a privilege to have been asked to speak at the event but at the same time thrilled to have been part of it; gaining and sharing lots of information, and connecting with others.

One aspect which I can take away from the weekend, and would love to share with others is – please talk about your emotional journey, whether it be to a family, friend or professional, as there is always someone who can help and you do not have to go through it alone.

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Photo of Bhavini standing in front of a RP Fighting Blindness poster at the RP Families Conference.

If would like to listen to my talk at the RP conference please click on the YouTube video directly below.

Written by Bhavini Makwana