Transcript: Sight Scotland Veterans

An interview with Alison Cairns, Practice Lead for the outreach team

Podcast Episode: Sight Scotland Veterans

Category: Disability 



What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

MM - Michael McEwan

AC - Alison Cairns

MM On this podcast you will hear me speaking to Alison Cairns. Alison is from Sight Scotland Veterans and she is a practicing lead for the outreach team and she’s going to tell us more about the service.

MM Okay, so Alison you were called Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded, so why did you change your name for?

AC Yeah, that’s right Michael, we changed our name from Scottish Way Blinded to Sight Scotland Veterans in October of this year and whilst the charity changed its name, we still continue to support veterans with a sight loss living in Scotland but we hope our new name will allow us to reach even more veterans in the coming months and years indeed. We kind of primarily changed our name because actually for 98% of our members, the cause of their sight loss was completely unrelated to their time in service so, actually the name Scottish War Blinded which infers you’ve lost your sight in service or conflict, didn’t resonate with our members and it was felt you know, kind of following extensive research that it wouldn’t resonate with potential applicants to our service either so, we made the change. For most of members, their sight loss actually came from an age-related eye condition such as macular degeneration or glaucoma or an illness such as a stroke or multiple sclerosis or following incident or accidents so really that kind of connection between the sight loss and their time in service wasn’t there for many of them. We still, very much, support veterans who have lost their sight in service but for many, that isn’t the case, but we want to reach out to all those veterans living in Scotland who are living with a sight loss just now. So, we hope our name will resonate with more people and feel more comfortable. What I’ll do is, I’ll give a wee overview of what we do and I’ll try and weave into that actually some of the barriers that we’ve faced. I mean, I think very broadly, fair to say it’s been a very challenging time for Sight Scotland Veterans, as it has been for many organisations but we’ve tried to work through some of the challenges. So, in terms of what we actually do, we’re a charity and we support veterans who have a sight loss. When I say veterans, I mean veterans of the UK armed forces and that’s the regulars, reservists, and our those that completed their national service and I think it’s probably worth highlighting that kind of latter group of veterans that we offer a service to because many of those veterans actually don’t consider themselves as being veterans yet they are and they are entitled to our services. So, we support that wide group of veterans. Sight Scotland Veterans supports members in a number of ways, we’ve got 3 parts to our service, we’ve got out outreach service, we’ve got our rehab service and we’ve got our 2 activity centres. I’ll speak about the outreach first because that’s the service I manage, along with Jenny Liddel who manages the Northern part of the country. The outreach service covers every local authority in Scotland, we go as far north as the Orkneys and as far south as Gretna and we support a wide age range of members as well. I think our youngest is currently 22 and our oldest is about 106 so, that already probably gives you a flavour of the interesting group of people that we do support. The outreach team, yeah, we’ve got 18 workers, we’ve got 4 main parts to what we do. When we get a referral coming in to us, we go out and we undertake a home visit and we kind of assess and look to see what supports we can put in place, we give advice and emotional support to help our veterans who are living with sight loss cope and adapt to that situation. We provide free equipment to help them maintain independence in their own homes or communities, we give equipment such as task lighting or talking clocks and watches or we provide cooking aides such as kettles which helps somebody with a sight loss to pour hot water safely. And we also provide digital equipment in the form of synaptic phones and tablets and that again helps our members who struggle to see and use such devices keep in contact with friends and family so that’s a big part of what they do, the provision of the equipment, it makes a huge difference to our members living with a sight loss. We also, we’ve got a really kind of knowledgeable staff group that are aware of other organisations that can help support our members so if there’s additional specific support that is required the staff refer into these organisations. And the kind of final part of what the outreach service does and this is I suppose the part that was most widely impacted during the pandemic, the staff pull together groups of members and we have lunch groups and we have individual activities and outings which we offer. Purpose being really to bring people together who have got a shared challenge, we bring them together, we help them develop friendships and connections and we help build up their confidence in living life with a sight loss. So, that was the part of our service that was most affected during the pandemic because we had to temporarily suspend that in light of the obvious associated risks with meeting with groups of people. The second part of our service is the rehab team, we’re really fortunate, we’ve got a team of 8 professionally qualified and trained rehab workers, again working across the length and breadth of Scotland. They will carry out the low vision assessments, they will under take an assessment of somebody’s functional vision and they will give them good advice in how they best use that vision, they provide independent living skills support and that might be supporting a member to be in their own kitchen preparing a mean, or a hot drink. It might be supporting a member to do a hobby that they once did but perhaps had to stop in account of the sight loss. The rehab’s also do the more traditional mobility and orientation training and that’s about supporting members to confidently leave their homes and go out and about in their communities and do all the things that we probably take for granted, and the rehabs also provide even more specialist equipment to that of the outreach staff, they very often provide electronic magnifiers and CCTVs and text to speech readers, the kind of more specialist end of the equipment spectrum. All that equipment is provided free to our members, as long as we can demonstrate it benefits them in terms of helping them maintain independence in their homes and communities and it improves their quality of life. Finally, I suppose the final part of our service is the activity centres which I mentioned, we’ve got an activity centre in Paisley: called Hawkhead Centre and we’ve got an activity centre in Edinburgh called the Linburn Centre. They provide a really accessible friendly environment to bring together our veterans who are struggling with sight and we offer a range of activities and opportunities for them. We’ve got a woodworking area which is hugely popular with our members, our men and women alike, I have to say. We’ve got arts and crafts area; we’ve got cookery classes and an accessible kitchen. We’ve got an IT suite where we can help members with their IT skills and we’ve also got the kind of more recreational side of things, we’ve got a huge gymnasium, and the members enjoy acoustic archery and bowls and curling and lots of fun activities in there. So, really what we’re trying to do is a package, we’re trying to give our members an opportunity to get out, to help their build confidence and help them sort of live their lives again even with a sight loss.

MM I know that as a disabled person myself, I use the word confidence a lot so, in terms of if people go to this centre in Paisley or Edinburgh and they don’t know anyone but when they go in there, it helps them to meet other people and then they become more confident, do you find that?

AC Hugely. It’s a huge part of what we see, Michael, and particularly in later life but not only in later life, for somebody in later life to lose their sight is a really challenging situation for them so what we very often see is people will retreat into themselves, they’ll stop going out, they’ll stop socialising and meeting up with their friends because they find that really challenging and so they stop doing it and when people stop integrating with others, they become very insular and they can lost their confidence very, very quickly and they can feel very isolated and that in itself can actually lead to other problems as well such as mental health and wellbeing issues. We try and bring people together to make them feel comfortable and confident and feel like themselves again and so yeah, it is a huge part of what we do. I think the other piece of that jigsaw is if you bring together people with a shared challenge and that’s not to say, they’re the same people or they’ve lived the same lives but with a share challenge and for us that’s sight loss, then that in itself is a very connecting factor and we find that our members then do develop, you know, real lasting friendships and bonds and we also find that very often, their partners or carers also then have that connection as well because they can understand how hard it is to lose your sight and how challenging life can be but what we hope we do is we take them from that position, we bring them back out again, we give them the confidence to get on with their lives again.

MM So, the centre in Paisley, I know every time I went past it, it was getting bigger and bigger and bigger because I used to stay behind the centre in Hawkhead but because of your name change, do you feel as though it’s easier to explain to people about what you’re providing and all that?

AC Well I think, as I say the service won’t change, our name has changed … I think our name has rightly changed. Sight Scotland Veterans goes back over 100 years and right at the outset, we were very much about supporting … not me personally, I hasten to add, but we were very much about supporting veterans coming back from World War One, having been exposed to Mustard Gas and experienced a sight loss and at that time, our organisation supported those veterans who had lost their sight in conflict. Now 100 years on, thankfully, thankfully we don’t have so many veterans coming our of service having suffered a sight loss but we do recognise we’ve got many veterans living in Scotland, today, with a sight loss, who have a service background and so our new name, I hope, kind of makes it clear … you know, Sight Scotland Veterans, it’s about being a veteran, yes, it’s about having a sight issue, yes and yeah, they have to live in Scotland. So, I hope our name will still send a message out to everybody who may know a veteran with sight loss and they will refer into us as well.

MM And you’re hoping to expand your service over a period of time?

AC Yeah, again that is very much in our minds when we’re thinking about a name change. Currently we reckon there’s probably about 20, 000 veterans in Scotland living with sight loss. Now we at present support about 1400 of them so that leaves a good number of people living in Scotland today with a sight loss who we can make a difference, and we can support, so yeah, we’re very much hoping that we can reach out to them and support them. I’ve been with this organisation 2 and a half years and in that time, we have increased our outreach team by 30% so, we’re lucky as an organisation we are able to respond to increased need and put in the staffing to make sure we can give people that support that they need. So, very much we’re looking to grow our service and reach out to more veterans in the coming years.

MM So, how can people get referred to your organisation or is it a case of just phoning up or walking in off the street or would they have to go through their gp?

AC No, no we’ve tried to make our referral process as straight forward and accessible as possible because very much despite what’s happened in the past 8 months, and despite all the restrictions, we’ve been able still to receive referrals, and to make assessments, sometimes over the phone, sometimes standing on somebody’s doorstep outdoors, making assessments and considering what best supports that they need. So, we’ve been able to do that throughout the whole pandemic and we will certainly continue doing that in the future. We want to make our referral process as easy as possible so we’ve got 3 main ways of people referring into us. Now, veterans living with a sight loss can refer into us directly or if anybody knows of or supports or has a family member who is a veteran with sight loss, they can refer into us directly. We have got a free phone number, 0800 035 6409, which people can refer into. We’ve got our brand-new website: or we can be emailed at . We’d be very happy to hear from people, even if they don’t want to make a referral, they just want to talk to us and get some information, very happy to hear from them.

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