Blind Foundation volunteer Jayne Popham shares her experiences on the blind and low vision kiwis she helps care for.

Jayne has helped in many ways since she started volunteering in 2008. She began as a reader/writer for someone completing a distance learning BA with Massey University. Since then, she has mainly helped with reading, sorting out papers and general companionship. Jayne is also on the list of drivers for Tauranga.

Most recently, she has taken over the running of a bimonthly friendship group, with two other volunteers. The group offers morning tea followed by indoor bowls, word games and newspaper reading. They also go on trips and go out for lunch.

Do they take sugar?

I became a volunteer for the Blind Foundation eight years ago and it is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I get to meet a range of wonderful people; happy, intelligent, complicated, angry, sad, and a little crazy. Whoever they are and whatever their needs, they are special people who deserve kindness and respect (to me, the most important ‘R’ word in the English language).

Some tell me that losing your sight is akin to bereavement. Sight loss forces changes in the routine someone knows so well, which can cause huge upheaval and uncertainty.

You lose your independence; feelings of anger, frustration and fear arise and confidence disappears. The thought of shopping is daunting and everyday tasks as you’ve done them have to be re-learnt. The layout of the house becomes an assault course if anyone moves the furniture or leaves a door half-open (open or shut is the door rule – nothing in between!).

There are a few things that you need to be mindful of when assisting someone who is blind or has low vision:

  • Do not touch.  Always ask if they need assistance first – otherwise, it can become very awkward.
  • Keep vocal. When speaking, use the person’s name first so they know you are speaking to them. Remember to explain unusual noises, describe surroundings when appropriate and, most importantly, encourage others to speak to the individual, not through you.
  • This one is a biggy. A common misconception is that because someone needs a sighted guide then they might not be as bright. This is one of the most common complaints of our clients.

Imagine the following scenario:

You are sitting at a table in your local club. Your friend has gone to the bar to buy drinks. Someone comes over to join you – they say hello and call you by your name.

You cannot see their face clearly and don’t recognise their voice. They chat away and you still don’t know who is talking to you. What do you do? Ask who they are and risk offending them? Just sit there and wonder and hope the penny drops?

Finally, you decide to just come out and ask them. Silence. Have you upset them? You ask again and then it dawns on you – they have moved away to talk to someone else and you have been talking to thin air.

Here’s my advice:

  • When meeting someone who is blind or has low vision, remember to tell them who you are. But also remember to tell them when you leave.
  • As a volunteer, you never know exactly what your next task is, so each day is different and, occasionally, a challenge.
  • Dealing with a group is like trying to herd cats. And wait before you jump on me for that one and say, “how dare you.” It is not meant as a derogatory remark but as a huge compliment. Think of Rudyard Kipling’s cat, ‘The Cat who Walked by Himself’ from Just So Stories. Cats are fiercely independent, will only ask for help if they really need it and like company, but usually on their terms.
  • Part of being a volunteer means you have to learn not to fuss around folk too much but help them as and when they need it, not when you think they do.

The rewards far exceed any exasperation. And laugh! I have had so many laughs with people over the years (emphasis on “with” and most definitely not “at”).

It’s that sense of humour, laughing at life’s adversities, together with an independent, fighting spirit I so admire. I hope that I have just a pinch of it when the vagaries of life and ageing finally catch up with me.