Last Wednesday I travelled to Swindon to spend the day with my colleague Becky who works in and around Swindon as a children's mobility instructor. Attached to the local education authority, Becky's role is completely funded by Guide Dogs.
In the morning we visited some of Becky’s pupils at Uplands school for children with complex needs. First I met Janey, a year 10 pupil, with severely impaired vision and acute autism, for her mobility lesson. Janey really wanted for us all to sing rather than to show us how she navigates herself around school. However, Becky promised we would sing provided that first we walked around the school with Janey noting landmarks such as the dining hall, staffroom where she took a drink from the water cooler and her friends’ classrooms whilst negotiating all the electronic door locks. She successfully guided us back to her classroom and as promised we sang.
Next we visited Charlie in the sixth form, a young man with severely impaired vision and cerebral palsy who makes use of an electric wheel chair. Becky asked Charlie to show us how he is managing to navigate himself around the school with his new chair. Charlie successfully negotiated doorways with millimetres to spare without any collisions.
After lunch Becky took me to the home of Emma, a 3 year old girl who was born without sight. Emma was delighted that Becky had come to take her to the park and fetched her pink long cane. Firstly, Becky told Emma to ‘square off’ on her front door to get her bearings. As we walked down the garden path Emma found the wheelie bin with her cane and asked Becky what it was. Becky carefully placed Emma’s tiny hands on either side of the bin and then lifted her so that she could feel its size and shape. Then Emma found the gravel, and like any 3 year old she bent down to play with it listening to the pattering noise it made as it dropped to the ground. Then she picked up her cane and used it to find her way along the pavement, listening to the different noises and bumps through the cane that the various surfaces - tarmac, manhole covers and drains - made. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the day was when we came to cross the road to the park. Emma felt the kerb with her cane and then sat down on her bottom so that she could feel the road edge with her feet. Then she stood up, picked up her cane and carefully walked across the road to the park. While we were playing ‘see saw Margery Daw’ a little boy came to play with Emma. The 2 children happily got on with the serious business of going forwards and backwards down the slide and then the swings (with Emma on Becky’s lap) before it was time for us to take Emma home. She carefully retraced her steps home. Then Becky led Emma through mobility exercises (with singing) before we left.
My final encounter was with Anna, a real star. Anna has a twin sister, Natasha, and complications at birth resulted in Anna being born with severely reduced vision. She is an incredibly bright 6 year old and we met her at school so that Becky could help her consolidate her route home. Anna’s father went ahead with her book bag and Natasha. Anna is a very competent user of the long cane. She navigated her way out the playground, through the school gates and along the streets towards home chatting all the way and commenting on landmarks as she passed them, feeling with her cane. As we crossed the road by the pelican crossing Anna listened carefully to ensure that the traffic really had stopped when the green man showed. As we approached her house, Natasha came down the street on her scooter imploring Anna to listen to her brakes. Then Natasha announced to us that ‘I’ve got a big bike, please come and watch me on my bike’. I could hardly wait. Anna recognised her front door and read the Braille door number to me. Her father brought her bicycle out and Natasha climbed into the saddle. With her dad guiding her carefully she went off down the street. It was a fantastic sight and I could only applaud them both.
I returned home feeling humbled but very lucky to be within an organisation and with colleagues that make so much difference to the lives of blind and partially sighted children and young people. (And glad that I’d been able to help out a bit with the singing)
Note: All children’s names have been changed to protect their identity.