It’s World Sight Day tomorrow. In the run-up to last year’s day Laura Westcott spent a week pretending to be blind. Why?
Last year a DJ friend in her mid-30s, Yvette Chivers, calmly revealed to me over a glass of vino that she has a degenerative sight loss condition called retinitis pigmentosa.
I asked what it was, in the hope that it was just a minor eye infection. She has tunnel vision that will gradually worsen until she loses her sight completely.
She smiled as she covered half her face and said, “I can still see in this eye. They’re working on treatments. It just takes time and money.”
So, two months before World Sight Day on October 9 last year, I met Yvette’s charity RP Fighting Blindness to explain that I wanted to voluntarily spend one week ‘blind’ for them. They didn’t know me from Adam and, perhaps understandably, seemed unsure of how serious I was.
I was serious but I had form. I’d already spent one week in a wheelchair for my close friend Clara a few years ago when she was diagnosed with hypermobility syndrome, an incurable genetic condition that attacks collagen in ligaments, resulting in crippling pain.
One week of me wheeling around London changed her life forever. I worked for The Times back then, in a busy newsroom, so walking in one day then rolling in the next certainly raised a few eyebrows. This got some good publicity in the paper and helped raise donations so I could buy Clara a Pride Fusion Power Chair. Now, she can leave the house without being in excruciating pain from wheeling a manual chair. She’s so happy, it’s awesome.
When RP Fighting Blindness heard this story, they knew I was serious and provided me with seven pairs of sight-loss simulator glasses to wear 24 hours a day for one week. The glasses had pinholes, so I couldn’t see anything besides a tiny hole in front of me, nothing below. To avoid me tripping over terriers or kicking kids (accidentally), I was given a white cane and introduced to several blind mentors to help me get to grips with this condition.
“Every 15 minutes someone in the UK begins to lose their sight. I’d never even thought to have an eye check before but I realised it was so ridiculously important.”
Off I went, bumbling around in darkness for seven days, no cheating. Yes, I wore them at night; no, I didn’t wear them in the shower. I just squinted like I would anyway to avoid shampoo-stingy eyes.
Boy, do our other senses heighten quickly when you lose one. I’d heard this before but it’s so true. I remember nearly jumping out of my skin when someone dropped a newspaper next to me. “A bomb’s gone off!” No, it’s just a worn-out copy of Metro hitting a bin.
The other sense that was heightened was touch; more specifically, being touched. At the time, I was with a lovely chap who thought I was bonkers for doing this blind thing just a few months after we had met. But he certainly wasn’t complaining behind closed doors. I’ve never known anything like being touched when your body is almost too sensitive. Ahem.
One interesting thing I noticed was how people react when you get on the tube wearing dark glasses, holding a white cane and then looking at your phone and reading a text. A blind person reading? Actually, yes. Many RP sufferers can still see something, as could I with my glasses. This can be problematic because it evokes mixed and suspicious reactions in people.
I went on the Today programme with two RP sufferers to discuss this very topic. Two of my mentors had admitted they didn’t use a cane due to embarrassment. This is a problem. People need to know that blindness comes in many forms. In fact, the RNIB told me that every 15 minutes someone in the UK begins to lose their sight. I’d never even thought to have an eye check before but I realised it was so ridiculously important.
“I remember nearly jumping out of my skin when someone dropped a newspaper next to me. ‘A bomb’s gone off!’ No, it’s just a worn-out copy of Metro hitting a bin.”
In the event, I spent most of my ‘blind’ week feeling very lucky, but because I was in constant darkness, I also felt alone and I cried a lot. I even started crying during a radio interview with Insight Radio. The interviewer was blind so I felt like a right plonker. But I ended the week with a whopper on World Sight Day. I flung together a charity concert called Sound for Sight with the audience wearing my sight-loss simulator specs so they couldn’t really see the performers. I managed to get Jeremy Vine to host it and loads of amazing musicians, such as opera legend Bryn Terfel. I’m half-Welsh and a classically trained opera singer so that was pretty special.
And we’re doing Sound for Sight again this World Sight Day in London and also LA (I’ll feel like Phil Collins flying from one to another). We’ve got Markus from Westlife, Izzy Bizu, Paul Potts and music from loads of different genres to tickle your (non-seeing) senses. I’m also doing a wing-walk for World Sight Day with Yvette on top of a high-speed aeroplane (and I’m scared of heights).
Even if it’s giving up booze for a day, do something different for World Sight Day. And please remember to get your eyes tested.
Sound for Sight will be held at The Tabernacle in London on 8 October and The Mint in Los Angeles on 14 October.1921 Views
Laura is founder and CEO of Soundcheque and Sound for Sight.