There is little doubt that most of the estimated 100,000 people from ethnic minorities who are disadvantaged from being blind or partially sighted do not take up basic services, such as health, housing and community facilities.
Apart from the inevitable language barrier, individuals from ethnic minorities face an isolated, socially-excluded existence if they are not able to read translated health and housing leaflets.
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is diverse, with 48 per cent of the population from ethnic minorities. The largest group is the Bangladeshi community, which makes up 34 per cent of the borough’s population and is the largest single ethnic minority in London.
Given its population mix, Tower Hamlets identified itself as an area where the take-up of services by people with visual impairment from minority groups has been an acute problem. As well as identifying a reluctance to accept help, a study commissioned by the borough and carried out by the charity SeeAbility also found complex cultural issues surrounding blindness within many ethnic minority groups. For them their disability was a social stigma.
Following on from the study, SeeAbility, formerly The Royal School for the Blind, and Tower Hamlets social services explored ways to tackle the problem by developing specialised services for this client group. It recognised that the potential success of the project would turn on a solid and practical understanding of cultural needs. Indeed, this was reflected in the appointment of a development officer, Ashrafia Choudhury, who speaks Bengali and has experience of visual impairment. Her background and life experience provided a crucial link.
At first, the project operated modestly. It made home visits and provided a translation service at sight tests. In partnership with the council, appreciable progress has been made. One service user says: “I have a degenerative visual impairment and the project has helped me gain employment. Special low-vision equipment has enabled me to work in accounting. It’s given me a whole new life.”
Deputy development director of SeeAbility Tom Fagan, who manages the project, says: “I know from my work with visually impaired people in developing countries that we had to devise a socially and culturally acceptable approach. The first phase of the project concentrated on setting up a home visit and community group network to give families basic information about a range of services they could access easily.”
This has developed into weekly information and advice surgeries. Both Choudhury and Fagan provide visual impairment awareness training to community and religious groups.
This approach improves the lives of people. An elderly Bangladeshi woman, who had difficulty caring for her husband, says: “I haven’t been able to see very much for many years. When I was referred to the low vision specialist, I was given some equipment to make it easier for me to see more. I now have a talking clock and a big prayer timetable so I can pray on time. It has made my life much better.”
This is echoed by an elderly Somali man: “I have diabetic retinopathy so I am blind and I also need a wheelchair. My daughter translates for me but it has been difficult to get the help I need.
“Since I have had help from the project, I have been able to learn some English and it has also helped me use Dial-a-Ride so I can go to an English language class and go to the Somali mosque. I am much happier now.”
The project, currently being independently evaluated, has sparked interest from other organisations. With testimonials claiming life-changing and, indeed, life-saving impact, it is easy to understand why.
As one service user says: “SeeAbility put me out of desperation. Without the development worker, I would have been lost for a long time. They saved my life, literally.”
Scheme: The Tower Hamlets Social Inclusion Project.
Location: East London.
Staffing: A development officer with some support from Tower Hamlets social services staff; the deputy development director of SeeAbility manages the project.
Inspiration: Research identified a large group of individuals from ethnic minorities unable to access health care and social services because of visual impairment.
Cost: About £100,000 over three years.