The life of the visually impaired can often seem like one of darkness, isolation and exclusion mostly from physical and social activities.
But the people we met on Tuesday August 8, 2023 when we visited the Waltham Forest Blind Association (WBFA) do not seem to wallow in darkness and neither do they look isolated and excluded.
The men and women we met were relaxed and cheerful and full of bonhomie from Tariq who says that when he discovered he had lost his sight after an auto accident he told himself: “I’m not going to give up” to Gary who says being blind “is what it is, there are worst things, innit?”
The group of blind and visually impaired people we spend a couple of hours with talking and sharing jokes, laughing and sharing insights do not seem defined by their visual impairment.
They showed instead a zest for life which is aligned with the mission statement of the Waltham Forest Blind Association which says its mission is “to create a world of no limits for people who are blind or visually impaired.”
Every Tuesday between 10 and 20 visually impaired members of the Waltham Forest Blind Association turn up at the appointed venue for a session that runs from 1 pm to 4 pm.
They meet once a week to network, interact, develop relationships, counsel the despairing, help themselves to understand their condition, share ideas and insights, check up on each other, and get away from the daily demands of life as they relate to the visually impaired.
Because the over-arching objective is to provide emotional and practical support for the visually impaired, the meetings are interactive with members encouraged to share about their lives, experiences, fears, concerns, take part in sit-down exercises (because of issues with balance), and welcome medical, IT and sundry practitioners/resource persons and speakers who come to share resources with them.
Through these interactions, members have been taught to use iPads, tablets and computers as well as apps like Screen Reader, Be My Eyes, CNI, Bus Checker, Pen Friend, Dial a Ride and many others.
The interactive nature of the sessions helps to draw members out of their shells, providing an opportunity for sharing and bonding.
That need to share, and bond was tested during the Covid-19 pandemic when life as we knew it seemed to grind to a halt thus exacerbating that sense of loneliness, isolation and exclusion.
Post-pandemic, the Waltham Forest Blind Association (WFBA) decided to get its members out and about to ease the tedium of loneliness and isolation.
They applied for support from voice4change under the “Tackling Inequalities Fund” with funding from Sport England.
In their application WBFA highlighted the fact that their members “suffered anxiety, isolation, and loneliness during COVID-19 lockdown which has led to decreased physical health and mental wellbeing as well as increased heart-related diseases due to inactivity.”
The application was successful and with funds in hand, WFBA organised excursions to the bowling alley where the members spent time bowling and interacting socially away from the isolation of their homes.
The 11 bowling sessions provided time away from home, afforded them time for physical and social interaction and led to overall improvement in their general physical and mental wellbeing.
Javed who joined the association recently, attended just ten bowling sessions but the results are obvious. He is no longer depressed and “my family and friends are always commenting on how cheerful I have become.”
Naseema is a recently widowed empty nester who was slipping into a depression on account of loneliness and grief. The bowling sessions provided an opportunity to meet other people and leave the house. “I really enjoyed the sessions and I want to go for more,” she said.
Tariq who said he needed a “frame for bowling because I broke both arms in the accident”, commended Voice4Change-England and Sport England for providing the funds. “We had so much fun and even those of us who used to be very reserved have now found their voices.”
Andy and Vijay are among those who have “found their voices”. They used to be reserved and reticent but since joining the association and taking part in bowling sessions and other social interactions, they have both become more extroverted.
“I’d like to act in Eastenders,” Andy says with a nervous titter while Vijay hails himself as a “champion bowler and cricketer.”
The Waltham Forest Blind Association (WFBA) was founded by Mr. Umar Pektar in 1994. Its original name was Waltham Forest Asian Blind Association. Mr. Pektar took ill a few days before the meeting and passed away, sadly, on Wednesday, August 9, 2023. He has left a huge legacy.
Tariq Hussain is the current chairperson of the association which has a membership of about 50 people drawn mostly from the Black and Asian Minority Ethnic groups. He is supported by Shazia, who is the only staff member, as well as two volunteers, Atifa and Sahar. Sidney has been a supporter of the association since 1994 and has seen it evolve and grow.
Tariq lost his sight in a car accident in 2003 and crediting his doctor’s advice and his willpower, Tariq overcame that setback and has become a powerful force for good in helping other visually impaired persons come to terms with their condition.
One of those is Mahsa, an Iranian asylum seeker who lost her sight after she was hit on the head by a policeman during a protest in her home country.
Mr. Kanu bhai Amin, aka Prof, is the intellectual powerhouse of the group. A former teacher, he is consulted on diverse subjects, and he never fails to provide some unique insight.
These are some of the unique individuals that make up the Waltham Forest Blind Association which is providing a home away from home for men and women who are determined to go on living in a world without limits despite their disability.