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How digital resources can empower people living with sight loss

By Elizabeth Akass, Editor, Engage Business Media

Henshaws, a northern-based charity that works with 75,000 people living with sight loss across the Greater Manchester area, explains how its digital progression is further helping its users to gain confidence and independence.

Henshaws was originally founded by Thomas Henshaw in 1837 to create a blind asylum for young people in the Greater Manchester area. Today, it is one of the oldest charities in the north, and still primarily works with people living with blindness, but also offers support to many others with disabilities as well.

The organisation provides a specialist college, housing services for people living on its premises that have care provided to them, an arts and crafts centre, community services where it engages with 75,000 blind people across Greater Manchester and throughout the UK, and additionally has a growing digital presence. With a turnover of over £10 million, it is classified as a large charity.

Louise Ferguson, Executive Assistant to Henshaws’ CEO, explains why the charity has seen a 33% increase in staff over the past three years. “We’ve got an ageing population and reducing state support, so organisations like Henshaws are absolutely crucial to provide support for people who may not know where to go. We want to be the go-to place for people with visual impairment and other disabilities.” She says that the number of people living with visual impairment in particular is a growing problem, and about 50% of people living with sight loss or visual impairment also have other disabilities that require support.

All of the work the charity does aligns with its guiding values. “Our aim is to help people go beyond expectations, and that’s what we live and breathe.” Ferguson says this includes both staff exceeding expectations in how they help the people they work with, and for the people who use the charity to exceed what they expect to achieve.

Henshaws’ other values include:

– Being informed and always aiming to increase knowledge and expertise;

– Sharing this knowledge and exchanging experience and ideas with others;

– Being pro-active in helping and supporting individuals;

– Being inspiring through the life-changing impact it has;

– Being compassionate and always displaying empathy and understanding;

– Most importantly: empowering people and supporting individuals to reach their full potential.

Henshaws also boasts an award-winning pathway to independence for the people it works with. Ferguson says: “It’s acknowledged within the industry as being a best model of support for people with visual impairment. It translates to lots of other disabilities as well, and we have licensed it to other charities. We’re really proud of it.”

She talks through what the pathway entails. “The first part is ‘How can we help you?’ which is our customer engagement centre. They tap people into much needed support, whether that’s with Henshaws or with external agencies. If we don’t offer people what they need we put them in touch with our partner organisations.”

“The second part is ‘Let’s make a plan’ and this is where our specialist team work with people to assess their individual needs, and provide a tailored plan to meet their personal specifications and requirements, and help them achieve their aspirations for the future.”

“Then we have an ‘Independence matters’ programme, and that’s the training programme we provide. We help our users develop the core skills they need to live independently. We help to build their confidence, increase employability, and improve their overall wellbeing.”

“The last part is the ‘Friendship matters’ programme. That’s our social group networks and where people come together. Real friendships are established and peer to peer support is offered.”

She states: “Everything that we have is designed to build independence for people.” Increasingly, this now includes digital resources in Henshaws’ ‘Knowledge Village’, which is still in progress. “We’re in a transitional stage at the moment. Everything that we know, all of our knowledge and skills that we’ve learned over the many years of working with people with visual impairment and disabilities – we’re trying to share that with people in a digital space.”

She describes how this is being achieved: “We’re translating all of our resources and adopting a triangle of care strategy, which means it’s for professionals, carers, families, and for people with visual impairment themselves. It will be the go-to place for knowledge and information.”

At present, visitors to the site can explore Henshaws’ videos, blogs, eBooks, and other resources available for download, which explain a variety of technology and AI designed to help people with visual impairment, and detail dozens of apps that could be useful to people with sight loss and other disabilities, among other advice and information.

“Long-term it will have all of our information and guidance on there. It’s a great resource that we’ve got and we’re hoping that it will just grow and expand.”

Overall, Ferguson says that knowledge is the most crucial thing Henshaws aims to provide. This is to help its users understand more about their eye condition and other disabilities, and all of the support available to them. “Knowledge grows confidence, and self-esteem is so important for people with disabilities to help them believe they are capable and empowering them to overcome their barriers.”

“The other key things we aim to impart are skills and independence so that they can tackle difficulties. Even going outside can be terrifying for someone with visual impairment, so we teach them orientation through the many resources out there, including iPhone and Android technology,” she continues. “We try to build their skills up, and then the long-term aim is to enable people to live as independently as possible and go beyond expectations.”

To finish, Ferguson discusses another significant upcoming development Henshaws is looking forward to. “We have a proposal into the Manchester Devolution, the clinical commissioners. Visionary, who is our industry membership buddy, affected Henshaws to be the strategic partner for services for Greater Manchester, and bring everything together under one umbrella. The aim of the proposal is to be the single point of access for people with visual impairment and to tap people into the statutory services they need.”

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