Every year 23,000 people lose their sight in England. Invariably this has a devastating impact on their lives. Not only does sight loss have a massive emotional impact, but it also means having to re-learn almost every aspect of your life.
How do I get to the shops? How do I make a cup of tea? How do I read? How do I know my house is clean? How do I cook a meal? How do I continue with my social and leisure activities and maintain relationships with other people?
I have seen firsthand how with the right emotional and practical support it is possible to make that transition and for someone to re-build their life. We know that early support is critical. It can provide someone who has been newly diagnosed with a sight condition with the skills to remain independent. It can improve a person's quality of life by enabling them to "do things for themselves", rather than "having things done for them".
However, sadly this vital support is being dramatically cut.
A new report released this week by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) 'Facing Blindness Alone' reveals a shocking number of blind and partially sighted people are being denied the care and support they so desperately need and are basically being left to fend for themselves.
Since 2005 there has been a 43% decline in the number of blind and partially sighted people in England getting even the most basic types of support from their local authority - down from 55,875 to 31,740, nearly 25,000 fewer people.
If trends continue, in just 10 years' time we could be in the very real position that not a single blind or partially sighted person will receive any support from their local authority to re-build their lives and independence.
Research commissioned by RNIB shows that although care and support has declined for all adults with a physical disability (30%), people with sight loss have been the worst affected (43%).
It goes without saying that losing your sight creates multiple barriers to being independence. At RNIB we speak daily to people who have lost their sight or have deteriorating sight and cannot see, when you lose your sight you need help to get back on your feet.
A proper programme of rehabilitation can give a newly blind person their independence back. It can help them to re-learn how to prepare and cook meals safely and teach them how to get out and about safely by using a long cane, for example.
However, our research shows a growing number of local authorities are severely restricting access to rehab or only offering a strict six week course, when often blind people need longer to gain the new skills needed to remain independent.
There are huge regional variations in the support offered by local authorities. Some are making people wait many months before getting in touch and even then may not provide a service. There are a few which are also severely restricting access to rehabilitation. They are, in effect, telling blind people you are not disabled enough to qualify for our rehab service.
There has been a staggering 71% drop in the numbers of blind and partially sighted people getting professional support since 2005, a staggering 11,000 fewer people.
While effective rehabilitation reduces the need for on-going council care and support, a large number of blind and partially sighted people still require help in the longer term to deal with the many barriers to living independently and with dignity. Rehabilitation helps but it doesn't give you back your sight. You continue to have very substantial care needs.
The Care Bill will be scrutinised by MPs in Parliament next month (October, 2013) and RNIB will be calling on Government to ensure all newly blind and partially sighted people are universally offered rehabilitation to help them find their life again.
We want rehab not to be limited to just six weeks as often blind people need longer to gain the new skills needed to remain independent.
We are also calling on Government to ensure blind people are not frozen out of longer term care and support from their local authority. The assessments carried out need to properly recognise the barriers people with sight loss face and ensure they have a fairer chance of getting this vital support to remain independent.
It not only makes ethical sense, it makes financial sense to address this dramatic decline now. A study estimates that for every £1 invested in care and support to assist adults with "moderate care needs" the state benefits through a net return on investment totalling £1.30. In addition a study by the University of York concluded that providing a quality rehabilitation service is associated with a significant decrease in the subsequent costs of social care.
Being left alone to cope with sight loss is wholly unacceptable. No matter how tight the budgets of Government are, this is essential support which must be provided. The Government needs to act now.
Take action now by lobbying your MP at www.rnib.org.uk/campaigns and help arrest the shocking decline now.
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