"The world can be tough, but it can also be beautiful. I'm determined to experience both," Kevin, who volunteers for the Royal London Society for Blind People, told me last week at lunch.
When Kevin isn't volunteering for us, he's composing music, searching for a job and hanging out with his friends. I'm not going to paint Kevin as an inspiration just because he is blind. Kevin is what any 20-year-old should be - hopeful, confident and determined.
But for many vision impaired young people, despite having the same kind of hopes and ambitions as Kevin, they don't have the self-belief or independence to fulfill them. Judging by research we have conducted, the impact of sight loss on quality of life can be seen as early as seven.
Together with RNIB, we have published a report called Sight Impaired At Age Seven which underlines the challenges facing children living with sight loss in the UK and highlights the need for greater intervention and support [read the full report].
The report reveals worrying differences between children with sight loss and their sighted peers around happiness, success at school, financial hardship and social inclusion.
The findings show that without the right support many are at risk of being less confident, having fewer friends and under performing at school. However, the results also indicate that with the right kind of early support, blind and partially sighted children can flourish.
The report comes at a time when many local authorities are reducing specialist educational support in response to spending cuts. How this will impact on the life chances of children with vision impairment is an ongoing concern.
Key facts to emerge from the report are:
- Parents told us that children with sight loss are twice as likely as fully sighted children to have emotional, concentration or behavioural difficulties
- 50 per cent live in households with an income less than £300
- Both parents and teachers were more likely to report that children with vision impairment are bullied at school
- Twice as many children with vision impairment told us that they are bullied 'all of the time' at school
RLSB's response and action plan to meet the challenges have been published in a document called the Untold Story of Childhood Sight Loss.
We believe that a person's early year experiences with family and in society heavily influence later life. With sight loss specifically, we believe that if a person does not get appropriate support early on, their life chances can decrease dramatically.
For example two thirds of registered blind and partially sighted people of working age are not in employment.
As RLSB celebrates its 175th birthday this year, we are taking on the challenges of the 21st century, illustrated by this report.
We are revolutionising our services to empower blind and partially sighted young people to develop the confidence and self-belief they need to take hold of their ambitions. We are expanding our early years support, Social and Peer Groups and sports programme.
But importantly we are also fighting for more consistency across London and the South East in supporting families in a hospital setting to make sure they get the support they need at the point their child is diagnosed. The earlier we are able to offer help to the child and their family, the better.
We will be writing to all Pediatric Ophthalmologists asking them to support a greater presence of Family Advice Workers in hospital eye departments for families to turn to. A petition to support this cause, which I urge you to sign, is on Change.org
RLSB will only be truly successful in helping blind and partially sighted young people to live life without limits if we can offer our help and support from the beginning of a child's journey through sight loss, which is as soon as they are diagnosed.
Find out more about our Untold Story campaign: www.rlsb.org.uk/Lee
Follow Tom Pey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RLSBcharity