Case studies

There are currently over 4,700 working guide dog partnerships in the UK. Below are just a few examples of some extra extraordinary partnerships.

Harry Wardle has Flower Power

Guide Dogs Partnerships Harry Wardle 160X121"When I lost my sight I thought that was the end of gardening." Gardener Harry Wardle certainly knows his onions – but he can’t see them.

61 year old Harry has been blind for a quarter of a century but has been gardening all his life. He took over an allotment after he lost his sight to an hereditary condition but he always makes sure he has immaculately kept beds.

Harry feels his way around his 100ft by 30ft plot by tapping the kerbstones that divide the space with his foot and then weeding on his hands and knees – all by touch. With the help of his wife, Jean, Harry labels all his seeds in Braille to identify them and tell him when they have to be planted.

Using wooden measuring sticks, Harry then plants out his hundreds of onions, leeks, cabbages, other veg and colourful flowers in immaculate rows – all the correct distance apart. And despite not being able to see, Harry knows exactly what is planted where, and when it’s ready to be harvested.

Every morning, Harry and his guide dog, Spencer, walk the 20 minute journey from his home in Reddish, Greater Manchester, to the allotment site. And when they arrive at the gate, Harry tells the three-year-old labrador retriever cross to "find the plot" – and Spencer guides Harry straight to the potting shed.

"As long as I can remember, I have always been a gardener," says Harry. "I work on my hands and knees and feel along the rows and if anything is not in the right place, I know it’s a weed. It’s the same when it comes to harvesting; I do everything by touch. The only difficulty I have is telling when the strawberries are ripe. When I lost my sight, I thought that was the end of my gardening, but I turned the garden at home into a mini allotment at home to see if I could do it, then got this place. I’ve been named ‘Disabled Gardener of the Year’ in the council competition every year it has been going, but I’ve also got six certificates in the general category for able-bodied gardeners and that’s something which gives me great pleasure."

"People say to me that they cannot imagine anything worse than losing their sight," Harry adds, "but I can. Despite being blind, you can lead a normal life".

Reprinted with kind permission of Carol Warters and Garden News photo reprinted with kind permission of Manchester Evening News

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Sarah Williams - in a Pickles!

Guide Dogs Partnerships Sarah Williams 120X157The voice of guide dog owner Sarah Williams has been broadcast into millions of homes. In fact, you may well have heard her admit to the fact that lemonade makes her burp. But her anonymity was safely hidden (until now, of course) behind the character of Pickles the guide dog.

Pickles is one of the endearing stars of the latest series of ‘Creature Comforts’ from Aardman Animations of Wallace and Gromit fame and she’s been a great ambassador for Guide Dogs, telling the nation how much she enjoys her work.

Speaking Sarah’s words, Pickles could hardly be anything other than enthusiastic – about work, people and life in general! A relatively new guide dog owner (she’s had black labrador cross, Oz, for four months), Sarah leads an incredibly full life and relishes the increased independence Oz has given her.

Sarah has spent more time abroad than here over the last 15 years. Sarah began her work with children at the RNIB Sunshine House School and it has since taken her all over the world. She’s worked with homeless children as part of a Camp America project and with refugees in the former Yugoslavia. She’s taught Braille in schools for blind children in Kenya, Sydney, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland and worked in a Bolivian children’s hospital, a Romanian orphanage for children with HIV and with street children in Nicaragua. "I really enjoy helping children who are blind", says Sarah, "because I understand their frustrations and what they’re going through."

Sarah is also highly involved with her local community near Bristol. A committed Christian and star of her church choir, she also works at a local nursery where she plays the piano.

When she has time, Sarah loves sailing and even had a trial Guide Dogs Partnerships Sarah Williams 80X115to sail for Britain in the World Blind Sailing Championships. In fact, it was on a boat that her friend, Nick Parks, creator of the incredibly popular animations, asked Sarah if she would like to be interviewed for the new series. He chooses people with unusual voices and Sarah, with her upbeat tone and infectious laugh, is an obvious choice. Sarah found the whole process fascinating. "I was interviewed twice," she explains, "and talked about all sorts of things. I even toured the studio where the animations are made and got to meet Pickles!"

And what did Sarah think of the way her words were put into Pickles’ mouth? "I think it’s great," she grins. "If I get really close to the screen, I can make out what’s going on. Nick’s created the character very much as I am – enthusiastic and happy, with a big smile!"

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Jackie Clifton - take note!

Guide Dogs Partnerships Jackie Clifton 160X140Guide dog owner Jackie Clifton has a dauntingly impressive CV. She has worked as a musical director, performer and arranger in theatre, film and television and last year the Royal College of Music conferred on her Honorary Membership of the College for services to music, in the presence of HRH the Prince of Wales.

"Music has been my way of life since I was six," Jackie explains. A talented youngster, Jackie pursued a musical education at the Royal College of Music and embarked upon a distinguished career as a composer, arranger and musician. When her sight was damaged by a rare virus, she didn’t just find ways to continue her own musical life, she founded "Musicians in Focus" to provide advice, training and support to other visually-impaired musicians.

"When I first lost my sight", Jackie explains, "I needed to find a way of accessing the skills I already had." Jackie had previously used a lot of music technology and contacted someone who was working with a combination of music software and the Jaws screenreading programme used by many visually-impaired computer users. She contacted the Musicians’ Union, suggesting this might be a way forward for blind and partially-sighted musicians, and Musicians in Focus was born.

Jackie and her colleagues now run workships for visually-impaired musicians throughout the UK and develop teaching methods which help students maximise their musical abilities, whether playing or composing. They have also developed an E-learning scheme. An online network provides support for musicians, teachers and parents, with lessons and assignments available on the website. Young musicians can also attend the Saturday school at the Royal College of Music, where teaching methods are carefully tailored to students’ needs. Jackie explains, "As a visually-impaired teacher with visually-impaired and/or sighted students, the way I approach teaching is quite different – you can’t just wave your arms and say ‘look at that!’".

Musicians in Focus is one of the partners in the Creative Renewal project funded by the European Social Fund. The project aims to address inequality in accessing employment in the arts. Says Jackie, "The Creative Renewal partnership is helping us to develop better training methods and software and to influence the way visually-impaired students are taught. The music business is a very tough one, but I honestly believe the technology will open up more jobs for blind and partially-sighted people."

So, does having a highly musical owner affect Archie, Jackie’s sleek black labrador guide dog? It would appear so. "Archie wags his tail perfectly in time to music. If I want to go faster when walking I sing marches to him – he loves marching bands." Perhaps we should let our guide dog trainers in on this!

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Alan Sleat and Tim Gebbels - at a gallop

Guide Dogs Partnerships Alan Sleat 160X123Until 1999 Alan Sleat had spent most of his working life as a horseriding instructor. Aged sixteen and, by his own admission, "not much of an academic", he took a job at a local stables, helping look after shire horses. He began learning to ride and found he had an aptitude for it. "I’d never had much to do with horses before," says Alan, "but I really got into it and enjoyed all the shows".

In 1991 he qualified as a riding instructor with the British Horse Society and embarked on a career which gave him immense personal satisfaction. "What I really enjoyed," he says, "was being able to bring on both young horses and new riders, helping people to do their best." Alan started his own business, which flourished, and began teaching people with special needs how to ride.

Then, in April 1999, Alan suffered a haemorrhage in his right eye, the result of diabetic retinopathy. In September of the same year he lost most of the sight in his right eye, leaving him with only a pinprick of vision which enables him to discern whether it’s day or night, but no more. Alan’s diabetes also resulted in his needing a kidney transplant. "It was a difficult year," he admits. "Everything seemed to disappear at once." Far from giving up his passion, though, Alan used riding to help him through the tough times: "During that year, I seemed not to be going anywhere. The riding really kept me going."

Tim Gebbels, who has been totally blind since 1973, began riding seriously about eight years ago. "I’d done a bit at school and quite enjoyed it," he says. "Then, when I met my partner, Haller, who has always been very horsey, it was a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them!’".

Tim is an actor by profession and lives in Vauxhall, South West London. He enjoys the opportunity horseriding gives him to get out into the countryside. "Being with animals feels more real than the lives most of us lead a lot of the time," he says. "I think our lives can be a bit static and unnatural. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer and riding enables me to connect with something much deeper and more instinctual."

Both Tim and Alan take part in dressage competitions for visually-impaired riders. The riders orientate themselves in the arena using "talking letters", strategically placed electronic boxes which each "speak" a different, pre-recorded letter of the alphabet. Sometimes people fulfil this function but, as at least eight are needed for each class, it can be difficult to find enough willing personnel!

Tim is currently writing the next edition of the Blind Riders Group newsletter which he started five years ago to help visually-impaired readers keep in touch and share information. And there’s an opportunity for them to experience each other in action each summer at "Bridge", a three-day competition for blind riders. Bridge has been held annually since 1998 and is increasing in popularity each year. Tim and Haller will soon be busy fundraising for the 2003 event which relies entirely on private sponsorship. The competition is open to experienced riders and beginners alike and, Tim hopes, will give more visually-impaired people the chance to discover the joys of horseriding. As Alan says, "If you think you might like riding just give it a go – life’s too short not to!"

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Derek Thorpe - doing it himself

Guide Dogs Partnerships Derek ThorpeThe idea of power tools in the hands of a blind man might, to some, sound like a recipe for disaster, but DIY enthusiast Derek Thorpe, registered blind for the last ten years, is having none of it. "I know the image it conjures up," he laughs, "but a tool is as safe as the operator, blind or otherwise. Careless use will cause injury, whether it’s a circular saw or just a hammer and a nail."

"Like anyone else, I got into DIY out of necessity," he says. "Obviously, if I was a millionaire, I wouldn’t do it. But I get an awful lot more out of it than that. It allows me to be creative in a way that’s not often possible in my job, and I also know that anything I make is going to be right – it’s going to fit. It’s extremely satisfying."

And extremely impressive. But considering that fact that his retinitis pigmentosa leaves him with severely restricted eyesight, in terms of range, distance and acuity, how does he manage to complete such complex projects?

"Planning," he says, without hesitation. "You need to think about what you’re doing and take the necessary steps to do it safely. If you haven’t got the time to take your time, don’t do it."

He does, though, make use of one or two adaptations to make things easier. His tools all hang against a white background; the contrast helps him to find what he wants with a minimum of fuss. He’s also recently bought himself a jeweller’s headband, with five degrees of magnification and two "headlights", which leaves his hands free to work.

Sometimes, he says, age-old methods can be used to get round certain problems. For instance, he’ll make himself templates and measuring sticks rather than having to rely on rulers and pencil marks, which can be difficult to see.

Other times, though, the modern way is best, and Derek certainly doesn’t shy away from technology. "Visually-impaired people can avoid a lot of potential problems by using the right tools. For example, table-saws and routers make things much easier – and safer."

Safer? "Yes," says Derek, "power tools are often much safer than hand tools, because the face and hands can be held well away from any cutting edges". To demonstrate this, he quickly cuts three lengths of wood, feeding the machine with just one hand, which is a good two feet away from the saw blade. Point taken!

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Verity Smith - hitting the right note

Singer songwriter Verity Smith was so determined not to let her blindness influence her career that she didn’t tell EMI recording engineers she couldn’t see. "I really wanted the singing to come first," she explains, "and it was only when I ignored their hand signals that they realised something was amiss."

Music is the central focus of Verity’s busy life. She lives in London’s vibrant Soho but spends a lot of time in France where she finds the tranquility necessary to write her music – songs with melancholy lyrics and beautifully haunting melodies which stay with you.

Although music is Verity’s priority, she has recently been commissioned to write a book about her life and work, "a sort of musical Bridget Jones!", she explains. The plan is for the book and her first album to be released simultaneously, she hopes next spring.

Kay, Verity’s gentle giant Leonberger guide dog, seems to enjoy Verity’s music, but does have some concerns: "I write a lot of sad songs," Verity confides, "and Kay will often come and put her head on my lap as if to say, ‘Don’t worry, Mum, it’s not that bad!’" She has, at least, learned to stop making "Scooby" noises whilst Verity is practising. Concern is one thing, sabotage quite another!

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