Janet and Ralph have known each other for nearly 50 years – friends for a long time, they found romance in 2012, and were married just a year later.
Ralph said: “My first wife sadly died from cancer after 44 years of marriage. A year or so went by and when I felt ready, I found love again with Janet. We’d been friends for many years, our families knew each other, and it just felt so right.”
Ralph has Retinitis Pigmentosa which led to his sight gradually deteriorating – from losing his field vision, to tunnel vision, and then to complete darkness. Janet was born with her vision impairment -damaged retinas caused by being premature as a baby. She has lived with no vision her entire life.
Janet said: “My sight loss has never set me back or stopped me from doing what I wanted. I worked as a secretary in social care for over 30 years, supporting other people with sight loss and I learned to play the piano and organ. I’m a keen knitter and Ralph and I enjoy spending our time together listening to 60s music and audio books – the hours just fly by!”
Ralph had a successful career in manufacturing, and later in life pursued a passion in weightlifting – he was an IBSA champion lifter and also volunteered as a fitness coach to people with disabilities. The couple’s conservatory is filled to the brim with medals and trophies.
Ralph said: “When I retired I still wanted to give back – and I wanted to keep learning. I studied Sports Injuries and Body Massage at college and went on to work with professional athletes including long jumper Chris Tomlinson – I travelled all over from California to the Czech Republic!”
Ralph and Janet ran the Gateshead Social Club for the Blind for 18 years together with Janet’s mum and Ralph’s late wife, from 1980 until 1998. They put on games nights, darts and Bingo, and they have made firm friends through the club.
Since they got together, they attend the Stormont Main Local Working Men’s Social Club twice a week.
Ralph said: “Our wedding day was an amazing day – so many friends from my coaching days, and the social club we go, came to help us celebrate. It really is a wonderful community.”
Janet and her dog Hugo, and Ralph with his dog Chelsea, recently qualified – remarkably they were in the same training class and qualified at the same time. Over the past 40 years, Janet has had 10 guide dogs and Ralph has had seven – all with so many different personalities!"
Janet said: “My first ever guide dog was Esme in 1978 when I was in my twenties. I’d spent most of my childhood and teenage years using a long cane and decided to apply for a guide dog so that I could have that independence and get to places quicker, as well as achieve more from life. A cane is an amazing tool but it can be quite restrictive – you end up bumping into things more often, but with a dog they keep you safe.”
Ralph added: “When I started to lose my sight I went on a habilitation course where you learn different skills to help you maintain your independence as someone living with sight loss. I knew my sight would eventually deteriorate until I had no sight at all, and after chatting with someone else at the course, they recommended that I applied for a guide dog while I still had some useful vision.”
Since they became a couple over 10 years ago, Janet and Ralph go out everyday together with Hugo and Chelsea – whether it’s to the high street in the village, or to their social club on an evening. The dogs are a real part of the family and are regularly visited by Ralph’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Janet said: “We really are delighted with our dogs – they’re such a good match for us and our Guide Dog Mobility Specialists Sarah and Gail really went above and beyond to ensure we both had good and lasting partnerships. Even after such a long time, there’s always new training techniques to learn, and they were great at supporting us.”
Ralph added: “Without our dogs, we lose our independence. While we were on the waiting list, we didn’t even go to the high street anymore.
“The biggest challenge for someone with sight loss is getting from A to B – whether it’s walking down the street or catching public transport – with a dog everything is so much easier and you know you can get there safely.”
Guide Dogs can only support more people like Janet and Ralph through the help of volunteers and through fundraising. For this year’s Guide Dog’s Appeal, we’re asking all our supporters to get together – and raise money to help tackle the loneliness and isolation caused by sight loss. For more information visit our Appeal page.