Caitlin Leigh is no ordinary teenage girl. Her two passions in life are music and judo – she’s written and performed her own songs to hundreds of people at music school, has her own YouTube channel, and she’s been invited to train with the British judo visually impaired team as part of the Para-Potential Programme.
Surprisingly, Caitlin also has a severe vision impairment – she was born with congenital glaucoma and underwent almost 50 operations in her first five years. Her mum Claire vividly remembers the day Caitlin was diagnosed: "It was completely unexpected – and when she had to be put to sleep at only five days old for major surgery, it was really frightening."
Caitlin still has some useful vision in her right eye, but growing up with a serious vision impairment hasn’t been easy. Starting school was particularly challenging as she lacked the confidence to join in with activities, and it was time-consuming to get lesson materials adapted. "The kids in primary school treated me differently,” she says. “I didn’t get invited to sleepovers or to go out with them because their parents felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do."
Guide Dogs was appointed by the local authority to support Caitlin from the age of five, starting with using mental mapping to find her way around school and eventually progressing to long cane training. We also provided CustomEyes books so she could read her favourite stories such as David Walliams’ Mr Stink in large print. Claire, Caitlin's mum recalls, "It wasn’t until Guide Dogs became involved with Caitlin that we realised how much more they could offer than just the guide dog. We’ve been to their family experience days and they’ve made us aware of additional education support that Caitlin could receive. They really have been a lifeline."
Caitlin developed an interest in music and judo from an early age. She loves writing songs and playing piano as a way of expressing her feelings and thoughts, and the highlight was performing in front of 300 people at her music school. And she's just as happy competing in judo contests against both sighted and vision-impaired opponents. Caitlin won gold at the first national visually impaired judo competition in London in 2018 and, one day, she hopes to compete at a Paralympics Games.
Claire smiles and says: "People can't believe how much drive and determination Caitlin has – she just wants to have a go at everything."
Despite this, as Caitlin reached her teenage years she was still experiencing confidence issues, and needed some extra support to develop her independence. Luckily, help was at hand from Guide Dogs Habilitation Specialist, Emma Foster.
Emma explains: "When I first met Caitlin she was self-conscious about using her cane and wasn't taking it out with her. She avoided going to busy places, going out in the dark, and meeting up with friends. So I helped her come to terms with her sight loss and realise she can still do the things other teenagers do: she just has to do them in a slightly different way."
Emma and Caitlin have been practising cane training on the walk to her music lesson once a week, as well as travelling into town to meet friends. This includes using zebra crossings and identifying landmarks to help orientate herself. "In the school holidays we work on independent living skills such as baking, using an oven, and washing up," Emma adds. "These are just some of the skills Caitlin will need as she gets older."
Her mum Claire agrees: "It now feels like Caitlin is doing normal teen stuff, which I don't think would have happened otherwise. Having a vision impairment needn't stop you from doing anything and Caitlin is proof of this. She's always said the vision impairment has to keep up with her, rather than the other way around."