Fiona Sandford is interviewed by Sight Unseen, New Zealand

Interview with Fiona Sandford of Visionary UK

On 23 June 2020, we aired our 6th radio show. This was an interview with Fiona Sandford, CE of Visionary UK. This was another important moment for the development of Sight Unseen Aotearoa, as it reaches towards a vision for what could happen out of this time in New Zealand. You can find the show here.

About Visionary: First of all, it is important to recognise that Visionary is pretty unique in the world. Visionary in one form or another has been around for approximately 30 years. This is the mission statement for Visionary UK

“Visionary is a membership organisation for local sight loss charities. Our Vision is for a world in which people living with sight loss can access the services they need at a local level where and when they need them. Our Mission is to develop a strong national network of good quality local sight loss organisations, covering all parts of the UK, to help achieve this.”

Fiona has been an inspiration to the VICTA group over the last few years. First Lynley and then I visited her when she was the CE of Visibility in Glasgow. We all agreed that Visibility was client-centered in the way that we would like services to be in New Zealand. Now that Fiona has moved into Visionary, it is worth listening closely to what she achieves in this role. Here are some of Fiona’s words from the radio show about what has been happening in terms of sight loss services in the UK.

“Throughout the UK there’s lots of local sight-loss organisations of various shapes and sizes. And what Visionary does is everyone pays a small membership fee, and basically we form a collective voice for all of these local sight-loss organisations, and we provide networking opportunities, opportunities for conversation, for discussion, for peer-to-peer support, for sharing. And our vision, if you like, Visionary’s vision, which is a bit of a tongue-twister, is for a world in which people who live with sight-loss can access services they need, whatever they need, at a local level, whenever they need them. So our mission is to develop a strong local network of community-based services for people who live with sight-loss. So covering of all parts of the UK. So that’s basically what the organisation is. It’s a membership organisation.

The reason I went to Visionary was because I knew about local organisations. I knew how important they were to local people, what a difference they could make working at grassroots community-based services. And I absolutely think the national organisations have a really clear and important role to play, but if you lose your sight, then it’s often the community-based organisations that provide a bit of a lifeline service to you. So I thought I could take the experience I had of managing a fairly large local organisation and use that to make other organisations throughout the UK… Just to make them better, to make them stronger so as they could maybe reach more people or just benefit more people.
COVID-19 has presented us with a huge opportunity, and in the last 13 weeks, I think we’ve achieved a phenomenal amount. Within a week we moved all our services online, so the opportunity that that presented was it meant that people could just dial in, like you and I are having a conversation now from our own houses. People didn’t need to go anywhere, so that meant that we could reach so many more organisations in a very cost-effective way.

We have around 121 organisations who are part of Visionary. Every week I run a session for leaders, for chief execs. It’s Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock. There’s no agenda, nothing. It’s just a weekly opportunity for an hour to come together and just share. Share experiences, share trials, share successes, share what’s working well. We’re also covering all the more practical issues like access to PPE, health and safety, furloughing staff. So so-many of the staff from local organisations have been furloughed, which means that these staff have been taken out of the workforce. So the workforce that are left have had to very quickly adapt to either different roles or doing their roles very differently, delivering very differently or doing something that they haven’t been doing in the past. And more often than not, the staff that are not furloughed are working two or three times harder than they were before, because they’re taking on the jobs of the people who have been furloughed.

We’ve got quite a few of the Visionary member organisations run and deliver care homes. So obviously the care homes in the UK have been very badly hit by COVID. So they have issues and difficulties that protect those care homes. So we run sessions for them. Also we’ve had a national campaign on accessing food, and we’ve got quite a few supermarkets on board now so those people can get priority slots, because that was quite a significant issue for people.

And of course there’s an assumption that everybody has access to web-based services, which is not true. There’s a lot of our very elderly population, who are of course the people that are most affected by sight-loss, who don’t have access, or if they do have access, they don’t know how to use it. So lots of the local sight-loss organisations in the UK very quickly set up training sessions, teaching people. And I would say the majority of them have been able to continue to deliver some form of befriending. Within the first week they had shifted to phoning people regularly to host online befriending sessions where they could.

Here are some examples of good practice that Visionary have celebrated over the last few weeks:
There is a local organisation called iSightCornwall. So they’re based in Cornwall and at the beginning of lockdown, they had over 60 patients with low-vision appointments already booked. So, well, I don’t know how much you know about how things went in the UK, but within a week, things had stopped. So all of these face-to-face appointments had to be cancelled. And what could iSightCornwall do? They either had to wait until the government said they could be open, which who knows when that would be. And we’re now talking thirteen weeks ago. Or come up with a new way of working that would enable them to carry out these appointments in a different way. So that’s what they did. And that’s what I would say my experience has been of these smaller local organisations. They very quickly adapt in really creative and inspiring ways.

So what they did was they decided to just phone people and start talking to them over the phone and trying to find out a bit more about what they could do. So they had a specially-trained advisor who identified what they needed over the phone. That’s been incredibly successful, that they were able to help people carry on with their lives, albeit during lockdown. And that’s been really reassuring for family members and carers, to know that their loved ones, the people who have sight-loss, can still carry on hobbies and leisure activities at home, whether that’s reading or watching TV or crafting or doing whatever it is they do. And the service has now been endorsed by the local National Health Service commissioning body, and Visionary is working with iSightCornwall to share this model across the UK, to all of the organisations that provide a low-vision service. Cornwall’s a really big rural area and it’s got an ageing population. So low-vision’s really important to these people. And that’s definitely a service that they’re going to continue to develop. They’re not going to stop when lockdown stops. So there’s a toolkit. There’s a five-step plan that iSightCornwall have developed. And we are sharing that across the membership.

Another example is from Visibility in Scotland. They were worried that young people would just sit in their bedrooms and not get the help and support and interactions that they needed. And they were concerned that they would maybe become a bit de-skilled in terms of independence, self-help, mobility, learning. So these online groups have very much kept the young people engaged, and with a prompt here and there from Visibility, just to talk about how they’re feeling, what they’re doing, catch up with one another. And they’ve brought in experts to have a live chat, to talk to them for a few hours. And I suppose what they’re trying to do is help young people understand this isn’t actually a holiday, but they need to take ownership of their lives. And this is a time for them to continue to be engaged with each other.

And they’ve done really inspiring things, like they had a talent show. They did a talent show. They have a joke o’clock, which is a daily event where they share a wee joke. And they have Zoom meetings. They chose Zoom because they felt that was best for accessibility. And they’re doing the same with parents. So the parents are all coming together and they’re sharing stories about what their toddlers are up to. And again, it’s that peer-to-peer support. And every so often they drop in a professional person that the parents can ask questions of, because obviously during lockdown you’re missing that normal playground, at-the-school-gates type of chat. So this is replacing that.“

My understanding from this conversation is that Visionary is capable of playing a genuinely unifying role in sight loss services in the UK. Fiona is the first to say that collaboration has improved tremendously between services during lockdown. One thing that I see Visionary doing is telling the stories of the local groups who are achieving great things. This reaffirms the power of the local – and it keeps the role of Visionary as that of connector and celebrator. There is no doubt that Fiona has been part of setting this tone and it is again something that we can learn from in New Zealand. The Sight Unseen Aotearoa radio show is continuing to help us unfold this conversation.

Source: Mary P Butler’s blog

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