News - 29th September 2017

Focus on your ability


I lost sight in my right eye when I was four. I was on holiday with my family and we had just arrived at a campsite, which had a swing park and slide. I was on the slide at the top and somehow I fell off. Being 1970, ‘Health and Safety’ was not at the forefront of children’s play areas, and the slide of about 30 feet high was built on concrete. I landed on my right side, breaking my pelvis and suffering a ‘shattered retina’, which meant it not only detached but tore into pieces.


Stupidly, because of the stigma attached to wearing glasses back in the 70s, whenever I had my school eye test and was told I needed glasses, because my left eye was compensating for my right, I kept throwing away the letter for my parents to take me to an optician. Eventually they told me if I didn’t get glasses now I’d be blind by the time I was 30, so I bit the bullet and got glasses!


I looked after my left eye from then on as it was in a poor state. I got a contact lens when I was 22 and got the best and healthiest one I could afford. I was able to drive, just. I got married in 1987 and we had two children, but unfortunately we separated in 2006.


A little while later, I met a fantastic woman named Lyn. She was older than me, but so young in spirit and such a kind, loving and funny person. She went to the gym and the running club and was so fit and healthy. We both knew we would always be together. We had plans to marry, but that was put on hold when I began to get really bad headaches.


My optician noticed that I had no peripheral vision and referred me to the eye clinic. Then, while getting ready for work one day, I told Lyn my sight was blurred badly in my ‘good’ eye. I thought it would pass so I still went into work. But it didn’t improve, and the next day it was worse, almost dark. By the following Wednesday I couldn’t see anything.


I tried to stay calm and not panic, as I’d had temporary blindness in the past due to being in the sun too long and it had lasted for 24 hours. But my sight didn’t come back, and never has. Eventually I was told I have a detached optic nerve and the pain was from a damaged occipital nerve, and more devastating was that it appeared unrepairable.


It was like being a child again and being scared of the dark.


Lin and I postponed the wedding until we could get our heads around this. I was off work with no income for eight months. I just sat on the sofa, hardly talked or moved. After returning from venturing out of the house for the first time, I fell and badly cut my eye, resulting in a trip to A&E. This set me back again. Not moving and eating poorly, my health became poor and my weight began to increase. I eventually accessed RNIB and Action for Blind People in an effort to return to work, which I did in October 2011.


I struggled to convince some colleagues and management that I was still more than capable to continue to do my job. I learned to touch type, I had assistive technology and also a support worker to drive me to work and assist in the office. I really had to fight to stay in my post. But I did, and it made me more aware of the struggle people with ‘disabilities’ face in the work place and in general life.


In March 2012 Lyn and I married. We were happy everyday despite the issues around my sight loss. We decided we wouldn’t let it take over our lives, lots of people are much worse off. At least I had had 45 years of sight.


However, Lyn’s health deteriorated two years later. She started having severe tremors and terrible confusion and they became more frequent and then one day she passed out. I was alone in the house with Lyn, blind and trying to hold her up in a chair. I called friends and an ambulance and they convinced her she had to go to hospital. We discovered that Lyn had cervix, pelvis, stomach and spine cancer and she sadly passed away in August 2014.


I rapidly declined after this. I didn’t look after myself although to the outside world I probably seemed okay. I just sat on a chair outside, under our carport as I couldn’t bare to be in the house. My family and friends were amazing help, but I hid as much as I could.


The turning point for me came when I was at work one day and my support worker and I went for lunch. The cafe had fixed seats and tables and I couldn’t fit into the seat. It must be a child’s seat, I thought. But no, I measured it with my hands and that’s the moment I realised how big I had become. I’m only 5,10’, and here I was at 48 weighing nearly 24 stone. I had to do something.


I had joined a walking group but I hadn’t been there since Lyn was ill, so I went back. I also joined a gym, but never really enjoyed it. Running machines don’t hold very much excitement! It was now 2016, I was determined to reach 13 stone by the time of my 50th birthday, which I did. I had to buy all new clothes because everything I owned was XXXL. Then I met Helen, a gorgeous lady, inside and out, who encouraged me and helped me to enjoy life again. I went back to being a vegetarian and eating healthy, I even joined Slimming World and won some awards for it.


I was losing weight but what was lacking was fitness and energy. My best friend Kelly Barton (you can read Kelly’s own remarkable story here), who has been such a motivating force for me, had started going to Southport parkrun and said it was great fun, the people were lovely and the guide runners for Visually Impaired people were brilliant. How about trying it? Running? Outside? I hadn’t run for many years, let alone 5k as a blind runner, But Kelly seemed so enthusiastic and I went along.


My first parkrun was on 21 January 2017 and my guide was Keith Lunt. I had emailed Southport parkrun to register and arranged to meet Keith at Heskith Park. I had walked around the park hundreds of times, sighted and blind. I’d taken my children there I had walked many times with Lyn. I thought yeah, I can do this.


There were a couple of hundred people there on that frosty January morning, which I didn’t expect. I met with my friend Kelly and her guide Mike, who introduced me to Keith. Off we went, slowly. Everyone was so encouraging, people I didn’t know cheered and shouted. It felt amazing, I really enjoyed it more than I thought I would. My time was 42:11. Not fast by any standard, but that was okay, I had done it and that’s what was important.


The feeling of running was exhausting but exhilarating at the same time. I could do this, granted I needed a guide, but it was all down to me being capable and trying. Which is unfortunately a view that a lot of people, both sighted and visually impaired lack. I went back each week, I had many different guides. I wasn’t interested in ‘PB’s, it’s not what motivates me, I’m still not driven by that. I did get quicker but I see it as a guide to my increased fitness, not my speed.


I have now done Southport parkrun 30 times. I’ve met fantastic people, people I am glad to call friends. parkrun has opened up a whole new world to me. I hope to do a 10k soon, and a half marathon maybe. I’m not a natural runner, but I love the challenge. I hear people as we run around, cheering for me and obviously others. It feels like they genuinely want you to succeed to go for it to push on. Almost an analogy of life really.


My advice to other Visually Impaired people, or anyone who is nervous about taking part in parkrun for the first time, is to give it a try. Yes it can be frightening and even intimidating. But that’s all in your mind. When you arrive, it’s the support that gets you through it and you feel part of something special. You’re showing not only others, but yourself, that you can do this. If you can run 5k, blind or sighted, then there’s nothing you can’t do!


I can’t thank running guides enough – it’s a fantastic thing you’re doing. By guide running regularly you will discover that it is a very personal thing. We all run differently and require different information to run. Some have constant commentary on obstacles and directions, some hold an arm while some use tethers. Personally I am okay with commentary and the contact with the guide’s arm lets me know when to turn. There has to be trust in your guide, that is very important.


I was delighted to represent parkrun UK at the National Lottery Good Causes Awards this week, which was broadcast on the BBC, where parkrun’s Visually Impaired project was announced as the winner of the ‘Sport’ category. It was extra special to receive the award standing on the stage next to Keith, who guided me at my first parkrun. Thanks to all of you who voted for us.


I sincerely hope this award and the ensuing national exposure will motivate and inspire more Visually Impaired people to give parkrun a try. It is deserved recognition for the hundreds of everyday parkrunners who put their hands up to act as guides, because we couldn’t be part of the parkrun community without you – you are our eyes.


Two of the major challenges of sight loss are isolation and loss of independence, but through parkrun and this project, Visually Impaired people across the UK have the opportunity to discover our own potential. Don’t concentrate on the disability – focus on the ability.


James Connell
parkrunner A3112442


You can watch the BBC coverage of parkrun’s Visually Impaired project, and the award presentation, on BBC iPlayer – just press play!

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