‘I met the love of my life in a supermarket aisle’ – registered blind Julie’s heart-warming story
A chance encounter in a supermarket aisle led to one of the happiest days in Julie Welch’s life.
And it was all made possible thanks to the sensory impairment team at Oxfordshire County Council.
Julie, 57, is totally blind in her right eye and has just 2% vision in her left eye. When she moved to Carterton four years ago she had lost confidence to venture outside alone.
A meeting with one of the council’s visual impairment workers reintroduced her to the benefits of a long cane which has since ‘transformed her life’.
And so it was that two years ago she ventured to her nearby Aldi store. She wanted to buy blueberries but had inadvertently picked up black grapes.
Fortunately a man called Dennis came to her aid. After swapping the fruit he offered to give her a lift home. The pair clicked instantly and last year they were married.
“I was literally swept off my feet alongside a packet of blueberries,” joked Julie.
Sensory impairment comes under the umbrella of the council’s adult social care team. They support 2,500 visually impaired people, 1,400 hearing impaired and 600 people with dual sensory loss.
That support is all part of the council’s commitment to thriving communities – helping people live safe, healthy lives and play an active part in their community.
Julie has a hereditary condition called Stickler syndrome. She lost the sight in her left at the age of nine and the sight in her right eye at 17.
More than 30 operations since have resulted in the 2% vision she has now.
‘It has transformed my life’
Julie contacted the sensory impairment team after moving from Bromsgrove. She wanted to improve the lighting in her Carterton home and following a specialist assessment, the visual impairment worker arranged for a council-approved electrician to replace lights in her kitchen, bedroom and living room.
Then visual impairment worker Beverley Downs reintroduced her to the long cane she had learned to use while growing up in Merseyside.
Julie explained: “For one reason or another I’d got out of the habit of using the long cane and I’d only been using a short symbol cane, which doesn’t really help in any way except as a visual aid to others that I have a visual impairment.
“It has transformed my life and given me so much more confidence. If there’s an obstacle in the way when I’m walking the cane finds it before I do.
“Then it was a case of learning new routes, like going from home to the supermarket, the post office or the chemist.
“Beverley helped me to establish a mental map which is vital for your confidence. If something happens on your route and you get distracted it’s easy to lose your bearings.
“Part of the problem that you’re encountering every day is the unforeseen. It might be a car on the pavement or roadworks. If I’ve got a mental map in my mind it makes things easier.
“Having Beverley and the team has really broadened my horizons and given me more confidence.”
‘Swept off my feet by the blueberries’
Julie admits life has got a lot easier since that chance encounter with Dennis, 81, in the fruit aisle at Aldi.
“This one morning I went to Aldi’s to buy blueberries but it’s difficult because they are all in rigid packaging. I couldn’t differentiate and looked round for somebody to ask.
“A gentleman told me I’d picked up black grapes and went to swap them for me. We chatted, he offered to give me a lift home and actually took me right up to the doorstep.
“That was two years ago and last year we were married. He literally swept me off my feet by the blueberries!”
Dennis’ first wife Betty suffered from dementia for seven years and he nursed her until she passed away in June 2014.
He said: “I had been married 46 years. When I lost my wife I felt completely on my own. When I met Julie I had a new lease of life.”
Now the pair are full-time carers for Julie’s mum Wynn, 87, who has vascular dementia. They have also bought a house nearby, which means learning a whole new set of routes.
Julie said: “I’m not the sort of person who sits in a chair and feels sorry for myself. I was brought up to do what I can. I’ve got a cross-trainer, I go to keep-fit, I enjoy knitting and go to a group called Knit and Natter.
“Obviously there are limitations being registered blind. But you work within those limitations and try to push those barriers back.”
Julie recently moved house and contacted the sensory impairment team again – this time for new routes as Julie needed to learn how to access the places she was accessing prior to her move.
Beverley is now in the process of helping Julie to learn those new routes and has helped her to access new appliances such as a washing machine, microwave and television by providing special tactile markers.
Beverley said: “For Julie, as anyone with a visual impairment, buying or moving to a new home will present a number of challenges. The role of a visual impairment specialist is to work alongside a person to maximise their independence – this is achieved collaboratively by understating what the presenting issues are and together providing a rehabilitation programme to address their needs. Julie’s determination to be independent made this possible.”
‘It’s massively rewarding’
John Fearn-Webster is manager of the council’s sensory impairment team. Eight staff including Beverley work in visual impairment and seven in hearing impairment.
He said: “We’re unique in that we’re one of the few internal services within adult social care who work across all ages, so we work from the cradle to the grave.
“That’s good so when they come to that transitional stage, that tricky period from 16 to 18, there’s no transition to be made. They will continue with our teams as they progress through.
“A lot of the time when we meet visually impaired or hearing impaired people, they’re not really sure what we’re here for. They don’t know what questions to ask. That’s part of the skill of the specialist workers to try to tease out what they want.
“Most of the work is done at a person’s home. It needs to be. We can see what they’ve got around them. We’ll make their environment as safe as possible and we work with the person to jointly agree how we can best meet their needs.
“When we can start to address what is most important to them it’s massively rewarding. We do see and hear some heartbreaking stories, especially if it’s related to sudden onset or if it’s related to a particularly young person.
“We are here to provide the best practical and emotional support we can.”
Cllr Lawrie Stratford, cabinet member for adult social care, said: “It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must be living with a sight defect or hearing loss.
“I always have such admiration for those dealing with a sensory impairment and I’m proud of the work done by our sensory impairment team to support these people and help them engage fully within their communities.”