Rachel forges a new career helping people with visual impairments after completing an apprenticeship

Rachel Gaisford had spent nearly her entire career supporting older people in her local community when a new role arose that sparked her interest.

Now, three years on, she is enjoying her new path as a fully qualified rehabilitation worker, helping those with visual impairments regain their independence.

Oxford resident, Rachel, 54, had been working as a benefits advisor with Age UK Oxfordshire for over a decade when an opportunity arose within the county council’s sensory impairment team. Despite joining as a support worker Rachel was quickly approached to see if she would like to take her career one step further.

“When someone first asked if I’d be interested in an apprenticeship, I thought, ‘surely there are younger people in the team you can invest in!’, but age has nothing to do with it. Anyone regardless of how old they are can learn new skills and gain new knowledge – so why not me?

“Right away I knew I had made the right decision. The apprenticeship was incredible, and the fact that I could implement what I was learning right away was hugely motivating.”

Funded by Oxfordshire County Council, the apprenticeship not only helped Rachel expand her skillset but increased the team’s resources to provide even greater support to residents. Before too long, Rachel was a qualified visual rehabilitation worker and could offer a range of support to those who were living with new or existing visual impairments.

“Sight loss can cause some people’s lives to shrink. I wanted to help them understand that it doesn’t need to be that way,” said Rachel. “Life might be different for someone with a visual impairment but it doesn’t need to mean a loss of independence or confidence, especially in their own home.

“I didn’t think I would be going back to school at the age of 51! I would’ve been happy to stay in a support role. But I can safely say this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”


A new chapter of support

After fifteen years with Age UK Oxfordshire, Rachel found herself wanting a fresh challenge in her career without leaving a people-centred role. That’s when she spotted an opening in the county council’s sensory impairment team for a support worker. The team support Oxfordshire residents who are deaf, hard of hearing or visually impaired in their day to day lives, including sourcing the right tools and equipment, finding support groups and adapting to a new way of life.

“I had a real desire to help people maintain their independence at home but also be a part of their communities. A home should be a safe space, a place where you should feel comfortable and capable, and I wanted that independence and freedom to translate outside of the house too. The sensory impairment team plays a huge role in making sure that’s true for everyone, regardless of circumstances. So I could really see myself making a difference there.”

It wasn’t long before team manager, John Fearn-Webster, asked if she’d be interested in expanding her role and becoming a visual rehabilitation worker.

“Rachel was the ideal person to support residents with their rehabilitation,” said John. “Her interpersonal skills are fantastic and she’s able to work with people in a way that’s both effective and sensitive to their situation.”

To become a visual rehabilitation worker, Rachel would need to undertake an apprenticeship, combining classroom learning with practical experience of support. According to Rachel, it was the opportunity she didn’t know she was looking for.


Back to the classroom

Rachel began the apprenticeship at Birmingham City University in 2018 and spent one week on campus each month. The course offered a comprehensive look at visual rehabilitation work, such as how to create individual training programmes tailored to someone’s needs and aspirations; building confidence and safety in the home and out; and managing complex circumstances.

“At the time, as much as I was enjoying the apprenticeship, I wasn’t sure if or how it would work. I had two children and a husband at home and dedicating that much time away from them seemed almost unrealistic. But I can’t believe how much people rallied around me.”

After years of helping her local church, members returned the favour by making three meals a week for Rachel and her family. Friends helped with school runs and the sensory impairment team ensured she had plenty of time for study, meaning Rachel could balance her personal and professional life with the course.


Fully qualified and ready to provide support

Although Rachel and many other students had to take an additional year to complete the apprenticeship due to COVID-19, she graduated in 2021 as a fully qualified visual rehabilitation worker.

“After all that hard work and the added delay because of COVID, finishing my qualifications felt incredible. Knowing I would be able to support people on a one to one basis and help facilitate their independence really drove me throughout the course, particularly during the hardest times.

“Learning how to read Braille was probably my biggest achievement throughout the course. It made me shift my way of thinking and was such a fun and unique challenge.”

Rachel concluded, “I never would have imagined doing an apprenticeship in my fifties, but here we are!”

To find out more about the work of the sensory impairment team, visit the website.

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