20 September 2017

TORCH vision for people with sight loss

Blindness is very much a global issue; every 5 seconds someone somewhere in the world loses their sight. According to the World Health Organisation, there are approximately 39 million people in the world who are blind and another 245 million people with low vision. In Ireland there are around 65,000 adults and children suffering from retinal degenerative conditions. While many of these people are not completely blind, their sight problems will eventually deteriorate. In Northern Ireland there are 52,000 people living with sight loss. A large proportion of these people are elderly and a recent survey discovered that as many as half of them live alone. Losing one’s sight later in life can be a traumatic experience to go through and one of the biggest related difficulties is often a loss of independence. Those who once walked unaided and drove a car have to start and learn how to walk with a cane. This can be a difficult transition to make and for some people the process can be lonely and overwhelming.

Torch Trust is a Christian charity that specialises in providing Christian resources for people with sight loss. It aims to overcome sight loss as a barrier to finding a personal faith in Christ and to living a fulfilled Christian life. Ron and Stella Heath established Torch Trust in the 1950s after a young blind girl came along to a Church youth group run by the Heaths. They soon discovered that there was no Bible study material that they could give her in Braille and so they learnt how to print their own in Braille. Over the years, other young blind people joined the group and the Heaths began to transcribe more and more Christian literature into Braille. Today, Torch still provides Christian literature in accessible formats that blind and visually impaired people can read, such as Braille, Giant Print and Audio. They have over 3500 titles in their library and they also sell Bibles, Bible reading notes, hymnbooks and magazines in accessible formats.

Over the years, the ministry of Torch expanded to encompass other areas, such as providing holidays specifically designed for those with sight loss. Torch has a holiday centre in Sussex in the South of England. From there, they offer themed holidays, such as gardening, walking and activity holidays. Those who come, have a devotional time together each day. On these holidays, blind and visually impaired people can share with each other in a safe environment as they build new friendships and deepen their relationship with God.

The work of Torch has also spread overseas to Malawi where they have a Braille production unit that produces Bibles and other literature in African languages. There are over 80 Torch Fellowship Groups that meet in rural villages in Malawi. Torch also sends humanitarian aid to Malawi to help those living in poverty.

Ironically, within the context of Christianity, one particular area that can be difficult for people with sight loss is church life. I can just imagine some of you thinking that surely the church is one place where blind and visually impaired people should feel included and encouraged. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. So much of what takes place during church services today is visually orientated, from the hymnbooks and Bibles in our pews, through to the presentations on the data projector that often are played in tandem with music. In situations such as the latter, the person with sight loss misses the whole point of the presentation, unless they receive a running commentary from someone sitting close by. Socially, things can also be challenging in the church setting. When the service comes to an end, sighted people naturally make eye contact with those around them and many conversations ensue.

However, the person without sight is left to listen for the sound of a friendly voice in the midst of the chatter. One visually impaired man recently remarked that the thing he finds most difficult about church is, he doesn’t know who he is sitting beside.

In cases of visual impairment as opposed to complete blindness, there is sometimes a mistaken expectation that the visually impaired person can see more than they really can, especially when the person doesn’t have a guide dog or white cane with them.

With these difficulties in mind Torch offers a way for people with sight loss to have fellowship together through their fellowship groups. There are over 100 of these groups throughout the UK that meet monthly. There are 9 groups in N. Ireland and the first Torch Fellowship Group has just launched in the Republic of Ireland. Within the groups, accessibility and inclusivity are key factors. Mobility is a big issue for people with sight loss and each group usually has a team of drivers who would collect people. Often at the beginning of the group meeting, there would be a roll call, or introductions, so that each person attending would know who else was there. The groups are almost like a natural extension of that first youth group run by the Heaths. The purpose of the group is to cater for the social and the spiritual needs of people with sight loss. So the groups provide an opportunity for those who come to share together over food and fellowship. The Christian aspect manifests itself in different ways including worship, drama, poetry, Bible studies and quizzes.

One of the words used to describe Torch Fellowship Groups is that they are like “family”. Those who come have a real love and concern for one another and they seek to encourage each other in positive ways concerning dealing with their disability. Each group also has a number of sighted volunteers and they also contribute to the group, in areas such as befriending, catering, driving and leadership.

Leonard Campbell

If you would like to know more about Torch, or to help make a difference in the life of a person with sight loss, through volunteering please contact:

Leonard Campbell / Ireland Regional Networker / leonardc@torchtrust.org / (00353) 01 442 9820 / (0044) 02892 661932