A special vision - Fife Society for the Blind celebrates 150 years

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Fife Society for the Blind has been supporting generations of Fifers with sight loss and this year the charity is marking a very special milestone – its 150th anniversary.

This remarkable achievement is being celebrated with an evening of conversation and music from the Society’s patron, award-winning Scottish singer and songwriter, Barbara Dickson, next Thursday (April 30). The special event is being held at the Old Kirk in Kirkcaldy and it will give local people the chance to listen to Ms Dickson as she talks to John Abernethy about her life in showbusiness and to hear her sing some of her popular hits.

Staff from Fife Society for the Blind which marks its 150th anniversary this year. Pic: FPA

Staff from Fife Society for the Blind which marks its 150th anniversary this year. Pic: FPA

There is also a small display, ‘From Braille to iPads’, being showcased at Kirkcaldy Galleries to toast 150 years of the Society providing support for blind and partially sighted people. Objects and images are being shown from the Society’s origins in Victorian Kirkcaldy up to the present day. The display is free of charge and runs until the end of May.

Fife Society for the Blind was founded in 1865 with the intention of helping people to read Braille in their own homes and help them live as independently as possible.

Ann Porter, chief executive, said: “Provost Don Swan was elected the first president of the Society in the 1860s and an account of the very first meeting – which was then known as ‘The Fife and Kinross Society for Teaching the Blind to read in their own Homes’ – was given in the Fifeshire Advertiser.

“It was hoped by Christian missionaries transcribing the Scriptures into Moon embossed type – a forerunner of Braille – the new Society would work it so every blind person in a short time might be able to read the Bible.

From helping 111 blind and partially sighted people in the early days, we now have a database of over 5000 clients

Richard Godfrey-McKay, chairman

“The Society quickly adapted to a changing world and soon began to offer a range of more secular activities to help blind and partially-sighted people towards economic and social independence.

“By 1907 when the first superintendent (known now as chief executive), Miss Kate Craig, was appointed, 111 blind people were reported as receiving home visits and taking advantage of 300 books in Moon and 60 in Braille.”

By 1920, with many soldiers having been blinded in the First World War, the Society began helping blind people earn an income by teaching them how to make knitted goods, cane furniture and rugs and these items were sold out of a shop in Whytescauseway, Kirkcaldy.

When Provost Swan died in 1889, his place was taken by Sir Michael Nairn and the Nairn family has continued to support Fife Society for the Blind across the generations.

Richard Godfrey-McKay, chairman, has been involved with the Society since 2009. He has been blind since the age of nine following a long jump accident at school, but it has never held him back –he went on to achieve a law degree at Oxford and qualified as a solicitor in 1980. He moved to Perth after retiring in 2007.

Mr Godfrey-McKay said: “From helping 111 blind and partially sighted people in the early days, we now have a database of over 5000 clients – the bulk of whom are over the age of 60.

“We must not forget Braille as it was a breakthrough innovation of its time, but advances in technology in recent 
years have made a huge difference. Clients can now access the latest innovations in tablet and smartphone technology, 
assistive aids and mobility training.”

He added: “Like Braille, this new technology and knowledge is transforming the way people with sight loss interact with the world.”

Tickets for the anniversary event, which begins at 7.00 p.m., are available by contacting (01592) 644979.

Advances in technology

Stuart Beveridge works for the Society as an IT assistant. He offers training to clients on how to use iPads, smartphones and tablets. He said people, regardless of their age and eye condition, can learn how to use this equipment. The new technology has certain apps which can be used to assist blind and partially sighted people to: read mail, newspapers and books; communicate with friends and family using social media such as Twitter and Facebook; plan routes, access public transport and navigate in unfamiliar surroundings, access the Internet, use email and enjoy on-line gaming. For example, one app is called ‘Be My Eyes’, which takes advantage of an iPhone feature called VoiceOver, which lets people who are blind use the device using synthetic speech. To ask for help, the user opens the app and requests assistance. This can be anything from knowing the 
expiry date of a food in the fridge or navigating new surroundings.

Stuart said: “Having this new technology helps people who are blind or partially sighted to continue to be independent and this is what the Society is all about.” See our video online at www.fifetoday.co.uk

View of FSB honorary president Gordon Brown

Former Kirkcaldy MP Gordon Brown said 150 years of service by Fife Society for the Blind is a celebration of a Fife institution that is widely acknowledged throughout the United Kingdom for its work among the visually impaired.

He said: “From small beginnings, the Society now helps 2000 visually impaired people, runs its own enterprises, provides services across the board, has a training house for people facing blindness to learn how to cook, and flourish despite their disability.

“I first knew of Fife Society when my father was a member of its board in the 1950s and I have continued to take an interest in its amazing outreach.

“Their dream on this anniversary is one I support - that every partially sighted person in Fife has access to the newest technology that turns newsprint and books into audio immediately and allows a blind pupil to sit side by side in the same classroom as a fully sighted person and study from exactly the same material in real time, and allows older people to enjoy books, newspapers, letters and correspondence because of the new technology available to them.”