In June 2016, NPC chaired a roundtable discussion on our recent report Visual impairment in Scotland, commissioned by the RS Macdonald Charitable Trust. The participants were drawn from a range of backgrounds in the sector and academia and they started proceedings by testing the findings of the report against their experience. We also probed how to build on the report and its insights.
Those present felt the report offers a good starting point for the discussion of visual impairment and the third sector in Scotland: it brings together a range of useful information and clearly sets out the current priority needs and solutions in the sector. Participants welcomed the emphasis on solutions that were specialist, person-centred, and social.
But we also sought to built on the framework of the report. One of the most interesting and far-searching parts of the morning’s discussion concerned how best to empower people with visual impairment. Four types of power were discussed.
Firstly, empowerment means developing people’s ‘power to’—their power to do the things they want to do, from communicating with others to getting out and about. Here the group emphasised the centrality of training. Access to innovative rehabilitation techniques for older people with sight loss was flagged as crucial. The necessity of habilitation training being available to all primary school-age students was also highlighted. Empowerment here is helping someone to use the strengths they already have, to which training and retraining can provide access.
Secondly, empowerment is also about people’s internal feelings of capability and self-efficacy—their ‘power within’. This includes building a desire in someone with visual impairment to gain training, which can be difficult in a society that some see as ‘sightist’ (rather than ‘blindist’). Further, some claim, society is centred around an idea of ‘structured disempowerment’ that takes away opportunities and motivation for self-efficacy from people with visual impairment.
Finally, empowerment includes developing ‘power with’ and ‘power over’: These are generated when people work with each other to gain influence over social systems. The discussion brought into focus how empowerment is always linked to wider social changes. Specifically, it is closely linked to education, including educating employers and practitioners. The discussion here particularly brought out the importance of extending visual impairment awareness to people supporting children in schools.
We finished by touching on a number of key questions within the sector. Is the sector developing the evidence base it needs? Or is there an unhelpful ‘medical’ paradigm by which double-masked control trials are seen as the only ‘legitimate’ sort of evidence? What does success look like in providing services to people with visual impairment? Drawing on some of the frameworks provided in the report, the roundtable attendees felt that one of the biggest challenges facing the sector is how to incorporate beneficiary voice in answering these, and other, important questions. The report, in this sense, is very much a first step in addressing these questions.
George Hoare, NPC – George is a consultant in NPC’s measurement and evaluation team, where he works to help charities and funders develop the tools they need to understand, measure, and communicate their impact.