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Special school eye tests and a buggy innovation

The vulnerable children missing out on vital eye tests and we road test a new smart buggy which can monitor the way ahead for obstacles.

Children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to develop sight problems than those in the general population. But a report from the charity SeeAbility is warning that the current regime of eye testing is failing them. We hear from a mother who describes the difficulty of testing a child with learning disabilities - and the difference that funding for tests in the familiar surroundings of her school has made.
And Hetal Bapodra reports from Imperial College London on an innovation for blind and visually impaired parents, a prototype of a buggy which can scan ahead for obstacles. We also chat to its inventor Ramona Williams.
Presented by Peter White
Produced by Kevin Core.

Available now

20 minutes

In Touch Transcript: 01-05-2018

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

IN TOUCH - Special school eye tests and a buggy innovation

 

TX:  01.05.2018  2040-2100

PRESENTER:   PETER WHITE

PRODUCER:   KEVIN CORE

 

White

Good evening.  Tonight, thousands of vulnerable children whose sight could be endangered by missing out on vital eye tests.  In Touch has had first sight of a report calling for urgent action.  And, taking care of baby, an In Touch listener and mum has been road testing a smart baby buggy.

 

Clip

Okay, so I’m feeling two fabric tabs, I feel like those little round circles where your fingers would be - is that right?

Yeah.

Yeah.  Okay, and they’re vibrating.  Oooh okay.

 

White

We’ll be hearing more from Hetal later in the programme.

But first, all children in the UK have the right to annual eye tests but a report out tomorrow says thousands of children with learning disabilities aren’t having those tests.  This is despite the fact that such children are almost 30 times more likely to develop serious eye problems than those in the general population.  The report comes from sight loss charity SeeAbility which takes a particular interest in those with learning disabilities.  Part of the problem is that the process of testing can be confusing and upsetting and it’s often impossible for these children to explain what they’re seeing to testers.  SeeAbility, though, says such problems can be overcome by providing tests in familiar surroundings, such as their school.

Well Alyson Farrell’s daughter is Ellie and Alyson joins us.  I mean tell us just a bit about Ellie and her situation.

 

Farrell

Ellie’s 12 now, she contracted a virus before she was born called Cytomegalovirus and that stopped her brain from developing properly and has left her with all sorts of challenges, including the potential for her sight to deteriorate quite significantly.  And as a result of all of her difficulties she sees lots of specialists including eye specialists, from when she was born she’s seen an eye specialist at a hospital to check that her eyes are healthy and her sight’s not deteriorating.

 

White

And what were the kind of problems you encountered when Ellie had eye tests?

 

Farrell

We would go to an eye clinic at our local hospital.  In order to do that I obviously have to take Ellie out of school, get to the hospital, find a place to park our wheelchair accessible vehicle.  Ellie’s a very clever girl, she knew - she knows when I’m picking her up from school that we’re going somewhere that’s probably not as much as fun as school.  We rarely get seen on time, which is an occupational hazard of hospital appointments, and she finds it very stressful because she knows that something is going to be happening that perhaps isn’t particularly comfortable for her.

 

White

And how does she react and how does that affect the test?

 

Farrell

Well it means she’s not very cooperative, she’s anxious, so she finds it hard to concentrate on what she’s being asked to do.  The doctors at the hospital are all great but they don’t know her very well, they don’t build up a relationship with her because the doctors are different every time.  As a result, it’s very difficult to establish what her eye health is and get her to perform in the best way for her eye tests.

 

White

Well also joining us is SeeAbility’s Chief Executive, Lisa Hopkins.  So, Lisa, how typical is what Alyson has just described?

 

Hopkins

Well unfortunately it’s all too common.  As you said earlier we know that children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to have sight loss than other children.  But we believe that there’s over 40,000 children with learning disabilities in England who have never had an eye test.

 

White

And I mean this is something that you’ve been talking about before.  I know we’ve featured this on In Touch.  So, has nothing happened to improve the situation?

 

Hopkins

Well, we’ve been doing research over the last four years in 11 different special schools, testing the sight of children and putting pressure on NHS England to do something about the inequality that exists, so that these children can get sight tests.  But as yet nothing has happened.  So, we’re asking NHS England to make wide reforms to community eye care for children and adults.

 

White

Now presumably these are very difficult tests to carry out, as Alyson’s described, I mean you can’t always simply ask - what you would with other children - what can you see.  So, would you acknowledge that it is quite a challenging problem?

 

Hopkins

It is a specialist skill to test the sight of somebody with a learning disability who doesn’t communicate in the same way as other children - absolutely - and that’s why part of what we’re asking for is for reforms in education, to the eyecare sector, as well as ensuring that people have the right environment to get their sight tested, which is why we’re asking for that work to be done in schools.

 

White

So, is it as much as where the test is done as how it’s done?

 

Hopkins

Absolutely, it’s about both - both issues.  And what we argue and what our research has found in testing 1200 children with learning disabilities is that no child is too disabled to have their sight tested.

 

White

And presumably the doctors and the optometrists who do this have to be flexible too, they can’t just do what they normally do?

 

Hopkins

Absolutely and that’s why we’re asking NHS England to change the system because it’s the system that’s broken.  Appointments are too short, high street opticians are just not conducive in their environment to be suitable for people with learning disabilities.

 

White

What kind of eye conditions in particular are you saying that these children are risking through not having the tests?

 

Hopkins

In our work we found that half of the children that we tested had a problem with their vision, a third of them needed glasses.  We found - in some cases we’ve saved the sight of children because we’ve sent them to hospital to prevent them from avoidable sight loss.  So, we’re finding all sorts of different problems in these children would have otherwise not been picked up, had it not for our team.

 

White

Now you are critical of NHS England for the slowness of progress, what do you want them to do and why do you think they have been slow?

 

Hopkins

I hope that it’s not because they’re not ambitious for the lives of people with learning disabilities.  I hope that it’s not because they don’t think that people with learning disabilities have an equal right to sight.  But what we’re asking them to do is to make wide reforms in community eyecare for children and adults with learning disabilities and introduce adjusted eye tests in special schools as a first step.

 

White

And they’ve told us that they’re working with you and the Department of Health and Social Care to look at how it can improve access to eye tests for adults and children with learning disabilities.  And they say, looking at the steps that need to be taken, to provide a more consistent national service.  So, that does suggest that they accept that it is inconsistent.

 

Hopkins

We have seen more recent action from them now that we’re launching this largest global study of eyecare for people with learning disabilities.  But it’s not enough and it’s not moving fast enough.

 

White

Let me just finally go back to Alyson because Alyson I think now Ellie has been having tests in school.  What difference has that made?

 

Farrell

Gosh it’s really hard to convey how much difference it’s made.  So, now Ellie, rather than having a half day out of school in a place that she finds frightening and makes her anxious, she maybe has half hour out of her day in her school with a teacher with her, so somebody familiar with her, the people looking at her eyes are people she’s built up a relationship with now and if she’s having a bad five minutes they just hop on to the next child and come back to her later.  She’s had her eye tested in the classroom while she’s doing other activities, rather than disturb her.  So, it’s just immeasurable the difference that it’s made.

 

White

Alyson Farrell, Lisa Hopkins - thank you both very much indeed.

We’ve also been talking to the Scottish Government, they say that it’s working to implement the recommendations of a review.  These include funding to support optometrists carrying out eye examinations on children with learning disabilities.  And the Welsh government told us that it offers these children specialist units attached to mainstream, maintained special schools and independent schools.  We’ve also talked to the Health and Social Care Board and the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, they say they’re aware of the research and that they carry out many clinics in special schools, they also say they’re developing guidance to provide autism friendly environments in GPs and optometry practices.

And now to a possible solution to a perennial problem for blind parents - how to transfer your baby safely from A to B.  Resourceful mums and dads with a visual impairment have tried various techniques over the years, they’ve often told us about them.  Some tow a pram or a pushchair behind them, often with the aid of a guide dog, though not always.  And of course,there’s always the papoose method of having the baby on your back.  But the conventional solution of pushing your pram in front of you raises obvious problems. 

Well now a visually impaired awareness trainer has taken her own solution along to the engineering department at Imperial College London and invited them to work on it for her.  It’s a smart buggy, it uses a phone style camera to look ahead and send information to the hands of the pram pusher.  Well, the prototype has been on display at the weekend and Hetal Bapodra and her husband, Will, went to road test it for In Touch.

 

Bapodra

I am 32 and I have two small children - I have a five-year-old and a 21-month-old - a little boy and a little girl.  I have no sight, well no useful sight, I’ve got light and dark perception.  I am a confident cane and a guide dog user.  I’ve been pulling my buggy for the last five years - well that’s what it feels like - I think I might have had a couple of months break.  But I have a bad back, so I struggle to carry my children, so I’ve always had to rely on a buggy since they were tiny.

 

Actuality

Baby noises. Call your doggy!

 

Thoms

My name’s Will Thoms, father of two.  Looking forward to seeing the smart buggy actually, I’m a bit of a nerd and I like anything smart, to be honest, anything that’s pushing forward accessibility for things we do in life.  It’s good that people are looking to this sort of thing.

 

Bapodra

The baby in the buggy at the moment is our little girl Nakita, so she is the one that would benefit the most from a smart buggy.  So, at the moment we use a buggy called Bugaboo Chameleon which means that the handle can flip, so the small wheels that move are behind us and we can pull it, it’s easier to pull that way.  The options are very limited, it’s very difficult to pull a buggy that has the stationary wheels at the back.  This buggy was invented with Romana Williams, who came up with the idea and approached Imperial College students to bring it to life.

Okay, so I’m feeling two fabric tabs, I feel like there’s little round circles where your fingers would be.  Is that right?

 

Williams

Yeah.

 

Bapodra

Yeah, okay, and they’re vibrating, ooh, okay.

 

Williams

With the pushchair Hetal the vibrating motors you could feel with your thumbs are for the front, so if anything straight ahead of you.  And when your hand’s folded underneath the pushchair that’s for the left or right.  So, to pick up things on your left and right side.

 

Bapodra

And does it pick up things like steps and…

 

Williams

So, we’ve designed the app that you’ll be able to have on your phone that will use the camera to pick up steps and curves and the braille bumps, so you know where they are and it will feed it back to you.

 

Bapodra

So, is it something you’d have to buy a special smart buggy or could you put this on any - like you could buy a cute buggy and put it on any buggy?

 

Williams

You could - our aim is to be able to attach it to any buggy.

 

Bapodra

Okay.  So, the top ones are in front and the bottom ones are left to right, yeah?

 

Williams

Yeah.

 

Bapodra

Okay.  Is that right?

 

Williams

Yeah, then sometimes if I - so you notice that when you intensify to stop, so you might have to turn to the right.  It’s intensifying?

 

Bapodra

Yeah, yeah.

 

Williams

So, you know something’s right there, so you could stop.

 

Bapodra

Wow, so I feel like I’d have to do a lot of concentrating.

 

Thoms

It’s really interesting, it gives us four - when you’re using it - four of the fingers have got different kind of vibrations coming through from the four different sensors.  It feels quite organic and so it feels like you’re kind of feeling in front of you a little bit.  It’s clearly, very, very early stages.  It’s got potential.  They’ve used very inexpensive technology for this which is really promising because it means the final solution could be relatively cheap. 

 

Gryparis 

So, I’m George Gryparis, I’m a second-year student and I’m part of a 10 people group and we’re making this buggy.

 

Bapodra

And what kind of technology are you using to make this happen?

 

Gryparis

So, we’re using ultrasound sensors for the sides because they don’t have to be as accurate.  And we’re using a laser sensor, which is the same that they use in self-driving cars for the front, which is a laser.

 

Bapodra

What happens if this stuff gets wet?

 

Gryparis

We don’t really have water resistance in place but we think that it shouldn’t be hard to do.  It wasn’t in the scope of our project, because we only had six months, but it should be fairly doable to use some kind of material that would insulate it.

 

Bapodra

You’ve got all this expensive equipment on display on a buggy that you might be taking to the park, you might have to leave outside a weigh-in clinic, will there be ways of hiding it?  I’ve come back from a weighing clinic and someone’s stolen my baby bag that has nappies and dirty clothes in.  If I was relying on this and it got stolen that could be an issue couldn’t it?

 

Gryparis

One of our future plans would be to make this an attachment to the buggy, so you’d have a front attachment with all the sensors and a back attachment with all the motors and if that was lightweight and small enough you could even take it with you, would be one way of dealing with it.

 

White

George Gryparis, one of the students and before that we heard Hetal Bapodra and baby Niki putting the smart buggy through its paces.  Well we also heard Ramona Williams and it’s her brainchild and she joinS me now.

First of all, Ramona, how did you come up with this idea?

 

Williams

I used to always babysit and look after my nieces and nephews for my brothers and sister so I used to have to push the pushchair and I found it difficult because I used to fold my cane and put it on top of the handlebar, so people could still see that I’m visually impaired but I couldn’t control the buggy properly.

 

White

And what kind of reactions did you used to find you got?

 

Williams

Because I used to have my cane on top of the handlebar, so people used to see it, if I accidentally bumped into them they’d be like, okay, that’s fine or sometimes I’ll even have people help me to put the buggy on the bus safely and to make sure I get off the bus safely.

 

White

How did your idea of a smart buggy get from an idea to a prototype?

 

Williams

So, it took a few years because I used to think about who I can approach.  So, that was from I was 21 - because I’m 34 - so last year I approached Imperial College where I spoke to them at an innovation day project.

 

White

So, this is an idea which has been a long time in the making really for you?

 

Williams

Yes, that’s correct.

 

White

Now you run a consultancy which advises companies about making their services friendly towards blind people, why have you gone that route and why have you had to go it alone?

 

Williams

It’s because I used to always apply for jobs in charities, the charity sector or the mainstream sector and I always used to get job interviews that I will have to do 20-minute presentations and I will never get the job.  So, I thought is it because they’re scared of employing somebody that has a disability?  So, I decided in 2014, after my last job interview that I never got, I’m going to do something that I love.  So, for seven months I figured out what I can do, what I’m good at and then I came up with consultancy training for businesses and public-sector bodies and schools because I found that was a good way of doing awareness to let people in your community know that being blind or visually impaired doesn’t stop you from getting a job or being part of the community.

 

White

Now blind people are often hearing about bright ideas, they hear them on this programme, to help them, which never see the light of day.  How confident are you that this idea will actually make it on to the market?

 

Williams

I’m very confident because now the students have designed this prototype because it’s also going to be useful for myself, so I will need one for when I settle down too.  So, I’m going to be in talks with Imperial and look at how they can support me developing this further and I’m also going to be looking for different grants and different things out there, so we can do research so other visually impaired people could test it out and give feedback so it could eventually go to market.

 

White

So, what did you feel about Hetal and Will’s reactions?

 

Williams

I loved their reactions and it’s good to get everyone’s feedback because then you could redevelop something or add a component.  The more feedback we have the better.

 

White

Ramona Williams, thank you very much indeed.

And that’s almost it for today but last week we introduced an item in honour of long time In Touch producer Cheryl Gabriel.  Cheryl’s List - that’s what we called it, a collection of tips for blind people contributed by guests and you’ve already started to add to it as well, which is what we invited you to do.  Listener Alyson May got in touch to say: “Don’t forget the registered blind are eligible for the Disabled Blue Parking Badge.”  And that of course gives you parking concessions.  So, that’s just one thing.  We’d like to hear more of your ideas.  As always, we welcome your views on anything you’ve heard in today’s programme.  You can call our actionline on 0800 044 044 for 24 hours after the programme.  You can email intouch@bbc.co.uk and you can click on contact us on our website to get more information and download tonight’s and other editions of the programme.

From me, Peter White, producer Kevin Core and the team, goodbye.

 

 

 

 

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