In Perspective: The Gibraltar Society for the Visually Impaired

“Not all disabilities can be seen”

The Gibraltar Society for the Visually Impaired (GSVI) is one of Gibraltar’s oldest charities founded in 1930. The “needs of the visually impaired have changed through the years”, said Willa Vasquez, Chairperson of the society. “So, we’ve had as a charity adapted to the needs of the time. We keep changing as a charity; and we keep evolving. The only thing that remains the same is obviously that we are a support group for the visually impaired”.

When it was founded, the society largely focused their efforts on finding work for the blind (in fact it was called the Society for the Blind). Afterwards, it tried its hand at prevention, changing their name to the Society for the Prevention of Blindness. However, “this is something that we cannot do, or any society can do. We can prevent to a certain extent through asking people to have their eyes tested. But once your eyesight goes, unfortunately there’s not much that we can do as a society”. Yet, throughout the many decades of their existence they have always remained a support group, researching the latest visual aids on the market which also continuously changes “by leaps and bounds” as technology advances.

This inevitably comes at a great expense for the GSVI. Jane Punter, membership secretary of the society showcased an electronic magnifier they had acquired for £250. This was a special offer for a piece of visual technology coming at a cost of £700 to £800. Larger ones than what was shown to us come at over £1000. Further, there are other technologies available, such as pens with cameras inside of them costing over £2000. The GSVI can only do so much with individual donations and £500 yearly grant from the Government – thus, iPhones and iPads with magnifying utilities become their way around such enormous expenses for the society. Text-to-Speech (i.e. Siri) can also be a huge boon to members. Nevertheless, the society has always provided spectacles which may themselves cost £800 to £900.

As Jane explained, “a lot of people who are visually impaired haven’t been able to work and earn money or pensions like the rest of us”. In this light, the financial costs of the society become not only abundantly clear, but an absolute necessity.

In Gibraltar alone there are 190 patients registered as sight impaired, of which 29% suffer from macular degeneration; 17% from degenerative myopia; 16% from Glaucoma; 6% from diabetic eye disease; 6% from corneal disease; 5% from congenital diseases; 4% from cataract; and 17% categorised under ‘others’.

Jane clarified some of the causes and effects of these diseases to us. Macular degeneration “is generally an old person’s disease. It starts, generally, at 65-70 plus so people who develop this have usually sorted out having being able to use a mobile phone and one thing and other”.

Spectacles become of “limited use” because a person’s central vision simply goes. “You can’t read, write, or watch television very well. We keep the peripheral, so we can generally manage to look after ourselves, but of course, we lose a lot of things that we can do. Diabetic retinopathy also has similar symptoms”; however, the difference is that diabetes is “a disease that can be helped by people being more aware of what diabetes does to the body and in particular the eyes.