Isn’t it funny how lyrics can set the mind running?!
According to Morrissey, undoubtedly one of the great poets of my generation, in First of the Gang to Die, “you have never been in love until you’ve seen the dawn rise behind the home for the blind”!
Two thoughts immediately sprang forth: (i) I guess I’ve never been in love; and (ii) the poor sods, having to live in a home for the blind!
My second thought stems from two weeks of torture during 1991 that I spent at the RNIB’s rehabilitation centre, Manor House, in Torquay; two weeks which has left me fearing any form of institutionalised living. This was one of those occasions when looking back the perceived wisdom that all blind people needed sending to the centre was not, in my case, appropriate. Other people that I later became friendly with told me that they had attended the centre and really enjoyed their time there. However, unlike me, these people were either partially sighted or used to having little or no sight, where as I had only just started losing mine and by the summer of 1991 I had hardly any sight left at all.
The centre was in a very big old mansion set in fairly spacious grounds, which I understood had been bequeathed to the RNIB. On arrival, after a eight hour train journey accompanied by my ex, I was told by one of the staff that I was not allowed to use a white stick and would have to learn my way around the building using touch alone. I was helped to my room and then told to find my own way back to the living room where everybody sat during the day when I was ready. I had been shown how to find the lounge, as well as the dining room, so at least I wouldn’t starve.
However, as soon as they left my cell/bedroom I realised I had forgotten everything they had told me, I was after all still living in the sighted world and was used to finding my way by sighted clues alone. After an age wandering around the rabbit warren like corridors, I eventually found the correct sequence of turns and doors and made my way, very scared, down to the living room. Upon entering at a snail’s pace, hands out in front of me, nobody offered a hand, or told me where was free to sit, or offered any assistance at all in fact. I banged my shin on a coffee table, tried to sit on someone’s knee and eventually found my way to a free seat. Nobody at all spoke to me.
The older Andy, the one who is used to the blind world, would have asked who was sitting near and introduced himself. Self conscious 21 year old Andy just sat there wondering what on earth he was doing there and how he would make it through his sentence.
My fellow in-mates, the ones who were not offering any help, were, as it turned out, totally different from the blind sporting community. In my experience, almost unanimously, blind sportsmen and women always offer help to those with worse sight than themselves. It was common practice whenever someone entered a room for a call to go up asking who was entering. If the person’s sight was so bad that they required assistance a hand banging on a chair was the preferred method of guiding them towards where they should sit, and if obstructions were present in the room an elbow would always be offered and the person would be guided towards a seat. I still to this day cannot decide if my fellow in-mates were just ignorant or were not aware of my difficulties. Everyone there had sight problems, so I would have expected them to have an understanding of what to do and what help others may need or the type of problems they might be facing. Maybe they thought I had been blind for ages and was thus used to it, or maybe they were used to others doing things for them all the time and not used to helping others; whatever the reasoning, nobody asked or seemed to care.
During the days at the centre we were split into groups and had to undertake many tasks. I had to use a closed circuit television, which was basically a television screen with a moving board underneath it upon which was placed the piece of paper that I was working from and a largely magnified image would appear on the screen. My sight was so bad that it could take me several seconds to identify a single letter, but they still insisted that I had to use it as I was being assessed on my ability to use it. Using this clearly inappropriate machinery, I had to do comprehension tests, using it both to read the text and questions, and to write my answers. A simple test that would have taken me 2 minutes to do with sighted assistance took me several hours. Talk about frustrating. I wanted to scream and my mood blackened.
I also had to do mathematical exercises which were even more frustrating as I had to do very long multiplication in my head as I couldn’t use the CCTV to do this. A whole day could be passed doing maths tests. If only they had read my CV and seen that I had a grade B at A’ level in maths. What a waste of time – I could have told them in two seconds that I couldn’t use the CCTV effectively. To make matters worse, they knew I was going to continue to lose my sight, so there was no way it could work for me in the long-term.
To add insult to injury, I also had to undertake manual dexterity tests to assess my suitability for assembly work. Screwing nuts onto bolts, hammering pegs into holes, arranging various items into order of size; I wondered which of my A’ levels had prepared me for these tasks? All I could think of was how I was going to spend the rest of my life on a production line making things.
We also had to see counsellors who would assess our state of mind. All they were really interested in was if we had considered suicide. I took this as a question, but looking back they may have been making a suggestion! The place for me really was that bad.
Evenings, and I mean every evening, were spent in the middle of Torquay at a pub getting absolutely hammered. This wasn’t just something that I wanted to do, it was what everybody did and had been doing long before I turned up there. It wasn’t the kind of drinking based on happiness either. One of my fellow inmates who was collected from the train station in the same van as me, was called P. He claimed that he used to be the drummer in the rock band Slade – his accent certainly matched his claim to fame. All he wanted was his sight back. He wasn’t bothered about learning how to use a computer or demonstrating his numerical capabilities, he just wanted to see. He drank more than anyone there, although I must admit I ran him close, such was my abject misery. He would drink in the region of 10 pints of beer and not move all night from his corner of the pub, not even to go to the toilet. This was the only time that any assistance was offered as one of the group had to guide me into the town to the pub and then guide me to the toilets, that was once my painful bladder won the battle over my shyness at asking for help. At this stage in my blindness I wasn’t that forward at asking for help, so I spent the majority of the evenings in quite a lot of discomfort with a bursting bladder. We would then return well after closing time to the centre in search of any leftovers from dinner. That was about the only time I enjoyed myself there as some of the chats then were quite entertaining and informative.
I had to share my cell/bedroom with two other inmates. One was in his sixties and was a Londoner. He thought his way was not only the right way to do everything but was in fact the only way to do something. He wasn’t very approachable and was a bit over bearing. Not surprising really considering how I had offended him. I woke one morning after a particularly heavy night at the pub to the usual greeting of “had a good night last night did you?” This was usual, but there was a bit more venom in his voice. I replied that I had. “I guessed as much” he replied, “judging by the way you pissed all over the side of my bed last night”. I was mortified. I had apparently drunk so much that I had gone sleep walking and obviously being a bit lost had relieved myself where I thought the toilet was. Needless to say I didn’t drink as much from that day on.
My other cell mate didn’t join us until a few days before I was allowed out on parole. He turned up late at night and went straight to bed. I introduced myself and he replied with “you’re not black are you”, to which I responded that I was not. “Good” he said, “I was beaten up by a gang of n*****s and that’s how I lost my sight.” That’s all I needed, sharing my room with a racist, and an angry one at that.
He told me that he was from Coventry. I asked if he was so late arriving due to his train being late. His reply was a good cure for tiredness – “No, I only got out of the psychiatric ward this afternoon.” I didn’t dare try to sleep that night until I could hear him snoring. A racist with a mental problem was not my idea of a good cell mate.
I left (at great speed) with a prescription for a six week return stint at the centre to undertake my rehabilitation – I politely declined their offer!
Oh, such happy memories!! I, for one, certainly do not mourn the closure of Manor House in 2004.