Ray Hazan: We need to see our way to supporting ex-Servicemen

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The Independent Online

Sight loss can be devastating. When someone loses their sight they face a long, challenging journey of rehabilitation. Emotionally, they may feel isolated and frustrated by their situation. In practical terms, they will need to re-learn many of the everyday tasks they once took for granted. Today, on World Sight Day, I'd like to urge people to think about how we can best support ex-Service men and women who lose their sight, whether in combat or later life.

I know first hand about the challenging path to rehabilitation, because my story starts in 1973, when an IRA parcel bomb exploded while I was holding it. I was serving with the Royal Anglian Regiment in Northern Ireland when the blast took my sight, most of my hearing and my right hand, also killing my fellow Officer.

At St Dunstan's we provide lifelong support to blind ex-Service men and women, helping them to regain their confidence and independence after the onset of visual impairment. Every day, they prove that blindness is no obstacle to an independent, fulfilling life. But rehabilitation after a traumatic experience in Service, or in later life can be a lengthy and difficult process, and the need for a holistic approach that combines the emotional, practical and financial is crucial. Our goal at St Dunstan's is to fund and provide specialist practical assistance and emotional support tailored to each individual’s unique needs and abilities.

We recently carried out some research with our St Dunstaners (our beneficiaries) to better understand what type of support can be most beneficial in helping them to rediscover an independent life. We asked our beneficiaries which element of the assistance we provide – emotional, practical and financial – was most important to them. Half of the blind ex-Service personnel (49 per cent) ranked practical support as most important, followed closely by emotional support, with 36 per cent stating that this type of assistance was most important. Only 15 per cent of the St Dunstaners stated that they thought financial help was the most essential element of the charity's support.

This led me to reflect on my own experiences and the support which has enabled me to achieve what I have today. My thoughts are that the recent debate surrounding the financial support of UK veterans, while important, should also call for a focus on a holistic approach to care within the ex-Service Community – one which embraces the financial, emotional and practical.

After the blast, my world came to a grinding halt; the sense of loss was like a bereavement. The thought that I would never read, kick a football, or see my children (my wife was 4 months pregnant when it happened) was an extreme blow and I felt almost paralysed with shock.

My first realisation that I hadn’t lost everything came around three weeks after the explosion. I was visited by a member of the St Dunstan’s team, who gave me a tactile watch and taught me to tell the time through touch. It was this practical support which for the first time made me realise I could regain independence – it was something to live for. From then on, St Dunstan's introduced me to other tools and techniques to help me to cope with my blindness. I attended an induction week at the St Dunstan's centre in Ovingdean where specialist staff called ROVIs assessed my individual needs and devised a tailored intensive training programme. The practical techniques I learned have stayed with me ever since, enabling me to live independently, in a way I never believed would be possible. Through St Dunstan's, I quickly learned the skills and confidence I needed to enable me to fulfil my goal to return to work and support my familiy. I was taught to touch type and also learned independent living skills such as working in a kitchen and how to navigate safely.

Alongside the practical help I received, the emotional support provided through regular welfare visits and the support network available to me and my family, was what really gave me the boost I needed and the will to carry on. I still remember my first day at St Dunstan's, around six weeks after the blast. I heard the chatter and laughter of other St Dunstaners and thought "perhaps blindness isn't that bad". The positive attitude of those I met was catching. Being part of St Dunstan's was like being part of one big family. It made me realise that I wasn't the only one in the world facing the same issue. My perspective completely changed – from there on I made the decision to treat my rehabilitation like an adventure. Each day I learned one new thing – a skill or technique to get through the day.

My son was born a few months later and I had no opportunity to get down or introspective. I had to be a father to my son and this was another challenge to keep me going. The thought of getting back to work was hugely motivating for me. I wanted to be able to provide for my family. The inspiration that St Dunstan's gave me has never left, and it is now with an enormous amount of pride and pleasure that I can say that I am President of the organisation. It was the unique combination of emotional, financial and practical support that has enabled me to lead a fulfilling and independent life, and I know that the organization continues to do the same for our St Dunstaners.

Today is World Sight Day, and to mark the day, I would encourage people to think about the men and women who have served their country, and who have since lost their sight either in combat or in later years. All of these men and women have faced enormous challenges in their rehabilitation to independence. I would like to encourage you all to support the work that we do at St Dunstan's, to help us give more visually impaired ex-Service men and women a second chance at life.

Ray Hazan is President of St Dunstan’s. He was blinded and seriously wounded in 1973 by an IRA parcel bomb.

You can help St Dunstan’s to help more blind ex-Service men and women by logging on to www.st-dunstans.org.uk or calling 0300 111 2233.