I started employing the services of a personal assistant about three years ago when I finally admitted to myself that organizing my life to a point that would enable me to function to a high standard required some help from a sighted person. Having been in boarding school for most of my life, and living in a university setting for some of it, I have had the privilege of living in an environment that was organized and equipped in such a way that I could function independently.
However, starting life after school as a freelance opera singer and a teacher of singing gradually drew me out of my comfort zone, as I had to travel around London a lot and organize my lessons and my wardrobe to be suitable for different occasions. I also became a full time user of social media to expand my client base, keep people informed of my musical/ life journey and generally to stay in touch with all the people I have encountered so far.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can’t use social media independently as a blind person, but I am a firm believer in surviving in a world where visual content is vital in getting a message across or keeping people interested. This is where my PA comes in handy in helping me select the right images for any articles I write or for my posts on Facebook or Twitter.
My PA is also vital in helping me carry out tasks to a high standard. For example, if I need to prepare flyers advertising my concerts etc, we work together as a team, with me describing to her what I would like the flyer to look like, and she sourcing the materials to help me get my desired result. As I never fail to remind people: “I may be blind, but I do have a vision.”
I first of all heard about Independent Living Alternatives when I sang at the Liberty Festival and was assigned a PA to work with me for the day. We instantly clicked, not just as PA and PA user, but as friends, for the simple reason that she understood my situation when my curling tongs stopped working and I called her in panic mode, asking her to bring one along to help me get my hair looking nice for the event. She had already left home when I called to ask for her help with this, and she dashed back to bring me the tongs, and I got my desired hairdo for the event.
OK, this might sound completely trivial, but who doesn’t want to look their best when on stage? A sighted person has the ability to check their appearance in the mirror before they walk out of the house on a normal day, and on a special day, that check is even more thoroughly done.
In my case, on a daily basis, I could pull off a good enough look, but on a day that I’m to appear in front of a huge crowd because it’s a special occasion, I need my PA’s reassuring presence to see that everything goes just right. This frees my mind from worrying about my appearance, to focusing on the technical details of the performance I’m about to give.
OK… back to the point I was trying to make. I got on so well with the PA that was assigned to me that I instantly decided to employ her. She told me about Independent Living Alternatives and when I rang to thank them for recommending her, I asked the lady how she knew that I would get on very well with this particular PA.
She said: “I didn’t know you, but I had a look at your website and saw that you paid particular attention to detail with everything to do with your music and your appearance, so I thought she would be right for you”.
My first PA and I had a great working relationship that lasted a whole year, till I had to say goodbye to her because she got a full time job.
This was when I first experienced the Independent Living Alternatives matching process. I then approached them to find me another PA. I sent them a detailed job specification and answered their personality questionnaire. With this information, they sent me a few prospective PAs with personal attributes and educational qualifications which matched my requirements.
When I read through my current PA’s personal attributes, I knew we would work well together and I haven’t looked back since. In order for a PA to work well for you, the person needs to have a huge amount of empathy with your situation and a good understanding of what sort of help you need.
Emily helps me with tasks that require vision to complete: Reading my mail, filing print documents, sourcing sheet music, choosing images for articles, flyers and my social media, organizing my wardrobe for easy access, helping me with my food/grocery shopping and labelling of tinned food, accompanying me to events or to the theatre or cinema for shows that are not audio described, going to inaccessible shopping malls, helping me shop online by describing items on the display to me, and the list goes on, since each working day brings about new challenges.
She’s very intelligent but unassuming and I never know what she has up her sleeve until she reveals them. She is perfect in the sense that she keeps a professional distance but not so distant that I find her unapproachable. She is very intuitive and knows the difference between when I need encouraging to complete a very difficult task, and when I need her to intervene.
Being in control is vital to everyone, but it is more so to anyone who lives with a disability that makes them somewhat vulnerable. If you are visually impaired or blind, you are that little bit more vulnerable, as most people with other disabilities can still rely on their sight to fully assess any situation they’re in, whereas all you have to rely on is the tone of the voice speaking to you and what you’re being told. In order for a blind person to trust someone, the person has to give a bit more of themselves so the blind person is sure that they have their best interests at heart. My PA is highly aware of this so she is very good at expressing herself fully and in the most sincere form, that reassures me that I am being made fully aware of what is happening around me.
She only helps me with tasks that I ask her to… In time, she has come to know more about me, and my interests so much so that when we’re out and about, she instinctively draws my attention to things that I would have noticed had I been sighted. This I find invaluable as she practically acts as my eyes. We have a mutual amount of respect for each other and I have come to see her as a friend.
In order for a PA and a PA user to work effectively, there has to be a mutual sense of trust. I have to trust that my PA has my best interest at heart in order to trust her judgement. She has to trust that I am in control and capable of making the right decisions for me, and in cases where she is supplying me with information, that I am able to make decisions based on the information I am given.
I also believe that as a PA user, you are responsible for the wellbeing of your PA when she is with you so the caring element should be mutual.
PAs are very useful in helping people living with a disability lead a life without limits. To some disabled people, having a PA makes a difference between their being able to eat, wash, use the bathroom or carry out normal daily activities that many of us take for granted. The government cuts have resulted in the Independent Living Fund, which pays for such services, to be closed. This will result in many disabled people becoming prisoners in their own homes, or even worse, the death of many disabled people due to neglect, and depression.
I urge everyone to look up organizations like the Independent Living Alternatives (www.ila.org.uk) to have a full understanding of how vital their role is to humanity, and ask yourselves if the government have the right to deprive more than a fifth of the whole British population of their right to live a life without limits?
To find out more about the Independent Living Fund and to participate in the fight to save the ILF, please visit the following links: