Sightsavers, 60 years of helping the blind to see
PUBLISHED: 01:15 31 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:59 20 February 2013
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Sightsavers, a charity that literally helps the blind to see. It has been based in Haywards Heath for the past 40 years. Sussex Life spoke to Lady Wilson, widow of its founder Sir John Wilson, to find out more.
Why did Sir John established the charity?
There were two main reasons really. The one underlying one was his own attitude to blindness. He was blinded in a chemistry accident at school when he was 12. But yet at the age of 18 he was up at Oxford reading law, rowing for his college, president of the poetry society, a very good dancer and really enjoying life. He always said that his own blindness was nothing more than a confounded nuisance a nuisance, but nothing more.
Then the immediate reason why he started the society was that he was asked by the colonial office to go on a 9-month tour of east, west and central Africa, Cyprus, Aden and Palestine. He came back so appalled by the attitude towards blindness that he discovered everywhere. Blind people were considered a disgrace and a shame to their families, to their villages and to their communities. He came back so angry about that, he was determined to do something. So he got onto the colonial office and the National Institute for the Blind to ask would they support the beginning of a new charity to do something for people in the colonial territories. They said they would and would provide a small amount of money. So in 1949 we looked for an office and we found a small place in a building in 53 Victoria Street, London. We scrubbed the floors, put in three chairs, a table and a telephone and we opened the doors and were in business on January 5th 1950 The British Empire Society for the Blind.
Johns aspiration was that one day the charity would be powerful enough to really be heard worldwide, big enough to span continents, but yet simple enough that it would reach into an African village and do something helpful there.
On the 13th January we had our first council meeting, and Lord Halifax, who had been our foreign secretary became our president; Sir Bernard Riley who had been Governor in Aden became our chairman; and our vice-chairmen were Helen Keller and the secretary of the colonial office and so we were in business.
Were there any other charities similar to Sightsavers at the time?
Well in those days organisations for blindness only dealt with services for blind people. But John felt it should start at the other end with prevention because he had seen so much of what he had thought would be preventable blindness in the colonies.
But to do that effectively you needed to understand the causes. And so we started surveys in East, West and Central Africa. The results of that were onchocerciasis which was also known as river blindness in west Africa, and everywhere trachoma and cataract and what was then called nutritional blindness. It seemed that 80 percent was preventable.
Tell me more about the discovery of river blindness...
We heard of a place north of Ghana, being called the country of the blind. We were determined to go and see what this country was. So we travelled up through the cocoa plantations and we came to places where there had been such heavy rain that the grass was higher than our car.
If you know Africa you know that African villages always have so much bustle and lots going on, but these villages as we approached them were as dead as could be so silent and sinister. We saw one or two men holding poles and leading blind children and hemp ropes leading the way to the wells for blind women.
We stayed in a mud hut for a few days. As we got to know the people they could understand that my husband was blind but they couldnt comprehend that I was in my twenties and I could still see because the natural thing there was that you started going blind from the age of twelve. They knew it was something to do with the river, where there were fast flowing streams and clouds of black flies, and it was these flies which were causing river blindness, or as it known onchocerciasis or river blindness. We came back determined to do something about it and our honoury treasurer, Sir Lancelot Spicer, said we can hardly pay the rent as it is but if we are going to go bankrupt it will be for a good cause.
We worked out that it was going to cost us 40,000 to send out two eye doctors. We sent Dr Freddie Rodger who was an ophthalmologist and had worked in Burma in the war and Dr Geoffrey Crisp who had been in Malaya. We called it the eyes and flies campaign so they went and studied the eyes and the flies and they came up with the answer. But of course the struggle against river blindness is still going on today and Sightsavers has done so much. The exciting thing is that though we still dont have a cure for river blindness we can now treat it and arrest it with Mectizan. I think it is a wonderful thing that the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co will continue to donate it for as long as it is needed. But of course the drug has to be distributed and the society has done so much to ensure the drug is distributed. I think it is really exciting that by this year Sightsavers will have carried out 150 million treatments for river blindness.
What do you believe are the biggest developments that Sir John witnessed during his lifetime?
Well I would say two things. One was the change in the attitudes towards blindness. We wanted the children to be educated but we couldnt understand why the parents werent interested they couldnt believe that it was worth sending blind children to school. So we thought we must do something about it, so John came up on the idea to climb Kilimanjaro. So in 1969 seven blind men from Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania climbed Mount Kilimanjaro led by Jeffery Salisbury. Now of course everyone climbs Kilimanjaro but then it was unusual. We paid for it because I got lots of schools in England to sponsor it. I sent the schools maps of the route in advance and rang them each day to say how far the men had got. They did get to the top and I had employed a photographer to film it but unfortunately he got altitude sickness and couldnt get to the top! So Geoffrey Salisbury took them instead. The Queen sent a telegram of congratulations, a Fokker friendship plane dipped its wings in salute and an African newspaper said these blind men by their skill and courage have opened the eyes of Africa. But more importantly, parents of blind children began to think if a blind man can get to the top of that mountain it might be worth sending my child to school after all. We used open education because we simply couldnt afford to provide special schools which were the norm then in England and America.
So we started what was called open education which meant children going to ordinary schools with a specialist teacher going around on a bicycle teaching the children Braille and helping the ordinary teachers.
Then the second of course was prevention. Over the last six decades Sightsavers has treated over 206.8 million people for blinding and potentially blinding conditions, and more than 7.1 million operations have been carried out to restore sight.
What challenges did Sir John face in his life as a blind man?
He had such a zest for life. He was never fazed in all our travelling with jet lag, all the endless waiting at various airports, difficult climates and so on.
I think what did irritate him was bureaucratic humbug, lack of imagination and lack of commitment that he always found difficult in people but usually he always had a way round of convincing them in the end.
How do you think Sir John would regard the charitys progress today?
All the time we were working there was an inexorable rise in the number of blind people worldwide but just recently that number has decreased and he would have beenly absolute thrilled beyond measure with that.
And of course Sightsavers has played a notable part in that decrease.
I think he would see the charity as set fair to continue that decrease, to continue to enabling blind people to fulfill their complete potential and to continue working with the organisations concerned with the same problems. Theres still a great deal to do and he always said you need to run to stand still. I think also if he looked back he would be appreciative of the incredible number of people in so many countries who have given their money, time, skills to bring the charity to where it is today.
Her Majesty the Queen opened the charitys new headquarters in Haywards Heath in 1971. Why did the charity move to Haywards Heath?
We moved to Haywards Heath from our London offices because there was no longer the need to be near the colonial office. Our council said we could move somewhere within a 50 mile radius of London. Our accountant found a building on Heath Road in Haywards Heath. It was a block of four flats so it was fairly easy to turn it into offices.
The Queen opened it in 1971 as Commonwealth House. It had a large car park which meant we could have volunteers. We had so many volunteers help us. We had one room where different people came in each day throughout the week which was organised by a remarkable woman called Miss Walton.
They were all women and they helped us so much. Just think that in 1970 we paid 25,000 for the building and yet that room raised 50,000 every year.
SIX DECADES IN FIGURES
n 206.8 million treatments supported
n150 million treatments for
n7.1 million operations to restore sight
nNearly 5 million cataract
nOver 77,000 trichiasis operations have been undertaken
nMore than 4.4 million people have received refractive error treatment
nAlmost 0.5 million primary eye care workers have been trained
nOver 91,000 people have received rehabilitation training
60 YEARS OF ACHIEVEMENT
Groundbreaking survey in Africa reveals to the world that a large percentage of blindness is preventable
The first eye clinics are set up in Kaduna and Katsina in Nigeria
The first mobile eye units are launched in Kenya and Uganda
High volume cataract surgery is launched in India through village
Pioneered open education programmes for irreversibly blind children
A driving force in establishing the World Health Organisations Prevention of Blindness programme and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness
Highlighted the alarming number of blind children in Asia, and collaborated with WHO & UNICEF to support the distribution of vitamin A tablets to prevent childhood blindness
Launched a revolutionary Braille production unit in Africa using computer technology to transcribe texts, thereby increasing the availability of Braille texts in East Africa
Introduced in-country training programmes for all levels of eye-care personnel, education and rehabilitation workers
Piloted a control programme in The Gambia for the NTD trachoma
Revolutionised the affordability of cataract surgery in the developing world with the establishment of a unit in India to produce high quality, low cost intraocular lenses and sutures
Performed its three millionth cataract operation
Continued to lead in the promotion of collaborative efforts to combat blindness through VISION 2020, the international consortium which aims to eradicate avoidable blindness by 2020
Sightsavers has a number of charity ambassadors including actresses Joanna Lumley and Debra Winger and former England footballer Graeme Le Saux,
Joanna said: I love Sightsavers as a charity because it does exactly what it says on the tin: it saves sight. And not only sight but communities, for the blind child who will grow into a blind dependent can, for a tiny amount of money, be transformed into a sighted child who might become a teacher, doctor or lawyer. Thats the hard-nosed bit; the soft-nosed bit is watching a five-year old boy see his mother's face for the first time, gasping at colour, understanding what vision is. Sightsavers have my unswerving support; its very hard to think of a better way of spending 20 than giving sight to a perfect stranger.
FIND OUT MORE
Sir John remained director of the charity until 1983 when he retired but he remained involved until his death in 1999. He and Lady Wilson were married for 55 years.
How you can help
If you would like to find out more or donate then visit the charitys website www.sightsavers.org or call 01444 446710.