'Being a blind counsellor helps me to suspend judgement.'
Lancashire man Martin Rigby is registered blind after experiencing vision problems since birth. However, he has not let it stand in his way and lives a full and varied life and works as a counsellor. He tells AASMA DAY his story.
Being blind is definitely not a barrier for Martin Rigby when it comes to being a counsellor.
In fact, if anything, he actually finds it helps him in some ways.
Martin, 40, who lives in Penwortham, near Preston, explains: “In terms of counselling, I think being blind actually helps me to suspend judgement.
“Being a counsellor, I work in a non judgemental way but being blind helps me further in not judging by what I see.
“It also means I can use my other senses and really home in on someone’s voice, how they are telling their story and I can pick up on their breathing.
“When people come in to see me for counselling, they are often very vulnerable and it can help them feel comfortable, safe and secure because they perceive I am vulnerable as well because of my sight loss.”
Martin grew up in Preston and has had problems with his vision since birth. He has a number of eye conditions including glaucoma, nystagmus and aniridia.
He was partially sighted until the around the age of 16. He had limited vision before this but could read normal print with the help of special reading aids.
However, his vision carried on deteriorating and Martin could no longer read print and moved on to electric typewriters and then computers with specialist software.
Since then, Martin has suffered detached retinas in both eyes and his left eye detached while he was doing his A-levels.
Martin, who runs his counselling at two practice locations - Howick House in Penwortham and Patrick House in Leigh, near Wigan, recalls: “ I attended special schools for the visually impaired and went to Derby School in Fulwood and then a school in Liverpool and I then boarded at Worcester.
“My vision deteriorated gradually over a number of years. It was quite a difficult adjustment at times.
“I went from being mobile and independent and using a symbol cane so people could see I was partially sighted to using a long guide cane which is what I use today.
“I am now registered blind and have no sight in my right eye and have a small amount of useful vision in my left eye.
“I am now unable to read print and did not learn Braille.
“I do all my work on a computer, have a laptop with a screen reader and use a lot of daily living aids to live independently.”
After leaving school and having studied English, French, German and Latin for his A-levels, Martin went to university in Swansea.
Martin admits this was a huge adjustment. He explains: “Socially, it was a big change for me. Suddenly, from being friends with other partially sighted people, I was with people from all walks of life.
“In some ways, I felt I fitted in because there was a lot of diversity at university.
“But in another sense, there was so much going on, you could feel isolated or left behind at times.
“Socialising can be more of an issue too when you are registered blind.”
After completing his degree in French and German and achieving a 2:1, Martin went on to do teacher training.
He confesses he found things very difficult and had his first experience of counselling when he sought support in dealing with it all.
Martin recalls: “I started teacher training, but I found it very difficult and did not feel I received the understanding and support I needed.
“It was a very difficult year and I got very run down coping with it all.
“I went to see a counsellor through the university. I was just exhausted, overwhelmed and finding it difficult to cope.
“Talking to a counsellor who understood what I was going through really helped.
“They did not judge me in any way or persuade me to leave the course.
“Counselling allowed me to talk and explain how I was feeling.
“Because I felt under stress, it was good to be listened to. It helped me think about what was the best option for me.”
Martin decided he did not want to go into teaching and returned to Preston and began doing a lot of voluntary work.
As well as volunteering for the Samaritans, his voluntary work included working at a summer playscheme for children with learning disabilities.
Martin says: “With the Samaritans, I found it very rewarding helping people in crisis and I met a lot of good people through volunteering with them.
“With my own experience with sight loss, I found it interesting and worthwhile volunteering and helping children with learning disabilities.”
It was at a careers centre where someone first suggested the notion of becoming a counsellor to Martin and he studied a graduate diploma in professional counselling at the University of Central Lancashire.
Martin also carried out voluntary counselling placements at children’s centres, Victim Support and at charities supporting visually impaired people.
He then began working for NHS Direct before moving on to a young person’s helpline for Lancashire County Council called Interactive Services.
Martin says: “This gave me experience of working online providing information, advice and emotional support to young people via telephone, text, e-mail and webchat.
“I also worked for a young person’s counselling service.”
Martin decided to study a Masters in counselling and psychotherapy at the University of Central Lancashire in 2009 which he finished last year.
For his dissertation, he researched the experiences of visually impaired counsellors and psychotherapists in training.
Martin is using his research findings by offering workshops to the public, organisations and professionals with the aim of raising awareness about his personal and professional experiences of living with sight loss.
Martin left his position at the helpline and decided he wanted to set up on his own as a counsellor.
He is a registered counsellor with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy and became self employed in 2015.
Martin works at his Penwortham location Monday to Wednesday from 9am to 9pm and at Leigh on a Thursday from 9am to 9pm and Friday 9am to 5pm.
Martin says: “My main counselling approach is person-centred and I work with a wide range of issues including anxiety, bereavement, depression, relationship issues, eating disorders and self harm.
“I also specialise in counselling disabled people or people with a long term health condition, carers, students and parents with young families.”
As well as face-to-face counselling, Martin offers telephone and online counselling and counselling via Skype, Facetime and Whatsapp.
He explains: “I want to make counselling accessible to as many people as possible.
“There can be many reasons why people are unable to attend face-to-face counselling sessions such as being housebound or having mobility issues.
“Or it can even be because they have a busy lifestyle.
“To make my counselling service accessible to all, I work in two locations and offer flexible daytime and evening appointments as well as a range of concessions on my fees for disabled people, students, pensioners and people on a low income.
“The motto on my logo is: ‘Opening the door to accessible, confidential and person-centred counselling.’”
As well as his professional achievements, Martin has many leisure pursuits he has followed and has not let being blind hinder him.
Martin enjoys sports and used to play cricket for visually impaired people at school as well as playing a lot of Goalball, a team sport designed specifically for blind athletes.
At the age of 20, Martin was selected to represent Great Britain at Goalball for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta.
However, he was unable to go as he ended up suffering a detached retina and had to go into hospital for surgery.
About three years ago, Martin and his partner Amanda went on a trip around the world for six weeks and visited London, Singapore Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.
Martin says: “It was an amazing experience and one I’ll never forget.
“I climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge after arranging it beforehand and explaining I was blind.
“They arranged for someone to assist me one-to-one and it took several hours but I did it.
“The woman who came with me explained the view and it was a wonderful achievement.”
At home, Martin uses a number of daily living aids.
These include his penfriend audio labeller. Martin explains: “This is a device I use practically every day.
“It means I can label things myself, find them when I need them and know what the item is.
“I use the Penfriend to label meals I put in the freezer, books, CDs and DVDs as well as letters, bank statements and certificates.”
When using his laptop, as he is totally blind and unable to see anything on a screen, Martin uses a screen reader called JAWS.
This allows him to access everything on a computer like a sighted person but also gives audio feedback and announces characters as he types, reads back what is on the screen and allows him to navigate documents, the Internet and social media sites.
Martin says: “The great thing about JAWS is you can set it to your user preferences. You can have a high-pitched male voice or a husky female voice!
“You can set it to read it all, some or no punctuation in a document.
“You can also change the speed of the speech and because I am so used to it now, I can probably read through things at about 250 words a minute.”
Martin also uses a talking colour detector to help him choose clothes. He explains: “Although I normally go for the same kinds of clothes and colours, this brilliant aid enables me to choose what I want to wear and be confident I will be colour co-ordinated.
“It picks all different colours and even shades of colours and announces them when you hold the device against the fabric.
“It means I can avoid any embarrassing situations such as going to an interview with one dark sock and one stripy sock!”
Martin wants to use his own experiences in life to help him in his role as a counsellor.
He says: “I have had to adapt, find ways to cope with different life situations and overcome various barriers.
“I am passionate about difference and diversity and about giving minority groups a voice to share their experiences.
“My hopes for the future include building up my private counselling practice and making counselling more accessible for people.”
• For more information about Martin and his counselling approach, visit: www.counselling-directory.org.uk/martin-rigby