Andrea Begley: I try not to let my sight loss get too much in the way
Striving for independence is something that singer Andrea Begley is passionate about
A FEW months ago Co Tyrone singer and winner of The Voice UK Andrea Begley sat down at her dining table to eat a meal she'd just prepared of fish and frozen vegetables. As she tucked in, she thought 'this tastes weird' and set it aside; a quick Face-Time call to her parents revealed she'd used frozen fruit instead of veg.
The food mishap is just one example of the challenges the 32-year-old faces daily as a result of being visually impaired.
“Let's just say I've come up with some pretty innovative recipes over the years,” Andrea says.
Registered as Severely Sight Impaired, Andrea, a civil servant who divides her time between Belfast, where she lives, and her family home in Pomeroy, counts herself fortunate. She began losing her sight in early childhood after developing glaucoma. Her condition deteriorated during her teens to the point where she now has approximately 10 per cent of her vision remaining and is able to make out blurry outlines and bright colours.
But having grown up with visual impairment, she has learned to navigate obstacles, physical and metaphorical – or at least avoid them, where possible – and certainly hasn't allowed it to hold her back or prevent her from pursuing her dreams.
“I've always lived with it so I don't really know anything different,” says Andrea, who has a masters in Law and Governance from Queen's University Belfast. “It must be so much harder for people when they experience sight loss suddenly.
“I tend to keep myself very busy; not as a coping mechanism, because it's something I'm well used to now. But it's good to keep focused and not let it get too much in the way.”
Striving for independence while living with sight loss is something Andrea is passionate about and in the past year she has become chairwoman of the Northern Ireland network committee for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).
The committee seeks to empower people with sight loss and to help break down barriers in society; Andrea has just recently returned from a meeting in London, attended by regional chairs. The journey there and back wasn't without challenges itself but one of the topics discussed at the meeting was something Andrea is particularly interested in and which she feels is often regarded as frivolous and taken for granted by those with normal sight.
“Like most women, I want to be able to present the best version of myself and wearing make-up helps me to feel more confident,” she says. “There is this perception that just because we can't see it ourselves, it doesn't matter, but it does.
“At the meeting in London one of the chairs told how she'd made contact with make-up brands in her local shopping centre to ask them to take a masterclass on how to do our own make-up.
“From my own experience, I know that the women who work at make-up counters will do my make-up if I ask them, but it can be a very daunting experience approaching someone who's perfectly made-up. I don't feel confident enough, so when I'm going out or doing a gig, I'll ask my mum or my two younger sisters, Hannah or Lucy, to do it for me. But I'd love to be able to do it myself.”
When it comes to clothes shopping, her mum and sisters are always at hand to help Andrea pick outfits that suit. Food shopping isn't too much of a chore, as most shops provide assistance to customers with visual impairments. Travel and transport can be hazardous, so Andrea relies on her parents, when at home, or taxis, while in Belfast. Even with her cane, walking anywhere unfamiliar in the city is something she avoids.
“I try not to walk anywhere as much as possible, unless I'm with someone I really trust,” Andrea says. “There are very few places I'd go on my own. I've heard horror stories from visually impaired people who've had bad accidents just walking down the street.
“Even with a cane it can be difficult when you're up against things like cars parked up on pavements, street furniture and wing mirrors. Walking in dog mess can happen to anyone, but if you're partially sighted it's particularly disgusting, because you don't know you've done it.”
It's little things that can be frustrating to deal with, she explains, like dropping keys in the hallway while rushing out the front door, or mixing up whites and coloured clothing in the wash. But thanks to ongoing developments in technology, domestic and day-to-day life has been made less complicated.
In the RNIB's online and showroom stores, a host of gadgets and products are on sale including talking books, talking clocks and talking microwaves.
Andrea is a fan of technology and says it's made a huge difference to her life. She owns a talking microwave now, which has helped cut down the number of food mishaps, and swears by her Alexa.
“I use Alexa to set my heating thermostat, to tell me what the weather is like and to help me learn song lyrics,” she says. “I can't read lyric sheets so Alexa does it for me. It's so handy to have now about the house.”
She also couldn't be without her iPhone, with its built-in voice software that allows her to use her phone in much the same way fully sighted people can, to send texts and engage on social media.
“To be honest, I prefer products that are made for everyone, with our specific needs built in,” Andrea says. “It's back to the independence thing. I like the idea of being able to use the same thing as everyone else.
“There's also a brilliant app called Be My Eyes that allows blind or partially sighted people to call up sighted volunteers around the world for assistance. I've had people ask me how is it possible to interact on Facebook or Twitter but this software has made that accessible. Instagram is more challenging as it depends on how well something has been described in hashtags.”
Health privacy is another area Andrea would like to see changes made to. Not being able to read test results or even appointment dates on letters is frustrating and potentially embarrassing if having to hand over private details for someone else to read for you.
New formats were introduced in Britain in 2016 to allow visually impaired people to read letters relating to their health and the RNIB here is part of a steering group working to get a pilot scheme set up.
Keeping fit is also important to Andrea, who took up running for a while, with the help of a sighted guide.
“We had a short tether between us which meant we were running parallel to each other. The guide was able to warn me if there was an incline or decline coming. I found it really liberating in terms of the ground covered and definitely plan to get back to it.
"Going to a gym is much more challenging as the equipment isn't always accessible. I've nearly knocked someone off a cross-trainer a few times, not to mention putting up the speed on the treadmill and not being able to slow it down!”
Whatever the obstacles Andrea comes up against as a visually impaired person, she just gets on with her life and doesn't let them hinder her. Since winning TV talent show The Voice UK in 2013, she has gigged regularly and relies on her natural warmth to interact with audiences.
A sociable person, she prefers to stick to venues she's familiar with, where she knows the lie of the land. If she's dining out, her iPhone tells her in advance what to expect from the menu or friends or waiting staff help her out.
But she would like businesses to pay more heed to the needs of people living with sight loss – especially when it comes to trendy, dimly lit restaurants or bars.
"I understand some venues like romantic lighting but I can tell you, there's nothing romantic about banging into other tables when you're trying to navigate your way to yours,” she says.
“Subtle changes could make all the difference to making life that bit easier for someone with sight loss.”
:: Andrea Begley will be performing at the Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown on October 18. For future gigs, check out her Facebook page, Andrea Begley Music. For information on products available, go to shop.rnib.org.uk or call the free helpline 0303 123 9999.