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Civil Service

What is it like to have visual impairment?

A guide dog helps to provide confidence and support for their owner to live life to the full

What is it like to have visual impairment? In 2009, Simon Skerritt, a Ministry of Defence employee, feared a future of blindness when he suddenly lost sight in his left eye. Below Simon recounts his experiences.

I have had visual impairment for most of my life. However, when I lost my sight in my left eye, when water entered the back of my eye, my life totally changed. 

Whilst I awaited a replacement cornea. I was blind, and for the first time in my life I felt really frightened, alone, isolated, helpless and fearful for my future. How would I be able to work and have the career in the Civil Service I wanted to have? I desperately wanted my old life back.

Happy ending

Fortunately for me, there was a happy ending. I had a successful corneal transplant which over time, restored my sight. However, the experience never left me. I was lucky and I knew it.

I also knew there might be people working across the Civil Service every day, with visual impairment, who were not as lucky as me.

Give something back

Simon Skerritt, Chair of the Civil Service Visual Network

I wanted to help and give something back. I knew I could not cure people of their visual impairment, I really wish I could. But I wanted to do the next best thing. I wanted to form a community across the Civil Service, to support Civil Servants with visual impairment, so that no one with visual impairment would never again feel isolated with no one available to provide support. In 2017, the Civil Service Visual Network was formed.

 2.2million people live with sight loss

To provide some context, the Royal National Institute of the Blind, estimate there are almost 2 million people living with sight loss in the UK. Of these, around 360,000 people are registered as blind or partially sighted.

Many of these people will use some form of assisted technology to assist them to be able to work in the workplace.

Assisted technology isn't new

Assisted Technology dates back to 1808 when the first typewriter was built by Pelligrino Turri to help a blind friend write legibly. However in 1986, the first screen reader at IBM was created by Jim Thatcher to help visually impaired people use a computer. Today, there are at least 30 different screen readers in existence.

Today's screen readers are dependent on which one is used. Some offer text-to-speech synthesiser to read documents, help to see a web page, write a blog or an email. If you’d like to find out more on assisted technology, visit the Royal National Institute of the Blind at

4,800 working guide dogs are in the UK

Every person and dog is unique, so matching a guide dog to an owner is complex

Assistance to visually impaired staff is not just confined to technology. According to Guide Dogs for the Blind, there are there are currently 4,800 working guide dog partnerships in the UK.  

Every person and dog is unique, so matching a guide dog to an owner is a complex process. The trainers take into account a person’s needs, including their walking speed, height, and lifestyle. After six-seven years’ service, a guide dog is retired and rehomed. To find out more on guide dogs, visit

Civil Service Visual Network

Today, the Civil Service Visual Network has more than 200 members across 15 government departments, a mentoring programme to support career development and is a sub network of the Civil Service Disability Network. There are also a number of department visual networks also developing across the Civil Service.


The Civil Service Visual Network is championed by Ben Merrick, the Civil Service Deputy Disability Champion and Director of Overseas Territories at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Ben himself has visual impairment, knows the challenges that civil servants with visual impairment face, and is passionate about making the Civil Service as inclusive as possible for Civil Servants with visual impairment. 


The network is currently developing a visual impairment toolkit to be published in 2021, that aims to inform and support all our colleagues across the Civil Service to understand the challenges faced by our colleagues with visual impairment. The network is also raising visual impairment awareness across the Civil Service, by presenting to government departments.

If you’d like to find out more, interested in inviting the network to present in your department or wish to join the network, please email civilservicevisualnetwork@gmail.comOr you can follow the Civil Service Visual network on Twitter @CSVisualNetwork.

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  1. Comment by Uthpal Kishore Das posted on

    I am inspired.

  2. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Simon for sharing with us your experience. I am glad that your sight has been restored.

    I commend you for looking to use your experience in such a positive way to support others and to make certain that no one is feeling isolated. Especially at this challenging time for many of us.

    With respect to the Guide Dogs. I was recently informed that I had been sponsoring a puppy for over 5 years.

    Today in the post I received a card from them informing me that my latest sponsored puppy Eve has been partnered with her Owner.

    It is a great feeling to know that my small effort has resulted in a significant life changer for someone out there.