Robert’s Story

I was born with cataracts in both eyes in the early 1940s; my father and three other relatives also were born with cataract. However it hasn’t held me back very much: I’m married and have two grown-up children (and they didn’t have cataract), and I’ve had a successful career in science and computing; I’m now retired.

I had cataract surgery at the age of 2 and a half. Of course it was much different in those days – a procedure called ‘needling’. The surgery gave me the sight I’ve had ever since: about 6/60 in both eyes. I have a greatly reduced field of view and a severe squint, so my two eyes can’t work together (but there’s no double vision – the seeing just switches from one eye to the other). I attended schools for the blind and used braille throughout school, but learnt to read print with a powerful hand magnifier in my teens, changed over to using this for all my work when I went to university, and have worked that way ever since. I’m not very keen on large print and in fact the only thing I routinely use it for is my notes when giving a talk. I’ve always enjoyed trying to find ways of making the most of the limited sight that I’ve got. I use a monocular for reading departure boards at airports and railway stations, and for looking at the moon and the stars.

In my teens I became very interested in amateur radio and electronics. I taught myself enough theory to pass the City & Guilds Amateur Radio Exam in order to get an amateur transmitting licence when just 16. I studied science at A Level and went on to get a degree in physics. However, while at university I got very interested in computers and programming, so my first job was as a systems programmer with a computer manufacturing firm – at first I was a member of a team which was programming operating systems, and later a member of a team programming language compilers.

I enjoyed that work very much, but eventually decided that I’d like to move into computer applications in science and engineering, and so got a job at a government research establishment. I did various things there, but eventually specialized in the study of options for future air traffic control systems. This involved building computer simulations of parts of these systems, and doing lots of simulation runs to collect statistics and make comparisons between the options. I became very successful in this field, and presented papers at international conferences in several European countries and in the USA.

So, given my partial sight, what things can I do and not do?

  • I can’t recognize people by looking at them (even when close to them) and can’t see facial expressions – I think this is because my brain had passed the stage of learning these skills by the time I had my eye surgery. For me, not being able to recognize people visually is the greatest single disadvantage of my eye condition.
  • I sometimes don’t see people or things because of my small field, and bump into them as a result.
  • Obviously I can’t drive, but don’t mind that too much. In fact it means that I walk more than most drivers, which keeps me fit, and which I enjoy very much.
  • My print reading is too slow for things like novels, but scientific materials are very concise (with equations, graphs, tables etc.) so I can manage these.
  • I was always in work between leaving university and retiring, and so could always provide for my family.
  • I can do simple DIY: some decorating, putting up shelves, etc. At a house where we used to live, I planted and looked after apple and plum trees (but can’t recognize weeds!). I used to build hobby electronics projects, but that has become much more difficult than it used to be because the components are so much smaller nowadays.
  • I can do the things with computers that fully-sighted people can do, but do use my own screen colours: white text on a black background instead of the usual black on white.
  • I cook some basic family meals, and even made marmalade this year!