Centre closure leaves groups ‘high and dry’
People from the blind and visually impaired community say that they are being ‘left out in the cold’ after a Bedminster centre, which has been in use for over 25 years, closes its doors to the public.
The building, in Stillhouse Lane – a road running parallel to Bedminster Parade – is being refurbished into a regional centre for the Guide Dogs for Blind Association, who purchased the building from the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) last April.
It was originally purpose-built in the early 1990s for the Bristol Royal Society of the Blind (BRSB) but was transferred to the RNIB after the BRSB became part of the national charity in 2000.
Guide Dogs for the Blind will be taking full use of the building once refurbished, meaning that the centre will no longer be open to the public for community groups to meet.
The centre closed on May 24 and is expected to reopen next spring.
As reported in February’s issue of South Bristol Voice, a protest was staged by centre users over the loss of the building and its services.
Despite RNIB’s plans to secure a similar venue to Stillhouse Lane, an alternative has not been found.
The RNIB office is instead relocating to the Paintworks, in Bath Road, and after seeking clarification from the charity, it will only have meeting room space for RNIB-led meetings.
The braille class is the only group from the centre that will be accommodated at RNIB’s new premises in Arnos Vale.
Alternative spaces have been sought for other RNIB groups – the basketry group and the X2 social group will now be accommodated at Windmill Hill City Farm.
The charity says that it is working with the farm to explore “how to best support the groups in the long-term”.
However, at the time South Bristol Voice went to print, one group, which has been running information afternoons for people with visual impairment for the last 15 years, had still not found a home.
A user of the group said: “We have been left high and dry, with nowhere left to go, with little or no vision.
“This centre was perfect for us – people knew their way around here. It will be difficult for other places to accommodate us.
“I’ve known these people for years. Our meetings gave people with visual impairment a chance to meet one another. It’s a shame that this could all drift away.”
Another member said that the centre used to be a thriving place, but had “gone downhill” in recent years, which had driven people away from the centre.
They said: “Every day of the week, there would be activities going on throughout the day. There was a shop where you could buy essential kit. It was somewhere you could go for advice – now we have nowhere to go for that kind of help.”
Paul Sullivan, secretary of the pressure group Bristol and District Visually Impaired (VI) Voice, said that he has become “disenchanted” with the RNIB and is “disappointed” that an alternative community hub has not been secured.
He said: “Our sorrow is that this fantastic building is being turned into a kennel and that local visually impaired people are being left out in the cold. This is a great loss and we will be sad to see it go.”
Anela Naz, who is also part of the VI Voice group, said: “There’s a lot of fear, anger, worry and disappointment among the community.
“We don’t all have guide dogs so won’t be able to use the new centre. Everyone seems to be in limbo – nobody knows what is going on or where we’ll be, and nobody has been willing to talk to us to try and find a solution.”
Anela, who has been involved at the centre since it opened, said: “There are a lot of memories in this building – it will be a massive loss.”
In a statement released on the RNIB website, Stephen Weymouth, RNIB network manager for the South West, said that the Paintworks was “the most accessible premises” from a list of options, and although the move was not just for financial reasons, he said that it cost “less than half the cost of the alternative sites considered”.
He said: “Like all charities, RNIB has a limited budget and we have to make sure every penny we spend goes as far as possible.
“Our motivation for the move is not only financial. It is estimated that there are over 11,000 people with sight loss in the Bristol area who could benefit from the support and connections that RNIB offers.
“We have to think of new and creative ways to reach more people, so we can provide the information, advice and support they need to live the life they want to lead.”
He said that the charity “remains committed to working collaboratively with other local and national organisations”.
Annie Wilson, Guide Dogs for the Blind’s regional head of operations for the South West, said: “Guide Dogs and RNIB work closely together when we feel we can collaborate to achieve both of our missions.
“As separate charities, with individual missions and aims for supporting people who are blind and partially sighted across the UK, there are some areas we collaborate on, and some that we each specialise in.
“We are very excited to see the site development come to life, and once we re-open we will hold an open day to give the local community, supporters, volunteers, and our service users the opportunity to take a tour of, and learn more about how we will use the Regional Centre.”