Oldham's Henshaws charity celebrates 175 years

An Oldham hatter made his fortune and founded an 'asylum for the blind.' Now, 175 years on it is transforming lives, as Amanda Griffiths discovers

Little Oscar O’Sullivan is just three years old. Playing under the watchful eye of his parents, he seems like any youngster, laughing and chatting away. However, Oscar was born with a rare genetic eye disorder which has left him blind.

This lad is the face of a new publicity campaign raising awareness and funds for Henshaws Society for the Blind, a charity founded by a philanthropic Oldham businessman 175 years ago.

Thomas Henshaw left a legacy of �20,000 when he died in 1810 – about �1.1 million today – to set up what was called, with typical Victorian bluntness, an ‘asylum for the blind.’

There was a stipulation that they should be taught skills to help them find employment. ‘He was quite a forward thinker for his time. Back then people with any disability were pushed away or kept in the background behind closed doors,’ says Debbie Cowley, of Henshaws.

‘We’re very proud that after 175 years Henshaw’s ethos continues - to teach blind and visually impaired people the skills and confidence to lead a full life.’

It nearly didn’t happen. Henshaw’s second wife appealed the will and, like the plot of a Dickens novel, it took 20 years to untangle the dispute. It was settled, with his original intentions fulfilled and his wished-for Blind ukAsylum opened in 1837 in a beautiful building in Trafford, just down the road from the charity’s current premises.

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Despite growing over the years – it helps 5,000 people in Manchester and Liverpool as well as Yorkshire and Newcastle – its philosophy is unchanged.

‘Henshaws support the whole family, not just the person with the disability,’ says Kait Hughes, Oscar’s mum. ‘We wouldn’t be here without them. We come to this group every week, just being here where you can talk things through with other people in the same situation helps. Without Henshaws I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go to a toddler group. Now he’s in nursery and starts school soon.’

Oscar, from Wythenshawe, has a condition called Leber’s congenital amaurosis. He does have some light perception, but the tests say he is blind. ‘It was horrible,’ adds Kait. ‘It was almost like dealing with a bereavement, we were grieving for the loss of his sight. It just shows you do everything right in pregnancy and this can still happen. It’s a genetic condition so we couldn’t have done anything about it but it still shook us.

‘But every single day he amazes us. I never expected him to crawl or walk. We had a power cut the other day and it was like he was king of the house, guiding us where to walk, reminding us not to trip over this or that. It’s the third we’ve had in a matter of weeks and he keeps asking us when the next one is!’

While children learn to be as independent as possible early on, Henshaws also helps adults who have lost their sight.

This can include something as simple as re-learning the route from home to the supermarket or using computer software. It is vital for getting them back in employment as well as providing a number of social groups where people talk through problems are share experiences.

Andrew Rose from Warrington was finishing university when he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that meant he would lose his sight, but doctors didn’t know when.

Early warning meant Andrew, an accountant, could build himself a solid career while seeing as much of the world as possible, from India and South East Asia to Mexico and Brazil.

‘It was on that trip to Brazil that my sight really began to deteriorate,’ he says. ‘When I left I was at the top of my game professionally. I came back two years later and was registered blind.

‘I found myself struggling to get help for a while. I joined Henshaws Skill Steps programme in September 2010. It was my mother who suggested I give them a ring. When I was first talking to them I didn’t really know how much benefit I was Lancashire’sgoing to get. I knew how to create a CV and could cook for myself but thought I had nothing to lose, came here and learned much more than I anticipated.

‘They have helped me improve my quality of life and bent over backwards to give me the help I needed. They introduced me to a whole range of visual aids and they give you the time to really explore them.

‘They taught me how to teach someone to lead a blind person properly. I could then show my father how to guide me rather than being frogmarched! The course has given me structure in my life and has built up my confidence.’

Karla Selby, from Manchester, suffers with congenital cataracts. She adds: ‘It’s a fantastic place. So many people take their eyesight for granted. I was like that until I came to Henshaws. It has changed my life.’

Help Henshaws to help

Henshaws, which needs �1.5 million a year to continuing helping people, will be celebrating its anniversary with a number of events including an Anniversary Ball at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel featuring a stage show from The Rat Pack Vegas Spectacular. Hosted by BBC’s Mark Edwardson and Becky Want, tickets cost �75 per head and include a champagne reception and three course dinner. Tickets are available from 0161 786 3693 or from Faye.wilson@henshaws.org.uk



The print version of this article appeared in the March 2012  issue of Lancashire Life  We can deliver a copy direct to your door – order online here

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