Determined Steve fought back from his loss of sight

Steve Cross and below, with wife Jill and guide dog Nemo
Steve Cross and below, with wife Jill and guide dog Nemo

Steve Cross should have been looking forward to hitting the open road when he was learning to drive at the age of 17.

He was working as a tailor cutter in the textile industry in Chorley, making jackets for designer firm Burberry, and should have had the world at his feet.

Big Interview.'Steve Cross with wife Jill and guide dog Nemo

Big Interview.'Steve Cross with wife Jill and guide dog Nemo

But instead, he was given shattering news which would affect the rest of his life.

Steve, of Harestone Avenue, Chorley, said: “I had a few issues with my eyesight. I wasn’t blind and I thought my eyes were okay.

“They discovered I had retinitis pigmentosa.

“I was 17 and came out of the eye clinic after being told I would go blind at some time in my life. It was devastating.”

Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a genetic condition which causes gradual but progressive sight loss and can lead to blindness.

For Steve, RP was part of Usher syndrome – a condition affecting hearing, vision and balance – and he had been hard of hearing since the age of six.

Despite having no idea when RP would develop, Steve could not forget about it.

He said: “I was constantly worried about it.

“I had to live with it and knew it might happen, but I didn’t know when.

“It was constantly on my mind for 20 years.”

Steve tried to get on with life as best as he could, marrying Jill and having a son, Martin, now aged 15.

He also continued working in the textile industry until the disease finally struck nine years ago.

Steve, now aged 45, said: “When I was 36, my eyesight rapidly deteriorated. I was worried about losing my job and didn’t want to tell anyone. I was absolutely devastated.”

Jill phoned charity Action For Blind People to seek help and advice.

They carried out a risk assessment of his workplace, as he used motorised equipment, and Steve had to give up his job.

He said: “At the time it was painful, but they did it for the right reasons. Anything could have happened.

“Where I was working was a very dangerous place.

“I had a few near misses with cars and other things.

“I wasn’t using a white cane. I was in denial.”

The next day, Steve went to the job centre and the charity supported him in claiming benefits.

But he found it increasingly difficult to deal with the lack of sight.

He said: “I had to come to terms with the fact I had lost my job and that I was losing my sight.

“For about a year it was very difficult.

“My wife was working at Tesco at night and we had a son who was starting school. I just looked after my son and supported my wife to work.”

Steve was determined not to give up and tried to find another job, but to no avail.

He said: “I tried to get other jobs, but it was always a health and safety issue when I mentioned my eyesight.

“I started with consultancy jobs and ended up stacking shelves and I couldn’t even get a job stacking shelves.

“I felt rejected and excluded from the employment market.

“I had never claimed any benefits in my life.

“I had a couple of near misses on the roads taking my son to school. My self-esteem and my confidence were totally destroyed.”

Eventually, Jill turned to Action For Blind People again and Steve went to visit them in Preston.

“They recognised I wasn’t the same person from 12 months earlier and I needed to think about how to go forward,” he said.

“They got me a grant to go on a holiday. We hadn’t had a holiday for a few years. We went to a hotel called The Cliffden, in Teignmouth near Torquay, and it was one of the Action hotels.

“I went down there and I didn’t realise it was going to be full of blind or visually-impaired people.

“At first. I didn’t want to stop, because I thought it was an institute of some kind.

“I stayed and met some of the most inspirational blind people and their families.

“Every night they came to talk to me and told me about their guide dogs and using a white cane. A guide dog, I thought, was for totally blind people, but 10 people were there with guide dogs and only one was totally blind.”

The holiday was a turning point for Steve and inspired him to change his life.

He said: “When I got back home, I was absolutely determined to do something.

“I put my name down for a guide dog and got an assessment.

“They said yes and I was absolutely over the moon.

“They said there was a waiting list of 18 months and I should try going out and getting used to using a white cane in the meantime.

“But I had nowhere to go because I had lost all my friends as I hadn’t been out.”

Steve contacted Galloway’s Society For The Blind to see if there were any activities he could take part in.

And he soon found the sky was the limit.

“I went for walks with them and before I knew it, I was climbing up Snowdon,” he said.

“I tried canoeing and kayaking and white water rafting in Wales.

“I didn’t say no to anything. It was all confidence-building.”

After waiting for 18 months, Steve finally got a call to say he would be getting a guide dog.

Nemo is a German shepherd cross retriever and is still with Steve.

He said: “When you take a dog like that on, you can’t hide in public – you have to be confident.

“When you go out in public, the social aspect is amazing. I never get left alone.

“With a cane everyone wants to avoid you but with a dog, everyone makes a beeline for you.”

Steve is also doing his bit to support other people with eyesight problems.

He works with charities including Action For Blind People, Galloway’s Society For The Blind and Guide Dogs.

He gives talks , raises money through bucket collections and other activities, and organises social events for blind people.

Steve said: “We are not just shaking a bucket, we are engaging with the public.

“It can get lonely being with a dog 24/7 but when we are collecting, we get to meet people and they get the chance to stroke my dog.

“Collecting is my way of thanking the public.”

Steve also campaigns on behalf of blind people and recently had his most high-profile appointment to date – a trip to the House of Lords.

He was one of 10 blind and partially-sighted people to speak at a reception about his personal experiences.

He said: “It was a privilege. It was a very proud day for me.”

Steve was raising awareness of the importance of eye clinic liaison officers (ECLOs), who are based at eye clinics and provide support for people who have just been diagnosed with vision problems.

Steve said: “I used to think ECLOs were in every eye clinic, but it turns out we are just lucky to have them in Preston and Chorley. They are not being funded.

“We need to get the message across to NHS trusts to look more seriously at the point of diagnosis for blind people and have some support.

“There are thousands of people in Britain who are going blind and not getting the support they need.”

Steve is now looking forward to a bright future, despite the continual deterioration of his eyesight.

He currently has 15 per cent of his sight and it will keep getting worse, but he now has a positive outlook on life.

He said: “People think ‘poor me’.

“I was working for 20 years, but I still knew I had this condition that might flare up at any time.

“My life is totally different now. I had never left Chorley but now I have been all around the country.”

He thanked all the organisations which have supported him over the past 10 years, particularly Lyn Garside, from Galloway’s.

And Steve hopes his story will inspire other people to have their eyesight tested.

He said: “It’s important that people get their eyes tested regularly. There are all kinds of condtitions that can be picked up early and can be treated.

“It’s really important that people take their eyesight seriously.”