THE transition of Alan Fletcher from engineering boss at BMW to charity leader began around 15 years ago, when he began to lose his eyesight.
“The symptoms began appearing in about 1998,” he said.
“It was a loss of definition but it also took a long time to focus when going from a place that was light to one that was dark, and vice versa. I would have to stop for about 30 seconds, and I was also bumping into things.”
A visit to a doctor was followed by an appointment with a specialist and a diagnosis of retinal dystrophy, a family of incurable degenerative eye conditions. He was registered blind in 2005, and in 2009 an unrelated cancer was discovered behind his right eye. His only remaining vision is the odd faint flicker in his left.
He said: “Essentially I was the same as maybe anybody who’s been told they’re going to have a bad problem, whatever the disease. I was asking, ‘What have I done to deserve this? Why me? Why at this stage of life?’ I was looking forward to retirement and doing things.
“Then I decided I just needed to get on with life as best as I could. I applied for a guide dog in 2005 and got Joy in May of 2006.
“There’s a little statistic that Guide Dogs tells you. They say there are 180,000 visually impaired people in the UK that never leave home because of their sight problems, and I can believe that because in the 10 months I was waiting for Joy I was exactly the same.
“I had to wait for Shirley to come home from work. I lost mobility and independence and confidence. I lost that in 10 months. Joy coming along has given me all of that back – she gave me my life back.”
Alan was born in Cirencester, the middle child of five born to Arthur, a car factory worker, and Win, who worked for a laundry.
The family came to Swindon when Alan was two, giving Arthur an easier commute to his job at Pressed Steel. Alan left school at 16 and served an engineering apprenticeship with engine maker Lister in Wroughton before moving on to Pressed Steel at 21. He would work there for 36 years, rising to become engineering manager before deteriorating vision prompted his retirement.
He said: “I first went to a Guide Dogs meeting in 2006 and I became chairman in 2008. The reason I took it on was that having a dog had made such a big difference for me that I wanted to give something back to the charity.
“I began to realise that there are things like campaigning, going out and giving talks to people, including children at schools.
“When I became involved with the charity I met a little girl who was only nine months old. She was born blind. I realised how lucky I was. I became blind later in life – I was 57. At least before that I was able to play football and go to school. I knew grass was green, the sky was blue and fire engines were red. I wondered how you explain things like that. It must be so hard for parents.
“If I can do a little something to help, then I’m more than happy.”
There are 4,500 working guide dogs in the UK, of which 20 are in Swindon. It costs £33,000 to train a guide dog, and the process takes from 21 to 24 months. Last year about 800 newly-qualified guide dogs joined the ranks.
The charity campaigns on a number of fronts, including fundraising, education and the promotion of eye health and preventive awareness. It was also a major voice in the successful campaign to have all dogs microchipped. The charity provides food for all guide dogs, and is campaigning for VAT on that food to be lifted, which would free up an extra £300,000 per year.
On Saturday, the charity will hold an open day at the Brunel Centre from 9am to 5pm, alongside an appeal for new puppy walkers.
For more details, visit www.guidedogs.org.uk/swindon or call Alan on 01793 827589.