How Chris kept on turning after going blind
Chris Fisher has made quite a name for himself in the media – you might know him as The Blind Woodturner. Chris wasn’t born blind – toxoplasmosis struck in 2008 when he was working as an engineer with a busy life as a husband and dad to a young son. But after a difficult adjustment period, where Chris had to battle severe anxiety as well as get used to life without sight, he “turned” his life around. With the help of wife Nicola, he is now helping others to do the same. UCan2 editor Victoria Galligan caught up with Chris at his home in Whittle-le-Woods, Lancashire…
What happened when you went blind suddenly 12 years ago? How did you cope?
You learn to adapt – I suffered with crippling anxiety for four years and that started about a year after going blind. The first year of being blind was all about going to rehab, working with a sensory team and social workers but then I started feeling terribly sick, actually being sick, having panic attacks, hallucinations, muscles spasms, not sleeping, being afraid to go out and sometimes having to come back home because I’d had a panic attack and support worker at the time, Dean, would have to bring me home. It was a terrible place to be.
If I didn’t have the network of people around me, my friends and family, I probably would have ended my life.
I get why people commit suicide and I was getting towards that point. Luckily I have a son, who was seven at the time, and a wife and I felt I didn’t have that option.
So I dug deeper than I ever thought possible and, with the help of counselling from the RNIB’s bereavement service, and going on anti-anxiety meds, slowly but surely I felt “Hey! I actually felt good today!” Then I started going out more – I got through it and I’m so glad I did. Then I started chomping at the bit and feeling: “Right, I’m ready to attack life now!”
You mentioned your PA Dean and the RNIB – which other services were there to help you?
Initially it was support from Wigan Council’s Sensory Team as I lived in Greater Manchester at the time. They were absolutely brilliant in helping me to come to terms with my disability and giving me practical advice – they taught me how to prepare a simple meal safely or a cup of tea. They showed me how to use some gadgets like a signal cane, and I got some other gadgets from the RNIB like liquid level indicators, talking measuring jug, talking tape measure and a Daisy Player which is a device that plays CDs with tactile, chunky controls on it. I use it to listen to books. And for the first eight years I had a support worker, Dean, then when he changed his job I got Bamber, my guide dog. He’s next-level intelligent and truly indispensable. I’m the navigator when we go out but he’s my pilot and takes me where I need to go! I can ask him to find steps, find a button for a lift, a bus stop. At home, he never leaves me on my own and he’s always watching me! He comes down the stairs in front of me to make sure I’m safe and he’s ever-vigilant.
How did the woodturning start?
I started to want to try new things – but obviously as a blind man. And because I was a keen horror film fan and loved doing stuff at Halloween for the house. I wanted to make a vampire stake for the garden – people said “You what?” but it was something I wanted to do! You’ve got to start somewhere.
I started to listen to woodturning tutorials on YouTube and ended up listening to 600 hours! I was really serious about it because I wanted that vampire stake! I listened for five or six hours a day for months, assimilating all the information I could about woodturning, tools, techniques, health and safety and finishing. I got in touch with a few YouTubers to ask them to add some audio description to the videos – a lot of the videos are compressed, with no verbal directions and they’re set to music, which is of no use to the blind! So about 10 woodturning YouTubers added some verbal information and they’d say: “This blind guy’s got in touch because he wants to learn woodturning so, for you Chris, I’m going to explain what I’m doing here!”
After the 600 hours I got myself a lathe, some wood and some tools and taught myself, just by touch and with a picture in my mind. Because I was sighted until I was nearly 39 years old, I had a great memory map which played in my favour. I’d worked with tools and my hands all my working life – I didn’t have any accidents but my early work was a bit shoddy and I made mistakes. But I put the hours in and the practice and became very passionate and people started to want to buy what I was making.
Last August I became the first-ever blind person to join the Register of Professional Turners. I had to apply with photos of my work. This had to be backed by two sponsors, and then they came out to assess me. It was a rigorous test by a master turner from the Worshipful Company of Turners (which has 800 years of history). There was an interview, an accounts check of my business to make sure I was making money from woodturning, a risk assessment check, an examination of my completed works plus a check of the workshop and a practical assessment – which was videoed. It was tough but I passed!
You’ve now built a real brand around yourself! How did you achieve that?
I started a YouTube channel to inspire and motivate people and so people could follow the journey that I was embarking on. Then one day while at the Axminster store, where I get a lot of my tools and machinery from, the manager Phil Lewis said: “Do you want to do a woodturning demonstration in store?”
I felt a bit queasy when he asked me! I said: “You do know I’m blind don’t you?!”
And he said: “Listen I’ve seen your YouTube videos – you’re better than some of the sighted people we see in here!”
I thought, I have to put my money where my mouth is. I was nervous but if I turned it down I thought I’d be a coward and a hypocrite. And since my first woodturning demonstration I’ve been all over the country for Axminster Tools and Machinery and to various regional woodturning clubs around the country too.
Since then I’ve been on the BBC four times and other media outlets have interviewed me.
Nicola is a business advisor and she’s brilliant – she’s done courses on photography, she makes the podcasts and she’s developed my brand strategy. I’ve done lots of media interviews and we go to networking events. We’ve also done our own podcasts – At Home With The Fishers.
What does 2020 hold for you?
I’m really busy! I was named a few weeks ago as the first patron for the charity UK Men’s Sheds, which champions men’s wellbeing and mental health through getting them out into sheds and making things. This stimulates their minds and forms friendships.
I also work with Henshaws Society for Blind People and I am fully booked up this year in terms of woodturning demonstrations at events from Keighley to the NEC.
Our following has grown and I now teach people in my workshop. They can be blind, visually impaired or sighted and people with other disabilities come along too. One lady, who uses a wheelchair, had taken up woodturning because her husband did it but wanted a professional lesson so came to me.
I’ve met so many people along the way and have even made woodturner friends in America who I’d love to visit and do some woodturning demonstrations over in the States – the epicentre of woodturning! That would be the dream for me.
Finally, what would you say to someone who has newly experienced disability?
I wouldn’t want to sugarcoat it and say: “Everything’s fine.” I would empathise with them. But being over-sympathetic isn’t good for people. You need to let people find their own way.
It’s important to never let anything linger, if things are getting you down or upset in any way, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
You don’t have to do it on your own – but also don’t be lazy and expect everyone to do everything for you. Keep that pride, self-worth and passion that you had before you were disabled.
Things are going to be different – they are going to be hard, there’s no denying it. Sometimes you’ll be sad and frustrated and alienated, but there are going to be times where you have the best day of your life!
Read about the Blind Woodturner and other inspirational people in every issue of UCan2!
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