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Durham-based optometrist Simon Berry lens us his expertise in the field of ethical, sustainable, and accessible eye care
When Simon Berry isn’t running his own optometry business, working part-time at Sunderland Eye Infirmary, contributing to the Clinical Research Network or running the show as Editor of academic journal Clinical Optometry, you’ll likely find him running voluntary charity projects with local schoolchildren, transforming the field (literally) of vision and breaking down barriers to help give everyone access to safe and comfortable eye care. Or at the piano. (His ‘name that tune’ series on Facebook is well worth a watch, FYI).
What can we say? He’s just one of those guys. Charged with a passion for his craft that can’t help but become infectious as soon as you start chatting to him, accessibility and sustainability are at the heart of everything he does.
One of the first optometrists in the UK to commit to being really selective with his choice of materials and manufacturers – some of his glasses frames are made from recycled fishing nets, others from sea plastic waste – at Simon’s practice in Durham, you’re welcomed into a friendly environment designed to be especially embracing to children and those with disabilities, and open to people from all walks of life.
His was the first optician in the UK – and the first business in the North East – to install Neatebox technology, an app designed to make those with disabilities feel more comfortable when accessing his eye care services. Oh, he’s also been the recipient of the Vision Pioneer Campaigner of the Year Award for changing regulations around the eye care that children, especially with Down Syndrome, receive in the industry. And he’s invented his own system to help optometrists test the eyes of someone with a learning disability, which has now launched across the UK. No big deal.
Having launched our Life Audit at the beginning of this year, we at HLN have become diligent students in the ever-changing art of health and wellbeing – call us focused pupils, if you will – so jumped at the chance to catch up with Simon earlier this week. Here, he ‘lens’ us his 26 years of expertise to help us learn a little more about how we can better look after our eyes. And let us tell you, it all seems loads sclera (that’s the white of the eye btw) to us now.
How often should we get our eyes checked?
About every two years. It’s different if you have any particular risk factors, but generally, every few years is ok for most people.
How can eye problems manifest in other areas of the body?
Your eyes are interesting because they’re the one place in your body that you can see the blood vessels without the skin getting in the way. And there is a direct connection from your eye to your brain through the retina and the optic nerve. So any condition that affects your blood vessels can sometimes show in an eye test: high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. Lots of neurological conditions can also sometimes show up in your eyes. That’s what makes our job so interesting.
Glasses are worn especially close to the body and are in regular contact with the skin, yet there is still very little information about the materials used in their manufacture available to customers. What are you doing to help change that?
Around five years ago, I designed an ‘ethical supply’ questionnaire for our suppliers. This is quite a broad questionnaire and deals with things like how the product is made and what raw materials and chemicals are used in the manufacturing process.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in sourcing ethical and sustainable optometry products?
Five years ago, the biggest challenge was getting people interested! The questionnaire was not widely accepted and generally ignored by a lot of our industry. Now that ethical products have a value, one of the interesting issues is the amount of ‘green-washing’ there is in our industry. Products pretending to be ethical that really aren’t. It’s good in a way because it shows that consumers are starting to care more about where they buy products from, but environmental issues can be very complex. It’s not just as simple as ‘stop using plastic’.
Do the ethically-sourced products change the frames in any way that would be noticeable to the wearer?
Sometimes. We have a range that is made from recycled fishing nets and they have a slightly rougher finish to them than some frames. Natural horn glasses (sourced from ethical sources) are warmer to wear and very hypoallergenic. But a lot of the frames, such as See2Sea and Neubau, just look and feel like standard plastic frames.
Your practice has a real focus on making eye care as accessible and comfortable as possible for people from all walks of life. Was this something that was important to you right from the beginning of your business or has this developed over time?
Yes, it’s always been important to me that we support the community around us. I’ve never just wanted to be a shop selling glasses. The services we offer evolve just as the needs of our patients do.
The work we do with people who have learning disabilities is something that I’m especially passionate about. This group of people are actually more likely to have problems with their eyes but are also far less likely to be able to access traditional eye care services. This makes it really important that we try and make our services as accessible and flexible as possible.
I’ve invented something called the ‘Visual Fixation System’, which helps optometrists test the eyes of someone with a learning disability. It’s a device to help capture the attention of someone during an eye test, so for children who might find eye tests scary or difficult, then it makes it all a bit more pleasant. That was patented and launched in the UK last year.
How has your work been impacted by COVID?
Optometry is a funny sort of industry because it’s partially healthcare and partially retail. Our biggest priority at the moment, and all through the pandemic, has been the safety and care of our patients. We have always been open for emergency eye care and to fix broken glasses. Of course, we have suffered as a business. But we’ll worry about all of that once we get over this pandemic!
Have the eye problems people been struggling with changed at all because of the pandemic?
I think the biggest risk is that people have been getting symptoms and not sought help. We’ve managed to sort around 30% of queries using remote technology and have invested in new technology that allows us to look for problems whilst keeping that social distance. Excess screen time does sometimes make eye problems more evident, but it doesn’t cause them. People with dry eyes will find lots of screen work difficult.
You’re really involved in your local community and launched the incredibly successful Gilesgate Story Challenge. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
I could talk for ages about it! The Gilesgate Story Challenge is a short story competition I started in 2019. The whole point of it is to inspire children to write stories in their own voice while raising a lot of money for local charities. The winning entries are illustrated and published in a book, with all the proceeds of the book’s sales going to charity. Last year, I arranged a book signing at Waterstones for the authors. We couldn’t do that this year, so to try and make it equally exciting I have created a launch video. The book is also still available to buy from our website.
The best Facebook post I read about this year’s competition – which was all themed around random acts of kindness – said: ‘A good story always stirs something inside of us. Children of all abilities are capable of the most fantastic creations when given time and freedom to imagine. Being nice and kind doesn’t often make headlines or create as many ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ as other things. But if all we hear about is cruelty and criticism, then we risk losing a little bit of our humanity.’ And I think that just sums up why I started the challenge, to be honest.
I’m also proud that we didn’t alter any of the grammar or spelling of the children’s stories. That was important to me because I didn’t want the children to be put off telling their stories their way just because they didn’t know the rules of grammar. Last year we even had a story that was written to be signed in Makaton. One of the things that also made me really proud was when, last year, one of our authors’ parents told me that their child had never written a story before but, since having his work published, has now written two sequels!