BY EMMA PENGELLY
A former police emergency call officer is the star of a touching TV advert for Guide Dogs.
Bromley 28-year-old Alex Pepper got involved after a colleague spotted an email casting for a role in the charity’s advert.
Mr Pepper has been visually impaired since a baby and plays the role of a proud dad taking his daughter to compete in a football match. He said: “It felt like it was such a refreshing message and I feel really lucky to be part of it.”
The By My Side film aims to change the public’s perception of sight loss by showing an everyday moment in the life of a blind or visually impaired dad. But perhaps the biggest star of the advert is River, Mr Pepper’s guide dog, who turns three this week.
Mr Pepper was paired with River when he was 18 months old after just over one year on Guide Dogs’ waiting list.
Describing the day they met Mr Pepper said: “I felt like I was going on a blind date, I don’t think I’ve been more nervous in my life.” But River and Mr Pepper hit it off and have been a team ever since.
Mr Pepper said: “He has helped me gain back a lot more confidence.” River has played a big role in his life by making tasks and errands doable again.
He said: “Things like going to the train station in the morning for work. I don’t even think about it now, I just do it. But before I had to build myself up to it, some days I wouldn’t want to do it.”
Mr Pepper has lived with some level sight loss all his life after suffering from cancer at 14 months old. But three years ago further complications led to Mr Pepper losing his remaining sight within just three months.
It was a big life change that caused Mr Pepper to leave his police job, but it didn’t get in the way of plans to buy his first house.
In that same year he proposed to his fiancée Janey on New Year’s Eve and they bought a house together. They are now busy finalising plans for their spring wedding.
He said: “We’re just so excited, we can’t believe it’s so close now.” The couple met through mutual friends around eight months prior to Mr Pepper losing his sight completely. He admitted: “It was a bit of a whirlwind, but she was my rock.”
But Guide Dogs’ ‘By My Side’ research launched on March 7 signals many blind or visually impaired people are not so lucky in love as it says nearly three in five blind and partially-sighted people feel socially isolated.
The research reported nearly half of blind Londoners feel left out of everyday moments that others take for granted such as dating, socialising and family life.
‘By My Side’ reported feelings of social isolation among the blind are due to a lack of understanding in society of their everyday challenges.
Mr Pepper said: “There haven’t necessarily been enough campaigns to raise that awareness, which is why I think campaigns like ‘By My Side’ are so important.”
He said: “When you have sight loss, it’ll always be a factor in how you live your life, but you also just want to get on with things like having a job, a family, a social life, going to the gym or on holiday, the same as everyone else.
“But there are days when I’m really reminded I’m blind, and that’s because of a hundred small things which just make me feel like I’m on the outside. “I think the more people understand what it actually means to live a modern life with sight loss, the less often these small things will happen, and I’ll feel more included.”
To combat social isolation Guide Dogs is calling on the public to join My Guide. The service pairs trained sighted volunteers with blind people to help them get out and about, build confidence and access community events.
Mr Pepper said My Guide works really well both ways. He added: “Some of the volunteers I’ve met over the last couple of years have said how useful they’ve found it and that it makes them feel differently about people with sight loss and appreciate things more.”
The report signalled a clear demand for more sighted guides with 67 per cent of those surveyed suggesting more people should be trained.
Jo Milligan, head of volunteer-led services at Guide Dogs, said: “Our report clearly shows that far too many people with sight loss are feeling shut out of everyday life.
With the number of people with a vision impairment set to skyrocket in the coming years, we need to make changes.
“We need to work together to understand the realities of life with sight loss and help overcome the challenges that lead to people feeling excluded.”
In a further bid to raise awareness Guide Dogs will launch a four-part podcast series with guests talking openly to some famous faces about how sight loss has affected their lives and relationships.
Celebs taking part include Alex Jones, Adrian Chiles, Sophie Thompson and Jeff Brazier.
Now is the time to act as blindness is predicted to affect the lives of four million people in the UK by 2050 with 250 people losing their sight every day.