More than 10 years ago, caterer and Stargardt’s disease patient, Joanna Parsons, dreamed of a place where blind and sight-impaired people could train to cook.
Today, the Concept Conference Centre that she helped to found is celebrating a decade of work and the 32 visually impaired trainees that have entered the Action for Blind People-run programme since it opened in Birmingham on 6 January, 2006.
Concept offers on-the-job training – the facility caters for five meeting rooms for outside companies and groups. Everything from hot meals to baking is made from scratch, Ms Parsons told OT.
“What I really wanted to do is empower other visually impaired people … I wanted to challenge the misconceptions of what blind and partially sighted people can do.”
Ms Parsons, a Birmingham College of Food and Domestic Arts graduate, emphasised that some of her most rewarding moments over the last decade have come from the reactions of people who hire the Concept team’s services.
“I tell them that the kitchen team is made up of people who are registered as blind, but that all the food is made from scratch, including that shortbread that they’ve been munching on.
“You see them really engage, and they say ‘This is what we should be supporting.’”
Concept’s paid trainees work with the centre, in the kitchen or office, for between six and 18 months, she said.
“It might take three months to get somebody’s confidence levels to where they can move forward.”
Four out of five people who complete the course go on to secure employment, a success rate that Ms Parsons is proud of.
“I don’t think it could have been done by just one or two of us … We’re a small team but we all help each other.”
After 10 years at the helm, Ms Parsons plans to semi-retire this year, and emphasised it will be tough to leave Concept behind.
“It will be a great, big hole in my life. I’ve made some wonderful friends and met some wonderful people who have inspired me.”
As well as a party held this afternoon (11 March) at the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s Birmingham office, Concept is redesigning its conference rooms to feature trainee’s stories and ‘sim specs’, which simulate reduced vision for wearers.
Find out more about Concept on its website.