'At zumba no one patronises me': How dance and dogs helped one blind women reclaim her life

·7 min read
Nicky at home with guide dogs Tillie and Unity (PA Real Life/Collect)
Nicky at home with guide dogs Tillie and Unity (PA Real Life/Collect)

Going blind is something most of us dread as we age. But Nicky Askew 51, a former home delivery co-ordinator at Iceland, lost her sight a decade ago, at just 41.

She was plunged into darkness when her degenerative myopia – an extreme short-sightedness she has had since childhood – suddenly worsened, leaving her unable to work or leave the house.

Thankfully, she has discovered a new lease of life, thanks to a newfound love of dancing and exercise, and her beloved 'bombproof' dog Tillie.

A guide dog charity introduced golden retriever Tillie to Nicky's life and feeling more confident, she joined a Zumba class. As a result, she has since lost five stone, and competed in triathlons, climbed mountains and performed with hundreds of other dancers.

Zumba has transformed Nicky's life (PA Real Life/Collect)
Zumba has transformed Nicky's life (PA Real Life/Collect)

Nicky, who lives in Blackpool, Lancashire, with her husband John, 56, an electrical goods retail worker and their two children Jodie, 19, and James, 16, said: 

“Dancing gave me a sense of purpose and made me feel like I fitted in somewhere. Even though I’ve got sight loss these people never let me feel like that."

Even Tillie, unfazed by the crowds and loud music, would join in with the moves.

“At the end, we have a cool down and every time Tillie would stand up and stretch with the rest of us," Nicky said. "She felt a part of it."

Things haven't always been so positive. Struggling with her sight since childhood, Nicky used to wear contact lenses and glasses at the same time. “As a little girl, I would walk into a room and kick coffee over," she recalled.

“My parents were great. They never treated me any differently but back then, there was no help, you got pushed to the back of the class and left.”

Nicky showing off her moves (PA Real Life/Collect)
Nicky showing off her moves (PA Real Life/Collect)

After James was born, Nicky's short-sightedness, macular degeneration – the common worsening of eyesight that comes with age – and nystagmus, otherwise known as ‘dancing eyes,’ as the eyes move around, combined to make her work almost impossible.

“It was just getting too dangerous,” she said. “I was tripping over boxes, so it was time for me to actually say, ‘You know what? I really can’t see.’ It was the weirdest thing to say.”

Read more: Blind YouTube star Molly Burke wants to help young disabled people navigate wellness

When the curtains came down on her job and her vision, Nicky was left in a dark place.

“It was a massive confidence deflator,” she said. “I felt I wasn’t good enough for anything. I thought that was it for me. You shut the door and you’re done.

Watch: Once-blind woman gets sight back after 15 years

“I felt I didn’t belong anywhere. I didn’t have a sense of purpose. I thought, ‘What’s the point?'”

After years in the dark and becoming what Nicky refers to as, ‘very, very, very, very large’ due to being housebound, she turned a corner when adorable Tillie came into her life.

"The turning point, when I actually felt like a person again, was when I got my guide dog. That made me feel like, ‘There is life out there. I can do this. I can go out.'”

Soon afterwards, newly mobile Nicky was joking with friends about Zumba classes which they had spotted advertised at her children’s school.

Nicky and her friend get to grips with a tandem bicycle (PA Real Life/Collect)
Nicky and her friend get to grips with a tandem bicycle (PA Real Life/Collect)

“I was laughing with them, saying, ‘There’s no way I can do a Zumba class – I can’t see.”

But with her friends’ encouragement, back in 2017, Nicky and Tillie gave it a go for the first time and were pleasantly surprised when they met Barry Kinder, 43, the Zumba instructor.

“I was very, very nervous. Barry came over and introduced himself and said, ‘Let’s take it step by step. We don’t know how this’ll work so let’s just wing it!'”

This was the beginning of a great friendship between Nicky and Barry – a man who went the extra mile to bring her out of her shell and get her dancing.

Read more: Woman born without eyes or nose graduates college: 'I don't need easy, I just need possible.'

“He is an extremely kind soul. He’d go above and beyond to make sure Tillie was safe and I was safe,” she said. “We have quite a unique relationship.”

At first, Barry would physically show Nicky the moves but, before long, they had developed a set of codeword instructions, so she would know which step to take without needing to see the other dancers.

Soon, Nicky was attending classes multiple times a week. And, while in some places she was treated differently because of her disability, her Zumba pals never made Nicky feel out of place.

Nicky hits the dance floor (PA Real Life/Collect)
Nicky hits the dance floor (PA Real Life/Collect)

“In some places, I am treated very differently,” she said. 

“People are like, ‘You just sit down there, and we’ll sort it.’ But when I’m at Zumba, I get told off for not working hard enough! No one patronises me. They expect me – and ask me – to exceed my capabilities and come out of my comfort zone.”

Zumba opened the door to a new life of challenges for Nicky, who soon teamed up with her close friends Michelle Tomlinson, 38, and Lisa Daley, 35, who also suffer from sight loss, to raise money for charity.

Read more: 'People don't believe I'm blind': Meet the young make-up artist breaking all the rules

Hoping to help other blind people in the UK to get guide dogs, so their world can get bigger, too, since 2016 the trio have competed in a triathlon, climbed the 3,000ft Lake District mountain Skiddaw and held blindfold dinners to raise money for their campaign – Name a Pup Blackpool.

She and her Zumba pals even took part in Rush Blackpool, a vast dance and light show with over 100 performers; a far cry from the isolated woman who was scared to leave the house only a few years earlier.

But like for the rest of the country, 2020 posed its own challenges for a blind person like Nicky, who had only recently reclaimed her independence.

Blind people often need the support of trained dogs. (Getty Images)
Blind people often need the support of trained dogs. (Getty Images)

Despite Barry moving the Zumba classes online, Nicky was left helpless without knowing how to operate Zoom or a pair of wireless headphones to hear her friends.

“There was a month when I wasn’t talking to any of them, because I couldn’t hear anyone. It was so upsetting. It was horrible. But as soon as he was able to, Barry called by to fix the problem – from a social distance.

“He came over with these headphones and put them in for me,” said Nicky. "On that day I actually had tears, because I could hear everyone again on Zoom. That was just amazing.”

Now that face-to-face classes are back in full force, Nicky is getting golden retriever Unity – her new guide dog who replaced Tillie when she retired last year – used to her energetic schedule and all her dancing buddies.

Unity had to have some of her guide dog training over Zoom, too, because of lockdown – which was possible thanks to Barry helping Nicky to set it up.

Lisa, Nicky and Michelle celebrate at the summit of Skiddaw (PA Real Life/Collect)
Lisa, Nicky and Michelle celebrate at the summit of Skiddaw (PA Real Life/Collect)

 “It’s absolutely amazing how little things tie in to make your life better. If I hadn’t learnt with dancing how to do Zoom in lockdown, I wouldn’t have been able to do that really positive training with my dog that helped us bond.

“Getting a guide dog and learning to Zumba have really changed my life.”

 Join the Guide Dogs 90 Appeal and help make a real change to the lives of people living with sight loss. 

Additional reporting by PA

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