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'I'M NOT BLIND DRUNK AT GLASTONBURY... JUST BLIND!' When Jill Barkley, 38, from Glasgow lost her sight 19 years ago, she was determined to keep going to the festivals she loved. She tells us what it's like being caked in mud and raving in front of the stage when you can't see a thing.

Watching Kylie Minogue and Paul Weller at T In The Park, I didn't think life could get better. I was 16, at my first festival with school friends and the atmosphere was electric. I knew then it would be the first of many, and I was right. Since then I've danced around to acts like Jay Z and Metallica at Glastonbury, and every year you'll find me right up by the main stage if I'm lucky enough to get a good spot. Except, these days I can't actually see the performers - not that it's any less fun.

When I was 19, working as an au pair in Switzerland, I was watching a New Year's Eve fireworks display when a black spidery blob suddenly appeared in my left eye with a stabbing pain. It was the first sign I was going blind. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when I was a baby, there was always a possibility I could get diabetic retinopathy, but back then there weren't the routine check-ups that picked it up early. As far as I knew, it was something that affected old people. Not someone like me, with their whole life ahead of them.

With her The next six months were fraught. Back home the following February, the family doctor referred me to an eye specialist and I started having laser treatment immediately. It was unbearably painful having these beams projected straight onto my eyeball, but I had no choice. Then things took a frightening turn when one morning a couple of weeks later Mum woke me up with a cup of tea. Because Dad worked away a lot, she'd often check in on me in the night and we'd have midnight feasts, so I asked her to put the light on. She dropped the cup in shock because it was broad daylight. All I could see was blackness.

Terrified as I was, I presumed I'd recover, so I continued having operations and travelled all over Europe by train and boat (I couldn't fly due to the pressure in my eyes) and saw the best doctors in the world.

A glimmer of hope came when the tiniest amount of vision temporarily returned. But when I went right up to the mirror and all I could see was a girl bloated from steroids, hair falling out, no eyelashes and bloodshot eyes, I was devastated. That's the last image I have of myself.

mum, who her to Mum, ever the optimist, used to say to me and my sister: 'When you feel your worst, look your best,' so we sat down and I practised putting on make-up by feeling my way around. It was the first task I learned.

ACCEPTING HER LIFE Some days I felt positive, other days I felt scared and isolated. I'd often curl up in a kitchen chair sobbing. It broke Mum's heart as she felt so helpless, and I hated that more than anything. She'd have swapped places in an instant, but she couldn't, so the quest for a miracle continued.

Eventually, after one last unsuccessful trip to Switzerland, I decided to accept my fate. In some ways it was a relief, I could get on with my life and its new challenges. Because of my diabetes, I've always had to be independent and responsible for my health, so I knew I'd adjust. What was much harder to deal with was when Mum died five years ago.

It was Mum who saw an ad for a local hospital radio station and encouraged me to get in touch. They took me on as a DJ and I loved it. It was just what I needed. It gave me the confidence to pursue a degree in Media and eventually I got a job as a presenter at Insight Radio, Europe's first station for blind and partially sighted people. I've been doing it for 11 years now, and one of the perks is going to festivals to review the performances and interview the acts.

FESTIVAL FIEND Wading through mud that's up to your knees when you can't see what's in front of you and you have people bashing you from every direction might sound like hell, but I love it. I get no bigger buzz than when I step out of the taxi and feel the grass beneath my feet before I slip on my wellies. The hum of music, the crowds, the roaring fun fair hitting you from all sides - that's when I know I've arrived. And, of course there are the smells: sweet doughnuts followed by Lebanese spices mixed with fish and chips.

Glastonbury is my favourite festival, as it has such a friendly atmosphere. But it's also the most packed. The argy-bargy bothers my husband Ian more than me. He'll hold me protectively as the crowds sweep us along, but I'm like, 'It's fine, babe, we're at a festival, we're going to get pushed.' I don't even mind the bad weather. Usually, I won't leave the house if it's drizzling, but at festivals I embrace it. The wind can be annoying, though. It can affect the sound quality of the bands if it's blown off course - being dependent on my non-visual senses means I notice these things a lot more. This weekend we're glamping at Glastonbury for the first time. Ian and I got married in March and it was a wedding present.

As long as I have lots of clothes to layer up with, baby wipes, cordless blob appeared eye with a pain. It was sign I going straighteners, my medication and my make-up bag, I'm sorted. Going to the toilet can be interesting, I normally go with a girlfriend, but when people have seen me fumbling up the steps, or feeling for a handle on my own, they've thought I was drunk. 'You've had a few!' they'll say, and then get embarrassed when I tell them I'm blind and ask for help. They're apologetic, but they needn't be. I say it's a compliment. How are they meant to know if I don't have a stick or a guide dog? We shared a pint with Guy Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow, in the hospitality area once - we were the only ones there, so he asked to join us. I was beside myself, I'm a huge fan, so Ian had to subtly tell me he was coming over. I've met all kinds of cool people, but Florence Welch from Florence + The Machine was brilliant. When I asked her for a picture she put her arms round me and I said: 'This is great, everyone will think we're friends,' and she said: 'We are friends, darling' and proceeded to hug me every time we bumped into one another.

I've been going to Glastonbury for eight years. I've got right up to the front - touching distance - to watch acts. I say 'watch' out of habit, but I do have a very visual memory. It helps I've experienced festivals sighted and blind. At Glastonbury you see all ages from babies to 70 year olds. That'll be me one day

was 'A black spidery blob suddenly appeared in my left eye with stabbing pain. It was the first sign I was going


With her mum, who encouraged her to be a radio DJ

Words: Lyndsey Gilmour. Photogaphy: Stuart Nicol.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 28, 2015
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