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Member Spotlight: Optical Benevolent Fund

The Benevolent Fund of the College of Optometrists and Association of Optometrists (AOP) exists to alleviate financial hardship for optometrists and their dependents.

Who we are and who we help

The number of optometrists in the UK is relatively small (about 14,000) and we are the only charity that exists specifically to help people who work in this particular profession, although there are other charities that assist dispensing opticians and optical workers. The Fund’s resources are mostly derived from donations from the College and the AOP but we also receive donations from individuals or occasionally via legacies.  

The Fund is administered by ten Honorary Trustees appointed by the AOP and the College. The Trustees are members of the optometric profession with considerable experience in the optical sector.

How we help

Our support is usually financial; to help with an immediate crisis such as an unexpected bill or other expense, or it may be to help by supplementing income on an ongoing basis to meet regular outgoings. We can offer a helping hand to put people in contact with the right agencies who will be able to deal with other concerns. This may include help with financial management or debt counselling, drug, alcohol or other addictions, or with the purchase of equipment to meet specific needs, such as a motorised wheel chair, low vision aids etc. We can also arrange counselling for drug, alcohol or other addictions.

There is a standard application form that requires completion before the case is put to the Trustees for consideration.  A representative from the Benevolent Fund will normally visit the applicant to assess the level of need. Each case is considered on an individual basis.

Changes in the way optometrists work

One of our major concerns at the moment is the fact that many optometrists now work as locums. In fact, 35% of AOP members listed themselves as locums in 2017 and 45.7% said they hoped to work on a flexible basis within the next 5 years. Over 50% of the people who approach us are self-employed without critical illness cover. Illness suddenly strikes, or they have an accident, and there is no safety net in the form of sickness pay or insurance payout to help them support themselves and their families. We feel that we need to strongly recommend and promote critical illness cover for locums and the self-employed.

F’s story:

I qualified as an optometrist aged 24. I enjoyed the job. Looking back everything was 100mph, although being young and healthy I didn’t think anything of it. I decided to leave my permanent job to locum. I diligently arranged a meeting with my bank for an income protection plan in early October, continued my professional membership subscriptions and booked up my calendar with work until Christmas.

I woke one day feeling a bit unwell. I was working in the test room where I can remember my neck feeling stiff as though I had slept peculiarly. I got through the day and managed to drive to a snooker match that evening. On my fourth shot the cue fell out of my hands. My hands were like jelly, similar to pins and needles but with no movement. I was moving my legs at this point but realised I couldn’t feel them.  Then they stopped moving as this strange sensation passed down my back. No pain whatsoever – just an awareness that something was wrong. On arrival in hospital every test was performed with the M.R.I. confirming the diagnosis – transverse myelitis: a rare but known inflammatory condition of the spinal cord.

Initially I was paralysed from the chest down and the prognosis was bleak: no specific treatment and certainly no cure. Time, healing and physio were the order of the day. I left the ward after 3 months and went to a spinal rehabilitation unit for more intense therapy. It was here that I first heard about the Benevolent Fund. I left the unit after a gruelling 14 months. I was embarking on life as a wheelchair user with limited hand function.

After contacting the Fund I was visited by a member of the Board. The Fund assisted me with financial support to cover my gym membership and provided me with equipment. This was particularly useful as the bank did not come through with the insurance for various reasons and the world of disability is an expensive one. I’d like to improve our profession’s awareness of the Benevolent Fund and to advocate its positive work.