£3m facility Wilkieston at to help blinded soldiers cope with disability

A MULTI-MILLION-POUND drop-in centre for soldiers blinded in action is opening in the Lothians in 2010.

The Scottish National Institute for War Blinded's new 3 million facility in Wilkieston, three miles east of Livingston, will include a workshop, art space, training areas, gym, therapy spaces, admin offices and remembrance room.

The facility, to be built next to its existing workshop on the Linburn Estate, has been funded by donations and legacies. Chief executive Richard Hellewell said: "The existing workshop was designed for soldiers coming out of World War II in the 1940s and took in many more people than we're seeing today. The original workshop, which focused on developing skills such as woodwork and metalwork, was designed to hold about 70 people.

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"Mercifully, our rolls are falling because of advances in eye protection, but there are many factors in conflict that can cause someone to lose their sight. As well as the risk of shrapnel damage to the eye soldiers can suffer neurological damage that can cause them to lose their sight, even after they've returned from conflict.

"The new facility will have a capacity of about 35 but there will be a much wider range of facilities to reflect modern interests." The charity has taken on more than 100 new members from throughout Scotland in the past year, and a similar number the year before, thanks to its pro-active efforts to contact people it can help.

Mr Hellewell added: "Most lost their sight since they left military service, but there are a number who had previously not been known to us whose sight loss was during or consequent upon their service. The number we are supporting who lost their sight as a direct result of conflict zone injuries in the two Gulf wars and Afghanistan is small – perhaps about half a dozen – but it is important that we are here for them and have services capable of helping greater numbers in future."

The 800sq m building's sweeping design was inspired by a hand-carved Chinese dragon from the golf club at Fanling, Hong Kong, long-time supporters of Scottish War Blinded. The dragon is on display at the workshop.

Mr Hellewell added: "The design also echoes an aircraft wing, or a propeller, which fits in with our aim of keeping comfortable reminders of forces life in the centre. It will be open plan so the atmosphere will be like working in a large tent, which will again evoke life in the forces.

"We expect to cater for between 120 and 150 people a week from as wide a catchment as is practical. Most of our users will only pop in for one or two days at a time."