As you’ve read, I’ve got pretty crappy eyesight. Mum writes in her journal, July 1967, when I’m 18 months old:
I feel for him so, although it doesn’t worry him at all, he does everything he should for his age, in time I think something may be done, so I must learn to live with it, he does!
I was brought up the same as my brothers, and we all learned to live with it. I don’t know any different. Just like I’m weirdly quasi-ambidextrous, which is tied to my eyesight. My left eye is my good eye, so anything close to me I do with my left hand. Distance stuff, I am right-handed, I bat and bowl right-handed when playing cricket. But I write left-handed and eat and brush my teeth with my left hand. Weird, yes, I know. But it was my brain’s way of giving me the best opportunity to survive, Darwin’s theory at work.
My right eye is a passenger. Severely turned in, to a point where 12 surgeries later it looks over people’s right shoulder when I’m standing right in front of them. So lazy the brain has essentially shut it down, meaning my world is flat. I don’t see in three dimensions, I don’t have depth perception and 3D movies are a waste of money.
Mum is pragmatic at the time. From that time on, she spent weeks, months, ensuring I got the best care, the best advice. She was tenacious, dogged even, with doctors, eye specialists and the like. Many doctors simply said I was not going to make anything of my life, given my eyesight, and that she should give up and accept that the best I would achieve was some basket-weaving in an assisted workshop.
Mum never accepted this. She was determined to firstly make sure I had the same experiences as my brothers, but also ensure I got the support I needed. The first bit of support she got for me was from Dr Dick at the University of NSW. He was able to work with the local team at the university and fashioned a pair of glasses for me, which were essentially tied to my head so I couldn’t take them off.
This apparently opened a world up for me.
One of the only reasons babies crawl is that they receive a visual clue, a bright colour, movement or an object in their field of vision. They then crawl to get to the object. This process strengthens neck and shoulder muscles, which in turn allows us to ultimately walk upright with our head standing tall on our shoulders and neck. You may have noticed when you come across a blind person, or someone with limited sight, that in some cases they have a head-wobble going on, or their head is permanently facing down at an angle. This occurs as a result of poor muscle development. The head-wobble is also caused by the eye not being able to lock onto something, and the brain is in search mode for the horizon.
I was one of the lucky ones, my eye condition was picked up early, and so the glasses encouraged me to crawl, which means now I stand with my head looking straight ahead and I don’t have a wobble.
As I was growing up, Mum would fight for me to get the same access. If we visited a zoo or a theme park, she’d make sure that I could always get a spot to see, or if not see, improve my experience. Sometimes this was a tactile experience, to help me understand what my brothers were seeing. Not unlike my experience at the war memorial! At other times, it was a different experience. I recall one time when I was seven, Mum arranged a helicopter ride for me. The idea was to allow me to experience flight—the sound, the feeling of moving around in the third dimension, and perspective I might gain from seeing the world from a different angle. I absolutely loved it, and it’s cool to note that my career has taken me into the aviation sector where that memory is so poignant.
I had some tough times at school. Bloody segregation! Anyone would think we were living in a developing country. Whoever thought, “Let’s keep the poor blind kids to one side of the school so they don’t interact with the sighted kids,” was a moron.
We were called “parshos”, the partially sighted kids.
From year one to year nine, I was schooled in a segregated class, with a maximum of seven students, all vision-impaired. The first six years at Tempe and the following three at Kingsgrove North. For years 10, 11 and 12 I was allowed to enter the “mainstream”.
Now at Tempe, school was fun, engaging, entertaining and we learned a bit as well. I had stacks of fantastic teachers, two notable legends are friends on Facebook today: Mrs Stacey and Miss Bedard. Wow, did they know how to handle us blind kids!
They were multi-disciplined teachers, teaching a range of subjects. We created wonderful Christmas plays with Miss Bedard who was a creative genius. We had some great fun with Miss Bedard’s quirky sense of humour. One end of year musical was called Santa Claus and the Cycle Slobs. A weird take on Santa and his merry band of delivery people, who were also mad motorcycle riders. We cobbled together a mash up of Casablanca and Cinderella called Casarella where a weird search for a glass slipper involved a number of old western saloons.
Mrs Stacey taught us English and music and did a wonderful job. She also hated oranges, meaning I became the bane of her existence, given my love for oranges as a result of the large orange tree we had in our backyard giving forth fruit all year round.
Times got tougher at high school, and this is where I really felt segregated. Our friendship circles were limited because our class size was small, and our ability to engage with girls was also limited. As a teenager, I was a nervous nanny when it came to girls. With a class of seven of us, five boys, the only girls I interacted with were the two in the class with me, Pam and Fabiona.
I think exposure to both genders, different disabilities and other minority groups at school allows people to develop their social skills a lot earlier and creates comfort in varying interpersonal interactions.
We were also picked on a lot, and as such, the bullied became bullies. I’m not proud of that, but if I was going to survive high school, on occasion we had to fight back and flex whatever advantage we could muster to keep the peace.
We had a lot of fights at school, the sighted kids against the parshos. The teachers didn’t do much to help, or stop it from happening. We were bullied, so we developed our own form of defence, which was attack. I remember breaking a locker with the head of a long-haired dude who tried to trip me over. Another guy hid my bag, I hid his in the middle of Kingsgrove Road.
When we were integrated, things got worse, but the dynamic was different. We made friends and the other kids accepted us for who we were, even helping us. I had guys sit next to me and dictate the blackboard, other kids helped in woodwork class with precise measurements, or to use the tools I wasn’t allowed to use.
The problems came from the teachers. There were a couple who you could simply describe as dinosaurs. They wanted to teach 35 sighted kids and they had no time or inclination to help the blind kids. One of them was so outraged to have a couple of parshos in his class that he went to the principal and complained.
I soldiered on and finished my HSC with 180 other students in 1983. I came first in year 11 and year 12 three-unit maths in the school, not bad for a blind kid from Rockdale.
My first job, in May 1984, was full-time at the Taxation Office and I studied accounting at night, three nights a week at the nearby St George College of Technical and Further Education.
If I thought school was tough, think of the public service in the early 1980s. There was no such thing as a diversity program, no equal employment rules. I was thrown into the cubicle city and treated just like everyone else. Which was fine. It is what Mum taught me. “Blame no one, expect nothing, do something,” has been a mantra of mine for a long time. I simply worked harder than everyone around me and proved, despite my eyesight, that I had a brain in my head and that I could get the job done.
And the rest, as they say, is history. If you have a disability, something that presents barriers, work out ways of going through those barriers. I did. I use a trick I call pattern-matching. I can’t see any detail in objects around me, but I know what a car looks like to find my way to the front door, open it and get in without bumping my head. I’ll sit on your sun glasses in the front seat, but I won’t bump my head. I’ll walk past you in the street, but I’ll navigate Central Station, or any other station in Sydney for that matter, because I’ve memorised their layouts and I use pattern-matching. For instance, at Rockdale station, the best exit is on the left, it’s wider than all the other exits. The steps are located at the rear of the third carriage, so that’s the best stop to get off at Rockdale. There is a lip at the top of the steps at Central between the suburban trains and the country trains, be careful at the top of the escalator.
It’s a trick where I learn the size and shape of things, count steps, use high contrast tricks, sun, light, shadow, and of course, noise and echoes. I build up a 3D map in my head and use that to get around.
I don’t trip over things, nor bump into walls, mostly. I was in Melbourne with my HR manager shortly after I started working at Recreational Aviation Australia. I was telling Max as we exited the hotel that I don’t bump into things, she didn’t need to do anything when walking with me, and I’ll keep an eye on her.
Ten seconds later, bang, I bump into a column. Max looks at me and we both burst out laughing. A few minutes later I trip up the gutter, so much for not needing any help!
In 2013 I suffered a massive setback with my useful eyesight. My left retina detached itself. When I say detached, it resembled a spinnaker in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race that has been shredded and torn from all points except one. It was a deeply harrowing and depressing experience. Here we are in the city that never sleeps, and we are first holed up in an eye surgery, then hospital, then I’m told to take it easy for 12 days and look at the pavement. In New York, you look up, the skyscrapers, the sights, the shops, the shows.
The good news was that I was in New York. My eye surgeon has said to me, on many occasions since that day, had I been anywhere else I would have lost the sight in my left eye. The New York-based surgeon was one of the best, if not the best, retinal surgeon in the world. I am forever grateful for what he did for me.
I rang Mum and Dad during the episode, in tears. Dad almost got on a plane and flew to New York to help me out. I had to talk him down from making the trip. It’s just another example of how both Mum and Dad would do anything for their kids.
I’m 51 now, as it turns out, I wouldn’t change a thing. If you said to me I could go back and relive life with full sight, I’d say no. I’ve seen, pun intended, so much, experienced a world most don’t get to experience, because of who I am, and how I was made.
Thanks, Mum, when you said in 1968 that we’d have to learn to live with it, we certainly did, and what a life it’s been.