I didn’t know I was blind

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This article is from That’s Life Magazine published on 1 April 2021 as told to Kathryn Lewsey.

Image of Annette’s Family with 18 people from 4 generations. Annette is seated in the middle. The family are outside stading on lawn in front of a pool fence.

Sitting in the classroom, I felt confused. It was 1974, and my teacher was pointing at the blackboard. ‘Here’s what we’re doing today, open your books and get going,’ she said. Looking around, I watched as my classmates put their hands down and started writing away. A wave of panic washed over me – I couldn’t read the board.

It hadn’t mattered at primary school because my teachers had always read aloud what they were writing. But now, they were just expecting us to read.

‘What am I supposed to do?’ I said to my mum, Elizabeth, back home. ‘They don’t talk anymore.’

‘Let’s speak with the school, love,’ she said. Confused, I had no idea what it all meant.

But then mum took me to an optometrist. Within a few days, I was diagnosed with a severe sight impairment. In fact, I was practically blind. Amazingly, I’d managed to reach the age of 13 without anyone realising, not even me!

‘It all makes sense now,’ Mum said. As a kid living on a farm, I was forever falling over things. I was known as the clumsy one to my parents and four siblings, David, Michael, Helen, and Cara.

Struggling with reading, I’d avoid it at all costs. I’d manage to do everything else though – including milking cows on our farm – using my other senses of hearing in touch. I’ve even written motorbikes through our fields. No wonder it had gone undetected. And now, I was being told that I saw the world differently. I could only make out the outlines of things and contrasts between different shades. ‘What can everyone else see?’ I wondered.

It was confusing and strange to take in – but it did explain a lot. I was given reading glasses, but they didn’t help much. Refusing to let my diagnosis hold me back, I continued doing everything I loved, including milking the cows. As long as everything was in its place, I could navigate my way around.

It did end in disaster one time – when I was riding the motorbike! Mum and my brother David were moving the animals and had to close the gate, which was usually open. I couldn’t see that the gate was closed and went crashing into it. The accident left me bruised and shaken up.

When I was 17, I met Lance, 19, at a farm dance and fell in love. My low vision didn’t bother him. He quickly became my rock – especially when I was officially classed as legally blind at 18. ‘You’ve always got me here,’ he promised.

Lance and I married and had four amazing kids – Julie, Neville, Gary and Maryanne. Life was hectic and fun. I could change nappies and dress the kids fine – it just took a little longer as I relied on touch to work out where things were.

 Cooking, on the other hand, was not my forte. I was terrible – always mixing up sugar and salt! One time, I treated the children to a home-made chocolate mousse and poured in too much cocoa powder. It had such an overpowering taste, they refused it. Even the dog turned his nose up at it! I’ve cut my fingers countless times while chopping vegetables, too.

In my late 30s, I started using a white cane stick to get about. It’s like a light’s been turned on, I thought, able to feel my way more easily.

Nowadays, the children are all grown up and I have 10 grandkids to keep me busy. They’ve all been brought up to not leave toys on the floor or move chairs away from the table. ‘We don’t want grandma tripping,’ Lance will say.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed lovely family holidays, but sometimes felt like Lance or the kids were being too protective of me. They’d worry about taking me to crowded places in case someone knocked me down. So I was thrilled when I heard about Cocky Guides – a travel company that takes those who are blind or have low vision on Aussie adventures.

Excited, I booked myself onto a trip to the Gold Coast. It was amazing to appreciate places, such as theme parks and the beach promenade, with people who were just like me. And the incredible Guides were great at supporting us through narrow entrances all while making sure we had a fun, safe time. Since then, I’ve travelled with them to Byron Bay, Sydney and Tasmania. Feeling on top of the world as I stood by the tall ships in Sydney Harbour, the fresh sea air gently whipped my hair.

While we can’t see the sites like others, our imaginations take us to awesome places. At a beach, I can picture waves crashing, dolphins jumping in the air and a hot guy with glistening abs! And I will appreciate things that those with vision can’t – like the sound of rain hitting the earth or the scent of summer on a hot day.

I’m not missing out – my life is beautiful. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, I’m so lucky to have a wonderful family and heaps of experiences. Life is precious – you don’t need vision to ‘see’ that.