Welcome back to our collection of Stories of Independence. Guest writers are invited to share their own personal experiences, or express their views on the world around them. Below, Andrew Lyons Manager at VisAbility’s Gateway Services recalls his interview with 22-year-old client Sean McLaughlin. Sean accessed VisAbility’s Orientation & Mobility services, and Andrew was blown away by his courage and determination for independence.
Through sharing this experience, we all have the opportunity to explore the way we look at inclusivity. We can step into someone else’s shoes.
When you first meet Sean, it’s his impeccable manners that really stand out. Greeting me in his softly-spoken Scottish accent, Sean McLaughlin, aged 22 takes a seat next to me. I can tell what is running through his head. He’s probably thinking, “Why do you want to interview me? I don’t really have a story to tell”. Regardless of what Sean may think, I know otherwise. I set about putting Sean at ease by cracking a few really bad jokes. I also mention to him, without letting on that I might know what he’s thinking, that he has an important story to tell. I tell him I have heard so many fantastic things about him, and that he has the ability to inspire other young people to embrace life just like he does. His hesitation has now turned to enthusiasm and he beams me a smile. I take this as a sign that he’s now likely to agree to share his story. And he does.
Sean begins by explaining that it was the warmth and sunshine that brought his family to Perth. Sean, along with his parents and two younger siblings moved to Australia from Clydebank, Scotland in 2006. Sean was born with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, a congenital condition in which the optic nerve is underdeveloped and Sean lives with no vision in his right eye and only some in his left.
However, Sean doesn’t let his vision loss stop him from living his life to the full. Bursting with a passion for politics, Sean has been studying Politics and International Relations at Murdoch University over the past few years. He hopes to one day gain employment as a Political Analyst. As Sean talks about his studies, I notice that I’m sitting with my eyes wide and full of amazement. This young guy doesn’t complain one bit about studying with a vision impairment. He just gets on with it, and quite obviously doesn’t let his vision impairment deter him from his journey to independence. I pause for a while and think back to when I studied my degree at university, and how I took my own vision for granted.
For Sean to travel to university safely, he decided to commence an Orientation and Mobility program at VisAbility. “I need to be able to travel to and from university safely and as a result of my training with my instructor I am now able to travel to university from home. I just need to learn how to travel from home to VisAbility, but I am getting there! I feel empowered that I am able to catch public transport independently now.” Sean also adds that he feels the skills he has gained at VisAbility continue to help him access the community as a whole, fairly independently.
Instead of relying on the safety and comfort of his own home, Sean decided to participate in activities at VisAbility and he has come to think of it as his second home. Sean remarks, “On Mondays and Tuesdays I attend the Gym where I work on my arms, legs and stomach. Fraser, a Community Activity Centre activity officer, developed a program for me and I alternate between working on different parts of my body”. Sean also attends a weekly cooking group at VisAbility where he learns how to prepare meals all on his own. “We learn how to prepare and cook simple meals and we are taught to do this independently. The staff are great and we have a washing-up roster, encouraging us to clean up after ourselves.” The Sense of Adventure group at VisAbility is another place Sean enjoys spending time with his peers. The group goes to a range of activities such as Laser Tag, self-defence classes and karaoke, to name a few. “I love being part of the Sense of Adventure group because it is so much fun. We all have a good time participating in challenging activities” he says.
To finish, I ask Sean what is the one piece of advice he could give to other people with a vision impairment. He replies, “Definitely utilise what VisAbility has to offer. You gain knowledge and life skills to use when out in the community. VisAbility also provides the tools to become a valuable member of society.”
Sean starts to relax and leans back in his chair with his hands behind his head. He starts laughing. I ask him ‘what is so funny?’ He explains that he is remembering a funny occasion where the Community Activity Centre staff engaged in an impromptu tug-of-war game with a few of the clients. I laugh too. It is clear to me how much Sean enjoys spending time with his VisAbility family, a place where he has formed some solid, lifelong friendships.
By Andrew Lyons