YOUR STORY: Please look beyond my blindness
I AM often told that I am inspirational.
I was once even called legendary.
No, I am not a famous celebrity. I am an ordinary person who is living with the disability of blindness.
The most disabling thing about being blind is the limitations and low expectations sometimes placed on people living with disability by other people.
I am frequently stopped in the street by people asking questions about my dog guide.
Public relations and community education is an ongoing commitment, as I patiently explain that we work together as a team. I am the pilot and the dog is the navigator.
I encourage people to speak directly to the person with disability who is handling the dog and not to acknowledge the dog, which can easily be distracted when people make eye contact, attempt to talk to or touch the dog, or have a pet dog which is unrestrained and off-leash.
I feel that I am often defined by my disability when people meet me for the first time and do not look beyond my blindness and have no knowledge of my capabilities and past achievements.
Being born blind in one eye was never a disability for me, as I had good sight in my other eye, until I was diagnosed with glaucoma in my only eye in my mid-20s.
Glaucoma is increased pressure in the eye, which damages the optic nerve, causing progressive vision loss or "tunnel vision".
Glaucoma tends to run in families and it is therefore important that everybody has their eyes checked regularly to avoid potential vision loss and blindness.
In my case, the eye disease did not respond to the usual treatment of eye drops, so I have had ongoing eye surgery over the years to try and save my sight.
I had low vision for many years and am now completely blind due to post-operative complications of eye infection, cataract and multiple retinal detachments.
I well remember after one of my eye surgeries, making the comment to my family "If anything goes wrong, I would rather be dead than blind!".
In my shock, ignorance and fear, I could not imagine anything worse than being blind, however I am pleased to report that I have learned to reinvent myself and move beyond my blindness.
With appropriate support and services, I now live successfully and independently without sight.
During my sighted life, I was employed as a registered nurse.
Whilst on duty as a nurse at the hospital, I noticed my vision deteriorating throughout the day, until it was not possible to see well enough to write my nursing notes or drive myself home.
This was due to post-operative complications following eye surgery and I went from being a sighted nurse, to being a blind patient in the same hospital overnight.
Such a shocking experience being on the other side of the sheets.
After a period of rehabilitation and adjustment to disability counselling, where I received support and living skills training and services, I learned strategies to enable me to reinvent myself, develop confidence and independence and learned to live successfully as a person who is blind.
I have achieved much in my life since acquiring my disability.
I have completed a Masters Degree at university, was employed for more than 10 years in the disability sector and recently retired as executive officer from an organisation which has existed for more than 100 years, providing peer support, advocacy and information for people who are blind or vision impaired.
I have established two national associations which represent, promote, enhance and protect the interests of people with disability who are assistance dog handlers.
I also thoroughly enjoy my voluntary role at Vision Australia, a national organisation which provides services to support people who are blind or have low vision to live the life they choose.
I now live in retirement on the Sunshine Coast with my husband, Colin, who is also blind.
We continue to enjoy travelling and we see the world in a different way, experiencing the dversity of different people, places, food and cultures.
Since acquiring my vision loss, I have been partnered with two lovely labrador dog guides and this has enabled me to travel around Australia and around the world with complete confidence, freedom and independence.
I am now partnered with a "pocket rocket" dog called "Faith".
With my first dog guide, "Lincoln", we travelled across Australia on the Indian Pacific and Ghan trains and Lincoln demanded an unscheduled stop in the middle of the Nullarbor Desert for a toilet break.
Lincoln also accompanied us on a cruise ship, where he was provided with his own doggy life jacket in case of an emergency evacuation.
My fondest memory is of Lincoln travelling with us to America, where Colin and I were married in Las Vegas. Lincoln guided me down the aisle and carried our wedding rings on a ribbon around his neck.
Perhaps one of the greatest frustrations and limitations of being blind, is the difficulty in reading printed information.
It is pleasing to see many advances in technology in recent years that now makes information more accessible to people who are blind, with the use of talking computers, talking mobile phones, talking GPS systems to help with navigation and orientation, not to mention digital audio books, and increasing access to audio description of movies and cultural events.
A very famous deaf and blind lady, Helen Keller, once said: "The best and most beautiful things in life cannot be seen, touched or heard, they must be felt with the heart".
I do not deny the many challenges of living with disability, which pervades every aspect of my life, however I live my life with courage and determination.
I know that there is life beyond blindness.
I challenge all people to live life without limits and to strive to make their life extraordinary.