According to new research by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, approximately 70% of Australians list going blind as their greatest fear. And who can blame them? In most cases, the loss of sight also leads to a loss of independence.
When your vision deteriorates beyond repair, you’re suddenly reliant on family and friends for their assistance. In addition to loved ones, Guide Dogs are a life-changing form of support, giving people with vision impairment a chance to gain their independence back.
But did you know that as many as three in four Australians who need a Guide Dog don’t have one? Unfortunately, insufficient funding means Guide Dogs NSW/ACT simply don’t have the cash to meet the demand.
Liz Wheeler is one of the lucky ones. After being declared legally blind at 26, she was given a Guide Dog named Poppi. Here, she explains how Poppi vastly improved her quality of life.
Over to you, Liz:
“At 18 years of age, I had just finished high school. I took a trip to Europe with my father before planning to start university. I thought the trip to Europe would change my life, but the change was not what I expected. My great aunt who we visited has a rare condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa that has robbed her of her eye sight. When visiting with my family, they were the first to recognise that I showed all the signs of the way a person with low vision moves in the world.
“Not wanting to alarm me, my parents took me to an ophthalmologist in the hope that my clumsiness and inability to see at night was due to a lack of carrots in my diet. Their worst fears were realised when I received my diagnosis. I thought that was the worst moment of my life, but that moment came about five minutes later. When leaving the practice, my father who is strong and brave collapsed with grief for my future. It took both my mother and I to help him to his feet. It was in that moment I realised that the only thing scarier than going blind was watching a loved one do it. Through my father’s complete show of vulnerability and love I found this tremendous strength and courage. I was not going to let blindness dictate my life.
“At 18, I had been handed the oddest gift. I had been given an expiry date on my ability to see the world and it awoke this sense of gratitude and appreciation for what I had. I woke each day appreciating that day, and developed a drive beyond what I knew was possible. I decided not to go to university and instead got a job in a government department where I worked hard and made my way at a young age into senior management and a six figure salary. At 21, I met the love of my life and we dated for six years before getting married.
“At 26, at an ophthalmologist appointment, my doctor explained to me that I had lost so much vision I was now ‘legally blind’. This is a term used when a person’s acuity (how well they see) becomes incredibly poor or a visual field is significantly restricted. My visual field, or how much sight I had left, was about 15% of my total vision remaining. As this had happened gradually, I had adapted and my central or reading vision remained remarkably crisp. I couldn’t see the whole screen of the television but I could read the football score at the bottom of it.
“So I thought to myself, ‘I’ve officially gone legally blind. So this is it. My Retinis Pigmentosa has run its course and this blindness thing is not so bad.’
“I found this huge wonderful bubble of denial and I stayed here for a long – and I mean a long – time. But over the coming years as my vision continued to narrow my acuity began to worsen. But I wasn’t going blind. I could no longer cross roads because traffic had become busier. I could no longer read my computer screen well because I worked so hard I would get really tired. I could no longer use the gas cook top because gas was too pressured and easy to burn yourself now. I could go on-and-on with the crazy list of things that had changed, but not my sight.
“As I struggled to remain the same, my anxiety increased and one day it all fell apart. I found myself needing to accept that I had become more blind. I left my job and had three months off work at that point. Then I found denial again, returned to work for a few weeks before I left for good. Between this time and when I started to get help, I spent close to two years with severe anxiety, unable to leave the house. It was at that point that Guide Dogs NSW/ACT started to work with me. I tried really hard to learn to use a white cane, but my confidence did not return, so they convinced me to try a Guide Dog. I was at the point where I really didn’t believe there could be a better way to live life and that the worst had happened, but what did I have to lose? So I went to the experience and I walked slowly with my cane along a path to where the dogs were waiting. It took me 20 minutes. I was paired with a dog and we walked the path back together. I couldn’t believe what had just taken 20 minutes and a lot of struggle with a cane took me just five minutes with my Guide Dog. This was the first moment in years where I had felt true hope for my future.
“Seven months later I was paired with my very own guide dog, Poppi. Within three months of having her, my life began to turn around for the better. I gained the confidence to leave my house and go for a walk to the park. Then I found myself able to go to the shops, and she is so smart she was able to show me where my key grocery items were. Within six months, I was able to get a bus and even a train. It was around this time I really sincerely started to smile again. I had truly found freedom and life was looking so much more promising.
“It’s now two and a half years since I got Poppi, and my only regret was that I didn’t get her sooner. My vision has deteriorated and I now have around 3% of my total vision remaining, but Poppi continues to open up my world. We have flown independently together — in fact, Poppi has officially completed her 20th flight helping me attend a conference in Melbourne. She takes me to university every week, and provides me with so much other assistance. With Poppi by my side, life is full of possibility, and the ordinary has become extraordinary.
“If there’s anyone open to supporting people like me living with vision loss in your community this holiday season, please consider donating to Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, to change the life of someone who is still in desperate need of a Guide Dog of their own.”