I’ve been legally blind all my life. I was born with congenital rubella syndrome, which caused cataracts. I see light and dark, and objects up close, but I can’t distinguish faces or features. I identify people by voice, the way they walk, their perfume, or sometimes by someone’s laugh; it’s just different things that stand out for me. I’m always tuned in to what’s going on around me. I do everything hands-on.
I like to do lots of different things with my time. I like to cook and swim. I like tandem bike riding, power walking and blind table tennis (called “swish”). I love music. My adventures have been hot air ballooning, hang-gliding, rock climbing and abseiling. When I got married five years ago, we had a horse and carriage take us to the church and Coburg Lake and then the reception. I just enjoy life. I’m one of those people that will try anything. I’m not frightened to give anything a go. I guess that’s just me being adventurous.
From when I was four years old, I went to St Paul’s School for the Blind. I boarded there throughout the week, which gave me lots of confidence and made me very independent. Had I not done that, I know I would’ve been very sheltered and wouldn’t have done all of the things I’ve done in my life. When I was home on weekends, I felt quite lost because at school I always had my friends and we were like a close-knit family. But my parents and siblings were supportive and made up for it. I come from an Italian background and my parents were very strict and protective of me. I wasn’t allowed to do lots of things that my friends were. As I got older I was able to speak up and convince my parents that I needed to get out and be in the real world. It’s very rewarding. Sometimes situations are not always easy to cope with, but you get there. You learn to deal with it, whatever it is. When I was thirteen I started travelling on my own to school, which was in Kew. I used to take a tram from Coburg into the city and another tram back out to Kew. I travel on all forms of public transport now. Sometimes I travel on my own to the city. I used to travel quite a bit to the country on the trains. I’ve been to Swan Hill, Bendigo, Gippsland, Mildura and Horsham: I’ve got friends all over the place. I travel a lot around Coburg. My mum lives on the other side of the railway line and quite often I walk to her place. It’s a 20-minute walk.
I had to learn how to read braille but as I was growing up the teachers didn’t know what to put me on – whether I should be reading print or braille, because my eyesight was so poor. So I was a little bit unsettled, and they didn’t know what to do with me. I was too young for them to ask me what I thought. As it turned out, I ended up learning braille but I could also read large print.
After being at boarding school I did an office skills course in Richmond, with Work Link, which is for all disabilities. I learnt how to manage the switchboard and did a lot of photocopying, collating, filling envelopes and franking. I then worked for a caravan company in their Italian department. I was doing mostly telephonist work.
I worked at the Royal Melbourne Hospital as a volunteer. I used to do lots of hands on things, like stamping envelopes and shredding documents. I also used to talk to some of the patients and do some Italian interpreting. I also worked for lifeline, in the English-speaking department and then in the bilingual department. I did that for about four years as a volunteer.
Now I work at an aged care facility. I started as a volunteer in the op-shop, folding clothes. Then I started answering phones in the office. I was a volunteer for at least seven years. And then finally a job came up and I applied for it. I had a foot in the door because I’d been volunteering. I’m in the lifestyle department and I run activities. For instance, I run an Italian group and I run bingo. I also give hand massages and I’m an advocate for the residents. I enjoy working with the residents. It’s a great place and I find it very rewarding. The building at work has three floors. When I first started volunteering I was in a single level building, with the op-shop next door. It was a big change for me when we moved buildings. I used to use my cane to get around but after a month I was familiar enough not to.
I have my GPS, it speaks to me and tells me where I’m going, on public transport or when I’m walking. I can program a route from home and it will tell me where I am. For example, I can go to Darebin and the GPS will tell me what shops, parks, restaurants and banks are around.
My first adventure, was running and it gave me a lot of confidence to do other things. Keeping fit keeps my mind active. I kept branching out to other things, other adventures. Nothing stops me: I’m my own motivator. I was about 14 or 15 years old when I started running. I trained at the Coburg athletics track. They were really good. I had my own trainer that would come down and train me for my events. It was full on. I used to train twice a week from about 6.30pm to 9.30pm and then we had a social supper afterwards. I was the only vision-impaired person there. And I had to educate them. A few times there used to be hurdles left on the track and when I ran into them, boy did it hurt! It took a while for them to understand, but they got used to it.
My trainer and I would use a rope about three metres long. In normal training he would be able to run beside me, holding the other end of the rope. But in competition he would have to be about five metres behind me. If he ran beside me in competition, and they felt that he was dragging me around the track, I would have been disqualified. In competition he was my guide. The trainer would speak to me and sometimes, if I was going off course, he would say “Go to your right” or “Go to your left”. When competing, he would just keep me on the right side of the track. If he saw I was slowing down, or another competitor was catching up, he’d tell me to go faster. In long distance running, in competition, the guide would tell me when curves were coming up. They acted as my eyes. In a 100m sprint, instead of using a rope, there would be someone at the other end calling out through a megaphone to give me directions. It could be confusing when other people were calling out; I had to listen for the right voice.
As a fun thing, every so often I used to run against the veterans. The Leader newspaper would cover the events, recording our times and where we placed. It was good for my training. It built me up to keep fit. It was a friendly competition, but it was challenging because I was running against sighted people.
Everyone that was training for the championships went to Olympic Park. At first, I went with all the vision-impaired people. But then I was one of the first people that actually went out and said we have to be with the real world, and joined a sighted track. I educated myself. I thought: I can’t just do it with vision-impaired people. It wasn’t working. You need to be more independent, more aware that the world doesn’t just revolve around vision-impaired people; it revolves around everybody. Some people can’t integrate into the sighted world; I’ve always been able to. We’re a minority; we’re not the majority so it’s important to be able to fit in, even though sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes you feel like you’re behind the eight ball. There are times that we are, not forgotten, but left out. But if you’re in the community and you’re confident then you’ll be all right.
As a teenager, with the Victorian Blind Sports Association (VBSA), I represented Victoria in athletics and competed in Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney. You had to qualify to get in. It made me aware of how important it is to keep fit and eat well – fit mind, fit body. It boosted my confidence. It was very challenging. It’s great that I was able to visit different states, not just that I was competing in sports. The Leader newspaper always wanted to do interviews when I’d been somewhere, which is good education for people to realise that we might need different ways of doing things, but we can still achieve our goals.
I represented Australia in the Paralympics when I was 22 years old. It was an eye-opener and a great experience. At the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul I broke Australia’s long jump record and competed in discus, shot put and running events. I won gold in the long jump, silver for running in the 200m and bronze for discus. I was actually quite unwell through my training for the Olympics. I had a bad flu and I was lucky I was able to make it to the Olympics at all. I did everything that was asked of me, drank plenty of fluids and so on. I was very positive, very optimistic. I wanted to make it and did everything possible to. And I’m glad I did.
There was a variation of different people at the Olympics. In the vision-impaired sports there are three categories. In B1 you must be totally blind, B2 is very limited vision and B3 is good partial sight. I was a B1 but I didn’t want to be. I went into B2 because there wasn’t much competition in B1. I wanted to be challenged. And even sometimes with the nationals I did the same, depending on how many people were in the category. And I could do that; it meant I was improving myself.
My favourite event was long jump, not because I broke the record, I just always enjoyed it. My trainer would show me where the sand pit was. I would then pace out the run-up distance, usually 30 steps. Then he would line me up and I would start running, counting my steps, and that’s how I’d know when to jump. If I was going off course, then someone would call out through a megaphone. I also loved competing in the relays. I liked being part of a team and it was great fun with all the crowd applauding. In a normal event, it was over in no time. Relays were exciting: everyone was doing it together and barracking for their team.
Through my late twenties I played a game called Goal Ball. It’s like basketball but the ball has got bells in it, there are nets on either end of the court, and you roll the ball instead of bouncing it. It’s quite a rough game. You have to wear a chest protector, elbow pads and kneepads, and you have to dive from side to side. There are only three people on each team. You have a centre player and two end players. I played Goal Ball for four years and I qualified to represent Victoria. My family and friends came to watch and supported me and the team.
When I was about 13 or 14 I belonged to a bushwalking club through Vision Australia and we used to go on day trips once a month, to all different places. It was a great experience. We had sighted volunteers that helped. Later on, when I was in my twenties I used to run a bush walking group with another vision-impaired person. We organised day trips and weekend trips. We named the group “WHAM” – Walkers, Hikers and Mutts – because some of the members brought their guide dogs. Bush walking and camping was quite adventurous. We used to go to Wilson’s Prom, Yea and lots of other places.
I did a rock climbing camp with Vision Australia when I was a teenager. We went to the Grampians and had a week away. We stayed at a nice country pub in the middle of nowhere. They were really supportive and fantastic to us. They accommodated us well. We did abseiling and rock climbing – that was my very first time. It was good because we were all equal and all learning. I wasn’t scared of the abseiling at all but the rock climbing was a bit steep at times. It was very challenging. I found rock climbing and abseiling very inspiring: I felt like once I’d accomplished those challenges, I could achieve anything. It gave me lots of determination and motivation. I didn’t tell my parents where I was really going because I know they definitely wouldn’t have let me go. I told them I was going bushwalking, as I’d done that before on plenty of day trips. So, I told my brother to keep it a secret for a week until I got back home. And he did. After I’d been home a week, I got the photos developed and I showed my parents – they couldn’t believe it, they were quite shocked!
Now I’m part of a group called Quality Journeys, which is run by Guide Dogs Victoria. Last year we went to Licola for four days. It’s 45 minutes past Traralgon, up in the mountains, with no mobile coverage at all. I was challenged, not having a mobile. It was weird. It was a good group, really helpful. We were the only ones actually staying there. We each had our own cabin – we had a kitchen, our own toilet and shower. I felt spoilt. I went on the flying fox and a giant swing. I felt like I had no stomach afterwards. I did some bush walking. We had a couple of nights with campfires and barbeques. We cooked potatoes and marshmallows on the fire. We had sing-alongs and told jokes. We went for night hikes. It was just really nice to be out in the middle of nowhere. It was fresh air. We weren’t pushed for time. It was leisurely. The idea was that we had to be independent. We had to cook our own meals and clean up afterwards. The hardest part for me was not having my mobile, because I always love to talk. Other people said the hardest part for them was the cooking. Everyone had different ideas. I’m going to do it again this year.
I went hot air ballooning two years ago. I found it really fascinating. It was a real team effort, we all got the balloon pumped up and it was just great to get in the balloon. I felt like I was floating in the air. I really enjoyed it. I’d do it again, definitely. I had to wake up at 3am, then my friend picked me up at 3.30am and we drove for an hour to the starting place. After the balloon ride, we had a cheese and wine breakfast and then went for a nice, relaxing walk throughout the gardens.
Twelve years ago I started tandem bike riding. To find someone to ride with me, I tried through Vision Australia, the Victorian Blind Sports Association, my local council and Coburg Athletics Club. In the end, after a year and a half of waiting, but still making phone calls, I found someone through Vision Australia. He was already a bike rider and was interested in doing some kind of volunteer work, but wasn’t sure what. Then he saw this ad for a woman wanting to ride so he thought he’d give it a go. I was so lucky to get my rider in 2000 and I’ve still got him now. He knows everything about bikes, he takes the bike home and looks after it. We do about 80 kilometres every week on bike trails around Moonee Ponds, Merri Creek, Upfield, Capital Trail, and along the Yarra. It’s great; it keeps me fit, in general. As I’m riding I smell things like flowers, herbs and grass. I’m in the fresh air and it’s very relaxing. I’d really love to do one of the long organised rides (for example, Round the Bay in a Day) but I can’t find anyone to do it with.
At Sandown Racecourse every year, there is an event called In the Driver’s Seat. The Automobile Chambers of Commerce Rotary Club, the Lion’s Club, and the RACV organise it. We get to drive a car, automatic or manual, with an instructor beside us. It’s a real family day; they have a really nice BBQ. They also give us the opportunity to ride in vintage cars and on motorbikes. The owners of the vehicles are all volunteers. They give us a history of each vintage car or bike. It’s a very popular event. I can bring family and friends along to watch. It’s great that they give up their time to let us do it, and give us the track for the day. From the racecourse, they pick you up in a little bus and take you around to the registration. It’s very well organised. It’s a real buzz, especially the first few times I did it.
I enjoy talking to people and I belong to various social groups. For example, the White Cane Wanderers. We go on day trips once a fortnight to different places like the Werribee Zoo, the Moe Museum and Ballarat Begonia Festival. I’m also part of a Scope group. We do different activities each month, such as pottery, jewellery making, massage and cooking. I also belong to Heidelberg Support Group. It’s a support group for people like myself. We have guest speakers sometimes, or we go on outings to different places. I don’t really go for support; because I’m so independent I feel I don’t really need it. I just go when I feel there’s something I might learn or find out. Some people need the security.
I belong to a dining-out group. I do that once a month. We go to restaurants of different cuisines. It’s just a social get-together, organised through Vision Australia. Volunteers come and pick us up, come to dinner with us, and then take us home afterwards.
I was on my way to the city the other day, on a tram, and a lady tapped me. I was listening to my talking book. She was quite intrigued that I was on my own. I had my cane, I wasn’t using my GPS then but I had it with me. She asked me how do I manage, overall, getting around and working. And I just basically said to her that when you can’t see, your mind is always on the go. You’re always thinking about things, always organising. Most days I plan and prepare my day as to what I’m doing. It’s the two P words – planning and preparation.
People do look down on people with disabilities and debilitate them because they think they are not capable of doing things. The attitude of some people is really narrow-minded. I know that’s why sometimes I haven’t been able to get work. They look at your disability instead of you as a person. If people were more understanding and gave people a chance to be themselves they would see that everyone’s different. Sometimes they put blind people all in one category, which doesn’t allow individual personalities to come out. We are now living in the 2000s, people should be more compassionate towards people with any type of disability.
It’s what you put into life you get out of life. It’s your attitude: if you’re happy and confident and bubbly you have a more positive outlook on life. I’m definitely a positive person. You’re not going to be able to change things – the way to compensate is to be out there and to do things in the community and make the most of your talents. Be yourself, don’t let people tell you what to do. You’re your own person you should be able to make decisions, don’t be somebody you don’t want to be. I’ve always had my own mind. You’ve got to have direction in life and goals you want to achieve. Every year I’ve got something I want to achieve, and work towards achieving it.
My faith has given me inner strength and motivation to be able to accomplish all these amazing things in my life. I know that God has been the source of all my inspiration and strength and clarity of mind. I know that God has always been my provider as he has compensated for my lack of eyesight and has blessed me with lots of other gifts, especially the gift of spiritual sight to guide me. He has opened many doors, which has enabled me to live life to the fullest. God wants the best for everyone and he will do this for you as well. Let faith be your guide.
I would like to dedicate this piece of writing to my loving father Michelangelo Merola who is now in Heaven. He is the one who has always encouraged me. My dad has always been of great support to me and his caring advice has given me peace and security up to this day. I know that my Dad is looking down on me and is really proud to see how I am living my life and all that I have accomplished. Forever in my heart.