Life is for Living 2005: 25 New Zealanders living with disability tell their stories
Paul - Balancing work, sport, family and relationships
Paul Barclay comes from a farming family. His father and grandfather have farmed in South Otago, and Paul planned to continue the tradition. He went to Lincoln College (now Lincoln University) and did a degree in farm management. However, in 1988 Paul was involved in a car accident and lost his sight.
"My friends, family and the university staff were all positive and it helped me to be positive in adjusting to my new life. I'm a thinker, an analyser, so I could work out ways to do things."
After the accident I attended the residential Adult Rehabilitation Unit at the Foundation for the Blind in Auckland - now known as the Foundation of the Blind. I rapidly realised there were significant practical difficulties in being a farmer and I decided to return to Lincoln to do post-graduate studies in commerce and financial management, with some forestry. I had learned touch typing, Braille, mobility and daily living skills on my rehab course and I put them into practice when I went back to university. I flatted, first with other people and then by myself.
It took three years for me to get the two post-graduate diplomas that others would do in two years. It was only about 10 months after I had lost my sight that I returned to Lincoln, and I had only missed one year of study, so I knew the lecturers and some of the students. I was the first blind student there and everyone was very keen to help me. A computer made the study possible, my computer reads the words and speaks them to me. I taped all my lectures then I typed them into my computer. While this took a long time I found it meant I really understood the notes and it helped with studying. Where possible, information was provided for me in electronic format so I could hear them on the computer.
Sure there were some low times, some negative times. Being able to get physical on the farm helped. By being creative in my thinking I could do tasks like feeding out, drenching and pressing wool at shearing time. I am someone who can create and carry mental pictures, for example of how to get to the woolshed and the layout inside the wool shed, and I worked out ways to do the physical tasks safely so my family trusted I could manage.
"Not all blind people are confident travellers. It is very different for those of us who lost sight compared to those who have been born blind. I can remember colours, what a sunny day or a foggy day looks like, sunlight and shadows. Having seen an intersection makes it easier for me to cross one as a blind person. I can interpret easily all the clues we have, like wind on your back or face, being in shadow or warm sun, traffic noise. We learn to use our senses and our memories to give us knowledge of where we are."
My life had a new focus. I was making the change from a typical farm-boy student interested in rugby to a student very focused on achieving a post-graduate diploma. In fact I achieved mostly Cs in my degree course and much better grades in my post-graduate work, finishing the last paper with an A plus.
After I completed the study I was ready to find a job. It took me 18 months and was very frustrating. When I indicated I was blind I didn't even get an interview; in fact the only interviews I got were when I knew the employer or the employer knew my referees. At that time I was tempted to apply without declaring my blindness but I realised that this would be evident at the interview and probably wouldn't change things. What I realised is that people, especially employers, don't know what blind people can do and take the easier option of not finding out.
Today I realise that employing a blind person requires an employer who can look outside the square - it needs someone who can look at their team of people and work out what skills they have and employ people who can complement each other to deliver what is required. An example is my forestry paper at Lincoln that was a group project. Some of the fieldwork observing and counting trees I couldn't do but I was good at the number crunching and analysis so the group's skills balanced out.
I see skill balancing as a way to build productive work teams and now it is helping more blind people obtain the types of jobs that use their skills, education and experience.
After applying for a number of jobs at the Foundation of the Blind, I got my name known there, and eventually I was offered a 12-month contract as an equipment advisor in Wellington. It was a bit of a gamble. The money I earnt took me off ACC but, if I had had to return to the South Island at the end of the 12 months, I would have ended up with a loss for the year. As it happened the Foundation of the Blind employed me on a series of fixed-term contracts and permanent jobs, initially in Wellington and then Christchurch, until three years ago I became the National Manager Rehabilitation Services.
To my mind I have achieved this management position about 5-10 years behind the classmates I first graduated with. It takes longer to prove yourself if you have a disability. I am also aware that some people with disabilities are less prepared to take the risk to venture into something new and can limit their options to very safe, secure work that may not extend them.
In my job I travel nationally. I am a confident white cane traveller. People ask me why I haven't got a guide dog, but I'm not sure that in my present job having a guide dog would be good for me or the dog. My farming background means I understand working dogs well. I know my national travel routes and routines and I move about confidently. Most days though I'm deskbound and I am sure this would not be good for a working dog.
The worst thing for a blind person would be to be freed in the middle of an open space with no landmark, nothing for orientation. The blind person has to walk, and find something, or someone, that alerts them to where they are and which direction they want to move in. Using our cane stops us walking into obstacles. Something that may have helped me to be an independent traveller is that I always was a thinker-analyst type who could store and use information. It would be harder for a strong visual observer, like an artist, to lose their sight, as that is the sense they had developed well. In rehabilitation you learn how to use all your other senses so you can participate fully without needing much help.
"Whenever we are communicating, working, living in the community we are demonstrating to non-disabled people we are just ordinary people leading everyday lives, even if we have to approach some problems with alternative solutions."
People are often not sure how to communicate with blind people. Sometimes when I go shopping with my wife Jane, and I'm buying clothing for myself, the shop assistants will persistently ask Jane what I want. Jane may be with me to advise on colour and style but I'm doing the deciding and buying. People do make assumptions about the type of assistance blind people want. They often over-assist or stand back and don't let you know they are there and could help if you need a hand.
Blind people will respond courteously to any person who asks 'Do you need any help with that?' Just like everybody else, sometimes we would welcome some help but mostly we have got it under control. I've had some really good conversations with new acquaintances who approach me with offers of help.
When I had my accident I was working for a transport firm. A short time after I became blind I was sitting in the pub and Jimmy, one of the drivers, was there. He didn't make contact because he didn't know what to say to me. When we began to talk, he realised I was the same person as before the accident. Our conversation made him see the person first, the disability second.
When I was sighted I played rugby, cricket, tennis and golf - not flash at any of them but a good team player. After I was blind I had a go at golden oldies' rugby, but it wasn't the same. I started playing blind cricket and have been fortunate to have had two trips to Aussie in the New Zealand blind cricket team. As a sighted person I was not likely to represent my country at any sport. My goal is to play in the world blind cricket cup in Johannesburg in December 2006. I am also in the New Zealand goalball team and am training for a multi-nation tournament in Kuala Lumpur in November 2006.
For blind people, sport offers the same challenges and opportunities as for sighted people - the opportunity for exercise, the camaraderie of team sports and as little or as much competitiveness as you want. It's about a group of people in a team interacting with the common goal of the team doing well.
"There will always be a role for me in educating the sighted world to see people who are blind as people who manage the impairment of blindness. Not to see us as blind first, people second, or not to look the other way to avoid seeing us at all. There are plenty of new challenges out there, definitely including being a new dad."
Jane's and my life is about to change. We are excitedly expecting our first baby. We are both career people so this will be an interesting transition for us. Of course I will be sad not to see my baby smile, as I am about not seeing Jane. I still see my parents as they were when I had my accident. My sister was 14 then and I can't picture her as an adult. I guess, like all new parents, we will grow into the role and I'll find out how I can best be a dad. It will be some of the little things I won't be able to do as a dad that will frustrate me. Like with the rest of our lives, we'll plan as best we can - then take it as it comes.
My vision and challenges for the future? Well, they do centre around impending parenthood and mixing some career aspirations with family, relationships and sports. Same as everybody else I guess. I do have a sideline business as I own a forestry block in South Otago. When I can I get down there and work with the forestry consultant. I am keeping up with my rural side, but as life gets busier I'm down there less and less.
I'm turning 40 next year. Many people have a bit of a career plateau in their mid-forties. It may be time to prove that my management skills can be effective in a non-disability related employment area to make myself more marketable in the future. We will probably still be living in Christchurch. While I would like to live in the country it's just not practical to be reliant on others for daily transport. Where we live now I can walk to work in 15 minutes.
For me to work effectively, improvements in computer technology would be useful. In my job now I have some difficulty accessing information although with JAWS screen-reading software I can surf the internet and gain access to an increasing number of websites.