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Ian speaks: Heroes

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Helen Keller, Louis Braille, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, John Milton and Homer can’t be the only blindies to have made an impact on the lives of others. What about Samson? I mean, He, in his latter moments, made an impact on certain people that can only be described as profound. Then there’s St. Paul of course. True, he experienced a kind of cosmic cataract op on the road to Damascus and then went on to make his impact. Who though of today’s sightless wonders will be remembered in time to come? Not me. But there are definitely a few super-achievers who make you frightened at the thought of what they’d get up to if they could see.

The scene is Badwater, Death Valley, lowest point in the western hemisphere. Thermometer’s touching 48 degrees. Destination? Mt. Whitney, highest point in the contiguous United States. Between are Furnace Creek, Devil’s Cornfield and three mountain ranges. Distance from here to there? Two-hundred-and-sixteen kilometres. Time limit for getting there, 48 hours. Means of transport? Legs. And the Badwater Marathon is under way.

AdventureCORPS News
“Geoffrey Hilton-Barber, 58, of South Africa, became the first blind athlete to complete the race. With a time of 46:30:17.”

I know this Geoffrey. He does this sort of thing all the time. His feelings about the latest notch on his white cane? It’s “the greatest road race in the world.” What’s there left to do then, Geoffrey? Take up knitting? Sure.

But now the scene shifts to an empty airstrip outside Mafikeng. 1,25-million Rands worth of power screams into life. In seconds it’s over.

Pretoria News, 9September 2005
“Blind driver races into record books at 269km/h”

The maniac who slipped in behind the wheel of the Maserati V8 GranSport is blind Hein Wagner. However, the undoubted hero of the piece has to be a certain Ray Nerves-Of- Steel Wakefield, Wagner’s navigator.

And so the examples go on. we all remember here the blind guy who summited Everest. His name escapes us of course. What a feat though. I was thinking of trying it myself but decided against it. I mean, I wouldn’t enjoy the view from the top and besides, who wants to be the second blindy to do it.

Accomplishments like these and many others of their kind do raise the profile of blind people in the eyes of others and, hopefully, demonstrate the potential rather than the impotence of disabled people.

Well and good. But there’s a question that’s always bothered me a bit. I often wonder if I’d get the same level of admiration for the simple things I achieve if I had been sighted. It’s like when I won the Drink Your Own Bath Water competition and got showered with compliments and heaped with praise, way beyond what my achievement deserved and almost more than my stomach could take.

On the flip side, there was the time I found myself solo on a toboggan whizzing down a snowy Swiss mountainside, negotiating bends, slicing past skiers, skimming over drifts, except for the last one that sent me flying head-over-heals.

Quickly, people crowded round. I sat up.

“O’, fantastisch, vonderful,” they were saying. “Damn it about zis las drif, a bukker.”

Little did they know that it had not been my intention to ride solo and that I’d been completely out of control the whole way down.

It’s all relative I suppose, what we admire and why. A little illustration, also with a Swiss connection, will serve here.

I’m sitting in a pub with a friend. A couple of guys come in. My friend recognises their Swiss-German dialect because He lived there and speaks the lingo. They get talking. At some point, they switch to English and one of the Swiss is saying, “Ve haf chust come beck from ze Free State. Und it is zo beautifully flet zere.”

Anyway, heroes will be heroes, no matter what or why. Me, I tend to like the quiet, funny ones with stories, the ones who just get on with it. Here’s George Shearing for instance, jazz pianist, had a lot of international success. He’s being interviewed.

Interviewer: “So tell me George. Have you been blind all your life?”
George: “Well, no. Not yet.”

To all these people and others like them, bravo. You are a necessary inspiration.

But it will take many more feats, some of a different kind, to make an impact upon the lives Of the thousands of blind people you’ll find if you walk through the shacks that pass for homes, through rundown townships and decaying suburbs where sightlessness so often brings hopelessness, helplessness, isolation and depression, where heroes are scarce and funny stories, although craved after, hardly crack a smile.

What will it take to take their hunger and pain away?