For much of her life, the only thing Wendy had control over was her hair…. and believed she wasn’t smart enough to make any other decisions for herself.
For half her life, Wendy didn’t know she was legally blind and believe people when they told her she was just ‘clumsy, stupid and dumb’.
I really thought that there was something drastically mentally wrong with me. I would walk into people all the time, knock over children, walk into trees and parked cars. I couldn’t do anything right. I was always confused and didn’t have any confidence.”
Born three months premature into a remote rural community in the 1960’s, Wendy was vulnerable from day one. She suffered with poor health as a child and as Wendy puts it, the people in the community weren’t very nice to those who were ‘different.’
“I was short, had buckteeth and was born without an index finger on my left hand. I was forever tripping over and bumping into things. Kids were really mean to me – I was teased a lot. They’d call me the most awful names, put bags in my way when I was walking so I’d fall over. Or pull my chair away when I sat down.”
As she grew up, her desire to live life to the full, coupled with a vision impairment she didn’t know she had, exposed her to dangerous situations as a young adult. She suffered in silence with decades of domestic violence and traumatic experiences from people she should have been able to rely on.
When Wendy tried to get her driver’s licence at 28, she realised childhood health checks had not picked up her vision impairment. She had no idea just how impaired her eyesight really was and had no idea that her vision was vastly different to most people.
“All my life I had presumed that everyone could see how I could see. I just thought everyone was much smarter than me and could work it all out.”
She was diagnosed with Retinopathy of Prematurity. As Wendy puts it, “normal optic nerves grow out like branches of a tree, but mine grew straight.” Since birth, Wendy has had no peripheral vision or distance perception.
“Everything in front of me looks like it’s on top of each other, no matter how close or far away it really is. This is my normal.”
“When I was in the driver’s seat, I couldn’t see the speedo, gear stick or even the bonnet of the car. I couldn’t tell if the car in front of me was one metre or 20 metres away. Cars on either side of me were just a kaleidoscope blur of coloured light.”
The revelation of her vision impairment caused Wendy’s life to spiral to depth’s she never imagined possible.
“I was angry, so very angry.” Wendy felt betrayed, isolated and alone; she didn’t have a supportive partner or friends, had five children in school and lived on a rural property 60km from the nearest town.
“Bringing the kids up with a vision impairment was really hard. There was always stuff boiling over in the kitchen. I couldn’t read the instructions on medications, drive them anywhere or help with their homework.
“I had five kids and was in a relationship that turned violent. I was trapped.”
Wendy moved 29 times over 14 years, searching for a safe place. She was often homeless and found herself in and out of refuges with her children.
“It wasn’t until a new friend helped me contact Guide Dogs and I received training with a white cane that my life started to change. I couldn’t believe it – for the first time in my life I had options. I was so relieved!”
This was the start of a long road to independence and emotional recovery for Wendy.
“I couldn’t believe how my life would turn – from being completely isolated and dependent on others, to studying art at TAFE. I was even able to go grocery shopping on my own – something I had never imagined that I could do.”
Although Wendy’s path to independence started with a white cane, her freedom came with a Guide Dog.
“I managed with the cane. But I’m not very coordinated, and it made me feel like a victim – and I’ve spent too many years feeling like a victim. So I applied for a Guide Dog.”
And it was the best decision that Wendy ever made.
“Guide Dog Freya has been my constant companion since we were matched, and I can’t believe how she has changed my life!
Now, when I want to go to the shop, I can just go. When I’m walking with Freya, people can see I have a vision impairment and are helpful, more willing to assist. People are kinder and more respectful.
Life without Freya was horrible. I’ve spent too many years of my life relying on others, especially my kids. They have their own lives now, children of their own and I want to be there for them as a mother and a grandmother.
Wendy understands how important it is to have someone help you through difficult times and now works with a number of organisations that support vulnerable women and children living with disability.
“I was so vulnerable. I had no confidence. I believed I had no abilities, nothing to be proud of. But I now draw my strength from Freya. And also my hair, which reminds me of how far I’ve come.
I’m able to be ‘me’ now. I can make my own decisions. I don’t live in fear anymore. Freya has totally changed my life.”
Photos courtesy of Alex Cearns, Houndstooth Studio