I was at a writing course a few weeks ago at the Australian Writers’ Centre. I was lucky to be there and grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the craft.
It was there I met Ria — a classically trained singer who also worked as a Braille specialist, transcribing information for the blind. She walked in with her guide dog, Max — a big black four-year-old labrador she befriended two years ago — and sat next to me.
I liked the way she smiled. Wide and generous, it crinkled the side of her eyes.
“What is the best thing about your life?” I blurt out. It was for a class assignment. We had to spend ten minutes interviewing each other then write up a 500-word profile.
“Having a disability is one of the best things about my life,” Ria smiles in response to my rather obvious opening question.
She lost her sight when she was five years old to congenital glaucoma — a rare condition that is a serious cause of blindness in children around the world. Before she was even born, the drainage system in Ria’s eyes didn’t develop properly, putting pressure on the optic nerve and slowly damaging it.
“I’m sure there were a lot of friends and family who were sad for me,” she muses. “But all I can say is thank goodness I lost my sight when I was young before I had a chance to rely on it too much.”
Her positivity is surprising. It challenges the many quiet assumptions I must have made from the moment she sat down.
“[My disability] has given me all sorts of perspectives. It has helped me to be resourceful and to think outside the box to do tasks that others take for granted,” she tells me.
It is this insight into people and challenges that have helped her negotiate her new life in Australia. Ria migrated to the country from Bandung, Jakarta in 2007 to live with her mother. She was just 16 years old. When asked if there were any differences between the two countries, she nods.
“There are heaps!”
Ria explains while attitudes are changing in Indonesia, there is a sense that difference is still not something to be lauded.
“This affects all aspects of life, from access to buildings, to public transport and to information. It’s much better in Australia. There is a willingness to listen to people with disabilities here.”
But life in Australia can have some frustrations. One of her biggest challenges hasn’t been her lack of sight, but the way some people have reacted to her.
“I’ve met people who have tried to project themselves into my situation and imagined the worst.
“I’ve had people say they will pray for me because of my blindness. I’ve even had people come up to me and say how terrible they feel because of the awful state I’m in.
“So I’m basically left to comfort people who are trying to comfort me.”
Instead of assuming things about her disability, Ria would love the opportunity to enlighten them about what life is like for her.
“I just wish people would wait for me to explain what it’s really like before they make a whole lot of assumptions,” she says.