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HindustanTimes Thu,31 Jul 2014
Finding my blind faith
Tithiya Sharma, Hindustan Times
October 10, 2010
First Published: 00:25 IST(10/10/2010)
Last Updated: 00:04 IST(5/12/2010)

Ireland is a beautiful country. I would never tire of gazing at the lush green landscape. Dotted with castles with tall tales of giants and leprechauns. The Irish are quick to laugh, often going out of their way to lend a helping hand and yes, they do love their Guinness.

While in Dublin, I was part of a free walking tour with a lovely Irish tour guide. She took us to hidden gems you’d never find on a map and told us stories about Irish history that made us gasp.

Half way through the tour the group was taking a break and I got talking with a young woman named Olivia who was training guide dogs for people with visual impairment. She was working with two young people and getting them acquainted with their new best friends.

She asked me if I'd like to experience the city through the eyes of the blind. I didn't know what she meant by that and agreed to the experiment. She handed over an old airline eye mask to me and asked me to put it on. I felt panicked but I was too far in. I could feel my heart racing as soon as I had the mask on. What did I get myself into! She handed over one of the dog's leashes to me and asked me to keep a hand on her shoulder and to trust her and my instincts.

I took a deep breath and started walking where she led me. All the sounds were super magnified. I kept tripping over my own feet. The screeching of a bus drowned out the loud expletives streaming out of my mouth. Someone walked past and knocked my shoulder so hard that I almost fell over, I kept checking for my bag and my camera. My grip kept tightening on Olivia's shoulder. The cacophony of people's voices, the traffic and complete darkness were overwhelming.

I yanked the mask off and realised that I'd barely walked the length of one city block and crossed a single traffic signal, but it felt like forever.  Olivia grabbed both my hands. "Are you alright love?" she asked. I could only nod. I felt disoriented and anxious and I think I forgot to thank her as we parted ways.

Can and able
I couldn't shake off the panic of the experience till I found Fintan O'Donnell. With barely ten per cent vision and a congenital medical condition called Aniridia, Fintan is legally blind. But he is a two-time Paralympics athlete, a successful physiotherapist and voluntary chairman of Irish Blind Sports (IBS).

The organisation helps visually impaired individuals participate in competitive and recreational sports. They train athletes in Judo, water skiing, football, swimming, tandem cycling, ten-pin bowling and athletics.

"Schools have become more inclusive, so it's easier to locate students with special needs," says Fintan. He also counsels families about all the reasons they should encourage their visually impaired children to participate in sports.

"I grew up one of six boys in my family. I was always treated equally and engaged with everything my brothers did. But at school I couldn't keep up in the physical education classes and group sports and the coaches were not equipped to train an athlete with special needs. Through IBS, we help you develop your talent and support you to play competitively."

The importance of Fintan's work is apparent in the success stories of visually impaired Irish athletes. IBS nurtured the remarkable talent of sprinter Jason Smyth and cyclist Catherine Walsh, two visually impaired athletes who have won multiple Paralympics medals.

Jason recently competed in European Athletics Championship in Barcelona with able-bodied athletes and finished 14th out of 36 sprinters in the 100-meter dash. Catherine has struggled to find an able-bodied pilot for her tandem cycling event who can keep up with her extraordinary athletic ability.

"Sometimes you don't realise what your own potential is till someone pushes you to the brink. We're constantly looking for the very best coaches and facilities for our athletes because we want them to be coached at par with able-bodies sportspersons," he said. Fintan is the physiotherapist of the Irish Paralympics team. In this case, I think they're lucky to be lead by the blind.

More on web: To follow Tithiya's journey, log on to www.hindustantimes.com/100heroesproject


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