Fri 2, Dec 2016

Jack Tyrrell: the blind leading

Earlier this year the Continence Foundation launched new resources and website software to improve accessibility for people with a disability. Jack Tyrrell, who helped launch the new initiatives, tells Maria Whitmore how losing his sight five years ago made him an advocate for better access to information, and forged a new career path.

Who among us hasn’t had that conversation hypothetical about which sense we’d rather lose? No-one ever chooses sight, right? Losing your sight seems far too debilitating.

But that’s what happened to Jack Tyrrell five years ago. It was November, 2011, and the then 20-year-old university student was completing the second year of his commerce degree at Melbourne’s Swinburne University.

His vision loss, the result of a rare genetic disorder, Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, came swiftly and unexpectedly. One day the central vision in his left eye had gone. Two weeks later the same happened to his right eye.

Legally blind, Jack had to re-think his future. He could no longer drive or continue his sporty lifestyle. He could no longer recognise faces, read books or use any of his electronic devices.

Further compounding these losses, the sense of being cut off from the world of technology and all that had previously been at his fingertips, was extremely challenging.

“There were so many things I couldn’t do any more. Access to websites, all that information was lost to me,” Jack said.

A career and good job prospects suddenly became even more important to Jack, so giving up study was never an option. He applied for a Vision Australia’s Further Education Bursary, which would fund the adaptive technology he needed to use his computer and other devices, and enable him to continue his studies.

Before returning to study, Jack spent six months with Vision Australia, learning to use this complex new assistive technology.
“I’m still not 100 per cent using all of it. There’s so much involved; it’s all using key strokes and key commands. After about six months I felt confident,” he said.

Screen readers and adaptive technology alone did not make available all the information available to other students, such as videos and graphs, so Jack raised the issue with his teachers.

“Some of them were supportive, some not so supportive. So I would go to the next level – management or a higher authority – and they were much more interested in helping.”

Jack was eventually able to effect change in the way many of the university’s teaching staff delivered their course material, an achievement that has been the source of much satisfaction to him.

“When people make moves to change things, you feel included – you feel that you matter,” he said.

Jack also became involved with the university’s Student Equity and Disability Service, where he was surprised to learn that most students with disability and access issues don’t tell anybody.

“Only 10 per cent of people with disabilities enrolled at uni disclose they have a disability. You can’t voice an opinion if you’re not disclosing. Information access is even more important if you have a disability.”

Jack’s readiness to open up about his access issues had other benefits. His natural communication skills, combined with his evident persuasive abilities, had not gone unnoticed, and he was offered a three-month contact with the Student Equity and Disability Service as a project officer.

“That’s how I got my job at Swinburne – by speaking up,” he said.
Vision Australia then picked him up in their graduate program, where he was employed for 12 months, and more recently, Sydney company Media Access head-hunted him for a sales and business development role, which he commenced earlier this year.

Jack was an invited presenter at the Continence Foundation of Australia’s World Continence Week launch in June, where he spoke about the powerful impact of adaptive technologies on the lives of people with disabilities. He commended the Continence Foundation for its initiatives in providing greater access to its resources, such as making its website and online resources compatible for use with adaptive technologies such as screen readers, as well as the development of Easy English fact sheets for people with low literacy.

“It’s a great step for the Continence Foundation, and other organisations should be following their lead,” he said.

Jack encourages anyone with access issues to “be brave and open up”.

“Be open. State what you need and get the required support. People don’t know what you need until you tell them. No-one’s going to read your mind.”

Although Jack’s life will never be the same, some things remain unchanged. His passion for golf, for one, is as strong as it ever was, even though his game is much shabbier, he admits. Throughout his ordeal, Jack continued to play golf and work at his local golf club’s pro shop part-time, something he only relinquished two years ago, after having worked there for seven years.

Nor has his vision loss affected his drive to achieve whatever he needs in order to participate meaningfully in the world. Whether it’s initiating change in the way universities deliver their course work, encouraging people with access issues to speak up, or promoting adaptive technologies in large organisations such as the Continence Foundation, Jack is determined to effect change wherever he goes.

Jack’s address at the launch of World Continence Week, Don’t let disability hold you back, is available on the Continence Foundation’s You Tube channel.

Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy is a genetic disorder, estimated to affect about one in 35,000 people. Males are four to five times more likely to contract the condition, which is passed down through the mother’s genes. The vision loss is most often due to the degeneration of the optic nerve, which results in loss of central vision. There is no cure.

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