When South Australia’s power goes out, Adelaide goes into meltdown but for some, relative darkness is an ongoing reality. Our blind residents ‘see’ the world from a unique perspective: through touch, sound, smell and taste.
Tom Macmahon had barely blown out the candles on his sixth birthday cake when a bad bout of the measles took his sight. He doesn’t remember much about the stint in hospital but recalls wanting to ride his new two-wheeler bicycle when he returned home. “We had 10 acres at Modbury. I remember Dad holding the back of my seat and helping me steer,” he says. Tom has memories of his parents’ and grandparents’ faces, his reflection, a world of shadows, and the determination of youth. “I was lucky I was able to keep that independence and run around creek beds and ride bicycles and go-karts.”
Tom’s parents tried “everything known to man” in an attempt to regain his vision. “I remember having to drink Royal Jelly and someone else prescribed 14 cups of chamomile tea a day. I detested the smell of it, let alone the flavour. They forced two cups down me and I refused to drink any more for years.”
He was home-schooled for 18 months before attending Townsend House School for Deaf and Blind Children. There he learnt Braille and developed a love of music. “I’d stay with my grandparents in McLaren Vale and my grandmother had a piano. I used to bash around on it and I remember her teaching me ‘Long, Long Ago’ with one finger. That was my repertoire. Soon after I lost my sight, she gave me the piano to have at home – she thought it would be a good thing for me to enjoy.” His repertoire increased to ‘Chopsticks’ (with two fingers) and private tuition eventually led to a music degree at the Elder Conservatorium of Music. Locals may have encountered Tom performing at The Pancake Kitchen during the seventies. “They didn’t pay much but I’d get tipped in mulled wine and pancakes.” He laughs.
Tom’s loss of sight never held him back.
In fact, it led to love. He was 27 and on a train to a music therapy conference in Sydney when the serendipitous encounter occurred. The young muso originally planned to take the logical option and fly but something drew him to the long, overnight trip. Unbeknown to Tom, a young nurse called Mary sat across the aisle. “I heard this little voice say, ‘Excuse me, I’m going up to get a coffee, can I get one for you?’” Tom smiles.
“I didn’t drink much coffee but I thought she had a nice voice and said, ‘Yes please’.”
They talked all the way to Sydney. After saying their goodbyes Tom sent Mary cassette tape audio letters. “She’d say I pursued her! Some moments are so significant but at the time you never know.”
I was lucky I was able to keep that independence and run around creek beds and ride bicycles and go-karts.
Tom and Mary settled in Brisbane in 1981 and four beautiful children soon followed. “Having children was an amazing experience, right from the beginning. Learning how to hold a newborn baby, being aware of the size, and that intimate connection where you learn to change nappies. I couldn’t give them facial signs but they seemed to learn very quickly that I couldn’t see and they had to treat me a bit differently.”
Feeding time was a particular challenge. “It didn’t take any of them long to grab my hand and guide the spoon to their mouth. They adapted. It was magical.”
Tom now has four grandchildren.
“My children are all such good sighted guides and good visual and auditory describers. I often get quite moved at their ability – especially now, when I don’t spend a lot of time with them. I think the grandchildren are starting to get a bit of that understanding now. It happens so quickly and it transforms your world.”
Tom and Mary live in Brisbane and return to South Australia regularly to visit their son and to stay at his late grandmother’s home. When the plane lands they head straight to Adelaide Central Market for a coffee at Lucia’s. “It’s such a hive of activity and there are so many lovely smells. I really enjoy the sound of vendors and the different bits of conversation you hear. I also love the Willunga Farmers Market.”
There’s nothing like South Australian food. “The first time we went to Chianti Classico we had wonderful service and a superb meal. Ruby Red Flamingo was great and we had a top-notch Japanese meal at Ginza Miyako.”
Mary describes what’s on the plate. “It’s really important to know what’s there, especially if you have to try to combine different flavours. It’s quite disappointing when you’ve eaten your meat and then suddenly find this really lovely sauce and it really should have gone together.” He laughs.
Tom says there’s a calm to Adelaide streets he doesn’t feel in other cities. “Even walking the CBD – I’m aware of it being quieter and less cluttered.”
His mental map was established early. “I always appreciated the symmetry and logic of Colonel Light’s neat planning and always wanted to know where we were as a child and how the roads linked up. It took me decades to develop a similar sense in Brisbane. Google Maps with voiceover is a huge plus, along with transport apps.”
I always appreciated the symmetry and logic of Colonel Light’s neat planning.
Tom’s working life is dedicated to teaching others about the benefits of technology. “I’m working with the education department primarily as a statewide advisor in assistive technology and also looking at how blind students can create music and their own scores, and access scores.” He also works in Braille music transcription. Screen readers and electronic braille technologies changed his life in the eighties and as assisted technology continues to advance he says 3D printing is particularly exciting.
Would Tom have his sight back if it was possible? “I’d get my sight back tomorrow if there was an opportunity. I feel like there’s so much more I could do with life but I would be a little bit scared because I do have very strong pictures of my kids, Mary… everyone. I’m scared of being shocked.” He pauses. “When people describe things I picture them straight away. I have a picture of people I’ve never met. We all do really. It’s a terrible shock when you realise they look nothing like you imagined.”
Help a Stranger Out
Be My Eyes is a free iPhone app connecting vision impaired people across the globe with sighted people. More than 544,000 volunteers are signed up to help 37,600-plus blind people with questions. How does it work? Simple. A call comes through to your phone and the person at the end of the live video chat asks a question. It might be whether their carton of milk is out of date, the colour of their shirt, to whether they’re lining up for the right train. Helping is a joy. bemyeyes.com
Have you volunteered your time to be a sighted guide? Let us know what your experience was like in the comments, below.