Speech to the Austin College Sporties Dinner

On the 10th September I made a speech to the annual Sporties Dinner at Austin College, UNE.

As a blind person, when speaking in public, I tend to write myself a speech and then memorize it in segments. This isn’t word for word what I said, but it is what I wrote for myself to say.

Additionally, I’ve provided links to a number of external resources for those interested in further information.


Thanks for having me speak to you tonight.

My name is Andrew Devenish-Meares, and am the 2014 winner of the National Para-Cycling Series for B Classification. I’m here tonight to talk to you about para-sport and myself as a blind para-cyclist.

I’ve had a bit of an association with Austin over the years. While I was studying at UNE I still lived at home with my parents, but I’ve had lots of good friends in this college, including a girlfriend and the woman who eventually became my wife. No, not at the same time.

When I say the words “para-sport” no doubt you’re all thinking of the Paralympic Games. But para-sport is not the same as the Paralympics, there’s para-sport events going on all the time. Sure you might not hear about them, but I can’t think of the last time I heard about a Greco-Roman wresting event either, and that’s an Olympic Sport.

Para-sport is what we call sport played by people with disabilities. Some sports are adaptations of regular sports – for example para-cycling and paratriathalon, but there are also some sports that are just para-sport, like Goalball, a game played by blind people throwing a ball with a bell into a goal.

Now, there’s always a risk when someone like me comes and gives a speech that it will turn into what my friend Stella Young calls “inspiration porn”. You would all be familiar with this kind of thing, even if you’ve never heard of it by this name. You’ve seen the images with slogans like:
“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”
“Your excuse is invalid.”
“Before you quit, try!”
They usually come with a picture – the little girl with no arms drawing with a pencil in her mouth, or the sports images: the kid running on prosthetic legs, the amputee swimming… you get the idea.

Stella uses the term “porn” quite intentionally. Because these images objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. In this case disabled people are objectified to the benefit of the non-disabled. The upshot of these images is, after all, to make you think “at least my life isn’t as bad as theirs.”

I’m here to talk to you about me competing in para-cycling as a blind person, and it important to me that you understand that I’m here not in spite of my impairment, which I somehow needed to overcome, but because of it. Being blind is part of who I am, like being male, being a husband or being a father.

My parents moved my family to Armidale while I was in year 11, so I completed high school at Duval High and went on to study here at UNE.

I was like any normal 19 year old student. I studied, I drove, I went to parties, and I liked to ride my bike. But then I started noticing something weird. I developed blind spots in my central vision and the rest became fuzzy.

It took lots of trips to lots of doctors and about 18 months before I was diagnosed with Optic Neuropathy. Turns out this was something I was born with, and I’ve never seen properly. It goes to show, you can’t know how anyone else really perceives the world.

So Optic Neuropathy means that my Optic Nerve was shutting down, strand by strand. That was 17 years ago now, and I’ve spent long periods with stable vision and periods of sharp decline. Last Christmas I woke up having lost the last of my colour and movement. Tonight I can see that the lights are on, but that’s about it.

So this meant that I had to stop doing some of those regular things you do when you’re 19. I had to stop driving, and I had to stop riding my bike.

I’m not going to suggest that losing your sight is easy. It isn’t, but you can either learn to cope, or go sit at home in a corner. I’ve tried that, and it’s not fun. So I kept studying, I kept going to parties. I learned new skills: Braille, how to use a cane. Life moved on. I met my wife, we got married.

About 10 years ago I had my first experience with a tandem bike, a contact made via the Armidale Cycling Club. My friend left town later that year, but the experience whet my appetite. I’d gotten back to the sport I loved doing.

I suspect you all know what a tandem bike basically looks like: two seats, two sets of handle bars, two sets of pedals, one set of wheels. The person who rides at the back, me in this case, is called the Stoker. The person who rides at the front is called a Captain or Pilot.

So having been shown how I could get back into cycling, I got my own tandem. What else could I do? The next challenge was finding people to ride with, and that was where I had problems. I did find some people to ride with occasionally, but getting something regular was a problem.

In 2007 we moved to Wollongong. I’d taken jobs with the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia and FBi Radio in Sydney. My wife had work in Wollongong.

In 2008 I met Tim and we started riding together. Later that year I met Geoff, another blind person, who started getting a tandem group together. Slowly that group became Exsight Tandems.

Between 2008 and 2011 I was managing to ride most weekends, though rides during the week were basically non-existent, with work and a 2 hour commute. I participated in a number of events around Wollongong, and have ridden the 90km Sydney to the Gong ride four times. In 2010 and 2013 I also rode the Around the Bay in a Day ride in Melbourne. That’s 210km around Port Philip Bay.

These longer rides challenged me. Challenges I completed with varying levels of ease, but importntly they were challenges I enjoyed.

In 2012 I was made redundant from the Community Broadcasting Association and we decided to move back here… we’d be closer to both our families, and we liked the idea of raising our son in Armidale. I was lucky to land a job here at UNE in ITD.

So I was back in town with a bike, but no one to ride with. I did the only thing I could think of. I emailed the Armidale Cycling Club to see if I could find a Pilot or two.

My email landed in the inbox of the then publicity officer, Dave Rubie. He responded quickly that he would be happy to pilot, and that he’d done some tandeming with his kids on a home made tandem.

Dave and I started riding together regularly, and that’s something we’re still doing. We try to ride at least twice a week, taking a spin during our lunch time. By the end of 2012 Dave convinced me to enter an Armidale Cycling Club race. A race we ended up winning on handicap.

Through 2013 we raced with the club on and off. In December Cycling Australia announced they were revamping the National Handcycling Series to become the National Para-Cycling Series. It became a series of four events, each including a Time Trial and a Road Race. Importantly the even was open to all Para-Cyclists, there are four categories:

  • Handcyclists (Classification H) who ride a bike that’s powered by turning the pedals with the hands.
  • C Classification, which is for those who ride a regular bike, but have an impairment that means they don’t race in regular competition – for example amputees or someone with cerebral palsy.
  • Tricycles (T Classification) are ridden by people who have balance problems… that is to say a medical condition with balance problems, not too much to drink.
  • Lastly Tandems ridden by those who are blind or vision impaired and their pilots, called B Classification.

There’s levels in each of those classifications, but lets keep it simple.

We found out about the NPS in January, and after four weeks of serious training Dave and I headed to Toowoomba in February for Round 1. It was a great event, we came away with Silver. We also learned some things.

We have been riding a 20 year old Trek Tandem, made from steel. It weighs in around 20kg. Tandems ridden in this competition were much newer, made from aluminium or carbon fibre, and came in about 8kg lighter. That’s a big weight difference.

March saw round 2 in Bathurst, but Dave’s mother had health issues and couldn’t make it. Fellow Armidale Cycling Club member Philip Thomas stepped up to Pilot, and with only a couple of rides and one club race together we headed south.

We completed the Time Trial, and discovered a big crack in our wheel. We had been lucky the thing had held together. At points we’d been racing at over 60km/hr, and I don’t want to think to hard about what might have happened. We were lucky to find a replacement wheel. But a bike is a delicate machine, and replacing a wheel requires lots of adjustments. Adjustments we didn’t have time to complete before the road race the next day. We spent that race plagued by small mechanical problems. Still, we took another silver, and on points took the series leaders jersey.

Round 3 of the series was in Perth, which wasn’t going to happen. We set our sites on round 4 in Echuca. However that wasn’t to be… getting there was a challenge… 14 hour drive each way, or over $2000 in airfares made the trip impossible in the end. On 15th April we announced we wouldn’t be competing.

In the end that didn’t matter so much. Yes, we missed out on racing the National Championships, but we had enough points to keep our series lead and win.

Competing in sport as a blind person is generally more complicated than for a sighted person. In any sport that involves movement we can’t track where we are, spatially. That usually means competing with a sighted person. For cycling that’s the pilot.

Firstly you’ve got to find someone who’s willing to race with you. That can be hard. The number of people willing to fill that role can be quite small. I won’t speculate on the reasons, there’s a number of them, no doubt.

Once you’ve found a person or people to compete and train with, finding time in two people’s schedules is a challenge in and of itself.

The other factor for para-cyclists in particular is equipment. A tandem bike is expensive.

Think about this – the cheapest bike you can pick up from Big W or K Mart is a bit under $100. They’re not a good bike. The tandem equivalent is about $600. You start talking about a decent bike you’re looking at a few hundred dollars, in tandem terms you’re at about $1200. For a racing bike you can probably start with the basics around the $800 mark. For a racing tandem, the kind of bike we want to be racing, you’re starting at $8,000. That’s ten times the price.

We’re currently fundraising to get that bike.

People with impairments, disabled people, face lots of inequity in life. Wheelchair users needing to get places where there are no ramps. Deaf people not getting captions or Auslan interpreters. Blind people accessing printed material.

In sport we still face these inequities. The cost of participation can be extremely high.

In July we moved our informal group, “Tandem Armidale” to become the New England branch of Exsight Tandems. Exsight is all about creating opportunities for people who can’t ride bikes by themselves to be able to get out and at least have a go. They’re also a registered charity.

We haven’t had enough people in Armidale to form our own group, so we’ve joined the existing one.

It’s taken me some time to get to this point with para-cycling. The opportunities to compete for someone in a regional area are even lower than for those in metro areas, a common story.

So where are my goals now? The 2014 road Para-cycling season is done, so I’m looking to next year, where the NPS and the National Championships are firmly on the radar. In 2016, just under two full years away now, the Paralympic Games are happening in Rio. It would be cool to get there. Whether time, money and ability allow that will remain to be seen. But never say never.

What I’d really like is to have Exsight and Tandem Armidale set up for the next person that comes along. To have the opportunities, equipment and people, so that the barriers for the next person are a little lower.

Let’s face it, we live in a sporting culture, though in some cases more through spectating that participation. The benefits of sport on physical and mental well being are well known. Making people’s chosen sport affordable and accessible are important goals, ones that I’d like to see realised.

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