Bridget Micallef – Living with a visual impairment
Never give up
When Bridget Micallef was five years old, she started losing her eyesight after contracting a virus from contaminated sea. Many years later, she tells others not to give up as, with the right support, visually impaired persons can still achieve a lot
When I was five years old, I spent the day with my family at the beach but little did I know that that day would change our lives. After swimming, my eyes turned red and I complained of having a headache; my parents thought that I had got sunstroke. The day after, I woke up well but, a few months later, my grandfather noticed that I wasn’t seeing well. In the meantime, he passed away and my parents took me to see an ophthalmologist. It turned out that I had something wrong at the back of my eyes. In March 1974, when I was five and a half years old, my mother and I travelled to London to be seen by an eye specialist. I spent a year and a half travelling to London, undergoing tests. Finally it resulted that I had a virus at the back of my eyes caused by the contamination of the sea, that no one was aware of at the time.
My school years were also marked by my having to travel to London to undergo eye operations to try and save my sight. During this part of my life I was a very different person from the one I am today. I was a very reserved person, kept myself to myself and never took part in school games with my friends. My companions became my books as I loved reading from a very young age and they accompanied me through those difficult years, until print became impossible for me to read.
Eventually, I lost my sight, although I still have perception of light and dark. I thank both the doctor I had here in Malta and the specialists I had in London, for their dedication in trying to save my sight, although they knew it was a lost battle. When I lost my eyesight, I took a decision that would change my outlook on life forever. I decided to put the past behind me and move forward, putting my trust in God, that he would guide me along my way. Looking back, I now realise that it was God who placed certain people in my life for a purpose. One person in particular was Mr Richard Cannataci, who taught Braille to blind people. In November 1985 I started Braille lessons with Mr Cannataci and by April 1986 I had completed the Braille reading course. I was eager to learn Braille because it rekindled my love for books. What I couldn’t see with my eyes, I could now see with the touch of my fingers.
With the help of a group of former school friends, I became more adventurous and outgoing. I started going on holidays with them and I smile at what I achieved on these holidays. For example, one holiday to Bergamo saw me mountain trekking and crossing a river on stepping stones. One friend went to the extent of going into the river to guide my feet along the stepping stones. In 2011, I travelled for the first time on my own to England. It was an experience I will never forget. I stayed in a hotel for the blind in Somerset. The staff there were very welcoming and they made my stay very memorable. I used to go out on the excursions organised by the hotel and I was also assigned a sighted guide to accompany me on these excursions.
Although I became blind, it didn’t stop me from participating in community activities, such as reading in church, working as a full-time typist and also developing my creativity by attending knitting lessons through Lifelong Learning offered by the Education Department. I had a wonderful teacher. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I discovered my enjoyment for cooking and baking. Every weekend I cook Sunday lunch for the family and I also bake dessert. I found this to be relaxing, both mentally and physically, besides giving me a feeling of satisfaction at the end result.
A few years ago, I went through a difficult time and was emotionally broken when my guidedog Barbie was taken away from me after 10 months. During this period, my sister introduced me to a psychotherapist who helped me become a stronger and more assertive person. With the right help and support, I managed to rise above this situation. Looking back, I wish that there was more family involvement and assessment of the whole situation through a more holistic approach. In addition, guide dog handlers need to be further supported through regular follow-up meetings, training and support, especially if the guide dog is coming from abroad.
After that I had to resort to using my white cane again and I am encountering obstacles that make my way more difficult than before, such as garbage bags in the middle of the pavement and shrubs and plants that overhang onto the pavement from front gardens. All it takes is a bit of awareness on the part of the residents in ensuring that plants and shrubs are regularly trimmed and no other objects obstruct the pavements, giving safe passage not only for blind people but also for the elderly and parents with pushchairs.
I take this opportunity to thank all those who in some way helped to transform me into the person I am today and I thank all my family and friends who stood by me in good times and in bad times. My message to other persons with a visual impairment is: Do not give up – with the right support, we can do many things on our own.