Lucy Ashton, 22, from Bolton, lives with a visual impairment which doesn’t always make life easy. When she went to volunteer in Sandema, north Ghana, on International Service ICS’ goalball project, REACT, she learnt how the Paralympic sport holds a special ability to open up disability issues to the fully-sighted. A keen activist, Lucy’s returned from ICS looking to start a career in disability advocacy.
It’s difficult to explain my visual impairment, but I describe it as if a piece of a puzzle is missing. It’s like when someone takes a photograph of you with a flash and you can see that flash – except it’s like that all the time. I’ve had it since birth, but it’s become progressively worse. It affects everything in my day-to-day life – from walking down the street to reading a menu. But I manage, and it’s made me passionate about becoming a disability advocate.
I was a graduate when I applied to ICS. I was out of full-time work, but had been working at the Royal National Institute of Blind People for a few days each month. When I heard about REACT, I was really excited. I wanted to see how people with visual impairments live outside the UK. I’d never volunteered – let alone played goalball before, though – so I knew it was going to be tough.
And having a disability and volunteering in Ghana was definitely stressful at times. In the UK, there’s more knowledge around visual impairments, so it was more difficult to explain my disability while on ICS – especially because I look like a fully-sighted person.
Our main focus was to raise awareness of disability rights, particularly around blindness and visual impairment. We wanted to introduce goalball in the community and show that blind and visually impaired people can do the same things. We also wanted to see people excited about the sport.
Goalball really helps fully-sighted people understand what it’s like to be blind or visually impaired because they have to rely on their other senses. It was very effective. I’ve realised that in Ghana, people view disability differently, they see disabled people less. But that’s where goalball comes in. People who aren’t visible due to their disabilities can become more involved locally.
Our final tournament, in which we played Ghana’s national goalball team, was incredible. It was so serious and high-level, and the competition was intense. It was amazing to see the team we’d trained to play goalball from scratch, play and win the tournament.
People were so grateful that we were raising awareness of disability rights in their community. Their commitment, the fact they always showed up on time and were dedicated made us realise that we were making a difference in the community. At the end of our placement, we had a big celebration event with the volunteers and their host families. It’s my happiest memory because for the first time it truly felt like home.
It was my initial plan to work with blind or visually impaired people but ICS has confirmed that that’s what I want to do. I’ve become more confident and I’ve learnt more about the world, how others view people with disabilities and how people live their lives.