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“Sometimes stigma isn’t always obvious” – Richard’s story

Richard Wheatley, 23, from London, is functionally blind in one eye due to a brain tumour diagnosed at age five. But never one to be put off taking on a challenge, Richard has been using his skills in the Paralympic sport of goalball on his International Service ICS placement in Tamale, northern Ghana, to tackle stigma around disability.

I first heard about ICS through a charity that helps blind and partially sighted graduates into work. I’d finished my degree and I had a gap in my life that I’d filled with goalball, having learnt how to play at school and eventually in an under 19s league at the Paralympics in Brazil.

The full team pose for a photo at the end of the goalball tournament
© ICS / International Service / Nick Adatsi
The full team pose for a photo at the end of the goalball tournament

So when I was told about the REACT project, helping to tackle disability stigma in Ghana through the Paralympic sport of goalball – a way to start volunteering and build up my CV, as well as using the goalball skills I’ve spent years developing – I just thought, have you invented this for me?!

My right eye is functionally blind, due to a brain tumour I was diagnosed with at the age of five. I had lots of operations and eventually the tumour was cut out. As a result I havde a tiny amount of light and depth perception and I can see large objects with clearly-defined objects.

It’s not a case of making adjustments for me. What are adjustments? They’re things you do differently when the situation changes, but my situation hasn’t changed. I make adjustments when the situation is new; because the thing hasn’t done before by a blind person. From magic tricks to being the first to study Theoretical Physics at my university, I just figure stuff out as I go.

Richard is functionally blind in his right eye due to a brain tumour
© ICS / International Service / Nick Adatsi
Richard is functionally blind in his right eye due to a brain tumour

On ICS, we were helping groups of visually impaired adults who’d already played goalball to play better. We were also teaching young sighted students how to play the sport as a means of helping them learn about disability. By the end of our orientation, we’d decided our plan was to train three teams to be good enough to play against Ghana’s national goalball team.

Because I’m obviously visually impaired, I had many conversations with people where they’d ask about my disability and were surprised about how well I moved around. I can walk through rooms without knocking over tables and chairs. That’s normal to me, but when I got asked how I was able to do that, I’d explain that in the UK, I have to act like that – with confidence – or I’d never be able to do anything or go anywhere. It was those conversations that were the ones that mattered.

The disability awareness sessions we held at churches, in which I talked about what I had done – they really changed people’s minds. Telling people I had a degree, and medals in sports, surprised people, and I hope that will stick in their minds. They see a range of things blind people can do.

Richard walks near the balls ready for the tournament
© ICS / International Service / Nick Adatsi
"People now see a range of things blind people can do"

Sometimes stigma isn’t always obvious. What I saw from the blind community in Ghana is that their English is worse than sighted students of the same age. They’re not told ‘you can’t do this’, but they’re just not pushed to achieve because they’re not a priority. These subtle symptoms of them being shunned in schools have a huge impact on their lives.

I’d definitely consider volunteering again with ICS as a Team Leader if a project like REACT was to run again. And I may even start coaching goalball. I’m thinking about all of this, as well as now figuring out how to make cheap goalball equipment for clubs with small budgets. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, I’m going to be doing a 45 minute show for 27 days. One of my plans is to sit down and look back on my time in Ghana so I can make sure ICS is part of my routine!

I knew who I was as a person before I went out, and I still know who I am as a person. But ICS have given me memories which I can draw on in the future.