Visually impaired group visits Fiji

In July 1977, 36 visually impaired people were on a holiday in Fiji. Picture: FT FILE

A group of 36 visually impaired people from Victoria, Australia arrived in Fiji on a “sight-seeing” tour in the 1970s.

When the organisers of the tour saw the look of disbelief on The Fiji Times reporter Shaista Shameem’s face they laughed, according to The Fiji Times of July 14, 1977.

But contrary to what many people think, visually impaired people can and do enjoy travel. The group’s tour was organised by an association for the blind, which was started by a group of visually impaired people in 1895.

The association owned three homes for older visually impaired people and printed a newsletter which kept in touch with blind people who lived on their own.

“The tour leader, Arthur Wilkinson, was blind although I would never have realised this if he had not told me so,” The Fiji Times quoted Ms Shameem the reporter as saying.

Mr Wilkinson’s eyes were bright blue and when he spoke he looked directly into a person’s eyes. The secretary of the association, Jan Kerr, was also part of the visiting group.

“A holiday is the best type of rehabilitation the association could offer the blind,” Ms Kerr said.

“I can always see things from other people’s eyes and it becomes very natural to me,” Mr Wilkinson claimed.

“The whole of the Fiji tour has been crammed with all sorts of activities for the group. Nothing special has been planned for them. Their tour is just the same as those for ordinary tourists.”

When this newspaper met them, they had already been on the Oolooloo cruise, visited Orchid Island, toured a Fijian village and been to a Fiji Arts Club play, The Man of La Mancha.

“Today they are going on a Rewa River boat trip and next week they leave for Lautoka and a tour of the West,” The Fiji Times noted.

Visually impaired people never had the opportunity to travel before, Ms Kerr said. The association started tours several years before coming to Fiji, but they were merely local trips.

“This is the first time we have been really adventurous and moved out of Australia,”Mr Wilkinson said. When group members first thought about the tour, organisers had expected to attract the interest of 40 people.

“We couldn’t believe it when more than 70 blind folks applied to come with the group,” Ms Kerr said.

Mr Wilkinson was a church minister with the association before becoming a tour organiser. It was his idea that got the group to travel to Fiji for a holiday

“When I first suggested it to the committee members, they laughed saying what everyone else says when they hear we have come on a holiday,” Mr Wilkinson said.

But everyone was amazed when inquiries from visually impaired people came from all over Victoria. For many, a holiday trip to Fiji was nothing short of a lifetime dream.

“It is surprising how fast word gets around that a tour for blind people is being arranged,” Ms Kerr said.

Most of the visitors belonged to the 40-50 age bracket and most of them were not born impaired, but lost their sight as they grew older.

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