We were a blind white man
and a black woman together
Adam Powell, 33
“My ex-missus,” says Adam Powell, “used to get angry because she thought people were staring at us because we were a white man and a black woman together – but I reckon it was the added element of me being a blind white man with a black woman.” He laughs. Now 33, at the age of two Adam was diagnosed with glaucoma – a disease that damages the connective tissues between the eyes and brain. He’s known since then that eventually he’d go blind. Two years ago, the pain in his right eye was so bad that he took 30 painkillers a day until the eye was removed. Six months ago the rest of his sight went. “I tried to kid myself and say, no big deal, what’s to see? I could see the outlines of people for a little while but now, nothing.”
He sits beside an empty swimming pool in Alice Springs, a small town in the Australian desert. He came here when his marriage failed. “At the start I used to try and picture everything but now I don’t care. This here,” he waves at the boarding house where ten other men and women also live, “is probably a dump.” Using a tactile map, Adam gets around with his cane and the odd helping hand. “The Velcro is Stuart Highway, the streets are puff paint, the shops sandpaper and this magnet is home.”
As Adam talks, other boarding house residents pass by behind him. He calls to each by name, identifying them by the jangle of their keys, the squeak of their sneakers or the way they walk. In a way, blindness is the least of his problems. He’s been put in Alice Springs jail three times already for refusing to leave his wife and child alone. “The first time they put me in a disability cell but the third time they said they had to stop giving me special treatment and put me in with the mainstream. I was with about 14 other blokes in a cell and I was scared. But the prisoners were good to me. They poured the kettle for me because it was a shit kettle and spilt all over my hands when I first tried to use it.” Only two things seem to bother Adam: “It’s a hassle being blind with all this new stuff coming out. There’s the new Nintendo 360, playstations, X-boxes, new movies.” The second thing is more serious. The loss of Adam’s family keeps him awake most nights. “If I could see for a moment, I’d see my son.”
Yami Lester, 66
Yami Lester was a young boy living in the Central Australian desert when the ground shook and a black mist filled the sky. It was 1953, the year the Australian government made a secret agreement with Britain to begin testing atomic bombs at Emu Station, 180 km south of Wallatina where Yami’s people lived, a land that was officially assumed to be empty. But Aboriginal people lived on it, and the people of Wallatina became sick. Some of the adults died, their bodies covered in strange sores. Yami couldn’t open his eyes. He and other children rubbed their eyes in agony and could not look at sunlight. For Yami, only one eye reopened after he’d seen the black mist. It eventually failed him several years later, leaving him blind.
Thirty years later a royal commission was ordered to look into the effects of the atomic weapons tests on Yami’s people and the soldiers who carried out the tests. But for Australian Aborigines, who did not receive the vote until 1967, documentation crucial to such investigations – medical records, death certificates – was nonexistent. Despite these odds, the commission found the Australian government negligent and recommended group compensation. But Yami has never proved for sure that the bombs made him blind.
Australian scientists have since found that the land on which the tests were performed is still poisoned. It will cost AUS$600 million (US$534 million) to clean it up. “The ground is hot they say,” says Yami.
Now in his sixties, Yami lives in the old homestead in Wallatina, near the sand-hills where he grew up. He looks forward to the sound of his daughter’s car coming down the dirt road and his grandchildren tumbling out calling for him. He delights in his grandchild using an automatic camera like his grandfather does. As his mother tells the boy to look through the viewfinder, he says “Why? Papa doesn’t!” After 40 years of fighting for the rights of his people, Yami is tired of talking about the past. He prefers the company of his family and grandchildren. Without Yami, though, the secrets behind Australia’s nuclear tests may remain hidden, as dark as the cloud that removed a small boy’s sight.
I don’t do the poor blind girl crap
Candice Hilton, 33
Candice Hilton wants to finish her cigarette before she speaks. She squishes out the butt on the ground with her foot while Zelda, her guide dog, waits patiently. Candice and Zelda live in Katherine, a small tropical town below Darwin where the cars veer over roads at night trying to squash pestilent cane toads. The scents of frangipani, beer and rotting road-kill hang heavy in the humidity.
Out on the ridge of Katherine is Candy’s property where she lived alone for five years. Recently, her partner Steven joined her. “I don’t do the poor blind girl crap,” Candy says. “People do help me out, but I always make sure the favour is returned. For example, they might need to go away and I’ll be loaded up with five horses to look after.” Her favourite cigarette is when she first gets on her horse, making sure she stays still while the mare gets used to her weight, her only movement the smoke blowing from her mouth.
Because she can still see fractures of light, Candy knows her horses are white and speckled. “I can make them out, but the chestnut mares are too solid, I can’t see them.” Candy and her horses compete in local ‘cutting’ events, where riders ‘cut’ a cow out of its herd and keep it on one side of the horse for a prescribed length of time. She wears a headset to compete and friends direct her from the sideline. “When people ask me how I ride, I tell them same as they do. I just the horse do most of the work.”
Candy doesn’t feel isolated, because of where she lives or because of how much she can see. “I live in a remote, largely un-serviced area. But I like it. People I don’t even know look out for me here.” When bad floods hit the Northern Territory last year Katherine was devastated, but Candy remembers the time fondly. “People drove out of their way to see how I was and when there was nothing else to do but wait for the water to go down, a group of us women sat around and baked together.” Being blind involves compromising, she thinks. “Sure, society does need to be more aware, but you’ve also just got to learn to fit in wherever you are.”