Everyone hopes that with a map. a GPS and a Guide Dog you can't get lost even if you are blind. But you can and my route map to the Paralympics in Rio led to a cul de sac.
When I returned to the United Kingdom to compete to regain a place on the British Para Dressage team I thought I knew the direction I was heading in. Having trained hard and having had my International medical classification from the International Federation Equestrian (FEI) granted, I knew that in my Grade 3 they demanded I wear a blindfold. This I felt was unethical, as it meant that in order to be allowed to compete, blind riders had to take on a greater handicap than they already had. It is very rare to be black blind.. I have lost 90%of my vision and most blind people, like myself, have a residue of light sensitivity which is our day and night and an axis upon which our other senses calibrate our surroundings. It was also dangerous as Dressage is the only Para sport that involves another animal -In this case 650 kilos of muscle and a mind of its own.
But I had come to train as there was a loophole. Blind riders could compete against other riders with far less severe handicaps in Grade 4 and not wear a Blindfold. So voila problem solved. But then in January 2015, ,two thirds of the way through the Olympic cycle ,blind riders were told that this loophole was closed. I could only compete if I agreed to wear the Blindfold. Extraordinarily blind riders only make up 8 of the 180 international competitors in Grade 3. Dressage is the one sport where different disabilities of the same severity are placed in the same category. Rightly all other disabled competitors are given aids to maximise their ability and security, only blind riders were being disabled and endangered further.
I was angry, frustrated and sad but there was only one thing to do - get the rule changed. Thus the Beat the Blindfold Campaign was born. I had not really realised how big the challenge was but the response worldwide was incredible. I had suddenly given a voice to blind riders around the world and also found that I was helping sighted people understand what being blind means.
Over 4 million people watched the 3 minute film that went with the campaign and many people helped to bring pressure to have the rule changed. Three days before the Paralympic opening I heard a whisper that the blindfold will be struck out of Dressage competitions and its ratification will take place in November. It is a bitter sweet success but I have learned so much from the experience. I am now competing against able-bodied riders at Inter 1 which the highest level that any blind rider in the world has attained. But more importantly I have learnt that if your cause is just people will support you and that eventually all ruling bodies will listen if enough pressure is brought to bear.
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