The Large Print Calendar cover image of Steve Widders walking along a bush track with his cane in the colours of the Aboriginal flag

Reaching out to the Aboriginal community

An image of Steve Widders proudly walking with a long cane in the colours of the Aboriginal flag along a sun-drenched bush track in Northern NSW has been chosen for the cover of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT’s 2016 Large Print Calendar and the Armidale resident hopes it does more than just hang on a wall.

Mr Widders, who has received support from Guide Dogs for about 25 years, said he wanted the photograph to prompt other Aboriginal people to seek help if they are experiencing vision loss.

“I want to let the community know about the free programs and services offered by Guide Dogs,” he said. “I have been supported and assisted over many years in learning how to use a long cane, a trekker and a Miniguide to move around independently. It has been a fantastic experience.”

An advocate for Aboriginal rights from the Anaiwan people around Armidale, Mr Widders was diagnosed with cone dystrophy at the age of 35. He has no central vision and limited peripheral vision. “I am unable to see colour and detail,” he said.

The keen walker and tandem bike rider said he wished he had sought help and had his eyes tested earlier in life.

Guide Dogs Regional Manager, Jeremy Hill said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have six times the rate of blindness and three times the rate of vision impairment of other Australians.

“Ninety-four per cent of vision loss in Indigenous Australians is preventable or treatable, yet some 35 per cent of adults have never had an eye exam,” Mr Hill said. “The most common cause of blindness in Indigenous adults is cataract.”

Mr Widders has never let his vision impairment limit his enjoyment of life. “Losing my sight turned my life upside down. I had to give up my licence, change jobs and I went through depression. But after help from my family, I made the decision to live my life and haven’t looked back,” he said.

In 2011, he joined Jason Bake, who is also vision impaired, and walked the Kokoda track after 18 months of preparation. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” he said.

During their walking adventure they raised $36,000 for Guide Dogs, which covered the breeding, raising and training of a Guide Dog, who the pair called Kokoda.

Mr Widders said he was extremely proud to feature on the cover of the Large Print Calendar, which is produced each year with large, easy to read font for people who are vision impaired. “The photo was taken on a trail that I walk along at least three times a week near my home,” he said.

Mr Widders said along with reaching out to Aboriginal people he hoped the wider rural and regional community would also consider their sight.

Statistics show that more than a third of people with eye disorders live in country areas, but people in rural and regional areas, especially males, tend to not get their eyes checked regularly.

Mr Hill said dedicated instructors would travel to those who required assistance.

“Our most common program is showing people with impaired vision how to safely move through different environments, using a range of mobility aids and electronic devices,” he said. “Anyone losing their sight is encouraged to contact us early, to reduce the risks of falls, accidents and depression.”