Paralympian Sarah Caffrey inspired the 150 delegates at the NN Open Day on June 28th with her account of succeeding in sport and work despite having nystagmus and achromatopsia. Her talk was particularly helpful for parents of children with nystagmus who are uncertain of what the future holds. Several parents described Sarah’s talk as brilliant and inspirational.
Sarah was the keynote speaker at this year’s Open Day, which took place in Leicester, a leading research centre for nystagmus. Sarah spoke frankly about the traumas and challenges she sometimes experienced at school, university and in her working life because of her visual impairment. But she balanced this with stories of her successes and the very positive support she receives from friends, family, colleagues and fellow athletes.
Sarah rowed for Ireland in the 2012 paralympics and has won silver and bronze medals in international events. Yet at school she dreaded PE days, mainly because no-one understood how hard it is for people with nystagmus to play ball games. Luckily at the age of 14 Sarah discovered rowing and has never looked back since. She scuba dives, cycles, sails, skis, surfs and white water rafts among other activities and adventures.
Sarah also has a successful career as a qualified teacher of the visually impaired (QTVI). She says that being visually impaired herself is an advantage as it gives her greater awareness, understanding and empathy with students and their parents.
However, Sarah admits that life with a visual impairment is not always plain sailing. It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she fully accepted her vision and its limitations. And like many with nystagmus, she says that getting people to understand what she can and can’t see remains a challenge. “Some people treat you as totally blind, while others think you’re pretending,” she says.