Ben Clare held his precious cargo securely as he sat in the tin canoe. The journey from Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, to the Central Province took three hours.
‘I put a cover on the braille machine so that it wouldn’t get wet,’ says Ben. This heavy piece of equipment, resembling a manual typewriter, was set to change lives.
‘Once blind people learn braille and how to touch type, they can read books and take notes in lessons. Suddenly life expands for them. They can now look for work or go on to tertiary study.
‘There’s a stigma about people with disability being a burden. But if they’re working, they’re contributing to society.’
Born blind, Ben’s own story is an inspiration to others. He attended a Sydney primary school for the blind and then graduated from a regular high school. After a few years in the journalism sector, he’s spent the last 20 in the area of international development.
‘I was the first overseas Australian volunteer with a disability and travelled to the Solomon Islands in 2008 as a braille teacher,’ he says. ‘That experience sparked my interest in working for the sector.
‘I’m pretty independent, as are many of us who are blind from birth. I use a white cane. People are usually friendly, directing me if I’m lost. Yes, you need your wits about you, and you should tell an airline you’re vision-impaired to get the assistance you need. But it’s amazing how things work out once you give it a go.’
Ben’s passion for adventurous travel, first as a volunteer and then for work, has taken him to Kiribati, East Timor, Vanuatu and Tonga.
Now, as Disability Inclusion Lead for Exemplar International (a subsidiary of Aspen Medical), his role is to provide education and employment opportunities overseas for those living there with a disability.
‘Disability inclusion is at the centre of the international development programs.’
Ben quotes a staggering statistic. ‘80 percent of people with disability, in both developed and developing countries, who can work aren’t working. We need to change that and that’s what’s driving me.’
He works mainly in the Asia-Pacific region, in locations such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor and, in a new Aspen Medical initiative, supplies laptops for study. ‘Standard in Australia, they’re luxury items in the Pacific islands,’ says Ben. ‘The humble laptop lets blind people access the world for the first time.’
Donated by Aspen Medical’s IT partner and Canberra company, CentreRED IT, screen reading software converts the text to speech. And Ben teaches those who are blind how to use them.
Two of these laptops have already transformed lives thanks to Ben.
The first enabled a blind woman to be employed, as the first employee with disability, on the reservations desk at a hotel in the Solomon Islands. The second led to another blind Solomon Islander, kicked out of school in Grade 4 after losing his sight, to go on to study in Japan on a scholarship. On his return, he found a position as a radio announcer at the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation.
‘I’m interested not only in enabling education but in what happens afterwards,’ says Ben.
In Savai’I, the largest in the chain of Samoan Islands, Ben visited a traditional fale, open-style house. Inside, a teenage boy sat on the floor, rocking backwards and forwards. Since losing his sight some years earlier, he had remained at home.
Do you want to go back to school?’ Ben asked.
‘Yes,’ said the boy.
His parents were concerned. ‘Is it not too dangerous?’
‘Not at all. I’m blind too and have lived here, alone, for the last six months,’ Ben replied, to the family’s amazement and delight.
He organised for lessons in braille and for a local woman to be trained as the boy’s support worker. After graduating from school, the teenager found a job in a local shop.
This is just another of Ben’s success stories. ‘It’s so rewarding for someone to do what they want in life.
‘People told me all the time I couldn’t do this or that. I proved them wrong and now I want to give others that confidence,’ he says.
Ben’s so committed to the cause his passion overlaps into his personal life and time. Frustrated by the many requests he receives for assistance that he can’t fulfil, he’s set up a GoFundMe page for blind students in the Pacific.
‘It’s my labour of love, to buy equipment and to pay for the expensive shipping costs. I’m motivated for people with disability to have the same opportunities I did. I see people with great potential, and with the right help, they can achieve great things.
‘Aspen Medical has been really supportive of me and the work I’m doing. They’ve also employed me and that’s really affirming.
‘Someone with a disability does not have to be a burden,’ says Ben, ‘I’m a big believer in that.’