If you listened to the voice recording of my interview with Tess Whelan, there is no way you would suspect that she has a disability.
The 22-year-old public health student was born with a rare genetic disorder called Aniridia which is characterised by a complete or partial absence of the iris. This means her eyes are extremely sensitive to light, and that she can see at 1 metre, what a fully sighted person can see at 60 metres.
Despite her impediment, this ray of sunshine is slaying life, so I thought I’d sit down and discover what makes her so damn resilient.
“The hardest part is accepting that you are different” she says.
“I think once you are at peace with that, the only way is up, but until you get to that point it’s really hard. As a 12-year-old, you think everyone is viewing you as a blind person or thinking about that when they interact with you, and that’s debilitating when you already have all the other insecurities of a teenage girl in the twenty first century.”
Tess didn’t fully embrace her condition until high school when she started getting good grades and discovered that she was academic.
“When you are doing well at something you realise that the other stuff doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s a learning difficulty, parents who are going through a divorce or body image issues, everyone is working through their own shit, and being blind isn’t necessarily worse than any of those things.”
After fully accepting that she was different, Tess started to see vision impairment as part of who she was rather than what she was. She learnt there were things she was good at, like public speaking, and things she was not so good at, like tiggy. She said, “this is who I am, and this is what I have to work with”, and that is when she truly started to flourish.
Where is Tess now?
Tess is currently studying public health at ACU and climbing the ranks so fast, I can hardly keep up.
When I caught up with her a couple of weeks ago, she had just returned from Napa, a mountain region in Northern California. She was a counsellor at a summer camp for vision impaired and blind kids; something that felt remarkably like being on-set when “The Parent Trap” was filmed.
Discovering a passion for leadership and a motivation to help the side-lined, Tess started an internship with the advocacy and engagement team at Vision Australia where she works to create a fairer society for people with low vision.
Rallying and lobbying with ministers to improve accessibility ignites a fire in Tess’s soul and that is why she wants to follow in Graham Innes’ footsteps.
“I really want to work for the government or in the community sector, designing programs that improve people’s health. That could be working with the state government to increase female participation in sport or with a refugee organisation making sure refugee families understand the importance of immunisation. I’m not really sure yet, I just know I want to be hands-on, people-focussed and involved in program delivery.
Some people just help the blind and that’s amazing, but I want to do more than that. I want to help any marginalised group or individual that needs help. I want to make people’s lives better no matter what their circumstance is.”
This stems from Tess’s experience with Vision Australia and how they have supported her to become the confident, independent and strong woman she is today. From an early intervention program, to assistive technology and pre-employment training, Vision Australia have helped Tess live the life she chooses, and for that, she will be eternaly grateful.
She really is a force to be reckoned with and I cannot wait to see her blaze through the next decade of her life.
Keep killing it,