I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria. When I was 19, I had a retina detachment in my right eye. In those days it wasn’t as easy to reattach it and I lost all my vision in that eye.
In Israel I studied nursing. At the end of my post graduate studies in paediatric nursing, I was shocked to discover I had retina detachment causing loss of sight in my right eye, but I was determined not to let this hold me back. Previously, my father was arrested by the communist government and wrongly accuse of being a Jewish spy. My mother had little choice but to migrate with me to Israel, leaving my father behind.
In Israel I grew up and studied nursing. I was a pediatric nurse and was inspired my Moshe Diyan, the Israeli chief of staff who also had one eye. After marrying and giving birth, I unfortunately had another detachment in the other eye. I was advised to fly to America for immediate surgery. The surgery restored some of my sight which was enough for me to be able to look after my son.
Life in Israel was very difficult due to ongoing wars. My husband and I decide to immigrate to South Africa. It was the only place we could get a visa but shortly after we realized it was as war torn as Israel. Thankfully we had contacts in Australia who helped us get a visa. We arrive in Australia as skilled migrants in 1982. I immediately fell in love with the Australian way of life. I loved the green landscapes, beautiful beaches and welcoming people. I also made contact with the Australian Jewish community who helped us settle.
My overseas qualifications as a registered nurse were not recognized in Australia and with limited English and visual impairment, I struggled to find work. I did however find employment as a nanny. My husband’s English was also very limited and he applied for many jobs before he was employed as a sales assistant. On our first day living in our rented apartment, we saw a sign in the foyer of the apartment block “Dogs and Jews are not allowed”.
In our first two years in Australia, I had two retina detachments, two cornea grafts on the remaining eye, three glaucoma operations and was left with 6% vision, classifying me as legally blind. Needless to say I kept my doctors on their toes. The subsequent pressures of my poor health and continual hospitalization, lack of extended family, no permanent employment for my husband and diminished finances led to marriage breakdown. I left my husband, with no money in my pocket or job.
I had to adjust to being a sole parent from a non-English speaking background with a disability. I decided the only way for me and my son to get ahead was to acquire another education. With TAFE support, I completed a Diploma in Social Welfare. That was only half the challenge, finding a job with limited sight proved even harder. Even for just work experience, many organisations were unwilling to take me on because of my visual impairment.
The Ethnic Child Care Centre gave me my first student placement and that led to grief support counseling which I conducted on the phone. This led to my first job at the Multicultural Disability Advocacy Association in its infant stages. Luckily they were smart enough to see my strengths rather than my limitations. I was empowered and worked as an advocate for ten years. I lived a full life with the limited vision I had.
My greatest challenge came in 2002. While waiting for a train, I had an accident which left me with an above knee and below knee amputations. I paid a high price for never being a victim of my own disability and for my ongoing battle to keep the remaining sight I had. Despite the fact that the doctors said id never walk, I persisted and was able to walk. I also live with some degree on independence in my flat.
However, today I’m totally blind and have once again managed to readjust to having no visual cues. I fought hard to keep the vision I had for over 30 years and was lucky to have it for that long. Today, I am very focused on using my skills, experience and passion to help fight for the rights of people from a non-English speaking background with disability. I want to raise awareness in the community for our abilities and provide support for all people with disability. We can live rich and full lives like anyone else if we choose to and have the right support.
Rachel is an MDAA Chairperson.