4th September 2003
Mike Newman became the fastest four-wheeling blind person when he clocked a speed of 144 mph in his Jaguar on 13 August, while Billy Baxter hit 165 mph on a motorbike at the beginning of the month.
I've lost track of the number of stories I've read about people like Rosaleen, Mike and Billy over the last few years. All of them seem to be taking part in a mad-cap competition to go faster, higher and further than each other. I don't think there is a mountain that hasn't been scaled, a desert that hasn't been traversed or an ocean that hasn't been crossed by a blind person. Oh, and did you hear about the blind bloke who is going to cross the Orinoco on a raft he's made by binding hundreds of white sticks together? OK, I made that one up - but it can only be a matter of time, can't it?
There's more, folks! Hold on to your hats because in a few months one stuntman is making a bid to be the first blind person to fly from the UK to Australia in a micro light?!?
I know a lot of blind people, but I don't know any of these blind adventurers or record-holders. The blind people I know are baffled by this streak that compels that lot to conquer the world's highest mountains, pilot flimsy aircraft further than any other blind person and be the fastest blindie on the planet.
Some of my blind acquaintances go as far as passionately condemning the adventurers for perpetuating the popular image of blind people as plucky and courageous dare-devils. Personally, I'm not convinced by that view ... but I will say that I just don't get it. Similarly, I can't understand why the Finnish have mobile phone-throwing and wife-carrying championships.
The whole idea of wanting to be the first 'blind' to, for instance, trek across an icy tundra or traverse a shark-infested sea by canoe mystifies me. I do, however, appreciate that these kinds of activities require high levels of physical strength, determination, training and endurance.
But why would anyone want to hold a 'fastest blind' title like the motoring speedsters I mentioned earlier, when you need no technical expertise and you don't have to possess any super-human physical characteristics? All you have to do is drive flat out in a straight line for a few hundred metres. That's it. It's not like real driving - there are no bends to negotiate or other vehicles to avoid - and you have a radio link to someone telling you to go faster, straighten up or slow down. Not exactly a testing achievement.
I yawned when I saw a headline shrieking that Billy Baxter had become the world's fastest blind man on two wheels. I assumed he was just another all-too-common blind car fanatic, frustrated that he cannot drive. I knew loads of them at school. They never missed Top Gear, had huge collections of Matchbox cars and ran around the dormitory vroom-vrooming.
I'm glad I bothered to read past the headline though, because I realised that I had been wrong to dismiss his efforts so quickly.
Billy, I learned, lost his sight after contracting a rare virus while serving as a soldier in Bosnia six years ago. He was thirty-three years old. A keen motorcyclist since the age of twelve, Billy said losing his sight had "terrified" him.
With a military career of seventeen years suddenly cut short, he said he felt "mortified" and "useless" and very depressed that he couldn't see his wife and children any more. He also desperately missed not being able to watch bike races.
My life hasn't been affected by blindness in the same way that Billy's has, but I think I know where he's coming from when he talks about the emotions he went through. When my former guide dog - who was as important to me as Billy's sight was to him - suddenly fell ill and was taken away to be looked after, I was mortified that he had gone. I too felt useless and depressed because I couldn't even muster the confidence to walk a few yards on my own.
The one thing that kept me going was knowing that I wouldn't be immobile for too long, because it would only be a couple of months till I trained with another dog and regained my independence. I don't know what spurred Billy on when he lost his sight and believed his life had finished, but the fact that he's now got the guts to get on a motorbike and burn rubber - something he loved doing when he could see - is a worthy achievement as far as I'm concerned.
A few hours after reading about Billy I heard him on Radio 4's In Touch programme. He wasn't mortified or depressed. He was euphoric and said that if he could bottle the way he felt, he would be a millionaire. Good on you, Billy.
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