By Jess Gallagher, Global Ambassador, Vision 2020 Australia
Being diagnosed as legally blind when I was 17 turned my world upside down and changed my whole perspective on life. Through the amazing support that I received, as a 26 year old I am now living the life I always dreamt about—despite my low vision.
I am a dual sport Paralympian athlete in Alpine Skiing and Athletics. I am also the first and only Australian female to have won a medal at a winter Paralympics—Vancouver 2010 Slalom bronze—and the first and only Australian athlete to have won a medal at a winter and summer international major event—2011 IPC World Athletics Champs Silver (Long jump) Bronze (Javelin) medallist.
In 2011, I was appointed as Vision 2020 Australia’s first Global Ambassador. This is a huge privilege for me. Eye health is obviously a passion of mine (I have a rare disease known as cone dystrophy) and throughout my experiences I have come to learn that one of the most powerful ways to impact a person who is blind or has low vision is through education.
Through my experiences in life I truly believe that knowledge is the key. As Vision 2020 Australia’s Global Ambassador I see my primary purpose is in teaching others in Australia and abroad that sight is a truly wonderful gift that we should not take for granted. One great way to raise awareness is through events like World Sight Day. World Sight Day is a global initiative providing an opportunity to raise the profile of the causes of avoidable blindness and vision impairment worldwide.
I feel so grateful to have some of the world’s best eye specialists to help me in Australia but there are many others who do not receive this support. According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 285 million people globally are vision impaired, of whom 39 million people are blind. Ninety per cent of the world’s blindness exists in developing countries, and over half of all blindness occurs in Asia and the Pacific. There are clear links between poverty and blindness, and efforts to tackle blindness have a key role to play in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Nearly eighty per cent of blindness is preventable or treatable, and programs to tackle avoidable blindness are among the most cost effective of all public health programs.
In 2009, the Vision 2020 Australia Global Consortium, a partnership of eight Australian eye health and vision care organisations was established. With the support of AusAID, through the Australian Government’s Avoidable Blindness Initiative (ABI), the Global Consortium has been implementing programs in Vietnam, Cambodia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Samoa. The approach has been to ensure that Australian eye health and vision care agencies are working together hand-in-hand with national governments to ensure that eye health is considered as part of their broader health systems.
I am really proud of the contribution Australia is making to support eye health and blindness prevention programs in our region and I believe that the work that Australian NGOs and the Global Consortium, with the support of the Australian Government, is incredible. The things they have achieved to date are truly remarkable. Since 2010, more than 410,000 people across Asia and the Pacific have received eye health screenings or consultations, more than 75,000 people have undergone eye surgery, and more than 5,700 people have received spectacles thanks to the Australian Government and the Global Consortium. Also during this time, training has extended to more than 7,800 health professionals in the region and over 50 eye care facilities have been built or renovated.
Next week I will be travelling to Vietnam so that I can see for myself what the support from the Australian Government has achieved—visiting hospitals, schools and village projects. I have no doubt this trip will be overwhelming and I look forward to helping spread the word once I return home about the great work that is being done and how people’s lives are being transformed so others can see what has been achieved. For me though, I hope to share my experiences with vision impaired and blind people that I meet along the way and help to inspire them to believe that anything truly is possible—with or without sight!
You can also watch this video on Youtube.
About the author: Jess Gallagher
In 2010, Jessica Gallagher created history at the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, becoming the first Australian woman to ever win a Winter Paralympic Games medal. With guide Eric Bickerton, Jessica claimed bronze in the women’s vision-impaired slalom. With a rare disease known as cone dystrophy which continues to deteriorate her sight, Jessica became eligible for both the summer and Winter Paralympics and has now returned to athletics in the long jump and javelin, recently competing in both these events at the London Paralympic Games.
As well as being Vision 2020 Australia’s Global Ambassador, Jess is also Australian Ambassador for the Australian Paralympic Committee, Ambassador for Vision Australia, Ambassador for 2XU, 2010 Australian Female Paralympian Of The Year Recipient, 2010 Australian Institute of Sport Achievement Award Recipient and 2011 Victorian Institute of Sport Gatorade Spirit Award Recipient. She has a Bachelor of Applied Science (Comp Med) and Masters of Osteopathy.