MOST students have no exposure to, nor understanding of, what it’s like to live with a disability such as blindness or a condition that requires the use of a wheelchair. So, on the International Day of People With Disability on December 4, St Norbert College students Tegan Reder and Thomas Rogers relished an opportunity to show them.
Tegan, 16, and Thomas, 15, spoke to Corpus Christi College and John XXIII College students about their sporting journeys. Tegan, who has been blind since birth, has represented WA 26 times, broken 15 Australian swimming records, and is a contender for the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics. The ATAR student inspired the Corpus Christi swimming squad and students with disabilities to get active in the pool by sharing the challenges she faced in early childhood – revealing what drives her, and her goals – as well as offering practical tips to students about how to treat people without vision.
“Treat us like anyone else,” she said during a Q and A session. “If it looks like we need a bit of assistance, come up and ask if you need a hand. Treat us like you would treat any other sighted member of the community.”
As part of the events organised by the Associated and Catholic Colleges of WA, St Norbert College student Thomas Rogers was invited to speak to John XXIII College students about the challenges of living with a spinal disability. Thomas, 15, is an international wheelchair fencer and accomplished saxophonist who lives with the lower limb weakening condition Spinal Dyraphism. Thomas joined in with the school’s disability buddy program for a session of wheelchair and vision-impaired tennis activities provided by Tennis West. Meanwhile, former Sacred Heart College student Madison Heady, middle distance runner and ACC record holder with cerebral palsy, spoke to students at Newman College, inspiring them to be more inclusive and to get involved in sport.
Tegan explained to students how her pursuit of swimming has opened a new and happier chapter in her life, providing her with not only a sense of place but an exciting direction. She has overcome personal doubts and has a clear dream – Toyko then the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the Paris Paralympics.
“As I’ve progressed from an outgoing kindergarten student to a capable Year 11, it quickly became clear to me that I was different,” she said. “Being uninterested in the same things my peers were, people my age ignored me on principle as I never seemed to fit in. My status as ‘the blind girl’ or ‘that disabled kid’ meant that I was widely avoided, deemed too hard to be friends with and honestly, I found most days a struggle just to be comfortable and accepted in my own skin.
“This discrimination which has always followed on my heels often left me feeling small and insignificant, unequal to those around me. And for a long time I believed that I could never gain respect or admiration from my friends and fellow classmates. My status as the outsider quickly changed however, when I took up swimming in 2018. I had always loved the water but had never considered swimming as a possible avenue of success.
“My interest in competitive swimming was sparked, however, when I participated in a school swimming carnival in Year 7 and 8. St Norbert College also had a squad coach who was qualified in training vision impaired swimmers and encouraged me to take part in out-of-school swimming squad training at her swim club. And from then on I was hooked.
“At first believing it to be simple means of keeping busy and nothing more, I entered into the sport with no real goals or determination – as I progressed in the sport however I quickly realised that if I kept at it, throwing all my time and energy into the pool, I could maybe achieve something worthwhile.
“Having realised this, the pain began – this included exhausting training six days a week in two hour sessions, exhilarating yet crushing nerves, and countless embarrassing situations such as falling off the diving block in front of my entire squad.
“I also managed to hit the end of the pool at a rapid rate and was hosptialised with a possible broken neck. After many different expereiences in the short time I have been swimming, the realisation set in that I was not just another swimmer. This sport could be the ticket to a new opening in my life.
“I have now been swimming for four years now and have broken 15 Australian age and open records in the S11 swimming classification and am sitting in the top three in the world for 50m and 100m breastroke. I have represented WA in three open national championships and one age national championship in WA, Victoria and Adelaide and will be competing in championships in April next year.”
Though I was once the small, awkward, unpopular blind girl, I am now also someone who can overcome her own personal doubts and fears and aim to achieve her dreams
Last year Tegan was accepted into the Para Development Squad through the WA Institute of Sport, training in Canberra with Australian Paralympic Coaches at a development camp, which has led to to a scholarship at WAIS and an invitation to trail for Tokyo 2021.
“Through my journey I have realised that I have needed to train harder if I wanted to reach my goal. So I decided to change clubs and that has meant 4.30am starts,” she said. “I am getting used to the lack of sleep, the muscle pain and the huge amounts of money spent on crumpets and museli bars every month . . .
“Though I was once the small, awkward, unpopular blind girl, I am now also someone who can overcome her own personal doubts and fears and aim to achieve her dreams.
“All of my hard work so far as taught me that no matter how uncoordinated you are, no matter how athletic, confident or socially accepted you are, you don’t need to change yourself to make a difference. You just need to be you and believe in yourself because at the end of the day it’s hard for others to believe in you if you do not believe in yourself.”