St Dunstaner shows how its done

BLIND Royal Naval veteran has told an astonished Bexhill audience how he's gained an archery gold medal for Britain at an international paralympics meeting in Italy.

Friday, 10th November 2006, 7:49 am
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 9:36 pm

Former Chief Petty Officer Nigel Whiteley has recently helmed a speedboat towing a blind skier.

A colleague has gained a world blind speed record, riding a solo motorcycle at 168.4mph on an airfield runway.

Another has gained a scuba record, diving to 106 metres.

The secret of their success in coming to terms with the loss of their sight has been St Dunstan's, the charity which for the past 91 years has guided blind ex-servicemen and women to an independent future through training and comradeship.

"Confident, Independent. Accomplished. Blind" - the slogan on St Dunstan's leaflets left beside the plates of members of Bexhill and District Gardens and Allotments Society members before they sat down to their annual dinner at the Cooden Beach Hotel last Thursday sums-up the movement's enduring ethos.

On the front cover was the smiling face of a young man in uniform.

His story was a key part of an address by Nigel Whiteley - his second of the day - which made a deep impression on his audience.

The young man lost his sight, his hearing and a hand at the age of 14 to an IRA bomb in London. He qualified for St Dunstan's unique aid because as an Army Cadet Force member he was part of the Territorial Army.

He is now at University. His favourite sport is rifle shooting.

Falklands War veteran Nigel Whiteley had served 27 years in the Royal Navy before a virus caught during casualty evacuation work in Lebanon cost him the sight of one eye and the career he loved.

"There was only one one-eyed sailor and that was Horatio Nelson. But he was an Admiral and I wasn't...."

Twelve years later Nigel's other eye failed from the same cause as he walked from Eastbourne war memorial.

St Dunstan's proved the turning-point for him as it had for thousands like him since it accepted its first war-blinded men on March 26, 1915.

Partly deaf as well as blind as a result of the virus, Nigel learned how to walk confidently and independently using a white-and-red cane.

He learned how to cook once again - turning out cakes and Christmas puddings for fellow trainees.

He demonstrated for his audience his tactile talking watch, the electronic device which allows him to tell the colours of the clothes he chooses for the day, the gadgets which allow him to fill a teacup or mix a gin-and-tonic with accuracy and independence.

With after-dinner wit - "Those carrots don't work!" - he traced the origins of the movement from its inception by Daily Express owner Arthur Pearson. As the magnate was losing his own sight to glaucoma the first of thousands men blinded in World War One were facing a future without state aid.

Nigel dismissed a number of myths.

St Dunstan is not the patron saint of the blind but of jewellers and watchmakers - who need good eyesight. The charity's derives from the bell of a demolished Fleet Street church which Arthur Pearson bought for his stable block.

From its London origins, St Dunstan's moved in 1935 to its present purpose-built block cliff-top block at Ovingdean near Brighton, offering training, respite care, holiday accommodation and a home.

Nigel holds those who cannot cope with the computer age in evident contempt, communicating with his talking computer.

"We have a lady of 90 who has been blind for 35 years. She has family all over the world. She used to get people to write letters for her. She came to us. She learned word-processing. Now she regularly e-mails her family in Canada and New Zealand..."

Gardens and Allotment Society members had two surprises for their guests. Not only had Nigel and his wife Jacquie turned out from their St Dunstan's property at Peacehaven on their wedding anniversary it was also Nigel's 60th birthday.

Nigel deftly blew out the candles on a birthday cake presented to him by the society, which raised 150 for St Dunstan's via the night's raffle.