Community member Paul Stretton-Stephens talks about how a serious injury and losing his sight helped him discover his passion for the arts.
I count myself as having been very lucky in life despite a couple of knocks along the way. I left school, having attended 12 in total and served in the Royal Marines, and then became a Royal Military Policeman serving in different parts of the world.
I have always loved sport and fitness and this worked well for me in my military service. I had the opportunity to enter combat first aid competitions, play rugby and experience martial arts. I then trained as a physical education (PE) instructor with the Home Office, attaining coaching qualifications in more than 10 different sports activities. My favourites were rugby, kayaking and martial arts.
Unfortunately, I suffered a lower back disc problem. I recovered well, but three years later after a slip on a wet floor, I sustained an injury in the same place, only this time my lower left leg was left powerless. I used a wheelchair and elbow crutches for at least a couple of years and a walking stick for a few more before I was able to walk unassisted. It was a devastating blow to me having been so fit, but I managed to get through it. It was around this time that I started seeing Lesley, who was to become my wife. And my friends and family were incredibly supportive.
I was also one of the very few people to be fitted with a neuro-stimulator, which cuts off pain signals to the brain via a hand held remote. This device has been such a life changer for me.
The service medically retired me from the job that I loved at the age of 33. I chose to retrain by immediately enrolling on to a Higher National Diploma in Business and Marketing, which gave me a new lease on life.
My grades were so good that I was offered a place on a degree programme, obtaining a BA (Hons) in Business Management with Economy in Society at the University of Worcester.
I went on to study intellectual property in Spain and ended up running an international security consulting firm specialising in competitive intelligence. After a couple of years, I decided to return to the UK to teach business studies. Some years later, the opportunity arose to return to Spain, a country I adore. I joined a school as Head of Business Studies, and progressed to Secondary Head Teacher, an exciting, challenging role.
In 2002, I was back in the UK. I visited an optician for a routine eye test and a cataract was discovered. I had this removed, but my vision didn’t improve. After various tests and mis-diagnoses, I found out at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London that I have cone-rod dystrophy, a progressive condition that affects the cells of the retina, for which there is no cure.
In the early days, the condition was present in both eyes. However, the problems had only manifested in the left one. I was still able to function and work with some natural adaptation and aids, which mainly consisted of colour tinted glasses for day and night, indoor and outdoor.
But suddenly, the vision in my right eye also deteriorated. I was signed off work, and never returned to that post.
The staff at Moorfields have been fantastic, as have the many medical staff I have seen over the last few years in Spain. And despite their prognosis, I continuously seek alternate avenues in finding a solution to my visual impairment.
Some people may think that acceptance is part of coming to terms with sight loss and I respect that. However, we’re all made differently, and this is my way.
There’s no getting away from the fact that my condition presents difficulties in everyday life, but if you are willing to accept help, it is out there. I now have an Access to Work support worker, who helped with my assessment for technology needs. I also had a lot of help from my rehabilitation officer. RNIB was also instrumental in helping me on more than one occasion, as was my local charity iSight Cornwall.
I knew that I might be on borrowed time with my vision some time ago, so while I was still working as a head teacher, I started writing fiction and I loved it. People frequently ask me how I can write. I use my trusted microphone and speech-to-text software to write for me. I also outsource editing, proofreading, formatting and design services.
Writing poetry is also a passion of mine and I’ve recently written a film script, too. With all of my writing, I tend to visualise what I’m writing in my head, just like a movie where I can stop, rewind, and fast-forward at will. And I can’t resist going to the theatre. I’m particularly excited at the prospect of one of my stories being adapted for the stage, which is being considered.
I may have a visual impairment, but this doesn’t stop me visualising.
Music is an important aspect of my life as well, and I like to walk, especially along the coast. I’m happily married and live beside the sea in Cornwall, where I love spending time with family and friends. I don't let my sight impairment stifle my activities... I travel extensively, and apart from being a Trustee of iSight Cornwall, I’m about to start learning to play the guitar. Wish me luck!
Finally, I want to say that I’m happy to network and collaborate with others as much as possible. I believe that we can all help one another on our life's journey.