Ausnew Home Care | Blind shearing shed roustabout moving on to new

Blind shearing shed roustabout moving on to new challenges

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Ashlea Hughes is legally blind, but the 26-year-old won't let it be a barrier to navigating her way around the lanolin-oiled floorboards of shearing sheds across South Australia and Victoria where she has worked for the past five years. 

Ms Hughes works as a roustabout — a remarkable feat in a fast-paced and sometimes dangerous workplace — where she weaves in and out, picking up wool, sorting and sweeping the boards as the shearers drag in their next sheep to shear.

Ms Hughes has retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that affects one in every 3,000 Australians. For her, it means her peripheral vision has deteriorated since her teens.

Both her brothers have the hereditary condition but hers is the most advanced.

"I got diagnosed with the condition when I was 17 and I think it was quite far gone by then and then I was declared legally blind when I was 21," she said.

Close up headshot of blond woman looking at camera
At 26, Ms Hughes is legally blind.(Supplied: Ashlea Hughes)

"I can't see their nose, I can't see their forehead, I can't see their ear or their chin or anything — it's literally just the eye."

Ms Hughes began working in the wool sheds after she once stayed in a shedding town and became interested in the job. She has since learnt to navigate a different work environment just about every week.

"I just tell people I can't see and so if I bump into them or if I'm in their way or they're trying to get past, just to talk to me," Ms Hughes said.

"The first day in each shed I feel a bit clumsy and lost and like I'm bumping into everyone and mucking everything up.

"I've got to get used to where everything is, like where the catching shed doors are, where the shearers are going to come out, where the table is, how much room between the wall and the shearer — all that sort of stuff.

A colour newspaper photo of a young woman and a young man handling wool in a competition
Ms Hughes competing in the Bendigo Sheep and Wool Show wool handling state finals.(Supplied: Ashlea Hughes)

One of the best

Ms Hughes grew up in Koonwarra, South Gippsland, Victoria, population 400, enjoying a childhood on a dairy farm highlighted by a love of dance and showing cows.

Shearing contractor Erin Doudle, based at Cummins on the Eyre Peninsula, said Ms Hughes was one of her best workers.

"She's just incredible. There's a lot of people working for us who don't do half the job she does," Ms Doudle said.

"There's lots of movement and action in the shearing shed to be conscious of even for those of us who can see, so she does an amazing job."

Ms Doudle said she is also probably the tidiest roustie on the team.

"I may sweep the floor even though its clean and it doesn't need sweeping but I'm not sure if it does or not so I just sweep it anyway in case," Ms Hughes said.

Woman wearing a cap with competitor number 217 in judging arena adjusting strapping on light brown cow's head
Ms Hughes also enjoys showing cattle.(Supplied: Ashlea Hughes)

But some days are hard.

"I don't want to work in the sheds long term. I've realised it's quite toxic for me mentally when I have bad days. It's just not very good," she said.

"But I always just remind myself that it's just the first day.

"I'm just getting the hang of it and tomorrow will be a lot better.

"Sometimes I do sit down and think about how much I have achieved."

Family of five grouped at restaurant table, son and mother standing with father, son and daughter sitting
Ms Hughes with her family. Both her brothers also have retinitis pigmentosa.(Supplied: Ashlea Hughes)

New direction

Ms Hughes has decided it is time for new challenges and hopes to train to become a barista. 

Her next goal is to travel overseas to a dairy conference in the UK in 2024.

She is also hoping to get back to pole dancing, which she took up in Melbourne.

Woman arched back, stretching upside down pole dancing wearing pink top and pants
Ashlea Hughes has always enjoyed dance and took up pole dancing as an adult.(Supplied: Ashlea Hughes)

"I really enjoy doing that and my goal one day hopefully is to get to competition level with it," she said.

"I love it. It's fitness, it's fun, it's dance and it makes you feel good about yourself.

"I've always loved dance. It's always been my happy place growing up."


Source: ABC

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