Ausnew Home Care | Disability advocate Tilly Aston fought for blind and low-vision people to 'hold their own' in a prejudiced society

Disability advocate Tilly Aston fought for blind and low-vision people to 'hold their own' in a prejudiced society

disability Disability Employment Services disability law disability stereotypes intellectual disability Living With a Disability NDIS NDIS Aged Care Approved NDIS and Personal Care NDIS Plan no ‘dis’ in disability. Personal Care Services under NDIS Seeing the ability in disability umbrella of disability

It's been more than 75 years since Matilda "Tilly" Aston died, and both her name and her life's work have largely faded from the public eye.

But in recent weeks, her surname has been mentioned repeatedly in the media as attention has turned to the political contest in the electorate bearing her name, vacated by former minister Alan Tudge.

The little girl born in the tiny Victorian town of Carisbrook in 1873 grew up to use her experience of blindness as a "source of joy and love" which assisted countless others, and her thinking has been described as decades ahead of its time.

As well as being the first blind person in Australia to attend university, teach and publish books, Tilly Aston campaigned for vision-impaired people's right to vote.

"The right to vote at elections was often refused to us because we were not able to use pen and ink, and many other grievances added to the difficulties of our handicap," she wrote in her memoir.

"Something had to be done to alter these conditions, and I realised at the same time that no-one but the blind themselves could handle such matters in the proper spirit."

Photo of Tilly Aston as a young girl of 16 sitting in a chair with a handbag in her lap.
Tilly Aston was born with partial blindness and lost her sight completely when she was seven.(Supplied: Vision Victoria)

Tilly's determination to engage with the world through her poetry, writing, teaching and advocacy work was flanked by her belief that blind people were best-placed to decide on issues affecting them.

A newspaper clipping comparing Australian Tilly Aston to America's Helen Keller.
An Adelaide Advertiser article from 1947.(Supplied)

She set up a braille library, and early versions of advocacy organisations for vision-impaired people that still exist today. She also corresponded with people around the world in braille and the international language of Esperanto.

Alongside Tilly's bill of achievements were the frustrations she encountered in a society that was not ready for her.

She faced prejudice from other teachers when she embarked on her teaching career, and she never completed her university degree because studying was so difficult with textbooks unavailable in braille.

Throughout her life, Tilly faced negative reactions to her lack of sight, including the "contempt" of a woman who told her her son would not marry a blind girl, an interaction recorded in her memoirs.

Tilly wrote of a trip she took on a ship as an adult, noting that she "did not find the people very friendly".

"Blindness often produces that effect on strangers, who find it difficult to recognise the intelligent human being behind the darkened eyes."

When a seat in Melbourne's east was among those created during an electoral redistribution process in 1984, the name Aston was picked to honour Tilly.

Central Victorian home town an 'Eden'

In the small central Victorian town of Carisbrook, Tilly Aston's name and legacy is well remembered.

A memorial centre with a wealth of information about Tilly's life, surrounded by a sensory garden, was established by locals opposite the site of the house she grew up in.

The house no longer stands, but the Tilly Aston Memorial Centre attracts visitors from far and wide, including schoolchildren from nearby communities.

A bluestone cairn with a plaque on it honouring Victorian woman Tilly Aston.
A bluestone cairn erected in Tilly Aston's home town of Carisbrook is part of a memorial paying tribute to her achievements.(Supplied)

Sue Tully, a Carisbrook resident and member of the Carisbrook Historical Society who volunteered for Vision Australia for many years, led the project to set up the centre after learning about Tilly's life.

"The local people will never forget her," Ms Tully said.

"She just did so much."

In her writing, Tilly described Carisbrook as her "Eden".

"My dear little home town! My heart is filled with pleasure when in thought I ramble there, gathering flowers, paddling in the creek, and sharing the games of the children who were our neighbours."

A woman with blonde hair smiling wearing a hat and sunglasses.
Carisbrook Historical Society's Sue Tully says the town is proud of Tilly Aston.(Supplied)

Ms Tully said Tilly's beginnings as the youngest of eight siblings in a small, close-knit community gave her confidence when she left to study in Melbourne as a teen, and where she remained living for the rest of her life.

"There was a lot of community support here, and that may not have happened in a bigger town," she said.

"Her parents didn't mollycoddle her. They used to play around the mines, they were allowed to play near the creek.

"She got to know her surroundings."

In her own words, Tilly described what it was like to lose her vision completely at the age of seven after being born with partial vision.

"Gradually it crept upon me — first a mist over everything, then a grey twilight through which objects showed indistinctly," she wrote in her memoir.

"Finally, the world vanished, never again to be visible to the bodily eye, and by my seventh birthday total eclipse of sight had fallen on me."

Often comparisons were made between Tilly and America's Helen Keller, who used her experience of blindness and deafness to advocate for disability rights all over the world.

The pair, born seven years apart, never met but maintained a close friendship and corresponded via braille letters for many years.

Sadly, Helen Keller did not visit Australia until 1948, a year after Tilly had died.

"[Tilly] needs to be more widely known," Ms Tully said.

"We should have her on our money, we should have her on our stamps. We should do something.

"She has helped many, many thousands of people directly and indirectly."

A black and white photo of a woman wearing a black dress.
A black and white photograph of Victorian woman Tilly Aston taken sometime in the 1930s.(Supplied: State Library of Victoria)

Decades ahead in attitudes towards disability

Tilly was born a century before the "social model" of disability emerged, but Vision Australia's director of policy, Bruce Maguire, said she embodied its values well before it even had a name.

He said the social model of disability emerged in the UK in the 1970s and replaced a medical-focused approach to people with impairments such as blindness and low vision.

"I'm blind, for example, so that's an impairment, but whether you experience disability depends on how society is structured and the barriers that society creates," he said.

"Another key aspect of the social model is that is basically says that people with disability, or disabled people ... are best-placed to say what our needs are and how we want to live our lives."

A close up of a page with braille marks and a written signature of Tilly Aston.
A close-up of Tilly Aston's signature.(Supplied: Victorian Collections)

Mr Maguire said Tilly was "ahead of her time" and "recognised that many of the barriers she experienced were not because she was blind, but because of society's attitudes to the fact that she was blind".

Those barriers Tilly came up against when she tried to engage in the world by studying at university, and becoming a teacher, had a detrimental effect on her health.

"She became the first blind person to teach in Victoria, but she had significant attitudinal issues from the management of the school she was teaching at," he said.

A black and white newspaper clipping.
A newspaper clipping of an obituary for Tilly Aston printed in The Argus newspaper on Monday November 3, 1947.(Supplied: Trove)

While studying, Mr Maguire said Tilly had to dedicate many hours to transcribing her textbooks.

"People would dictate textbooks to her and she would transcribe them into braille," he said.

"So most of her time, instead of spent studying, was actually taken up producing her textbooks."

As a result of her experiences Tilly established organisations such as the Association for the Advancement of the Blind and the Association of Braille Writers — precursors to organisations like Vision Australia that continue advocating for and providing resources to assist blind and vision-impaired people today.

"She believed very strongly that if you want to know what blind people need, ask blind people, if you want to know how blind people want to live their lives, ask blind people," Mr Maguire said.

"Don't impose expectations from a sighted world onto the blind community.

"The association was formed so she could put those beliefs into practice."

Mr Maguire said it was "difficult to overstate" how important Tilly's work was for blind and low-vision people in Australia who came after her.

A close-up of the spine of a book entitled 'memoirs of Tilly Aston'.
Tilly Aston wrote a record of her life story before she died in 1947.(Supplied: Maryborough Midlands Historical Society)

In Tilly's memoir, she wrote of her pride in her life's work.

The memoir, published a year before she died in 1947, said her blindness had been "rather a source of love and joy than a burden and heartache".

"I have ever lived with the ardent desire that the blind should hold their own in the world of work, and do it with complete efficiency, and also that they should fill their niche in the nation's social life," she said.


Source: ABC

Older Post Newer Post