Ashleigh Dixon: Speaking up for disability awareness

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Partially sighted Ashleigh Dixon featured in the Bay of Plenty Times website's most popular story last week. The 21-year-old was forced to reveal an empty left eye socket to prove her disability to a bus driver before he would issue her with a concession fare.

1 Can you explain the history of your disability and what the status is at the moment?

I was born totally blind and had three cornea transplants when I was quite young, one in my right eye which my body accepted, but then they tried twice in my left eye and my body rejected both transplants. I currently have 70 to 80 per cent sight in my right eye and received a prosthetic left eye just yesterday.

2 Have you suffered discrimination during your life because of your disability? If so, how do you cope with it?

I was bullied a lot from primary school right through to high school, which I suppose you could say is discrimination. As I got older, I became strong enough to stand up for myself and not worry so much about people who do not accept me for who I am. I also feel I have been discriminated against while looking for employment.

I feel my visual impairment throws people off and they think I will be more of a burden than help, so they do not give me a chance.

3 As a 21-year-old woman, is having your disability especially difficult? Does it stop you living as full a life as your friends?

As I am unable to drive, I'm always the one asking to be picked up or taken somewhere, which makes me feel like a hassle. But I have lovely friends who are happy to help me out whenever they can. Other than that, I live a pretty normal life.

4 Can you say how you felt about the bus driver's actions at the time of the incident? How do you feel about it now?

I felt a mix of emotions. At first I was offended, then I thought "this cannot go on any longer" and that is when I showed him my empty eye socket. After he realised I actually do have sight problems, I felt a slight sense of victory, like I'd finally stood up for myself instead of just brushing it off. I now feel very happy that something is finally being done to raise awareness about disabled people using public transport.

5 Do you think his actions are symptomatic of a more general ignorance regarding disability in New Zealand society?

Yes I do. There seems to be a stereotype in New Zealand that visually impaired people look and act a certain way. When I got on the bus he must have felt like I didn't meet that "criterion" because I didn't look visually impaired. I feel like a majority of New Zealanders also feel this way. I understand he was only doing his job but he could have gone about it in a more professional way.

6 Have you had a lot of support for your decision to speak out about your story? If so, did it surprise you?

I have had so much support from family, friends, the feedback in the newspaper, people who recognised me in public and even members from RNZFB (Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind) who found me on Facebook to say how awesome it is that I spoke out for myself. There have also been many others who are having trouble with bus drivers. It surprised me a lot! I didn't think my story would attract this much attention.

7 What's the nicest thing to happen to you since the article appeared?

The extreme amount of support and positive day to day feedback I am getting. Every message, comment, call just puts a huge smile on my face.

8 What's the worst thing to happen to you since the article appeared?

Definitely people that don't understand. They made me feel I was making a big deal out of nothing and that maybe I shouldn't have spoken out. I felt there were bigger issues people should know about. These people seemed to think I am just having a rant about a concession fare. But a good friend of mine reassured me that raising awareness about disability was a good thing and I needed to stop doubting myself.

9 The day after your story appeared it was announced that 90 Bay Hopper bus drivers were to undergo disability awareness training. What did you think about that?

I thought it was absolutely awesome. I was overwhelmed at how much of an impact my story had made. I'm so pleased at how quickly Go Bus responded and took action to organise training for these bus drivers.

10 Is there anything else you would like to say?

I would like to thank my family, friends and everyone else who has supported me through this. It really means a lot. I would also like to thank Go Bus and the regional council for taking such immediate action on this issue.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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