Cathy Birchall is Truly Inspirational
Calling this article “Truly Inspirational” needs some real justification, doesn’t it? Well, hang on to your seat because I’m about to introduce you to one very special woman. Born on the 5th of September 1957, Cathy Birchall is a woman whose life has inspired, and will inspire, many people to know that they can do things, when many quite simply say “You can’t.” To give you an idea of what I mean, let me set the scene by telling you that she was the first blind woman to travel around the world on a motorcycle. But first, let’s go back to basics. What on earth led up to her doing such a thing?
As a child, Cathy didn’t really understand that she was any different from other children; it was normal to her that everyone looked hazy. She led a life of “shifting shadows and indistinct images,” but as she grew older the differences became more pronounced; Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic disorder, was stealing her sight. This must have been a painful time as her fast reducing sight left her more and more excluded, while the other kids could run and play….
At age 14, she managed to move out of the normal educational system and into a specialist school for the visually impaired. For the first time people really understood her; she wasn’t an idiot or just clumsy. But, to allow her to continue her education, after she reached the age of 16, she had to move to a standard educational college, and all her original problems surfaced again. “But,” she said, “I hated being dependent on government hand-outs. I wanted to, needed to, stand on my own two feet… I had to become a new person.”
During this time she met Peter, who was to become her first husband. They married when she was 22. Life continued to give Cathy knocks, and by her mid-twenties she was completely blind. Not only did her sight deteriorate so badly that she felt unable to venture out alone, but Peter died from Leukaemia. After 19 years of marriage, during which time they built a transport business, Cathy found herself alone and in the dark once again. She later wrote, “Tossed between anger, self-pity and absolute misery, the spiral took me down deeper and deeper to a place where there is no perception of light, no good times, no happiness, no warmth… no anything.”
Unwilling to be beaten, Cathy turned to new challenges. Over the next seven years she threw herself into further education. This involved a one- to twohour bus journey to the college with her first guide dog Petra, and a similar return journey for a single one-hour lecture, each and every time. I doubt many of us could do this for so many years, but she achieved her degree and then put it to good use as a further education lecturer. She would never forget the applause and whistles from classmates at her graduation. She also tried sailing, skiing, and a parachute jump!
Those who knew her understood a vital aspect of her personality; openness and honesty were key. They fitted hand-inhand with her ability and desire to listen much more carefully than the norm. She seemed to have a knack of getting straight to the nub of any problem or misunderstanding. She said, “We are blessed with five senses. One of mine doesn’t work, but four do!”
While she was at a college in Liverpool, Cathy met Bernard Smith, who was to become her partner in adventure, and in due course, her husband. He was a specialist teacher for the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) while she worked for Action for Blind People, providing advice on independent living. Cathy recognized that, in more ways than one, meeting Bernard was a life changing moment.
Cathy said, “Bernard had ridden motorbikes from the age of 17, and he’d always wanted to ride a motorcycle around the world. I am quite adventurous, so I thought, let’s have a go, see what it’s like. Basically, he had a spare seat, and I took it up.” In 2008 the duo set off across Europe in August heading for Asia. “I didn’t have any fear before we set off. I trusted Bernard 100 percent. Though I did think, if anything happened to him where would I be?” Blind? As Bernard puts it, “She belonged to the 5% of visually impaired people who have ‘no useful vision.’ In Cathy’s case I do mean nada, zip, nothing.”
Raising money for the U.K.’s Action for Blind People Organisation, together the two of them covered 26,385 miles, 31 countries and five continents on an 18-year-old motorcycle called Bertha. What became apparent to her as she travelled the world’s roads, surrounded by strange places and languages, was that life does indeed involve a very simple truth. All you have to do is believe.
The duo rolled, battled or smiled their way through the year-long adventure with Bernard’s descriptions combining with Cathy’s working senses to paint pictures of the road in Cathy’s mind. “Weird and wonderful stories, interspersed with motorcycling updates, came through the intercom in strange voices as if from the captain of a plane giving altitude, directions, speed and weather conditions.”
Cathy especially liked the countries that were very different from the U.K. They even inadvertently stayed in a Kosovan brothel—imagine the sound effects… and the roads in India were terrifying for her. One day it took 14 hours to ride just 90 miles; Indian traffic is an adventure of the kind that you might not deliberately hunt out. The roads are crowded, horns go off everywhere, other vehicles literally push and shove you, and while she was dealing with the noise, the smell and the darkness, Cathy also worried about how silent Bernard was. She knew that if he wasn’t bantering thoughts and descriptions, plus the occasional curse, then things were grim indeed.
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