She can’t read or write print or drive a car. She has never seen her children or a glorious sunset. She is a retired physiotherapist, an adventurous cook and addicted traveller, a skier, and a lifelong volunteer.
Rosamund Van Leeuwen is blind - she lost her sight in three days at the age of two.
At special boarding schools in England from age four to 17, Ros was naughty, a bit of a rebel, and adored drama and sports. “I was so lucky these schools existed for me. There, I was never different,” she recalls. “I had so many more opportunities than are possible today.”
As a child, she climbed trees and ran like the wind; she loved her scooter and zoomed about on roller skates. Her parents cut her no slack at home - Ros did the same chores as her siblings and enjoyed the same boisterous games. When sighted students of five and six were learning to read and write print, she was learning Braille. Throughout her school career, Ros’s academic progress matched that of her sighted peers. “My personality helped me a lot,” she says. “But mostly, because I never remembered having vision, I never missed it. I never had to adjust.”
Most people recall that moment when they realize they can manage their lives and pursue most of their dreams. Ros reached this turning point much earlier than most. Bored and constrained by school when she was 17, she quit and set out alone halfway around the world. “I was the first blind person to apply to Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas, and when I met their criteria, they didn’t know what to do with me,” she laughs.
VSO sought guidance from of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. John Wilson, a director, had lost his sight as an undergrad and had just visited a new school for visually impaired children in Singapore. He said the school needed a liaison between the sighted staff and blind students, and thought Ros was perfect. VSO offered her the assignment and instructed her to serve as an example of outstanding independence. She accepted and proceeded to stretch the staff’s expectations of what the students could and should do. She recruited volunteers and augmented the curriculum with field trips that had the students experiencing many activities for the first time, both practical for daily living, as well as recreational. “This was the most fascinating year of my life; I was so stimulated,” says Ros. “I proved to myself I could live like my sighted friends and have loads of fun too!” This turning point began her lifelong service to others.
Physiotherapy training followed Ros’s year in Singapore, again at a special facility in London, U.K., for students with visual impairments. The profession opened the door for her to travel the world again and she worked in Australia, Scotland, South Africa and Canada. Once in Canada, she married Richard and they had a son and a daughter. “Bringing them up took some innovation,” Ros chuckles. “I tied bells to their shoes so I knew where they were. When they got older and wiser, they untied them!”
Helping others, becoming engaged in her community, and using her talents are embedded in Ros’s genes. “They’re part of life, aren’t they?” she says, making light of it. “It started at school where I joined everything. Then, after VSO, I began to speak on their behalf and discovered I was good at promotion and fundraising. I’ve been volunteering ever since.”
Wherever Ros lived, she has mentored parents of blind kids individually or in groups; now she is a resource for people in West Vancouver who are losing their sight. She teaches the blind component of the Special Education Assistant course at Capilano University. Her sessions at the Canadian Tourism College guide flight attendants and hospitality staff in how to assist those with all kinds of disabilities, not just visual impairment.
Ros is or has served as a director of the CNIB B.C. and Yukon division and the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. Today, she chairs the CNIB Board Development Committee, which liaises with the federal and provincial governments. Ros’s frustration shows when she explains, “British Columbia has 90,000 known visually impaired citizens, most of whom lose their sight later in life. Their rehab is not covered by our medical plan. Why, I don’t know, given that rehab for stroke, MS, and most other conditions is. Not only that, B.C.’s government contribution to the B.C. and Yukon division of CNIB is only 10 per cent, the lowest in Canada.”
Ros takes on a determined look, which means she is out to make a difference. She’s an ideal person to achieve it.
Her work for Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind and the B.C. Guide Dog Services is ongoing. Now, she is on a team rewriting the old B.C. Guide Dog Act into the Guide and Assistance Dog Act, a cause close to her heart. Ros has had five guide dogs. Janey, her current dog, will soon retire and become a pet, and Ros will welcome
“I also derive immense satisfaction from serving on the North Shore Advisory Committee on Disability Issues. I use both my physiotherapy skills and my personal experience with blindness to make life easier for others,” Ros explains.
This group advises architects and developers on accessibility for all public buildings and spaces. “We go out to test them during construction and on completion. You won’t believe how valuable our suggestions can be,” she says.
When asked what ranks as her top achievement in life, Ros pauses then says, “Everything and nothing. I lead a life like everyone else.” When pushed, she struggles to choose. Her current favourite is carrying the Olympic Flame and, though words are inadequate to describe the event, she responds, “I was very proud. I got this incredible feeling - so many wanted to touch the torch, be a part of it all.”
NOVEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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