Maryanne Diamond - Part 1

Photograph of Maryanne Diamond taken July 2012 Maryanne Diamond is the immediate Past President of the World Blind Union (WBU). She is a leader and an advocate, and somehow has also found time to be a loving wife and mother of four. In Part 1 of her story Ms. Diamond tells us about some of the challenges she faced and her achievements before her work with the WBU.

(This is the first part of a two-part story)

At the 8th General Assembly of the World Blind Union (WBU), my term as President came to an end. It seems a good time to look back on what was achieved during this period as well as my journey to get to such an important leadership role.

Being a person who has been blind since birth, access to information has been a major challenge for me in every aspect of my life, including education, employment, recreation, community participation, parenting and more.

I was born in Queensland, Australia into a family of five children. My parents had never met a blind person, but then when I was six weeks old, they discovered their infant daughter was blind. The advice given to my parents was that I be placed in a residential school for the blind at a very young age; the school would be best placed to help me acquire the skills and knowledge to prepare me for life. I would return home for weekends; this is how it was until I was 14 years of age. My family relocated to Melbourne when I was 7 years of age.

Early School Days

Black and white photograph of a teacher at St Paul's School for the Blind trying to teach Maryanne how to sew. I was fortunate to have learned braille at a very young age. I had access to good blindness skills training and made many lifelong friends with other persons who are blind or have low vision. What I didn't have was the experience of living in my local community, being part of the family unit as my brothers and sisters were.

At our school we had books in braille which I took for granted. I recall thinking there was a large number of books, however, soon realized this wasn’t the case, rather, books were made up of many volumes and appeared to be many, when in fact there were very few and not usually what I would choose to read.

I spent the last four years of my school education at a mainstream school. This was when I became aware of the challenges we face in getting information, whether it is textbooks, notes, assignments etc. I managed to get some, but not all of what I needed and often it was months coming; in class we had often moved on from that text to another. I relied on assistance with reading from teachers and other students. However I did get all examination papers in braille.

I did well at school although found myself having to take stands on what I wanted to do – which went against the so-called experts. For example, when I was 12 years of age, still at the school for the blind, it was suggested to me that I stay at the school for a few years and then become a telephone operator. To be honest I didn't really know what this was, but knew it wasn't for me and responded with "I am not doing what you tell every blind person to do". In the final years of school, I decided to study mathematics. I was good at it but was advised that I should not because I was a female and may fail. This surprised me as I had known males who were blind who studied mathematics. I responded with 'I have the right to fail'.

I was not aware of it at the time, but I believe that my determination and independence from a very young age equipped me with some valuable skills for life.

University: Self-advocacy

I studied for a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in mathematics at university. After some attempts to get access to textbooks, I gave up. I settled for examinations in braille and established my own network of readers from amongst my classmates. This was particularly important in mathematics as recording lectures was not adequate because much of what was written on the board was not spoken aloud.

Photograph of Maryanne, her parents, brothers and sisters taken in the back garden of her home.I believe this was great training for self-advocacy! One of those who read notes to me during these years at university later became my husband.

Following my degree I studied a post graduate course in Information Technology. At that time the Australian Government was offering cadetships for graduates who were interested in working in IT with a guarantee of a job. Employment of persons with disabilities in the Australian Government at that time was a far more feasible option than it is today.

Much of the information for this course was again provided to me through the lecturers and other students.

Library Services: How Times Have Changed

During much of my school and post-school years, I had access to library services for the blind. There were only limited braille books, and audio books with clunky devices for reading, and no means of navigating those books other than reading from start to end (which is really not navigation at all!). I wasn't an avid reader in those days and often was known to say something like: "I enjoy mathematics as you only need to solve problems, not read books". Today, my view is very different as I enjoy reading, especially with more content and sources to find available content. In saying this, I am very aware that what I and others who are blind have access to is a very small percentage of content available to those who can read the printed text.

Career & Family Life

Photograph of Maryanne, her husband and children, 1996.Working in the IT industry for many years as a systems analyst I saw and was part of many changes in technology, both mainstream and assistive. Accessing manuals for my work was almost impossible however finding ways to read printed output changed over the years as did the computers we used to enter information. In addition, the computer languages we used to write code undertook major development during the time I was employed in this industry.

In the late 1990s after marrying, having four children (one of whom has low vision), and living in the US on two occasions with my family, I took the decision to change my career. As a parent I was finding great difficulty navigating the services and support for children and families with children with disabilities in a very different world to what I had grown up in. I turned my time and energy to advocacy. I took a position as an advocate with Blind Citizens Australia. In 2000 I became their Executive Officer, a position I held for four years.

During that time, I watched with interest the establishment of the DAISY Consortium and the DAISY standard. Like many, the idea of being able to navigate text, go to page numbers, chapters etc. directly was something which would have made my life as a student so much easier. In addition, to have access to so many more books with the ability to navigate the text meant I became far more interested in reading for leisure.

The launch of AFDO at parliament house in Canberra; from the left are the chair, deputy chair and Maryanne Diamond; to the right of Maryanne are ministers and government officials. In 2004 I became the inaugural CEO of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO), the peak body of all disability consumer groups in Australia. Here it became clear to me that access to information impacts on the lives of a much larger group of persons than those of us who are blind.

Editor's Note

There is of course a great deal more to learn about Ms. Diamond's life, career and achievements. In Part 2 we learn about her abilities as an advocate for herself and for others. Her work with the WBU and the impact of her efforts during this period of her life will also be provided in Part 2 which will be published with the February DAISY Planet. Maryanne is an inspiration and a leading advocate in our community – please be sure to read the second part of her 'story' in February.