Hawthorn is one club, many teams, including a wheelchair footy and an AFL Blind team. With lots of time to be spent at home over the coming weeks, we thought it was the perfect time for Hawks fans to learn a little bit more about the players that make up these teams. Hawthorn’s Wheelchair and Blind football teams are made possible by the club’s social inclusion partner, Afford, one of Australia’s longest-serving disability service providers.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what do you do outside of footy?
I am a public servant, working in communications so I love talking and getting to know people. I love creative writing and have really been getting into that of late and have been writing a children’s book called ‘Bruce the Chicken’. After getting involved in AFL I have really been enjoying sport and fitness too.
What made you pursue AFL Blind and how did you get involved?
I have always liked AFL. I followed the Swans and my brothers play footy, so I always enjoyed it, but I was never really shown how to play. I got involved through the trial games of AFL Blind. I was really curious and excited when the AFL invited me to be a part of the blind football testing days. I really enjoyed it. I loved getting back into the team sport environment and meeting new people in the community. I also found it really challenged me, which made me pursue it further.
So, to play AFL Blind you need to have a visual impairment. What is your visual impairment and what are some of the challenges you may face on a daily basis and in AFL?
My visual impairment is called Stargardt Disease (juvenile macular degeneration). Normally, Stargardt Disease develops in adolescence, the doctors think I have had it since birth but wasn’t diagnosed until I was six. I never knew that I couldn’t see properly, for a lot of my life I just assumed that was how everyone saw the world. My condition means that my central vision is quite poor and has degenerated over the last few years especially, so I have learnt how to use the white cane and technological software to help me get through day-to-day activities. Anything that is in print, even signs or billboards no matter what size really, I won’t be able to read it. Another big challenge is the barriers around ‘assumption’. People often assume, because of my visual impairment, I can’t do anything or assume that my vision is at a certain level without really knowing, which is a difficult thing for a lot of people who are visually impaired.
The challenge in footy for me is that I can’t really follow the play down the ground. I can pick up movement, so I find that I really need to focus on one thing at a time like my opponent or the footy and focus on the colours. That is how I identify where my teammates, the opposition and the footy all are based on the jumper colours and the colour of the footy.
Can you briefly explain how AFL Blind works and what does it mean to you to play?
In AFL Blind the ball is a fluro yellow, to help with contrast and it has an electronic buzzer in it. Sound is a big factor in our game. We use a lot of different sounds to signal different things such as behind each goal people shake bells so we know where the goals are and there is also commentary during the games so we know where everyone is. That makes it really handy for me, as I play full back and cannot follow what’s happening up the ground very well.
What do you love most about the game?
There are so many things I love about the game. I really love the camaraderie within our team but also across the entire league. There is a lot of support among everyone, not just with football and fitness, but there is also a lot of encouragement to do many other things in life as well. I never in a million years thought I would be playing football, but it has given me a lot of confidence and it has opened up a lot of different avenues in my life. I’m 42 and I know that this won’t last forever for me, so I’m just trying to enjoy it while I can.
What did it mean to you when you found out you were drafted to Hawthorn?
It was amazing, a bit interesting initially because I have always followed the Swans but I feel like my feathers have changed to Hawks feathers. I didn’t know too much about the club at the start but from the second I was drafted I could feel the passion in the club. They never treated me as a blind person, they treated me like a normal person just with multiple layers. They’ve always shown a lot of respect to everyone in the club and community, which is amazing.
How has your experience at Hawthorn been so far, what are some of the things the club has involved you in?
I feel like we have been on a bit of a magic carpet ride. I never would have imagined that an AFL club would invest so much into a team that doesn’t get that much exposure and isn’t on the TV. It really makes me feel like I need to pinch myself. Hawthorn is leading the way with disability, and are so far in front of the pack in this space. The respect that we have received is just amazing and I truly feel that everyone in the club cares about us. It has restored my faith in people really.
We have been involved in a lot of things at the club. We were invited to the Peter Crimmins Medal, which was a wonderful experience. The club gave me a role as a member of the steering committee for the Inclusion Champions program, which gives me the opportunity to give feedback and advice to the club. I see Hawthorn as great champions of disability.
What does it mean to be the captain of a Hawthorn premiership-winning team?
Well, firstly I feel like it is a massive privilege to be captain. There is a lot involved in the role, but I feel like it has really challenged me and motivated me to grow my leadership skills as well. It’s awesome to be able to lead the team and help guide everyone through the journey. I feel like we have created a great environment and my role is to help, support and encourage my team and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know my teammates a lot better. Being captain of Hawthorn’s Blind team has been a privilege and an amazing experience.
As for the premiership, I am still in a bit of shock about it all. Round 1 we lost to the Bulldogs by 150 points, so as a team we had to stop thinking about the end of the season and just focus on each game as they came. I never thought I would even play in a footy Grand Final, let alone be captain of a premiership-winning team. Winning against an unbeaten Bulldogs team that beat us by such a big margin in Round 1 showed me that the impossible is possible in a way and that when the odds are against you if you never give up and buy into your values as a team you can always fight through and succeed.
Are there any other blind sports? Have you played any of them?
I played softball when I was a teenager but it got to a point where I felt like my visual impairment was holding me back and I felt like I couldn’t contribute to the standard that I wanted and I didn’t want to let anyone down.
I have gotten into water aerobics recently. Through AFL Blind I have started running with a group called Achilles, which is a running group for people with a disability, I have never been all that sporty so I am very proud that I am doing so much sport at the moment and that’s why footy has been so great for me.
Do you have any heroes or idols that you want to be like?
I love Adam Goodes, he was so much more than a phenomenal player, off the field he always stood up for what he believed in and handled everything with grace. I also really love John Farnham and Caroline Wilson as well. I love what they each stand for.
What is your ultimate sporting goal and what is a life goal of yours?
I never thought I would be playing AFL so I would love to continue playing for as long as I can! I would also love to keep on running and I would love to run a marathon. I have pencilled in the 2025 New York marathon with my friend so if we can get over there that would be an amazing goal to achieve.
Professionally, I would love to work my way up in my field and also eventually get my creative writing published as well. I am at a point where I’m moving into a new phase of my life so that would be great if I could do that.
There has been a real focus in the last few years on disability inclusion. What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved in sport, if they are visually impaired?
I would say just come down and give it a go. Try and make it to a few of the’ Come and Try’ days. You might find it hard, or think it’s not for you just hearing about it, but once you have given it a go you will love it. I wasn’t 100% sure when I first heard about it but as I got into it, I found that I really enjoyed it and everyone is really nice and there is a great supportive community. It doesn’t matter if you have played a lot or a little sport, everyone is really encouraging and supportive of anyone who wants to play.
All interviews in the Getting to know series are hosted by Hawthorn’s AFL Blind Vice Captain Ned Brewer-Maiga.
Find out more about Hawthorn’s Social Inclusion Partner Afford by heading to their website.