Joseph Stafrace puts on his wetsuit and air cylinder before he slowly disappears into the sea with his diving instructor.
In life, there is nothing you can’t do
Standing on the shore at Għar Lapsi, Mr Stafrace’s guide dog, Macy, is agitated since he can no longer see the man he is trained to be with at all times.
“Macy just wants to protect him and panics when he can’t… apart from that, he loves swimming,” says Mr Stafrace’s wife, Angelica, who stands near the dog waiting for her blind husband to return.
She confesses that she too is concerned when her husband goes under water.
“I worry when I don’t see the bubbles. But he was always an adventurous man and I try to support him as much as I can,” she said.
Mr Stafrace, 41, is the type of man who will not allow his loss of sight stand in the way of his dreams.
“I have been dreaming of diving. I like documentaries. I listen to them and pick up the information. Some time ago I was speaking to a friend who suggested someone who could help me dive. He then introduced me to my instructor, Patrick Tabone, from the Bluewater Dive Cove in Gozo,” Mr Stafrace says before taking the plunge.
Aware that some might question the point of a blind man diving, he says: “By going down there, I can feel – I feel the rocks and the pebbles, the sand, the different seaweed and the snails. You hear the sound of boats. You hear that sound of your breath and that absolute quietness.
“It’s a completely different world and I wanted to experience it.”
His only fear is encountering a shark, though he knows this is rare occurance.
“I also did it to deliver a message that, in life, there is nothing you can’t do,” he says.
With the support of Mr Tabone, the two men adapted the international diving signs to their situation.
“It was not easy but it’s not impossible either. We found a way to communicate using hand gestures,” he says.
Mr Tabone always stays close to him, on his right, and whenever he wants to communicate with Mr Stafrace underwater, he takes his hand and shapes it into a sign.
So, for example, if it is time to go up, he would shape Mr Stafrace’s hand into a “thumbs up”.
All this is also a learning experience for Mr Tabone.
“I’m learning a lot. I learnt how to be around a blind person. The main difference with Joseph is he always wants to touch things underwater,” he says, adding that so far the two have dived in Qawra, Daħlet Qorrot in Gozo and Għar Lapsi.
Mr Stafrace lost his sight aged seven when he suffered retina detachment in both eyes.
After that he went to school for people with disabilities.
“I realised that my life had changed and I had to move on. I learnt Braille, English and Italian and other skills I’d need for everyday life,” he says.
As a teenager he started playing chess and was junior champion in 1988, 1989 and 1990.
“That game was important to me as I could meet and integrate with others. I travelled to play abroad and gained self-confidence.”
He worked as a machine operator for 14 years and met Angelica when both were on a weekend break in Gozo. They tied the knot 11 yeatr ago, after six years together.
“The fact he’s blind never affected me. At home he is very independent. We just need to ensure nothing is left lying around and not change the place of things,” she says.
After getting married, Mr Stafrace started studying and did his O and A levels. He later went on to study social work at the University.
He served as president of the Malta Guide Dogs Foundation and is now president of the Me2 Cooperative that gives work experience to people with disabilities. Two months ago he became a support worker with Agenzija Support.
His wife has seen a huge change in him since Macy entered their lives four years ago. Her husband became even more independent and began leaving the house alone. Angelica laughs when she recalls that she was once afraid of dogs.
“But when Macy arrived, I forgot I was scared,” she smiles as Macy stands by her side, carefully monitoring the water’s surface.
Take the leap
Blind people need to look for chances to become independent and not wait for opportunities to fall in their laps, according to Leone Sciberras, the current president of the Malta Guide Dog Foundation.
Unfortunately, he said, very few members of the blind community applied to have a guide dog. In the past six years, there had only been 13 applications.
Some were afraid of venturing out alone and this meant they were dependent on others to get around.
While not all people are suitable to have a guide dog, perhaps due to their age, the foundation also helps visually impaired people learn how to use the white cane and make their way around.
Mr Sciberras said society is one of the main obstacles of blind people. What might look like simple things, like a car parked on a pavement, limit the accessibility of blind people.
Since the foundation was set up in 2006, seven guide dogs have been trained. The puppies usually come to Malta for about a year, during which time they live with a family, known as puppy walkers, to get used to socialising in a family environment and going to public places.
They are then sent for a year to Messina for intensive training to become guide dogs. During this period they are matched with their future owners,who are also given training.
Three puppies are currently in Malta in the puppy-walking stage and another two will soon be arriving.
The Sunday Times is telling the stories of people with disabilities who are overcoming societal barriers. These monthly articles aim to help readers understand the concerns of Malta’s 34,600 people with disabilities, who are often hindered by lack of accessibility and understanding. Anyone with a tale to tell can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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