Tony Giles, blind traveller and author.
I was born, Anthony Eric Giles, in the seaside town of Weston-Super-Mare, south-west England, on 6th September 1978.
I was about 9 months old when a problem was discovered with my sight. It was eventually realised through an ophthalmologist that I had a rare genetic visual impairment. I was born with Cone Dystrophy and Photo Phobia. This means I have no colour nerves in the back of my eye, greatly exposing my optic nerve to light. Hence, my Photo Phobia (light sensitivity).
I spent my first few years of life living in darkness whenever possible. I was eventually given dark glasses, which I wore indoors and outside until about the age of 15. I played in the street with my non-disabled friends, learning to listen for traffic. My street was a cul-de-sac and I knew the traffic came from one direction.
I attended a day school for the disabled in Bristol from the age of five. This was a journey of 20 miles (30 kilometres) in a taxi – I was often car sick. By using my light sensitivity, I learnt to read and write. I could see large black lines on white paper. I learnt the alphabet and numeracy. I also learnt to play snooker by detecting the different balls through shade.
I had my rods, the nerve cells to help me see black and white images and shade. However, by the age of 9 or 10, this light vision was beginning to lessen. My eye condition has never changed, but my pain threshold became stronger, and my light sensitivity lessened as print became smaller and more complex. I stopped using my lenses as it became harder to view objects. By the age of 10, I had stopped learning and needed a new medium to continue my education.
When aged about six, it was discovered that I was partially deaf in both ears. This could be from a related genetic condition, but it is not yet unknown. I was given analogue hearing aids. My hearing has become progressively worse over the years. At present, I am approximately 80% (or severely) deaf without my hearing aids. I now wear digital aids, which are fantastic and give me roughly 80% hearing capacity in a one-to-one conversation in a quiet room. This is reduced in crowded places or on streets with busy and noisy traffic.
In the Spring of 1989, I was sent to the boarding school for the blind and visually impaired in Coventry. I was aged 10 and a half; it changed my life and this is where I eventually gained my independence.
I spent six years at Exhall Grange School in Coventry in the West Midlands. I was given mobility training, whereby I learnt how to use a long white cane, catch public transport, and find locations. I received fantastic training. I also learnt Braille: the blind person’s method of reading and writing through a series of six razed dots in two vertical lines of three. These six dots in different combinations create the entire alphabet and numbers. I used it up to A-Level mathematics. (A-levels are academic subjects a student can take to enter into university in the English education system.) I engaged in all subjects, from pottery to swimming, chemistry to athletics, as well as the usual academic subjects.
I took my GCSE exams in the Summer of 1995 (GCSE are exams taken at the end of high/secondary school in England, at about the age of 15-16). I passed the majority of my subjects with a C grade and gained a B in Information Technology. I failed my English and Maths!
I next went to the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford to undertake A-Levels. I had wanted to become a physiotherapist, but was informed that having a dual disability would prevent me from pursuing this career. I later discovered this was incorrect.
At boarding school in Coventry, I had been exposed to children with different disabilities. This gave me a sense that being blind and partially deaf were not the worst disabilities in life. Some of my friends had walking difficulties, speech impairments, asthma, seizures and a variety of other conditions. I considered myself lucky. My best friend had Muscular Dystrophy, a muscle wasting disease and was slowly dying. This had a significant impact on me. He died just as I began my courses at RNC Hereford, October 1995. My Dad had died of old age only two months previously and I found myself in a strange place, without friends, alone and full of grief. I eventually turned towards alcohol and studies as a refuge.
I retook my GCSE English and maths and passed them successfully. I also took A-Level history in my first and second years and studied A-level maths and biology in my second and third years. I passed all three A-Level subjects, gaining a C in history and D’s in biology and mathematics respectively! I wanted to study eighteenth-nineteenth century British History as a degree but could not find a suitable course. A history tutor suggested American Studies to me and after researching the subject, I applied. I was accepted onto a course at my second choice university in Northampton and went off to study and learn about life for three years in the East Midlands.
I knew something of America before I began my degree, having been on a school trip to Boston, Massachusetts as a 16 year old in 1995. I also visited New York and Washington DC with a disabled friend in August 1998 just before I began my university course. I was given the chance to study in South Carolina through my American Studies Degree and went to Coastal Carolina University, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in January 2000. I spent four months in the South, learning about American culture and life before going travelling around California with a fellow student from Australia. I also visited New Orleans and Hawaii during that trip – getting completely inebriated in the process!
I attended University College Northampton (now Northampton University), 1998-2001, gaining a 2-1 Degree with Honours in American Studies. I did not attend a university for the blind or disabled: thankfully, none exists. I went to class with other students, most who were none-disabled. I was given a grant from my Local Education Authority to purchase computer equipment with speech software in order for me to write essays and read handouts and books. Academic texts are extremely difficult to obtain in Braille, and Braille is to bulky and cumbersome to read. More academic material has since become available on the internet, but in 1998 this was less available and I was still learning the basics of computer technology.
I was a confident typist, having been taught touch typing at school, but speech screen-reading software was still at a reasonably early stage and I hadn’t been exposed to much at that point. I can touch type without speech, but having software that reads every letter I type and, the entire screen if I command it, makes studying, researching and writing much easier. I employed fellow students to help me research books, find quotations and correct my spelling and grammar. I have a scanner with speech software, which allows me to read any typed text including my post (mail). This vital piece of equipment enabled me to function at university at the same level as sighted students. I had to scan the books myself and then listen to the entire text. This took twice as long as a student reading with sight, but it made me more determined to learn.
Between October 2001-March 2002 I travelled around part of the southern hemisphere. I backpacked unaided around Australia, New Zealand, part of southern Vietnam and spent a week in Thailand. It was during this trip that I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney disease, a condition that gradually deteriorated. In December 2008 I underwent a kidney transplant operation after receiving a live kidney from my Step Dad. The operation for both individuals was very successful and, after a recovery period of approximately three months, I returned to travelling in the UK and went abroad after seven months. My kidney function dropped to just under 11% before my operation, and I only missed needing to have dialysis (artificial kidney function by machine) by about a month. It is still unknown why I have this condition, it could be genetic, but doctors are still unsure.
After returning from travelling in 2002, I stopped drinking alcohol altogether and with help from some close friends became clean. I was on the verge of becoming a full alcoholic. I have been clean since September 2002.
In October 2002 I began a one year masters degree in Transatlantic Studies (History of US Foreign Policy) at University of Birmingham, England. I graduated in December 2003.
In January 2004 I undertook an epic backpacking solo world journey; visiting parts of South and North America, Mexico, Cuba, and most of Southern Africa. During that year-long journey, I ventured to the most southern part of the South American Continent. I also undertook my first solo hike in the Rocky Mountains, Canada and, technically speaking, put my feet in the Arctic Ocean when I entered the water off Churchill, north Canada.
In February 2005 I rented my first flat in Erdington, Birmingham and began writing my first travel book.
Between June-October 2005 I visited several European countries most notably Italy and Germany. Between 2006-2008 I revisited the US and Canada, travelling to the remaining US States and Canadian Provinces. I have now visited all 50 US States and all 10 of Canada’s Provinces. See tonythetraveller.com for individual lists of US States and Canadian Provinces.
In mid-February 2008 I crossed the Arctic Circle by boat off the coast of Norway.
To date, I have visited 122 countries, totally blind and partially deaf! I have bungee jumped 16 times and sky dived 3 times. Been Zorbing twice; both times in New Zealand, driven jet boats, a large jeep, ridden motorbikes, jet skied and water skied, to name a few activities.
In 2004 I nearly drowned whilst white water rafting on the Zambezi River in Zambia, Southern Africa. A frightening, but thrilling experience!
At present I live in Teignmouth, Devon, by the sea. My family consists of my Mum and Step-Dad and one Sister eight years older and one Brother six years older. I have two young nieces from my Brother. None of my family are disabled in any way.
My hobbies include, playing the drums, listening to late 1960s rock music, listening to sport, such as football and international cricket on the radio, reading historical fiction, walking, sailing and attending rock concerts.
Some of my favourite authors include Stephen King, Colin Forbes, Thomas Harris, Ian Rankin, Jack Higgins and Alistair MacLean.
My football (soccer) team is Liverpool.
I enjoy most cuisines except olives and salad! My favourite foods are pork or beef sausages and chocolate. Although I do enjoy a well cooked Speghetti Bolognese!
Black is my preferred choice of colour.
My favourite singer-songwriter is Bob Dylan.
My favourite band is Led Zeppelin. I do enjoy other artists such as: Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Iron Maiden, ACDC, Janis Joplin, Rolling Stones (early albums), Cream, Black Sabbath (first seven albums), Aretha Franklin, Red Hot Chile Peppers, and The Band. I have been fortunate to have seen several of these arts in live concert.
I plan to travel for the rest of my life and visit every world country.
I have been in a relationship with a lovely Greek lady, Tatiana, for several years and we have visited the USA together twice, recently Australia, New Zealand and Japan and roughly half of Europe.
My aim is to continue writing my travels book and eventually publish some travel fiction. One day I would like to live in New Zealand with my partner and open a hostel. I would also like to attend a pottery class if and when I have the time!
My biggest passion is travelling and hostelling. However, in the last few years I’ve discovered that Couch Surfing is an even better way to travel. I have couch surfed in Venezuela, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Indonesia, which was fantastic, and now, Hungary, and Japan.