A blind woman sat quietly on a train in the very early 1900s. When the train arrived at Ascot Vale, a young couple got on and sat opposite her. The boy gave a long, loud kiss to his girlfriend, expressing his affection in a not so subtle way. The girl tried to protest, as the blind woman was sitting right in front of them. This was a time where hugging in public was considered a little risqué, let alone rapturous kissing.  The boy laughed, and said “Oh that’s alright! She can’t see!”.

Without missing a beat, the blind woman retorted with “Well, if I am blind, I am not deaf!”. Silence. The couple disembarked at the next station.

This was Tilly Aston, a Victorian woman who was never ashamed of her disability.

Tilly was born in 1873, into a world completely different from our own. A woman in the late 19th century was destined to be a wife and mother, and while there were some who were branching out into professions, the expectation was that a woman's place was in the home. So that could have easily been Tilly's story. But she was born with impaired vision, becoming completely blind by the time she was seven years old. With no one expecting much of women in general, to be a handicapped woman could have easily meant Tilly did nothing at all with her life.

But she would not allow that to happen.

I am an able-bodied person and I definitely take it for granted. I play a lot of sport, I read a lot of books, and I listen to a lot of music. I watch videos and play video games. The fact is, I enjoy these things the way I do because my body allows it. The thought of losing mobility, hearing, or sight genuinely scares me and I don't know how well I'd handle it. I am privileged in what my body allows me to do. Which is why I admire anyone with a disability, because they live and thrive in a world that does not always make life easy for them.

Tilly was lucky enough to have parents who supported and encouraged her education. They taught her to read while she still had vision, they taught her to recite poetry, and taught her about music. They wanted her to have an enriched life, regardless of whether she could see. In 1881, when she was eight years old, her father died. Six months later she met a travelling blind missionary who taught her Braille. This opened a new world of opportunities, where she could continue to read stories and poems regardless of having sight. After learning to read Braille, Tilly was able to enrol at the Victorian Asylum and School for the Blind, a boarding school that allowed her to continue her education.

Which led to her matriculation at sixteen years old, where she became the first blind person in Australia to attend university. She enrolled in an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne, which is the same degree I’m studying at the same university. It’s crazy to me that I am doing the same thing she was doing, walking the same paths. I struggle sometimes with the studies, with the assignments, and the readings. But here was Tilly, doing what I was doing while blind. In fact, she had no access to Braille textbooks throughout her degree, requiring a tutor to read out all her readings. The overwhelming pressure and difficulty of studying blind without Braille textbooks led her to dropping out
of her course in her second year. But honestly, even though she didn’t finish her degree, the fact that she got through a year of study as not only a woman but a blind woman in the late 19thcentury is amazing.

The fact that she had no Braille textbooks really highlighted to Tilly that there were less opportunities for visually-impaired people. This angered her, because she worked hard in everything she did, keeping her personality and sense of humour along the way. A lack of sight should not mean a lack of opportunity.

Tilly then tried to make a living as a music teacher, until she realised that the only way something was going to change for the blind was if she tried to change it herself. She decided that there needed to be more Braille books accessible in Melbourne, and to get that she would need to have a library of hand-made Braille books. Some sighted women from the Stenography Association who were friends of Tilly began learning Braille so they could create tactile books. This is how, in 1894, Tilly established the Victorian Association of Braille Writers, which later became the Victorian Braille Library. With this organisation, Tilly was able to introduce a lot of blind Australians to new Braille books.

But this was not the only association Tilly founded. In 1895, she established the Association of the Advancement of the Blind, where she became the first secretary. The association fought for the rights of blind people, aiming to improve the lives of the blind “in every possible way”. They succeeded in a few ventures: they were able to change laws so the blind could travel much easier, as well as transport concessions so it was cheaper for blind people and their attendants in 1901; they won free postage for Braille material in 1899; and they also won voting rights for blind people in 1902. The Association for the Advancement of the Blind worked very hard to improve the lives of blind Australians, and while the name has changed, it’s likely that you know of the organisation.

The Association of the Advancement of the Blind eventually became Vision Australia. A lot of average Australians would know them as the group that organises the annual Carols by Candlelight, which raises money for blind Australians. So really, if it weren’t for Tilly, we may not have ever had Carols by Candlelight.

After her years campaigning for the vision-impaired in Australia, Tilly decided that she wanted to become a classroom teacher. Her education was very important to her, and so she wanted to be able to help other blind children learn. In 1913, after undergoing teacher training, Tilly applied for a head teacher position at the Victorian Education Department’s School for the Blind. But the school had no confidence in a blind teacher, and refused her entry.

You see, it was considered disadvantageous to the poor blind students if their teacher was also blind. A sighted teacher simply provides them with a better education and more opportunities.

Tilly obviously thought this was completely wrong, as she believed that being blind gave her a connection to the children that the sighted teachers didn’t have. She argued that she should at least have a trial, to see whether she would be good enough. They agreed, and so she spent four months working and learning at the State School in Queensberry St, Carlton. During this time, she not only learnt much about teaching, but about the lives of the students. They were an interesting group of kids to say the least. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, one said he wanted a barrel organ with a monkey on it; another wanted a big broom to sweep gutters with; a third wanted to be a chimney sweep. Then young Charlie proclaimed that he wanted to be a burglar. When asked why, he said “Because you break into people’s houses at night and cut their froats”. Lovely young boy, and he was one of the milder ones in the class.

But the children loved Tilly. According to her memoirs, a group of bigger boys appointed themselves as her “knights”, and would take turns meeting her at the tram in the morning and walking her to school. At the end of the day, they would escort her back to the tram. The young girls would wash her teacup after lunch every day, and would finish any slice of cake or biscuits that “proved too much for [Tilly’s] appetite”.

Tilly passed her trial, proving she was competent teaching sighted children, and so was able to start at the blind school. But still, she met opposition. She was advised to withdraw from publically associating herself with other blind movement, including the associations she created. And the other, sighted teachers would avoid her at lunchtimes. While she loved her time spent with the children she taught, her years as a teacher were not entirely happy. She retired in 1925.

Throughout the years as a teacher, Tilly was also a writer. She was a poet, and published a few books of poetry along with her memoirs. She was became the president of the Association again, and remained president until she died of cancer in 1947. Tilly spent her life fighting to make life better for the blind in any way she could, through her organisations and through her time spent teaching. She is an inspiring person, and deserves to have some recognition for the work she has done.