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Mr Gleeson is blind and, as president of Blind Sports and Recreation Victoria, his work has been celebrated with the 2021 Disability Awards' highest honour — the lifetime achievement award. But it's merely one achievement in a life filled with many, born from unthinkable tragedy.
Mr Gleeson lost his eyesight in a devastating schoolyard accident when he was 13. He was walking around a corner, when another student ran into him. The impact caused both his retinas to detach, and surgery only temporarily fixed his vision. He had permanently lost his ability to see. "We didn't have counselling — they just said how sorry they were and I just went home," he said. "I didn't show my emotion because my parents were so wonderful to me — coming every day, visiting me in hospital. I didn't want to hurt them any more. "I didn't want to add to their grief." His suffering didn't end there. His brother also went blind after a collision with a supermarket door, and both his brother and parents died prematurely. "It was incredibly challenging for me," he said. "I couldn't believe this could be happening to me. How can people just die without warning?"
He fell into a deep depression, from the loss of his family and from having to adjust to his new life and the stigma that came with it. "Friends would try to solve the problem by saying, 'Time will heal, you'll recover'," he said. "But they weren't acknowledging how I was feeling." A visit from a friend changed his path when he was in his mid-20s, after a decade of suffering. "She came and hugged me and said to me, 'You have had a tragic life, and your tragedy must have been really terrible for you'," he said. "It was the first time someone didn't try to solve me. "I was determined to go on and survive."
Mr Gleeson decided to pursue social work, motivated by the "injustice" he witnessed growing up in Broadmeadows, a suburb in Melbourne's north. "There were some wonderful people, but I did see a lot who were disadvantaged because they didn't know how to advocate for themselves," he said. Despite being told he had no options in life, Mr Gleeson went to university and helped others with vision loss as a social worker. But he ultimately found his passion with Blind Sports and Recreation Victoria.
He gave blind and vision-impaired people access to sports and activities including AFL, soccer, tennis and skateboarding. While he said he's "not very good" at any sport, life lessons from play were more important than skill. "When it's conducted in the true spirit, it's good character building that teaches you how you cope with success and winning," he said. "But more importantly, it's that social interaction and social connection — it's having that purpose of doing something physically."
Mr Gleeson practices what he preaches. While he enjoys all sorts of physical activity, swimming and scuba-diving are his favourites. "I found it wonderful being under water — it was absolutely fascinating." He has even been skydiving (a great experience but not worth repeating, he says).
But travelling is one of his greatest passions. He has explored Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. "To me, travelling is a bit like chemistry [between people] — you can't see chemistry, it's either there or not there," he said. "I go to different places and I have different vibes about it. Every country I've been to has a different feeling for me."
Being able to connect with people via video calls has been a lifeline for many during this global pandemic, with obvious limitations for people who are blind or have impaired vision. Despite this, Mr Gleeson said Blind Sports and Recreation Victoria had successfully adopted Zoom sessions, where participants can use either the video or audio option. He said virtual programs would continue after restrictions eased.
"The plus is that we've been able to engage people who live in regional Victoria and interstate," he said. Aside from competitive sport, his organisation has started offering meditation, aerobics and dancing and he wants to further develop more artistic pursuits. While we lived in "a much more even society", Mr Gleeson said there was always room to improve. "You don't have to like everybody with a disability," he said with a laugh. "But I think it is important we are treated as individuals — just engage how you would like to be treated."
And while it was a "great honour" being recognised for his achievements throughout his life, he's not ready to hang up his boots just yet. "I keep winding up instead of winding down," he laughed. "As I get older, I find life is becoming more and more exciting."