When Lilly Skurnik was asked if she would like the opportunity to go for a drive, she was ecstatic to learn she’d be the one taking control of the wheel.
While most people would probably not be excited by such an invitation, Ms Skurnik is completely blind.
“It’s something that I always wanted to do. I was so grateful that they selected me as one of the people,” she said.
The 87-year-old was taking part in the fourth annual Angus Suttor Memorial Driving Day held by not-for-profit organisation Vision Australia.
She was one of 50 people with blindness or low vision to take part in a drive around Sydney’s Eastern Creek Raceway.
The free event commemorates a former Vision Australia client who was a keen motorsport fan who died after battling a terminal illness.
Ms Skurnik began losing her vision at the age of 14 when a brain tumour crushed her optic nerve.
It was after a second operation to remove the tumour that she awoke to discover she had lost her sight.
Initially, it greatly impacted on her joy in life.
“I used to ice skate, I danced, I played the piano.
“I opted out of life altogether itself. I couldn’t handle the fact that I was such an active, vital person as a young girl and all of a sudden I find myself just doing nothing.”
Determined to overcome her blindness, Ms Skurnik found work and got herself a guide dog which dramatically increased her mobility.
Her first job was operating telephone switchboards, and after retirement she went back to university and retrained as a social worker.
In 2014 Ms Skurnik was awarded an Order of Australia for her voluntary services to the vision-impaired community and she has also authored three books.
“They were all on different stages of my life; it’s like a trilogy.”
Taking control on the track
With a driving instructor guiding her through every turn, Ms Skurnik navigated the twisting four-kilometre racetrack.
“The driving was great; I think I’m a person that likes to be in control and this is how I felt, that I was in control for a change.
“Not that I was going very far with it, but I went over the limit; Oh, that was naughty.
“A few of my friends came with me and said they had never seen such a smile on anyone’s face.”
A chance to return to the wheel
Fellow participant Tony Partridge has only had sight in one eye for his entire life.
A former amateur race club member, Mr Partridge was able to drive up until four years ago when he started losing vision in his other eye.
Mr Partridge said the experience of being able to do a few laps around the track was immensely satisfying.
“It was remarkable because I didn’t expect to ever do that again,” he said.
Michael Simpson, general manager at Vision Australia, said the event gave vision-impaired people a driving experience in a managed and safe environment.
“It’s just a demonstration that people that are blind love the same sorts of things in life as anyone else whether you can see or not,” he said.
“Some people were getting up over 100 [kilometres per hour], so I can imagine some of the passengers were biting their fingernails a bit.”