Rob Filmer and the exceptional work he has done in the blindness sector
Rob Filmer and the exceptional work he has done in the blindness sector
Robert John Filmer: a blind visionary
02/08/1964 - 10/11/2010
By Sue Wood and Julie Filmer
On the 10th of November 2010, Rob Filmer passed as gracefully from this life as he had lived it, aged 46 - leaving a legacy of change and transformation brought about by grit, courage, determination and humour.
Rob was diagnosed with insulin dependent diabetes when he was 16 months old. Rob was a diamond of a man with many facets.
A talented guitar, keyboard, drum and harmonica player – he composed many of his own songs and music. Rob's passion for birds, nature and the outdoors led him to train and work as a Nature Conservation Officer, researching the rivers of the then Transvaal Province.
In the late 1980's Rob spent six months at the International Crane Foundation in America, working with the endangered bird species, cranes.
On his return, Rob was given the groundbreaking task to initiate the South African project to ring Wattled Crane chicks. He wrote a published article titled At Work to Save the World's Cranes.
At 24 years of age, Rob lost his sight due to diabetes and blindness jettisoned him into the world of disability. His feisty spirit was buoyed up by his family and friends. He attended Council's Optima College's rehabilitation programme where he learned various skills that enabled him to live successfully and independently as a blind man in a sighted world.
Rob adapted to his new way of living, quickly mastering the art of the white cane – his trusted friend. Covered in colourful wire his cane became an identifying feature, known as Rob's 'kierie'.
Determined not to be trapped in an office, but to continue working with his passion for nature conservation, Rob persevered in the pursuit of his dream.
In 1990 radio journalist and presenter, David Holt–Biddle, gave Rob the chance to present on his show Our Wild Heritage on Radio Today on the SABC. Rob presented on David's show for a number of years. Topics covered creatures that use other senses apart from sight to survive, like dolphins. Their focus then moved onto accessibility and the limitations people with disabilities experience in the outdoors.
In March 1990, Dr. Garth Batchelor, a Director from Nature Conservation, seeing the potential in Rob and the way he was managing his blindness, offered Rob a post on a nature reserve. Enthusiastically, Rob took the post as the first blind Environmental Education Officer at Bourke's Luck Potholes on the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve.
A grant from the SA National Council for the Blind enabled Rob to purchase his first “talking computer” – a life-changing gesture for which he was always grateful. Having access to adaptive technology opened the way for him to run his office with a dedication and efficiency that gained him the respect of his colleagues and staff who worked under his direction, doing what he loved best – educating people on the conservation of natural resources and wildlife.
Rob's determination to work as well as, if not better than, his sighted colleagues earned him a promotion to Acting Supervisor. His vision to see to the needs of people with disabilities was considered in nature and began to unfold.
A highlight for Rob was the first camp he and fellow nature conservators arranged in the Timbavati Nature Reserve where each conservator was paired with a blind person from Council for the weekend. The weekend's camp was filmed by 50/50, the first of many of Rob's projects to be screened on television.
In 1992 diabetes struck another serious blow. Rob went into chronic renal failure making him dependent on dialysis. At the same time, a miracle appeared in his life in the form of Julie, who soon became his wife. Rob’s, and now Julie's, fast growing interest in addressing disability issues saw them research and design an accessible, interpretive trail focused on Lichen at the Potholes. It was subsequently named The Rob Filmer Lichen Trail.
Due to his deteriorating health, Rob was medically retrenched in 1994. This move opened the door to their founding a non-profit organisation to help make the natural environment accessible to all people - and Eco-Access was born.
Just before Eco-Access was launched in October 1994, Rob was the recipient of the Conserva Award for his work in access. This became an international concept with people worldwide approaching them for advice and earned Rob a place on the United Nations Global 500 Roll of Honour. Rob soldiered on, not allowing his deteriorating health and ongoing medical emergencies to curtail his achievements. The Eco-Access guide book Giving People with Disabilities the Opportunity to Enjoy our National Heritage was published.
Then Rob and Julie started their Twinning Camps based on the original concept of the Timbivati Camp, but here abled and disabled folk were paired to work together for a weekend. The focus was on teenagers, with the aim that as they became adults and decision makers, they would be more inclusive in their thinking about people, as well as adopt environmentally sensitive practices into daily living. They aimed to change attitudes so that society would not lose so much through exclusion and the relegation of people into little boxes and broad categories.
The Green Schools Project then evolved where environmental activities were run at special needs schools. These programmes provided the building blocks to transform school yards thereby raising self-esteem, confidence and dignity among the entire school community. The implementation of vegetable or rose gardens and chicken coops led to a degree of self-sufficiency in certain schools.
Rob's ill health forced him and Julie to retire from Eco-Access in 2008.
They turned their attention to sharing their knowledge and experience to assist others challenged by diabetes. Rob never gave up and kept a cheerful countenance, making the most of each day, one at a time.
Then he was gone, leaving Julie behind – his beloved partner in all things.
South Africa has lost one of her finest sons and the world, a great environmentalist who, with a burning passion, loved both the earth and all her inhabitants.
When we do the best that we can, we never know
what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.
Awards received by Rob Filmer:
- Tourism, SA, 1994
- Global 500 Award, United Nations Environment Programme, 1995
- Alumni Award - Top Achiever, Environmental Sciences, Pretoria Technikon, 1995
- One of ten finalists in the Four Outstanding Young South Africans Award, 1995
- South African Blind Workers Organisation 50th Jubilee Award for outstanding service to the blind community, 1996
- Paul Harris Award from Rotary International in appreciation of tangible and significant assistance given for the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among peoples of the world, 1997
- Rector's Gold Medal, Johannesburg College of Education for courage in the face of adversity and for singular contribution to Environmental Education for disabled people in South Africa, 2000
- Joint Vocational Award with Julie Filmer from Rotary International, 2002
- President's Award from the Wildlife and Environment Society of Southern Africa to Eco-Access, September 2004Birdlife SA's Eagle Award, 2006
- Joint Kudu Award with Julie Filmer from SA National Parks for Community Contribution to Conservation, 2009