Richard Winton reports on a blind man with a passion for extreme sports
6th November, 2009.
COME see the Blind Man at play. The website tagline might sound like a travelling show clarion call for the YouTube generation but Dean Dunbar is anything but a figure of fun.
The 40-year old is an extreme sports enthusiast who chronicles his bewildering bouts of bampottery on extremedreams.co.uk. Over 50 activities are archived, ranging from the relatively relaxed windsurfing and mountain biking to the utterly unhinged waterfall sledging and human catapulting, both of which Dunbar was the first registered blind person to attempt.
There are not enough forms in the entire Health and Safety Executive to start assessing the particular risks he is taking by completing such staggering stunts and, indeed, the bruising from a broken nose sustained when he went over the handlebars of his bike last month is still evident. Dunbar shrugs off the issue: “I can’t see what damage I’ve done and it’s all part of the fun anyway.” While some companies were unwilling to adopt such a laissez-faire attitude, the welcome he received from others led to the creation of the website in 2002 to encourage others with similar disabilities.
“I want people to realise that the only thing holding them back is themselves,” explains Dunbar at his home in Blairgowrie. “I want people who think they maybe can’t do things for whatever reason to see the website and say “well, he can do it so why can’t I?” I’m just a normal guy with bad eyesight, not some kind of superman. I just hope people can see what I do and maybe take inspiration from it.”
His stirring story should help.
The problem seemed innocuous when at the age of nine he suddenly had trouble reading the blackboard at school in Edinburgh. (That should be at school in Seaton Sluice, Northumberland.) I could see the teacher writing – her hand moving and the squeak of the chalk – but I couldn’t see any words even though everyone else was copying it down, “he recalls, noting the discomfort of being different. “So I asked my mate if I could copy him and that went on for a couple of weeks before he grassed me up.”
A specialist, unable to make a satisfactory diagnosis, told Dunbar he had opticatrophy – which he later discovered was a catch-all term for dysfunctional eyesight – registered him as partially sighted and told him to sit at the front of the class with a magnifying glass in the hope that the problem would clear up in a few years.
The optimism was misplaced. At the age of 27, while he was working at a blind school in Exeter, Dunbar did begin to notice a further change in his sight just ahead of his annual check-up. But even that could not prepare him for what he was about to be told. ‘The guy was very busy and I had this two-minute appointment in which he said ‘right, you’re going to be blind by the end of the year so get yourself a guide dog and start learning Braille and if you’ve got any questions make another appointment.’
“I had no idea it was coming and I didn’t cope with it very well at all,” he admits of the revelation he had a rare condition called Rod-Cone Dystrophy, which has left him with little more than badly blurred peripheral vision. “I cried all the way home then had a couple of hours reflecting on it before I had to just get back to work, and being around some of those kids made me realise it could be a hell of a lot worse. I could have lay down in a corner and died… actually, that’s a bit dramatic but you know what I mean…or I could have just tried to make the best of it. I went for the latter.”
Within two years, Dunbar was hurling himself out of an aeroplane to raise enough money for the school to buy a camcorder and he has hardly stopped since in his constant quest to replicate the adrenalin buzz he experienced in that tandem skydive.
“Extreme sports had never appealed to me but by the time I hit the ground I was already wanting to do something else to get that buzz again and I became addicted to it,” he enthuses,. “The thing is I have to go that bit further every time to get the buzz. It’s like someone who starts drinking and gets half cut on a pint then builds up a tolerance.”
The feeling provides some consolation for not achieving his ambition of joining the forces. Being drilled by his military grandfather is a strong childhood memory but Dunbar’s dreams of following his lead at the age of 16 got no further than the eye test. “The guy doing it wasn’t very sympathetic when I told him I was partially sighted,” he says. “He said what would you do if you shot someone by accident’ and I said ‘apologise’, which he didn’t take too well so that was the end of that.”
Further succour comes from his wife Rhona, who attends almost every event and takes part in the less audacious of them. Perhaps surprisingly for a GP, she never voices concerns about any of the activities – albeit Dunbar suspects she was a touch uncomfortable about the human catapult – but she might just have something to say about her husband’s remaining ambitions.
“The one thing that I’d absolutely love to do is base jump and people have said I’m silly but I know it can be done,” he says with a manic grin. “There’s this huge, 1km-high cliff in Norway and I’d love a go at that. I can’t do it on my own but I’ve approached a few people and one company quoted me $10,000…”
What Dunbar lacks in eyesight, he makes up for in vision.