The blind prophet who fell victim to his own predictions

Martin Stewart warned everybody that a catastrophe like this was bound to happen. He didn’t anticipate that it would happen to him.

Mr Stewart, 39, has been blind since birth, but he had lived a normal life. He has a wife, Katrina, who is also blind, two small children and a job that he used to travel to every day by train.

“Public transport is critical for blind and vision-impaired people,” he said. But he had always known of its dangers. For years he lobbied the State Government and the railways on the risks to blind people of injury or death on a system that no longer had guards or platform staff.

Then, in February, Mr Stewart stepped into what he thought was an open carriage doorway and fell into the space between carriages and on to the tracks at Richmond station.

Despite the desperate attempts of an onlooker to flag down the driver, the train took off and dragged Mr Stewart 200 metres along the tracks. The train tore off his lower right leg, his right arm and the top of his left ear. It fractured his cheekbone and ribs and left him with painful friction burns down the front of his body.

It could have been worse, he said. If the first person to reach him hadn’t been trained in first aid and staunched the massive bleeding, he’d be dead now.

And he’s grateful he hasn’t got brain or spinal damage. “If you want to believe in miracles, just look at me,” he said. “It’s a million-to-one thing that I’ve come out alive.”

He is determined to be positive – “the more determined you are, the more capacity you end up retaining” – but it has been a struggle. “When I woke up in intensive care, I thought, `There are people worse off than me. Don’t complain.’ Then I thought, `You’re close to the margin here. Where are the worse-off people?’ ” And he laughed, his humour genuine, belly-shaking and black.

But there are few laughs. He has wept a lot, mourning the loss of his limbs. He can no longer read Braille because he lost his dominant right hand. He hopes that an artificial leg will one day allow him to walk but for now he must crawl up 18 steps to get to the bedroom of his rented two-storey townhouse. “Keeps me fit,” he said.

Katrina has had to drop from full-time work to three days a week because he can’t help with the children or the housework; he can no longer hang out the washing or make up formula for baby Karralee, seven months. Their son Adrian, who wants to kick the train that took daddy’s arm and leg, is a feisty three-year-old.

Mr Stewart is not seeking sympathy but he is determined to do everything he can to ensure he is the last blind person to suffer like this. In the 1980s he worked with an advocacy group, People in Equality, Not Institutions, that unsuccessfully fought the loss of train guards and conductors because of the safety implications for people with disabilities.

They took cases to the Equal Opportunity Board and the Supreme Court and won, he said.

“But the government legislated around us”.

He said governments of both political persuasions hurt the public, and particularly people with disabilities, when they cut costs and staff. “If you’re running a swimming pool, there are lots of safety requirements, including that you’ve got to have people watching, but when it comes to trains you run it without having anyone watching on the platform,” he said.

Blind people also depended on loudspeaker train announcements, but these were often unclear or not made at all. In the months before his accident he rang the staff of Richmond station to tell them that announcements were crucial.

In the moments before he fell, Mr Stewart said he had been trying to find the train door and listen for another passenger who might be able to tell him if this was his train, as no announcement had been made.

Maryanne Diamond, executive officer of Blind Citizens Australia, said the association got about a call a week from a blind person who had had an accident on the transport system. Most were not reported to authorities because they did not involve injury, she said, but some blind people now refused to travel by train because they felt unsafe on stations.

She wanted all stations fitted with tactile ground surface indicators – long narrow grooves that indicate direction and lines of raised dots that indicate hazard. “It helps blind people walk in a straight line and prevents them walking off the platform,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Connex trains could not comment on Mr Stewart’s case as it was being investigated by the Transport Accident Commission. She said the company knew of two deaths involving people with wheelchairs and seven other cases of minor injury involving people with disabilities. One involved a blind man and his guide dog who walked off the end of a platform. She said Connex was working with researchers and disability groups to improve the system.

A government spokesman said yesterday: “Obviously this is a terrible tragedy. The government has already raised the issue with Connex and is investigating whether anything can be done to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the future.

“Government representatives will also be meeting friends of Mr Stewart next week to discuss the issue further.”

Mr Stewart faces months of rehabilitation. His wages are still being paid by his employer, the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, where he works as an industrial relations officer. The institute has also set up an appeal for the Stewart family.

“Blind people have been traumatised right across the country by this accident,” Mr Stewart said. “What in God’s name has to happen? Are our lives dispensable?”

First published in The Age.