This week, Deeba Hasan sits down with Amar Latif, a Scottish blind adventurer and the owner of Traveleyes, the world’s first agency for disabled people to explore the globe
Amar Latif had lost 95 per cent of his sight by the time he was 20 years old. Despite this, when I saw him giving a recent motivational speech at the German University of Technology in Oman (GUtech) he was constantly smiling and came across as an incredibly cheerful person.
Instead of holding him back, losing his sight seems to have inspired him to do more. Now 40, Amar has worked as an actor, director, motivational speaker and is also the founder and owner of Traveleyes, the world’s first commercial international air tour operator specialising in serving blind as well as sighted travellers. The company was established in 2005 and is based in the UK, with plans to extend packages to Oman in the near future.
Traveleyes offers a unique way to “see” the world, as Amar says. “We are joined by sighted people who get to travel at half the price in exchange for guiding blind people and describing sights to them.”
In his own words, Traveleyes “celebrates tourism by exploring amazing destinations. Blind and sighted, we are unstoppable.” And they certainly prove that, offering skiing, trekking and sailing breaks all over the globe.
Amar believes tourism should be celebrated and is an advocate of the work being done in Oman. “Tourism is absolutely vital,” he says. “It brings in revenue and is great for the economy, but most importantly, it helps a country build national treasures and promote its inheritance.
“Oman has so much to delight visitors, how proud and inspired you all must be.”
When he was four years old, doctors told Amar’s parents that he would lose his sight by the age of 18 due to an incurable inherited condition. As he grew up, the disease took hold and life for Amar changed forever.
“There used to be this picture hanging in my room and I remember waking up one morning and not being able to see it.
“The thing I most wish I could see again are the faces of my parents and family. While I can hear the auditory effects of the ageing process in their voices and in the content of what they say, my visual memory of their appearance remains frozen in time from when I was around 16 years old.”
Although Amar and his parents had prior warning, it didn’t make coming to terms with his condition any easier. “My mother was very supportive, she wanted to do lots of things for me. My dad was supportive too I guess, but in a different way; he wanted me to push on with my education. I had lost my sight and was thinking what is the point now?”
Refusing to let retinitis pigmentosa – the inherited degenerative eye disease that led to his gradual loss of sight – define him, Amar finished his degree in accounting and finance and worked as head of commercial finance for British Telecom before going on to become a successful entrepreneur.
Amar says his biggest gift was his independence, which saw him fly to Canada to spend a year as part of his degree course. “I thought if I stayed in the UK, my mum was going to wrap me in cotton wool and I would become dependent. This wasn’t how I wanted to be, so I left my mum crying at the airport and took off to Canada.”
The fact that his sight left him gradually was perhaps somewhat of a blessing in disguise in that Amar is able to use his early life memories to picture what is described to him. “If someone was to say green grass, I would understand that, if someone said rising sun, I would be able to visualise that as well.”
Of course, life is by no means a walk in the park and even though his assistant, Bob, accompanies him everywhere, Amar still faces daily challenges. “Once when I was working in London on a documentary, I sat in the taxi and Bob told me that I was wearing one brown and one black shoe. In my defence, the shoes were exactly the same.”
While Amar has refused to let his disability restrict him, he believes there are still barriers that blind and disabled people need to overcome.
“Many disabled people have multiple skills, a built-in sense of determination and the will to work. Employers need to be more mindful of this.”
There are also personal barriers, he says. “After going blind, I realised I could endure a lifetime of negativity, dependence, bitterness and regret, or I could replace that with a constructive and optimistic attitude towards life’s challenges.
“If I had not become blind, I would almost certainly never have achieved most of what I’ve been able to so far.”
Amar is a firm believer and living proof that if you put your heart into something, you can achieve it.
“When I went blind, people asked me to not continue my degree. When I wanted to go to Canada, people asked me not to go. They said travelling had nothing to offer a blind man, but I did it all and did it well.”
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