TRIUMPHANT: Despite having only 60% vision, Clulow, now 22, graduated from Stellenbosch University with flying colours.
Siobhan Clulow of Durbanville was only 17 when she was diagnosed with keratitis - a rare eye condition that causes inflammation in the cornea and blindness.

Five years later, Clulow still remembers the day of her diagnosis as if it were yesterday.

“I was writing my last June exam of Grade 11, which was accounting, and I was struggling to make out the words and numbers.

“I noticed that after studying for hours, my vision would become more blurred. Initially, I thought it was as a result of tiredness.

“I told my mom that I had struggled to see the paper that day and she immediately made an appointment with the local ophthalmologist,” she said.

After undergoing numerous tests and treatments, doctors had to act fast and operate on her eyes to avoid the impending blindness that had been predicted, due to the rapid deterioration of her eyesight.

Despite having limited vision of only 60%, Clulow has beaten the odds and hasn’t let her disability define her. This month, her perseverance and positive attitude saw the 22-year-old graduate from Stellenbosch University with flying colours, attaining a Bachelor of Education (Foundation Phase) and passing all seven course modules with distinction.

Although her diagnosis took her by surprise, as her sight had been perfect prior to her sudden loss of vision, Clulow took it in her stride.

“News like that at 17 was a huge shock to me and my family. I always had 20/20 (normal) vision, and then suddenly it was no longer the case. We went to an eye surgeon, who was at that time the only person in the Western Cape who was able to help people with keratitis.

“I had to have emergency surgery to save the remaining sight I had left in my eyes.

“Everything happened so quickly, from the initial diagnosis to being told I needed to have emergency surgery.

“Everything was such a blur and I think I only realised what was happening much later.

“It was a lot for a 17-year-old to take in ... being told that if ‘we don’t operate immediately you will definitely lose your sight’,” she recalled.

As a result of her deteriorating eyesight, Clulow had to give up on her dream of studying accounting. Instead, she decided to do a degree in education.

The experience taught her to be resilient and gave her a new perspective on life.

“I couldn’t see at all for nine weeks and I didn’t return to school for the rest of the third term. It just wasn’t a possibility.

“I returned to school halfway through the fourth term, originally being told that I would have my sight back and that I would continue school as normal.

“Sadly, there were complications and allergic reactions, and my sight didn’t come back as quickly as everyone had hoped,” she said.

In fact, her eyesight was so poor, post-surgery, that she wrote her final exams, which secured her a university place, through a scribe.

Not only was she unable to see, but her eyes were so sensitive to light that she had to wear sunglasses indoors and rarely went outside.

“I had constant pain in my eyes and migraines all the time. I also started fainting,” she recalled.

Because of her poor eyesight, she had to rethink her career choice.

“I had originally decided to study to become a chartered accountant, but during my matric yea,r I realised that I would not be able to see the numbers.

“After a lot of thinking and soul-searching, I decided my calling was helping people ... this was what was going to make me happy.

“I have always enjoyed working with young children and I enjoy teaching and showing people their potential.

“So it was a surprisingly easy decision to change from a B Comm to Education as my future profession,” she said.

In retrospect, Clulow added that had it not been for the support of her family and the staff at Stellenbosch University, she wouldn’t have triumphed the way she did.

“The rest of my family was wonderful ... always considerate and making sure I was taken care of and that I was comfortable.

“We had to change the way we did things... for example, not leaving things like bags on the floor that I could trip over,” she said.

Before starting university, she knew the workload at tertiary level would be more intense, but she never expected the lecturers “to hold her hand” throughout the course of her four-year degree.

She said she never expected to get so much support from the university.

“Stellenbosch University has been beyond amazing.

“Throughout my studies, the university has given me top-notch educational and service support to help me successfully complete my degree.

“It has a wonderful disability department that helps learners with disabilities, including those with visual problems,” she said.

Through its well-equipped computer laboratories, with the latest audio software to accommodate visually-impaired students, enlarged keyboards, magnifying screens, a braille printer and scanners, Clulow was able to consistently attain top marks.

“I worked very hard and I always try my best. I think that’s the reason I did so well.

“I also studied something that I absolutely love and the profession that I’m going into is my passion.

“When you do something you love, it’s easier to put everything into it,” she said.

Clulow, who hopes to return to Stellenbosch University in the new year to do a postgraduate degree in education, has also become an activist for visually-impaired people and hopes to make a difference for others with similar conditions.

Having experienced first-hand the lack of facilities and support services for visually impaired pupils in the public school system, she wants to change that in the future.

She plans to work on the ground in the basic education sector and open a practice with her mother, who is studying education psychology.

So what is her motto that keeps her going in life?

“Something that I have to try to live by is: Live in today, because it is only here once. And be positive about tomorrow, but don’t let it distract you from today.”