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'Rallying is her passion': Teen to become one of Ireland's first visually impaired rally navigators

Sara McFadden was born with albinism, which has affected her vision.

Sara McFadden
Sara McFadden
Image: NCBI

A 17-YEAR-OLD Mayo girl with sight loss will take to the tracks later this month and become one of Ireland’s first visually impaired rally navigators.

Sara McFadden was born with albinism, a congenital condition characterised by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. Because of her condition, Sara only sees a white haze and shadows in front of her when she is in the sunlight.

Alongside her albinism, McFadden lives with a condition called Nystagmus, which means that muscles behind her eyes never developed correctly and her eyes move on a constant basis. For her to be able to read, McFadden has to work to stop her eyes from moving.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, McFadden’s mother Sandra said that it was only natural for Sara to have an interest in rallying, as both herself and her husband Keith have been involved in the sport for over 20 years.

“We brought Sara to her first rally at six weeks old in the snow. It has always been in her blood, it’s her passion. It’s just something she has grown up with. We never pushed her into doing this,” she said.

Journey onto the roads

Despite growing up surrounded by the sport, McFadden’s sight loss meant that she would never be able to hold a driving licence.

“When Sara was about 12, she asked the hospital would she ever hold a driving licence. We knew the answer but we could never tell her, so the doctors told her that, no, she couldn’t,” Sandra said.

“Her sight was too bad at the time and, truthfully, it has gotten a little bit worse over the years, so the option will never be there for her to drive on the main road.”

Because Sara would never be able to drive on public roads, her parents bought her a cheap car at the age of 15 and built a track on the family’s land, where she went on to learn how to drive.

And now, although Sara still won’t be able to drive in rally races, she has made the decision to become a rally navigator – the person who sits in the front passenger seat and provides directions during a rally race.

Working with Motor Sports Ireland and the National Council for the Blind in Ireland (NCBI), Sara and her parents went through the process of medical checks to allow her to obtain a licence.

NCBI is Ireland’s national charity working for the rising number of people affected by sight loss.

“My husband had retired from rallying just over four years ago but we kept our rally cars,” Sandra said.

“When Sara got the licence, we had the car taken out and we’re trying to get it ready now for her first event.”

McFadden is due to take part in the Imokilly Rally in Cork next Sunday, sitting beside her father who will drive the car.

Sandra explained the obstacles her daughter has to overcome as a rally navigator: “When I would have been navigating, I would be reading my notes, looking up, seeing ahead, seeing what turns would be coming up in front of me.

“Sara won’t be lucky enough to have that, obviously, because she can’t see that far in front of her. So, she has become accustomed to feeling the way the car is going through her body and up through the seat.”

By doing this, McFadden will be able to tell what note to read next.

Speaking of the journey her daughter has been through to get to next week’s race, Sandra said: “She has different hurdles but Sara has always, always overcome every hurdle that has been put in her way in life.

I’m shockingly proud of Sara, I’ve always been proud of her. She has achieved so many things in life that we were told she wouldn’t be able to do.

“Sara achieves dreams. She won’t accept sitting back and letting life pass her. She believes everybody should just get out there, try everything.”

According to Census 2016, there are 54,810 people with sight loss in Ireland.

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