When Paul was six months old, his family was told he was legally blind as a result of contracting a disease called Pink’s disease in the hospital.
“It was a rare disease that was brought over from England, and there was only a few people in the hospital that contracted it, but they all ended up with eyesight like mine,” Szep told 7NEWS.com.au.
“The medication to relieve that disease caused my skin to go back to normal, but I ended up with an eyesight problem.
“I had 15 per cent vision in one eye, none in the other.”
Paul Szep has developed the first ever beeping cricket ball to assist vision-impaired athletes play. Credit: Supplied: Volunteers Australia
Since then, Paul has “tried to live as close to a normal life as possible,” managing to become a major in the army for 10 years, and then own his own business.
Retiring at 60, he knew what he wanted to do next, and so the charity called Blind Bats was born eight years ago.
“I reflected on what happened to me through my life,” Szep said.
“And I wanted young and people who were recently blinded through illness or accident to overcome the problem and sort of live in as close to a normal life as possible.
“So I started this charity, and we concentrated on inclusion in the community, an active and healthy lifestyle, and we provided transport to and from home for those that were scared to go out of their house.
“There’s been blind sports throughout Australia for hundreds of years, but they do everything in a different way than what we were doing it.
“I experienced that it wasn’t a level playing field … there are a lot of sports that want you to wear a blindfold, but the biggest complaint from people with a vision impairment is that it impairs what little sight they do have, so they would rather not be wearing blindfolds.
“We’d rather be using their sight where we can, so by giving the non-visually impaired players extra points per run, for example in the games, you’re bringing them up to the sighted people or the people without disabilities level, rather than bringing everyone else down to the blind people’s level.
“We’re trying to lift them up, so they’re at the same level, so by having a beeping ball, it means they can track the ball. They can find it and by adding weighted points or extra points per run that brings them up as well.”
Volunteering Australia calls Szep, and volunteers like him, “Changemakers”, and the organisation recently celebrated the estimated 5 million people who give up their time annually in a dedicated campaign during the National Volunteers Week.
Vision-impaired cricketers ahead the clash between the Mayor’s XI and Blind Bats Cricket team in 2021. Credit: Facebook
It began with cricket, but the beeping ball can also be used in baseball, softball and hockey, with a view to introducing deep-sea fishing, and ten pin bowling this year.
“I can say it in a number of ways, but before the beeping ball, someone would hit the ball with the bat, and you didn’t know it was in the air until it hit you in the face,” Szep said.
“You couldn’t hear it in the air, and if it was on the ground, and it stopped you had to sort of get down on the ground and splay your arms and legs around to try to find it because it wasn’t making a noise.”
Another problem was the range of visual impairment in one game, something Szep worked to equalise in the development of beep cricket.
“In blind sports, they have people who have slightly too little sight get their driver’s licence then right down to people that have no sight at all … the people who had no sight had less influence on the game.
“We got the beeping ball, so we called it beep cricket, and we changed some rules, and we loaded it with a handicap system where the people with absolutely no useful vision get four times for every run. It went up the scale into three different levels of sight.
“Then, with all the people we have playing that have got no disability, they just get normal runs.”
Paul Szep and the Blind Bats were awarded an innovation award for developing the beeping ball. Credit: Facebook
This is when the tables turned.
“What happened then was everybody wanted the people down the bottom that used to be shunned, like I used to be … everybody (wanted) them on the team because each one they hit, they hit four times … and it brought a lot of people who didn’t play sports out because they felt like they were wanted.”
Not only have the Blind Bats expanded to other sporting codes, they’ve also opened the teams up to people with other disabilities.
“Now we have people with Down Syndrome, people with autism, and we have people with hearing impairments and vision impairments all playing this game and the mix, along with people with no disabilities, has provided a true, inclusive experience.”
When speaking to 7NEWS.com.au, Szep became tearful when saying “we have a presentation night every year which ends at 11 o’clock, and what makes me happiest is when I see our visually impaired players going down to the disco in the same club and dancing just normally in the community.”
Seeing the effect these changes have on those with a visual impairment is evidently a rewarding experience for Szep who continued,“I’m sorry about that, it’s just a lovely feeling.