ACU alumni Ranjesh Prakesh has proved that his vision impairment is no barrier to achieving an international degree, travelling Australia and advocating for the rights of people with a disability.
For the majority of his life, Ranjesh has been vision impaired. He struggled to see from a young age and lost vision completely in his left eye as a child following an operation. His right eye deteriorated over time and now all he sees is a blur.
He had to leave his school in Fiji in class five as there were no facilities to teach a student with a vision impairment to read and write.
“I received a second chance from the man upstairs. A training teacher who was visually impaired was teaching in the school I used to attend and heard about me. He told my mother about the Fiji School for the blind,” Ranjesh says.
Ranjesh, who was living in Ba with his family, then went to Suva on the other side of the country to attend school for and learnt to read and write in Braille.
He completed his primary education in Suva and developed an interest in elite sports and thanks to a friend he met through athletics, he was able to stay on and complete his secondary and tertiary education.
“My friend’s family, who was very poor themselves but had very big hearts, let me stay in their tiny apartment with them. There were nine of us living in a small apartment. The unit was so small that the area where we sat and ate meals is where I studied and slept.”
Ranjesh would leave home at 4am each morning to go to the training facilities, walking in the middle of the road as it was safer than the footpaths which were full of pot holes and obstacles.
“By walking on the road I could use my sense of hearing and the bright lights of the cars to let me know when cars were coming and I would move to the side. Over the time that I made these journeys I twisted my ankle six times,” Ranjesh says.
“I would go to training without breakfast and would only have water all day until the evening when I would have one solid meal. I was lucky to have had a family to stay with in Suva, because if I had gone back to the rural area I would not have had access to training facilities, coaches, transport or good education for that matter.”
Between study and training Ranjesh also travelled around Fiji as a disability advocate.
“I visited tertiary institutions, businesses, schools and everywhere in between creating awareness of vision impairment and other disabilities and advocating for rights such as education, employment and social inclusion.”
After completing his Diploma in Office Administration in 2012 the Fijian resident applied for an Australia Awards Scholarship after a family member read about it in a newspaper.
“I did not think that I would receive the scholarship so I applied and forgot about it. In late 2012 I received a call, and trust me when I say that it was the best phone call I ever received, to say that I would be receiving the scholarship.”
In 2013 Ranjesh began studying a Diploma in Liberal Studies before beginning his Bachelor of International Development Studies at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.
Culture shock hit hard and at first he wasn’t sure if he was capable of living in Australia and wanted to jump on the next plane home.
“I had to deal with so many challenges including culture shock, trying to learn and adopt the Australian academic system, juggling the challenges around mobility, living independently and more… I was at breaking point,” Ranjesh says.
While the challenges he faced were difficult, he knew the opportunity to study in Australia was an incredible one so he persevered.
“I said alright, let’s just do it. ACU’s Disability Services were really helpful in supporting me and telling me I could do this.”
He says the first semester was really difficult however things were “spectacular” from second semester.
“All the lecturers and disability staff were really inclusive and accommodating and I think that is one of the reasons I went so well in my degree.”
Ranjesh was inducted as a Member of the Golden Key International Honour Society in 2017 and received an Executive Dean’s commendation for his high GPA.
“The Australian Awards Scholarship has boosted my confidence level extremely. It has empowered me to do things fearlessly in my life no matter how great the challenge.”
His dedication to athletics and fitness continued and he became very involved with the ACU Melbourne Studio Gym, going twice a day every day, becoming an inspiration to the people there.
“We also learnt a lot from Ranjesh who showed us you can do anything you put your mind to and you shouldn’t let limitations hold you back,” they said in an appreciation post on Instagram to Ranjesh.
He visited most states while in Australia and took part in long distance tandem bike rides, joined Vision Australia’s monthly walking group and experienced it all ‘from Luna Park to Grand Prix”.
“In 2015 I volunteered with CBM Australia once per week to garner sufficient work experience which can prove valuable in future job hunting.”
He says studying in Australia was a completely different environment to what he had experienced back home in Fiji.
“[In Fiji] I had to fight for my rights and I was swimming against the current. My university had no disability department and [people with a disability] have to prove that they are capable. In Australia it is an enabling environment and I didn’t have to go that extra mile that was required of me back at home and I could put all my energy into studying.”
Ranjesh is determined to make a difference and advocate for people with a disability and his degree will help him do that.
“In the short term I will work towards helping people in the disability sector and enable people with a disability to realise their true potential.
“In the long term I would love to contribute in some way to the disability sector. In the long term, studying in Australia has really changed my perception of what I am capable of. I have developed a particular interest in academia and given the opportunity in the future to do my masters or my PHD, I would jump at that chance.”