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Thursday, Jan. 25, 2001

Legally blind woman realizes dream in trek across India


Staff writer

Last week, a woman from Ireland embarked on an epic three-month, 1,000-km unsupported trek across India on elephant-back. Caroline Casey is caring for her elephant herself, and camping at every stage of her journey, accompanied only by an elephant feeder and Indian guides. What makes the already daunting undertaking all the more remarkable is the fact that Casey is registered legally blind.

Caroline Casey practices riding Bhadra, the Nepalese female elephant who will carry her 1,000 km across India.

Casey came up with the idea for the trek, called the Aisling Project Indian Challenge, as a way of raising money for people with disabilities, and demonstrating that physical disability need not be a barrier to the realization of your dreams, however impossible they may seem. ("Aisling" is the Irish word for "dream.")

"The Aisling Project Indian Challenge is about an ordinary person doing something out of the ordinary," says Casey, 29, a management consultant for Accenture. The project aims to change the perception of disability, by focusing on individuals and their positive personal abilities and achievements, instead of what they can't do.

"If I could have one wish come true from completing the challenge, it is to turn opinions around," says Casey. "People need to open their eyes to disability and allow more assimilation in the workforce. People who are not alive to disability are the ones who are losing out."

The Aisling Project hopes to raise 250,000 British pounds for the National Council for the Blind (in Ireland), Sight Savers International and groups involved in the protection of the Asian elephant. So far they're halfway there, with 130,000 British pounds raised.

The funds for Sight Savers International will go directly toward helping the visually impaired in India (15 British pounds pays for a cataract operation) and those to aid the Asian elephant will be used for habitat surveys and antipoaching initiatives.

Before she set off, Casey appeared on Star TV in India, and spent "bonding" time with Bhadra, a 20-year-old Nepalese female elephant who stands 2 meters tall at the shoulder. Because she is visually impaired, developing a strong relationship with her elephant is crucial for the success of Casey's three-month trek. She learned to bathe Bhadra, mount and ride her, feed her bananas and has started learning some commands in Malayam, the Keralan language.

"She's the perfect anna," says Casey, using the Malayam word for elephant. Their bond is based on trust and the elephant's ability to sense and understand Casey's visual disability.

Casey started in the of port city of Kozhikode (the English name is Calicut) in the southwestern state of Kerala. She is currently heading north before turning east and crossing Nagarhole National Park. On the first day of the trek, curious Keralans followed Casey all day. "I was presented with flowers, propositioned -- not much I could do with that on an elephant -- offered husbands, given bananas to beat the band and caused two schools to come to a complete standstill," Casey reports on her Web site.

During the trek Casey will stop at some of the Sight Savers Projects, hospitals and community care centers to learn about work currently being done in India. The group will also pass through areas where projects to help the plight of the Asian elephant are being carried out.

Casey's progress can be followed on her Web site. If her schedule holds, she will end up in Coimbatore in the eastern state of Tamil Nadu in April.

Donations may be sent to: Bank of Ireland, 34 College Green, Dublin 2; Sort Code: 90 07 89, Account No.: 33 44 55 67. For more information see the Web site at www.theaislingproject.org


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