Campaign to help blind, deaf woman

Jennifer “Jenny” Pretorius at 25 when competed in the Foschini Half Marathon in Green Point.

A Fish Hoek woman has launched a BackaBuddy campaign to help her friend, who is blind and deaf, to learn Braille.

Debra Holmes says her friend, Jennifer “Jenny” Pretorius, 59, also from Fish Hoek, is in desperate need of a device called a Braille Mantis Q40, to help her stay in touch with the outside world.

The Braille Mantis Q40 is a device with a qwerty keyboard and a 40-cell Braille display just below the keyboard. It can pair with screen-readers and smartphones, and has built-in wi-fi.

It costs R56 000 as it needs to be imported and there is nothing like it in South Africa.

Ms Holmes met Ms Pretorius about six years ago in a local park. Her Labrador, Rambo, and Ms Pretorius’s guide dog, Kaine, became friends and spent hours playing together.

At first, she says, it was hard to communicate with Ms Pretorius until she realised that she can lip-read.

“We just clicked and she crept into my heart.”

But Ms Pretorius is now no longer able to lip-read or read books and newspapers.

Despite her disabilities, Ms Pretorius has always been determined to lead a full life.

She attended the Dominican Grimley School for the deaf from the age of 6.

“The nuns cried when I couldn’t say my name,” she says.

Defying all odds, she learned to speak without sign language with the help of speech therapy.

Jennifer “Jenny” Pretorius with her guide dog, Kaine. He died from liver cancer in August last year.

At the age of 10, her tennis coach noticed she had problems with her hand-eye coordination and she was taken to an optometrist who found she had black spots on her retinas, but no diagnosis was made at the time.

Despite her worsening eyesight, she never gave up on her love for sports and she played tennis, cricket, netball, badminton, hockey, and even rode a bicycle. She later ran for the Defence and Fish Hoek Athletic Club, participated in half marathons and rode horses at the Glencairn Equestrian Centre.

“Nobody realised how bad my eyesight was,” she says. “I just took on everything I wanted to do like all the other children did, and my parents encouraged me to take on new challenges.”

Ms Pretorius has since been diagnosed with Usher syndrome. Its main symptoms are deafness or hearing loss and an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa.

Ms Pretorius worked as an administration civilian for the navy but as her eyesight deteriorated further, she was medically boarded in 2013 after nearly 33 years of service.

After being told by doctors that she needed to prepare for a life of total blindness and deafness, new hope came in the form of a cochlear implant in 2019.

The device partially restored her hearing, a major feat, considering that she lived life in total silence for 57 years.

With the help of the implant and her beloved guide dog, Kaine, Ms Pretorius gained some independence and was able to better navigate her surroundings and overcome daily challenges.

Ms Pretorius and Kaine were inseparable for eight years until he died of liver cancer in August last year.

“He was my eyes and ears,” she says. “He saved me numerous times when walking on the streets, especially when crossing the roads. With the sudden loss of my right-hand man, I felt incapacitated, lost, lonely, and vulnerable. He had a massive impact on my life giving me independence and security.”

Ms Holmes says: “I started the crowdfunding for Jen as I realised her daily struggles. Her being deaf and clinically blind is heart-wrenching. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to live like that. I heard stories of how she almost got knocked over by a car speeding in front of her as she was about to step off of the pavement with Kaine.”

With her eyesight currently less than 2% and a waiting list of up to three years for a fully trained guide dog, Ms Pretorius relies on her life partner to be her eyes and ears.

“It’s very difficult to express how much I need the Braille reader as books in Braille are not readily available in our country. It will allow me to keep up with news and be in contact with friends. Without this vital gadget, I will be incapacitated by silence and darkness,” she says.

Visit BackaBuddy at backabuddy.co.za/jennifer-pretorius to support Ms Pretorius.