Darren Tambin is proud of his DIY skills – justifiably so because not only has the wallpaper in his sitting room been hung meticulously and the shelves set straight, but Darren, 46, is also completely blind. So how does he do it? “It’s a team effort. All the family muck in to help. I hold the wallpaper up and the children line up the pattern for me.”
Which is fair enough, until you discover that all the Tambins – his wife, Elaine, 41, sons Sid, 21, and Little Darren, 17, and daughter Laura, 19 – have severe visual impairments. Four of them are registered blind, and Little Darren is partially sighted.
They rely a lot on Little Darren. In another family he’d probably be considered disabled, but in the Tambin household he is, visually speaking, the most able. “When we need things looked at, he’s the one we usually turn to,” says Elaine. “He can see things when they’re really big and close-up, although hasn’t got any long-distance vision. Sid can see bright colours and make out the difference between dark and light, and Laura can see a bit when things are really close. Big Darren is completely blind and I have a tiny bit of vision, but it’s very blurred.”
Elaine and Darren met when she was 18 and he was 23. They both worked at a packing factory in Northampton where the workforce included many visually impaired people. “I knew straight away that he was the one for me,” she says.
“My father was against it – he said I was making life too difficult for myself, marrying someone with the same disability. But you know what they say … love is blind.”
Darren and Elaine were both from Durham, and both visually impaired since birth. After their wedding in April 1990 they sought advice from agenetic counsellor about the risk of passing on their condition to any children they might have. They were told there was a less than 1% chance their offspring would have full sight. “I’m sure there were people then, and there have certainly been people since, who have said what were we thinking of, having children when we knew they’d almost certainly be blind,” says Elaine.
“But why shouldn’t we have children – and why shouldn’t we have ambitions and expectations for them?”
Sid arrived first, then Laura and Darren and, like any family with three children under four years of age, the Tambins had their work cut out. Once the children were toddling, safety was a major issue. And then there were the guide dogs to look after. Elaine has Nellie, while Laura has Quarry, Sid has Jamie and Mindy has been succeeded by Eddie. “The dogs are part of the family too,” says Elaine.
But in the early days when they only had Mindy, family outings involved Darren in front holding Sid’s hand and Mindy’s lead, with Elaine behind pushing the double buggy. “Darren would wear a high-visibility jacket so I could see where he was going,” says Elaine.
As the children started school there were various educational issues to sort out. “I went to a mainstream primary, and on one of the first days the teacher told me to copy something from the board,” says Little Darren. “I had to tell her I couldn’t even see the board, let alone what was written on it.
“Sometimes you’d get a teacher who’d say, ‘you’re just the same as everyone else.’ Well, of course I’m just the same as everyone else – but I can’t see everything everyone else can see, so I do need that to be taken into account.”
The problem at times, says Elaine, was that “Teachers knew a lot about what they were teaching, but some needed to be educated themselves in dealing with pupils with a disability.”
Big Darren and Elaine had both left school at 16, but they didn’t want that for their children. “No one was going to tell us our kids couldn’t aim high,” says Elaine. The children benefited from a combination of being sometimes in mainstream educational settings and sometimes at specialist schools. Now, Sid is studying IT and Laura is at Birmingham City University studying law and criminology. “No one will be fobbing them off with a job in a packing factory, that’s for sure,” says Elaine.
Young Darren, meanwhile, is studying for a BTec in IT at college, and getting ready for a 411-mile cross-country rickshaw ride with One Show presenter Matt Baker for this year’s BBC Children in Need appeal.
It hasn’t been all about academic achievement, say Big Darren and Elaine – there was plenty of fun along the way. “You get people saying, how can a blind child ride a bike or use a skateboard?” says Elaine. “But we say, why should they miss out?”
“I took them down to a big field and pushed them along till they could pedal their bikes,” says Darren.
“We’ve had teachers who have told them, ‘You won’t be able to do PE, just go on the treadmill,'” says Elaine. “But I don’t want my children on the boring treadmill. What about high-visibility balls, or balls with bells inside? There are ways round the problems – people just need to look for them.”
Elaine’s commitment to improving sport for blind youngsters has been all the stronger because she’s had heart disease. “I’ve had three heart attacks – I know it’s connected with being overweight. We have to start taking blind people’s fitness a lot more seriously.”
“The biggest difficulties the kids faced at school was what other children and their parents said and how they behaved: you’d hear people in the playground saying, ‘Don’t play with the blind kids, they can’t run around like you.’ Or they’d say, ‘Don’t invite the blind children for tea, they won’t be able to do the things you can do.’
“The Paralympics helped, but there’s still a long way to go.”
• Darren Tambin, Matt Baker and the other rickshaw riders will be setting out from Llandudno on 9 November. To follow their progress, go tobbc.co.uk/pudsey