AASMA DAY discovers Justice really is blind when she meets David Benwell, a Preston magistrate who completely lost his sight in a freak accident. He tells AASMA DAY his inspiring story.
As his head, another player’s foot and the football all collided with a sickening thud, David Benwell saw a startling flash of yellow.
The colour of the football that struck him was the last thing he ever saw as the horrendous injury led to the complete loss of his vision at just eight years of age.
David, now 59, explains: “Until the age of eight, I had full vision and grew up like any other child.
“The accident happened during a game of football. I was running fast and ducking down to try and head the football.
“At the same time another player was running in the opposite direction and tried to kick the ball away from me.
“The ball, the other player’s foot and my head all came together at the same time and my right eye took the full brunt.
“It was a completely freak accident.
“The last thing I can remember seeing was the colour yellow as the ball was yellow. The next conscious memory I have is of waking up in the hospital ward.”
David, who is married to Helen and lives in Singleton, near Blackpool, suffered a massive haemorrhage which destroyed the optic nerve in both eyes and, at first, doctors feared it could have caused brain damage.
David recalls: “I remember the doctors telling me they were taking my bandages off and they did, but I could see nothing.
“Since that moment, I have seen nothing.
“I see no light, no dark.
“It is like switching on a torch with no batteries. No matter how much you press the button, it won’t work.”
David lost his right eye as a result of the accident and he was in hospital for 16 weeks and had numerous operations as surgeons battled in vain to get back any vision in his left eye.
David’s life changed profoundly from that moment and he adapted very quickly to the hand fate had dealt him.
He has never let his blindness hold him back and has achieved an extraordinary amount in his education, employment and personal life.
And now he has finally realised his dream of working for the law and justice system by becoming Preston’s only blind magistrate, proving that justice really is blind.
David says: “Being blind truly does not bother me in the least.
“I think it must have been terrible for my family, but I accepted it very quickly. It was just a different way of life. My life before the accident seems a blank.
“If a tragedy of this kind was going to happen, perhaps it was just as well it happened to me because I was able to make that adjustment.
“I do not know whether tragedy makes you the person you are or whether you are that person in the first place.”
After being discharged from hospital, David, who then lived in Plymouth, was plunged into the education system.
At the time, there was a network of blind schools and David was sent to a residential primary school for blind children in Bristol, 125 miles from home.
He says: “I had to grow up very quickly. Suddenly, I had lost my sight and then I was living miles away from my family at the age of just eight and could not have a cuddle from my mum as she was so far away.
“You have to learn to become independent and survive.”
David learnt braille very quickly, mastering the skill in around 10 days.
It was at this time he discovered he had an extremely good memory.
David explains: “I can memorise 16 digit numbers after only hearing them once. I can do mental arithmetic without the need for a calculator as the answer is just there.”
Wife Helen, 54, adds: “If I see a telephone number on a sign or something, I just tell David and when I ask him for the number weeks later, he will still remember it.”
Modestly, David says: “I have been very successful academically and during the course of my careers. However, it is not because I am clever, but because I have a great memory.”
After finishing primary school and passing his 11 plus, David applied for a national secondary school with public school status for blind children.
The school had a rigorous application process and only accepted 10 children a year.
Laughing, David says: “I got in and David Blunkett didn’t! He was a year or two older than me.
“I have a lot of respect and admiration for him and he has certainly not done badly out of not getting into that school!”
David was deputy head boy and academic standards were very high with all pupils expected to go to university.
After leaving secondary school, David studied law at university in South Wales.
David explains: “Since the age of 14, I knew I wanted to go into law as I have always been fascinated by it.
“After my law degree, I wanted to become a barrister and that’s when I ran into an obstacle as I had to try and find a place in Chambers.
“In those days, pupillages were not paid. You had to have independent financial means.
“My family circumstances meant I did not have this. My father was in the Royal Marines and I came from a big family so there was no money for financial support.
“The employment options for blind people were severely limited for part-time work. You cannot do a lot of casual work such as bar work, stacking shelves or driving taxis.
“So I knew I would have to get proper paid employment, save up and then go back to my pupillage.
“But I never ended up going back.
“Helen always says if she had been with me in the 1970s, we would have worked it out between us and by now, I would be a judge.
“If I were to take a regret to my grave, it would be that I would have loved to have had a full career in law and have become a judge.”
Helen says: “David would make a great judge.
“Being in our house is a bit like being in court because David can remember everything! You can’t get anything past him!”
Instead of pursuing law, David joined a bank as a computer programmer - a job he hated.
During this time, he met and married his first wife and had two children so gave up his plans of becoming a barrister.
He joined the civil service in 1980 and had roles including fraud investigator and he then went to the Civil Service Management Training College as a senior lecturer.
As well as enjoying a successful career, David triumphed in the sporting world and made great achievements in running amateur football clubs.
He says: “My brothers all played football and there was no way I was having them do something I could not do!
“While I was living in London in the 1980s, I contacted the local football league and told them I was happy to help.
“I was given an adult football team who were mostly Caribbean and they were a wild bunch of lads who were incredibly undisciplined but very talented.
“I took them on when they were bottom of the league. I made them turn up on time, come to training, get their positions clear and was pretty forceful in dealing with any bad behaviour.
“We won our first game 10-nil and after that, they thought I could perform miracles!
“We didn’t lose another game all season and ended up winning the league.
“It was all about organisation, motivation and discipline and that was what I brought to the team.
“I have had some high profile management positions in my career and I believe it was because I developed my leadership qualities.”
From the mid 1980s to the 1990s, David was also a keen golfer and in 1988, he was the English champion.
He explains: “There are a couple of hundred blind people worldwide who play golf and I was reasonably good at it. I played in tournaments in the UK and America and in 1988, myself and another blind golfer were invited to go to India to play a series of golf exhibition tournaments to show blind people could play golf.
““We raised £30,000 for blind welfare in India.
“I managed to come seventh out of 240 golfers playing over two courses in the tournament and everyone else playing could see.”
David’s first marriage ended in divorce after 13 years and it was inadvertently through his love of golfing that he met Helen 17 years ago.
He recalls: “I was playing in a charity golf tournament and Mike, one of the men on my team who had paid to play with me was a computer specialist.
“He was fascinated by the fact I could use computers. I use a normal computer with special software which reads aloud what is on the screen.
“Mike arranged to come and see me and on another occasion, I called him up to speak to him and got Helen instead who was his friend from school.
“Helen and I ended up chatting for one-and-a-half hours and I asked her for her telephone number.
“Our first date was outside Windsor Castle.
“It was a blind date in more ways than one!”
When asked what attracted her to David, Helen, a headteacher in Liverpool, explains: “David has the most gorgeous voice in the world and I was also attracted by his intelligence and sense of humour.
“I cannot believe some of the things he has achieved despite being blind.
“I admire his strength of character and his courage and persistence in not wanting to be different or expecting life to owe him anything.
“He has always had to work twice as hard as anyone else.
“When you are with David, you are never aware he is blind.
“We are great friends and have many shared passions including music, reading, horse-racing, football and cricket.”
After meeting Helen, David moved to Lancashire and worked for BAE in Warton and the cabinet office before becoming head of human resources for the DWP in Scotland.
David suffered a silent heart attack and underwent a coronary heart bypass in October 2010 at the Lancashire Cardiac Centre in Blackpool.
Although he returned to work afterwards, in June 2012, David decided to retire as living away from home and the job was putting a strain on his health.
It was then that he looked into becoming a magistrate and finally achieved his dream of working in court by becoming Preston’s only blind magistrate.
David says: “For many years, blind people were not eligible to be considered as magistrates because of not being able to see.
“However, if you look at the statue of Lady Justice at the Old Bailey, you can see she is blind and holding a set of scales and a sword.
“When I deal with cases, I have no visual information about the defendant or witnesses. I cannot see them or have any preconceived ideas about them.
“I look at cases purely on the facts because of my circumstances.
“People are often told by their brief to wear a suit and look tidy for their court appearance.
“But they could be wearing a swimming costume, torn jeans and a baseball cap and it would not make any difference to me.
“I have had a lifelong passion for the law and am firmly committed to fairness.
“The judges at Preston are brilliant and it is a joy to be in court there. It feels like where I belong.”
After 17 years as a couple, David and Helen were married in May this year at The Willows Catholic Church in Kirkham followed by a honeymoon flying to New York and returning on the Queen Mary 2.
David, who has two children and three grandchildren, jokes: “After 17 years, I finally ran out of excuses not to get married!”
Instead of wedding presents, the pair asked for charity donations and raised £2,000 for the Lancashire Cardiac Centre.
David has memories of being able to see colours and remembers things like trees, bushes and clouds and uses them to build pictures in his mind.
He explains: “I have memories that I cling to and everything I hear, I use to build pictures in my mind’s eye.
“I draw on my memories of colours and shapes to fill in the details of what is being described to me.
“Even though I lost my sight in that accident, I think I am the luckiest bloke alive.
“I had a great education, a wonderful career and now I have got a lovely wife as well as wonderful children and grandchildren.
“I have been lucky enough to travel the world and I am now doing the job I love more than anything else as a magistrate.
“The fact I am blind is just incidental. If I could see just one more thing in my life, I would love to see a starry sky at night. I don’t feel a need to see Helen or my children or grandchildren as I would not love them any more if I could see them than I already do.”