Wayne Turnbull: Toastmaster, volunteer, coach, author and inspiration

August 3, 2010

Blind senior embraces change

By Annalise Klingbeil

Wayne Turnbull speaking with a sign language interpreter

For years Wayne Turnbull has been invited to speak to the graduating classes of 4-H, an agriculturally focused youth organization which develops citizenship, leadership and life skills, at Olds College in Olds, Alberta.

“I talk to them about change and how their lives are going to change,” he says.

An active member of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization that develops member’s public speaking, communications and leadership skills, the 63-year-old Calgarian has also delivered speeches to the Diabetes foundation, War Amps foundation, Kidney Foundation, Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Deaf-Blind Association.

Turnbull has personal connections to every single one of these diverse organizations and the topic of change.

A fluke sports accident at age 13 saw Turnbull running to catch a fly ball and hitting a fire hydrant that ultimately “ripped (his) innards up pretty good.”

Turnbull’s pancreas was injured and he was later diagnosed with diabetes. At the time, doctors told Turnbull that diabetes could lead to vision trouble, kidney failure, congestive heart failure or the loss of a limb.

“What they didn’t say is I’d get them all,” says Turnbull.

“I went blind in 2000, I lost a limb in 1997, I had my first kidney transplant in 1984 and my second one in 1999 and now I’m going deaf.”

While his life has been marked by years of dialysis, hospital visits and accommodating his lifestyle to meet his physical limitations, Turnbull maintains an incredibly positive attitude.

“I’ve discovered you can’t look back. You have to keep going forward,” says the current Alberta president of the Deaf-Blind Association.

“(My illnesses) have set limits to what I do and don’t do, although I try to always step beyond that and push myself.”

Case in point, Turnbull recently purchased an exercise machine that works his legs and makes him feel disoriented because no body parts are touching the ground, yet he’s determined to keep using it.

“It’s risky business for me after about six minutes. I get disoriented and it feels like the machine is tipping over,” says Turnbull.

“It’s just a matter of overcoming the balance situation.”

Always optimistic, Turnbull often states in speeches that he had to go blind, to see for the first time.

“Instantly I gave up judging people by how they look… because I can’t see them, I can’t judge them,” he says.

The natural storyteller believes he has led a successful life and embraced the challenges he’s been dealt.

“After my life changed, because I could no longer do the things I did, I found something else…I always say when you lose something, you find something, and what you find is usually more valuable to you.”

Before physical limitations stopped Turnbull from working, he ran a trucking business with his father and later a bottled water company followed by work at a helicopter company.

“Once I lost my sight and leg they retired me,” says Turnbull who’s since kept busy writing and delivering speeches, working on a fictional novel and volunteering.

Throughout his life, Turnbull has been incredibly active in the rugby community, as a player, manager, coach and board member.

Today, Turnbull is learning American Sign Language, he can’t read Braille because the diabetes has limited feeling in his fingertips and he has learned to love the radio. He uses Internet and e-mail through a computer system that reads and has written 30 chapters of a novel.

He attends weekly meetings at Toastmaster International’s oldest club in Calgary and enjoys delivering speeches at a range of places- everything from his rugby club to seniors’ homes- about an array of topics.

Despite being blind for close to a decade, Turnbull is still not used to having no vision.

“I still haven’t adapted. People have said to me ‘You’ll get used to being blind’ and trust me you never get used to it,” says the soft-spoken Turnbull.

“It’s tough some days not seeing the sunlight you know. It’s tough some days wondering what time it is because you can’t tell by the light. I miss the light.”

Turnbull offers poignant insights on dealing with change in one’s own life.

“You may be stricken with an illness, you make lose a child, you may divorce…change will never stop,” says Turnbull.

“There is going to be tragedy in (your life) and you have to be prepared for it. You can’t give up. When you hit a bump in the road, you can’t give up.”

When he was 50, Turnbull’s parents were killed in a tragic car accident and three days later his leg was amputated.

“That was a traumatic time. Losing your parents and losing your leg in (the span of) three days,” he says.

Whether he’s speaking to students at Olds College, or a room full of seniors, Turnbull often tells his audience that change in the form of death, illness, loss or joy is inevitable and he encourages listeners to never stop being who they are.

“You have to keep going on,” he says.

“Change is inevitable. Everyone’s life will change.”

About the author: Annalise Klingbeil is a freelance writer in Calgary, Alberta with a passion for telling the stories of older adults.

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