It’s a rainy weekday afternoon in Sydney, and Connor McLeod, 17, breaks from HSC study to speak with The New Daily.
“I’m a bit of a nerd at the moment” he says.
But it was that nerdiness which led him to make history.
On Thursday, in between studying and his favourite video gaming, Connor witnessed the major impact of his actions. That moment came when the new $50 note entered circulation – one Connor and 360,000 visually impaired Australians like him can read properly.
It’s the first $50 to include tactile markings which enable blind people, like Connor, to differentiate it from other notes. And it happened as a result of a major, relentless campaign he ran with the help of his mum when he was 12.
“It started in Christmas 2012, when I received some Christmas money and couldn’t tell how generous, or for that matter how cheap, my folks had been!” Connor said when he discovered his campaign had been successful.
When Connor discovered the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) already printed tactile markings on banknotes for other countries, but not for Australia, he was ‘flabbergasted’.
“I remember saying, ‘What? Oh no you don’t!”
The RBA said they needed convincing of the need for Australian tactile markings. Our notes are different sizes, but Connor argued he needed an easier way to ensure he wouldn’t be “ripped off” when given change and not having other notes to compare it with.
He and his mum started a Change.org petition targeting the RBA, amassing 57,000 signatures.
“That kind of proved the need,” he says.
Using all the signatures on his petition as leverage, they targeted MPs for a meeting, leading to a Canberra trip where Connor and his mum met cabinet ministers. “He spoke surprisingly eloquently,” Ally says.
In addition to pressuring MPs and the RBA with the petition, they put in a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.
They declared victory on their petition in February 2015 – but the impact continues year after year, as each new banknote is released.
The $5 note has one ‘bump,’ the $10 has two and the new $50 has four. Next year’s new $20 note will have three bumps.
Connor’s mum, Ally Lancaster, said Thursday was special.
“Each time a new banknote gets released, I just feel very proud of my boy,” she tells The New Daily. “He saw something that wasn’t right, wanted to fix it and saw it through.”
“Don’t tell me that,” Connor says. “My head will get so big, I’ll get stuck in my bedroom!”
Humour has kept the family going through darker times.
Ally remembers when Connor’s blindness was first diagnosed.
“It was absolutely devastating,” she says. “I cried a lot. They initially thought it was a brain tumour. It was so scary. Someone was going to cut into my baby’s head.
“But then they discovered it wasn’t,” Ally continues. “And I kicked myself up the backside saying ‘he doesn’t have cancer, it’s just his eyes aren’t working’.”
Connor says: “The first blind joke was made four hours after diagnosis … tell it Mum.”
“I was very, very upset” Ally remembers. “I was sat in this room with my mum feeling really frightened, thinking, ‘how am I going to raise him?’ But then I turned to mum and said, ‘Oh well, it’ll save me on Christmas wrapping!’.
“As I grew into my role of a parent of a vision-impaired child, I realised how capable he is. His limitations are those that others put on him because they don’t know better.”
The banknotes campaign wasn’t the first time Connor has righted a wrong. In year 5, he qualified to represent his school at cross country, but they said he couldn’t.
“He came home very upset and said he was only blind, his legs weren’t painted on,” Ally says.
“Initially the Education Department stood by the school, but we told his story on social media and to journalists, and now, thanks to Connor, vision-impaired people can represent their schools at cross country with guided runners.”
Life today is busy for Connor. He has a girlfriend in WA he met at Braille Music Camp, which he has attended yearly since 2015. He loves medieval themed audio books.
Now he’s sizing up universities with a plan to study coding and app development.
“But I need to find a university that’s good at audio, rather than just visual learning, and that’s proving a challenge.”
Like every other challenge, it’s something his mum knows he’ll meet.
“With new technology, I know there’s nothing he can’t do if he doesn’t put his mind to it,” Ally says.
Connor agrees. The role reversal in care has already started. “I’m still fixing all your text problems for you, Mum!” he says.