The Power of One/The Strength of Many-Navigating the COVID Experience as a Journalist Who is Blind
Reprinted from Michelle McQuigge’s Speech at the AGM held on June 16, 2022
What a time we’ve just lived through! No matter where we lived or how we spent our days, everyone in this space right now just lived through an era that will be written up in history books and literally watched the world change. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of those events we would have dismissed as fanciful a few years ago, maybe dismissing it as the plot of a particularly unoriginal movie and shrugging off the idea that we’d ever see anything like it. Yet here we are, all accustomed to lockdowns, physical distancing, masking, vaccines and other concepts the virus rendered very real.
When most of us look back on this time several years from now, I suspect memories of loneliness and isolation will be among many of our strongest. This makes sense, of course, given how many social, familial or professional connections we had to cut as we tried to limit our exposure to a virus even the scientific community didn’t fully understand yet. But there’s some irony there, too, that’s only coming into focus as life begins to resume some pre-pandemic rhythms. I believe there are some universal threads running through the pandemic experience for anyone fortunate enough to survive it. And as we take more steps down a post-pandemic path, I’m hoping we as a society can hold fast to those threads, come together and begin to weave in some positive changes.
I’m basing this theory/hope on both my own experience navigating COVID-19 as a totally blind person, but also as a working journalist. I work for The Canadian Press, Canada’s national wire service and this country’s equivalent of the Associated Press. My work exposed me to perspectives that have helped convince me that we may have more common ground than we often believe. Listen to some of these stories and see if you agree.
My first exposure to pandemic life, of course, came through living it myself. And here I’m sure some of what I felt will ring a bell. I felt anxious every day, especially early on when the virus was little understood and a vaccine seemed like a distant dream. I felt nervous about activities that once bolstered my sense of self.
Leading life independently has long been a source of pride for me. I used to find pleasure in completing life’s more mundane tasks, like drug store runs or commuting via public transit, on my own time and terms. But COVID-19 not only took the fun out of those tasks, but introduced negative dimensions I never would have imagined.
Anyone from the sight loss community can probably relate to these. I essentially stopped venturing out for months, and when I did, I questioned every move I made. I worried about following signage, arrows or other inaccessible forms of public health guidance that were supposed to keep us all safe. Worrying about exposing others to the virus feels bad enough, but feeling excluded from society’s protection plan doesn’t do much for one’s self-esteem.
I felt diminished when I haplessly groped for public hand sanitizer dispensers. Or struggled to communicate with understandably wary strangers. Or tried to complete routine transactions through plexiglass barriers that shift at the slightest touch.
I risked virus exposure when I swept my hands along potentially unsanitized surfaces in search of door handles or elevator buttons. I stressed about my relatively new guide dog and worried that her skills may become rusty without the benefit of our daily bus commutes, everyday errands or social activities. And on the walks we did take back then, I struggled to maintain adequate physical distance from those around me. I was anxious. Every day. And after all I’ve heard from other members of the sight loss community, both personally and professionally, I know I was better off than most.
Covid-19 exacerbated existing inequities across all facets of society, and those of us who experienced the pandemic from a place of privilege have been shielded from many of its ravages. I am the essence of a privileged blind person, a fact that was true before the pandemic but is even more evident today.
Before March 2020 I had many things that statistics show have often eluded too many of my fellow blind Canadians: steady employment, financial stability, strong family support, a thriving social life, societal understanding of and compassion for my clearly defined disability. Every one of these factors played a role in my experience of living through COVID-19, perhaps none more so than my job.
I’ve worked for Canadian Press throughout the pandemic, but my role changed a lot over the past two-plus years. In March 2020 I was a reporter with the Ontario news team, though I also carved out a beat writing about disability-related issues for a national audience. But in October of that year I got a promotion, then was lucky enough to snag another one a year later. I’m now in the management ranks as I shape and coordinate CP’s weekend coverage across Canada on print, broadcast and multimedia platforms.
I’ve had the incredible fortune to travel a challenging, fulfilling career path in the field I’ve trained for. And I’ve travelled it with brilliant, supportive coworkers, many of whom have become close personal friends. This job has been my armour against the pandemic in so many ways. It pays me the kind of wage that allows me to maintain a clean, serene home where I can weather lockdowns in comfort and safety. That income also allows me to tap into technology that’s crucial for the blind at all times, but particularly during a global health crisis. Stable internet access, iPhones, up-to-date laptops and smart home devices don’t come for free, and all are critical to letting me complete daily tasks without recourse to sighted help that wasn’t as readily available at the height of the pandemic. My job adds structure to my days and keeps me engaged with, rather than cut off from, the world around me. And most critically, it’s allowed me to realize the extent of my own good fortune through conversations with disabled Canadians who are feeling the true effects of the pandemic.
In May 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sounded an international alarm about the effect the pandemic was having on disabled people around the world. He voiced aloud what they already knew — that they were at disproportionately high risk from COVID-19 and were facing extra barriers erected by a world struggling to come to grips with the virus. He issued a statement in which he called on governments around the world to pay more attention to their plight. Here’s a sample of what he said:
“People with disabilities are among the hardest hit by COVID-19. They face a lack of accessible public health information, significant barriers to implement basic hygiene measures, and inaccessible health facilities. If they contract COVID-19, many are more likely to develop severe health conditions, which may result in death.”
Guterres was talking about the whole range of disabilities, and I could go on at length about what I heard through my reporting. Those with hearing loss, intellectual disabilities, communication-related disabilities and so on all have unique barriers to navigate through all this. But for now I will concentrate on those facing the blind and low-vision population, many of which intersect with other social issues.
I’ve outlined some of the struggles I’ve faced, but my reporting made it clear exactly how lucky I was. If I came across key information presented in an inaccessible format, an issue that’s all too common, I have numerous apps and other tech solutions I can use to solve the puzzle. If those failed, I had only to send a link or a screenshot to any of my friends or relatives for instant help. I also used that technology to mitigate some of the social isolation we’ve all experienced.
My home feels like a refuge to me and did through every lockdown, but those living in social housing saw theirs very differently. They told me they felt confined to cramped, inhospitable spaces where already shoddy maintenance fell even further by the wayside amid lockdowns and other restrictions. They, unlike me, didn’t necessarily feel safe taking walks or other outside breaks in potentially risky neighbourhoods.
Walks, in fact, can be fraught for anyone whose disability is less obvious or easily understood than my total blindness. While I may have struggle to keep my distance from fellow walkers in my neighbourhood, many spotted my guide dog’s harness and realized I may be violating physical distancing guidelines entirely by accident. It’s not that straight-forward for those with less visible disabilities, many of whom say they’ve encountered judgment and even censure from strangers who don’t understand their circumstances.
Ableism in society exists, after all, and the virus has just created another stage where it can play out. I’ve already gone over the stress I feel when navigating the outside world, but I also have the means to avoid the issues when I don’t feel like dealing with them.
Grocery and medication deliveries are financially and logistically feasible for me. That may not be true of those living on social assistance or in more remote communities that lack the urban amenities I rely on. But it’s not all doom and gloom for the blindness community. And once again, my privilege has given me a unique vantage point on the unexpected upsides of this situation.
Professionally, the pandemic proved to be almost a boon.
Covid-19 was a great equalizer when it forced life online and made the rest of the world depend on the sort of human interactions that most of us would describe as our normal. For me, it allowed me to take on work tasks that were off-limits in pre-COVID times.
Gone were the days when editors had to send reporters to press conferences or scrums that had to be captured on video. I can join such events via Zoom or WebEx as easily as the next person, and so I found myself covering politics at a time when such work felt more meaningful than it ever had before.
I’m convinced my new role wouldn’t have come about without that additional layer of reporting experience. Colleagues accustomed to canvassing neighbourhoods, crime scenes or other physical sites for information had to resort to phone calls and online inquiries, just as I had done for years. That was one symptom of a larger phenomenon I saw playing out both at my workplace and beyond.
People were forced to abandon the status quo, and in doing so, they became more aware of barriers they may never have acknowledged before. They dug deep, got creative, and often wound up solving what they thought were intractable issues more easily than they dreamed possible. And often their solutions offered a path forward for all, not just the majority.
But did those solutions stick? Did society at large learn the lessons of inclusivity they heard and sometimes even practiced over the past couple of years? My optimistic nature would love to believe it, but I know it’s not that simple. And this is where I feel we all come in.
We all experienced the power of one during these pandemic times. We faced our individual sets of obstacles and found ways to overcome them, either entirely on our own or with help from family, friends or even organizations like BALANCE for Blind Adults. With some luck, many of us have come out of this stronger than we went in…and it’s that strength we’ll need to use now to preserve the gains we’ve won.
As we’ve seen in everything from masking requirements to vaccine mandates, many are desperate to rush back into pre-pandemic norms, presumably in a bid to forget the time we just lived through. We can’t let that happen.
Too much was learned about the value of real inclusivity and the ease with which it can come about if people truly buy in. Too many gaps were exposed in everything from the health-care system to the social safety net, and far too many people fell through those gaps. We know too much, as individuals and as a society, about which pandemic-related shifts can be helpful and where things still fall short. But knowledge is power, as is the strength we’ve all gained as individuals. Put that together into the kind of community we have gathered here today, and my optimism doesn’t seem so wild.
We’ve learned a lot about advocacy over the past two years, and society knows more about the issues we face than it did before we heard the word coronavirus. Let’s keep pushing for changes where we see the need for them, both close to our homes and farther afield. Take, for example, the fact that the incredibly low rates for Ontario Disability Support Program payments were a genuine campaign issue during the recent provincial election. That was a first, in my career at least, and I’m hoping this and similar matters show up on the political radar early and often.
So let’s speak out about the things that worked as well as the things that didn’t so we can keep the tide of inclusion and creativity flowing our way. Let’s keep looking out for each other, since contrary to popular belief the pandemic isn’t actually over. And let’s make sure our hard experiences, both individual and collective, can make life a little easier next time the world gets a front-row seat to history.
The Journey of Our First Assistive Technology Apprenticeship Program Graduate
Reprinted from Windy Ho Li’s speech at the AGM held on June 16, 2022
My name is Windy Ho Li . I have yellow skin with brown eyes. I have only finger counting sight with my left eye and 20/400 vision with my right eye.
8 months ago, I was accepted into the apprenticeship program as an Assistive Technology Instructor. It is a joy to graduate from the program as the first graduate student . Before I joined the program, I had low self-esteem and I was not confident in what I could do. I often feel shameful as a person with low vision and I struggled to ask for help. I also find it difficult for others to understand and I fear other’s judgment. I was concerned and sometimes hid the fact that I needed to use screen reader, magnification and other adaptive technology. With the guidance of our Assistive Technology lead, Doug Poirier, I gained the knowledge of using extended programs that I never knew before. Throughout the program, not only did I learn the skill set to work with technology, I also learned to work with my disability, and to encourage others with similar challenges. As I grow in my self-confidence and independence, I gained patience and empathy, towards others’ needs. I can testify that my capability is beyond my disability. Even though my disabilities are challenging at times and I have unique needs, through this apprenticeship program, I learned to love myself as I discover my potential to serve those around me.
I encourage you all to not give up, to step out of your comfort in trying something you didn’t think you could do. It is important to surround yourself with great leaders, friends and family that encourage you. Lastly, I hope that you too can know that while your ability is limited by our sight loss, your weakness is also what makes you strong!
Thank you again to Balance For Blind Adults and my clients who allowed me to participate in this wonderful apprenticeship program.
Dr. Deborah Gold and the Team at BALANCE for Blind Adults Awarded the 2022 President’s Award
This year we mark the bestowal of the 11th Annual President’s Award, which is given to an individual, organization, or entity that in their work or service with or for the blind, deaf-blind, and partially-sighted has made a real difference in improving the quality of life of the members of this community. One of this year’s President’s Award recipients is the team at BALANCE for Blind Adults and its Executive Director of six years, Dr. Deborah Gold.
Since first opening its doors in Toronto in 1986, BALANCE has taken a fresh approach to supporting people who are blind or partially-sighted in living independently and engaging with their communities. BALANCE began as a community living environment for young adults and over the years has maintained a focus on fostering selfreliance and facilitating clients’ connection to community resources. In its 30-plus year history, BALANCE has expanded its offerings thanks to funding from the Government of Ontario, grants, and donations. Its unique services now include community engagement, counselling, occupational therapy, orientation and mobility training, and technology training. “One thing that has remained constant and that really continues to be difference-making is that at BALANCE, we support the whole person,” says Dr. Gold.
BALANCE’s clients are amongst the most vulnerable within the vision-impaired community. Almost half (48 percent) of its clients last year had no functional vision, as compared to 10 percent of people with sight loss in Canada and worldwide. “Our clients often have additional challenges, too – disabilities, other physical and mental health conditions, social isolation, speaking English as a second language, and limited financial means,” says Dr. Gold.
BALANCE’s distinctive service offerings are a reflection of the diverse community it serves and its commitment to that community and its members’ complex needs. BALANCE’s occupational therapy, for example, is unique in Canada, and was introduced to support clients faced with challenges related to daily living, communications, ableism, poverty, and more. BALANCE has also been making progressively notable strides with its mental health supports, and now includes a specialist with lived experience amongst its staff along with confidential group and individualized counselling. BALANCE’s holistic, allencompassing services and supports are truly innovative.
“We make sure that our values – inclusion, respect, empathy, trust, and independence – are incorporated into everything we do,” says Dr. Gold. “We have an amazing team that I’m so proud of. They really put the clients first. We also have a strong volunteer program.”
Dr. Gold herself is an expert in engaging partners and collaborators, developing and leading staff teams, coaching staff and volunteers, and managing multiple strategic projects. Before joining BALANCE, she worked for 16 years at the CNIB in progressively advanced roles, most recently as its National Director of Research and Program Development.
Fuelled by this dedicated team and driven by Dr. Gold’s visionary leadership, BALANCE continually innovates and evolves. In response to the pandemic, the organization immediately pivoted to virtual learning for its technology training program and mental health support groups, and launched a tele-support service to connect with isolated clients. By the fall of 2020, BALANCE had dramatically increased the number of online activities, events, and groups offered to its clients, and had established partnerships with a theatre company, musician, the Royal Ontario Museum, and others to provide engaging online programming for the BALANCE community. BALANCE also launched its monthly Living Blind Podcast in late 2020, as well as its Assistive Technology Apprenticeship Program. “There’s a shortage of assistive tech instructors in the field, so we decided to start a ‘grow-your-own’ approach,” says Dr. Gold. “This program increases employment opportunities for people with sight loss while also fulfilling our need to teach others. It’s a win-win-win – for BALANCE, for the community, and for people with sight loss.”
Throughout the pandemic, BALANCE also worked to address issues of social isolation and food insecurity, and launched a comprehensive vaccine education and engagement program.
The team at BALANCE continues to push boundaries with its programming, innovation, client supports, partnerships, and reach. “Our staff, Board, and volunteer team are the reason we can achieve these new heights each year, and we’re so very proud to receive this recognition of our work,” says Dr. Gold.
In bestowing the 2022 President’s Award, the Canadian Council of the Blind commends Dr. Gold and the team at BALANCE, and offers our continuing support to their vision, inspiration, and commitment to supporting independence and wellness within the vision loss community.
Read about this in White Cane Magazine (PDF).
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