Call to Action #5 – New Summer New Start – Outdoors with Lawrence Gunther

So the pandemic isn’t technically over but life seems to be returning to normal, thank goodness. Enough about that, this note is about celebrating life’s choices.

A thoughtful debate continues to gain traction about what being low vision / blind means in terms of one’s mainstream social integration and acceptance. Intelligent reflective people around the world are wading in with their views and thoughts about issues that go beyond basic safety and security issues such as food in the fridge and a roof over your head. People really want to define what’s facilitating and preventing vision impaired people from being fully integrated into society.

Whether or not a “blind community” exists, it’s my experience that the majority of low vision and blind people are more concerned with fitting in and being accepted as equal within mainstream society. Nowhere is this more evident than in rural, remote and northern communities. It was a question I struggled with as a youth who grew up in a small town, and then later as a young researcher after having moved to Toronto where I completed nine years of post-secondary studies including a master’s in environmental studies. It included receiving a northern studies research grant in 1989 that allowed me to reside for several months in the community of Inuvik located in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

The goal of my research was to gain understanding about “community responses to Inuit and Native People with Disabilities”. I wanted to document what we could learn from these indigenous communities in how they integrated their community members with disabilities. Long story short, whether someone had a disability didn’t matter as long as they were perceived as a net-contributor to their community.

I learned that acceptance for anyone living in an Inuit community in Canada’s Arctic meant finding a way to contribute more than the value of what you consumed. For vision impaired community members this often involved becoming the knowledgekeeper and storyteller. Of course, all this shifted with the introduction of a salaried economy and welfare.

With the introduction of a commerce-based society, people who found jobs and who earned an hourly wage began to resent those non-nucleus family members who continued to expect that everyone would continue to share. Just for the record, these aren’t my reflections, but those of a blind Inuit man who recalled what life was like before and after significant and persistent contact with missionaries and others who came from the south.

Prior to “settler” contact Inuit people never had words for handicapped. Sure, they had community members who couldn’t see or hear, but they weren’t disabled because they had other ways their remaining skills were valued. Understanding this paradigm shift took me weeks of field interviews during which I would ask how their communities responded to members with disabilities. I kept getting the same answer, “we never had handicapped people until people from the south showed up with their axes, guns and alcohol.”

I think life for all people everywhere with disabilities was similar to what I learned about in the Arctic, and that this all changed with industrialization and our migration from farms to high density urban environments. Ever since, we’ve been valued based on our ability to participate in the economy.

Sweden made quantifying disabilities a science when they developed a scale to measure how productive a person with a disability could be based on the nature of their handicap. For example, being blind meant you could only ever achieve 50% productivity, necessitating an automatic 50% salary top-up to your employer by the state. During my year living and research in Sweden in 1990-91 I met and interviewed a lot of people with disabilities and to be honest, many struggled with depression due to what they believed to be spending time in workplaces where their colleagues and supervisors regarded them as half as valuable as everyone else.

In a way, isn’t our debate and discussions taking place now simply a reframing of these same issues? It seems like we are still seeking solutions to be accepted as social equals and contributors in society. More than simply having comparable salaries, homes, educations and vacations, but to be perceived as someone you want to have as a friend, neighbor, colleague, boss, relative or lover. The problem is that you can’t mandate people to think this way.

Employment equity and affirmative action are clear examples that we can’t mandate social equality. We can try to fix this by enacting social rights, but based on how well this worked for people with disabilities in socialist countries, social rights that don’t include everyone are doomed to fail. Social rights that depend on taxing the majority are perceived by that same majority as resources being taken from people who contribute, and distributed among those who don’t. It’s a system that works if government can find other ways to top up budgets, such as in Sweden’s case. Sweden manages to keep a balanced budget and trade surplus by exporting military arms abroad.

So if social equity can’t be mandated through policies, and if social rights only really work for minorities when governments are operating with surpluses, then what? It’s answers to these questions that people living with vision loss are seeking. Not all, as many have found ways to become net givers to their communities and have become accepted as equals among their social circles. But, even this minority of fully employed working age adults often feel the “burn” of being regarded as someone who depends on their community’s charity.

No quick answers for sure. In the meantime, I’m continuing down my own path of discovery. A trail I often feel to be the one at the front clearing the way for those vision impaired / blind people that follow.

Maybe people think that to care about the environment one needs to be capable of combatting those who choose to do harm to the environment. I’m thinking of logging protestors in specific. IN my interactions with all sorts of environmentalists I always get this feeling that being ready and willing to go to battle on behalf of nature is crucial and highly valued. In that case, I’m viewed as the guy who’s going to slow the rest of the group down and quite possibly put the success of their protest at risk. One need only look back at famous environmentalists to discover that they all share a confrontational and survivalist type mentality. People who need nothing from no one, but are totally capable of initiating colossal harm to those industries that dare to harm nature.

Being judged as a liability reminds me of when I sought entry into Canada’s foreign service only to find out that human resources operated on the policy that FS officers had to be physically capable of “standing at arms” should one of our embassies come under attack. This was in 1994. I question just how often such a scenario occurred, and the answer was never. The policy was dropped, but three years later I withdrew my services because it was clear to me that the rest of the foreign service still operated with this mind-set – superheroes in skirts blouses and suits.

No matter what path you choose to go down, my advice to you is not to get distracted. Even if everyone around you questions your value and right to be on that path, just own it. Yes, I turned back on my path as a foreign service officer, but that was only after the head of their union told me in confidence that my career would be a very lonely one over sees without being invited to the endless dinner parties and other social functions organized by my fellow FS officers. They weren’t my people and to be frank, I was O.K. with that.

My path as a conservationist started in 1988 at York University’s faculty of environmental studies. It may have meandered at different times over the years, but has still managed to ever so slowly become one of increased recognition. And who doesn’t want to be recognized for what they contribute to society.

I often hear from young blind / low vision people that they want to dedicate their life to assisting others living with vision loss. My answer is to choose a path that reflects what they want to do, not what they think they should do. It can mean the same path, but if their choice is based on protecting people like them from experiencing the social and economic challenges that they themselves experienced, then maybe they need to reconsider what their heart is telling them and not necessarily listen to their social conscience. Work can only feel like fun if you’re enjoying what you do.

My work with Blue Fish Canada is resulting in new partnerships, collaborations and programs. My Outdoors with Lawrence Gunther podcasts continues to inspire vision impaired and blind people to adventure outdoors, and to give voice to those who already live outside of urban environments. Please enjoy and maybe you too will consider adding conservation to your list of things to do, or even better, make it your life passion.

Below are some new Links to things I’ve been working on over the past few months:

Video: Digi60 Film Festival – my reflections on 15 years as a film creator as someone without sight

Podcasts: Outdoors with Lawrence Gunther on Apple Podcast

Video: Lawrence Gunther Reflects on Water Advocacy without Sight on Water Rangers

Article: “Blind Tech in the Outdoors” – White Cane Magazine Pg 42 (May 2022)

Podcasts: The Blue Fish Radio Show on Apple Podcast

Article: “Saving Planet Earth Depends on Your Visualisation and Storytelling Gifts” – White Cane Magazine Pg 20 (February 2022)

Video: Makings of a Guide Dog Described Documentary

Video: Described video of the Blind Fishing Boat in Operation

Follow me on Twitter @LawrenceGunther

And on Facebook  @LawrenceGuntherOutdoors

Have a terrific summer everyone!

Yours Truly,

Lawrence Gunther

President / Blue Fish Canada
E. Director@BlueFishCanada.Ca