Call to Action #6 – Outreach Update and the Blind Outdoor News

It’s coming up quick to the end-of-year and I wanted to get you all an update, and our sixth call to outdoor action!

As most of you have already figured out, our Accessible Media Inc. show Outdoors with Lawrence Gunther was renewed for a fourth season. I think we are up to episode 92 now and, would you believe, Lilly is now 17 and driving! Our other podcast, The Blue Fish Radio Show, is just finishing up season 11, and was recently ranked as the second-best fishing podcast in the world! But our really exciting news concerns a successful end to our 18-month search for a suitable property to establish a Blue Fish Exploration Centre. It’s done! Blue Fish Canada now has a 3.5-hectare property spread along 412 meters of pristine shoreline and the most beautiful sandy swimming area on its lake. Renovations are now underway to turn the 162 square metre off-grid cabin into a fully accessible space, and to establish even more accessible accommodations under the canopy of its red pine forest. Our goal is to formally open the doors next July 2024.

The Exploration Centre will provide accommodations and opportunity to scientists interested in conducting research on how we might strengthen nature’s resilience to climate change, and reverse biodiversity loss. Youth of all abilities, backgrounds and identities along with their families are also welcome, and will have the opportunity to meet local angling experts, First Nations knowledge keepers, and our guest scientists.

Dark skies at night, complete silence (most of the time), and clean fresh air to fill your lungs, it doesn’t get better than that.

In the meantime, please enjoy our sixth call to action below, and a few relevant podcast and YouTube links.

From all of us here at Outdoors with Lawrence Gunther, we wish you all the best over the holidays and into the New Year!

Conservation Takes a Community

Over the past four years I’ve been issuing calls to action directed toward youth and others with all abilities, from all backgrounds, and of all identities. These calls are meant to inspire youth and others by sharing my own experience as a conservation-minded angler living with vision loss. The point to all this concerns the largely silent natural world being in need of the services of people gifted at storytelling so others might become more aware of our historic, current, and future connections with nature. It’s particularly annoying therefore, when I read comments like the following being shared by a leading independent news source, “We’re stumbling blindly through a dangerous present towards an even grimmer future.” I agree with the premise, just not how it’s phrased.

Normally, I simply choose to ignore metaphors that portray people who are blind as ignorant, but this time I thought I would take a moment and try to explain why comments like this can be alienating. There will be some who feel I’m being overly sensitive, politically correct, or whatever you think of people who challenge social norms. In my defence, I feel I can justify my choice to speak out by describing the myriad social experiments and changes I’ve experienced over the years. Keep in mind, my own personal path from sighted to blind provides me with perspectives from both sides, and let’s just say what I lost along the way was more than just sight. It wasn’t easy and still isn’t, to have my status within society diminished simply because I now use other senses than sight to make sense of the world.

As a child registered blind at age eight, officials decided that I should be sent to a residential school for the blind. The transfer was stopped thanks to the intervention of the principal of my public school, who himself had a disability. He told me, “Lawrence, as long as you can get along, you can stay.” It’s a reframe I have since heard, in good ways and bad, for many years since. However, it never ceases to remind me that my inclusion within mainstream society is not assured.

Throughout my teenage years, like most who grew up in a small town, I worked summer jobs as a farm hand during haying season, on construction sites as a labourer, landscaping, and other jobs like delivering newspapers and shoveling snow. I was even hired along with my brother at the AMC car factory in nearby Brampton Ontario to replace vacationing employees, but only after the HR official doing the hiring agreed to give me a chance with the proviso that floor supervisors would not be informed about my visual disability, leaving it to me to “get along.” His condition that I not be accommodated was one that shop supervisors found ridiculous. I wasn’t at work for more than an hour before I was quickly swapped out of my first assembly line job involving detailing body work prior to cars being painted, with the job my brother was assigned, reaching underneath car bodies and feeling for holes that needed plugging with putty.

I’m sure that if I had walked into the HR manager’s office at the AMC car factory with a white cane or guide dog, I would not have been hired. The only reason he knew I had “low vision” was because I told him that I had reduced vision and that my brother had completed my application on my behalf. Once again, the experience reminded me that I was coming precariously close to being perceived how others think of being blind, and my status within society being significantly downgraded as a result of blind stereotyping.

Upon graduating high school, I received two phone calls that confirmed my fears that securing a good job was going to be a challenge at best. The first call came from the president of the blind piano tuner’s union offering me an apprenticeship. I was still working hard not to be identified as blind, so that was a definite pass. The second call was from social services with an offer to receive life-long disability payments. My initial reaction was outrage that someone who didn’t even know me considered me as unemployable. Both calls underscored the cold hard truth that society believed registered blind people like me had few job prospects. I knew then that my best hope was to further my education. What followed were two years of college, four years in undergraduate school, and another three years earning my master’s degree.

Despite graduating with three different post-secondary diplomas and degrees, I was met each time with potential employers telling me I was unemployable due to my being blind, even though technically I qualified for their jobs. I knew they were wrong, and not for the first time, I questioned why sighted people regarded legally blind people like me less as equals, and more as “charity cases”.

For years I’ve been told that it must be horrible to be blind. However, this widely held perception doesn’t fully explain people’s attitudes towards people like me. I think it also has to do with references in popular songs, poetry, books, and even the bible, that conflate living without sight with ignorance. “I once was blind but now I see” writes a retired captain of a slave-trading ship.

My academic experience also included many irrational preconceived notions held by others about being blind, along with all manner of systemic barriers such as inaccessible textbooks and hand-outs, and no way of accessing information shared at the front of the classroom. This was before talking computers or other accommodation programs such as note takers and reader assistants. I found it ironic that while I wrestled with academic institutions unwilling to provide any form of assistance to students with disabilities, these same institutions were embracing affirmative action and employment equity.

I spent much of my final two years in university pursuing independent field research throughout much of Canada’s Arctic, culminating in a year as a guest lecturer and researcher at Umea University in northern Sweden. At the time, Sweden’s unemployment rate for people with disabilities was below 8%. Turns out the socialist party that had governed Sweden for over 40 years invested heavily in physically integrating their citizens with disabilities into mainstream society. However, they also used a system of assessing the productivity level of these same people. For example, people without sight were automatically assessed as being 50% productive when compared to a sighted employee doing the same job, even if they were fully accommodated with all the latest assistive technologies. Practically, it meant half their salary would be subsidised by the state. More importantly however, it meant that socially, these same people were regarded by their non-disabled colleagues and managers as inferior, and they had the proof. Everyone believed the system to be one of the best in the world, except for people with disabilities who told me it was all quite depressing.

It wasn’t until year six of my nine-years of post-secondary studies that I gained access to one of the first -ever talking computers for the blind, and a state-of-the-art electronic book scanning and reading machine invented for the blind by Raymond Kurzweil. Despite being dropped into the world of literacy overnight, I quickly became a prolific writer, and was able to successfully complete and defend my master’s thesis, “social, economic and environmental barriers to the integration of people with disabilities.”

Throughout my 20’s, my vision continued to slowly deteriorate. In 1986 I reached the point where it made sense for me to get either a white cane or guide dog to assist me with mobility at night, or when transitioning from very bright to low light situations. Of course, having grown up with dogs, my choice was obvious. As one of the first ten people in Ontario to receive a guide dog, it was overwhelmingly challenging to take the dog into public spaces, but at the same time, it was extremely liberating. He was a black labrador who loved to hunt way more than guide, but we managed to get along just fine for just over ten years.

Getting a guide dog allowed me to keep my part-time night job at a group home for ten men with mental health and developmental challenges, to move about efficiently on campus, and to eventually undertake my field research. The problem was that people now perceived me as having suddenly gone “blind”. Even close friends and family began grieving my apparent sight loss. I tried to explain that my visual acuity had only marginally deteriorated, but this led to my being accused of either being in denial, or worse, accused of trying to take advantage of “secondary gains” provided to people with significant disabilities. Dealing with everyone’s sense of loss and often inability to move past their grief, made what should have been a small strategic change in my coping strategies, into a major interpersonal nightmare as friends stopped inviting me on their adventures, and family began treating me as if I had one foot in the grave. Clearly, my status within society had taken a very significant plunge.

My use of a guide dog meant finding work in the summer became a real challenge. I eventually purchased a small cabin in Cape Breton where I was able to find summer employment as a commercial cod fisher. I felt right-at-home stepping on to wooden dories powered with old car engines and spending 12 hours a day bobbing around on the Atlantic Ocean jigging for cod while my guide dog combed the forest around my cabin for rabbits and other prey. Funny as it may sound, my two shipmates decided it was safer for me to drive the boat back at the end of each day instead of my handling a sharp knife and helping with preparing the days catch for sale. I could just see enough to head west towards land using the sun as my compass. Not only was I able to get along just fine aboard the boat, I received 10% from the sale of each day’s catch. Those were great days for sure, until somehow, we fishers managed to catch them all, leading to the cod fishery being closed in 1992.

My post-graduation transition from academia to running my own consulting business, and then working for the House of Commons as a research officer, were challenging days but rewarding times despite of the on-set of an economic recession. New popular sayings such as “getting rid of deadwood” and “doing more with less” became popularized among corporations. Unfortunately, for many of those hired during the 1980’s through affirmative action and employment equity, it meant their jobs were eliminated. Managers used the 1993 recession as an excuse to relieve themselves of their responsibilities to accommodate employees with disabilities.

The reality that there were many other countries that excluded en-mass entire segments of their societies was driven home for me in 1994 while volunteering for the NGO “Canadian Executive Services Overseas.” My assignment involved residing in the former USSR country of Lithuania for one month to advise their Deputy Minister of Social Welfare on reforming their communist legacy system of social rights that included segregating people with disabilities of all ages from mainstream society. Entire satellite communities were established for the blind, the deaf, people using wheelchairs, those with developmental disabilities, and so on. The question posed to me was what to do with these communities and the thousands of people who grew up there after being removed from their families.

The collapse of the USSR and its economy meant newly liberated nations were unable to subsidise the on-going existence of these segregated communities. It was obvious to all that they were economically unsustainable under the new free-market economies former east-block nations like Lithuania were eagerly adopting. What I wasn’t prepared for, was a desire among many of the stakeholders associated with these “surreal” communities believing that somehow their existence must continue. For those living within these communities, it was the only reality they knew, and for the rest, it seemed inconceivable that these people with disabilities could somehow be integrated within their broader society. Not only did it mean abandoning the communist ideal of “from those who can, to those who need”, but it also went against the former USSR’s teaching that parents of children with disabilities must have done something wrong since all people under communist Russia were supposed to be much healthier than those living in capitalist countries. It didn’t help that there were few, if any, people with disabilities over the age of 45 living in countries previously occupied by Germany during World War II. Exterminating people with disabilities was a Nazi party policy.

In 1994 I landed a job in Canada’s Foreign service made possible through a management trainee program. After working at Global Affairs for a year I was offered the job full time. But first, they had to cancel their HR policy that all foreign service officers had to pass a fitness test deeming them fit to “stand at arms” should one of our embassies come under fire. The HR department even encouraged me to hire my wife as my reader assistant through their “spousal employment program” and assured me that my assignments over-seas would include only the safest foreign countries like France, the U.K., or Japan, posts that foreign service officers spend most of their careers trying to secure. To be frank, while the elimination of the systemic “stand at arms” barrier seemed appropriate, the accommodations being offered were over-the-top, and eventually led to my leaving.

Skip ahead 20 years and along came COVID-19. People like me who often depend on the elbow of a sighted guide all of a sudden became highly suspect as potential transmitters of the virus. And then there were those who wanted to lower their stress by petting my dog. These were challenging times, especially since my usual friends and volunteers were no longer available to drive with me in my truck to get out of the city.

All this new time on my hands led to the launch of a new Accessible Media Inc. podcast in September 2020 called “Outdoors with Lawrence Gunther”. Together with my youngest daughter Lilly, who was 14 at the time, and my 12-year-old son Theo, who continues to serve as our technical producer, we began creating content meant to inspire other blind and low vision youth and others to connect with nature in fun, meaningful, and sustainable ways. And, just as importantly, to get involved with conservation and other similar groups.

As surprising as this may sound, people with disabilities experience alienation at the hands of conservation and environmental groups. It’s lead to the launch of the “Outdoorist Oath” movement. In fact, the issue of exclusion is of sufficient scope that conservation and other environmental groups are now adopting the policy of “diversity, equity and inclusion”. Policies are great but putting them into action is another matter altogether.

Over the years I’ve produced numerous documentaries, short videos, podcasts, blogs, articles, and plenty of TV content. My advocacy work has earned me the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal, the Public Service Award of Excellence, and numerous other awards and recognitions.

By no means am I the first blind person to specialize in knowledge keeping and storytelling. I’m privileged to have met a number of elder blind Inuit and First Nations people who have dedicated their lives to continuing this ancient tradition. To carefully safeguard and convey ancient stories dating back hundreds of years, and to pass along the wisdom of those who came before, are skills and services indigenous communities highly regard.

More than ever our planet needs to be heard. It needs people to speak up on its behalf. By sharing traditional, local and scientific knowledge through storytelling, people are able to link the past with the present to allow us to move forward in ways that respect all those who will come next.

At the same time, we need new approaches to mitigating our impacts on nature and rebuilding its resilience. New perspectives, new approaches, new ways of seeing the world are needed to find our way back to living sustainably. It’s going to take all of our unique perspectives and skills to make these changes, something that can only be accomplished if we work together.

Since artificial intelligence is derived from collective knowledge, diverse perspectives are more valuable than ever. However, before the inclusion of those who possess such perspectives can properly take root, we need to examine the use of alienating metaphors and language. “Stumbling blindly”, really?!