NEW WESTMINSTER—CUPE made its presence known at a unique weekend forum aimed at raising awareness about and improving the lives of people with blindness and low vision.
The five-hour forum, “Seeing Things Differently: Living with Low Vision,” drew 200 participants to Century House for an event that also featured 25 information booths from various organizations. CUPE BC’s booth was staffed by alternate Diversity vice-presidents Michele Alexander (workers of colour) and Edie Charley (aboriginal workers). The event was organized by the New Westminster Lion’s Club in partnership with Century House Association – Low Vision Group.
CUPE 1750 member Ray Smith from Ontario moved participants with an account of his evolution from victim to activist. Smith, a community outreach specialist with the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board as well as a Canadian Labour Congress vice-president for workers with disabilities, told the crowd how he had lost the vision in one eye as a child and then lost the other much later as the result of an industrial accident. Over the years, he said, he had to leave behind the rage he felt over his situation and embrace hope so that he could make a difference for others like himself. It was in the labour movement that he encountered many opportunities to get involved, from local to national levels. Today, he plays a key role in ensuring that employers make their workplaces more accessible and accommodating.
CUPE’s National Equality representative in B.C., Conni Kilfoil, discussed recent labour law changes to the employer’s duty to accommodate in the context of workplace realities for the blind. Kilfoil lamented recent Canadian National Institute for the Blind statistics showing that nearly 70 per cent of blind people in Canada are unemployed and a higher number have never had permanent, full-time employment. Kilfoil, noting that several presenters at the forum were showcasing new products designed to help those with low vision, said that technological advances are making it even harder for employers to avoid the duty to accommodate blindness in the workplace.
Shawn Marsolais, a niece of CUPE 409 president Marcel Marsolais, had participants in stitches with her hilarious “Dos and Don’ts” presentation on appropriate etiquette for the sighted when encountering a blind person. Members of her organization, Blind Beginnings, acted out scenarios as she described them for participants. When encountering a blind person you might know, for example, do say your name when you say hello—as it’s not always easy to recognize a voice. And if the blind person has a guide dog, don’t pet it. “Petting the dog distracts him from his ability to care for the person he’s guiding,” said Marsolais.
Former CUPE staffer and now municipal representative Bill Harper brought greetings from New Westminster council.