The Blind Leading the Blind

By Roszan Holmen – Victoria News
October 20, 2010

Graeme McCreath treats patient John Palmer, who shattered his lower leg in a motorcycle collision. McCreath is a husband, a father of three, and a
physiotherapist. And he’s blind. This “inconvenience,” as he calls it, requires him to communicate thoroughly with patients – a skill other practitioners sometimes lack.

McCreath works in a clinic in Royal Oak alongside his wife Christine. People are constantly underestimating him, says Christine, adding “Little do they know.”

All of Graeme McCreath’s movements are slow, steady and confident.

He takes hold of the swollen, scarred ankle of his patient and applies gentle pressure.

The two casually chat politics during the appointment. McCreath’s blindness is not at issue.

“You learn skills like gait,” said the part-time physiotherapist, after his last patient of the morning leaves the Royal Oak Physiotherapy clinic.

“I walk behind (my patients) with my hands on their hips … and you can feel the leg movement.”

The hands-on job is ideal for a person without sight, says McCreath who shares an office with his wife, also a physiotherapist.

By McCreath’s own admission, he has beaten the odds.

Forty-five per cent of Canadians, aged 15 to 64 with seeing limitations, are either unemployed or not in the labour force, according to Statistics
Canada. The estimate for legally blind Canadians is much higher, at 80 or 90 per cent, according to the Canadian Federation of the Blind.

McCreath was helped by free training in the United Kingdom, a program not available in Canada. He attributes his success in part to his specialized
training, but also to his own gumption. He never doubted his ability to have a career and pushed for it.

At 22, he got a sighted friend to hand in his resume for a municipal job, after months of being denied an interview. Sure enough, he was granted an
interview this time around, and he used the opportunity to lecture the hiring team about discrimination.

“We’ve got to really work at showing you can do anything you want to,” he says. “The way we (get the system to change) is to make blind people aware
themselves. If you don’t believe in yourself you are not going to make progress convincing anybody else.”
It’s why he’s signed on to be a mentor for a new program soon to be launched by the Canadian Federation of the Blind. The locally-based organization has
national aspirations, though its membership numbers only a few dozen spread between Victoria and Kelowna, with more scattered throughout the country.

A recent $5,000 grant from Coast Capital Credit Union marks the federation’s first official grant. Despite an 11-year history, the group has a budget of
a few thousand dollars.

It’s dwarfed by the $76-million budget of the CNIB. (The local CNIB chapter did not return a call by the News).

CNIB’s mantra is Vision Health, Vision Hope and it advocates for health programs to preserve eyesight. While it retains its recognizable acronym,
CNIB, the organization has distanced itself from its original meaning, as an institute for the blind.

CFB, by contrast, focuses on the blind. The little federation offers what it sees as a gap in the support offered by its well-established counterpart.

President Elizabeth Lalonde embraces the old adage, the blind leading the blind.

CFB isn’t an agency providing service for blind people, she says.

“The whole point of the organization, really, is blind people empowering other blind people.”

Lalonde, 37 and a mother of two, has just returned from a nine-month training course in Louisiana, thanks to a $60,000 scholarship from CFB’s
sister organization in the United States, the National Federation of the Blind. Equipped with a range of new and improved skills, and her modest
grant, Lalonde says she’s “raring to go.”

She aims to set up workshops, linking members from across the country via conference call, to learn about finding a job, cane travel, networking,
computer skills and reading Braille.

“I wasn’t taught Braille when I was little,” she says, explaining she is legally blind but has some sight. The wisdom of the time was to focus on her
limited vision, with large-print books. As she got older, however, she lost the ability to decipher even the large print.

“Now I know how to read Braille and it’s wonderful,” she says from her home in Hillside Quadra, which doubles as CFB headquarters.

Lalonde is also launching a mentorship program linking young blind people with role models.

“You can feel so isolated,” she says, adding she was lucky to know another blind mother when she started her own family.

The woman gave her tips, such as purchasing a stroller with a reversible handle, allowing her to pull the stroller behind her while using her cane in front.

The hardest part about parenting for her is encountering people who doubt she’s up for the task. It’s the same thing with employment; finding an
employer that realizes a blind person can do the job is harder than any of the skills involved, she says.

With training and confidence, “blindness doesn’t have to be a tragedy,” she adds.

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