Difference Makers: Legally blind photographer Cathy Browne advocates for persons with disabilities

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      This weekly column features community-minded Vancouverites that are making a difference at a grassroots level.

      Cathy Browne has spent the entirety of her 63 years defying people’s expectations.

      The public relations veteran, advisory committee volunteer, and lifestyle photographer is legally blind, and has been since birth—but she doesn’t let it get in the way of her commitment to increasing the quality of life for those living with disabilities.

      As the vice chair of the city’s persons with disabilities advisory committee, Browne works alongside a dozen or so other volunteers to advise city council and staff as to what the best practices and solutions are when it comes to creating accessibility and fostering inclusion in Vancouver. This will be Browne’s seventh consecutive year serving on the committee.

      Over a glass of wine, Browne tells the Straight that, while she’s been able to find community and inclusion here, people haven’t always been understanding of her disability. As a student at McGill University 40 years ago, she was told by professors at the faculty of education that, despite her strong desire to teach and her first class honours in the school’s Greek and Latin studies program, she’d never be a teacher.

      “They said, ‘you can’t teach normal people’,” Browne says. “That got me so miffed that I went to the McGill newspaper. I found the power of the media, so I decided to go into PR.”

      A professor called her back a few weeks later to offer her spot in the teaching program, and she happily declined his offer.

      Browne says it’s that idea that people might not expect her to do something that has always pushed her to pursue new challenges. Taking up photography after her husband passed away six years ago was no different: it was a way for her to gauge her capability and rediscover the world.

      “I think if you are born and grow up with something, you don’t develop anything magical like a sixth sense, but you do develop an awareness of how you can use it, and that awareness comes from a lot of hard work, a lot of concentration, and some stumbles along the way, literally,” she says with a laugh.

      “You tend to become much more observant and detail-oriented, because of the need to be.”

      It’s why Browne says she’s often the first to notice when a friend gets a new haircut, why she loves catching people in the moment in her photographs, and why she often proofreads restaurant menus.

      It’s no wonder people often forget she’s blind.

      Though she says attitudes towards and about people with disabilities have changed dramatically since her time at McGill, there is still work to do. That’s where her role on the committee comes in.

      “Some of the issues we focus on are housing, transportation, accessibility, and visitability, which is the ability for people to see you, and vice versa,” she explains. “We’ve spent a lot of time addressing general accessibility in various city buildings, in conjunction with other organizations, giving our input.”

      Often times, the committee needs to demonstrate to city staff how something, say the height of a parking meter or the size of text on a sign, can be problematic for persons with disabilities.

      “You might have enough accessible parking spaces, but if the meter is too high for someone in a wheelchair to reach, it doesn’t really work,” she says.

      Other times, the committee is invited to presentations because city staff want feedback on projects like the Arbutus Greenway, or the new St. Paul’s Hospital.

      Browne says adequate, accessible, and affordable housing for persons with disabilities is another area of great concern for the committee. Often times, a home’s interior is constructed with accessibility in mind, but Browne says, “if you can’t get in the door, it doesn’t matter.”

      “There are certain aspects of design, especially in older buildings, that really feed into the segregation of disabled people, and that’s hard to get around,” she laments.

      When it comes to altering both concrete and conceptual aspects of the city that aren’t particularly friendly to persons with disabilities, Browne says the process of change often takes time—and that comes with its frustrations.

      “I tell people one of the reasons I wear a hat is to hide all the bruises from banging my head against the wall,” she says, “but at the same time, you know you’re making a difference, even if you don’t seem the outcome as quickly as you want.”

      Browne has seen the committee’s work pay off in recent years on a number of different issues, and she says these small victories make her work as an advocate worthwhile.

      In addition to overseeing the installation of automatic doors and ramps in buildings where they weren’t previously available, the committee took a stand when Translink wanted to eliminate the TaxiSaver coupon program.

      “TaxiSavers are huge for disabled people, so we threw together three town halls filled with disabled people, and we had everyone there tell their story to Translink,” she says. “They decided not to get rid of them.”

      Browne is optimistic that her work is having a positive effect on both the city of Vancouver and the people living in it, but she knows there might still be people who hold the same ideas about disabled people that a certain McGill professor did some 40 years ago.

      “At the end of the day, it’s not a perfect world and this is not a perfect city—in a lot of ways, there are barriers that aren’t necessarily physical—they’re financial, or attitudinal,” she says.

      “It’s not that people aren’t compassionate; but I think it’s only when people have someone who touches their lives personally, that they begin to develop more of an understanding.”

      Browne is happy to be that person, and often participates in speaking engagements where she gets to share her story. Seeing physical manifestations of change are important, but she says there’s nothing like witnessing a change in someone’s perception.

      “Even if I influence the attitude of one person who might not have realized what the challenges and barriers are, I’ve made a difference,” she says.

      “We do good work, and we’re passionate about it. All we can do is work to achieve as much as we can—it’s a challenge, but it doesn't mean we’re not going to keep trying.”

      Know someone doing important work in your community? Message Amanda Siebert here