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Fence Jumping

Editor's Note: Chris Stark is a Canadian taxpayer. He submitted this piece to the End Exclusion project:

On Canada Day, it is appropriate to reflect on life in this country as a citizen who is blind. Much has changed in my lifetime. Much has not. The opportunities, experiences and exclusions are descriptive of the diverse nature of Canadian society.

School was in a residential institution. Sent from home at age five for ten months of each year in order to learn was my childhood reality. It was an artificial world inside a fence to keep the world out. I remember the taunts of kids going to the public school down the road. Other vivid memories were having to pay older boys a penny in order to be allowed to go to the bathroom, sitting on a knotty wooden floor for ten hours as punishment for not conforming/obeying, and labelled "the village idiot" by the teaching staff.

However, I was fortunate, as school was a crucible of independence and self-reliance. I learned to think for myself, judge what was good for me and fight viciously for opportunity. Career counselling consisted of demanding I decide between working in a canteen or receiving a pension for the blind.

Surviving school gave me the drive to go to university, when all said I could not do it, and graduate with high honours. I found my first job at age 16 moving wet soggy pea vines around, because no one else wanted a job for seventy cents an hour that covered you with green vegetable dye after each 12 hour night shift. I graduated to sorting soiled laundry in a hospital, and eventually became a manager in a big office serving the public.

Even before I finished school, I started paying taxes and have done so each year since. I have raised a family, and now our two children are living independently, paying taxes and making their own contributions to Canada.

These accomplishments represent lots of fence jumping. Fighting for a sidewalk in order to be able to bring our children to dance lessons safely, arguing for the opportunity to vote secretly in municipal elections, and ability to obtain money from an accessible automated banking machine that verbalizes the prompts, are representative of the thorny barriers to full participation surmounted.

It is tempting to lie back and stay safely behind the fences of exclusion. New technology has resulted in the physical fences being surpassed by higher virtual barriers that are just as virulent in their denial of opportunity and enhanced quality of life. Today we seek appliances with controls that can be operated with touch and with audible cues, cell phones that have audio output of screen prompts, on-screen information for television that is verbalized by digital set top boxes that are accessible and usable by blind people, as well as manuals and assembly instructions for new equipment and public health information that can be read without sight.

Yes, I have run out of many fenced-in constraints, but each escape seems to lead to a new stockade. When will Canada embrace all, including persons who are blind, in the marketplace of life's opportunities. Quality of benefit is still the dream.

As the senior years approach, it is painfully evident that the disability supports are few and far between. Participation is resisted, such as when we were told not to join a walking group in our community because it was unsafe. Health information and prescription directions are not offered in usable formats. Information on home modifications for people who are blind is practically non-existent from CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation).

Fence busting can make a big difference. As a taxpayer, I look to public bodies to create the positive environment that leads to smoothing out the steeplechase of life. As a Canadian who is blind, it is discouraging to be repeatedly told that the only option to denial of service is to file a complaint.

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