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John Southern: A Profile of Advocacy

Editor's Note: Shelley Ann Morris is a member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) and works at Volunteer Ottawa as a Recruitment and Referral Services Coordinator.

As blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians, we owe a lot to those in the forefront of the disability rights movement. John Southern is a blind activist whose advocacy work has benefited us all.

When John Southern moved to Canada in 1976, he assumed that life would be much the same as it was in his native England. He had worked in a factory operating lathes and grinding machines, as well as performing with a country band, in 1960s Liverpool, where there was no shortage of work. He was surprised, then, to discover that jobs were not easy to find in Canada. Money, furthermore, which was identifiable by touch in Britain, was hard to distinguish here. There was also a lot of social discrimination.

"People are afraid of those with disabilities," John remarks. "They don't know how to deal with us. This is too bad, as both sides miss out."

When John approached the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (now CNIB) for assistance in finding employment, a social worker suggested he get involved with the Blind Organization of Ontario with Self-Help Tactics (BOOST). There, John worked on initiatives to improve the lives of blind Ontarians. BOOST was also lobbying actively when the Canadian Constitution was brought home in 1982, and John’s work with the consumer group was instrumental in the disabled community gaining protection under the Constitution, as well as under Federal and Provincial Human Rights legislation. This was the right time to lobby, as human rights were in the forefront of public consciousness, due to the Constitution coming home.

John would have liked to see more improvement in the area of employment for persons with disabilities, such as through a quota system like in Britain, but that did not seem possible. While he envisioned a program that would apply to all jobs and all employers across the country, including both the public and private sectors, the reality was that Canada’s federal and provincial governments have different kinds of employment legislation in place. In 1984, furthermore, the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, Chaired by Judge Rosalie Abella, delivered a report recommending a Federal Employment Equity plan. The result was the Employment Equity Act of 1986, which only applies to federally regulated workplaces and public service.

John worked with BOOST for approximately 12 years, and then got involved with Persons United for Self-Help (PUSH) Ontario; both organizations worked on broad-based advocacy and human rights issues for persons with disabilities. While with these groups, John co-chaired a committee working on human rights issues, along with blind lawyer David Lepofsky, but was disappointed at the lack of progress. The Ontario government, under NDP (New Democratic Party) leader Bob Rae, was slow in bringing in legislation, including that of employment equity, though it had committed to doing so when elected.

"We went to a million and one meetings, had a million and one discussions," John remembers. "We had a million and one papers, with too much compromise. Eventually, an Employment Equity Bill was passed. While it didn't have as much teeth as it should have, it was better than nothing."

That program was dissolved in 1995, when the Mike Harris Conservative Government came to power. While attempts are still being made today, John observes that there needs to be more legislation in Ontario to increase the number of people with disabilities successfully finding employment. He thinks that current laws do not address this issue as well as employment equity legislation would.

John has also co-written, -produced and acted in a movie called "All Abilities Welcome”, an 18-minute film used by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism to teach the public how to interact with disabled people. It depicted real persons with disabilities encountering real-life situations in a humorous way. While the video explored many taboo subjects, it didn't go far enough, according to John.

"I wanted them to show a disabled guy and girl in bed in a hotel room having their breakfast delivered by Room Service,” he says. “I wanted them to see that disabled people do things like everyone else."

He recounts a funny story that demonstrates advocacy in action. He once attended a meeting at Queen's Park with a representative from the Ministry of Community and Social Services whose responsibility it was to choose the meeting's location--MacDonald Block. At the time, the washrooms there had no wheelchair access.

Towards the end of the meeting, the organizer announced that he needed a few minutes to go to the washroom. John said, "NO! You can't!" When asked for a reason why not, John answered, "You expect people in wheelchairs not to go to the washroom during this meeting, as there is nowhere for THEM to go, so you can't go either."

"Point taken," the organizer said sheepishly.

Along with years of work in the disability rights movement, John has had a career in radio on both sides of the Atlantic. In Liverpool, he did some work with Radio Merseyside, a local station. He soon became one of its mainstays, as a fellow band member worked there as an engineer and the band did some gigs for the station's country show. John also stood in as a DJ and interviewed artists like Hank Snow.

In Canada, he did a disabilities show called The Radio Connection on the University of Toronto’s station, CIUT FM, for about two years, through which he met his future wife, Susan. He then partnered with another radio personality, Judy Kosh, for Speaking Out, a show that ran for four years and which he and Judy produced, affording them more freedom to voice their opinions.

John, Susan and daughter Maura moved to Ottawa in 2002. Along with Melanie Moore, who would become its first President, John, Susan and others formed AEBC’s Ottawa-Gatineau Chapter. As to why the Chapter no longer exists, John comments, "Times are better now than they were before. I don't think people have as strong an urge to participate today. There is more awareness around disability issues. People knew little about our community back then.” But like other members, John says that being involved with AEBC is a good way to keep up with what's going on in the blind community.

The Ottawa-Gatineau Chapter made much headway in educating people about the location of audible traffic signals, but John thinks that more work needs to be done. "While there are more audible signals available here in Ottawa, we still don't know where the button is to activate them." Our Chapter also devised a way to meet via teleconference, organized some good social outings, and raised some issues that would not have been raised otherwise.

John's involvement as a blind activist has decreased as a result of medical issues, but there are still things he would like to see changed.

"There should be more employment opportunities for people with disabilities. I still think there needs to be some kind of quota, even though people might argue that this leads to reverse discrimination,” he states.

“In England, it worked. In the factory where I was employed, 10% of the people had disabilities. If you could do the job, that was enough. One employer said, in his strong northern accent, 'I don't care if you're blind or ‘ave a wooden leg. If you can do the job, I'll 'ire you.'"

John concludes by advising, “Wherever you get the opportunity, you should get the message out that we are the same as everybody else. Whenever you get the chance to show this, do it."


John I cant believe im writing this or even reading this. You were fun to work with at PUSH and if you have died say hi to my husband Ken who passed in 2007. We will miss you. It was a pleasure and the world of advocacy will never be the same.

John I cant believe im writing this or even reading this. You were fun to work with at PUSH and if you have died say hi to my husband Ken who passed in 2007. We will miss you. It was a pleasure and the world of advocacy will never be the same.

John, word just reached me of your passing away. I feel really honoured to have known you and worked with you while you were here in Toronto. So sad to be writing these words.

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.