The Inclusive Arts Festival 2018 – Reaching Another of My Goals

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At the beginning of 2018 I set myself a very private, very unpublished goal to play a live gig before the end of March… or the end of June at the very latest. But you know how life is and when it got to the end of September I realized I probably wasn’t going to make my goal of the end of March… or the end of June… or possibly even the end of 2018. So I just shrugged my shoulders and got on with the things I needed to do, allowing that particular goal to gently slide into obscurity.

Then the most amazing thing happened.

Out of the blue I got a phone call. A lady by the name of Nadine Mckenzie, of the Unmute Dance Theatre based at Artscape, asked if I’d be willing to play a few songs at Artscape’s Inclusive Arts festival in December. and suddenly my goal of playing live during 2018 became a possibility once more.

Unmute Dance Theatre is a mixed ability group that showcases both disabled and able performers in the arts. The Inclusive Arts Festival is an annual event that takes place at Artscape in the week leading up to 3 December, which is International Day of the Disabled. The festival has a number of performances and shows giving profile to some of our great disabled performers and artists from South Africa and abroad.

The shows investigate how the arts can be enjoyed by persons with disabilities and how disabled performers can showcase their skill.

I was thrilled to be invited to collaborate with the Afro Jazz Trio and vocalist Ms Babalwa Makwetu as the closing act of the concert on Sunday, 2 December. It was an amazing experience standing behind a microphone with my guitar in my hands once more – I loved every single second of it!

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As an aside, Not only is Babalwa an accomplished singer and performer in her own right, but she seems to have poetry and melody running through her veins. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to create new songs as quickly and easily as she does – I keep hoping that some of her creativity will rub off on me as I start to consider what my next musical plans are.

Which is, of course, the question I need to answer. Here today, I’m publicly setting a goal for myself to play a live gig in 2019 – and this time I’m going to try not to let the goalposts shift into obscurity like they did in 2018!

Huge thanks to photographer Chris Adlam for the amazing shots of Babalwa and myself on stage – I have so few photos of me playing guitar that these are a real gift!

On Independence 03 – It’s a Poor Workman Who Blames His Tools

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Many years ago I met an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his sight. His family were trying to find ways to help him begin picking up some of the things he’d loved doing before. Yet, each time I offered him an idea of some of the tools he might be able to use, his response was
“I won’t be able to use it because I’m blind.”

There’s an old saying that it’s a poor workman who blames their tools. And with the remarkable range of tools that are available to help us access information and navigate the world in which we live, I don’t believe we, as visually impaired people, can in all honesty claim that a lack of usable tools stops us from living independent lives.

Whether I’m using my guide dog Fiji to help me navigate from one place to another, a screen reader to help me access applications on my laptop or iPhone, using image conversion apps to access written information, or using a simple coffee mug to help me measure out rice for a risotto meal, tools are an essential part of my daily life – and they’re pretty much everywhere I look.

But being able to access a tool isn’t enough on its own. Even having the knowledge of how to use the tool isn’t sufficient. Because a tool is only as good as the person who’s using it. And it’s only when we use a tool to help us accomplish a task that it increases our independence.

I know for myself that I’ll only start using a new tool if I can see the value in doing so. If a tool will help me accomplish a task faster, or more efficiently, or if it’ll help me achieve a goal. In other words if it’s adds to my life.

I currently have a few apps on my iPhone that I’ve never used. I downloaded them because they sounded interesting. But I’ve never needed to use them so I haven’t even opened them. Eventually I guess I’ll either find a use for them… or I’ll simply delete them and move on.

Tools can be an important factor in helping a blind or visually impaired person to achieve greater levels of independence, but only if we are empowered with the knowledge of how to use them effectively and if we can see the value they’ll add to our lives. I am truly grateful for all the tools I have at my disposal – with them I can do almost anything I want or need to do.

PS: Fiji asked me to assure you that she‘s far more than just a tool – she’s a companion, a source of hours of enjoyment and entertainment and a great exercise partner for me as well.

The photo shows me and my favourite tool walking down a road.

On Independence 02 – The Eternal Fight Between Pride and Productivity

LoisWhen is it okay to ask for help if you’re disabled, and when isn’t it? That’s today’s $60 million question.

A few weeks ago I needed to extract information from 50 business cards. Yes, it would have been quicker, and easier, and more effective for me to ask a sighted person to help me. Instead I chose to do it on my own. And I managed, with the help of a clever little app called Braigo, which converted the text into a form I could access. But here’s the thing: that task took me 3 full days; three full days when I had other tasks waiting for me.

Every day I face the same dilemma. Should I ask my husband/a friend/a family member/a random stranger walking down the road to help me do something. Or should I insist on proving to myself and others that I am able to do it despite being blind. Sadly, even though I know it’ll take me a lot longer to do it myself, that’s usually the choice I make.

So, today I’m asking myself why I do it?

Perhaps it’s a question of pride, of not wanting to feel like I’m always asking for help. Perhaps it’s my inherent stubbornness that refuses to acknowledge that my blindness means that some tasks are harder for me, or will take me longer. And yes, there is an immense sense of satisfaction of doing the things I can. But when faced with a mountain of items on my To Do List and a molehill of time in which to do them, even I have to admit that my insistence on doing things for myself isn’t always the most productive use of my time and energy.

Many of the blindness training centres around the world stress the need for independence in all aspects of life. And I understand why they do so –they want us to learn the crucial skill of figuring out how to do things on our own rather than taking the easy way out and asking our support system. Being forced to be independent teaches us that we can do far More than we believed possible. But I’ll admit that I sometimes wonder if the focus on doing things for ourselves might make us feel we’re failing if we reach out for assistance.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to stop doing things for myself. Nor am I going to stop learning new skills and techniques to make me more independent. Or constantly testing out new devices and apps to help me do so.

But maybe I should recognize that asking for help isn’t always taboo. That sometimes getting a sighted person to help me with a task will make me more productive and allow me to cross a few more items off my ever-growing To Do List. And that efficiency may be more important than pride and stubbornness.

Because, let’s face it, even sighted people have to ask for help sometimes, don’t they?

The photo show me working at my computer with a pile of business cards. Thanks to Craig Strachan for the photo.

CTSB Graduation 2018 – It’s Just the Beginning!

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Over the years I’ve come to believe that the way you see the future is one of the factors that impacts on how easily you’re able to take on the obstacles you face. So, being asked to inspire blind and visually impaired graduates to continue to move forwards with their lives with hope and determination was a special honour for me.

When I speak, I often quote the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus who said “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. I usually pair that with a quote from Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right”. Like so many other things in life I believe we have a choice in how we see the future – and that’s the message I shared with the students who were graduating.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The date was 29 November 2018. The place was the Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB) and the event was the graduation ceremony for the 90 students who had completed skills courses with CTSB during 2018.

As I sat waiting to start speaking the pride, excitement and enthusiasm of the students, their proud families and friends, and the facilitators from CTSB was almost palpable. And I’ll bet you would have struggled to find anyone who wasn’t overcome with emotion as the students spoke of that pride, the joy and the hope they were feeling.

I fervently agreed with the address given by the CTSB CEO, Lizelle van Wyk, when she shared with the students that the graduation was only the beginning for them and that they needed to continue to grow their skills, their confidence and their courage as they went out to show the world that disability does not mean inability. Lizelle shared an impressively long list of jobs held by visually impaired and blind people around the world, and other speakers added yet more job opportunities to the list as the morning progressed.

As each student received their certificates, I was fascinated to hear the diverse list of programmes they were being recognized for. I think my journey as a blind person may have been very different if I’d been able to access the types of skills being taught now. Back when I lost my sight my options were more limited – O&M training (orientation and mobility, which included walking with a white mobility cane), Braille, some basic computer skills and some lifeskills training. Hopefully I’ll learn more about what the students are being taught in the coming year as I continue to partner with CTSB.

For a great summary of the event and a complete list of the courses offered by CTSB, take a look at the following article from the People’s Post, shared on News-24:
https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/Local/Peoples-Post/blind-students-graduate-20181203

Thanks to CTSB’s amazing Fundraiser, Nicky Jacobs, for sending the photo of me presenting at the graduation.

On Independence 01: How Could He Have Missed It?

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I was chatting to a professional photographer while waiting to soundcheck for my set at the Inclusive Arts Festival at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town last weekend. You can imagine my reaction when he said with utter conviction that he wouldn’t cope if he were disabled since he couldn’t bear being totally dependent on others.

Naturally this engaged the inner coach in me – I started asking questions about the assumptions he was making about disability, independence and dependence and ability. And it turned into a short but fascinating conversation about how many people view disability.

I’ve found that conversation spinning in my brain for the past few days and it’s given rise to several thoughts on the topic.
I suspect it’s going to take me a few articles to think through all the aspects of this question that have been percolating in my mind, so be warned… this is the first of a series that’ll look into what I believe independence means to someone with a disability, the concept of independence as a continuum rather than an absolute, some of the tools that give us greater independence, and why so often a disabled person feels that asking for help constitutes a failure on their part.

Finally, I find myself feeling intensely frustrated… saddened… surprised that someone who had spent a week immersed in the world of performers with disabilities could be so blind to the talent, skill and, above all, the independence they showed. How could he have missed it – it was right in front of his eyes…

Going, Going, Gone… for R200 000

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In September I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the Cape Society for the Blind’s AGM. As I listened to the CTSB’s CEO, Lizelle van Wyk, describe the programmes they offer their students I realized how much the organisation empowers people who may be marginalized due to their visual impairment.

I was thrilled when CTSB asked me to speak at two other events for them – their student graduation and a fund-raiser auction they were planning.

The Mad Hatter’s Auction Party took place on Saturday, 24 November. And what a fun event it was – with MC Kevin Abbott entertaining us while skillfully keeping the evening moving forward, the animated Joey Burke serving as a professional and highly efficient auctioneer, and friends and family of the team at CTSB all working together to raise much needed funds to ensure more students are able to benefit from the training the CTSB offers. And how wonderful it was for me to be able to play a small part in helping to raise R200000 to benefit CTSB and the 3 other beneficiaries.

Of course, it would have been even better if I’d been able to find my cherry red hat – after all, it was a Mad Hatter’s party. But I guess you can’t have everything!

The photo shows me up on stage during my speech, and here are links to a Facebook live video that Craig shot during my speech, and an article from the Cape Times on 27 November about the event.

Facebook live video: https://www.facebook.com/lois.strachan/videos/10156118292318391/
Cape Times article: https://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/news/r200-000-raised-to-help-the-blind-at-auction-18273600.

Paws for Thought: Something I’ll Bet You Didn’t Know about Mom

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Last week I learned something about my mom that gave me paws for thought, and I’ll bet you don’t know this either – mom’s terrified of snakes!

Here’s how I discovered it. Someone posted on our local community watch WhatsApp group about seeing a snake where mom and I always walk. Mom got very, very quiet when she read it…

Later I heard mom and dad talking about the place where the snake was seen, and whether they thought it had moved on or had stayed there.

You must know I’m loyal to mom – always – but I did catch myself wondering why she was so scared. I mean, she’s walked that route hundreds, if not thousands of times with me, my older sister guide dog Eccles and my even older sister-aunt guide dog Leila. So surely she knows the routes safe. Not to mention that we’re always there to look out for her and we’d never do anything to put her in danger. Well, except for that one time I tried to cross the road when there was a car coming. But that was just one time, I promise.

Now, I know the weather plays a big part in determining whether or not mom and I are able to walk. It’s been very windy over the past week or two. When the wind blows it masks the sound of cars so it’s just not safe for mom and me to be out walking along the side of the road.

To be honest, most of our walk is okay, even when it is windy. Both mom and I know that cars can see us walking beside the pavement so we’re fairly sure we won’t be run down. But there are a few busy road crossings that are quite dangerous if we can’t hear approaching traffic. And there’s no way for us to avoid those road crossings. So I get it that we haven’t been able to walk much since the wind has been so strong.

But I wonder if there’s a tiny part of mom that’s been grateful for the wind because of the post about the snake…

Demystifying Disability with the Cape Chamber of Commerce

LoisDon’t get me wrong – I love sharing my story and inspiring audiences to see their lives and their challenges in a different way as an inspirational speaker. It’s always a privilege to be given the opportunity to do so. But equally important to me is the opportunity of speaking to business audiences about the capabilities of people who are so often marginalised in the job market because of the misperceptions about disability.

Which is why I was so delighted to tackle the topics of the barriers faced by people living with disabilities at the Cape Chamber of Commerce’s breakfast event a fortnight ago. Being able to address a subject that is so close to my heart with my ideal audience was like receiving a gift!

Speaking to the members of the Cape Chamber of Commerce was a great experience –the group of over 50 people were clearly engaged with the information I was sharing and I received some great questions afterwards.

The most exciting aspect for me was how interested people seemed in making their products and services inclusive to those with disabilities, whether it be in making their websites more accessible to visually impaired customers, or in understanding how to make their workplaces accessible to those with a mobility impairment. And we touched on a related topic that’s very close to my heart – that of increasing employment of persons with disabilities.

My hope is that I’ll have the opportunity of engaging more with members of the Cape Chamber, either as a group or in their individual capacities, whether it’s to give them information on the accessibility of their websites, facilitate an assessment of the physical accessibility of their workspace, or to come and speak (formally or informally) to their teams about disability, diversity and inclusion.

My thanks to Bruce Wade and Linda Roopen for giving me the opportunity of speaking to members of the Cape Chamber of Commerce. I certainly hope it won’t be the last time I do so! XXXXX

The Day Fireworks went Off in My Head

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For almost two years I’ve wanted to start a podcast. I knew what my podcast would be about, who my target audience would be and some of the people I’d like to interview. But somehow I never got round to making my ideas a reality. And it seemed that my podcast would be added to the ever-growing list of things I’d do “when I got round to it”.

Then I met a lady named Deirdre Gower, who runs a website on travel for people with a disability. The Accessible South Africa platform has information on services, accommodation, activities and venues that accommodate the needs of disabled people. And I totally fell in love with what Deirdre’s trying to do!

In one of our conversations Deirdre said she’d like to start an Accessible South Africa podcast… and suddenly fireworks started going off in my head…

We now have three episodes of the Accessible South Africa Travel Podcast out and I’m having so much fun interviewing people who are out there seeing the world despite their disability, and service providers who are making their services available to disabled travelers.

If you’re interested in travel, love inspiring stories, or are curious to learn more about how people with disabilities travel the world, and some of the wonderful travel experiences that are making their services inclusive to all, this podcast is for you – we’re not just there for the disabled community.

Subscribe to the podcast here: https://iono.fm/c/3715, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And browse through the resources and information on the Accessible South Africa website: www.accessiblesouthafrica.co.za

Berlin: A Barrier of Colour and Creativity

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It’s essentially an art gallery. But in this gallery the paintings aren’t hanging on the wall, they’re painted on it. And the gallery is outside on a busy sidewalk of an equally busy road. Sounds unlikely? Well, read on…

I’d imagine that most people will at least have heard of the Berlin Wall – the wall that divided West and East Germany for almost 45 years until it was torn down in 1989. Naturally, with our interest in history, it was inevitable that Craig and I would seek out some of the remaining fragments of the wall while we were in Berlin.

That was how we landed up at the East Side Gallery – the largest remaining piece of the Berlin Wall. I’m not really sure what I was expecting to find when we got there but it certainly wasn’t an array of brightly coloured art, and a highly festive atmosphere from buskers, entertainers and a multitude of tourists and German people basking in the sunshine of the early summer’s day.

The East Side Gallery is an open-air section of the infamous Berlin Wall that’s been turned into a brightly coloured mural of artworks. It’s 1316 m long and runs along the East German side of the wall on Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Berlin. It’s an official heritage site and is visited by over 3 million people each year.

What really caught my interest was the vibrancy of the experience of walking along the wall and drinking in the almost festive air of the place itself. The East Side Gallery is full of people – from tourists like ourselves wanting to experience the site, to locals also keen to soak up the atmosphere and remind themselves of the fairly recent past of their city and, of course, to buskers of all types who entertain the passersby hoping for a contribution in acknowledgement of their art.

Cds IMG 6241As we walked along listening to the buskers and, in Craig’s case, photographing the artwork we happened upon the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery Museum, which is a small but richly diverse museum detailing the history of the Wall. I was amazed at the number of exhibits they had chronicling the development of the Berlin Wall from the initial split, through the building of the Wall and the results thereof, right the way through to the reunification of Germany and how this news was received by leaders from around the world. They even have a room dedicated to the place of the Berlin Wall in popular culture, including a video of Pink Floyd’s The Wall concert that took place in July 1990, a few short months after the fall of the Wall.

Perhaps the most profoundly affecting exhibit in the Wall Museum for me was the video interview with a Soviet officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov telling the story of how a faulty reading from a Soviet satellite warning system on 26 September 1983 almost led to all out nuclear war. If he had reported the satellite sighting to his superiors it would almost certainly have resulted in a retaliatory strike on American and NATO targets and a full scale nuclear war. Thankfully, Petrov had sufficient concern about the veracity of the report that he chose not to contact his superiors. I can’t even begin to imagine how different a world we would be living in had he sent that report. It’s enough to give one the shivers!

If you’d like to learn more about the 1983 Missile Incident, here’s a link to an article on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov

While the East Side Gallery is completely accessible, with wide pavements and no steps, sadly the Wall Museum might prove more of a challenge to someone with a mobility impairment. It’s on the third floor of a building and I didn’t see an elevator – but maybe there was one hiding somewhere amongst the exhibits, so it’s probably worth checking out for yourself if you’re interested in visiting and have a mobility impairment.

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