As you may recall, the reason I was in Ghana in the first place was to speak at the 5th annual AFRINEAD conference on disability.
Sitting in the conference centre at the KWAMA Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, listening to a Star-studded group of dignitaries address the challenges inherent in developing policies, strategies and plans to increase the inclusion of persons with disabilities into society across Africa, I began to seriously rethink the focus of the keynote presentation I would give the following day.
Most of those speaking at the opening ceremony were politicians and academics and, since I’m neither of those, I began to consider what value I could add to the conversation – a message that was uniquely mine and could supplement the work the politicians and academics were doing. While, of course, bearing the theme of the conference – assistive technology- in mind.
And then it struck me – by sharing my own story, my own experiences of how assistive technology has increased what I can accomplish on my own, and also what I’ve learned from talking to HR departments and managers about employment of those with disabilities, I could provide a personal context to highlight the importance of the policies, strategies and plans that were being discussed.
And I’m really glad I did!
Every now and then as a speaker I receive feedback on a fundamental shift that my words and stories have made on a person who was listening to what I was saying; that my message held a particular significance for them as an individual. It’s probably the most powerful reminder of our purpose as speakers… at least, it is for me!
I was granted the gift of such a moment in Ghana. After I spoke one of the delegates approached me and told me my words had redefined his reason for doing the work he does in the field of assisting those with mobility impairments – that my words showed him that he was, in fact, changing people’s lives for the better with what he was doing.
So, apart from the amazing contacts I made at the conference, the wonderful people I met and with whom I shared the experience of travelling to this beautiful country, I’m grateful to the organisers of the AFRINEAD conference for giving me the opportunity of being in the right place, at the right time, to reconnect that delegate with his purpose.
I took an audio recording of my presentation but haven’t had a chance to edit it yet – if it turned out okay I’ll post a link in a future blog so you can listen to what I said.
It’s finally arrived! By the time you read this I’ll be heading off to Cape Town airport to catch my first flight on my journey to Ghana… Or even sitting in the airport waiting to board the plane.
So, as I sit staring pensively into the middle distance in the airport terminal I think it’s a fair time to reflect on how extraordinarily lucky I am to be heading off on this latest adventure.
I certainly couldn’t have done so without the help of friends and family – Craig was wonderful about helping me gather the documents I needed for the travel visa and generally in supporting me as I’ve prepared for this trip, and my friend Hillary has been not only a fountain of information on what to expect at the AFRINEAD Conference and in Ghana itself, but very generously offered to spare me the trip to get my visa at the Ghanaian High Commission.
I’ve also been overwhelmed by the wonderful support, enthusiasm and well wishes from people who appear to be almost as excited as I am about this amazing adventure I’m embarking on – almost as excited, but not quite!
I’ve pre-written articles to be posted while I’m away as I seriously doubt I’ll have time during the trip to update you on my adventure. Rest assured, I’ll have plenty of stories to share with you about my epic journey when I get back.
Speaking can be quite a lonely career – seldom do you see the impact what you say has on the audience’s you speak to. So when you receive a testimonial from a happy client, it’s a very special experience.
Here’s a testimonial I received from the principal from a school where my guide dog, Fiji and I spoke to a class of 4 and 5 year olds.
By far my favourite part of the testimonial is where the principal describes how the learners continued discussing the concept of blindness after my visit was over – it wasn’t easy for me to get a sense of how much of what I’d told them the children had understood, so hearing that the conversations had continued both during the rest of the school day and afterwards, when they went back home and told their parents about me and my dog.
That kind of feedback is precious to me as it told me I had shifted the way those children saw the concept of blindness… which will hopefully allow them to be more aware of the abilities of those who are visually impaired as they grow older.
If you’d like me to come and speak at your child’s school, please contact me and we can make it happen!
As I’ve said in the past, I’ve had the opportunity of talking to very diverse audiences over the past few months – from 4 year olds right the way up to people living in retirement villages. After a visit to one such group the other day I found myself reflecting on how privileged I am to get to spend some quality time with this remarkable group of people.
It’s not usually during the time I’m sharing my story with the retirees that I realize how special they are. It’s not even during the Q&A sessions – The questions I’m asked don’t seem to vary much from one audience to another… except perhaps when I’m talking to 4 year olds.
Rather, the most special moments tend to come afterwards – when I have a chance to sit and chat to the residents over a cup of tea. That’s when I’m able to listen to stories of their amazing lives – sometimes the stories are hair-raising, sometimes profoundly emotional, and always, always inspiring. And often I gain nuggets of wisdom that I’m able to use in my own life.
The other day an elderly lady told me how much she missed being able to have a dog… she’d always had a dog, from the time she was 6 years old until she entered the retirement home. Watching her with my guide dog, Fiji, brought tears to my eyes.
She explained that she tries to find something to be thankful for in each day … what she described as her daily tonic. Then, as she yielded her seat to another lady who wanted a chance to pat the dog, she smiled and told me that meeting Fiji would serve as her tonic for a lot longer than just a single day.
Since then I’ve also taken to searching for a “daily tonic” in each day… and I’m grateful that they are not usually hard to find!
Is it any wonder I treasure the opportunities I have to spend time with the residents of a retirement home?
Over the past few weeks I’ve been privileged to present to a pretty wide diversity of audiences – from pre-primary school learners to retirement groups. I’ve come to realize that even though my audiences have been very diverse, I have come out of each experience with greater knowledge and understanding than I previously had.
Some of that understanding relates to how other people see the concept and the abilities of those who live with a disability. And at times that knowledge is startling, and even a little frightening – you’d be amazed at some of the myths and stereotypes about blindness I’ve had the chance to demystify.
But at times the insights I’ve gained have been about myself, my life and my own assumptions and self-imposed limitations. Regularly I find myself reflecting on some of the questions at quite a deep level.
It’s yet one more reason why I like to include a no-holds-barred question and answer session when I speak to an audience. Not only do I get to address some of the questions that people are often scared to ask someone with a disability, but I also get to ask myself some pretty challenging and profound questions about my own purpose.
And That is a true gift – so I want to say thank you to my audiences for these gems of self-discovery!
A friend contacted me in response to a Facebook post I published about one of my recent speeches – one about how I use a computer and other assistive technology to help me live a full, fun and productive life despite my blindness. Essentially my friend asked if I would be willing to consider speaking on that topic at a conference in Ghana later this year.
I’m sure you can imagine my response… Would I consider speaking at a disability conference on a topic that is close to my heart? Well… umm… let me think…
Of course, yes!
The 5th AFRINEAD Conference takes place in Kumasi, Ghana in early August. What makes this conference especially appropriate for me as a speaker is the theme: Disability and Inclusion in Africa; the role of Assistive Technology’
I’ve submitted my abstract for consideration and am currently waiting with bated breath to see if I will be on the list of speakers for the event…
And, of course, an added bonus is that it will give me the chance to visit a country I’ve never been before… with plenty of potential future articles about what it’s like travelling as a blind tourist in Ghana!
Isn’t it amazing how sometimes the most exciting opportunities just drop into one’s lap?
Here’s a photo from my recent presentation and book launch in Cape Town, taken by speaking colleague Charlotte Kemp.
As often happens, there were some parts of the event that I was thrilled with and a few that perhaps didn’t go quite as planned. One of the things I’ve learned is that it is from the areas we want to do better that we learn the most. So, here is my brief overview of my favourite parts of the event and what I’ve learned to do better.
I would have loved for more people to have been there. Well, who doesn’t want more people to be at an event where they’re speaking? Of course, using a workday lunchtime event to launch my book was probably not the brightest move I could have made. So, I’ve decided I’d like to hold another book launch – this time in the evening so I can enable more people to attend.
Having said that, there were amazing people there and I loved the diversity and creativity of the questions I was asked after I spoke. I always love the Q&A time I try to build into every speaking event because that gives me the chance to find out what people want to know about living without sight. It’s one of my favourite ways of demystifying blindness to an ever increasing number of people.
I also really appreciated that the venue gave me not only the opportunity to create a video of my presentation, but also arranged a professional sound engineer to assist so the video would have a good quality sound track. That was an unexpected bonus!
You may be wondering what learnings I took away to help my growth as a speaker. First, I realized it was difficult for me to identify where the people asking questions were sitting. Because they were using a roving microphone it sounded to me like everyone was sitting right next to me at the front of the room – that’s where the sound was coming from. What I learned is that I need to develop a more effective way of identifying where people are during a Q&A so I can look directly at them rather than facing the speakers.
Another area I need to figure out better is how to make people more comfortable with my blindness, and especially my sense of humour when talking about my blindness. I share several funny personal stories about living without sight when I speak. I know and understand that people who don’t know me may feel uncomfortable about laughing at these stories in case they come across as insensitive or politically incorrect. So I need to find a way to minimize that discomfort as I strive to demystify blindness.
Every experience is an opportunity for me to learn new techniques to become a better speaker and writer. With that in mind, I can honestly say that the presentation and book launch were immensely valuable … even if I would have liked more people to have been there!
I was asked to serve as master of ceremonies for a recent Professional Speakers Association meeting in Cape Town and really enjoyed the experience!
It got me thinking of what I consider the main tasks of an MC to be. So here they are: introducing the speakers, ensuring the event runs smoothly and managing time, and keeping the audience engaged while not stealing the spotlight from the speakers.
I believe a speaker ought to be introduced the way they want. So, as an MC I prefer to get an introduction directly from the speaker, rather than simply drawing a few key facts from their bio. And why do I feel that way? Well, often the introduction can enhance the impact a speaker has right from their first word – and that saves the speaker having to “set the stage” themselves when they start. So I was really grateful that PSASA Cape Chapter President, Bronwyn Hesketh arranged introductions from the speakers to assist me in my role as MC – thanks, Bronwyn!
I also believe that it’s the responsibility of the MC to ensure the event runs smoothly an on time, as far as possible. At the PSASA event a new initiative was introduced to the attendees and, while I would have loved to have opened the floor for questions, the reality was that we didn’t have time on the agenda. So, hard as it was for me not to get side-tracked, I requested that we investigate other ways for the association members to learn more at a different time. And we ended on time – but only just!
Finally I think there is a fine line that MCs need to tread between entertaining the audience and yet not “stealing the limelight” from the speakers, who are the real stars of the event. I think what I love best about serving as MC is the ability to refer back to things that have happened earlier in the event that are relevant to what the next speaker will say or has just said, especially if they can be used in a humorous or entertaining way. I find it a great way of keeping the audience engaged and breaks the tension of a more serious event. But, as I said, the trick is not to overplay things and detract from the message the speaker is giving – that’s not my job as MC!
I know most experienced MCs will read this and go, But that’s so obvious” and maybe to them it is – to me it’s still new enough that it fascinates me and makes the MC role not just exciting, but also a whole lot of fun.
I’m looking forward to having the chance to MC another event really soon!
I’m thrilled to announce the details of the launch for my new book,
“A Different Way of Seeing – A Blind Woman’s Journey of Living an ‘Ordinary’ Life in an Extraordinary Way”
The launch will take place at lunchtime on 20 April 2017 at Kelvin Grove.
More details about the event and how to book are in the below poster. Please feel free to share this event with whomever you feel would be interested – it would be wonderful to have a room filled with friends and family!