At 70, Louise Gillis is more active than many people half her age.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, she curls in a house league at the Sydney Curling Club. She also volunteers with the Special Olympics, enjoys hiking, and paddles during the summer as a member of the Sydney Harbour Dragon Boat Club.
And she does all this despite the fact she is almost totally blind.
“There is life after vision loss,” said Gillis, who as the longtime national president of the Canadian Council of the Blind also busily advocates for the more than 800,000 Canadians who are blind, including an estimated 1,000-1,2000 people in Cape Breton. “We’re active people. We are able. We’re showing our abilities, not our disabilities.”
However, that’s not to say it’s easy.
While the federal government is taking steps to break down barriers to people with disabilities (the proposed Accessible Canada Act is currently making its way through the Senate), Gillis said people typically think about wheelchairs, not vision loss, when it comes to accessibility issues.
“Everybody overlooks it. I shouldn’t say everybody — 90 per cent of people will overlook it. Even the people who are in the building trades and infrastructure for the municipalities and all of that, they are only thinking of wheelchair (curb) cuts in sidewalks and that sort of thing. But, depending on how that wheelchair cut is made in that sidewalk, it could be very dangerous because if it’s a circular thing and somebody totally blind is walking with a cane and feels the edge of it, could walk right out into the middle of the intersection rather than to the crosswalk.”
Sidewalks are also a problem, particularly in the winter.
“Many sidewalks are not cleared very well when we get storms, so you can’t walk — you’re walking in the middle of the street,” she said. “You’re taking your life in your hands. You see people staying in the house much more because of that.”
In many cases, all that’s is required are more tactile signs so blind people can tell by touch which elevator button to press and whether a public washroom is for men or women.
- Age: 70
- Born: Skye Glen, Inverness Co.
- Lives: Sydney
- Occupation: National president of the Canadian Council of the Blind (first elected in 2010; re-elected in 2014 and 2017); former nurse
- Sweeping success: In 2007, Gillis formed Nova Scotia’s first curling team for people with vision loss out of Sydney Curling Club. The team has played in the Nova Scotia 55-plus Games, the Canada 55-plus Games and AMI Canadian Vision Impaired Curling Championship for the past 11 years
- Hobbies: Gillis assists with Special Olympics athletes and plays on Monday and Wednesday nights in a house curling league. In the summer, she enjoys hiking and dragon boat paddling as a member of the Sydney Harbour Dragon Boat Club.
Since depth perception is an issue for many people with impaired vision, a simple line of yellow paint across each step can help avoid a tumble over the stairs.
Colour contrast is also a “major thing,” said Gillis, recalling a recent meeting at a New York office building.
“They were describing how beautiful their building was — and cosmetically it was — but it looked like you walked into an operating room: the walls were white, the floors were pale grey, the doors were the same colour as the walls — they were all white — so when the gentleman finished talking and I had a chance, I said ‘Well, I have difficulty here.’ He said ‘Why?’ I said ‘Because I can’t find my way out of this room. I can’t tell the difference between the door and the wall.’”
It wasn’t always such a struggle for Gillis, who was 48 when she literally became blind in the blink of an eye.
She was working as a nurse at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital, and on Sept. 23, 1997, she drove to work, chatted with a few colleagues, then started walking down the hallway to begin her shift when suddenly she couldn’t see.
It turned out she had a blood clot in her retinal vein. The pressure from the blockage caused it to bleed — “kind of like a stroke in the eye,” she explained — and she immediately lost the majority of her vision. She now only has a small amount of light perception in one area of her left eye, and only one-quarter of her right eye functions.
“From that point on it was the end of my career, end of my driving, end of my independence — I could no longer do things by myself in so many ways,” she said. “It’s just a total change of life. You have to learn to adapt to what you’re doing and how you do things.”
Gillis adapted remarkably quickly.
Soon after, she began volunteering with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The following year, she became a member of the local chapter of the Canadian Council of the Blind. In 2010, she was elected national president and then she was re-elected in 2014 and 2017.
During that time she’s been instrumental in bringing an eye clinic to Glace Bay, helped make drugs that prevent blindness from macular degeneration more widely available, and pushed for easier access to technology that increases independence. In 2007, she also formed the first curling team for people with vision loss in Nova Scotia.
“I was a person who was active all my life. I did not want to be sitting home doing nothing, watching soap operas or whatever — that is not my life,” she said. “I wanted to get out and help others so they did not have to walk down that same road.”
The Canadian Council of the Blind will celebrate the accomplishments of blind people and highlight some of the challenges they face when it marks White Cane Week from Feb. 3-9. Locally, on Feb. 4, there will be a flag-raising ceremony at the Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s civic centre at 10 a.m., followed by bowling at the Lanes at Membertou in the afternoon. On Feb. 6, there will be an information session at Cape Breton Regional Hospital.
Gillis, perhaps not surprisingly, will be busy elsewhere. She’s going to be in Ottawa skipping her team at the Canadian Vision Impaired Curling Championship.
“Just because we can’t see doesn’t mean that we can’t hear or can’t take part,” she said. “A lot of blind people here are great fans of the (Cape Breton Screaming) Eagles. We’re out there and doing things.”
For more information on the Canadian Council of the Blind and White Cane Week, visit http://ccbnational.net/fresco/.