— Feature —

Seeing into the future

A blind disability advocate explains how he sees Oliver — and how his neighbourhood sees him

It’s easy to give up. Just yesterday, as the driver delivered Marc Workman’s groceries at his Oliver apartment, Workman got an unsubtle reminder he’s different.

He’d sent a note in advance, like he usually does, which gave the driver a friendly heads up to avoid an awkward interaction—like offering a pen and Workman not noticing. He never knows how these quotidian interactions will go, and he’s met all kinds of people in Oliver—some judgmental, some clueless, some concerned, some compassionate. Who will it be today?

The driver handed him his groceries. “You do okay for yourself,” he said to Workman, as he turned to leave, before adding: “Considering you’re blind.” 

Workman is used to these comments— that’s why giving up can seem appealing. At 37, he’s slender and clean shaven, and smiles frequently below his friendly cheekbones. It’d be easy not to notice he’s blind, unless you met him walking with his cane or with his Labrador Retriever guide dog, Bella. He sits on the Oliver Community League board and chairs its social advocacy committee. He used to work as manager of advocacy for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, a job he moved to Oliver for in 2013, and he joined the board of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians when he was 27. He’s also been involved with Barrier-Free Canada, which advocates for federal disability legislation, and he was part of the push to get Edmonton Transit System buses equipped with automated stop announcements, in 2015. Now he works as a policy analyst with the Alberta government. All that to say: Comments like “You do okay for yourself” don’t surprise Workman anymore, because he’s spent his life thinking about why they occur.

“Common among all minorities is the fact that you have to work harder to be seen as competent,” Workman says. “He was saying, ‘I’m impressed by you only in the sense that I expected less, and you exceeded that.’ I’ve heard it many, many times.”

It’s complicated, though, because Workman is doing okay for himself. In Canada, he says, a blind person living independently is rare, and in many cultures it’s unheard of. Workman, in contrast, lives on his own. He subscribes to a visual-assistant app called Aira, and uses his iPhone’s screen-reader, called VoiceOver, to navigate his smartphone. He has a sister he’s close with who helps him with tasks, like updating his wardrobe. Around 70 per cent of blind people are unemployed, and half live on less than $20,000 a year. Workman is different.

Still, although he has a career, it took more than 100 applications and 22 interviews. “I don’t want to say that I could have gotten every single one of

“These things aren’t inevitable. That’s why we have to change our environment to make them less likely. That’s evidence for why we need to act.”

those jobs,” he says, “but it’s equally ridiculous to say blindness played no role in any of those decisions.” In 2015, he was denied service at a restaurant in Red Deer, which is illegal under Alberta’s Service Dogs Act. (He happened to be with the CNIB’s director of public affairs; they filed a complaint with the Red Deer RCMP and called the Red Deer Advocate.) Even as he lives independently, the world insists on seeing him a certain way.

Workman has a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, and it progressed quickly. He was five years old when he was diagnosed. He figures he was legally blind by age 10. (“Legally blind” means he had 20/200 vision; he could see at 20 feet what someone with 20/20 could see from 200 feet.) Although he has light perception in his right eye, he has no vision at all in his left. 

While blindness has been a part of him almost his entire life, it wasn’t until university that he thought about it philosophically. It started with a course on equality and social justice. “There was nothing about disability in there,” he says, “but it felt familiar.” He Googled “philosophy+blind.” The U.S. National Federation of the Blind (NFB) came up. Before, he’d seen disability as something unfortunate that happens to people. “The NFB talked about how the problem isn’t the inability to see—it’s the attitudes, social situations and environments that make it harder for someone who’s blind.” With a master’s degree in political science already in his quiver, Workman pursued a PhD in philosophy. But soon he learned he’d rather be advocating in the non-academic world. He wanted to see his community change—so he set out to do it.

It’s two and a half blocks from Workman’s apartment to the Grandin LRT station – north a few steps, then along 99 Avenue past Grandin Elementary School, where children almost always shout “Doggy!” at Bella. He recently started a new position with the government, where he’s worked for almost four years, so he can walk to his job now. But the train is still vital for getting anywhere else in the city. He has a few strategies for walking: He remembers if the last number of an address is even, the building will be north of the avenue. The grid setup downtown 

“For the visually impaired, the giant parking lots can be dangerous and disorienting”

helps him navigate, just like numbered streets. When he feels he’s about 20 feet from the intersection, he begins listening for cues that tell him when to cross, like which direction traffic is moving in, or the beep of audible signals. Not all intersections have them, of course, so he’ll pay attention to stationary vehicles, too. If this idling vehicle had the opportunity to turn right and didn’t, he thinks, it must be turning left or driving straight through.

But every walk has its obstacles – often the kind with four wheels and an engine. According to the City of Edmonton, a pedestrian’s chances of survival are only 45 per cent if hit by a vehicle moving at 50 kilometres per hour, so he has to be especially vigilant. Quiet vehicles are a problem, too: According to the Guardian, compared to conventional vehicles, quiet-running electric cars are about 40 per cent likelier to hit a pedestrian, and 93 per cent of blind and partially sighted people have had issues with them. Still, Oliver is more accessible than most neighbourhoods in Edmonton, Workman says, but it’s missing things like the yellow tactical strips so prominent in San Francisco, or the prevalence of audio signals at intersections in Vancouver. “I’ve probably had a few close calls, but I wouldn’t necessarily know,” he says, chuckling. “There have been a couple times where I ended up on a totally different corner than I intended to.” 

Even the train he’s arriving for can be challenging. In August 2012, a blind woman named Zaidee Jensen, whom Workman went to university with, died after she fell from the ledge of University station. The station’s platform didn’t have the same kind of bumps, which warn people who are visually impaired, as other stations did. The warning strips were upgraded about a year later, but there are still impediments. Edmonton’s LRT has two kinds of trains, and the buttons on each one are located in different spots. And neither of the two train types have doors that open automatically. To decipher which one is approaching, Workman has learned to differentiate them by an almost imperceptible difference in pitch. “I don’t get it 100 per cent of the time,” he says. Workman has inquired about making the doors open automatically but the City rebuffed him. The next step would have

“While much of Oliver is fairly accessible, Oliver Square and the Brewery District are outliers”

been to take the issue to city council, and he knows there would have been resistance. “That’s one I considered fighting more for,” he says, “but I kind of let it go.” 

Pick your battles, he learned.

While much of Oliver is fairly accessible, Oliver Square and the Brewery District are outliers. For the visually impaired, the giant parking lots can be dangerous and disorienting. It’s difficult to tell which direction vehicles are moving in, and slower driving makes them hard to hear. Workman avoids these spaces altogether. 

This gets to something fundamental about how we build our neighbourhoods. Whether it’s the noiseless electric vehicles or oceanic parking lots, there’s a continuous rivalry between drivers and pedestrians, between making our communities more walkable and encouraging urban activity, or making them more drivable and easier to park in. The issue of accessibility highlights this opposition, because people with disabilities are adversely affected. When build more parking lots, when we favour cars over pedestrians, we should ask: Who benefits, and whose lives are we risking? 

Workman, with Bella at his left, heads to his tailor’s. Rather than turning off Jasper Avenue at the stairs, the pair walk to the end of the block and turn around so he can count the steps. A man across the street yells at no one in particular and Workman turns his head. A piece of sidewalk sticks out skyward, threatening to trip someone who’s distracted or, for that matter, visually impaired. Here, by 112 Street, with five lanes of traffic whirling by, it can be disorienting for anyone. 

But Jasper is actually easier for Workman to navigate. Downtown cores usually are. The traffic signals are more accessible, and he has a better sense for which direction vehicles are moving in. More than that, though, is how dense the avenue is, and how different that is from areas like Oliver Square and the Brewery District. It’s easier to find stores, which are right along the avenue and unencumbered by parking lots. 

“A community that makes it harder for blind people to interact will naturally create blind people who feel more isolated”

Jasper Avenue represents our city in full. The cacophony isn’t a bug but a feature. The density, walkability, abundance of businesses, the fact that 20,000 people residents share the space is what makes our neighbourhood livable. That’s part of why Workman moved here, but it’s also part of what brings thousands of us here from other cities, or from rural and suburban communities. Downtown, we’re connected by what we have in common; what makes it livable for Workman makes it livable for the rest of us, too. 

Of course, cities can be lonely, too— and more so for people with disabilities. People who are blind are more than three times as likely to experience depression. A community that makes it harder for blind people to interact will naturally create blind people who feel more isolated. “But these things aren’t inevitable,” Workman says. “That’s why we have to change our environment to make them less likely. That’s evidence for why we need to act.” 

It’s difficult to build better communities, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as automatic doors and tactical strips, or not assuming someone with a disability is less capable. Oliver, the centre of a flourishing, young, multicultural city, is more than just a neighbourhood: It’s a promise to be inclusive and respect each other while living in close quarters. Someone saying “Considering you’re blind” breaks that promise. When Workman advocates for a more accessible neighbourhood, or when he responds to a crass comment, he’s not asking anyone to bend over backwards to accommodate him. He’s reminding us that every citizen, without fail, has a right to these streets, these services, this community, and the dignity that comes with it—and that once we realize we’ve broken that promise, we have two choices. We can give up, but it’s easy to give up. Why not live up to it instead?