By Samantha Moore
During the first World War, Halifax Harbour acted as one of the main gathering points for Allied ships sailing to Europe. On December 6th, 1917, a relief ship departing Halifax by the name of Imo was moving too fast and passing ships on the wrong side in the narrow harbour. The Mont-Blanc, a munitions ship carrying TNT and other explosives entered the harbour and encountered the Imo in its path.
Despite trying to avoid one another, the two ships collided–causing the explosives on board the Mont-Blanc to erupt. In the streets of Halifax, falling debris blinded hundreds of commuters who were staring, stunned, at the explosions during their morning commute to work. Mothers and children watching the tragic event unfold from their windows were blinded by shattering glass caused by the shockwaves. In a city of 50,000 people 2,000 died and 9,000 were injured. Over the next two weeks, doctors and nurses removed or treated hundreds of damaged eyes. In the end, the Halifax Explosion left 1 in 50 citizens blind.
Once Halifax had begun to recover and the First World War came to an end, the community realized those who had been blinded by the explosion or by war needed more than medical attention. Slowly, resources in the community grew. Educators were sent to England to learn about how their blind veterans had been integrated back into society. Volunteers hosted outings so people could meet others like themselves and discuss different approaches to overcoming these new barriers in their lives. They attended cooking classes and mobility training to increase their independence and self-esteem.
One of my favourite takeaways from this moment in history is it shows us no matter what you’re going through, it’s always easier when you have someone to go through it with. That’s why Fighting Blindness Canada (FBC) launched the National Young Leaders Program in 2015.
The Young Leaders Program is a career-oriented initiative supporting people between the ages of 17-30 who are blind or partially sighted. The goal behind the program is to help young people build their professional and personal networks. For the last four years, FBC has been hosting its annual Young Leaders Summit in Toronto. The summit enables people living with vision loss to strengthen leadership skills, collaborate on solutions to the challenges they face in the workplace and connect with mentors.
This year, we are extremely excited to announce our first Young Leaders Summit in Atlantic Canada. The Halifax Young Leaders Summit will be held on September 14 and 15. Thanks to our sponsors at RBC Future Launch, FBC can provide travel scholarships for those attending the Summit from out of town.
In Canada 70 per cent of working-age adults who are blind or partially sighted are under or unemployed. When you’re visually impaired and fresh out of school, this is a hard statistic to hear. My first big job interview after I graduated was for an event planning company that was looking for a junior Event Planning Assistant/Designer. The interview went extremely well–until I decided to disclose my visual impairment.
Although I’m not legally obligated to, disclosing my vision is something that I’ve done since Day 1. For the most part, I spent my entire childhood education working with adults that couldn’t or didn’t want to accommodate me. As a young adult, I decided that if an employer wasn’t willing to have an open mind to hire someone with a disability, then they weren’t the kind of employer I wanted to work for.
When I disclosed my visual impairment at the interview in question, the first thing out of the interviewer’s mouth was, 'Wait, really? How many fingers am I holding up?' Later in the interview, he found out that I don’t have colour vision. He then proceeded to ask me the colours of small objects around his office, including file folders, Post-it Notes and the colour of his tie. Finally, after an hour of being poked and prodded about my visual abilities and whether I was 'physically capable of working,' he told me, 'Well, you’re obviously qualified for the position. I’d love to hire you! My boss is out of town this week but she’s back in on Friday. I need to ask her if she’s comfortable hiring someone, uh, well, with your situation. Once I have an update, you’ll hear from us.' That was the last I ever heard from them. Even after I followed up with a thank you letter.
It wasn’t my first awkward experience and it certainly won’t be my last. To this day, I have no idea whether they never reached out was because of my visual impairment or not. What I do know is that my vision was something that made them change the way they looked at me as a prospective hire.
It took me a long time to figure out what worked best for me when dealing with employers. Things like when to disclose a disability and when to ask for accessible technology, or how to deal with a manager who is unhappy that they have to train someone with a disability. One of the things that made this easier for me was attending my first Young Leaders Summit. I was able to connect with mentors and peers who were going through the same thing! Meeting people from a variety of industries and experiences really helped give me a fresh perspective on how to tackle some of these challenges. I only wish I’d had access to them sooner. My hope is that as we grow the program, more young people living with vision loss will be able to access to this type of support sooner, so that they can be educated and confident when entering the workforce.
As a city well-versed in accommodating and living with vision loss, Halifax is the ideal city for our first-ever Atlantic Canada Young Leaders Summit. I look forward to meeting new participants, connecting with old friends, and learning the lessons that Halifax and its community have to offer. For more information or to attend, visit the Fighting Blindness Canada website.
Watch the AMI original documentary, The Halifax Explosion.