I met Cathy Browne first through my boyfriend and the magic of Facebook. We were fast friends and I have always found her to be a source of light, thoughtfulness and compassion. She is a blind photographer, standup comedian, seasoned PR pro, radio show host, foodie and disability advocate. She’s photographed Oprah, met Joe Biden and Vincent Price. She took the time to speak with me and agreed to be my feature this week. I could not be more delighted. Here are some of the wonderful moments and nuggets of gold from our conversation:
Q: So, you’ve done a lot in terms of advocacy for people with disabilities, in the Lower Mainland, and beyond with your online advocacy and your in person work. What are you most proud of?
A: The education component is huge. Because, you know, it’s not only giving people facts and figures, it’s also teaching the truth. And the attitudinal barriers are often even more daunting than the physical one… if I can change one person’s perspective, it means something, because there’s a ripple effect associated to that…
You’re always educating, even if you don’t even know it… For me, a personal achievement was just finishing this Wingspan project which had six disabled artists in in residence in schools across the lower mainland. And I was one of them three weeks I taught, I taught about 125 grade schoolers photography… We have people with disabilities actually talking about their lives and demonstrating their art…
For me, it was really special to see the kids that were described to me as, as perhaps being the most, quote, problematic, were the ones who really latched on to this, and really, really produce some of the best photography, that you know, that that I’ve, that I’ve seen in kids that are 10, 11, 12 years old.
It was really kind of neat, because 40 odd years ago, I applied for a teaching degree was refused on the basis that they said, I couldn’t teach normal people. So it totally changed the trajectory of my life, because that’s what I imagined I would do. But then went into went into communications, but you know, we’re always kind of teaching, but this was my first time teaching in a classroom. And I said to the kids, “Don’t ever give up on a dream, because things can happen, it may take a while. But they can happen. And you know, I’m proof.”
On being an advocate:
I take a great deal of pride in just being able to be part of a community that needs to be heard. And sometimes people don’t have their own voices. Sometimes people, don’t feel that they can speak out. But as long as I can, I will in some way, shape or form continue to speak out. Because others can’t.
Q: What drew you to photography? And how has your experience with your vision impacted the kind of art that you produce?
A:I did tech PR for a while years and had opportunity to actually go to a conference in Taiwan, and Japan and ended up thinking to myself that I would not just go there and take the same old temple, I would actually try to tell a story with every photo I took. And so I think that started the kind of thought process that I tried to put in to my photography and really be conscious of what you’re taking in and, and actually convey a feeling or, an emotion or just acknowledging that something is going on. But also for me, photography is also kind of my memory bank, since I don’t really see what I’m taking in detail, I can go back and then look at something and pick up all kinds of detail I didn’t know was there. And sometimes those accidental photos become the best photos. And but it’s my memory bank. And that’s why my photography is so important to me.
The other turning point was after my husband died in 2011, he had been had heart problems for over two decades… Emerging out of that situation and saying, “You know what? I’ve got to rediscover me.” And that was one of the ways of rediscovering me and what I was capable of doing.
On portrait photography:
I don’t do a whole lot of portraits. I don’t like people posing because people become different when they pose, they don’t become themselves. They become what they think you want and that’s not what I like to take pictures of. I like to capture those fleeting moments. I like to get something that no one’s even aware of.
On rebuilding her life as a widow:
I was already a widow for a few years and I basically said, “Okay, this is the decade that I remember, as a kid, of everyone being old.” And I said, “This is my decade to do things I haven’t done before”. So in the past five years, I’ve done improv, I’ve done stand up. I photographed Oprah, I photographed people I never even thought I would meet.
Q: How can we as parents, support our kids in learning more about the experience of people with disabilities? How can we help them have respectful and meaningful interactions and support their learning?
A: Let them ask whenever they want. Because so often, and it’s an experience that a lot of my disabled friends have and talk about, that a kid will come up and say, you know, “Why are you in a wheelchair? or Why do you have this cane?” questions like that. And the parent will just sort of shut them up and call them away. I think let them ask. Let us answer. Let us reassure the kid and the parents, it’s okay. To do that. I think that’s a real big start.
I think what happens as we get older that all the curiosity kind of is birthed out out of us, and we become all this politically correct stuff. And you shouldn’t say things and you shouldn’t ask. And I really think that that the honesty, and in the curiosity the kids convey is something we should all have. I mean, people ask questions all the time, ask them, if it’s not appropriate, we’ll say so. If it’s something we don’t want to answer we’ll say so. But don’t just pull the kid away and tell them not to do that. I think it takes away from the educational process.
The other thing I would say is you can be inspired by somebody, somebody can inspire you to do different things. But don’t put the label on them. A lot of people hate being called an inspiration. Because suddenly it’s not an active verb. It’s a sign on your neck. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a huge difference….A lot of people call it inspiration porn… I don’t use that kind of language, but I just like to encourage people to be active in how they describe things.
On living with an invisible disability:
I remember being on the SkyTrain once and and I was tired and a young girl was sitting in the disabled seat. And I said, “I’d like that seat.” She says, “Why are you disabled?” I said, “Well, actually, I’m a blind senior. So I think I count for both.” And she said, “No way.” She said, “You look too good.” I said, “Ah, then disabled people are supposed to look pathetic, and sad.” She said, “Oh, yeah…” I said, “No, no, no.” So anyway, she got up, I got the seat then I schooled her about three stops. She actually thanked me at the end…
Q: What’s the biggest misconception people have about blindness?
A: That every was totally blind. That everyone everyone is fitting a stereotype of some sort…Probably about 85 to 90% of all people who are legally blind have some kind of sight Whether it’s light perception or the ability to see shadows or the ability to make things out maybe in a very close distance.
As I said in my stand up, “I’m not your typical blind person, at least what you think might be a blind person, you know, I don’t wear dark glasses. I don’t have a dog. I don’t use a white cane. And I have no musical talent.”
I think the misconception about disability generally, is that people are unfulfilled, sad, angry. And incapable.
On the value of human connection:
Every single contact is is meaningful, whether or not whether or not it’s just because you get to know them as wonderful people or something happens out of them, or there’s opportunities or you have opportunities for them.
I’m so grateful Cathy took the time to speak with me and share from her experiences. She adds so much to my life, to her community and to the world at large.
Here are some examples of Cathy’s work, she’s so talented! You can find more of her work on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/gp/cathybrowne/P43L48