British Columbia

Meet 3 British Columbians shattering stereotypes about their disabilities

A blind artist, a motivational speaker who can’t speak and a young mom with arthritis: these are just three of the British Columbians shattering the stereotypes by simply living their lives.

‘Listen with an open ear and without judgment,’ says young mom with chronic illness

Eileen Davidson, who has rheumatoid arthritis, holds a skeleton hand inside the Mary Pack Arthritis Centre in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A blind artist, a motivational speaker who can't speak and a young mom with arthritis: These are just three of the British Columbians shattering stereotypes by simply living their lives. 

Richard Harlow lost most of his sight halfway through his studies at Emily Carr University in 2010 and is now legally blind. Although he stopped painting for a few years after his diagnosis of a rare vision condition, he picked it back up again recently with a renewed passion. 

"When you're a person with a disability, you have to think outside of the box," he said. 

"I'm all about breaking the rules — not breaking the law but just breaking generic rules, because, sometimes, these rules are created by able bodied people." 

Harlow makes his artwork as accessible as possible, painting with vibrant colours and different textures. He also hangs his pieces at eye-level for people with mobility devices. 

Richard Harlow paints bright, textured pieces of work that make them more accessible for others with visual impairments. (Submitted by Hayley Brown)

"I question why, in art galleries, people are not allowed to touch the art," he said. 

"[I] make paintings that are tactile so people with visual impairment can have a parallel experience at the art gallery." 

Harlow's not the only one with a stereotype-breaking career. 

Glenda Watson Hyatt, who has cerebral palsy, can't walk or speak. She uses a bright red motorized scooter to get around and an iPad to voice her words. 

Glenda Watson Hyatt, a cerebral palsy advocate, overcame her fear of public speaking in 2010 and started doing motivational keynote speeches. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A few years ago, she decided to face her fears of public speaking and become a motivational speaker. 

"I love the delicious irony of this career choice," she said.

Glenda Watson Hyatt says having to use her scooter to get around can be challenging — but struggling to communicate is that much harder. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Watson Hyatt completed her first TED talk last month. In order to get her message across, she types words into her iPad which then plays it as audio. 

"The majority of our society links the ability to speak with the ability to hear and to understand," she said. 

That's one of the issues Tuesday's International Day of Persons with Disabilities is trying to highlight. The annual event, first proclaimed by the United Nations in 1992, is a global push for more awareness and inclusion.

Glenda Watson Hyatt uses her iPad to speak. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

This year, the focus is promoting people with disabilities in positions of leadership. 

"Now is the time for people with speech and language disabilities to be equally acknowledged and accommodated, and to have a seat at the table," Watson Hyatt said. 

For 33-year-old Eileen Davidson, one of the struggles of dealing with a chronic illness is how invisible it can be to others. She has rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic auto-immune disease that's often associated with seniors. 

The list of complications and side-effects is long and wide-ranging, from debilitating fatigue and a lowered immune system to inflammation of different organs and recurring infections. 

Eileen Davidson says a common misconception about rheumatoid arthritis is that's just joint pain but, in reality, the complications are wide-ranging and can be debilitating. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"I have a lot of things going on with me, but you can't tell by looking at me," she said. 

With her flaming red hair and multiple tattoos, Davidson can seem like a live wire on first appearance. She's a single mom who still finds time to regularly hit the gym and do advocacy work. 

But that means she's often the subject of skepticism from people who don't understand the extent of chronic illness, she said. 

"Listen with an open ear and without judgment and show support, compassion and kindness," Davidson urged. 

With files from Cathy Browne and The Early Edition


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