I was born with visual impairment. My eyesight is ten percent of normal. At work in the Commons, I cannot see if my House Leader is signalling me though he sits five desks down the row; messages have to be sent by relay. I could tell if Stephen Harper took his seat across the chamber; I recognize his hair and mannerisms, but could not tell if he was wearing glasses or smiling. I am legally blind.
As a former athlete I’ve represented our country and stood at the podium proudly. I first swam competitively at age 12. My first medal was bronze at the 1988 Seoul Paralympics; I worked hard and won two more in Barcelona in 1992.
I was born in Calgary; my family moved to Langley, British Columbia when I was young. Counsellors wanted to enroll me in a school for the blind, but my parents refused. They wanted me to learn how to navigate the sighted world, starting with public school. My parents were very determined. Dad was a lawyer; my mother was a collection agent, and the nicest debt collector you’ll ever meet.
I was not one of the pretty girls. Classmates teased me because I had to hold textbooks close to read them. The bullying did not define me. I was drawn to sports instead. In high school I’d put in a morning training session, then a full day of classes, then return to the pool in the evening. It was swimming, school, swimming, homework – all the way through high school. I loved sports and competed in soccer and downhill skiing. The discipline of training and academic studies put me on the Dean’s List at Simon Fraser University. You turn weakness into strength.
I earned my law degree at the University of Victoria. At my law practice I learned it was best to tell clients right up front about my blindness. People accept disabilities. I used bright yellow note paper and large print font to get the job done. Clients understood.
Campaigning for Parliament posed new challenges. At Liberal Party events I would apologize to people, “I may not recognize you next time we meet.” I did not want to appear aloof or indifferent. When door-knocking, I could not always see the steps or the house numbers, but once I met voters I’d tell them upfront I was visually impaired. People invariably were kind and empathetic.
Once at an all-candidates’ meeting I’d asked that a questionnaire be printed in 14-point font so I could see the text. The print was in small, indecipherable print instead. What could I do? I asked my opponent to read the first question out loud in front of the audience. Worried that I might appear ill-informed or poorly prepared, I did my best to answer the questions as they were read out. People understood. I became the first visually impaired MP elected to the Commons.
As a member of cabinet, can I answer questions in the Commons? Of course. I’ll take the first one on the list.
(Editor’s note: Ms. Qualtrough is Minister of Employment and a former paralympian. Her commentary was first published March 27, 2016)