Reporting a story when you're blind has its advantages, journalist says
By Louise Kinross
Meagan Gillmore is a Toronto journalist. Her recent Broadview feature on young disabled Canadians living under onerous pandemic restrictions in long-term care homes was the magazine's most read piece in 2021. Ten years ago while a Wilfrid Laurier journalism student she won an American award for her coverage of a controversial redevelopment project in Brantford, Ont. Meagan's stories have appeared in numerous mainstream outlets since then, but when she interviews for full-time reporting gigs, they often end abruptly when she's asked if she has a driver's licence. She doesn't, because she's legally blind. We spoke about her experiences.
BLOOM: What was it like to grow up with a largely invisible disability?
Meagan Gillmore: Oh wow. You have to start with the tough ones. I was born legally blind. I have damage to my retinas acquired as a result of being born three months premature. It was all I ever knew. You've probably heard from people who are born with a disability that you're not really aware that you have one for the majority of your childhood because for you, this is normal.
My parents very much wanted to raise me like any other child. They didn't want me to be coddled because of it, which I think overall was a really healthy way of responding to it. It gets more challenging as you grow older and you realize 'Oh, there's something different about how I'm interacting with society and how society is responding to me and I don't have the words to explain it, but it's bugging me.'
BLOOM: Was it challenging when you entered school?
Meagan Gillmore: I went to a really small privately funded Christian school with smaller classes. There were only three students in my first class which was really great when you have a disability. Everyone knew me personally and the teachers knew my siblings and family. Even the philosophy of the school started with the recognition that every human being is endowed with dignity because they're made in the image of God, so that set the precedent that we don't make fun of the student with a disability. Yes, there were times classmates did things that were hurtful, but I always knew that that wasn't okay in the general culture of the school.
Because I wasn't in a publicly funded school I didn't have the same access to low-vision supports. But I always sat in a centre desk in the front row. My right eye is almost completely blind and I have most sight in my left eye. I went to a low-vision clinic at the University of Waterloo and I was encouraged very strongly to always feel comfortable to walk up to the blackboard.
I got bifocals when I was six, but I didn't realize that was abnormal till I was a teen. When I was about nine I got reading glasses and I got this other pair of glasses with thick dusty rose frames that had like a telescope on top of them so I could see the board. That was one of the times I noticed I have something different. I had some large print versions of textbooks. I had a teacher whose coping strategy was a sense of humour, and in this case that was a good thing. 'Meagan's French-English dictionary says it's the pocket dictionary,' she'd say. 'But,' because it took up my entire desk, 'it's the pocket dictionary for giants.'
BLOOM: You wrote in a piece in the Walrus about how you didn't feel like you fit in the disability community or with your non-disabled peers.
Meagan Gillmore: I had no friends with any disability and then that got tricky if you were to meet me, if I don't have my cane. You would see I have glasses and you might notice my eyes don't stay still, they're always moving and I can't look straight at things. Growing up, kids would say 'Why aren't you looking at me? You aren't looking at me.' I knew I was different, but I didn't know how to explain it and it wasn't an issue at home. I did struggle with making friends.
When I was 10 my mother enrolled me in a blind kid summer day camp, but I had the most sight of everyone there. I didn't have a sighted guide or a white cane and I didn't know Braille. I didn't have all of the markers associated with blindness. My parents used the words visual impairment. I was on the borderline. I couldn't see but I could see.
BLOOM: You're currently doing a master's degree in journalism at Carleton. What are your access needs and how well does the university accommodate them?
Meagan Gillmore: I'm more self-sufficient as an adult. I have e-Sight glasses that I've used since 2015. They look like virtual reality glasses. You have a remote control or a touch screen on the side and it magnifies things. You adjust the brightness and contrast and it's like a microscope. So I wear my accessibility aid to school. I use ZoomText on my computer. That can be a little tricky in academic settings because not all schools have assistive tech on their computers. But it's not a problem for me right now as we're online. My laptop has what I need.
I was in an audio class where we produced a radio show every week and we got the school to install a large monitor in the journalism lab so if I wanted to use it to edit with Adobe Audition, I could still use ZoomText.
BLOOM: Is it challenging to ask for accommodations like that?
Meagan Gillmore: Yes and no. This is my third run at post-secondary so I've done it before. I know the rules. You do have to learn to play the game. I was super fortunate because when I did my undergrad I didn't want any sort of disability support, and this was the cause of many fights with my parents. But I ended up at the Accessible Learning Centre at Wilfred Laurier with my mother and I literally ran into the woman who was the coordinator. My mom said 'This is my daughter, she's legally blind and she'll need to talk to you.' The coordinator said 'Why don't we do the intake appointment now?' If you believe in God, that was providential. There was no way I would have done it on my own.
BLOOM: How has vision loss impacted you as a journalist, in both positive and challenging ways?
Meagan Gillmore: Getting into the industry is really hard. Most places ask if you have a driver's licence. I've had interviews end when I say no and explain why. There still aren't a lot of journalists who have disabilities. For the people hiring, a disabled journalist is not in their picture of journalists.
BLOOM: Have you primarily worked as a freelancer?
Meagan Gillmore: Yes. You get a little more control over your work environment. But I don't think that's the answer on an industry-wide level. I'm not a fan of this idea that to get people with disabilities into full-time employment they should all work from home and start their own businesses. That's not promoting inclusion. We need to teach colleagues and managers how to work with someone with a disability.
BLOOM: What are some advantages to having a disability when reporting?
Meagan Gillmore: It can make you more accessible and approachable to people. Often my conversation starts with 'Hey, I'm lost.' One of the things I can't see without an aid is a street sign, so directions are not my friend. Having a disability breaks the ice for people. I've been told it makes me listen better, because my first way of taking in information is not visually. I'm known for doing long interviews with lots of questions. I need you to describe that setting for me.
BLOOM: I think that's interesting because when a reporter notes the visual details of a scene it's through their own subjective filter, which may be very different from how the person in the scene might describe it.
Meagan Gillmore: The piece I did for Broadview starts with a description of someone's bedroom. People have told me 'your writing is very vivid.' In that case I was doing an interview by video call and I said 'I need you to describe your room to me.' In other cases, if I'm interviewing someone in their house, I'm looking for something that's visually interesting to me. For example, if I see you have this picture on the wall, I may ask why? Tell me about that?
I think my attention to detail could be attributed to having a visual impairment.
When I was in university doing undergrad I worked for the CNIB at the Lake Joseph Centre in Parry Sound. Part of our training for working with campers with visual loss emphasized using descriptive language. For example, if you say 'over there' to someone who's completely blind, where is 'there?' 'There' is not a place. So I spend more attention to detail in my note-taking.
I'm still a recipient of the Ontario Disability Support Program. For much of my 20s, it was my main source of income. That makes me feel more prepared to write a story about poverty and financial policy. If I'm doing a story about social assistance I'll tell the person I'm interviewing 'Yea, I've received that.'
BLOOM: You said you originally wanted to be a religion reporter, but that changed when you wrote stories for your university student newspaper.
Meagan Gillmore: The reporting I did on the municipal redevelopment project was the work that won the David S. Barr award for social justice reporting. The city wanted to demolish these decaying buildings that were an eyesore. But there were people who lived there, and I was intent that their stories should be on the public record. There was a moment when I realized I'm telling the story of someone else whose story will never be told otherwise. Their story has now become important, because I've decided it's important. Every time you call someone for an interview, you're saying 'I think you matter. I'm going to listen to your story and we're going to find a way to cover it.'
BLOOM: The children's book author Jean Little was an important mentor to you. Why was that?
Meagan Gillmore: In some ways it was because her experience was so similar to mine it was creepy. She wasn't completely blind, so she understood what it was like to not fit into either group. The book I would recommend the most, if you're a parent or teacher or someone involved in the care of children with visual impairment, is Little By Little. It's her autobiography of her childhood. I read it when I was 10 and then I read it again as an adult. I found it to be one of the more realistic depictions. She's very matter of fact about disability. Some would argue it follows a medical model but I would say Jean Little was more sophisticated and she wasn't concerned about debates about the medical or social models. It's a realistic depiction of how disability can influence a person and family's lives.
BLOOM: Do you recommend her books to disabled kids growing up today?
Meagan Gillmore: They're a product of their time, so they're different than disability literature written today. One book that isn't widely known is Take Wing. I absolutely loved it. But it was written in 1968 and it uses the R-word because one of the boys has an unspecified developmental disability.
BLOOM: What advice would you give parents of children with a wide range of disabilities?
Meagan Gillmore: I'm not a parent. I would say a couple of things. Your experience of the disability as a parent is fundamentally different than the experience of your child. They are both important, they are both valuable, but they are not the same. So it might be helpful, depending on the disability and how it was acquired, if you as a parent go talk to a counsellor. Find a way to work out some of your emotions and feelings about the disability apart from your child. I think some things scare parents that don't scare children and vice versa. Your fears aren't the same.
As your child gets older you're going to have to start explaining things to them, and it's better that they hear it from someone who loves them and knows that they're capable. One of the best things my father did when I was about 15 or 16 and was applying for a job everywhere, and couldn't find a job was say: "You may not be able to work at retail because some people won't hire you because of your visual impairment. So you might have to reconsider where you're applying."
I'm a big believer in teaching kids independence. My parents went that way, and they might have gone too far. As someone who has worked with children and young adults with disabilities, and I'm not a researcher, but I'd say it's a lot easier to bring someone who is ultra independent back into the idea of interdependence than to work with someone who has learned helplessness and to explain you can do things and you're a contributing member of society.
It's empowering for children to know their medical diagnosis and how to explain what their disability is in age-appropriate language and how it impacts their life.
There's a great commercial right now for juvenile diabetes Type 1. I like it because these kids are talking about what they do in their life, and then 'Oh yea, I also have Type 1 diabetes so this is how I check my blood sugar.' It's such a fun commercial because they know about their diagnosis and what that means, but they're out there doing things.
There are some things that are going to be hard for your child with a disability that you're not going to understand. And that doesn't mean you're a failure as a parent. So give your kids some space for that. I was super fortunate in that I grew up before social media and I could journal all of my angsty thoughts. I'm a big believer in giving your kid a notebook and pen so they can write something that no one else is going to read. I still work on that as an adult.
I used to have this idea that it was wrong to feel sad about my disability. I had the best disability story ever, because my mother and I survived an emergency C-section. Kids who are born three months early don't have the best survival rate. I came home. I knew kids died and I'm alive because people prayed for us.
So when things were hard with my disability I felt it was wrong to be sad—that I was calling into question so many good things that had happened. Now I know it's a both/and situation. The disability is a part of you and a lot of good things come with that. And there are also some hard and sad things. Both can exist together at the same time.
Meagan Gillmore is the host of the AMI podcast Connecting Disability, and she's always looking for story ideas. You can reach her at email@example.com. Like this interview? Scroll down to the blue banner and sign up for our monthly BLOOM e-letter. It combines family voices, interviews with activists, clinicians and researchers, and disability news and opinion pieces.