Interview of Margaret Thomson

Interview with Margaret Thomson

August 2006

Bio: Margaret Thomson immigrated to St. John’s Newfoundland from Scotland in 1973.  In 1973- 1974, she attended university in Winnipeg where she trained as a computer programmer. She worked as a computer programmer with the Provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Later she worked with CNIB for a short time, and went on to work with the Federal Government in various aspects of Employment Equity

Margaret served on the board of COD, Civic 4, ILRC, and CNIB. She was Chair from 2001-2003 of the CNIB local division, and Past Chair from 2003-2005. She was the first female chair at CNIB in this province and served as chair of the CNIB Client services Committee for many years.

She has also served on the National Board and National committees of CNIB, and currently serves on the Board of the CNIB Library and Chairs an Advocacy committee of that Board.

Margaret has traveled all over Canada, into the U.S., to the U.K. and elsewhere - either on her own or with her guide dog. She is a very strong intelligent woman who has contributed greatly to the disability community of Newfoundland and Labrador in the past 30 plus years.

The Interview:

Interviewer:  This is an interview of Margaret Thomson for the ‘Let’s Teach about Women project.  Were you involved in activism or any community groups in the seventies and eighties?

Margaret:  When I went to university there was certainly more activism, not feminists exactly, but I certainly became much more aware of rights and became much more frank and outspoken.  Before I came here, believe it or not, I was a very quiet, shy individual in Scotland.  That was just the way I was brought up.  But I went to university on my own, out in the prairies and when you’re at university you have to fend for yourself, you really do.  You have to be much more assertive and aware of your rights and much more aware of your own safety and own dignity.

Interviewer:  Yes.

Margaret:  I think you just have to learn to take care of yourself.  That was a real time of change for me because I became much more aware of the fact that I could do this.  Before I thought I couldn’t do that by myself, travel out to Winnipeg on my own, since I had never traveled that far before. 

So I realized that if I’m going to do this I had to gain some confidence.  So that’s when that all started.It was huge for me actually because not only was I in a new country but I had gotten into a situation that I never even thought I would be able to cope with before.  At the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg I was involved in the Glee Club and various things like that and became quite a lot more independent than I had been.  I had thought that I was quite independent but when you are really on your own at university you have to look out for number one. 

Then when I came back here I started working and earning for me a reasonable salary, after having come from Britain, I felt really quite proud of myself.  I began to do a little bit of volunteer work with a little disabled child through the CNIB.  I wasn’t involved in any actual organization, I think, until later in the seventies.  I think I got involved with COD when it started.  That was then the Consumer Organization of Disabled People of Newfoundland and Labrador, now called Coalition of Persons with Disabilities- Newfoundland and Labrador. I also got involved with Civic 4 which subsequently became ILRC. 

Interviewer:  When you became involved in Civic 4 were there people living there in transition?

Margaret:  Yes, exactly.  I was secretary on the executive committee of the Board in the mid-seventies, early eighties I believe. 

Margaret:    People with disabilities who were living at Civic 4 were given the opportunity to learn to be independent themselves and then go on to do an education and so on.    And I felt that being on a Board for that purpose was interesting and beneficial to those who were living there at the time. 

Interviewer:  So it allowed them an opportunity to grow.

Margaret:  Exactly.

Interviewer:  So did you feel that you, during that time, had an opportunity to support other men and women with disabilities to empower themselves?

Margaret:  Yes, I did.  I left my job as a programmer later in the seventies and I worked with CNIB for a while.  And I would speak to schools, social workers, nurses, or different groups like that and try and explain about the problems facing people with disabilities and also about the abilities of people with disabilities. 

I also spoke a lot to parents of kids with disabilities to give them some encouragement; also to tell them that they shouldn’t really spoil their kids.  That they should allow them to grow and function in the bigger world because if they didn’t do that the kids would never flourish and have a life of their own.  So quite often I would be asked to speak to parent’s groups.  I found that quite interesting.  

One time I was involved with a smaller group of women.  I think this might have been around the beginning of the eighties when the Iris Kirby House was being built.  A few of us got together and tried to make the house as accessible as possible.

And was really interesting because the Board, if you please, at Iris Kirby House, wasn’t quite as cooperative to begin with as they might have been.  We pointed out a few things and they realized that yes, there were women with disabilities who were married also suffered the same situations as other people.  And that they would have to feel safe in going to a place and secure. 

So we pointed out ways of dealing with their particular needs.  There were three people who were actually blind on that committee and a couple of other women who were involved.  We pointed out things like supporting women in wheelchairs; and teaching them ways of showing people with vision problems the different aspects of the house.  Just to make them realize if they had someone who had a disability then all of a sudden they would have to realize ‘how do I do this’ and ‘how do I help this person.’  Because, of course, if people are in that position they’ve got more than just a disability to deal with; they’ve probably got children or just a whole load of other worries to contend with.  We made it very clear that we felt that the house should be as accessible as possible for all women.

Interviewer:  And how did it end up?

Margaret:  Well, I think it’s fairly accessible.  I’ve been involved, off and on, with Kirby House in several things and I go down every so often.  They know, I think, that they can contact various women now if they need to get any help or any assistance in particular for women with disabilities.  And I know they had some excellent volunteers.  These women, who as far as I know don’t have any disabilities and were very much aware of what we were trying to prove at the time.  And there were several women there who gave us tremendous support, I must say.

It’s just getting the word out there to the bigger society.

Interviewer:  Yes.  So were there barriers that you faced during that time?

Margaret:  Well when I left my job as a computer programmer I found it difficult to get a job and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do.  Anyway, I worked at CNIB for a while and then I applied for and got a job with the Federal government.  I was very fortunate, I must say.  There were some barriers because of the lack of technology, at the time.  But that improved over the next number of years.  There are always barriers, in that, there are people who think, ‘How is she going to do that?’ 

And there is always a doubter.  And yet I think it is up to people with disabilities to prove themselves, one hundred or one hundred and fifty percent sometimes.    They have to say, ‘Well, this is how I do it.  It may not be the same way you do it, but it’s my way, and it works.’

Sometimes it would be a simple thing. For instance you may need to put a piece of scotch tape in at a certain point on a copier machine so you’ll know where to place the end.  People who can see just press the red or yellow button but it makes no difference to someone who can’t see.  So you see, people don’t think that there are other ways of demonstrating what needs to be demonstrated.  They think only in color or a visual way but there are other ways.

Interviewer:  While you were going to university, did you run into any barriers there?

Margaret:  Oh, yes.  First of all the professors did not like that I was going to record them on the tape recorder.  ‘Well, how else am I going to take my notes?  Would you like me to come in here with a typewriter and make a lot of noise?  So what’s the alternative?’  They suggested I get someone to take my notes and I responded that I couldn’t, and that I wanted my notes to reflect the lectures as I understood what they were saying.   So some of them were fine but some of them were very upset.  Until they realized that at the end of the semester they could borrow my tapes and use them for the next semester.

Interviewer:  Are you serious?

Margaret:  I am serious.  Some professors said to me, ‘Do you still have that tape of my lecture of last semester?’ And I said, ‘Possibly, why?’  They responded that it meant that they could just put on the tape and let it run and they could be doing something else.  I said, ‘I don’t think so.’

Interviewer:  Incredible.

Margaret:  Anyway, most of the times it worked quite well until you got to the exams and then people had to first of all, read out questions to me, and then sit with me while I spoke into a tape recorder.  Or if I said I was going to type my answers they queried how I would know if I typed the correct thing.  I said, ‘I can type.’  So it was unbelievable when you think about it that that was the way people were at the university.  And I had to really insist that I have my exams put into Braille for me or on tape.  They were saying that it was easier if someone could read them to me.  But I said that it wasn’t easy for me because I wasn’t having someone looking over my shoulder while I was doing an exam.  I actually had to swear an affidavit, along with the person who was reading me the exam, that we wouldn’t communicate while she was reading out the exam until after I got my results back.  It was really and utterly insane.  Insulting was what it was. 

Interviewer:  Yes.

Margaret:  So we covered that and I eventually got my Braille exams.  On other occasions I would be locked in a room and I would be typing away until I finished my exam.  Then I had to phone the professor and say, ‘I’m finished.  Come and let me out.’  It was insane.  There could have been a fire.  It was very dangerous.

Interviewer:  Why did they lock you in a room?

Margaret:  So I couldn’t copy down the answers. In case I would go and say, ‘How do you answer this question?’  It was a sort of surreal situation at the time.  But that changed because I complained.  I’m sure I was a thorn in a few people’s sides but I didn’t care.  A few of the younger professors were quite intrigued after a while because they would put me in one room next door to another lady with a different disability and they would pop in and see us every so often.  They inquired if we were getting on alright and so on.  They still found it interesting that we would be doing an exam in a different way from the other students.  But that was the way it had to be.  If we were in a regular exam room we would be disturbing the other students.I also had to take more time to read the Braille or work out things or whatever.  They did get around to understanding it eventually. 

Interviewer:  So what do you think were some of your greatest achievements during that time during the seventies and eighties?

Margaret:  Oh gosh.  Well, looking back on it I think working full time, fully employed in permanent positions, going to university, doing French, and having a social life all at one time. There aren’t a lot of people who can do that.  I know at the end of some of the semesters I would think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ because I was tired.  When I did these courses I studied hard and I was also working full time.  That meant a lot to me because I wasn’t going to give up the job to go to university full time because I was afraid I wouldn’t get a job again.  Unless you have a permanent position with the Federal government you don’t give that up.  I’ve always been fully employed and I’m very proud of that fact.  It enabled me to really have quite a comfortable life.  So I am just so anxious when I hear about people who don’t have that luxury that I’ve had all these years. 

Interviewer:  So were you involved in other community groups at the time?

Margaret:  Not a lot because I was really busy.  As I say, I was working full time and I was doing two or three courses a week and then trying to have a bit of a life as well.  I would sometimes go to the COD and Civic 4 Board meetings and do some volunteer work for CNIB.  So there wasn’t much time for other things.

Interviewer:  When did you volunteer with CNIB?  You worked with them a little while, right?

Margaret:  Yes.  I worked for a couple of years but you can’t become a volunteer until several years after you’ve left the employment.  So I became involved in the eighties.  I was on the Division Board in total for almost 20 years.  I started as being part of a Public Relations Committee and also on a Client Services Committee. It was eventually disbanded and a few of us thought why shouldn’t we get the client services Committee restarted.  So I was Chair of that for fourteen or fifteen years.  Because of that, I was on the National Client Services Committee.  That was really interesting because we changed a few things and we got surveys done to see how clients’ expectations had changed over the years and what they were.  I am on the Library Board and I Chair an Advocacy committee on that Board.  I’ve just stepped down from the National Board which I’ve been on for three years but I’m also on another National Governance Committee at the moment. 

Interviewer:    For.  So I’m not on the divisional Board right now although I am on the Client Services Committee.

Interviewer:  So tell me about being Chair of the newly formed Client Services Committee.  What sorts of things did you do?

Margaret:  We were instrumental in getting what we called an Information Line at the time.  It was to let people know what jobs and positions were available in CNIB and also any positions that were available or suitable in the papers would be read onto our commercial line.  Then there was an information line to let people know about any meetings or different events that were taking place in the different districts in Grand Falls, or Corner Brook or St. John’s such as Rotaries or special fundraising things on the go.

There was also a newsletter at the time and we would sometimes submit articles in that encouraging people to advise us if they had any information, concerns or problems that they felt should be dealt with.  We were instrumental in promoting a complaints procedure that explained how things should be dealt with if people had any concerns.  But people were very hesitant to complain about anything. 

Interviewer:  But you also provided support to people?

Margaret:  Yes, we did.  We had peer support groups, or made follow up phone calls to consumers to see how they were doing.  Also, right now I am involved in a Braille teaching class for adults.  And I think just the fact that clients know that there are other clients who are on Boards and Committees lets them know that somebody understands; it’s not just people who are really trained as social workers or whatever; that there is somebody there who is living with the same situation as they are in to a certain extent.

Interviewer:  Yes.   What sorts of things did you do when you were involved with COD?

Margaret:   Not a lot actually.  I was on the Board for a little while but I was never really highly involved.  I always felt that I was a minority among minorities.  I know a lot of people feel that.  I know that COD is supposed to be a multi disability group but I guess there aren’t that many blind or visually impaired people involved so we felt that we were a minority within a minority, you know. 

Interviewer:  Great.  So what would you tell youth of today or the future, who are reading this?

Margaret:  Well, it’s a whole different world nowadays.  We’ve all got tremendous technology.  And of course, the education system is a bit easier.  It’s not as easy as it might be.  I think there are still delays in getting textbooks for students who are blind and visually impaired. 

But I think what I would say is stand up for your rights and if they are not sure of what their rights are they should certainly consult with someone at the CNIB or with someone at university as far as careers is concerned.  Because a lot of people do courses and they don’t know what they should be doing at the end of it.  There are many courses that are not really relevant to people with disabilities so they should get as much advice as possible about their potential career opportunities. 

Also, gain as much confidence as possible in their mobility and in their social skills.  And by that I mean knowing the appropriate dress code to wear for interviews and so on.  Of course, if you don’t see, you don’t always know these things.  But if someone doesn’t tell you that you’re not wearing the appropriate dress for whatever job you’re going for then you’ll never know.  So I think you have to learn to ask these questions.  Ask, ‘What is the dress code?’; ‘What should I wear?’; ‘What should I do?’; ‘How should I behave?’  There are just certain, very basic, social behaviors that everybody has to learn even if you don’t see them.  That’s why I think a lot of people aren’t getting positions.  They are either not as confident or socially not in tune with the real world.  Fortunately I had a very critical mother.  Even with my friends she’d say, ‘You can’t wear that’; ‘don’t do this or that.  And I think that’s what we all need:  someone to give us guidance every now and again.  I’m also fortunate that my husband is honest with me too.

 Interviewer:  So did you have anything else to add?

Margaret:  I think what I would say is that there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism or a way of people realizing that they are not the only ones going through this type of anxiety about their job or education. 

I wish there was some way that there could be more of a collective and that people would understand that they are not the only ones going through it and that there are other people out there willing to talk to them and especially listen to them.  Just so that they know that they are not alone and that there are people out there who understand. 

Because I think, particularly blind people and maybe deaf people as well, sometimes feel very much isolated. If no one is going to explain to them the appropriate mechanisms and the appropriate way of doing things or even read out things for them, they can start to think that they are the only ones this happens to.  But they are not.  And I think that’s an important fact that they have to realize.  They are not alone.  They are not the only ones to have a concern or a problem to deal with.

It’s much easier nowadays because we can read magazines and papers on the computer and so on.  Many of us have the opportunity to do that which is absolutely enlightening and wonderful.  It opens up a whole new life.  I can’t think what I would do without my email on my computer.  It has added a whole new dimension to our lives you know. 

Interviewer:  There may be women, and men, who are doing Women’s Studies courses and reading this.  Did you have anything to share? 

Margaret:  Yes, I did some Women’s Studies courses.  I found it interesting but very much as there is an old boys’ network this was the old girls’ network.  They didn’t consider people of color or disabilities or those of different gender interests and that sort of thing.  It was a very much “normal” women.  And I think that was so wrong.  I think Women’s Studies helped you expand your way of looking at things. 

Interviewer:  Do you think maybe they have? 

Margaret:  Well, I sure hope so because that’s one of the areas I worked in when I worked for the Federal government.  I worked with people in nontraditional areas; women in nontraditional jobs and visible minorities, aboriginal peoples and people with disabilities.  It was absolutely fascinating and very enlightening.  It gave a whole different perspective of life in general.

Interviewer:  Sounds interesting.

Margaret:  It was absolutely fascinating.

Interviewer:  I guess you could take things that you learned in your own life and apply that knowledge to your job.

Margaret:  Yes I did.  And also you learn not to be judgmental in any way.   It’s funny but I’d interview people on the phone and then they’d come down to the office and meet me and they’d say, ‘Oh, um, um, I didn’t know that you were blind.’  And I’d say, ‘Well, I guess I don’t sound blind, do I?’  And they’d ask if I had all the stuff they gave me over the phone and I’d say, ‘Yes, I’ve got it all in a file.’  They would not realize that the person they had been talking to was the same person as they were seeing.  It’s interesting to see.  They give a lot more away by their expressions of surprise and doubt even.

Interviewer:  Yes.

Margaret:  So you have to reassure them that, ‘Yes, I’ve got to be good at my job and if I can get you hired, well, so much the better.’

Interviewer:  I guess there are a few places where having a disability is a real plus.  The experience of it really adds to the job.

Margaret:   Yes, in that case it did actually.  I must say I was very fortunate.  Most of my co-workers understood but there were always a few that made your meetings difficult.  But that is part of life. 

Interviewer:  I guess, to every job though, what you bring is very important.  But not every employer feels that way.

Margaret:  No.  But I must say that most of the supervisors or managers that I had in the Federal government were very positive and encouraging.  As I say, there were a couple of miserable exceptions but that was there problem. 

Interviewer:  Thank you. 

Margaret:  I just hope that people can have as positive an experience of life as I have had because I’ve been very lucky in lots of ways.  I’ve done a lot of traveling and traveling on my own.  Although that can be a hassle sometimes these are things that make you grow and develop.