From small town to big time, Penny Hartin who started out as a girl with low vision from a small town in Canada is now an advocate for the rights of blind and low vision persons around the world. During her career Ms. Hartin has been to all continents (except Antarctica) and has visited about 30 countries.
I am a firm believer that one should take the opportunities offered through life and I can truthfully say that I have never regretted seizing those opportunities. I also believe that we should utilize the tools and resources that will make our lives easier and more fulfilling, but I must admit that I have not always practiced this to the extent that I should have. Age and experience have, I think, brought with them some wisdom in that respect.
Having been born and raised in a small rural community about 200 kilometres north of Toronto and being the only one of five children with a visual impairment, I learned early that I would need to become both well educated and fiercely independent if I were going to succeed. Attending a regular school, that meant working very long hours to learn the material, as in my mind I had to graduate at or near the top of the class in order to be accepted at university with my visual impairment. It also meant participating in many extracurricular events in order to prove that was possible. I used the same approach at university.
As a person with very low vision, I tried to do everything with the vision I had, and in fact can read print with very strong magnification, held at nose level. Through my studies and during the early years of my career, I only used print, of course preferring large print if I could get it. I found cassette tapes to be so very frustrating, that I was willing to struggle with my low vision and print in order to avoid using them – not sure which was least effective. And when I started to use computers, I only considered using large print and felt that speech would not be that useful for me. I first began to use speech when I was introduced to the speech component of Zoomtext which I had already been using for large print access. That provided such a wonderful combination of using speech for larger documents but still provided access to large print. For books, I tended to try to use large print whenever possible. That changed when DAISY recordings became available. As I indicated earlier, I simply would not use cassettes, but found the DAISY books opened up a whole new world for me. I could find my place again (if, for example, I fell asleep reading), I could jump to sections of a book or magazine, I could read outside. And now with the new DAISY players, I can load several books and have unlimited choice and reading availability at my fingertips while on long flights. That has been an evolution for me but an important one in learning to take advantage of resources that truly can make a difference.
Harnessing the appropriate tools and resources and taking advantage of opportunities presented have been critically important to me in my professional life as well as my personal life. I had the opportunity to work for some 27 years with the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) in a variety of management positions and in five provinces. The opportunity to get involved with blind women's issues at the international level and to represent CNIB within the World Blind Union prepared me to utilize my management and international experience when I was recruited as the first Chief Executive Officer of the WBU International office which was established in Toronto in the fall of 2006. The World Blind Union is the internationally recognized voice of blind and low vision persons at the global level, and has members in about 180 countries. I aim to share my skills and experience to help build an organization that effectively advocates on behalf of blind and low vision persons and that brings together resources of benefit to all. It is important to me that all persons who are blind or low vision from every country of the world feel a part of the organization and that it is relevant to them, and that all of our members, whether they be organizations providing services to blind persons, organizations of blind persons, or organizations that are engaged in specific areas of interest to blind and low vision persons, also feel that same relevance and engagement.
I think that I must use the opportunities I have to share what I can with others when I travel to their countries and regions. I endeavour to be a strong advocate personally for the rights of those of us who are blind or low vision. I certainly have had to be a strong advocate over the years in order to access education or other services I needed. Now that I use a guide dog I have realized that advocacy can take on a whole new meaning. Being informed about one's rights, being able to articulate those rights in a friendly yet firm way will generally have the right result. And through it all, it does help to keep a sense of humour.