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Shaping Saskatchewan: Ashley Nemeth

Click to play video: 'Shaping Saskatchewan: Ashley Nemeth' Shaping Saskatchewan: Ashley Nemeth
WATCH: Ashley Nemeth has long been a voice for change and the importance of her work has been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ashley speaks with Daniella Ponticelli in this week's Shaping Saskatchewan – Oct 15, 2021

Advocacy is more than a job for Ashley Nemeth, it’s a way of life.

The Indian Head, Sask., woman was born with albinism, which left her legally blind. She was able to make out colours and outlines without fine details until she lost the remainder of her sight as an adult. Now, she perceives only small amounts of light.

Read more: Shaping Saskatchewan — Jason Mercredi

It’s an experience the 37-year-old opened up publicly about on a personal blog starting in 2014, educating others to dispel harmful misconceptions.

“(People think) that you can’t be a parent or you can’t have a successful career or go to school and get a post-secondary education, all of those types of things. Can’t be a mother. Those are the ones that I face the most,” she said.

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“I hope that through the work that I do, that youth, or anybody, even an adult who loses their vision, can look at my life and say, ‘It is possible. I can be successful. I can live the life that I want.’”

Click to play video: 'Alberta man born legally blind gets his driver’s licence' Alberta man born legally blind gets his driver’s licence
Alberta man born legally blind gets his driver’s licence – Jul 23, 2020

For the last five years, Nemeth has worked for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). She is the manager of programs and operations for CNIB Saskatchewan, and program manager for CNIB Manitoba.

“We run quality of life programming on the foundation side and also do a lot of work in the advocacy department,” she said.

“We’ve actually been able to start from scratch with advocacy and now we’re seeing some difference being made – those are the things that I’m most proud of.”

Nemeth said her relationships with various levels of government have helped with recent progress, such as pushing for bylaws to mandate that property owners shovel nearby sidewalks during winter.

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Read more: Inspirational leaders Shaping Saskatchewan

“(For) people who are blind or partially sighted, once the snow falls, everything that they use to navigate their space disappears,” she said. “All the curb cuts are gone. All of those things that they use to navigate are completely gone. It creates isolation and barriers.”

Isolation is still a major concern for people in the blind community as the COVID-19 pandemic made navigating life — especially six feet apart, without touching — challenging.

However, Nemeth also noted some positive outcomes that came from people of all abilities needing alternative access to services.

“We’ve seen an increase in businesses offering things like delivery or online ordering,” she said, adding in most cases people have been more accommodating overall.

“We’ve also seen more workplaces going to working remotely. A lot of the time transportation is a barrier for someone who’s blind, so being able to work from home can also increase their ability to work in general.”

Blind community an ‘untapped resource’

Another aspect of her advocacy is workplace inclusion. Nemeth said she works with businesses as part of the CNIB’s Come to Work programs, to show them what’s possible.

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“The blind community is really an untapped resource for a lot of businesses out there,” she said, noting there is still hesitancy to hire.

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CNIB offers first employment skills camp, advocacy training for teens entering workforce – Jul 7, 2020

“A lot of it is around just the unknown and the fear of they don’t know how they would possibly accommodate someone who’s blind or partially sighted.”

Nemeth said business owners often think it costs thousands of dollars to make necessary accommodations, when in reality it doesn’t.

She said it can be as simple as putting a screen reader on a computer.

“People who are blind or partially sighted are very educated and knowledgeable and willing to work and can be a really great resource for a lot of companies.”

Read more: Shaping Saskatchewan — Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway

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Nemeth said she leads with education as a way to choose kindness and compassion, with the belief that once people understand the barriers for the blind community, they can educate others and make change.

Nemeth said while she will keep advocating, the ultimate goal would be to work herself out of a job.

“My hope is that with this work eventually people will not have to face those barriers and we don’t have to advocate anymore,” she said.

“That’s probably a little unrealistic, but hopefully that’s the case.”

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