I recently came to know of Lois Strachan when she appeared as a guest on the Travel Chat Show on Hashtag Radio. After we too were hosted on the show, speaking about the work we do, Lois and I connected on social media. After following each other’s work for a while, it became more and more apparent that we share a similar vision for creating awareness and access to information for both travellers and service providers, and so we arranged to meet in person and discuss ideas of a collaboration. Lois kindly agreed to share about herself, her work and her beautiful guide dog, Fiji, who we also had the pleasure of meeting, in our interview series, so without further ado, please meet Lois!
Please give us an introduction to yourself
I’m a speaker, author, blogger, travel writer, disability advocate, and sometime rock musician who is committed to showing that disability doesn’t mean inability. I lost my sight at the age of 21 when I was in my final year of a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of KZN. A week after being declared blind I joined a rock band. Two weeks later I returned to university and completed my degree while learning the techniques I’d need to live as a blind person in a sighted world.
Since losing my sight I’ve learned that the question is not whether I can do something, but how I can do it. I’ve learned that having a purpose to keep me moving forward is the best way for me to overcome those inevitable challenges that we all face. And I’ve learned that no-one can define my boundaries and stop me living the life I want, unless I allow them to do so –that I am accountable for my own journey, my attitude and my success.
Kindly share a bit about your work as a speaker, writer and all the other roles you take on.
Most of the work I do as a speaker, blogger, author and disability advocate is to help people understand some of the tools and techniques that are available to help me, and others with a disability, live a full and productive life.
As a disability advocate, I work with companies to increase inclusion and employability of persons with disabilities into the workplace – I help customer service teams learn how to engage with a customer with a disability, assess company’s websites and online resources to ensure screen reader accessibility, and provide team sensitization to facilitate the inclusion of persons with disabilities into the workplace. I also consult to organisations to help them understand what accommodations and technologies are possible to facilitate universal access.
As an inspirational speaker I use my own story to illustrate techniques to help audiences overcome life and business challenges. I also use my experiences to entertain and inform audiences of a little of what is possible for someone who is blind.
As an author, blogger and travel writer I strive to encompass aspects of all these activities. It is only when people understand how we accomplish tasks that we will begin to significantly impact levels of inclusion and integration of persons with disabilities into society and the workplace.
What was the inspiration or motivation for writing your books
The Missy Mouse books were written many years ago as a way for me to practice using a computer and screen reader. It was only when a friend introduced me to an illustrator that I realized I had a marketable product that could help children understand that a blind person is simply a person who does things in a different way.
A Different Way of Seeing was inspired by one of my speaking mentors who felt that audiences might miss the power of the message I could offer them because they might find it hard to understand the techniques I use to accomplish tasks without sight. I try to answer some of those questions while also sharing some of the experiences of things I’ve done since becoming blind.
We’d love to know a bit about Fiji – how long has she been with you, did she step straight into her role as your partner or did it take time for her to adapt to a new home? Does she have favourite places to visit with you?
Fiji and I started working together in March 2017, when she was a mere 18 months old. Fiji was already trained when we were partnered – the 2 week class run by the SA Guide-Dogs Association is there to teach the human partner how to work with and care for their new guide dog, and to start building the bond that is the foundation of their partnership. The longer the partners work, the stronger that bond grows. By now Fiji and I work well together, with us knowing how to read signals from one another to be an effective team. Fiji adores working and is always keen to go out and about with me, whether we’re walking one of our familiar routes or if we’re exploring a new place or environment. She also loves meeting people and is a real charmer when she is out demonstrating the value of a service animal. She is naturally curious so is happy to go pretty much anywhere.
What are your favourite things to do and experience or your hobbies and interests?
I love travelling, both locally and internationally and take almost any opportunity of experiencing new places and new cultures. I’m an avid reader and usually have several books stored on my ebook reader. I have always loved music and both listening to music and performing my own music as a singer/songwriter are big parts of my life. I enjoy cooking for other people though seldom make anything fancy if I’m cooking just for myself. And I enjoy connecting with people on social media, though I admit I sometimes struggle to find time to really stay in touch with everyone.
What are the most common access challenges you face when travelling, eating out or participating in activities?
I think access is less of a challenge for someone with a visual impairment than for someone with a mobility impairment. Obviously getting around can be difficult, as can accessing the information I need – like reading menus, instructions, and finding my way round sites. But nowadays technology makes even these access challenges less of a problem for me.
Do you generally find people helpful when you are faced with an access challenge at an establishment?
Generally I find that people are very willing to accommodate my needs and it’s simply a question of discussing what options are available and working with the venue/site to find a solution. I find it works best to approach access issues with the mindset that it will be possible to find a mutually acceptable solution rather than being confrontational.
How do you currently find information on accessible places to visit?
Since access isn’t as much of an issue for me as a blind person I’ve seldom had the need to check accessibility of a site. If I feel an activity may not be safe for my guide dog I’m able to leave her at home and get help from a sighted guide instead. Having said that, I definitely feel that a central resource with accessibility information would be hugely valuable for those of us with disabilities and would definitely subscribe to such a service.
Are you quite spontaneous in trying new places or does the thought of facing accessibility hurdles deter you from visiting places that aren’t specifically advertised as accessible?
I’m very comfortable heading out to explore places I haven’t been before – maybe I take after my guide dog in that respect!
Can you please share a bit about a few of your favourite places to visit that is/are accessible for your needs and where you can really enjoy a day out, a meal, or a comfortable night’s accommodation.
I’m always keen to explore any experience that allows me to engage with my other senses, so I’m pretty much happy to try out anything, anywhere.
What is one activity that you would like to do that you currently don’t think is possible because of accessibility challenges?
I can’t think of any right now, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any.
How likely are you to travel more if you knew that most places you visit will be able to accommodate your access needs?
Hard to answer since access is seldom a barrier to my ability to travel.
If every establishment that is not yet accessible could start with just one adjustment, where should they start?
I think training on how to assist persons with disabilities is a great place to start. If those running sites had a better understanding of how to assist a person with a disability it would make any interaction a lot easier – in finding ways to accommodate those with special needs, in what accommodations would be of help, and in easing some of the anxiety that a staff member may feel when engaging with a person with a disability.
What is your tip / trick / or advice for other people who are hesitant to travel or try new adventures because of the fear of their access needs not being met?
Do your research – discover what accessibility obstacles you may encounter and what accommodations the site/activity is able to make to meet your needs. Above all, don’t dismiss the possibility that you may be able to do something until you’ve researched it.
What is something you would love to see change with regards to the way the world responds to or provides for disability?
I’d like for people to have a better understanding of what it’s like living with a disability so they could better understand our needs and challenges. If people had a better understanding of why we need certain accommodations and how they help us, it would be easier to motivate for correctly implemented accommodations.
Where can people find you online to connect with you?