International Women’s Day 2021
In celebration of International Women’s Day I would like to share the stories of five inspirational women. A woman who campaigned for the rights of disabled people, women’s suffrage, labour laws and world peace, a woman who escaped slavery then helped 300 others find freedom, a woman at the forefront of artificial intelligence, developing technology to improve the lives of blind and visually impaired people, a woman who became an international prima ballerina and a woman who won a gold medal for alpine skiing. These women are from different times in history, different cultures and their achievements are as diverse as they are great, so in some ways they couldn’t be more different. But they have this in common, they are all strong, inspirational women who are visually impaired or completely blind.
This year the theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. Sometimes, women are challenged simply because they are women. Frequently, blind women are challenged because they are blind women. But strong, blind women choose to challenge every day. They challenge boundaries perceived by others, stereotypes, uninformed opinions and their own insecurities. They are overlooked and underestimated. A great many things such as these, pose a challenge to women, blind or sighted, but the blind women I’ve met choose to face these challenges head on. Strong, blind women need to build each other up, support each other and inspire each other. Here are five blind and visually impaired women, historical and current, who do just that.
1. Helen Keller, USA (1880-1968)
One of the most famous ladies on our list, Helen became deaf and blind following an illness in early childhood. Under the tutorage of another inspirational visually impaired woman, Anne Sullivan, Helen learned to communicate and pursued her education at specialist and mainstream schools to become the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. Helen worked for the American Ferderation of the Blind and travelled the world advocating for those who were blind and vision impaired. Helen also campaigned for the rights of disabled people, women’s suffrage, labour laws and world peace. She also authored 14 books, the most famous of which is her autobiography, ‘The Story of My Life’.
2. Harriet Tubman, USA (1822 – 1913)
Harriet was born into slavery and suffered a head injury that left her almost blind. Despite this, she managed to escape slavery and go on to live an inspirational life. Over 10 years, she helped lead 300 enslaved people to freedom in her role as a Conductor for the ‘Underground Railway’, a network of routes and safehouses used by slaves to escape to freedon. Harriet was active in the American Civil War, going from nurse to spy and armed scout. She later also campaigned for women’s suffrage.
3. Alicia Alfonso, Cuba (1920 -2019 )
Alicia became visually impaired at the age of 19. She moved to New York City and trained as a ballerina with The School of American Ballet. With no peripheral vision and only partial vision in one eye, Alicia became a principal, and her portrayal of Giselle shortly after losing most of her vision is widely renowned. She enjoyed a long, successful career after vision loss set in. She was also a wife, mother, choreographer, teacher and founded her own ballet company in Cuba.
4. Chieko Asakawa, Japan (1958 – )
Dr Asakawa is known for her contribution to accessibility in technology. She lost her vision in an accident when she was 14. After completing a computer science course for blind people, she started working at IBM where she she embarked upon her remarkable journey, improving accessibility for blind and visually impaired people. She is responsible for the first web-to-speech browser, which gave blind people practical, independent internet access for the first time. Fast forward 20 years and Dr Asakawa’s focus has turned to using AI to develop assistive technologies such as NavCog, an app that uses micro-mapping to help blind and visually impaired people navigate their environment, particularly in complicated indoor spaces.
5. Kelly Gallagher, Northern Ireland (1985 – )
Kelly has oculocutaneous albinism and is viduslly impaired. After earning a degree in mathematics from the Uniiversity of Bath, she decided to pursue a career as an alpine skier. At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, Kelly won Britian’s first ever Paralympic gold medal. Since then, she received an MBE and continues to achieve success in her career.
Be inspired, whatever your dreams
There were so many women to choose from for this list and I tried to choose women from different eras who faced different challenges to achieve their individual goals. I wanted to convey that the interests, ambitions and challenges of blind women are as wide ranging as those of our sighted sisters.
These women are indeed inspirational and their successes should be a reminder of what we can achieve as women. However, not all women want to change the world or achieve on an international stage. This isn’t about comparison, it’s about instilling confidence. It‘a about reminding us we can achieve our goals, even if it seems like a mountain to climb. What do you really want? Perhaps you actually do want to climb a mountain. Maybe you want to travel, apply for a job you really want or advocate for those who need a voice. Or perhaps you want to find your own voice, help a friend in need, be a good mother, grow vegetables or make time to read more on a topic you’re passionate about. Whatever it is, big or small, women, blind women, sighted women, have been achieving throughout history. The secret to this pattern is women take inspiration from women before them and around them.
Women inspiring women
Let’s continue this pattern of women inspiring women, lift each other up and let our actions reflect our dreams. Women should help women and remember to lead by example. My Dad once said ‘build your table longer, don’t build your walls higher’. If you are in a position to do so, lift another woman up. If someone is struggling don’t keep them down or block them out to elevate yourself, give them a seat at your table and help them achieve.
I have an inspirational friend who runs her own company and a large proportion of her employees are women who need flexibility. They might have children or other commitments. The team work flexible hours, some part time and remotely, from different continents. As a result of her hiring choices my friend enjoys working with a talented, dedicated team who ensure her business goes from strength to strength. She doesn’t hire them to meet a quota or tick a box- they’re just really good at what they do.
Let our actions speak
Progress isn’t just about legislation, statistics and conversations that don’t include us. Sometimes, it’s about how we choose to behave. Maybe you don’t own a business and you don’t need to hire people. Maybe you’re a teacher, a mother, or an aunt, with an audience to inspire. Maybe you don’t feel you have a platform to inspire change at all. But we can all find a way to advocate for our fellow women if we remember to let our beliefs shine through in all we do. It can be showing compassion and kindness, strength and courage in our every day lives. If our actions reflect what we believe, we are leading by example. So sisters, let’s show the world, and more importantly, let’s show our daughters, the blind and sighted women of the future, what can be achieved if we #ChoiseToChallenge.