Ruth Bieber (rear) and her friend, Paula Harper, took a tandem bike out for a spin on a sunny Creston day last summer. (Photo credit submitted)

Meeting blindness head-on

In recognition of White Cane Week in Creston, the Advance presents a story of a life lived to its fullest.

Creston’s Ruth Bieber has spent much of her professional career in theatre. She has degrees in social work and education, founded a theatre group, published a book, travelled extensively, loves to move to new locations, and writes plays, paints, hikes, cycles and rides horses. She also became blind at the age of six.

When Bieber moved to Creston a couple of years ago, she had been living in Kelowna. She chose Creston because it is smaller and “has a lively arts community,” she said last week from Calgary, where she is staging a series of one-woman multi-media shows.

How has her most recent move worked out?

“First of all, Creston has very few sidewalks, and the ones that appear do so rather sporadically,” she said. ” Last summer, 2017, my eldest son came to visit me. He commented on this fact, but then he punctuated this by saying, ‘But the people are all so friendly and considerate!’

“For me, that is the bottom line. People in Creston are thoughtful, and really want to help whenever they can. This is very important for me, because people have always been my greatest resource toward managing my life and daily needs. It takes a village to support this blind woman!

“Also, there are a number of helpful services in Creston. The Better at Home program, together with the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy have been particularly helpful! The staff at the library are amazing, and people are generally very helpful in Creston. Last summer I was able to make use of a loaner tandem bike. It came from the BC Blind Association and is supposed to be shared within the Kootenay area. In a perfect world, I would be able to afford my own e-tandem. My plan is to ride the Danube in Europe one day before I’m too old to do so! The CNIB representative stationed in Nelson assisted with this acquisition, as well as providing some orientation and mobility training—quite the trick without sidewalks!”

She added that Creston “has the best Handy Bus system ever” and that the staff at CIBC “are the most helpful bank people I’ve ever met!”

Born and raised in Wetaskiwin AB, Bieber completed first grade with normal eyesight. During her summer vacation she developed what was diagnosed as Juvenile Macular Degeneration. By the first day of grade two, at the age of six, she was legally blind.

“That’s right, I got the old folks disease when I was a child. This is why I am determined to regain my eyesight as a senior! I’m not heading in the right direction, however, because since that original dramatic vision loss my sight has slowly and arduously deteriorated.

“When I first became legally blind at age six I retained some useful peripheral vision, which is useful for independent mobility; not so useful for detail tasks such as driving and reading.

“I didn’t start using a white cane until I was well into my 30s. Today I have light perception only, which is why I wear sunglasses all the time. Even though I can only perceive light, my eyes are extremely light sensitive. The light doesn’t help me see, it just hurts! The slow deterioration has resulted in a lifetime of constant adjustment and adaptation to new ways of coping with the world around me.”

It was s stepsister who encouraged Ruth to attend university, and she moved to attend UBC. After a year there, she moved to Greece with friends for a year, then moved to Calgary to resume her studies.

“The transfer to U of C was a shock to me, because of the dearth of supports for blind students. I spent a tremendous amount of time and energy just getting the reams of required reading put into an accessible format. Plus, I was losing a significant amount of sight each year, which didn’t help. I can’t tell you just how many wonderful volunteers came my way to get me through all that reading toward graduating with a Master of Education!”

She had first pursued a Bachelor of Social Work degree after taking the advice of a UBC councillor.

“I said sure, why not? The Master Degree was more by design, because by then I had become very interested in Disability Theatre. Theatre had been an interest all the way through school; performing in Junior High, High School, and theatre history courses in University. The notion of theatre for people with disabilities was just a natural fit for me.

“Before starting my own theatre company in Calgary called InsideOut Theatre, I was a counselling therapist. My clients were people with complex disabilities, and I was finding the traditional verbal approaches to therapy were not affective. I began turning my focus on nonverbal/non-traditional approaches, which lead me to the therapeutic arts, and ultimately my own theatre company. I loved how the work in theatre empowered people and raised community consciousness about disability. It was a true labor of love!”

It wasn’t until she began working as a councillor with young people and families that she stopped trying to avoid other people with disabilities.

“Until that time, I probably tried to hide my own disability, which is quite common with young people, and entirely unhelpful! How can we self advocate if we are trying to hide a big part of our identity? The truth is, the more I associated with others with mixed abilities, the more comfortable I became with my own. Also, life just seemed to keep pushing me in the direction of working with others with disabilities, and the rest is history.

“The work with InsideOut theatre was so powerful and fulfilling. I’ve often said, if that was my only contribution to the evolution of the planet, than I’m happy. Now, whenever I relocate, my first question is ‘Where are my people?’ By that, I mean other blind people, as well as all the artists! I love theatre, music, visual arts and dance, and I’ve been able to enjoy all this and more here in Creston!”

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