Frances Cutler, 71, is a Kitchissippi resident who has devoted much of her life to changing people’s perception of the term “legally blind.”
“It’s a very misleading term, I don’t like the term at all,” says Cutler, who although being legally blind herself, still has a surprising range of vision.
“I can see everything in this room,” she explains. The living room of her Hamilton Avenue home is lit by a bay window and beautifully adorned with artwork and a large bouquet of roses left over from her fiftieth anniversary with her husband, Maurice, just last week. “But if I fixate on that painting, it disappears into the cream coloured wall,” she says.
“I’m using the outside of my vision, peripheral vision,” Cutler explains as she moves her eyes constantly to keep my face visible. “The cone cells, the ones that provide the detailed, center vision are dead.”
It is a condition so rare that most Ophthalmologists would only see one or two cases in their lifetime. In most cases vision loss sets in during early adolescence, Cutler was fortunate to maintain most of her sight until her mid 20s.
In spite of her vision loss, Cutler was able to complete her education and begin a prestigious career as a broadcast journalist with CBC Radio. A position she held until the mid 90s, contributing documentaries and current affairs reports to such programs as Capital Report, a precursor to the current program, The Sunday Edition.
In the early 80’s Cutler felt a calling to use her experience, education and skill as a communicator to help others who are affected by vision loss. She began volunteering at the local level with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and began a journey of outreach and advocacy that has lasted through to the present day and will continue, it seems, for as long as she is capable.
“When I found the combination of low vision aids I had, I realized how hard it was for me to get that information, what would it have been like for anyone without that level of education and awareness,” says Cutler.
Her arsenal of visual aids has increased over the years and range from low to high tech. A monocular with eight times magnification hangs from her neck, used to define bus numbers and street signs. In her pocket is a powerful magnifying glass that allows her to read text in a magazine when held close to her face.
High contrast text seen through a magnifying lens is the only way for most people with limited vision to be able to read. “Magnification is the key,” says Cutler.
Upstairs, Fran shows me her collection of high-tech gadgets and monitors. Her primary reading tool is a CCTV unit that projects text from a newspaper or any other printed medium onto a large screen where she can adjust the magnification and apply a range of high-contrast filters such as black on white or yellow on black. This allows her to read any font at any size.
Cutler’s experience with the CNIB took her all the way to a position as Chair of the National Board of Directors for the organization from 2000-2003. It was an exciting time, as breakthroughs in technology swept through the world, the opportunities for the CNIB to help their clients – numbering over 150,000 – became even more abundant.
“As technology has become more available and more refined, I’ve realized that technology is the key to independence for people with vision loss,” says Cutler. She recalls a quote from Jim Sanders, former CEO of the CNIB who was also blind, as he addressed those who had sight, “For you the information revolution makes access to information easy and fast, for me, it makes it possible.”
“The CNIB can provide the tools and skills for people with vision loss to live their lives with dignity and independence, and genuine joy,” says Cutler. “When you lose your vision you lose more than just the sight, you lose your self-esteem, it’s a big shock for anybody. The CNIB is there to help people with vision loss to achieve their goals.”
For much of the 90s Cutler worked simultaneously with the CBC in addition to her volunteer role. She spent the later part of her career in broadcasting, mentoring young journalists and working with the CBC to make the workplace more accessible for people with all forms of disability.
Where Fran really shines is on the advocacy and policy level, she is a strong communicator who seems truly without fear. “I’ve taken on Census Canada, Elections Canada and Elections Ontario to make sure that the voting experience is accessible and independent for anyone with any degree of vision loss,” she says. She was also involved in the program that made descriptive video for movies and television programs mandatory through the CRTC.
It is for these decades spent devoting her own to life to enriching the lives of countless others that Cutler was recently honoured with the appointment of Officer of the Order of Canada. This honour is presented to individuals who have demonstrated an outstanding level of talent and service to Canadians. Fran’s name is added to an extensive list that features musicians, doctors, scientists and heroes.
“I received a phone call about six weeks ago from Government House to tell me I had been appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for my work developing and mentoring broadcast journalists and for helping to make the workplace more accessible, also for my work with CNIB and the National Broadcast Reading Service,” she said. “The recognition is overwhelming, I must say, I’m finding it all exhilarating.”
Cutler feels that this recognition belongs not only to her, but to all the other volunteers that take on such vital tasks as reading to the elderly, or helping people with tasks like grocery shop or driving. “It’s a recognition of the importance of that work in the community,” she says.
Even into her seventh decade, Cutler is still doing advocacy, “There are still barriers to be broken down, still work to be done,” she says proudly.
There are two pieces of advice that Cutler offered, for those living with disability and those trying to make our city an easier place to live for everyone.
For people with disabilities, she says, “Eating right and keeping in good shape is very important, otherwise you don’t have the physical and emotional resilience as you go through the day to react to unfamiliar situations.”
And to business owners, members of government or anyone who contributes to public space there is one simple message to keep in mind when preparing signage, menus or any printed information, “Bigger, brighter, bolder.” It’s a small consideration that can go a long way for so many people.