My name is Erica Blythe, and some may know me as Erica Van de Laar. I graduated high school with a 92% average. I graduated high school in 4 years. I received a full tuition scholarship to Western University. I am a lawyer at Martin Sheppard Fraser AND I am visually impaired. I am more than my disability, and a disability does not define you. 95% of people doubted that I would be or do anything that I just stated, and those 95% had the biggest impact on my life. My goal was to prove them wrong, and to prove that I could do anything that a sighted, able-bodied person could do, and sometimes, I could do it better. If you strive to be the best version of yourself, nothing can stop you. Of course, I feared that I would fail, but I KNEW I would fail if I didn’t even try and my greater fear, was having the regret of being too afraid to try.
Hello, name is Erica Blythe, and my maiden name is Erica Van de Laar. I am a proud graduate of the Niagara Catholic District School Board. I earned a full tuition scholarship to Western University, and graduated with an honours business degree. Thereafter, I graduated from Western Law. I am now a lawyer at Martin Sheppard Fraser law firm in Niagara Falls. I am also visually impaired. What is important is that I can introduce myself and describe myself without the inclusion of my disability. My disability is a part of who I am, it is a significant part of who I am, and I am proud to be a part of the disabled community, but it certainly does not define the person I am.
Disabilities may be visible, but they can also be invisible, like mine. You wouldn’t know that I am visually impaired until I trip over a step, or knock over a wet floor sign, or fail to make eye contact or wave to you. It can be extremely challenging especially when young and wanting nothing more but to blend in and fit in with everyone else. From a young age, I often heard the words, “can’t”, “don’t”, “won’t” and “shouldn’t” in media, from friends and classmates, and sometimes even from loved ones. Those words are powerful, but overcoming them, and turning those words into, “can” and “will” is more powerful! When given the right resources and support, individuals with disabilities can and will succeed, however that looks for them. Success can be measured in so many ways. Perhaps success means becoming a professional, learning to add numbers successfully, learning life skills, or self-advocacy skills, or maybe it means finding a life partner and being truly happy. Regardless of the disability, setting attainable goals is the key. It is important for both families and staff to work closely together to provide the best support for the individual student. No one should be the result of a cookie cutter method. Just as each nondisabled student learns differently, so do disabled students.
When I was in elementary school, I was extremely shy, I was too young to know exactly what I needed and didn’t think that success was an option. I had some fantastic teachers and support staff who took the time to speak to my parents regularly, to check in with me privately, and to offer various technology to me on an experimental basis. Unfortunately, technology was not very advanced at that time. I was unable to see the board and therefore, struggled to follow lessons. Many teachers were excellent at trying to accommodate me by ensuring that their lessons were more auditory and were often willing to explain things to me during recess or lunch break. I appreciated the extra time that teachers and support staff were willing to provide for me. It wasn’t until I was in high school that my parents had learned about Smart Technology. Once this was introduced to my teachers, they were able to attach my computer to their Smart Board and for the first time, in grade 11 I saw my first math lesson. Prior to that, in algebra for example, where answers were several lines long, I had to memorize each line so that I could successfully complete the equation. I was unable to read back my own writing, so again, relied heavily on my memory. This was not only taxing on my brain power, but also my vision and I would get very tired easily. Technology was a blessing for me in so many ways. I think it is incredibly important for families, staff and students to become familiar with the various technologies available for particular disabilities.
In high school, my parents encouraged me to advocate for myself, and arrange meetings with teachers and support staff to discuss the nature of my disability and the accommodations that I required prior to the beginning of the year. My teachers, the resource teacher and the principal were part of these meetings. It was a safe space where I was able to speak freely, and they were able to make suggestions and ask questions. I valued these meetings because they helped me build confidence, taught me advocacy skills, but most importantly gave me a voice and allowed teachers to understand my abilities and desires to succeed. Those skills followed me through university, law school, and into my profession, and I believe that the skill of advocacy was an integral part of my journey to where I am today. I am grateful to the teachers and support staff that listened and understood my desire to be successful and provided me with he tools necessary including an itinerant teacher for the blind, Carole Vanderlee. It truly was a home and school effort and once teachers and staff knew my goals, they did what they could to make learning more accessible. Often it is trial and error process, but together anything is possible.
It is important to know that every disability is different and unique. My vision and accommodations could be completely different from another person’s vision and accommodations, even though we both fall into the category of “low vision.” Accessibility and accommodation are truly team efforts, it requires the cooperation of the individual, the parents, staff and sometimes trusted friends. Many suggestions were made along the way, and I took many leaps of faith. I absolutely feared the thought and possibility of failing, but I knew that if I didn’t take those leaps, I would fail. My greatest fear was living with the regret of being too afraid to try, and never succeeding. In the end, I graduated high school with a 92% average, and I proved to many people along my journey who told me that I can’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t, that I could, would and did.
My message to students is, don’t be afraid to take those leaps. If you try and fall, it is disappointing, but it is okay, and you will get back up. But if you never try, you will always fail and never succeed. Make it your goal to be the best version of yourself, to wake up every day and try, and I am sure that with the support of the incredible staff at Niagara Catholic District School Board, you will have the opportunity to be successful.