Cathy Browne: Artist, storyteller, advocate
Cathy Browne is a riveting storyteller, and the dark December night that we shared a meal became an enlightening one as she told her own narrative. Weighing only two pounds at birth, Cathy lost much of her sight when she was given excess oxygen in the incubator. She’s faced many obstacles throughout her life, but being legally blind hasn’t stopped her from overcoming them.
A journey to disability advocacy
As a young woman, Cathy was bullied because she was different. Though she embraced her differences, others did not. In her 20s, she wanted to be a teacher, but her professors told her she’d never succeed. Cathy went to her university newspaper to tell her story, and realized that the media was a powerful medium through which to communicate. Thus, began her 40-year career in public relations.
Cathy draws upon her experiences to help others, and one of the things she’s been doing since 2011 is serving on the Vancouver’s Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee. She is currently the Committee’s co-chair, and says that the Committee’s role “is to advise city staff and council about issues that directly affect the disabled community in Vancouver and beyond.”
Reducing isolation through accessibility
One of the challenges people with disabilities face is isolation. Cathy states that to reduce isolation people must live in a fully accessible and inclusive community. “If you can’t go to the show you want to go to, or if you can’t come and go from the apartment you are in because there’s no accessible entry or exit out . . . if the accessible transit in your city cannot accommodate you; all those things together result in a totally inaccessible city, and results in isolation.”
While Cathy believes Vancouver doesn’t do too badly in terms of accessibility, she thinks that every city can try to improve further. In terms of public transit, the Committee works “very closely with TransLink to give perspectives on what the transit system should look like, especially as they’re expanding . . . What’s the most effective vehicle for Handy Dart? Is it cabs? Is it the vans? We’re also looking ahead to the consequences of ride sharing.”
Vancouver has challenges when it comes to providing accessible housing, too. Cathy cites the lack of accessible entrances and exits, and the prevalence of basement apartments as concerns. “I live in a basement apartment. I can’t entertain probably 80% of the people I know . . . It’s a rethinking of how we envision how and where people live. [This] will have direct consequence on how they work, where they go, who they see, what kind of quality of life they have.”
Living a creative life
In addition to her work on the Committee and professional career in PR, Cathy spends her time expressing herself through various creative outlets, including photography, writing, improv, and stand-up comedy. Cathy’s been a photographer for some time, but when she turned 60 she decided that doing more serious photography and slightly different photography would be part of her bucket list. “I’ve started shooting fashion. I’ve shot burlesque. I shot a lot of bartender competitions because I love the speed and I love the action. All things that people wouldn’t imagine that I would be shooting.” Cathy even photographed Oprah at a recent 30th anniversary gala for the David Foster Foundation.
In 2018, Cathy’s plan is to do more writing and enhance the stories she tells through her photos. Thus far, she’s been a blogger and reviewer of everything from TheatreSports to opera. While Cathy may view performances differently than other people, she describes herself as getting very caught up in the stories and as a good listener.
Cathy’s listening skills have aided her in her latest pursuits on the stage, as well. She is the first recipient of The Vancouver TheatreSports League’s (VTSL) and the Improv Comedy Institute’s (ICI) Jay Ono Diversity Scholarship. “One of the things that attracts me with impromptu is that you really need to pick up cues from other people . . . The [improv] instructor was saying, ‘look into your fellow partner’s eyes’, and I said ‘I can’t do that, but at the same time, I’m picking up all kinds of cues and I’m listening.’”
Making entertainment more inclusive and accessible
In May 2017, Cathy also did her first stand-up comedy act with Realwheels, an organization that features actors with disabilities in its performances. “They did a three-day production called, ‘Comedy on Wheels’ and it was all stand-up and I thought, ‘I’ve never done that.’ So I did . . . We all wrote our own material, and we all performed our own material.” Cathy is encouraged by the fact that more people with disabilities are given opportunities to participate “in TV, in advertising, even in something like Realwheels. In my day, as a 20-something, it would never even have been thought of.”
Cathy’s experiences in theatre performance and Committee work have given her a unique perspective on how Vancouver’s entertainment scene could be made more inclusive. She wants to ensure that people who are in wheelchairs and scooters can sit with their friends, family, and/or caregivers in theatres. She also believes that there should be “opportunities for people to choose which part of the theatre they want to sit in . . . Some of the new theatres now they’ve got hydraulic seating so you can push the seats up further back to accommodate a more flat area for wheelchairs in the front so you’re not relegated to the back.” She also wants to see that performers with disabilities have an inclusive back-of-house environment with accessible washrooms and dressing rooms. Making entertainment venues more accessible helps create a more inclusive arts and culture community for all.
You can see Cathy's work on Flickr.
Photo: Cathy performing stand-up with Realwheels (credit: Tim Matheson)