“I never thought about health and safety. I had the attitude that an accident wasn’t going to happen, especially to me. It did.” – Ray Smith, Co-chair, Persons with Disabilities National Working Group (PWGNWG).
CUPE’s national disability rights campaign continues this week with a new fact sheet. Titled “Health and safety for workers with disabilities” the fact sheet offers advice on accommodation, steps for hazard assessments, suggestions for dealing with hazards, and advice for creating a safe workplace for all workers.
- Check out the fact sheet Health and safety for workers with disabilities
CUPE Persons with Disabilities National Working Group Co-chair Ray Smith helped coordinate the work between the PWDNWG and the CUPE National Health and Safety Committee to produce the fact sheet. Read his powerful personal story below.
A natural people person, Ray Smith’s original plan was to go into the hospitality business. But after graduating from college, Ray wasn’t able to find work in his field of choice.
At five years old, Ray lost sight in his left eye due to a birth defect. Despite being in good health otherwise, when Ray began looking for a job, he experienced discrimination because of his disability.
“You can feel people looking at you, and they gasp, thinking ‘he’s disabled!’ because I’d be looking in a different direction or I would tell them I’m legally blind. You can feel that barrier going up between you because of the disability, and you know you’re not going to get the job.”
The job search wasn’t going well, but life goes on. Ray met his future wife, Sigrid, and they wanted to start a family. Ray took a job as a custodian to earn an income.
For ten years, from 1976 to 1986, Ray held his job and supported his wife and their two children. Then, on January 16, 1986, his life suddenly changed.
“I was putting out lots of heavy boxes of garbage into a big bin and one of the boxes, I didn’t realize, had a broken skid. Of course I wasn’t wearing safety glasses because ‘it won’t happen to me.’ As I lifted the box up I lost my balance and the box came back in my face and the broken skid went directly into my right eye.”
Doctors performed two major operations, but Ray was left totally blind for a full year. Eventually he regained a little eyesight, but still suffers from tunnel vision and extreme short-sightedness. It was hard on him.
“At home I became a very bitter, angry person, yelling at my family, not accepting their help, and being ashamed of my disability. It wasn’t a pretty sight.”
Luckily, Ray had an insurance plan and a case manager who listened and gave him some “tough love.”
“He suggested I go to school to learn another trade, that I use special equipment for the blind, and that I get mobility training. I listened to him. My accident happened in just one second. It took four years for my recovery and training.”
Switching to a career in insurance, Ray eventually found himself working for the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, helping others who’ve been hurt on the job.
“WSIB absolutely embraced my disability, and now I have a much better attitude and self-esteem. I do public speaking about my injury and the importance of health and safety.”
Ray has also become a strong disability rights activist through his union. As a member of CUPE 1750, Ray joined CUPE Ontario’s Workers with Disabilities Committee, and eventually the Persons With Disabilities National Working Group, where he’s been the co-chair the last four years. He’s also recently been elected the Canadian Labour Congress Vice President for Workers with Disabilities.
“I am honoured to be a union member. It has given me even greater confidence and self-esteem, as well as valuable skills like networking and public speaking.”
Ray also credits CUPE with strong accommodation practices at union events.
“My wife is able to accompany me as a guide at CUPE meetings and events, to ensure my safety and mobility. It’s a tremendous asset to me. The working group has also developed an accessibility checklist to do accessibility audits at CUPE events, so everyone is included.