“I like doing stuff,” says Beverley Barra-Berger, of the numerous works of pottery that decorate her home. “I just have to use my hands. It’s just the way it is.”
Bev is a familiar face around town and a charter member of King Township’s Accessibility Committee. It’s a role she takes very seriously. “We try to advise the general public and businesses on how they can help people who happen to have disabilities within the community… help them participate. It’s all about removing barriers,” she explains.
Though she has never seen her son’s face, Bev wasn’t always blind. When she was seventeen-years-old, she used to ride horses. While at an event in Guelph, Bev decided to mount a steer, a castrated young bull. “I fell off and when I got myself out of the muck and the manure, my left eye was not working properly. Within a very short time, I was blind because I had experienced a detached retina in my left eye.”
After multiple unsuccessful surgeries, both in Canada and in the US, she came to terms with her new reality. “I was monocular and that was fine. I drove a car; I did everything a fully sighted person would.”
Then, when she was thirty years-old, Bev and her husband John took their daughter Stephanie to Disney World. The last vision memory Bev has is of touring the Mexican Pavilion at Epcot and looking up at a big paper mâché parrot.
“It was beautifully coloured,” she recalls, “and all of a sudden it was like someone pulled a window blind down in front of me and I experienced a spontaneous detached retina.”
There was no trauma. Nothing happened. It just let go. “I was fully blind.” The next two years were especially difficult. “Again, I had more surgery. I spent a number of years trying to regain my vision and finally, I just decided it wasn’t going to work. So part of my life I’ve had some vision,” (she was born with a focal point about an inch from the end of her nose), “I’ve had partial vision, and I’ve had no vision.” At sixty-six years old, Bev has been blind for longer than she could see.
For the first two years, she was angry. “I went through a mourning process. I was very bitter. I was not a nice person to be around,” she admits. “I went through all the stages of grieving, as you would the loss of a loved one.” At first, she refused to learn braille: “I wasn’t blind. I just couldn’t see, and there’s a difference,” Eventually she started to embrace what tools were at her disposal. She acquired a service dog and learned to read braille. “I firmly believe that any blind person cannot operate independently without knowing braille. I can say that with great conviction. Even though there are all manner of devices that assist people with vision loss. There are all manner of devices that talk, beep, squawk, and everything but they require batteries. What if the battery goes?”
It took Stephanie a lot longer to accept her mother’s condition. “She didn’t resent me but, she resented the blindness. It took her a very long time to come to terms with the situation,” concedes Bev.
Stephanie was four when her mother lost her sight but, it wasn’t until a grade eleven school
Despite her disability, Bev made sure her kids viewed education as a top priority. “Stephanie pretty much learned how to read by reading me the weekly grocery store flyer,” laughs Bev. “I wanted to know what was on special so, I made her sound out the letters and figure out what the words said.” Her son Daniel adopted Bev’s love of words almost to an extreme. Growing up, his head was always stuck in a book. She remembers having battles with her son over not coming to the table when dinner was ready because he still had a few pages to go in whatever chapter he was on.
As for John, “I have a great amount of respect for my husband simply because he stayed.” Before this, he had a wife who was looking after their child, “and after all these years he doesn’t treat me any differently now than he did when I could see. Maybe he hasn’t figured it out yet, I don’t know,” she jokes.
“It’s a sad reality in the world of people with disabilities that, when one of the partners in that relationship develops a severe disability, 85% of those relationships dissolve. That’s not a nice number but, it’s true,” says Bev. “But, he stayed.”
John “Frenchie” Berger, is still well-known in the North American film industry as the go-to property master. As a weapons specialist, his company, Shooting With The Stars, would ensure safety on film sets whenever weapons or explosives were involved. “His claim to fame is that he retired with a clean record. Nothing ever happened on a set that he worked on,” boasts Bev. John even worked closely with the RCMP to develop the guidelines that currently govern the use of weapons and explosives on Canadian film sets.
His business often took him away from home for two or three months at a time. After Bev lost her sight, John continued to work. “I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had a good support system from my mom and a lot of good friends, who have helped me along the way, and I think a lot of it is just jumping in with both feet, and see what happens and live your life.”
As Bev says, “it worked for John and I because he was supportive of me and my disability, and I was supportive of him in that I wanted the independence. I probably didn’t need a husband who was there 24-hours a day, seven days a week. We’ve been married now for over 45 years but, he’s been gone for half of that time.”
Now that John is retired, “he chauffeurs me around, so that’s a handy feature,” jokes Bev. “It’s probably harder on him than on me
“If you approach your disability and life in general with a positive attitude, I think you are going to be more successful as an individual, and as a person with a disability. That’s easy to say; it’s a hard thing to do. It is work. But, everybody’s got something. The greater percentage of people either does not have an identifiable disability or one that they are willing to share. So I’m going to say maybe 75% of the population is ‘normal’ and then there’s the rest of us,” says Bev