A lifetime of being extraordinary

Florence Carter & David Onley
[/media-credit]Florence Carter and Lt.-Gov. David Onley
“Isn’t your term up now?” a feisty Florence Carter, 87, asked Lieutenant-Governor David Onley, as he presented her with the Governor-General’s Caring Canadian Award on Feb. 19 at Queen’s Park, honouring her for over 30 years of teaching the blind.

“He just broke up,” Carter says, as she received a plaque and a pin alongside 40 other recipients. Established in 1995 by the then Lieutenant-Governor Roméo LeBlanc, the award recognizes ordinary Canadians who do extraordinary things.

Carter, a 60-year resident of Leaside who had to move away only last year, has been doing that almost all her life.

At 17, and poised to enter the University of New Brunswick, the Halifax native was diagnosed with a brain abscess. Despite the surgical intervention of the famed Dr. Wilder Penfield, she still went blind.

Her first reaction was denial. “I was nasty,” she says. “I told the CNIB, ‘Get lost, I’m going to get my sight back!’”

However by 1947, she had mastered Braille so well that the institute sent her to Toronto to take a course instructing newly-blinded people on how to perform simple household tasks.

After passing the course, she returned to Halifax, where she travelled alone visiting clients in all three Maritime provinces, a challenge she adored because it gave her a sense of freedom.

“Being able to do things on her own is of utmost importance to her,” says Sue-Marsh-Woods, regional manager, service and operations, of CNIB, Toronto. Marsh-Woods dubs her the Queen of Rehabilitations because of her belief that disabled people need to be self-reliant.

Back in Toronto in 1953 to take a refresher course at the institute, she met her future husband Lloyd, who had been blinded in World War II. They married and moved to Donlea Dr. in Leaside, where they raised their son, Greg, now a paramedic.

“I loved the neighbourhood,” she says. “I could walk to work from my home. I had great friends. It was a wonderful place to raise children.”

By the time she retired from the CNIB in 1992, Carter had designed a support course for those struggling emotionally to accept their sightlessness. It is now the primary training tool nation-wide.

Even after leaving the institute, she couldn’t stop working and taught touch-typing at Mohawk College for 19 years.

She has also co-authored the book Celebrating Braille:  A Canadian Approach, which was launched in 2009.

Until Florence wrote this book, previous reference materials for the blind featured only American images, while the current one is filled with Canadian content.

“I got sick of reading about White House china,” she says, recalling that her book took over three years to finish. “I didn’t make any money from writing it, I donated it, but it changed and unified Braille code across the world and introduced computer symbols that keep being updated.”

Carter is also the recipient of the 2012 Diamond Jubilee Medal for advancing education for the blind, so who knows how many more honours lie ahead.

“She’s done so much for the community, it’s incredible,” say Marsh-Woods, who hints that an Order of Canada may be the logical next step.

Her enthusiasm is echoed by Carter, who reassures her fellow sightless, “There is life after the CNIB!”