From 2 Pounds to Trailblazer: CBC's Cathy Browne Puts the Spotlight on BC's Overlooked Issues

Updated: Aug 21


CBC's Cathy Browne has been a leader in covering disability issues (Photo: Cathy Browne)


By Spencer van Vloten

BC Disability

June 9th, 2021


Creator of the award-winning Access Denied CBC series, Cathy Browne has put a mainstream spotlight on some of BC's most overlooked disability and public health issues.


Spencer van Vloten talked with Cathy about her start in journalism, and some of the people and stories that made the biggest impact on her.


Spencer: How did you get started in journalism?


Cathy: My history in journalism is tiny! Up to September 2019, I’d never done anything like this.


I joined the CAPE program at CBC, which provides paid experiences for people with disabilities across the country. And before 12 weeks ended, they’d said they wanted to keep me.


So at 65 I got the job I always wanted, and it’s been the best time.


Spencer: You were a photographer before as well


Cathy: Photography was something I got seriously into in early 2000s.


During that time, I had the opportunity to go to Japan for work. I didn’t want to shoot the typical tourist stuff, so I decided to shoot a story out of it, and became very conscious of telling stories in a different way.


It became a real comfort for me to focus on the art more too when my husband died in 2011.


I also had the chance to teach photography to elementary school students for 8 weeks. 45 years ago I'd been told I couldn’t get a teaching degree, because I wouldn’t be able to teach ‘normal’ students, yet here I was, teaching 45 years later.


It was a lesson: don’t give up, it will happen.

Cathy's skills include photography, performing, and advocacy (Photos:Cathy Browne)


Spencer: What do you consider the most important piece you’ve done?


Cathy: My Access Denied series is all about amplifying voices, and 2 parts stand out.


The one that started it off was about COVID restrictions which prevented hospitalized persons with disabilities from seeing loved ones. I covered one the tragedies that resulted from this, when a non-verbal woman, Ariis Knight, died alone in hospital.


We got so many responses from people who’d read this article and had issues of their own. One of them was from a woman, Klara Cramer, whose son Tomas has an extremely rare genetic disorder and will always mentally be about the age of an 18 month old. Klara and her husband Jason have to navigate a flawed system with a lot of gaps in it, and it's a big challenge.


So the conversation started with ‘what are the obstacles to getting support during COVID’, then grew to ‘it hasn’t just been during COVID; families of persons with complex needs are often left on their own'.


The conversation started with ‘what obstacles to getting support during COVID’, then grew to ‘it hasn’t just been during COVID'

Spencer: Who are the most memorable people you've featured?


Cathy: The people who advocate for those who can’t do it for themselves, especially the mothers who advocate, because so much weight falls on their shoulders.


One woman who stands out is Nicole Kaler, the mother of a teenager with autism, Maya. Now, having small children within the Ministry of Children and Family Development is one thing, but wait till you see what happens when they age out.

Some of the people and stories that made a big impact on Cathy: Ariis Knight (L) and the Cramer family (photos: David Knight and Ben Nelms)


The passion, dedication, absolute frustration of parents in this situation were so embodied in her.


On CBC radio she said, ‘Shane Simpson {former minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction), if you care, you come on here and say the things you’ll do for these kids’. And Shane came on a week later and some real change happened.


My aim is to give people a voice – not my voice. I was 2 pounds when I was born 67 years ago, I've got 10 percent vision, but I don’t think there’s been a segment where I’ve said I’m disabled, because I’m not the star.


Spencer: Has the work you’ve done as a journalist changed your view on anything?


Cathy: On a personal note, it’s changed my perceptions of what I’m capable of. Nothing's impossible, and you can never stop learning. There’s no such thing as retirement.


I’ve discovered there's so much value in not giving up. There are rewards for taking risks and speaking up. And If I can encourage people to do anything, it’s to take that little step forward, and to be braver.


There is value in not giving up. There are rewards for taking risks and speaking up.

If I’ve helped at all, I think it's by doing that, by helping people take that step toward raising their voice. Most of us have no idea what it's like to be the parent of a kid with complex needs, and no one speaks up will never hear.


That’s one of the things I’m happiest about.


Spencer: What are the disability issues that you think need to be addressed most in BC and Canada?


Cathy: There's a lot of focus on the built environment - ramps, braille signs, etc., and it's all perfectly normal to want to address that.


But I think the bigger picture is in things like housing, education, health care, social structure, , and financial stability.


I also think it's important to look at the impact that providing ongoing care for adult children with disabilities has on older parents.


Spencer: Are disabled citizens and their families in BC afraid to talk to the media?


Cathy: Not only in BC, and not only people with disabilities –it’s all people who are vulnerable in some way. There’s a natural hesitancy to speak out when you're so dependent on other people – on their decisions and their rules.


As we move out of institutional settings and into more collaborative settings, and as we get new generations of people with disabilities who are thinking differently, things are evolving.


I think back to being in my 20s and what the attitude towards disabilities were at the time, and you have to understand that things have gotten better and will continue to, but we must keep having people say ‘it doesn’t have to be done this way, there are other ways'.


Spencer: What advice do you have for people with disabilities, or anyone really, who want to get their voices out there and be heard?


Cathy: Find people like you. Look at social media and who's talking and raising their voice about the issues you care about. There’s always strength in numbers.


Also talk to the people you know. To your parents or social worker; talk to someone who you think will lend an ear, will understand, and can potentially lead you to valuable connections.


Don’t stay silent if possible. You don’t have to always yell. You can just have conversations that make you realize ‘hey, I’m not alone’.


And talk to me! I’m always open to hearing people’s stories


Spencer: Anything you’d like to add?


Cathy: There’s a change in the air, a lot will have to do with younger generations and their voices.


I'm really encouraged by that, and am really optimistic that tangible changes will happen. It'll take consistent pressure on government at all levels to ensure we’re not forgotten, so let’s raise our voices and do so for the people who can't. And don’t stop.’

Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to spencer@bcdisability.com!