CNIB client Mark Stewart beats the odds and celebrates 10 years at Food Basics

Mark with his Food Basics certificateFor Mark Stewart, this spring outshone all the others. He received his 10-year pin from Food Basics.
No employee could have been prouder. Not only was it an acknowledgement of Stewart’s loyal service; it was proof that he had beaten the odds. Sixty-two per cent of the working-age population that is blind or partially sighted do not work. They’d like to earn a living, but can’t break into the workforce – in many cases, they can’t even get a job interview.
Stewart has limited vision. He uses a white cane at night, in crowds and when he is crossing a road. At work, he wears glasses.
“Without them, everything is fuzzy,” says Stewart.
Unlike most people with sight loss, he didn’t have to fight his way into the workforce. In high school, he did a co-op placement at Food Basics, a short walk from his home. He worked hard and brought a thank-you letter on his last day.
His boss asked: 'What are you doing for the summer? Want a job?'
He typically works from noon to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, stocking shelves. He started in frozen food, then went to dairy products. Now, he works in the bakery.
And that’s only half the story. Three and a half years ago, Stewart got a second job at Al Dente’s, a popular restaurant on King George Road where he does food preparation and washes dishes from 5:30 p.m. until closing on Monday and Saturday nights.
He wishes more employers would give people with disabilities a chance to try a job.
"They’re dependable. They’re reliable. They’re always there,” says Stewart.
He also wishes more people with disabilities would venture into the job market.
“If you put your mind to it, you can do anything,” says Stewart.
He believes acceptance of people with disabilities has improved in the past few years.
His vision difficulties began at birth. He was a “miracle baby” – a preemie born at one pound and three ounces. He spent the first three months of his life shuttling back and forth between Brantford and London for testing and specialized care.
By the time he reached school age, he already had a file that was “half a foot thick”. But, he’d become skilled at adapting to his surroundings. Apart from large-print books – “my reading skills aren’t great” – he didn't need any special accommodations.
Between Grade 6 and 7, information technology came on the scene, expanding his capacity by leaps and bounds. He got a specially programmed computer that converted print into spoken word and allowed him to “see” what his own eyes had trouble making out. He still uses his computer a lot, but he also relies on his cell phone and iPad.
At 29, he’s a gadget whiz, forever on the lookout for new “apps” – “Be My Eyes” is one of his current favourites – and he's eager to demonstrate how they work.
No matter how busy he gets, Stewart always finds or makes time to give back to organizations that helped him along the way. Vision Loss Rehabilitation Ontario, a Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) organization tops the list. It provided him with the life skills and orientation and mobility training to live independently and travel safely.
He acts as a guide for the organization's walking and trail group, Making Strides, at the Wayne Gretzky Centre, the Lynden Park Mall and the Grand River trail. He attended the launch of BlindSquare, a navigational app, at the Sanderson Centre. He has supported Family Day, a special event at Earl Haig Family Fun Park for families with connections to sight loss.
There is one last thing Stewart loves to talk about. He appeared on Dragon’s Den in 2015 to help his uncle Tom Stewart pitch Eznet, a portable, child-friendly, sports net he designed. Tom got the loan he sought. The hockey/soccer nets are now being sold across Ontario and in six U.S. states.
“Being on TV was awesome,” Stewart recalls.
Mark on a handcycle 
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