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A change of perspective: Amar Latif

A change of perspective: Amar Latif

[photo of Susan Anderson Steele and Amar Latif]
Photo by Andrea Gunn.

Susan Anderson Steele and Amar Latif, Kingston 2015.

In 1995, Amar Latif came to Kingston from his home in Glasgow to study for a year at Queen’s University.  He had completed two years of his mathematics degree at Strathclyde University, and wanted to try an exchange year abroad.  “Canada intrigued me, “ he says. “I didn’t know too much about it.”  A number of his classmates had also chosen a year abroad, but he was the only one coming to Canada.  And while it was an adventure for him, he had to convince others that it was a good idea.

“When I was four years old,” says Latif, “the doctors told my parents that by the age of about 18, I would be become incurably blind.” He was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. “And that’s what happened. I woke up one morning and I couldn’t see the picture on the wall opposite my bed.” The disease resulted in a 95% loss of his vision. “I had just enrolled in my course at Strathclyde University to do maths, stats and finance. I had bought all these books, but I could no longer read them.  So, after feeling all depressed and sorry for myself, I got round to thinking that I had got to move things forward, instead of sitting on the sidelines. So I found ways of making my maths course accessible. And that started to work. So after two years of getting good results, and feeling pretty proud of myself, and thinking “I can do this!” I thought the next stage has got to be, oh, I’d love to travel. And then I thought, ‘Hmm, I’m blind. How do I do that?’” So Amar set about figuring out how to make it happen.  “I opted for Canada, and because I was the only person on my course who opted for Canada, it meant I had to go by myself. And my parents didn’t want me to go. And my lecturers didn’t want me to go. But I decided that I wasn’t going to be wrapped up in cotton wool. So I just said, “Just point me towards that airport and watch me go!’” And when I arrived, it was really exciting. I didn’t know anybody.”

In July 1995, Latif stepped off the bus in Kingston for the first time.  He needed some extra time before classes started, to settle in and prepare for the school year. He needed, not only to find his way around and become familiar with his new home, but also to arrange for his course materials  for his math and finance courses at  Queen’s  to be prepared in an accessible format.  But before he even left Scotland, he connected with staff at the Queen’s University International Centre, and that made all the difference in his experience. 

They said, ‘Look, Amar, don’t worry.  We’ll look after you. We’ve got a lot planned!”  That, as it turned out, was an understatement. From the time he arrived in Kingston, Latif found himself instantly connected. “I had never met international people before, and now I had 40 good friends from around the world! It was just so exciting. Every weekend we’d do things together. The international centre hosted many, many events. They made everything so inclusive. I got to know people. When you’re blind, it’s difficult walking around and doing things, so you kind of want to befriend people!” He laughs.

One of those new friends was Susan Anderson Steele, then the international student advisor at QUIC.  “I was immediately struck by Amar’s joyful presence,” she recalls. “His optimism and positivity, his joy in being in the presence of other people immediately made him attractive to students and staff alike.” She recalls walking with him on his first day from main campus to downtown, describing to him, as they went, the sights and the meaning of different sounds on the way. “Once on Princess Street, he insisted that I leave him to make his own way back.  I remember watching him make his way down the sidewalk to retrace his steps back to Queen’s in the certain knowledge that he knew exactly what he was doing.”

She also recalls how instantly he dove into activities at Queen’s. “He was often at the centre of a plan for a new social activity or bit of mischief,” she says. “He was full of ideas but was firmly rooted in principles of respect for others.” 

“Susan got me involved in ice hockey,” says Latif fondly. “We had an international hockey team. I was already very good at ice skating, but all these other international students had never skated before. On the other hand, they could see the puck, so it was a level playing field! And they’d yell out -- “Left a bit! Right a bit! -- to help me locate the puck.”

After a very fun summer, Latif got down to work, spending hours at Jeffery Hall. There, he found his courses tough, but enjoyable.  “My lecturers were so supportive. They gave me a lot of encouragement. It took a while for some of them to understand my Scottish accent, but then they were very helpful!” He had reading materials recorded on tape, and was assigned a special study room in Stauffer Library.

The support didn’t stop there. “It was very good how Queen’s worked with Strathclyde,” he says. The courses he took at Queen’s weren’t directly related to his program in Scotland. But Queen’s staff worked with Strathclyde staff to ensure that Latif had all his prerequisites covered, ensuring a smooth transition to his fourth year back home.   He returned to Glasgow in May, 1996, after “the best year ever.”

After he graduated, he got a job as an accountant for British Telecom in Leeds.  Over the next seven years, he worked his way up in the company, becoming director of a finance division. But despite his success, he kept thinking back to the great times he had during his year in Canada. So, he decided to go travelling again.  And then he discovered how hard it can be to be a blind traveller.

“When you’re blind,” he says, “you cannot travel freely. Travel companies told me, “You need to bring a caregiver with you. And I thought, I don’t need a caregiver!  I was out at Queen’s for a year on my own! All I need is a sighted companion. There were some charities in the U.K. that provided some related services, but I didn’t feel I needed to go to a charity just to go on holiday. Nothing like this existed. So, if you want something that doesn’t exist, you have two choices.  Either you do without, or you build it yourself. So I created Traveleyes.”

If you want something that doesn’t exist, you have two choices.  Either you do without, or you build it yourself.

With Traveleyes, Latif set out to create a commercial travel company that would make the world a more accessible place for visually impaired people.  In 2004, he took a year’s sabbatical from BT to work on his idea. “But then it went so well that I didn’t go back. That was 11 years ago.”   The company brings together travellers, both visually impaired and sighted, to explore the world together. But, as Latif stresses, “we don’t choose destinations on whether they are accessible for blind people. We start with whether they are going to be exciting and interesting to anybody, whether you are blind or not. And then from that point onwards, we look at ways of making them accessible.”

He took his first tour group, in 2004, to Andalusia, Spain, where travellers enjoyed walking in the mountains, exploring olive groves at a country farm, touring historic sites and relaxing on the beach.

Today, the company offers 40 tours every year to destinations around the world. Each tour is composed of an equal number of sighted and visually impaired travellers. Every day on the tour, each blind traveller is paired with a different sighted traveller, ensuring that everybody gets to know each other. Latif doesn’t accompany all of the tours these days: the business has grown so much that he has eight tour managers on staff. But he does still take part in a few tours each year. In September, he accompanied a Traveleyes tour on an autumnal tour of New England, Quebec and Ontario. They made a weekend excursion to Kingston, where the travellers explored the Thousand Islands by boat.  And Amar Latif got to introduce his newest international friends to someone who, back in 1995, helped to open up the world to him: Susan Anderson Steele, now the director of the Queen’s University International Centre.