Erica Blythe (Van de Laar) has been visually impaired since she was five years old, but she has never let it hold her back.
She has set goals for herself since childhood, including deciding to be a lawyer when she was just eight years old, and as she graduated from high school and began university, she says, she knew it would be a challenge — law school is difficult enough for those without a disability.
But she was determined. She did her research, and came to the conclusion that while it might be difficult, it was possible — and she has proved herself right.
To get to university — and she did so with top marks — she had to develop good study habits. She also learned to work with accommodations that could help her. And now, at the age of 27, with support from those closest to her, she has begun her dream career, having accomplished that goal she set for herself almost two decades ago.
“I was forced to develop time management and organization skills at a young age,” says Blythe, “and I further developed those skills throughout my academic career in undergrad and law school. With the added challenges that my disability presented, it was necessary for me to be extremely disciplined in order to succeed and achieve my goals.”
With professors often pointing to notes on a board, which she couldn’t see, she spent extra time outside of the classroom with tutors.
She also relied on software that turns text into audio, at first a very slow process, but which became faster for her as she became comfortable with it. And she used Zoom text to magnify print by five times on her 24-inch computer screen.
She was able to use those aids during exams, and was given more time to complete them, she says.
After finishing high school, Blythe earned a full academic scholarship at Western University, graduating from the business program on the Dean’s Academic Roll of Excellence with an A average.
She accomplished that while also volunteering as a residence assistant.
During her summers at home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where her family own Van de Laar Orchards on the Niagara River Parkway, she worked at Inniskillin Winery, conducting tours and pouring tastings at the bar. She made people aware of her disability at the start, but could conduct a tasting from behind the bar sometimes without people realizing she can’t see.
That’s a quality that doesn’t always work in her favour. She has run into situations where, because of what she accomplishes, people realize she’s visually impaired, but not how difficult it is for her, she says. It’s also unfortunate that because of how blind people are portrayed on TV, people think she’s not as impaired as she is. “They see me performing as well as I do, and they think I’m just being dramatic,”
Her vision allows her to see shapes about two feet in front of her – anything more than that is blurry, she says.
When she was little, her younger brother Andrew was diagnosed with a large lesion on his brain, and passed away at the age of three. Doctors determined he was suffering from Leigh’s Syndrome, and realized that was the source of Erica’s visual difficulties. Her sight impairment remains under control, and she continues to see a neuromuscular surgeon regularly.
She has faced a lot of negativity as she pursued her goals, beginning when she was a child and often heard “she can’t do this or that, she shouldn’t, she won’t,” from people who believed she was trying to accomplish something out of her reach. She was even told at one point that if she made it through law school, she would graduate in the bottom 10 per cent of her class. But she says about her disability, “it’s not one size fits all.” And she wouldn’t let those comments hold her back — they motivated her to work harder, to show she could do anything she wanted to do if she put her mind to it. And those who mattered most, her parents Chris and Laura, and her closest friends, were always there to support her, she says.
Her first year at law school was at the University of Windsor, where she finished in the top 10 per cent of her class. She then transferred to the University of Western Ontario, where she graduated in the top quartile.
Along the road, she says, “there were definitely challenges.”
Her rigorous study schedule took up all her time when she wasn’t in class, with “every minute of every day planned out,” and there was “no time for socializing. But that’s how it has to be when you want to achieve something.”
She was called to the bar in June, 2020, at the peak of COVID, when nobody was hiring, and lawyers were being laid off.
After a short time with another law firm outside Niagara, she was recently hired by Martin, Shepherd, Fraser in Niagara Falls, and is specializing in corporate and commercial law, wills, estates and real estate, and now living back in Niagara, her husband working for the family farm.
She says she was forthright from the beginning about her disability, and what she would need to do her work, basically the same aids she has used throughout school.
Both firms she has worked with were very good with the accommodations she required, she says.
She tells clients who come to her office that she is visually impaired, but everyone she’s met since she started working for the Niagara Falls law firm, including clients, other lawyers, clerks and staff, “have all been awesome. I haven’t faced the same challenges that I have in the past.”
Although she’s at the beginning stages of her career, and loving her new job, she is still setting long-term goals for herself. She hopes to one day become a partner, and after that, achieve another goal she’s had since she was a kid and watching Judge Judy.
“I’d love to be a judge, and advocate for the law.”
Erica learned when she was young, living with a disease that could be fatal, to make each day count.
And along the way, her drive and determination have only strengthened. To others facing life challenges, she says, “don’t be afraid to try.”
She quotes Wayne Gretzky, who said, “you miss 100 per cent of the shots you never take.”
“If you genuinely try, and fail, that is fine,” says Erica, “but if you fail to try, you will never succeed. Don’t let anyone else write your story.”