When talking about myths of people with disabilities, Katherine Allen says there’s more to deafness and blindness than people think.
“Just about everything [is on] a spectrum,” said Allen, who is visually impaired.
Allen, 68, is active in the Philadelphia-area disability and LGBTQ+ communities. She is an accessibility consultant for Philly Touch Tours, an organization that provides “equal opportunities in cultural settings for people with vision loss,” as per the organization’s website.
In collaboration with Trish Maunder, creative director and co-founder of Philly Touch Tours, Allen trains the staff of local museums and cultural institutions how to welcome people with disabilities as visitors to their establishments.
“This is a kind of sensibility, busting myths,” Allen said. “The hands-on training [is rooted in the question] ‘how would you guide or help a blind person? What’s the proper way to do that?’”
Allen and her colleagues often begin the conversation or title a presentation for these training sessions with the line, “It’s OK to say ‘nice to see you’ to a blind person.”
“People are afraid and blindness is one of the disabilities that really kind of freaks people out,” Allen said. “It makes them uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do or say.”
On the flip side, all of the blind people that Allen knows, especially those who use a cane, have been “accosted by well-meaning people that won’t take no for an answer,” she said. When people on the street ask a blind person if they need help, they just grab their arm without waiting for them to respond.
Debunking these misconceptions and missteps is part of the work that Allen does through Philly Touch Tours. She also facilitates activities and tours to help people who are blind or vision-impaired experience Philadelphia in an engaging way.
“We have a multisensory tour through the Italian market and we visit a group of vendors that are really open and friendly and cool with our people,” Allen said. “We work with a couple of the Ben Franklin [impersonators] doing history tours.”
Philly Touch Tours occasionally brings groups of people who are visually impaired to visit Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a space with an outdoor mosaic sculpture garden, rotating exhibits, and an exterior that’s laden with mosaic art.
“What’s so great about having Katherine on the team is that she herself has a disability. She has low vision,” Maunder said. “When we’re talking about training or we’re talking about making things accessible for people who are blind or [have] low vision, when she speaks, it’s a completely authentic voice. Mine is too because I have a daughter who’s 37, who’s blind.”
Separate from Philly Touch Tours, Allen and Maunder organize a monthly meetup group for blind and visually impaired people in Philly, the majority of whom are 50 and above. The group gets together to go to the beach, visit a local cathedral or simply go out to dinner. Allen and Maunder organize an annual holiday party for the group, which Allen will host for the second time in the community room at John C. Anderson Apartments (JCAA), where she lives. JCAA is an LGBTQ+-affirming apartment building in Philly for queer and trans people who are 62 and older.
Hosting the holiday party at JCAA “is especially nice because, especially [for] people that are blind, transportation access is really tough,” Allen said. “This is a Center City location. It’s a building that’s well-lit. It’s in-and-out.”
When Allen moved into JCAA, she met people from all walks of life, said her friend Eileen Plato, who owned the popular gay spot Judy’s Cafe in Philly, which opened in 1974 and has since closed.
“[Katherine] had a whole new community of folks with disabilities, without disabilities, [people who are] older, and multicolored and multi gender,” Plato said. “Anderson has all kinds of folks – straight, gay, trans.”
Allen’s work in the disability community is vital “because not that many people are involved,” Plato added. “It’s hard for somebody who has sight to plug into a community that doesn’t. Katherine’s able to get in there and make things happen, whether it’s taking people somewhere that they’ve never ever been and can’t imagine how they could get there, or going to a party with 30 blind people.”
“Katherine’s able to get in there and make things happen, whether it’s taking people somewhere that they’ve never ever been and can’t imagine how they could get there, or going to a party with 30 blind people.”Eileen Plato
When Allen isn’t working at Philly Touch Tours, organizing outings for the meetup group for the blind and visually impaired, or working in the garden at JCAA, she’s listening to a book on tape, reading The New York Times or the magazine published by AARP.
“[Katherine] doesn’t sit still,” Plato said.
AARP is the largest nonprofit in the U.S. that advocates for and empowers people who are 50 and older as they age.
Allen lost a significant part of her eyesight due to a macular incident in her 30s, she said. Nonetheless, she continued on as the art director for a magazine at Nielsen Publishing at the time. She was not immediately open about her low vision.
“[Katherine] will often talk about how it took her longer to come out as a low-vision person than it did to come out as gay,” Maunder said. “In that way, she makes sure it’s part of our framing and that immediately levels the playing field for everybody. She’s very warm. She’s very welcoming.”
In terms of how her vision impairment intersects with her identity as a lesbian, Allen said that blindness is her superpower.
“Because we don’t make visual judgments,” she said. “I can see, so I say ‘we,’ but especially [with] blindness, it puts you at a different point of view. You’re judged by the character you keep. [Having low vision] just gives me a better view.”