Tourist Profile: Tara Niekamp


Opening doors for others

By MacEachen Institute Staff | Dec. 8, 2023
Research participant Tara Niekamp at a reception hosted by the MacEachen Institute | Oct. 18, 2023

From a young age, advocacy has been at the core of Tara Niekamp’s identity. She began to notice a decline in her vision around age ten, and was eventually diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a degenerative eye condition. In her teen years, Tara gradually required more accommodations. But as her vision declined, her activism ramped up.

A responsibility to advocate

“Right from the beginning, education and awareness was something that I stepped into,” she says. Throughout high school, she would visit elementary schools to discuss her experiences and spread awareness about her condition and the barriers faced by people with low vision. Later, while earning a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Acadia University, she served on the school’s disability ad hoc committee and participated in a major accessibility audit and multiple panel events.

Tara believes that as somebody who is comfortable with both self-advocacy and advocating on behalf of others in her position, she has a responsibility to do what she can. “I’m in a position of privilege, and I have the skills and am comfortable doing it,” she says. “There are lots of people who don’t have that level of comfort, so I can use my voice in a positive way.”

"A person, not an entity"

As an avid traveller, self-advocacy is critical, especially at the airport. While Tara estimates that she knows the exact location of every gate at Pearson Airport by now, her experience travelling can largely depends on the actions and attitudes of those around her.

First, the presence or absence of travel companions. “When I’m travelling alone, I’m a bit more anxious,” Tara says. “I’m very confident in my skills, but there’s less mental energy required when I travel with someone else.” Though it’s a bit easier travelling with others, she’s also conscious of her companions’ experiences. “You need to be cautious about how much responsibility you put on others. You want them to be able to enjoy the trip, too.”

"People don’t realize that you have needs outside of basic human needs. It hurts being treated like a piece of luggage."

Next, employees at the airport and of the businesses she frequents while travelling. In addition to interacting with staff who aren’t trained on the basics of how to accommodate disabled travellers, it’s the attitude that doing the bare minimum is enough.

For example: offering to show someone where the washrooms are, or ask if they need to be shown where they can get some food before the flight. The kind of things that might go beyond just the basics, but make all the difference. “People don’t realize that you have needs outside of basic human needs,” says Tara. “It hurts when you’re treated like a piece of luggage being taken to the gate. Once you get from point A to point B, it’s like you don’t exist.”

Advocacy at home and abroad

While it can be frustrating and hurtful, it doesn’t stop Tara from travelling for work, family, or pleasure. She’s in Toronto regularly for board meetings as the Director of the National Board of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). She’s also been to Ireland, Italy, Alaska and all over Canada. Wherever she goes, she’s advocating on behalf of herself and others.

An example of a small act with a larger impact: While on a visit to Tim Hortons, Tara noticed that the yellow paint on the steps leading up to the door of the building had nearly completely faded. Tara made a comment to the staff that this was a hazard for people with low-vision, and since then, the paint on the steps at that Tim Hortons has been properly maintained ever since. “It’s small, but it just makes it so that somebody else doesn’t have to say something,” says Tara. “That’s the impact that advocacy has. It’s the little things, too.”

Read more about the MacEachen Institute's research on accessible tourism for people with disabilities.