Many Canadians who are blind or DeafBlind do not currently possess the skills and confidence necessary to live fully independent lives, affecting them both socially and economically. This is not because people who are blind or DeafBlind are incapable of living independently but rather because of a severe lack of adequate blindness/DeafBlindness skills training opportunities currently available in Canada.
Blindness/DeafBlindness skills training includes, but is not limited to the following areas:
Basic and advanced assistive technology
Independent travel with the long white cane
Job skills and resume building
Finances and budgeting
Health and wellness
Although some of these skills may be taught in part or in full in public or private school settings, many high school graduates who are blind or DeafBlind are not prepared to live independently as they lack critical blindness or DeafBlindness skills. In addition, due to well-meaning but overprotective families and school staff, many people who have been blind or DeafBlind their whole lives internalize what can be called “learned dependence”, where a person will wait to be helped instead of taking a leadership role of helping themselves and others, putting them at a disadvantage in the workplace and society in general. Those who lose their vision later in life have even fewer opportunities to obtain the skills of blindness and DeafBlindness.
“The PTCB offers so much more than other services. I have learned Braille, technology, slate and stylus, cooking and more.” Deloris, Blind People in Charge Student, April 2015
The current model of in-home training, offered in extremely limited quantities by a small number of other organizations, is not economically sustainable and is not conducive to a high quality of service, as trainers and resources are spread too thin to be effective. For instance, valuable trainer time is often lost in travel. Furthermore, because Canadian communities are so spread out, it can be difficult to impossible to offer a sufficient level of instruction in every community.
As a result, many blind and DeafBlind Canadians currently receive little to no training in the skills of blindness or DeafBlindness. For example, is isn’t uncommon for blind or DeafBlind Canadians to receive only one or two lessons on using their white canes or for Braille not to be taught on the grounds that it is incorrectly believed to be too difficult for adults to learn. This severe lack in blindness/DeafBlindness skills training leaves the affected blind or DeafBlind Canadians dependent on others for many day-to-day tasks they could do themselves if given the proper training.
The goal of this component of the Bowen Island Centre for the Blind and DeafBlind project is to create a ten-month live-in blindness/DeafBlindness skills training program for blind, low vision, and DeafBlind Canadians from across the country, which will be the first of its kind in Canada. There is currently no other training centre in Canada that offers the same level of intensive, all-inclusive, live-in blindness/DeafBlindness skills training that will be offered by the Bowen Island Centre for the Blind and DeafBlind project.
The blindness/DeafBlindness skills training program will be housed at a centre on Bowen Island. Up to 16 students at a time will enroll in the program for between one to ten months. From Monday to Friday, students will take a 9am to 5pm curriculum of classes in blindness/DeafBlindness skills training, including Braille, assistive technologies, cane travel, cooking and life skills, recreation, effective time management and budgeting, resume building, job readiness and a positive outlook on blindness/DeafBlindness. These classes help blind and DeafBlind Canadians to live full and independent lives and to obtain and maintain employment. In the last month of the program, students will participate in a job internship or volunteer placement. Students will attend classes at the centre where the training is held. Some blindness/DeafBlindness skills topics, such as travel and confidence-building activities, will be taught partially in public spaces, such as malls and public transportation in the Metro Vancouver area.
“I was skeptical and scared before coming to the center. I didn’t think I could do things without my vision. Now I am actually teaching others how to do things like deciphering the dots on the money, putting batteries into devices, measuring, cutting etc. … I always used to ask … for help because I thought I couldn’t do it. Now I always try to do it on my own.” Kashmere, Blind People in Charge Student, 2016
Students will live in on-site residences in pods designed to emulate apartment life, allowing them to use the skills they are learning in the blindness/DeafBlindness skills training program. Two students will share each pod and all pods will be located close together to promote friendship, bonding, and an environment in which students can mentor each other. A Student Support Worker will live in a dwelling at the centre and someone will be on call at all times.
The program is based on an innovative model of blindness training called Structured-Discovery learning, developed by blind people at the National Federation of the Blind in the United States. In the traditional method, the trainer uses verbal approximations of the visual experience and step-by-step instructions to teach. This method requires constant monitoring and follow-up. Structured-Discovery, on the other hand, gives students the skills required to react to new environments. This model teaches blind and DeafBlind people how to problem solve, make their own decisions, have high expectations of themselves and other blind and DeafBlind people, and take charge of their own lives. Students learn from competent blind and DeafBlind instructors in an atmosphere of dignity, self-respect and equality.
As James Omvig, a prominent blind scholar, says, a successful blindness training centre must instill a belief in its students that “blind people are simply normal people who cannot see and that the average blind person can live a normal life and compete on terms of absolute equality with people who are sighted, if given proper training and opportunity” (Omvig 2002).
The Structured-Discovery method is currently being used by the PTCB and Camp Bowen as well as by rehabilitation centres in the United States, most notably, the highly successful, world-renowned National Federation of the Blind (NFB) centres in Louisiana, Minnesota and Colorado, where 80% of graduates find employment or pursue post-secondary education that leads to employment (National Federation of the Blind), and where centre graduates earn on average $11,000 more per year than people who have not graduated from a centre (Louisiana Tech Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness, 2011).
In addition to using the Structured-Discovery training model, we will also draw inspiration from leading research on blindness and DeafBlindness rehabilitation from around the world.
As part of their training, students will be expected to complete specific graduation projects, designed to increase their confidence. For example, they will cook a meal for 40 people; do a “drop route” (in which a student is taken to an undisclosed location in Metro Vancouver, and expected to find their way to a designated location independently); and do an out-of-town travel route (e.g. Victoria or Kelowna). Through these projects, students will learn they can perform successfully in challenging tasks which they thought were beyond their capabilities due to their blindness or DeafBlindness.
The most effective way for a blind or DeafBlind person to learn is from a role model who lives the realities of blindness or DeafBlindness. Peer support provided by the blindness/DeafBlindness skills training program will reinforce the lessons taught in the classes as well as allow staff and students to work together to answer each other’s questions. Mentors will be a combination of blind/DeafBlind staff and volunteers. Several times a month, sometimes on evenings and weekends, students, together with their mentors, will do many activities and tasks designed to increase confidence. They will rock climb, hike, sail, learn self-defence, plant a garden, do tactile art projects, explore the performing arts, and more. They will learn that blindness and DeafBlindness does not have to limit them, and that blind and DeafBlind people can live full, well-rounded lives.
During weekly seminars, students and their mentors will also discuss myths and misconceptions about blindness and DeafBlindness and will promote positive attitudes. Students, together with their mentors, will explore real-life situations blind and DeafBlind people often face in their daily encounters with the public. These kinds of discussions will help students deal with all aspects of blindness or DeafBlindness and equip them with the confidence and belief in themselves needed to become capable, contributing citizens. As part of the seminars, staff, guest speakers, and other mentors will introduce students to organizations of the blind and DeafBlind and to successful people who are blind and DeafBlind.
Why a Live-In Program?
Unlike traditional home or community-based day programs, which are usually only able to provide minimal training per month, a live-in program provides long-term intensive quality instruction to those seeking to become fully independent. This gives all Canadians who are blind or DeafBlind an equal opportunity to learn valuable life skills that they can take back to their home communities. Another benefit of bringing people who are blind and DeafBlind together for training is that it provides opportunities for peer support. Friendships developed with peers who have had similar challenges and who are going through the same learning experiences provide emotional and practical support to students, who often become life-long mentors to each other.
By removing students from their home environments, students can learn away from the influence of well-meaning but often overprotective families. Immersing students in a new environment also helps students develop new habits and ways of thinking, leading to greater success when returning home.
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