Heidi Propp navigates through her house with ease, and finds her computer. Her Braille translator allows her to read the screen line by line, or to program code for web design, one of her favourite hobbies.
Blind from birth, the 35-year-old Colwood woman appreciates the safety of her parent’s home, but is itching to find a job and a measure of independence.
But making that leap to what sighted people might take for granted – crossing the road, catching a bus, cooking, shopping – requires intensive training, the kind offered nowhere in Canada.
“With the travel skills I have, I can’t use the bus, and I can’t cross busy streets,” she says. “I don’t have the travel skills to learn the route from my house to the bus stop to downtown.”
Propp has received some cane training from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, but certainly not enough to allow her to safely walk from Kelly Road to Sooke Road and catch a bus. For day-to-day outings, she is reliant on handyDART, an appreciated but oversubscribed service often with more clients than seats.
“I really rely on handyDART to get from place to place at this stage. If that doesn’t come through, you stay at home or call a cab. That’s not conducive to getting a job,” she says.
Propp and a number of advocates for the blind are lobbying the provincial government to help her attend the Colorado Centre for the Blind. Students spend up to nine months honing their senses and mastering skills of everyday life. Propp has $13,000 scholarship and needs $27,000 to cover tuition, but she has an offer the province might find hard to refuse.
The Colorado centre will cover her costs up-front, in return for the province paying it $900 per month that would have gone to Propp for disability assistance, once she returns and finds a job.
She’s keen to work as a computer programmer, or to help train other people with visual impairments.
“So there’s no up-front cost to government and we’d like the government to pay what I would have earned on income assistance, so they’d lose nothing,” she said. “If the situation continued as it is, I’d be on income assistance anyway.”
Elizabeth Lalonde knows the benefits of training for the blind. The Saanich mother of two graduated from the Louisiana Centre for the Blind in 2010, where they learned self-reliance skills. Like an army ranger dropped into the jungle at night, they dropped Lalonde 10 kilometres away from the centre.
“They’d drop us off and we’d find our way back on our own. Once you accomplish that, it’s like wow, it feels so good to get to that point,” she said. “You live in apartments, every day it’s like you’re working at a job. At the centre you’re learning Braille, technology, cooking. We created a big meal for 40 people. It’s a lot of confidence building. If you can cook for 40, you can cook for your family.”
Lalonde launched the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind in 2011, which operates out of a scouts hall in Saanich. This winter she received a $50,000 grant from the Ministry of Social Development and the Disability Without Poverty Network, to teach employment skills to blind adults.
“One problem is that all our participants don’t have the skills to get to the centre on their own, but it is so doable. I take the bus every day with my two boys,” she said. “It’s so vital to have these skills.”
She models her centre off the Colorado institution, where it teaches “structural discovery” in complete darkness – even partially sighted people wear blindfolds.
Students are taught to construct a map of their environment through the position of the sun, sounds of cars and people, and changes in the texture of the ground. Traditional training for the blind has focused on rote memorization of specific unbending routes such as between home and a job.
“The expectations of the blind in society are terribly low. We’re trying to raise the bar for blind people too. (Blind people) often don’t know what they are capable of,” said Lalonde, who earned a BA in journalism and anthropology from the University of Victoria. “The model we teach is different, it’s about empowering blind people and giving them confidence to learn skills and to take charge of their own life.”
Propp attends the Pacific Training Centre twice per week where clients have trained in cooking and urban navigating, but the facility is still too small to advance her skill set to a place where she can hunt for a job.
“I have no apprehensions cooking. I have apprehensions of getting hit by a car. There’s not a lot of sidewalks around here. Sooke Road is tricky. I’m not confident crossing that street. Once I get that training and conquer that fear, I will totally catch the bus. It’s the only way to be independent.”
Propp also spends a few days per week in the gym with Graeme McCreath, a visually impaired physiotherapist in Saanich and author of The Politics of Blindness. He’s helping Propp press her case for the government to underwrite her proposal to go to Colorado.
McCreath, 67, who last year won a human rights complaint against the TC10K race, received job training for the blind in the U.K. in the 1960s, and worked as a typist and eventually as a physiotherapist. Skills training in Canada is virtually nonexistent and unemployment among the blind is extremely high, he said.
The Canadian Federation of the Blind estimates 90 per cent of completely or mostly blind people can’t find a job.
“The system isn’t kind to blind people at all,” McCreath said. “The unemployment stats are terrible. The majority of blind people never work, not because they can’t, but because they’re not given a little extra help.”
McCreath expects that if Propp can’t get skills training, she’ll be on social assistance and living at her parent’s house for the rest of her life.
“You can’t just pay someone $900 a month to go away. Why not give them a chance to contribute to society, and give them an expectation of a proper life.”
Click here for more on the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind.