It’s the blind leading the blind at the Pacific Training Centre in Victoria and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
The training centre, run out of the Victoria Disability Resource Centre, specializes in teaching people who either are completely blind or in the process of losing their vision everyday skills that enable them to live an independent life.
Skills such as reading braille, travelling with a long white cane — indoors and outdoors — and using voice controlled laptops and smart phones along with cooking and general life skills are taught by teachers who are blind themselves, offering a better understanding of what life is like without sight.
Elizabeth Lalonde, executive director of the centre, was born without her sight. As the only blind child in her school, Lalonde was integrated with the rest of her classmates leaving her with little specialized training.
“So I didn’t learn braille as a young child,” says Lalonde. “And just like any language, the younger you learn the better because you can absorb it.”
Reading print was also possible for her so long as the letters were massive when Lalonde was young, but as her vision digressed she had to switch to cassette tape audio books to help her get through school and eventually university.
“I don’t know if I started out an audio learner, but I certainly became one,” she laughs.
It wasn’t until Lalonde got the chance to attend the Louisiana Centre for the Blind, a residential training facility that focuses on self-sufficiency and independence, that she realized her dream was to take the teachings and bring them to the Canada.
Spending nine months at the centre, learning blind skills with 30 other blind adults, Lalonde says the experience changed her life completely.
“It’s quite profound the changes in real life,” she says. “They really challenged what I thought I was capable of.”
Josh Yates, a student and employee of the centre, was born with a degenerative condition leaving him with severe tunnel vision.
“It’s like looking through a toilet paper roll,” says Yates. “Of the 180 degrees of peripheral vision that most people have, I’ve got about 5 — so if I look at your nose now, I can’t see your chin.”
Yates is currently learning braille which allows him to read in the dark, something he can’t do right now, along with cane travelling skills making things ‘a lot easier and safer’ for independent travel.
“In my personal opinion, a bad attitude is the biggest disability you can have,” says Yates. “There are a lot of people who say ‘oh, it sucks that you are losing your vision,’ but no it really doesn’t — [people] make it a bigger deal than I do.”
Yates says while there are things he’s wanted to do and now knows he can’t, he doesn’t let that take away from living his life to the fullest.
“Things like parkour — I like to do the crazy stuff — and parkour is not a good idea for me,” says Yates very matter-of-fact. “But that doesn’t stop me from doing other things that I enjoy and still do.”
Will Arnold lost his vision in a 2011 accident. He says life felt like it was at a standstill and was really boring before he found the centre.
“After coming to the centre, it took a while for things to get going but it was definitely a noticeable improvement on the first day,” says Arnold. “Everything just started happening, not directly connected to the centre — the timing was right I guess.”
One of the requirement to graduate the program is cooking a meal for eight people all by themselves. a task that encompasses all the skills taught at the centre and highlighting the students independence.
“We have a freedom bell [at the graduation ceremony], we give everyone a little bell and they ring it and it signifies that you’re free now and you can what you want,” says Lalonde.
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