Faced With Unique Pandemic Challenges, CNIB Takes Support Of Vision Loss Community To New Heights


The Canadian National Institute for the Blind supports people of all age who have vision loss


By Spencer van Vloten

BC Disability


Living in a time marked by keeping distance and limiting touch has had a pronounced impact on the vision loss community. Perhaps no organization knows this better than the Canadian National Institute for the Blind Foundation (CNIB), which works nationally to support blind Canadians.


BC Disability's Spencer van Vloten talked with CNIB's Shoko Kitano about their current projects, common misconceptions about blindness, and the unique challenges the pandemic has created for the vision loss community.


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Spencer: First, tell us what CNIB does for the vision loss community


Shoko: Our programs can be broken into categories like live, play, and work.


Live: Our peer support programs are in high demand now. We offer this 1 on 1, as well as in support groups for adjustment to vision loss. It doesn’t matter if there's a pandemic or not, because there are always people who lose their vision and need support. It can be an isolating experience, so creating a support network is very, very important.


Play: These programs offer fun and social connection through activities like song bingo, seated or standing fitness, cooking classes, book and writing clubs, and more.


Work: Finding employment is often challenging for people with vision loss, and many blind persons who were employed lost their jobs during the pandemic.


We hold blindness specific workshops, such as teaching visually challenged participants tips about using body language and other skills in order to help them be more competitive with their sighted peers who are also looking for work. We also match job seekers with sight loss to mentors in the workforce, as well as providing outreach and education to employers.


The Phone It Forward program provides free smartphones with assistive apps downloaded to them


Technology is also a huge issue for people with vision loss, especially during the pandemic when everything is virtual. We help educate the vision loss community about assistive technologies, so they can continue to learn, get jobs, and have the type of support they need to adapt successfully.


Through our Phone It Forward program, they can also get a free smartphone with assistance apps downloaded for them.


Spencer: There has been much coverage of your guide dog program. Why is there such a demand for guide dogs now?

With a soaring demand within Canada for guide dogs, CNIB is reaching out for guide dog sponsors


Shoko: Many Canadians with sight loss travel to the US to get guide dogs, but because of the pandemic's travel restrictions, this has become much harder, and we’ve seen a 300 percent increase in demand for guide dogs within Canada. We want to provide a greater opportunity for Canadians with vision loss to have these dogs, because they provide such good support, so we started this initiative to help meet the growing demand.


Spencer: How does the age at which someone loses their vision impact how they adapt to vision loss?


Shoko: People enter the vision loss world at different ages. If they're born blind, and grow up living with it and the adaptations that they need to be successful, a lot will come naturally and easily to them, with little adjustment required.


But for someone not born with vision issues, who acquired them later in life, it can be a harder adjustment. They can no longer do things they'd been doing their whole life, and it is very challenging, frustrating, and often disheartening and isolating.


So adjustment to vision loss is a really big focus of our work--to help people shift their thinking about how to approach issues they may have previously handled in different ways, to help them learn new skills, and to help them get through the psychological challenges that come with acquired vision loss.


Spencer: Where are supports most lacking for the vision loss community? Are there any particular measures that you think should be taken to remedy this?


Shoko: Much of the support needs to be made at a societal level.


Patience and compassion are big ones, especially right now, and they don't require a specific policy change. Protocol may say to social distance, but someone with vision loss may not be able to follow this as easily as most people given their reliance on touch. People need to be understanding and recognize that not everyone can do things in the same way.


Another one is to never assume and always ask. For example, if someone is walking with a white cane or guide dog, a good intentioned person might come up and grab their arm to guide them across street, assuming they need help. But that is very rude and very dangerous , because it can disorient the person to the area. Always ask first if someone needs help.


At the policy level, CNIB wants to ensure that the vision loss community is included in the development of accessibility legislation. We need our voices reflected in the legislation for it to truly be inclusive and for it to actually help with accessibility for the vision loss community.


Spencer: What are the most common misconceptions the public has when it comes to people with vision loss?


Shoko: The public often thinks that all blind people are totally blind, but 90 percent of the vision loss community has some sight and there is great diversity among them. Some people might still have light perception, meaning they can see light and shadows coming in; some people may have central loss, while others just have peripheral loss.


An additional aspect of this is that some people were born blind, and the skills needed to adapt come naturally to them; it's all they've known.


For others, vision loss comes much later and they're still in the process of adjusting to it,

so while blind people are often spoke about as one uniform group, there is great diversity to what type of vision loss they have and how adapted they are to it.


There is great diversity to what type of vision loss they have and how adapted they are to it

Another misconception is that blind people will always use a cane or a guide dog, but that is not always the case and many people with vision loss use neither. This can lead to misunderstandings, insensitivity, and other issues with people who assume that the person must not have vision loss if they don't use a cane or have a dog with them.


Spencer: How has the pandemic uniquely impacted people with vision loss?


Shoko: Many people with vision loss rely on touch, but now with social distancing aren't supposed to get close to people, so there have been some challenges.


Image the reaction blind people are getting on a skytrain or bus, having to use their sense of touch to find a seat, and in the process getting close to people who have come to expect that no one is supposed to get near them.


Another issue has been with grocery stores. Most have the direction arrows on the floor, but they’re not tactile, and they’re really sleek and a tripping hazard. If you don’t see them, you can't recognize direction or store specific protocols. It's a similar issue with certain entrances and exits in stores now being prohibited without any tactile indication.


People in the vision loss community have been getting called out or shamed--‘hey, you’re not supposed to go that way’, ‘you’re getting to close’--by people with no regard for their situation.


It can be very frustrating, being penalized for something they have no control over, and insensitivities that existed before the pandemic have been taken to new heights.


Insensitivities that existed before the pandemic have been taken to new heights

We've also been approached by many people who have been denied services. Fewer places are able to provide sighted guides because of social distancing, for example.


Many people with vision loss have other disabilities and also use other organizations, but some of these organizations aren’t aware of blindness specific challenges and aren't able to provide suitable support in the pandemic era.


Spencer: What does 2021 and beyond hold for CNIB?


Shoko: While I've mentioned some of the challenges of the pandemic, it's also shown us the power of virtual programming to remove barriers, to reach new communities, and to bring people across the country together. In fact, we are reaching more people now than ever before.


2021 and beyond will continue to have virtual platforms as an option for programs and services, but it cannot replace in-person services. So we’re aiming for hybrid model combining approaches, and want to make sure that vision loss community is represented at all levels of government, to ensure the pandemic's impact on our community is not overlooked.


Moving forward, CNIB is better equipped to meet the needs of the vision loss community than ever before.


Spencer: How can people support CNIB?


Shoko: Volunteers! We're always looking for virtual vision mates to make personal connections and have fun with members of our community, as well as volunteers who can help with grocery shopping and prescription pickups


Donations are another way. We rely 100 percent on donations and every bit makes a difference. You can also take part in our online bridge tournament that we're holding on March 7th. It's good fun for a good cause.


And, if you're a business owner or employer, we'd love to have you partner with the Come to Work program as a mentor to job seekers with vision loss.


This type of support makes a huge difference in the lives of people with vision loss, not only helping the participants in our programs, but also creating more inclusive, accessible communities for everyone.


Like most Canadians, we are facing new challenges, but we're adapting and looking forward to the future.


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Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to spencer@bcdisability.com!