When a barista waves at Gina Huylenbroeck to step up and make an order, she doesn’t react.
As a person with low vision, she’s unaware an interaction even took place. When a voice says, “next” – that’s her cue.
“[People who are blind] have had to learn how to adapt to a world that favours those who are visually capable,” said Huylenbroeck, a peer support coordinator at Victoria Disability Resource Centre.
“We need to touch, feel and sense things to understand what they are. I like to think that it’s our way of seeing differently.”
The Victoria woman says the lack of social interaction during the pandemic has made it tougher for people who are blind to feel confident day-to-day. Something as simple as getting to a coffee shop can be a challenge.
Not only does she have to navigate the hustle and bustle of a busy sidewalk, but face coverings can inhibit her sense of smell, which helps her determine whether she passed a target landmark, such as a restaurant or bakery.
Once she arrives, she’s not sure whether to enter as each storefront has a different maximum amount of people allowed inside at one time. At the counter, it’s hard to tell where a voice is coming from with the sound dispersed through Plexiglas. With every exit-only door she walks out of, she takes a moment to gather her bearings.
But Gina is prepared for whatever obstacle life may throw at her.
The 46-year-old was diagnosed with progressive cone dystrophy at 19, which meant her central vision would gradually deteriorate while her peripheral vision would also worsen. In 2016, she decided to attend a full-time training centre for the blind in Louisiana, USA.
After nine months of intensive training, she returned to Victoria with a renewed sense of independence.
“I was worried for a long time about the stigma around cane usage,” Huylenbroeck said. “I can’t see someone’s face for their reaction so it doesn’t matter what they think. I’m able to enjoy more things in life with the help of my cane.”
That freedom isn’t something every person with blindness enjoys.
In Canada, there are no full-time training programs available for people with blindness. Huylenbroeck used a grant and funds from a GoFundMe to travel and pay for her training.
“You can’t just learn how to be confident overnight,” said Elizabeth Lalonde, executive director at Pacific Training Centre for the Blind. She has the same condition as Huylenbroeck and completed the same training in 2010.
She oversees Blind People in Charge, a part-time program in Victoria teaching skills for people with blindness to be self-reliant since 2014.
The program provides non-visual training such as understanding Braille, cooking and cleaning, travelling with a cane and using phones and laptops. It can be tailored to the individual based on what they’re looking for and how much time they can commit.
“We provide these free of charge because we believe it’s a basic right,” Lalonde said. “It’s been especially tough during the pandemic because we can’t meet in person as much and most training is very hands-on.”
Due to the pandemic, most instructors reach out to their students over Zoom or phone call. Tactile-skills such as cooking or learning how to cross a street can’t be easily taught without a guiding hand.
In September, the centre opened again to limited in-person meetings.
“I dream of the day when we can have an actual residential program where people have the option to leave their regular lives for six to nine months,” Lalonde said.
“With that investment in training, they can become much more independent. But right now it’s really lacking in Canada.”
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