“When I sat in the ophthalmologist’s office and they told me I was going to be blind, I was just in total shock. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
The diagnosis was retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that causes escalating tunnel vision. He was legally blind by age 23.
It took some time, but he didn’t shelter in place. With adaptation, he returned to day-to-day living and now leads a full life.
“I spent 20 years working on, how do I help people do that?” he said.
He is now a social worker with Vision Loss Rehabilitation, a division of CNIB Newfoundland and Labrador
He moved to St. John’s from Ontario in February for the opportunity.
In the new job, he helps people adjust to vision loss and live independent, healthy lives.
It goes beyond peer support and advocacy.
“It’s social work. It’s counselling with our clients,” he said.
The job requires his training and experience — he earned a master’s in social work in 2015 — but also draws on his personal experience.
Crises of confidence
The last Canadian Survey on Disability was released in 2012. It found the average age of onset for disabilities to be between ages 40 and 45. That includes impairment of quality of life based on pre-existing conditions.
At the same time, people born with mobility or sensory differences — including some who recently spoke to The Telegram — said they’ve hit setbacks. Among them: a lack of basic accommodation and being continually forced to self-advocate for standards that are already in place.
Roughly one in every seven Canadians has a disability.
Angus talked about the changes that come with the onset of visual impairment. There’s everything from losing your driver’s licence to losing the ability to see doorframes and stairs, and how you respond to that.
“Many people are diagnosed and then: ‘I’m blind, I can’t do anything.’ Well, that’s just not the case,” he said.
“And it’s just, how do we encourage people? How do we — from a person-centred perspective — how do we help people attain that level of self-confidence that they can do pretty much anything they want to do, it’s just we just do it differently?”
Ready for guests
CNIB offers supports to anyone experiencing any degree of vision loss or impairment. But Angus said there’s also a lot individuals can do, even at home, to create more inclusive communities.
Small changes, like contrasting trim or washroom grab bars, typically don’t require the expense of a contractor
“We can also look at it as a continuum of how do we start, at least, in terms of aging in place or a visitable home?” said Emily Christy, executive director with the Coalition for Persons with Disabilities in Newfoundland and Labrador (COD-NL).
“If I want to invite my friend over or coworker over to my home for a cup of tea, can they get into my home? Can they get into the washroom there?”
For homeowners, building with more flexible spaces and setting the stage for simpler renovations could allow more people to “age in place.” The provincial Liberals made that a buzz phrase while they were campaigning in 2015.
And there is a movement to use more universal design to build truly accessible and inclusive homes.
COD-NL recommends considering accessibility at the time of purchase, whether it’s for the movements of a stroller if you’re hoping to have children, or the ability to live with reduced mobility at any time.
The organization is working with the province’s Disability Policy Office. A provincial task force has been created to promote universal design in new home builds, essentially making homes work better for everyone.
Under the current Buildings Accessibility Act, private homes do not have to be universally accessible.
Newer multi-unit apartment and condo buildings have requirements for set numbers of fully accessible units at the time of construction. Those depend on the size of the building.
By Ashley Fitzpatrick and Louis Power
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We can all make a difference
In terms of the physical environment, ask yourself: do you have trip hazards, or generally anything in the way of someone reaching your main door? Do you clear snow from the sidewalk in front of your house whenever possible in winter?
Alice Arns, an orientation and mobility specialist with the CNIB, said something as simple as a line of coloured paint at the edge of your front steps can help people with vision loss. Then, consider little things in communal spaces.
“You have Mr. Jones in a personal care home, where every day he goes down for his lunch and he has a transparent water glass with water in it. … So, he knocks it over on his neighbours sitting next to him and then he becomes embarrassed, he doesn’t want to go for lunch,” she said, describing a case she knows of where the simple fix was having one or two drinking glasses with bright prints, making them easier to see.
What does it mean to be legally blind?
The term “legally blind” means that, looking at the doctor’s chart, you wouldn’t see the large “E” at the top, even with your glasses on.
It can also refer to your field of vision. When looking straight ahead, if you can’t see more than roughly 20 degrees from centre (if you can’t see to 10 o’clock or two o’clock without turning your head), you could be diagnosed as legally blind.
The CNIB recommends regular eye checks, along with exercise and a healthy diet, to help avoid some common vision problems.