Ian Stoba, who grew up in West Vancouver, heads a team at Google whose work helps blind people see. PNG
On the other end of the phone line in the Seattle area, Ian Stoba held his phone up to his computer screen and it began reading the vancouversun.com page open on his computer screen to a listener in Vancouver.
“Just pointing it at the computer screen, it is able to read the text,” said Stoba, who grew up in West Vancouver.
It’s a Google app that is coming to Canada soon, one that alerts people with impaired vision of obstacles in their way and reads text to them.
What drew him to the accessibility team at Google?
Well, there’s the company’s corporate mission statement, for one: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Not everyone is as well-served as others are by existing technology, however. Like people who are blind, say, on the eve of Thursday’s World Sight Day.
“The idea is to try to use the data that exists in the world, find the information to make it useful to people,” Stoba said. “I was really interested in the intersection of technology and testability, and ways we could use some of the technology that was being developed at Google in ways that were genuinely helpful.”
Thus his phone reading The Vancouver Sun to a reporter inside the newspaper’s newsroom in East Van.
Google Accessibility’s app, Lookout, isn’t yet available in Canada but will be soon, the company says.
Among the app’s abilities is it can tell you what’s on the menu, if you’re at the correct gate at the airport, whether you’re about to walk into something (“chair at 12 o’clock”), just generally help people who are blind or have low sight identify objects in the world around them and navigate their way around all the written words that are out there.
“We call it environmental text,” Stoba said. “The amount of printed materials people interact with every day, for people who can’t see they don’t have access to that.”
One example the 53-year-old gives of environmental text is a person who was doing some work with his team and who used a guide dog.
“Guide dogs, like all dogs of course, need to go outside periodically, right? And so he’d taken his dog out and it was a nice day, he was sitting on a bench where the dog had helped guide him to. But what the dog couldn’t tell him was that there was a sign on the bench that said, ‘Wet paint.’ ”
The app, Stoba said, is a complement to guide dogs, white canes and echo location, and it’s pretty amazing, he said.
There are many winds in the road that brought him eventually to this project, but one thing that got him interested in helping people who are blind was watching a cousin, Barbara Morrison, translate Braille.
“I grew up hearing a lot about the work she had done, she was a multilingual Braille translator. She’d translate books, for example, from Japanese print to English Braille. One of the things that got me the most about the work she was doing … first of all, I thought that was fascinating while I was struggling with French lessons and she was translating all these different languages into Braille.
“But then she described the difficulty of things like illustrations or books that had cartoons in them and trying to explain visual humour in a way that was both concise and accurate enough for people to be able to follow along in Braille.”
It’s a bit, he added, like the area that Lookout operates in today, helping provide visual descriptions for things people with limited or no vision to perceive or interact with.
“It’s an interested thing as a sighted person to become a little more conscious of how much textual information you get from text that’s around us all the time,” he said. “I do joke about that paint sign, but it is a real thing. Just look around you and count how many signs or banners or bumper stickers or mail you get at home, it might have text that’s important or relevant to you, so you can really begin to see the value of something like this.”
Seniors using walkers and others struggling with disabilities need others, including policy makers, to help them and be throughtful about their unique needs. (Brian Thompson/POSTMEDIA FILES) Brian Thompson / Brian Thompson/The Expositor
Recently, I have been using a walker to avoid falling. It’s a different world out there when you use a walker, canes or other mobility devices.
In my mind and dreams I am still agile, moving swiftly and without thought. In reality, I have slowed to a walk. It is dawning on me that limits to my mobility are now my world, a scary one, and I must get used to it. Falls are a leading cause of death and disability among Canadian seniors and are increasing dramatically as baby boomers age.
I am sharing my new world because the federal government has proclaimed May 27 — June 2 as National AccessAbility week, to increase awareness of barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating in society.
The federal Accessible Canada Act is scheduled to become law before Parliament rises in June, requiring public and federally regulated private companies to make their services accessible for Canadians with disabilities. Provinces should follow.
Barriers involve buildings, technology and even attitudes. Here are some I encounter.
Pedestrian crossings are terrifying as warning lights count down the time. Can I make it across?
Sidewalks are minefields of cracks and raised cement slabs. That tiny slope I once crossed in one stride has become a ski hill.
Curbs separating sidewalks from streets seem insurmountable. My Vancouver condo’s fire door is a struggle to open when I cart groceries. So are most store doors.
Many public events effectively exclude the disabled. I didn’t attend a recent Walrus magazine lecture on “Inclusion,” featuring advocate Rick Hansen, because the outside parking lot organizers directed me to was too far away to manage with my walker.
Peoples’ attitudes can be obstacles for the disabled. Struggling to lift my walker to the sidewalk from a rain-soaked gutter, I called for help to a young woman approaching me. “I can’t stop,” she answered as she hurried by. “I am going to a job interview.” Not in customer service, I hope.
A woman behind me in a café line up demanded: “Please move over” as I tottered on my urban poles on an inclined entry. As if I could.
Able-bodied people use handicapped bathrooms. They have a choice. We don’t.
One B.C. Ferries deckhand threatened to leave me ashore at the terminal when I asked to park on the upper deck alongside a B.C. Ferries van, refusing to go into the hold under a lowered ramp, afraid I could drown in the dark if the elevators broke down in an emergency.
Ferries are a challenge. Two of three elevators were not working on a recent voyage. On the return, I was parked by the broken midship elevator, forced to thread my walker through the packed cars, hoping the aft elevator worked. Another passenger cried because she couldn’t get her mother’s wheelchair out of their car.
Still, I am amazed at the kindness of people who volunteer to stow my walker into my car and stop to open doors.
The Shoppers Drug salesperson who picked up a cosmetic item her store didn’t stock and delivered it to my door on her day off.
Our condo janitor, who checks the swimming pool to ensure I am OK. The storekeeper who came to help me out of that soggy gutter. A ferry deckhand who took my keys and parked my car in a safe place.
Friends who pick up groceries and volunteer to drive me to events. HandiDART buses with their helpful drivers. Events that advertise accessibility options. People who are aware that removing barriers enable all Canadians to participate in society.
People who are AccessAbility challenged must speak up. We have the right to “reasonable accommodation” under human-rights laws. We are still ourselves, the people we always were. Others, be aware. Think how you would walk in our shoes. Chances are you will.
Pat Carney, author and retired federal politician, is an arthritis research advocate and lives on Saturna Island.
Mac enjoys his cake at his retirement party at the University of the Fraser Valley last week. University of the Fraser Valley
After 13 years, Mac the golden retriever will no longer wear the blue-and-yellow vest that identified him as a working dog.
The canine counsellor — the Pacific Assistance Dog Society’s (PADS) longest-serving member — retired last week after a career that saw him become the first registered therapy dog in the world to work with a counsellor in a non-residential setting.
He was also the first to work full time in a hospice and the first to work as a therapy dog with students at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“He’s a trailblazer — or maybe we should say a tail-blazer,” said his owner Dawn Holt, a clinical counsellor who works in UFV’s counselling department. “I think some of those firsts are due to him doing it for so long.”
In addition to supporting students, Mac has helped dozens of people across B.C. through traumatic events, including some of the province’s biggest disasters. He received an “Above and Beyond” award for selflessness in service after the 2017 wildfires. He’s also supported police, consoling officers during funerals, and calmed victims in crisis.
Mac has always had a “calm, mellow, gentle, sweet nature,” said Holt. From his puppy days, he’s been able to detect stress and sadness. “In a room full of people, he’ll go to the person who needs him the most.”
PADS trainers noticed this trait when Mac was young and began to train him as a therapy dog. A volunteer with PADS at the time, Holt began her career as a clinical counsellor at the same time Mac did. The two have always been partners, working in hospice, at UFV and in private practice.
But while Mac is officially retired, he won’t disappear from campus or from his patients’ lives. He can still be seen at the university, albeit without his recognizable vest. Instead, he now wears a UFV T-shirt.
“He doesn’t have that mantle of responsibility anymore,” said Holt.
Students have been surprised to discover that without his vest, Mac is a little more goofy. He’s now allowed to roll around on the campus lawns and sniff bushes.
“I guess he’s been wanting to sniff those bushes for the last 13 years,” quipped Holt. “He knows the difference between the vest, which he wore when he was working, and the T-shirt. He knows the T-shirt is somewhere between full-on work and relaxing at home.”
Holt explained a therapy dog works in two ways. First, they create a physiological response in patients, offering unconditional friendship, which can slow breathing, calm the body and reduce stress hormones. They also work to “build a bridge” between counsellor and patient, calming fears and building trust so the counsellor can do her work.
Mac doesn’t take his work home with him. A good therapy dog can “shake off” a heavy session, literally shaking his coat like he’s just gotten out of a lake.
“I’m so proud of him and the work he’s done,” said Holt.
As she bounces nine-month-old Delilah on her knee, Amber Hawse pauses reflectively before answering a question about what she thinks she and her baby will be doing in five years.
Hawse, 20, hopes by then to have graduated from college and to have a job as a special-needs support worker. Delilah will be in kindergarten. And they will live together in their own place with enough money for food, basic expenses and peace of mind.
Her goals may seem modest, but the reality is that 20 per cent of children in B.C. live in poverty and their families struggle to provide the necessities of life, especially in Metro Vancouver with its sky-high cost of living.
Hawse knows this well, as a foster child who lurched from home to home, some of them abusive. At age 16, she was living on her own in an apartment run by a social service agency, learning to budget her meagre government payments while attending high school.
The well-spoken, thoughtful young woman hopes Delilah will not be trapped in a similar cycle. She wants to provide her daughter with financial and emotional stability — which starts with them remaining together.
“I grew up with no dad and no mom, so I don’t want to let her grow up with (being) in care and getting her abused. I want her to know she is always loved,” Hawse said, fighting back tears.
Poverty and other challenges facing youth, particularly in Metro Vancouver’s inner cities, were the focus of a recent brainstorming session during which dozens of service agencies and community members came together to discuss the root causes and possible solutions to these often multi-generational crises.
“People can easily become immune to seeing homeless people on the streets, but the poverty that children face is often hidden from us,” said Jennifer Johnstone, president of Central City Foundation, which organized the Hope Dialogue Series session. “And that makes (the depth of) child poverty a surprise to people sometimes.”
The Downtown Eastside has become the focal point, with many drawn there by its plethora of low-rent buildings and free food services. But poverty exists in many other pockets of Metro Vancouver, and affects the children of struggling parents as well as children without parents.
172,550 poor kids in B.C.
The statistics, say Central City, are stark:
• One in five of all B.C. children — 172,550 kids — lives in poverty, and that jumps to one in three for off-reserve Indigenous children.
• Nearly half of recent child immigrants are impoverished.
• Half of children in poverty are raised by single parents, mostly by mothers.
• Youth aging out of foster care are 200 times more likely to become homeless before the age of 25.
And research shows that disadvantaged children can be delayed mentally and physically due to a lack of nutrition, are more likely to struggle in school and end up unemployed, and are more prone to suffer from addictions and mental illness.
The trend is improving, though, as a quarter of all B.C. youth were impoverished a decade ago, compared to 20 per cent now, according to First Call’s annual Child Poverty Report Card. B.C.’s child poverty rate has been higher than the Canadian average for at least two decades, although that gap is narrowing.
Some of B.C.’s recent improvements can be credited to the new Child Tax Benefit introduced by Ottawa in 2016, and also promising are recent commitments by provincial and federal governments to adopt poverty-reduction plans, increase affordable housing, boost the minimum wage and introduce affordable daycare.
But there is more work to do to try to overcome the systemic marginalization that has led to this poverty — such as colonialism and residential schools that have brought a disproportionate number of Indigenous people into the Downtown Eastside, Johnstone said.
The October brainstorming session, which included groups such as the Urban Native Youth Association and the Aboriginal Mother Centre, was just the beginning of a very important conversation, she added.
“When we come together and see possibilities, that is the hope for change,” Johnstone said. “The children are the stewards of our future.”
Schools are more than education
Schools increasingly provide more than education to impoverished youth, especially in inner cities. But during long school breaks, at-risk children can be left without enough food, fun activities or emotional support to keep them safe during the day while their parents are working.
To bridge this gap, a unique organization called KidSafe runs full-day camps during Christmas holidays, March break and the summer at six east Vancouver schools, so 450 vulnerable children have a safe place to go each day for three healthy meals, fun activities and continued access to important services.
“The (camps) provide continuity for things like nutrition, healthy adult relationships, just somebody having eyes on a child,” said KidSafe executive director Quincey Kirschner, who attended the Hope Dialogue session.
“The demand is ever-increasing, and it is so awful to not have enough resources to be able to provide service to all the kids and families who need it.”
Poverty is one of the reasons some children are referred by teachers and others to KidSafe, but there are other factors as well, such as emotional vulnerability, she added.
For six years, Krista Ericson has relied on the three seasonal camps to help with her four children, who are in Grades 1 through 6 at Grandview/¿uuqinak’uuh Elementary in east Vancouver. The camps provide much-needed respite for the single mother, who fostered and then adopted the four Indigenous siblings who have a range of diagnoses that include fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“The support during the (school) breaks is life-saving to me,” said Ericson, who added it is difficult to keep the active, high-needs children at home all day. “To think of trying to find out-of-school care for four children, I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford full-time camps in the summer.”
She does not work outside the home, mainly because her days are consumed with hospital appointments and other commitments for the children.
Ericson lives in subsidized housing, shops for food that is on sale and in bulk, and is grateful for a myriad of programs — ranging from Backpack Buddies, which provides food to families for the weekends, to charity hampers and donated gifts at Christmas — that help her make ends meet.
When her children see other people with cellphones or trendy clothing, Ericson has her oft-repeated line: “I tell my kids, ‘That’s their family, and we do it differently in our family.’” She also uses the opportunity to teach her children that, although they live a modest life, they are better off than other students who don’t have enough food to eat or a safe place to sleep at night.
One of her top priorities is to include a lot of Indigenous culture in their home lives.
Indigenous culture creates ‘doorway into wellness’
After the brainstorming session in October, Central City compiled a summary of what they heard from the 100 people in attendance, and found that programs with cultural components, such as connections with elders and Indigenous languages, have been successful because they create “a doorway into wellness and community building.”
Other initiatives that are making a positive difference, the attendees said, were those that connect youth with relatives and meaningful people in their lives, as well as programs in which non-profits and service agencies work together to provide more comprehensive support to children.
The Central City summary also determined what isn’t working: Governments too often fund programs that treat problems once they start, rather than preventing them; a lack of affordable housing can lead to poverty and families losing their children; and there isn’t enough transition planning for youth aging out of care, who experience disproportionately high levels of mental illness, substance use and unemployment.
Aunt Leah’s Place, a New Westminster charity, has been helping children who age out of care for three decades, but 10 years ago it added a new element: soliciting financial support from foundations, corporations, governments and others to obtain specialized housing.
“That was done based on trends we saw around more and more young people who are aging out becoming homeless,” said president and CEO Sarah Stewart. “What we didn’t plan for is the opioid crisis — that’s been a double whammy for these young people. … They are dealing with daily grief connected to people they know who have died.”
Aunt Leah’s provided services to 345 youth last year — 41 foster children under age 19, 208 who had aged out, and 96 of their babies and children.
“The reality for youth aging out of foster care today is a lot of hardship,” said Stewart, who also attended the Hope Dialogue session.
There has been positive change in the last few years, such as free tuition and financial support for foster children to attend post-secondary schools. The provincial government has also expanded a program that will fund more life-skills training for these youth.
But, Stewart said, more subsidized housing is needed, along with better co-ordination between government agencies — such as education, health and child welfare — to look out for this population.
‘Just do what parents do’
The key to supporting youth coming out of care is simple, she argues — just do what parents do.
“Aunt Leah’s tries to replicate what families are doing for their kids,” Stewart said. “Parents are providing tuition, transportation, food, housing well into their 20s, so that is what we are doing. And that is what government should be doing.”
Hawse, though, was cast adrift. After being asked to leave her last foster home, the then-16-year-old moved into an apartment run by Aunt Leah’s, where teenage foster children live on their own but have access to support and training programs.
“For the first couple of nights that I was by myself, I cried because I wasn’t used to being in a house alone,” she said. “It’s very lonely.”
She received government funding of $70 a week for groceries, and learned to buy food on sale and collect grocery store points to get items for free. She also worked part-time while completing high school — a remarkable accomplishment, as less than half of foster children in B.C. graduate from Grade 12.
When she turned 19, Hawse was newly pregnant but had to leave her Aunt Leah’s apartment funded specifically for foster kids. She moved into emergency housing for several months before Aunt Leah’s could offer her a room in a building for new mothers.
She is getting by, for now, able to buy food, diapers and other necessities with the employment insurance and federal child tax she is collecting while off work with her baby. She hopes to return to her job at a local daycare, and to attend college next year to become a community and classroom support worker.
“I’ve been through a lot,” Hawse says. “But there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Some solutions for the future
Central City’s Johnstone says there are reasons to be optimistic. For example, her organization, which is a major sponsor of Aunt Leah’s, is also backing a unique new youth initiative in Surrey that will have a school program and government social workers located in the same place as a sort of one-stop shop for vulnerable kids.
And there are other organizations, such as Vancouver Native Health, launching innovative programs in the Downtown Eastside designed to keep families together, she said.
The summary from the brainstorming session came up with some solutions to work toward, although nearly everyone interviewed for this story admits there is no obvious quick fix to the deep-rooted problem of child poverty.
The goals for the agencies include expanding programs to support the family as a whole, not just the child alone; enlisting graduates of youth programs to return as mentors; and creating more hubs where multiple services can be offered in one place to at-risk families.
At Family Services of Greater Vancouver, many clients in the family preservation program are parents trying to keep their kids after the children’s ministry documented some type of child protection concern. Staff help them with a myriad of things, ranging from housing, daycare and community resources, to help with trauma, domestic violence or addictions.
“For many of our families, poverty is an issue and that becomes a barrier for everything. They don’t have money for housing, food or your basic needs,” said Susan Walker, a family preservation manager, adding that stress affects everything from going to school to having a healthy family relationship. “Poverty stops people from moving forward.”
The agency, which also attended the Hope Dialogue session, has joined with others to advocate for major changes. Karen Dickenson Smith, director of specialized family supports, said these include embedding support workers into more “creative” types of housing, larger subsidized homes to allow extended families to live together, better compensation for foster parents, and higher wages in the social services sector to reduce turnover and ensure continuity of care for youth.
“System change takes time. We’ve seen some really encouraging developments, but we are a ways off and there is a lot of work to do,” said Dickenson Smith.
Added her colleague, Walker: “Poverty is not going to end overnight, but if you have subsidized housing and people are given the opportunity to get the work they need to do in life to get a job, that can allow children stability.”
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