Poe (the client’s preferred name for this interview) was born in Burma in 1972, a Karen ethnic. He volunteered at a clinic in a refugee camp before turning blind. Between 1995 and 2006 he lived in a refugee camp, moving to Canada in 2007 with his wife and young daughter.
The room at Accesspoint on Jane hosting our interview is spacious and lined with children’s toys and picture books; large windows flood it with ample sunlight that bounces off the colourful posters on the walls. To many, this visual scene is taken for granted, but not for the client, to whom I give a detailed account of the surroundings with every step he takes around the room. He learns English words as he moves along, touching furniture pieces and objects and repeating the English names I put forward. Eventually, the client, going by the name Poe, sits across from me, comfortable and aware of his environment despite his blindness.
Several months before, Poe’s registered dietician (RD) at Access Alliance, Jennifer Atkins, had invited him to feel around the room to orient himself, while narrating what was around him the whole while. Poe now shares how valuable that small-seeming action was in helping him rediscover his abilities.
“I have been with Access Alliance since I arrived in Canada in 2007”, he says. “Since then, they have really done the best they could for me and other newcomers. Feeling around the room at each appointment is a very good way to know where I am; I also learn some English words, which I then go home and practice.”
Speaking on the life changing impact that Access Alliance has made upon him, Poe remarks how for the most part it has transformed his attitude and perspective on his disability.
“I used to always think, ‘I am blind, I cannot do anything for myself or my family.’ Now I do not think like that anymore, those thoughts are disappearing. I initially didn’t attend any programs when I first started here, not knowing how to travel alone. But from this year, I’ve been able to travel by myself; I’ve attended sessions with my [former] dietitian Yousra, as well as the six week diabetes prevention program, which motivated me to look forward to my life and look after my diet better.”
When asked how his journey towards independence began, his response is truly inspiring.
“What really made me start to be independent was changing my thoughts and attitude. Not being able to see once overwhelmed me. With a lot of counselling and encouragement from my RDs and interpreter JulieAnna, I realized we need to have goals in our lives, and even with my visual impairment, I can be independent. I have so far only traveled independently to Access Alliance, but I definitely plan to learn how to get to other places in the coming future. With more practice, I know I can do it.”
His disability aside, Poe states the greatest issues his family faces as newcomers to Canada with limited English proficiency (LEP) is language support and housing assistance; the strains of which create great stress and lack of well-being.
“Access Alliance has been very helpful to my family and I in terms of giving us language support and advocating for family support. It would be great if every organization in this city could give the same type of support services. I worry about the future, as I get older, what kind of support would be available for my family and I when we need to travel and such? My second concern is housing. Rent prices are expensive and I’ve applied long ago for social housing. Only my wife is working; as a woman she tries her best but it pains me that I cannot support her and my child who is still small. I cannot find work because of my disability, and I worry a lot about the future.”
Poe concludes with a wish that people in his position could be given greater consideration by the government in terms of social support. He believes Access Alliance has given him a new lease of life in learning to rethink his situation; in a journey that began with a few steps around a room, Poe is now confident that things can only get better with time, learning and support.
By Yohani Mendis