Dining in the Dark (Part 2)

Continued reflections on community meals & visual impairment… From David Neufeld

Personal Safety

Personal safety while dining among people with unpredictable behaviours is a concern. Vision loss makes it difficult to gauge situations and escape conflict. A sighted patron who has become agitated may misinterpret the presence of someone with a visual impairment, and may become hostile. Encouraging supportive participation from the wider community as dining companions not only can help those with visual impairments, but can also normalize tense environments with their presence.

Finding the Table

Visually impaired patrons appreciate being asked if they need help getting to an empty seat. Sometimes they know where there is an empty seat, while other times it is too difficult to know where the seats are and how to get to them. Asking is the best way to find out. If they want help, don’t grab them, but offer an elbow for them to hold as you lead them. Sitting at a quieter table with guests willing to assist and provide conversation is also appreciated.

Based on the venue and the person’s capability some diners may readily accept an offer to bring food to their table, while others will want to get their own or be guided to the serving area.

Finding Food at the Table

Many people with visual impairments rely heavily on their remaining sight. Good lighting and high visual contrast table settings are helpful. As shown in the picture above, identifying food with low vision is challenging. The photo on the left shows what a sighted person would see, while the photo on the right shows the reduced information that a visually impaired person may perceive of the same meal. This can result in an awkward moment when reaching into a bowl of chips, only to plunge one’s fingers into a soggy dish of warm hummus.

Patrons with no functional vision rely on being told where food is on their plate according to a clock face system. For instance, mashed potatoes at the 4:00 position, roast beef at 9:00, and carrots at 12:00. Some foods can be tricky to handle without vision, so volunteers could offer to cut up parts of the meal. The dining guest is the best source of information on how you can help them with any difficult menu items.

For a “taste” of dining without sight in Vancouver, consider visiting the Dark Table restaurant where the meal is served in the dark by visually impaired servers.

Speaking the Written Word

Reading ability ranges from difficult to impossible for someone with a visual impairment. Written menus and instructions should be read aloud. Visually impaired patrons should be offered assistance to fill out any forms or sign-up sheets, instead of being asked to find and fill them out themselves.

Parting Thoughts

I have met only one other visually impaired person at community meals, and both of us rely on our remaining vision. A few other visually impaired acquaintances recall church community meals, but most did not have any experience with community dining. Some did not have an economic or social need for a community meal, but many mentioned personal safety and accessible ambiance as concerns that would keep them away. For the most part, there was little awareness of community meals. Spreading awareness of community meals suitable for those with visual impairments according to the previous issues of safety, ambience, accessibility and assistance may bring a few more patrons who could benefit from sharing food together.

Dining in the Dark (Part 1)

From David Neufeld, a friend of Planted:

With less money and more time on my hands after leaving the workforce due to vision loss, I started eating at community meals organized by my friends Karen Giesbrecht and Simeon Pang. This presented an opportunity to explore the experience of the visually impaired within this community.

Community meals can benefit those with vision loss, but there are challenges that prevent participation. Understanding issues facing those with visual impairments at community meals can reduce these barriers.

Economic & Social Factors Amplified by Vision Loss

For most, community meals provide economic and social benefits. Group meals can be less expensive while providing greater variety and nutrition than those made on our own, and a shared meal breaks the monotony of eating alone. For some, cooking at home is not an option, while others do not even have a home to cook in. Vision loss amplifies economic and social risks.

Among disability groups, visual impairment results in some of the lowest rates of employment. Even impairments not severe enough to qualify for disability benefits reduce employability. Vision loss can increase meal expenses – shopping is restricted to stores close to transit routes, and when finding items in a store is difficult, seeing labels for price comparison is almost impossible. Easily browsing grocery aisles, looking for inspiration and bargains, is a luxury for the sighted, and home delivery is a luxury for those with disposable income.

Perceptual disabilities such as vision loss increase the risk of isolation. Being unable to identify faces or people until they speak or identify themselves inhibits conversation. Poor vision is also a mobility impairment that limits travel. Not only are some locations inaccessible, but it takes more time and mental effort getting to those that are transit friendly. This can discourage venturing out, resulting in social withdrawal.

Diversity in Disability & Capabilities

The type and degree of visual impairments differ, as does the capacity to cope in a visual world. Some achievements of the visually impaired can seem remarkable to the sighted community, while something small and unexpected can present an insurmountable impasse. Whether something is an obstacle and how a person copes varies between individuals. Most problems have solutions and, through necessity, the visually impaired are problem solvers. It is worth noting that a vision disability is not always readily apparent. At first glance, someone with a visual impairment often appears sighted. The guide dog or white cane may not be visible, and some legally blind people do not use either if their remaining vision is sufficient.

Community Meal Awareness

Lack of awareness may be the first barrier to the visually impaired visiting community meals. Vision loss restricts the amount of information available to an individual. Meal programs that are accessible to the visually impaired may consider contacting the local office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) to discuss their program. Like all charitable service and support organizations, the CNIB has a volunteer program for validating and training volunteers that may be helpful.

Getting to the Meal

Accessibility is the next major barrier to inclusion, and this includes the entire travel route to the venue. Convenient proximity to public transit and unobstructed travel paths between transit and the venue can encourage participation, but familiarization with the travel route may require a guide’s assistance for the first few visits. Obstructions for walking include things like low hanging branches, uneven steps, and clutter. Controlled pedestrian traffic crossings should have audible pedestrian signals.

Accessible Ambiance

The ambience of a meal affects accessibility. Sensory overload in a crowded, noisy room is distressing when orientation depends upon sound and other senses. This is especially difficult in an unfamiliar venue. Navigating through the world without sight requires a greater degree of concentration and focus.

Guide dog users are cautious about bringing their service animals to busy environments, especially with strangers who do not understand that guide dogs should not be petted or distracted from their job. Distractions and noise stress the dog and can degrade their ability to guide. If needed, offer the guide dog user a water dish and guide them to where the dog can relieve itself. Incidentally, registered service animals are permitted by law to all places that humans are permitted, including restaurants, kitchens, and community centres.

Do All Volunteers Need to Get a Criminal Record Check?

Do volunteers at charitable food programs need to have a criminal record check, or is it optional? Does it depend on what kind of population the program is serving? What’s the process and does it cost? Who exactly is a volunteer, when programs (such as Planted recommends) follow Asset Based Community Development principles to blur the distinction between volunteers and guests/clients in order to promote skill-building, friendship and mutual transformation?

For answers, we need to turn to the BC Ministry of Justice and the Criminal Records Review Act.

Do volunteers at charitable food programs need to have a vulnerable sector criminal record check, or is it optional?

Paid staff who work directly with children and vulnerable adults, or who may have unsupervised access to them, must have a vulnerable sector criminal record checks done before they are hired and at least every five years afterward. Legislation does not require criminal record checks for volunteers in such positions, but the Criminal Records Review Program (CRRP) recommends it.

Who is a “vulnerable adult”?

You can safely assume that anyone elderly or poor, and everyone being served by your charitable food program, is a vulnerable adult. Legislation offers this definition: “an individual 19 years or older who receives health services, other than acute care, from a hospital, facility, unit, society, service, holder or registrant referred to [elsewhere in legislation].” Food programs qualify as a health service, and most charities would include any kind of service whatsoever.

Who is a “volunteer”?

This is trickier. Technically, a volunteer is an individual who “(a) voluntarily provides services to a registered specified organization, and (b) receives no monetary compensation in relation to the services or the time spent providing the services.” Clearly, this definition includes virtually everyone serving in a standard soup kitchen, and it would be best if each of them undergoes a criminal record check before starting to volunteer.

But at what point does a vulnerable adult who is accessing your food program become a “volunteer” when she starts to take an active role in the program, such as helping in the kitchen or serving food, and you begin giving her increasing responsibility or training? What about “volunteers” whose job description is simply to participate in the program activities on the same terms as the vulnerable people who rely on your food program? In other words what happens if your program is designed to erase the difference between host and guest, volunteer and client?

We put these questions to staff at the CRRP. They simply referred us to the definition in the Criminal Record Review Act, which we quoted above.

In the absence of specific response from the CRRP we propose that, if you are running a food program on Asset Based Community Development principles, then you should create documentation that clearly states a primary goal for assisting the vulnerable is to put them on the same level as others in their community, and that this is to be reflected in who does what tasks in the food program. “Volunteers” would be only those who have actual or implied authority over others in the program, such as a lead person overseeing activity in the kitchen or elsewhere. At a minimum, these lead persons are the ones who would need to undergo a records check. However, we aren’t qualified to give legal advice, so you should consult a lawyer to verify what roles and degrees of authority go beyond mere participation in a program and count as volunteer work.

What’s the process for getting background checks done? Is there a fee?

There are two types of background checks – a generic criminal record check, and a vulnerable persons criminal record check. Your volunteer organization has discretion to decide which check you want to obtain. Once it is decided, must complete the same one. Checks can be done through your local RCMP/Police or the Criminal Records Review Program in Victoria. Checks through your local constabulary or police must be done in person and typically cost $25, but the CRRP is free for volunteer organizations and done online.

The CRRP process for organization-based requests is described on their website here, and the enrolment form to register your organization in the CRRP can be downloaded here. Once enrolled, you’ll be sent an digital “key” that you can give to prospective volunteers, so they can fill in their information online. Be advised that the CRRP verifies the identity of volunteer applicants by using personal secret information submitted through the Equifax credit history service; the CRRP will not have access to their credit history or personal information. But if the volunteer doesn’t have a credit card or credit history, the online service won’t work for them.