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.

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