Thursday, February 22, 2018

Sadie opened my eyes to reading bias: Audiobooks don't count

By Emily Urquhart

Last week, I encouraged my daughter, Sadie, 7, to cheat at school.

At least she saw it that way.

I’d suggested that during independent reading period she might occasionally listen to an audiobook rather than sight read.

Sadie has low vision but is not a braille reader, so she uses devices like a dome magnifier, an iPad, or a closed-circuit television (CCTV) to read regular-sized print. Sometimes, if the font is oversized (and no, large-print won’t cut it) she can hold a book inches from her face and make out the letters. Digesting her schoolwork aurally can provide a much needed break from this constant visual work-out. Besides, reading is reading, right?

Not according to everyone. My daughter isn’t the first person to suggest that listening is cheating. Adults say this all the time, incorrectly understanding listening to be a passive activity and by proxy suggesting audiobook fans are doing less “work” to achieve the same goal as sight readers.

First, I’d argue that reading is pleasure, enlightenment and access, not work. Second, as a folklorist, I know that stories were oral before they were written. We’ve been literate for 6,000 years, which is a long time, but only a fraction of our evolutionary history. The act of reading partly relies on brain circuits that originally evolved about 150,000 years ago to process language. So sight-reading is actually piggybacking on the pathways used for oral comprehension. This makes sense when you consider that humans have been telling stories since time immemorial, but the novel wasn’t popularized until around the 18th century.

What I wanted to know was how the sight-reading purists had infiltrated my daughter’s belief system when audiobooks and reading-out-loud have been an integral part of our life since before she could speak. My hunch is that it was an inadvertent side-effect of learning in a sighted classroom.

My daughter's sight-reading education is based on a rewards system, meaning that when she reaches a milestone (i.e. 50 books read) she can choose a prize. She does not receive rewards for audiobooks. This has set her up to value sight-reading over audio-reading. It’s also shaping her reading self-concept as she ranks herself against her sighted peers, despite working double-time to view the words in their home reading textbooks. All children compare their reading achievements and kids with disabilities are not immune to this practice.

This means that my daughter sees herself as an average reader despite the fact that she has listened to the entire Harry Potter series five times; that her favourite book is L.M. Montgomery’s emotionally mature, The Story Girl, and that last weekend she listened to Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time, on Saturday and on Sunday began listening to Mary Pope Osborne’s kid-friendly interpretation of The Odyssey—arguably the best way to digest this 3,000-year-old oral epic.

I’m proud of these achievements. But I worried. Could Sadie be forming an early reliance on audio when print will also be part of her education experience? I posed this question to University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel T. Willingham, author of Raising Kids who Read: What parents and teachers can do.

First, Willingham explained that there are two components of reading—decoding and comprehension. As my daughter memorizes letters, words and sounds and pairs them together to form sentences, she is decoding. What she brings to the table is her existing knowledge of the world—from the narrative flow of a story to the basics of science, math, history, literature and culture. And this feeds comprehension.

“When it comes to comprehension, for most adults, reading and listening are on par,” Willingham said. But, he pointed out, at my daughter’s stage, reading and listening are serving different functions. Listening to audiobooks helps build knowledge, which is integral to reading comprehension, while the visual act of decoding is a practiced way of becoming proficient at sight reading.

Back when Sadie began the process of learning to read, I asked her vision teacher what would come first for my daughter—reading or mastering her arsenal of vision tools. She’d let the question hover in the air for a moment so that I could find my own answer.

We were sitting together at a child-sized table as I learned how to use one of my daughter’s complex classroom visual aids. It’s a laptop that doubles as a table-top magnifier, connects to the smart board, and has an adjustable arm that you can point at the blackboard to have the image appear on your screen. As I tinkered, the answer came to me.

“She’ll learn to read and use her tools at the same time,” I’d said. “Because the two are inseparable for her.” The teacher nodded. I’d got the right answer.

Learning to decode is an important part of the overall process for a low-vision child who will be a visual learner, so I’ve relaxed my stance on the reading chart. As Willingham told me, “Once you know the notes, you can play music however you like.”

I did consider making an audiobook checklist with the aim of Sadie learning to weigh listening and sight reading in the same way. Then, I remembered an early summer evening when my husband and our two kids began a long road trip and we’d coasted into the night on the melody of Jim Dale’s voice recounting Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts. Four hours later, tear-stained and exhilarated, we’d pulled into the driveway of our holiday rental home.

Sadie, wide-eyed and rapt with attention in the back seat, couldn’t bear to have the story interrupted, and, truthfully, neither could her parents. So we left the motor running for a little while longer just to find out what happened next.

Looking back on that night, I realized that my daughter didn’t need a prize chart. She already knew the most important thing about reading: No matter what format, the story is the reward.

Emily Urquhart is a Canadian writer and folklorist and author of Beyond the Pale, a memoir about raising a child with albinism. We interviewed her about the book when it launched in 2015. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Family fund is a lifeline, but demand outstrips supply

By Louise Kinross

Anyone who knows Geoffrey Feldman knows that he's an extraordinary parent.

“I'm not a typical dad,
” he says with a chuckle.

At 76, Geoffrey's raising his 16-year-old daughter Isabelle, who has a rare genetic condition, on his own. 

“Having a special-needs child is extremely expensive,” he says. “If I wasn't working on a contract right now, I'd be finding it hard to make ends meet.”

Since 2011, Geoffrey and Isabelle have benefited from Holland Bloorview's family support fund, which covers items and services that promote child and family wellbeing. 

The donor-supported fund, which has a budget of $250,000 a year, recognizes the extraordinary costs associated with raising a child with a disability.

For Isabelle, it's meant swimming lessons, dance and art classes and being a camper in Spiral Garden, our summer arts program in the ravine behind the hospital.

“Isabelle will need supervision for the rest of her life, so I'm trying to give her these activities that will help her learn to better fend for herself,” Geoffrey says. “These programs
 have given her an amazing amount of confidence. She now has a group of friends that have become her social peer group.”

According to Adva Budin, who administers the family support fund, “equipment, recreation and respite are the most utilized categories. It may be addressing a child’s complex needs with equipment, providing recreational programs to benefit a child’s development, or helping with the cost of respite at home.”

For example, families can apply for a maximum of $1,500 towards equipment like wheelchairs, walkers, commodes and helmets. They can also apply for up to $500 for prescribed medication that isn’t covered by insurance or OHIP +.

A maximum of
 $1,000 is available toward equipment that supports quality of life, such as communication devices and writing and hearing aids. Another $500 can be dedicated to summer camps and swimming, art, music and sports programs.

And parents can get support for their own ”day-to-day coping,” Adva says. Parents can apply for up to $500 to support a respite worker at home or at camp, or a child’s stay at a respite facility.

Another $250 is available to cover TTC passes for families who are not able to access Wheel-Trans.

The fund received 710 applications in the first nine months of this fiscal year, depleting it to the point that new a
pplications are on hold until April 1. 

Holland Bloorview's foundation hopes to raise significantly more dollars to grow the annual fund next year.

“The need is increasing,” Adva says, “especially with President’s Choice Children’s Charity ending its program to support children with disabilities.”

Applications are manually processed by Adva and scored by a group of volunteers. Families need to include a letter of support from a health professional.

Families consistently express gratitude for the program, Adva says. “I frequently hear from families who are purchasing extremely expensive things, like a modified van, and they say every bit of funding they can get is critical. I also hear a lot from families who are fatigued and burned out emotionally, and they need respite. Some people are just so grateful they can put their kids in a swimming program and see them happy and smiling. So it’s the little things, too.

To donate to the program, please click here or call 416-424-3809. Applications for the fund will be available online on April 1.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Families find few options for future planning

Photo from White Coat, Black Art

By Louise Kinross

A couple of things converged on my screen this weekend about how families find, or to be more specific 
don’t find, housing and services for their adult children with intellectual disabilities.

First there was this podcast on CBC’s White Coat, Black Art, about a family whose 18-year-old daughter with severe autism is aging out of the pediatric system. “A day with Gilly, a teen with autism and developmental delay on the cusp of aging out of the system—and her parents who are expected to pick up the slack,” is how host Dr. Brian Goldman described it.

The family noted that they have signed up for Developmental Services Ontario, but that the wait list for a group home is 25 years. In the meantime, Gilly needs supervision in the home and even walking out to her school bus each morning. Her dad says that about 50 per cent of the time she refuses to get on the bus. At night, her parents take her out for four to five car rides, her favourite activity, before bed. She has limited speech. At 21 she will age out of school. Few day programs will accept a child with the kind of support needs Gilly has, said her mother Rachelle. Gilly is one of about 12,000 adults with intellectual disabilities waiting for housing and other services.

“Our fear is that there isn’t a clear plan,” her mother Rachelle said.

This family is not alone.

On Friday, I read about a U.S. study that found less than half of 388 parents of children with intellectual disabilities had made long-term plans about who will take over their child’s care if they, or another relative providing care, dies or becomes disabled. The parents ranged in age from 40 to 83, with children aged three to 68. More than 77 per cent lived with their parents or another relative.

Parents were asked whether they had completed 11 items related to their child’s long-term needs, such as identifying a successor to the current family caregiver, researching residential programs or establishing a special-needs trust.

The study, accepted for publication in the April edition of the journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, found that over 12 per cent of participants had not taken any of these actions, while more than half had done only three planning activities.

Those three tended to be working on things like finding an attorney and discussing future care plans with their child and family. What they hadn’t done was take concrete steps to arrange housing or to write a letter of intent to guide future caregivers.

More than 61 per cent said the lack of residential, employment and recreational services to meet their child’s needs was a huge barrier.

“Nationally, 75 per cent of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities don’t have access to formal services,” says lead investigator Meghan Burke, a professor of special education at the University of Illinois. “It may be that many families think ‘why plan for services, when there are no services currently available?’”

Yes, that just about sums it up perfectly, from my perspective.

I wrote to Meghan to explain that even though I’ve worked at Holland Bloorview since my son was four, and I knew I was "supposed" to plan, I still don’t have critical pieces like housing figured out. And my son is almost 24 now.

With a wait list of 25 years for publicly funded housing, how can you plan, unless you have the money to purchase real estate yourself?

Meghan responded by saying that she can empathize with my situation because she has a 24-year-old brother who is on a wait list for residential services.

“I am also the parent of a child with a disability myself and am terrified for the future of my own child,” she wrote. “You are absolutely right—for future planning to occur, we need systems change. Point blank. Residential planning is certainly one, perhaps even the most, important part of future planning.”

But Meghan said there are other parts of planning that don’t depend on government services. “We looked at whether family members had discussed the future, decided on whether conservatorship or guardianship would be appropriate, developed a special-needs trust, or created a letter of intent.”

Other activities include sharing with family members a list of the child’s doctors and daily schedule, showing siblings where important documents like a trust or will are kept, or developing a support circle.

Money was a significant barrier to planning for more than 46 per cent of families, and more than seven per cent said the topic was too “emotionally loaded” for members to talk about.

When I first came to Holland Bloorview, I wrote articles about sibling issues. One of the most important things experts always said was to have a long-term plan, so siblings don’t assume care falls entirely to them when their parents die. 

But many families, like Gilly’s, and those in the U.S. study, and my own, don’t have housing pinned down. That makes it hard to talk with siblings, because there's such a huge unknown. On the other hand, we do know from research that siblings have anxiety about the future care of their brother or sister. I think these two realities put many parents between a rock and a hard place.

Friday, February 9, 2018

While cute, Gerber's baby unlikely to prompt major social change

By Louise Kinross

CBC’s The Current ran an interesting series of interviews this morning about Down syndrome and some of the conflicting messages we hear about it.

The host noted that Gerber’s new ad campaign (above)—where they named a child with Down syndrome as their Gerber Baby for 2018—comes at a time when genetic testing is more sophisticated and most women terminate when they receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

David Perry was one of the people interviewed. He’s an American dad to an 11-year-old with Down syndrome, a professor and a columnist with Pacific Standard magazine.

“Although the Gerber Baby is super cute,” he said, “I’m very skeptical that it’s a particularly significant moment in the long journey towards acceptance and inclusion for people with Down syndrome, and disabilities more generally.”

David noted that in 2012, Target and Nordstrom both had ads featuring “a really cute white toddler with Down syndrome,” but it hadn’t led to any significant improvements in everyday inclusion for kids with disabilities.

Parents “need information about schools and supports and jobs and life-long inclusion,” David said. “I’d like to hear Gerber say we’ll be employing thousands of people with Down syndrome,” or supporting families whose children have complex medical food needs. “What is the next step?” he asked, “and what is Gerber doing about it?”

Ironically, Liz Atkinson of Burlington, Iowa posted on Facebook yesterday that Gerber Life Insurance, an affiliate of the Gerber brand owned by 
Nestlé, does not cover children with genetic conditions. Her son was denied coverage when she applied from the neonatal intensive care unit in 2014. She explained that when her son was born prematurely with a chromosome disorder, NICU staff advised her to apply for insurance for him, in case he died and they had to pay burial fees. “Good enough to be the company’s face, but not good enough to insure,” she wrote. 

She explained more in this Facebook video.

However, Nestlé US tweeted: "Gerber Life does insure many children with Down syndrome as well as other conditions.

It would be great to know Gerber Life's specific criteria for when they will, or won't, cover a child with a genetic condition.

Stories in The Mighty and Business Insider suggested Gerber Life had a history of denying coverage to children with Down syndrome.

Also interviewed on CBC this morning was Vardit Ravitsky, an associate professor of bioethics at the University of Montreal. She spoke about the ethical implications of prenatal testing.

“Knowledge is power,” she said, “but it can also be vulnerability.”

She noted that when parents receive a prenatal diagnosis ‘you’re not well-informed, you didn’t get the full picture, and you’re under time pressure because the pregnancy is moving along.”

She said the way a diagnosis of Down syndrome is presented to parents is often not balanced.

“Studies have shown clinicians, when it comes to Down syndrome, really focus on the health complications and they’re not usually well equipped to give the full picture…” she said. “Some of the clinicians have never met a kid with Down syndrome. It’s not in their lives, and it’s not necessarily part of medical education and they don’t have the tools to discuss the full picture with women.”

Vardit said through the Pegasus research project she’s developing resources for pregnant women and clinicians that include interviews with families raising children with Down syndrome.

“My main message is that testing must be a decision that is completely informed, supported and free,” Vardit said. “A free choice means that if you reject testing, you won’t be criticized or judged…Once the child is born, we have to create a society that’s not just looking for the cute babies, but that really supports families through the life cycle...”

Sadly, we heard this week that a British inquest into the death of a 33-year-old man with Down syndrome found gross failures in his care, both in the care home he lived in, and in his hospital treatment. Richard Handley died in 2012 from a preventable and treatable condition—constipation—after having 22 lbs of fecal matter surgically removed. His family said his stomach was so distended he looked like he was 40 weeks pregnant. But no one acted at his care home, until it was too late. Six months later, another person with intellectual disability died of constipation at the same hospital.

David noted on CBC that “the Gerber ad is getting a huge wave of publicity across social media and mainstream media…” But “what is the next step” in the treatment of people with Down syndrome, and other disabilities, over a life time?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A girl who wanted to disappear becomes 'The Pretty One'

By Louise Kinross

Keah Brown is an American writer working on a book called The Pretty One, which is a collection of essays about living as a disabled woman of colour in a white, abled world. Keah studied journalism at the State University of New York at Fredonia and lives in Lockport, N.Y. She’s a senior entertainment writer at, and her essays have been published in The Rumpus, Harper’s, Teen Vogue and Lenny Letter. I first heard about Keah a year ago when she launched a photo campaign with the hashtag #disabledandcute on Twitter and it went viral. I wanted to talk to her about the impact of racism and ableism when she was growing up.

BLOOM: How did your experiences as a black, disabled woman figure into your desire to write?

Keah Brown: Writing is something I’ve always done. Even in secret, when I was growing up, I had little notebooks that I’d write songs in. And the songs would become poems, and the poems became stories, and it was a natural progression.

When you grow up not seeing yourself represented in any form of media outside exploitative telethons, you get the urge to say ‘Hey, that’s not how any of this works.’ I’m here to tell my story because I don’t want to be forgotten, or be assumed to be a certain way when I’m not.

The Pretty One is about our need to change the culture and the ideas that shape the way we see disability, because they’re harmful. The Pretty One is about joy, and about finding a way to the other side of what is self-hate or poor self-esteem.

The narratives we usually see are about people with disabilities who hate their bodies. We often see that in movies, where a disabled character wants to die. I wanted to showcase how someone who feels those things comes out of it—and the work that takes—and the process of getting to be a person who is very much joyful and happy and full, in a way she never was before.

Obviously there’s going to be a bit of heartbreak and loss and grief. But ultimately The Pretty One is about joy.

BLOOM: So the book is written as a series of essays?

Keah Brown: It’s a collection of 13 personal essays, at this point. I'm not sure if that will change. We’re shooting for a release date of spring 2019.

BLOOM: You’ve written about having cerebral palsy. How does it affect you?

Keah Brown: I have hemiplegia, so it affects my right side. I’m able to walk, but I need to take breaks, and I get aching limbs and arms and hips. But at this point, I don’t use a mobility aid.

BLOOM: Last year you wrote a beautiful piece on Roxane Gay’s book Hunger in The Rumpus. It begins like this: ‘There’s a moment in every day where I think of my younger self—the fifteen-year-old me, the sixteen-year-old me, and the twenty-year-old me who prayed morning, noon, and night to be rid of my body. When I was younger, my scars, bruises, bent fingers, limping leg, and crooked lips disgusted me.’ In the essay, you write about your desire for invisibility when kids would ask you what was wrong with your body.

Keah Brown: Because I wasn’t surrounded by many other disabled people, let alone kids, I saw my disability as this thing to run away from, or to try to pretend that it wasn’t there. I had a very happy childhood from kindergarten to Grade 5, and Grade 6 was when I realized I had a disability.

With my other siblings—I have a twin sister and a brother—they’re able-bodied and my mom never treated me any different. Whatever they got I got, and we never talked about my disability in terms of it being this difference and that difference was bad.

Then when I got to middle school and kids made fun of me in the cafeteria, it kind of stuck with me. If someone made fun of this thing that was different, then it must be bad. So I spent a lot of time wishing to be invisible and wishing that I would wake up in another body. I felt I was being punished in the body I had. I wanted to be just like everyone else and to blend in. I was tired of people asking questions and staring at me.

BLOOM: What would you tell other children whose differences make them want to disappear?

Keah Brown: The best advice I can give is that they are who they are, and all that they are is enough. It’s not only enough, but it’s beautiful and worthwhile, and their bodies tell a story. It doesn’t matter if they don’t look like a certain person, or look a certain way. What matters is that they figure out who they are, and celebrate that. That is the person they're stuck with for the rest of their life, so it’s important that they learn to love that person.

BLOOM: You’ve written about how when children don’t fit conventional European white standards of beauty, there’s almost an expectation that they should hate their body.

Keah Brown: Absolutely. There’s this idea that if you’re different you should feel bad about being ‘other’ and breaking the mould. When you do that, people don’t know what to do with you. They assume you don't know what to do with yourself, and you should be uncomfortable, because they’re uncomfortable. To those of us who are different, our differences make us unique. Those unique things make us who we are, and who we are is enough.

BLOOM: You created the Twitter campaign with the #disabledandcute hashtag. What did you hope to achieve with that?

Keah Brown:
I didn’t hope to achieve anything. I started it for myself and posted four pictures and the hashtag, just to celebrate myself and other disabled men, women and non-binary people. I wanted to say ‘Hey, I finally feel good in my body and you should too.’ Then I left Twitter and went back to an essay I was writing on a deadline.

When I came back, #disabledandcute was trending. By the end of the week I was interviewed by a bunch of different publications, and I learned that #disabledandcute went viral and spread from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram and Tumblr.

I began it to try to celebrate myself, but it became a thing where all disabled people could celebrate themselves. That’s what I’m grateful for. It will be a year this Monday that I posted it.

BLOOM: As a child, how did you experience racism and ableism.

Keah Brown: I didn’t really know what they were as a child. People would speak to me really slowly and would be condescending, as if they assumed I didn’t understand them.

I was never ashamed of being black and in terms of racism, we were sheltered from most of that in my childhood. There were small comments that people made. But never anything that I really had to internalize or keep to myself, in the way I had to with things people said about my disability. Disability as a 'bad' thing outweighed my blackness.

I was always very proud of being black and confident that being black was something beautiful. I grew up in a household of other black people who loved themselves, so I loved myself too. Our blackness was something we had in common, whereas disability was the thing we didn’t share.

I felt disability separated me from my twin sister. I just wanted to be like her and look more like her. I wanted all of these things I thought she could have that I couldn’t have.

BLOOM: Was disability accepted in your family?

Keah Brown: I did feel accepted. I have a humongous family and they were very much always ‘That’s just Keah. It’s who she is.’ My disability wasn’t like a thing that people were weird about. It was what it was. It wasn’t something we addressed or ignored, or pretended that it wasn’t there. It was seen as an aspect of me, but it wasn’t all that I was.

BLOOM: Did you ever feel your disability was marginalized in the black community?

Keah Brown: Not really. The majority of the comments I received as a child—and even now—come from white people. People of colour tend not to say much to me about my disability, unless they know me. The stares and the mocking and the talking slowly is a thing a lot of white people have done. Most of the rough experiences I’ve had have been from white people.

BLOOM: You’ve written about lack of accessibility. What message does it convey to people with disabilities?

Keah Brown:
In my freshman year in high school I had a big surgery, and then I had to come back a year later and have a plate taken out. That’s when I realized how inaccessible the building was. There was a kid named Mason who used a wheelchair and I used a walker, and we had to go to the back of the school just to get into it. The elevators were really slow and it took us longer to get everywhere.

These are all things abled people take for granted—that they can get to and from places without any problem.

Today, it's still a really big issue for me. I can’t get down the stairs safely in a mall. Going up the stairs is fine, but coming down I have to reach my left hand over my right arm to hold the rail.

What was good in my childhood was that there were always people around to help me before I knew I needed help. They helped me figure out ways to trick an inaccessible system. That's how I figured out how to put my left hand over my right one to get down stairs.
Or if I’m standing for a long time, I shift my weight from left to right so that my whole right side isn’t aching by the time I move again.

I spend a lot of time in my house, which is very accessible, and in my room where I write. It’s a single level house with a basement that's easy for me to get down to.

I’m able to figure out how to navigate in my own house. The issue starts when I get to public places and they don’t have the same accommodations.

BLOOM: I read that you went to a largely white high school and college. How did that affect you?

Keah Brown: I think what I know now I couldn’t articulate then. When you don’t see enough people who look like you during the day, you start to retreat into yourself. Even though there’s nothing wrong with my black skin, you keep some things to yourself, because you’re trying to navigate a world that's vastly different from the one you knew before.

In a primarily white institution, I was taught mainly about white writers and journalists. I had to look outside the classroom for writers of colour, and to find heroes of my own who looked like me.

The way I handled those experiences was to lean on other people of colour who could commiserate with me. They understood what it’s like to experience multiple micro-aggressions from other students.

BLOOM: Were these people outside the school?

Keah Brown: No, they were the few other black students. We’d acknowledge each other with a head nod and eat lunch together and go to the movies and hang out.

BLOOM: You said that your book is about the process of getting to a point where you love your body and celebrate it. How did you get to the other side?

Keah Brown: Girl, a lot of tears and definitely counselling, and trying. I tried for the first time. What I’ve found is that sometimes you want something but you don’t really work for it. I had to really confront my own problems with disability, and not just my own disability.

I had to confront my own internalized ableism and views about what disability is and what it can be in order to make myself a better person.

I got tired of living my life like it was the world’s worst punishment. I got tired of getting up and feeling like ‘I hate you, you’re ugly,’ and insulting a body that was doing the best it could to keep me alive.

I thought I was giving myself these insults to prepare myself for when other people said them. But it never made me feel better.

I had to actively try to be kinder to myself. I found something I liked physically and mentally about myself, and worked every single day at it. Self-love and self-worth is an everyday practice. This is not a one-time thing. It’s a constant.

BLOOM: You mentioned counselling was helpful. Was it hard to find a therapist who understood about disability?

Keah Brown:
I went to counselling at college because it was free. The first counsellor, while I’m sure she was a lovely person, didn’t work out. She treated me as though my self-hatred was something I should just be over.

That’s an issue that sometimes happens when a person doesn’t have physical disabilities. They don’t feel comfortable around disability, so they want you to be over it, and not talk about it.

The second counsellor I had was brilliant and did a really good job.

Counselling helps. I also had to do a lot of internalized work where I acknowledged that I’d met these disabled people online that I love, and they mean the world to me, and it was time to start looking at myself with that love.

Throughout my time of self-discovery I also read books and found fictional characters to fall in love with and grow with. I found bits and pieces of things they did that I thought I could emulate.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Carrying friend in backpack, next stop China

By Louise Kinross

In 2016 we told you about Kevan Chandler's trip to Europe with friends who carried him in a modified backpack when places wouldn't accommodate his wheelchair. Kevan, who lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has spinal muscular atrophy and weighs about 65 lbs. Sitting in an adapted child carrier worn by his friends, Kevan and the group hopped over stiles in the British countryside, climbed up 600 rock steps to an Irish monastery, and checked out the underground cemetery in Paris. 

Since then, Kevan and his friends have released a film of their European travels and started a non-profit group to promote accessible travel. Kevan now has his sights set on a trip to China in 2019. We did this interview by e-mail.

BLOOM: Why did you decide on China as your next tour?

Kevan Chandler: Even while we were in Europe, the guys and I talked about visiting China. One of our guys has a niece and nephew who were adopted from China, and he'd gone with the family to get them. So we had that connection and perspective, plus we had interactions with numerous Chinese tourists while in France, which helped to prompt the conversation.

It's an old, magical, and exciting place to explore, and like anywhere in the world, it's also a place where we could maybe be an encouragement in regards to disabilities. Then, last year, a great door opened for us to connect with an organization called Show Hope that serves orphans with disabilities there, which really solidified the idea to go.

BLOOM: Will you be using the same backpack and also taking your wheelchair?

Kevan Chandler: We have a newly developed backpack, along the same lines as the original, but more professionally done. We'll be using that, and like our last trip, we won’ be taking my wheelchair.

BLOOM: Are you travelling with the same friends who carried you through Europe?

Kevan Chandler: We will have the same film crew, and two of the four carriers. The other two guys just had other stuff going on. So, we've added two other carriers, who are friends of mine from Fort Wayne. We will also have a translator with us and a project manager, who will keep us on track.

BLOOM: You plan to visit a series of care centres for children with health issues and disabilities supported by Show Hope. Why?

Kevan Chandler:
Yeah, we are really excited for the opportunity! I'm reminded of what Jesus said about kids, and I can't help but see the Kingdom of God in these little ones and the folks working with them. So much need, so much vulnerability, and so much love to redeem it all. Who wouldn't want to be part of that? Our hope is to be encouragers of the good work that's already being done among the kids and care staff there. We can't wait to spend time with them, play, share our story, hear their stories, and also take some backpacks like mine for the staff to use with the kids.

BLOOM: Do you know what percentage of these children are adopted? 

Kevan Chandler: I'm not really qualified to answer this. And at the same time, we as a team are more focused on the current circumstances of these kids and meeting them in that, with the bit we can do to help. It's important to be faithful with what's in front of you to do, right?

BLOOM: Where will you be staying on the trip? 

Kevan Chandler: We plan to do some exploring around both countrysides and cities, but the Care Centers of Show Hope will be kind of like our hubs that we come back to and spend most of our time.

BLOOM: Are you anticipating any challenges in China that you didn’t experience in Europe?

Kevan Chandler: Well, there is the language barrier! Haha! There is that, but also a pretty extreme difference in culture that we will need to navigate. These are all things we dealt with in Europe, especially France and Wales, but China just takes it all to the next level, so we will have a translator traveling with us to be of assistance.

BLOOM: Are there particular places or historic sites you’re eager to see?

Kevan Chandler: Yeah, we are excited to visit the Shaolin Temple and the Great Wall, for starters!

BLOOM: I think you raised about $35,000 US to cover the cost of your Europe trip. How many weeks will you be in China and what will the total cost be? Is there a link to your funding page?

Kevan Chandler: Yes, and we were pleased to end up on a similar budget for this trip to China. With travel included, we will be gone about three weeks, like with Europe. This trip is budgeted at $40,000US, which makes sense because it's farther and our team is a bit larger (nine of us vs. the seven that went to Europe). We just launched our GoFundMe page this week, and since we're now a 501(c)3, any donations are tax deductible.

BLOOM: I notice you are taking a translator. Do any of you speak Chinese?

Kevan Chandler: Nope. That's why we have the translator, a really cool friend of ours from China who lives nowadays in British Columbia.

BLOOM: What messages about disability do you hope people take when they see you on your trips?

Kevan Chandler:
I think it's bigger than just disability. We are all broken in some way or another, and we're all looking for some relief. So, when folks see a guy carrying another guy whose brokenness is so clear, I hope they see themselves.

What I love most when I travel is when walls come down and people just start sharing honestly about their own lives and experiences. It's a stark expression of what we all feel and desire inside, so we act as a kind of ice-breaker for people to look inward and dig deep. My hope is that that winds them up at a place of peace, whether they are encouraged or challenged, because both—if received—end up at the same place.

BLOOM: You said you’ve started a non-profit called We Carry Kevan since your Europe trip. Do you sell backpacks like the one you use? What does the non-profit do?

Kevan Chandler: We did start a nonprofit! We are working with Deuter to develop a backpack like mine for mass-production. Our hope is to have them available in the Spring of 2019. In the meantime, we are customizing a few backpacks ourselves here and there, and we are also taking time to tour, speak, and spend time with people.

Our mission statement says it best: ‘Believing in the inherent value of all people, We Carry Kevan mobilizes individuals with disabilities by redefining accessibility as a cooperative effort.’ That job of redefining involves a lot of examples lived out and a lot of conversations had, and it's been amazing to see those opportunities come with the nonprofit these past few years.

BLOOM: Do you know of any other people with disabilities who were inspired by your Europe trip to try to do something similar? I’m imagining that the backpack option only works for people who are very light?

Kevan Chandler: It's been wonderful these past few years to see, hear from, and meet folks, both disabled and able-bodied, who are inspired by our adventure. And the backpack was just our way of doing things. It will work for some people and not for others.

But the the backpack isn't the be-all and end-all. It's a tool to exercise the deeper idea, which is that accessibility comes with courage and creativity and people working together. So it's been awesome to see people getting that and acting on it in their own way. It's been a joy to come alongside them in their adventures.

BLOOM: Are you still working as a sound editor producing podcasts?

Kevan Chandler: No, actually! Just recently, I stepped out of that career to give We Carry Kevan my full attention.

BLOOM: What are your thoughts on the new treatment Spinraza for people with spinal muscular atrophy? Is this something you are interested in pursuing?

Kevan Chandler:
I'm excited to see its positive effects on my sister as she participates, and my hope is that it does provide relief and strength for folks with SMA who go that route. I am personally not involved at this time.

Monday, February 5, 2018

New hub to address developmental disabilities, mental illness

By Louise Kinross

The Azrieli Foundation has given $10.4-million to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to create the first centre in Canada to support adults with disabilities like autism and Down syndrome who also have mental illness.

“A lot of us have anxiety and depression,” said autistic advocate Daniel Share-Strom at an announcement at CAMH today. “Why wouldn’t we?”

Daniel described his world growing up as one where the speed and volume of learning, combined with social demands, was too much to cope with for someone who had trouble reading social cues and managing sensory information. He was always being corrected, he said, which led to a “pervasive sense of being judged all the time’ and of feeling ‘broken’ and ‘not capable.’

Daniel noted there are few adult psychiatrists who are skilled in working with people with autism, and they’re almost impossible to access due to waitlists. As a result, his mother had to purchase private services for him, at an hourly rate six times her salary. “There’s no off switch to these challenges when you turn 18,” he said. “I have difficulty finding help on my own when I feel hopeless. We need strong advocates when we’re immobilized with doubt.”

According to research from CAMH and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, 
45 per cent of about 65,000 adults with neurodevelopmental disabilities in Ontario have a mental illness, and six per cent have addiction. Due to a dearth of services, a study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that almost half of hospital admissions for Canadian adults and teens with developmental disabilities were related to mental illness.

“There are no services that provide the continuous, comprehensive care necessary for this population,” said Naomi Azrieli, CEO of the Azrieli Foundation this morning. “This is the most vulnerable population in our healthcare system.”

The new Azrieli Centre for Adult Neurodevelopmental Disabilities and Mental Health will provide better care, research and training in the field. It is being directed by Dr. Yona Lunsky, a psychologist who leads the Health Care Access Research and Developmental Disabilities Program at CAMH. Yona has a sister with a developmental disability.

Yona has led a number of studies evaluating interventions for reducing depression and stress in parents of adults with developmental disabilities. Naomi said that families are the “first level of care” for adults with disabilities, and that they are not being supported. “The normality of constant worry and anxiety becomes a backdrop to everything,” she said at the CAMH announcement. Naomi has a brother with Fragile X syndrome and said the family's personal experience played a role in the decision to fund the new centre.

All of the speakers spoke to the need to better support adults with neurodevelopmental disabilities—and their families—at a much earlier stage.