Friday, May 16, 2014

Where everybody knows your name

By Louise Kinross

Ben's done an amazing co-op program at Variety Village this year. He works at the club two to three days a week, cleaning equipment in the cardio room, counting inventory and helping members get set up on machines.  

Anyone who's been to Variety Village knows it's an exceptional place. There's a sense that everyone belongs: young and old, those who walk and those who wheel, those who speak and those who don't.

Today I went to visit Ben because he was having an assessment with a physio. I noticed as we walked around the track (he on bike) and through the halls that people stopped to recognize him. A guy in a wheelchair held up his fist to bump Ben's fist. Another one gave him a high-five. I was introduced to CEO John Wilson and he shook my hand and thanked me for Ben's contribution. Even an older gentleman who was walking around the track knew Ben.

Ben was relaxed and knew his way around. Did I say Ben was relaxed? Incredibly relaxed. He smiled while riding the bike. As we put it away he showed the physio and I one of the hand-powered bikes and signed that he wanted to try it too. Then he took that one all the way around the track as well.

This surprised me. For the last couple of years Ben's done very little exercise. We've struggled to find something that he can do and enjoys.

The only bike that ever worked well for Ben was an adaptive bike he used while an inpatient here at Holland Bloorview. He loved cruising around the halls and it gave him a great sense of freedom.

I wanted to get him one of his own—until I learned that it cost several thousand dollars.

I couldn't understand why it was so expensive, because the parts all seemed to be standard ones that are mass-produced. Welcome to the world of "specialized equipment" and its inflated price points. We'd tried to adapt regular bikes ourselves but without success.

Today I began to see how Variety Village's physical design and accessible equipment and welcoming culture made it easy for Ben to enjoy exercising.

The physio said an adapted bike would be wonderful for Ben. She also told us about personal training offered at Variety Village. The club isn't close to us, but I began to see how much it's worth the drive. Maybe my family could start working out there.

I've had some disturbing personal reminders recently of how unwelcoming people and places can be to people who are different.

A few weeks ago, Holland Bloorview life-skills staff presented findings of a review of 56 studies on friendship for youth with disabilities. Research shows that in general typical peers interact in a superficial way with disabled youth.

I get that. I see it.

And that's why I don't take anything about Variety Village for granted. What they've created is priceless.



Next time you're at Variety Village ask to see the office of Archie Allison --you'll just love it! Then take a 30 seconds walk to the weight room and come and see me. I just know you have some squats in you!!!


Can you provide the links to the research studies that indicate in general typical peers interact in a superficial way with disabled youth? Thank you.

Hi Anonymous -- I spoke with our staff and there are a number of studies that show interactions by typical peers with disabled youth tend to be superficial. Here is one of them:

Laws, G., & Kelly, E. (Jun 2005). The attitudes and friendship intentions of children in united kingdom mainstream schools towards peers with physical or intellectual disabilities. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 52(2), 79-99. doi:

Thanks for writing!

This is such a great post. I love the photo. I did my "speech" in grade school one year on Variety Village and yet have never been. I must go see it now that I actually live in the GTA. Everything you say about Variety Village is such a great model for demonstrating to the world how adaptation can go such a long way in making people like our kids feel 'typical' for a change. Thank you for sharing this. If only there were more Variety Villages everywhere! and isn't that the best name: Variety