Thousands of people in Ontario are deaf-blind, but too few people pursue training in intervention to serve in fulfilling role.
June 16, 2017
When Serena Reynolds became an intervenor for the deaf-blind a decade ago, she stumbled into her career by accident.
Like many, Reynolds didn’t know that thousands of children and adults in Ontario live with the dual disability, made famous by Helen Keller and recognized since 2015 in June, Keller’s birth month, during National Deafblind Awareness Month.
Reynolds went to school to become a child needs worker and struggled to find a job until she came across a listing for intervenors.
“Everybody that I talk to has no idea what the job is and my husband’s favourite line is ‘she’s an interpreter. She’s a cheerleader. She’s a cook. She’s a coach. She’s a toolbox of everything for them,’ ” Reynolds said. “The job is so versatile. I’m so glad I fell into it. I can’t imagine anything better.”
Now she works with three deaf-blind ‘consumers.’
“For someone who’s considering it, I’d say ‘what are you waiting for?’ For somebody who has no idea what it is, I’d say ‘what are you waiting for?’ ” Reynolds said, laughing. “This job only makes you feel better as a person for helping someone else.”
Few people fall into a career as a deaf-blind intervenor as she did though. George Brown College’s two-year program is the only in Ontario that teaches intervention.
While the province provides for special needs care in schools, many parents can’t find intervenors for before- and after-school programs, or the summer months.
Elizabeth Fennelly, whose son Shawn turns 11 in September, is lucky that her daycare program provides an intervenor. But that ends when he turns 12 and the province expects children to be able to care for themselves after school.
“(Twelve) is a scary number for us,” Fennelly said through tears. “They’re expected to be home alone and mine will never be able to do that. That’s a scary, ulcer-inducing little thought.”
When they look for summer programs, the immediate response is always “well, we can’t support him,” she says.
“If he doesn’t have one-to-one support, they’re going to decline to take him. They’ve got to meet ministry standards in terms of the number of children and the number of people involved,” she said of Shawn, who was born prematurely at 25 weeks.
“My child doesn’t fit in with the numbers and if he does, it’s because the cost is so high that most people can’t afford those programs.”
Elizabeth, a social worker, and Jeff, an analyst for Statistics Canada, set aside money throughout the year to make sure Shawn has access to intervenors in the summer.
“I want him to have the same experiences that other children do. In order for him to be able to have that, he has to have somebody that can give him the information and the sensory understanding to be able to engage in his environment,” Fennelly added.
But most intervenors prefer to work with deaf-blind adults, because it offers year-long employment.
The Fennellys spend all year recruiting for the summer, paying recruits to take online courses, and building work schedules so that Shawn isn’t “stuck in an environment where he doesn’t have access to information and is just deprived,” often without success.
Because deaf-blindness is a low-incidence disability, raising awareness for intervention is difficult. But 65,000 Canadians are deaf-blind.
“These children sometimes don’t sleep. They’re very active. They require a lot of sensory input,” said Cathy Proll, director of the Canadian Deafblind Association Ontario Chapter. “It’s exhausting for the parents.”
Agencies such as the CDBA try to fill George Brown’s void by offering their own patchwork intervention training, but Proll says the cost associated with hiring an intervenor for swimming lessons can even be too costly for families.
The CDBA needs 300 intervenors, but George Brown only graduates roughly 15 students a year and programs such as it aren’t profitable.
“There’s a huge shortage of trained intervenors,” Proll added. “The likelihood of the family being able to hire a trained intervenor, it’s pretty slim.”
Deafblind Ontario Services has another 250 staff. The agency’s director of development, Susan Manahan, says George Brown can’t satisfy their needs, let alone the other agencies’.
“Recruitment is definitely something we struggle with,” Manahan said. “We want people to know about this amazing profession and that it is rewarding to make a real difference in someone’s life.”
Younger intervenors more prepared for seasonal work with children often don’t have the proper life experience for the jobs, according to Vanessa May, a CNIB deaf-blind literacy coach.
“We’re working with people with mental health issues a lot of times and physical issues and intervenors aren’t necessarily trained for that,” May said, adding that many intervenors lack proper training in sighted guiding.
The Canadian Helen Keller Centre’s director, Jennifer Robbins, worries for those who live outside of Toronto, where most George Brown graduates stay.
“Agencies that provide services outside of Toronto struggle to get access to those George Brown grads,” she said.
The agencies are looking into ways to find and train more intervenors. They’ve considered coming up with a profession that carries a certification and hope other colleges will step up, even if only through apprenticeships. They’ve asked George Brown to consider part-time or online education to expand the program beyond its King St. campus.
“It’s one of the most rewarding careers I think that you can probably have,” said Fennelly.
Intervention can change more than just the lives of the deaf-blind.
“There’s not a day that you don’t leave feeling like you’ve helped . . . somebody else to accomplish their dreams,” Reynolds said of her job.
Said Fennelly: “People find the idea of being deaf-blind very isolating and very frightening, but one of the things that I’d like to point out about my little kiddo, is there’s nobody that has ever worked with Shawn for an extended period of time that hasn’t gone to George Brown and decided to become an intervenor.”
“Working with these kids is profoundly rewarding.”