Dr. Deborah Gold and the Team at BALANCE for Blind Adults Awarded the 2022 President’s Award

This year we mark the bestowal of the 11th Annual President’s Award, which is given to an individual, organization, or entity that in their work or service with or for the blind, deaf-blind, and partially-sighted has made a real difference in improving the quality of life of the members of this community. One of this year’s President’s Award recipients is the team at BALANCE for Blind Adults and its Executive Director of six years, Dr. Deborah Gold.

Since first opening its doors in Toronto in 1986, BALANCE has taken a fresh approach to supporting people who are blind or partially-sighted in living independently and engaging with their communities. BALANCE began as a community living environment for young adults and over the years has maintained a focus on fostering selfreliance and facilitating clients’ connection to community resources. In its 30-plus year history, BALANCE has expanded its offerings thanks to funding from the Government of Ontario, grants, and donations. Its unique services now include community engagement, counselling, occupational therapy, orientation and mobility training, and technology training. “One thing that has remained constant and that really continues to be difference-making is that at BALANCE, we support the whole person,” says Dr. Gold.

BALANCE’s clients are amongst the most vulnerable within the vision-impaired community. Almost half (48 percent) of its clients last year had no functional vision, as compared to 10 percent of people with sight loss in Canada and worldwide. “Our clients often have additional challenges, too – disabilities, other physical and mental health conditions, social isolation, speaking English as a second language, and limited financial means,” says Dr. Gold.

BALANCE’s distinctive service offerings are a reflection of the diverse community it serves and its commitment to that community and its members’ complex needs. BALANCE’s occupational therapy, for example, is unique in Canada, and was introduced to support clients faced with challenges related to daily living, communications, ableism, poverty, and more. BALANCE has also been making progressively notable strides with its mental health supports, and now includes a specialist with lived experience amongst its staff along with confidential group and individualized counselling. BALANCE’s holistic, allencompassing services and supports are truly innovative.

“We make sure that our values – inclusion, respect, empathy, trust, and independence – are incorporated into everything we do,” says Dr. Gold. “We have an amazing team that I’m so proud of. They really put the clients first. We also have a strong volunteer program.”

Dr. Gold herself is an expert in engaging partners and collaborators, developing and leading staff teams, coaching staff and volunteers, and managing multiple strategic projects. Before joining BALANCE, she worked for 16 years at the CNIB in progressively advanced roles, most recently as its National Director of Research and Program Development.

Fuelled by this dedicated team and driven by Dr. Gold’s visionary leadership, BALANCE continually innovates and evolves. In response to the pandemic, the organization immediately pivoted to virtual learning for its technology training program and mental health support groups, and launched a tele-support service to connect with isolated clients. By the fall of 2020, BALANCE had dramatically increased the number of online activities, events, and groups offered to its clients, and had established partnerships with a theatre company, musician, the Royal Ontario Museum, and others to provide engaging online programming for the BALANCE community. BALANCE also launched its monthly Living Blind Podcast in late 2020, as well as its Assistive Technology Apprenticeship Program. “There’s a shortage of assistive tech instructors in the field, so we decided to start a ‘grow-your-own’ approach,” says Dr. Gold. “This program increases employment opportunities for people with sight loss while also fulfilling our need to teach others. It’s a win-win-win – for BALANCE, for the community, and for people with sight loss.”

Throughout the pandemic, BALANCE also worked to address issues of social isolation and food insecurity, and launched a comprehensive vaccine education and engagement program.

The team at BALANCE continues to push boundaries with its programming, innovation, client supports, partnerships, and reach. “Our staff, Board, and volunteer team are the reason we can achieve these new heights each year, and we’re so very proud to receive this recognition of our work,” says Dr. Gold.

In bestowing the 2022 President’s Award, the Canadian Council of the Blind commends Dr. Gold and the team at BALANCE, and offers our continuing support to their vision, inspiration, and commitment to supporting independence and wellness within the vision loss community.

Technology and Persons with Disabilities

My Vision of Driving—yes, you heard me right!

A decade ago, if you had told me I could write, edit and publish an entire document on a touch screen device with braille and a screen reader and a simple piece of glass, and that I could do my grocery shopping with the touch of an app, bank independently, call myself an Uber, or simply start my smart coffee maker from my iPhone, I’d have stared at you in open-mouthed incredulity. Communicators in Star Trek couldn’t do some of those things! Okay, the Enterprise didn’t have Amazon, but whatever. You get my point.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of smart-driving cars after a recent program on the topic on CBC Radio’s Spark (a show that discusses all kinds of technological innovations.) Anyone who knows me well knows that I really want to be in that driver’s seat—I mean, I have driven, and it’s cool.

So, what if I really could drive with the aid of technology. I mean, imagine voice activating your Alexa and saying “Alexa, order me a driverless car.” Then, she’d reply, “OK, I’ve contacted the database and sent you a driverless car; it will be here in 8 minutes. Please be waiting on the marked part of your driveway so the car can pull up safely. The car will wait until you activate the lock with the facial recognition you provided. Then, please use your fingerprint to unlock and activate the vehicle.”

And, so, what if this really happens? What if one day, I step out of my house, get into the driver’s side of my car (yes, the driver’s side) and stow my white cane safely beside me. Then, I start my car by voice print, or fingerprint. I tell my car to put on CBC Radio one or two and plug in the coordinates using my Apple GPS. My Apple watch uses haptic vibrations to tell me whether we’re turning right or left. A voice of my choice (maybe Apple’s Alex or Amazon’s Alexa) tells me where we are headed and the traffic conditions.

“Heavy traffic ahead, rerouting to Gardener Expressway.”

I have the GPS programmed to point out all coffee shops and stop with the simple voice command, “Coffee shop, need to off-rout.”

I run a couple errands, meet a friend, and as the car is driving, I periodically check the Braille Display touch map to make sure we’re okay, but the driverless car does the work for me. I sit back and read a book, listen to music, write a work report, or check out the latest CBC news on Twitter.

The thing is? That technology is starting to exist. And it’s not just for blind people. Universal inclusion was this thing people talked about over dessert 20 years ago that seemed like such a utopian idea. Now? It’s everywhere. Driverless cars are already on our roads. For some further reading on self-driving cars, check out: Driverless car benefits | Automated Transport | Self-driving Vehicles and Advantages of driverless cars – Business Insider

The days when my disability is the barrier society perceives it to be are ending, but we’re not quite there yet! We just must land this. And technology is light years ahead of the political arena to market the technology. Technology is ahead of society’s ability to let disabled people participate equally without power struggles and fear. Technology is also ahead of our own fears of our bodies, our disabilities, and our ability to say “disabled” and not have it be a bad, negative connotation word. I’m blind. I’m disabled. That does not prevent me from doing things. Those words are just legal labels and associated differences in my rights. But we’re not there yet. But, what excites me is that there is the potential to be there.

So, watch out, because I will be driving that self-driving car! See you on the road!