Imagine leaving home to live in a foreign land, having to learn a new language and the ins and outs of a new culture. Though done by hundreds of thousands annually, it is never an easy task. Now imagine doing it as a blind person. For Pawel Loba this is exactly how life’s events unfolded.
Loba, a high technology consultant at the Toronto District Office of the Ontario Division of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, lost his own vision 33 years ago at the age of eight while living in his native Poland. He grew up, went to school to become a massage therapist, opened his own clinic and fell in love. Then he and his wife had a daughter. Loba was very, very short-sighted as a child. This is, in itself, not a problem but it can lead to retinal detachment and blindness. This is what happened to Loba and was starting to happen to Loba’s daughter Joanna, when she was four.
“Because we couldn’t find any reasonable treatment for our daughter in Poland…one of our friends, who is an eye doctor, said if you really want to help her you have to leave the country,” Loba said.
That was essentially Loba’s and his wife Hanna’s impetus to leave Poland.
Twelve years after leaving Poland, Loba and his family are Canadians settled in Toronto with both Pawel and Hanna working at the CNIB. Though the Loba’s journey has culminated with jobs at the CNIB it was not without its hurdles.
Today he spends much of his time doing assessments for visually impaired and blind persons. Computer technology is much better today than it was 20 years ago, and those with bad or no vision can fairly easily work on a computer, send e-mail and surf the Internet. But it requires someone like Loba to assess their particular needs and skill levels.
“I do about two assessment a day, four days a week,” he said.
The majority of those who come into the CNIB for assessment are older with macular degeneration or side effects of diabetes, he explained.
The process starts out with Loba interviewing the individual to find out why and for what reason the person wants to have assistive technology, what they are going to do with it.
Then they go to the assessment room. Today’s computer technology for the blind has improved in leaps and bounds during the past dozen years. Loba’s assessment process depends one whether a person is totally blind or visually impaired. For the blind there are a variety of screen readers which do as their name implies and read the text on the screen. Though quite expensive, there are also Braille machines which can create instant Braille (essentially pop-up Braille on a rubberized strip) of the text on the screen.
For the visually impaired, screen magnifiers tend to be the tool of choice. This allows people with extremely limited vision to read documents on their own.
It usually takes Loba about three or four hours to complete the assessment process.
There is a group of vendors in Toronto which can supply the systems that are compatible with adaptive technology, he said.
“If you take the person who is newly blind or visually impaired, this person is usually afraid, not certain about the future,” Loba explained.
I feel like I can be an example of what a blind person can accomplish when they put their mind to it, he said.
“To be honest, I take the most satisfaction from this component [of my job].”
journey to caNADA
When Joanna Loba started to lose her vision the decision was made to leave Lodz, a city dominated by the textile industry and the second largest after Warsaw, to get her the necessary treatment to curtail her deteriorating vision.
They first moved to Germany near the Dutch, Belgian boarder where they lived for a little over two years. Joanna got laser treatment to fix a hole in her retina and the necessary correct prescriptive lenses to stop her vision from worsening.
The key, according to Loba, was to get his daughter’s vision stabilized. With the treatment she got, success was at hand.
They very well may have stayed in Germany except that they weren’t given permission to stay as permanent residents. A decision had to be made where they would go next since returning to Poland was not an option.
“[At the time] Canada was the only country to accept immigrants from Poland,” Loba said.
So he and his wife, who is visually impaired, sent about 50 letters to Canadian Polish organizations to ask for help in relocating to Canada.
“We got five responses for 50 letters and only one positive,” he said.
Their sponsor was a Polish parish in London, Ont., which agreed to help them out for the first year.
But the move to Canada was not easy. “It was not easy for anybody to get a job in those days and probably especially for disabled people,” he said.
Loba and his wife thought about getting back into massage therapy (they met when they were both studying to be a massage therapists), and though it didn’t work out, there was the silver lining in the cloud.
“Instead of going and trying to find someone to record or type for us, we just bought a computer, we bought a scanner,” he said.
As a blind person, Loba was eligible to get a computer from the government and he got his first one in 1992. “I still put in about $1,600 of my own money,” he said. Now he has a computer loaded with adaptive software.
“But I could understand very little English at that time and nothing from the computer,” he said.
two at once
Loba had to learn two things at once, a new language and computer technology.
“But it went quite well together,” he said.
“Some people say I talk like my computer and they are partially right because I learned English from my computer,” he said with a laugh.
The Audio Tactile Network, a school in London run by Vicky Meyer, organized computer training courses for the blind. The Lobas took a nine month work course learning basic office suite skills.
“It was the point when I really started to be interested in (computers),” he said.
After the course they hoped they would be able to find a job but it was a difficult road. “Instead of being upset and depressed about the fact we didn’t have work, we tried to make as much possible good from it, so one way was…to take this time to learn,” he said.
And learn he did, either on his own or while doing volunteer work through the mid ’90s. In 1998, Loba went to the CNIB office in Toronto to enquire about some technology when he noticed a job opening for an assistive devices technician.
“I thought that I had enough skills to do it, so I put my r