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August 24, 2003

Canada's first long-term home for deaf seniors a 'much-needed facility'

From:, Canada - Aug 24, 2003


Canadian Press

TORONTO (CP) - "Picture yourself in an environment where you couldn't communicate with anyone."

That's what it's like for countless deaf seniors across Canada, says Derek Rumball, assistant executive director for the Ontario Mission of the Deaf. And deaf seniors in nursing homes feel even more isolated since retirement centres rarely take into account the needs of those with hearing disabilities, and most workers at nursing homes lack sign-language skills.

"It's kind of akin to putting a senior who speaks German in an all English-speaking facility," he said.

Rumball is spearheading the establishment of Canada's first long-term home solely dedicated to deaf seniors in Barrie, Ont., by the end of 2004.

All of the 30 to 40 staff of the long-term care home will know American Sign Language, and 60 per cent of them will be deaf themselves.

While the facility is getting provincial funding, Rumball says nursing homes for deaf seniors are long overdue across Canada.

There are 575,160 people 65 and over with hearing disabilities across the country, 240,810 of whom are based in Ontario, according to a 2001 report from Statistics Canada.

Hearing disabilities are more prevalent than seeing, speech, learning and memory impairments.

Gary Malkowski, director of consumer relations for the Canadian Hearing Society, says the Barrie, Ont., centre will be especially vital for deaf seniors with other disabilities.

"For those who have arthritis in their fingers or hands, the ability to communicate through sign language and writing is limited," he said.

There are three deaf senior group homes - one each in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, according to Keeping the Hands in Motion, a 2001 report examining the needs and abilities of deaf seniors. But none is like the one to be built in Barrie, said Chris Kenopic, executive director of the Ontario Association of the Deaf, in an e-mail exchange.

The Hands in Motion report cited situations where nursing homes lacked visual and "shake-awake" alarms to alert the deaf of possible fire, and sign language interpreters during medical examinations.

"Most nursing homes, for example, have policies in place for ensuring that residents who use wheelchairs or are severely visually impaired are evacuated and efficiently; why do they not have similar policies for the evacuation of residents who are deaf?" the report said.

The ground in Barrie was finally broken July 10 after nearly 20 years of securing zoning approval, fielding input from deaf people and scrutinizing every detail down to the wall trimming. Hallways of the 64-bed centre, for instance, will be an extra metre wide to accommodate the movement of sign language.

The four-wing facility will also serve deaf seniors with Alzheimer's disease, physical and mental handicaps. Each wing will have its own therapeutic gardens, pruned and designed specifically to relieve any discomforts of its respective residents.

The garden for the Alzheimer's wing, for example, is designed in a circular pattern to establish a calm, soothing atmosphere. Other wings will be very visual and encourage the use of tactile senses.

"Nothing will be at arm's length from anybody," Rumball says.

The mission spent a year finalizing design development, taking into account how wall contours, paint colours and seemingly uncontrollable factors such as outdoor conditions affect communication.

"An odd shadow can really throw your communication off," Rumball says, adding that direct sunlight beaming from a window can impede the interpretation of a sign.

"It's something you don't really think about . . . we wanted to make sure we didn't have to correct mistakes we made 20 years ago."

A checkered wall could have a broken telephone-like effect in the interpretation of sign language.

"You want to make sure there's a contrast between your signs and background," Rumball says.

"Don Cherry's jackets are not a good example."

In addition to the tele-typewriter, staff and residents will use more advanced methods to communicate, such as BlackBerry devices, a wireless call alert system and, of course, the Internet.

But don't be fooled. The 4,800-square-metre facility will hum with noise. Contrary to belief, Rumball says deaf people can be as boisterous as anyone else because they don't know the sheer volume they're able to create.

"Our social activities will be as loud as anyone can experience."

In the meantime, however, the mission has served a $1 million lawsuit against the city of Barrie for stalling plans to build the centre.

The city is holding up development plans by denying passage over a strip of city-owned land - which prevents developers from being able to hook up water, sewer and gas services to the facility.

Municipal officials say they want a 300-metre area of waterfront property owned by the group because it's environmentally protected land.

"That's based on the presence of rare, indigenous species and an exceptional ecosystem," said Gary Calvert, commissioner of development services for the city.

"I would agree it's stopping a much-needed facility, but the ball is in their court."

But lawyers for the mission say the city is simply attempting a land grab over a highly sought-over property.

"Frankly, it's more of an inconvenience to prevent this population from getting the best housing they can," said Scott Snider, a lawyer for the mission.

"In the meantime we have a very vulnerable population of deaf seniors."

People 65 and over with hearing disabilities across Canada:

-Newfoundland and Labrador - 11,280

-Prince Edward Island - 3,970

-Nova Scotia - 25,810

-New Brunswick - 18,710

-Quebec - 85,580

-Ontario - 240,810

-Manitoba - 27,210

-Saskatchewan - 24,790

-Alberta - 51,530

-British Columbia - 85,470

© Copyright 2003 The Canadian Press