Balanced living—the early years
When BALANCE first opened its doors in Toronto in 1986, it launched a fresh approach to independent living for blind and vision impaired adults.
Drawing on the independent living centres started by people with physical disabilities in the U.S., BALANCE adapted the concept to the needs of Canadians living with vision loss. Young adults ready to start lives of their own beyond family homes and institutional facilities needed more than the existing range of short-term services.
With fundraising support from the Rotary Club, Cheshire Homes, and the W. Ross Macdonald School, BALANCE founders located a highrise in Toronto with 10 apartment units for rent. Moving their office into the same building, they worked to create a community living environment that integrated self-reliance with on-site instruction and support.
When they handed the keys to their first blind tenant and program participant in 1986, their vision was underway. In the words of founding director Susan Gammage, “it was an opportunity for blind adults to find meaning in their lives and make their own decisions.”
Combining their expertise as educators and community workers, BALANCE instructors created a unique training program in daily living skills and orientation & mobility. With funding from the province, they worked directly with learners in their apartments and in the community, offering intensive, flexible, and individual support. “We met constantly as a staff,” recalls former Executive Director, Sue Archibald. “It was a huge learning process to truly understand what independent living meant.”
Over the next four years, as the agency grew with its clients, a new direction began to emerge. Although their landmark initiative was flourishing, it was also showing signs of isolation from the wider Toronto community.
In 1990, with the support of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority, BALANCE began to open up housing options throughout the city. It also moved its office to a new location in west Toronto. “We had to learn,” says Archibald, “to let go of control.”
Balanced outreach—moving forward
With the move came a new constituency of clients and new program initiatives. Former program Coordinator Charlene White recalls: “We discovered early on that the young adults we served needed support in connecting to their community and dealing with government and community services.”
In 1990, BALANCE added a new Community Access program to its core services. It also reached out to blind and vision impaired adults new to Canada, and to people experiencing vision loss later in life.
Today BALANCE for Blind Adults produces outreach materials in 7 languages, and offers extensive online resources to blind and visually impaired adults nationwide.
The rapid growth in computerized workplaces and new adaptive technologies in the 1990s presented new challenges, but also rekindled opportunities for employment equity. Recognizing the need for computer support at home and at work, BALANCE introduced Access Technology instruction. In 2006, it moved its computer classes into a new state-of-the-art training centre in downtown Toronto.
With more than 20 years of trusted service as a non-profit agency, BALANCE for Blind Adults prides itself on its forward thinking, openness to change, and program innovation. From 1986 to today—building community and independent living ‘one step at a time.’