Until he started volunteering at the Aphasia Centre of Ottawa two years ago, Jeffrey Burns had no idea how much he had in common with people suffering from aphasia, a disturbance in processing or understanding language due to brain damage, often from a stroke.
But the Ottawa artist quickly discovered that, like him, people with aphasia often rely on a visual language to express themselves. Instead of speaking, reading or writing, they count on pictures to do the talking for them. “I value images very much, as well as the written word and the poetics of language, so I really understand how frustrating it must be to have difficulty with those things,” said Burns.
For his work helping aphasia victims, Burns is among 75 volunteer and professional caregivers being recognized Thursday with a “Heroes in the Home” award from the Champlain Community Care Access Centre, the agency in charge of home and community care in Eastern Ontario.
Working with speech-language pathologists at the Aphasia Centre, Burns helped introduce a “communications book” that allows people with aphasia to communicate using hundreds of customized pictures to describe everyday situations. For example, an aphasia sufferer going to see a family doctor might point to a series of images that describe their symptoms, aches or pains. In a taxi, a person with a limited ability to speak could communicate with the driver by pointing to a map with a route to their desired destination.
While communications books as a form of aphasia treatment are not new, they are just starting to be used at the Aphasia Centre, said Burns.
At 45, Burns was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago. He said his own illness has given him insight into the struggles of aphasia sufferers.
“I have trouble moving at certain parts of the day, as most people with Parkinson’s have. We have little waves of smooth movements and then more stiffness through the day. And I feel very lucky that I have these good periods. It makes me very aware of that. Most of the people who have physical problems after a stroke have them all day, every day. So it has made me appreciate my own health.”