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White Girl With a White Cane

Editor's Note: Julie Sanfacon now lives in Longueuil, Quebec, where she works for Visuaide.

I am a young woman with a vision impairment. I have myopia, nystagmus and a rare type of night blindness. I also have a serious and incurable condition--an acute and persistent case of the travel bug!

For the last five years, I have either taken part in international projects or prepared for international projects. In 1998, I heard about a fantastic opportunity. The Programme Cooperant-Volontaire (Volunteer Development Worker Program), which is offered in the province of Quebec, gives young Canadians aged between 22 and 32 the chance of studying in international development and of doing an internship in Africa or in South America. However, I was only able to take part in this program in 2003, after participating in several international projects and finishing my university studies.

When I started the Programme Cooperant-Volontaire, I first took part in intensive classes in African language, politics and history, in project management and on team leadership. And then, off I went to Mali, where I took part in an internship in education and capacity building with the Malian Union of the Blind. While I was getting ready for my internship, a question sprang into my mind: What kind of challenges would I face in Mali How would I be perceived as a Canadian intern with a vision impairment

I realised that my white cane would be well perceived in Mali and that it would even be an icebreaker. The white cane is a universally recognised symbol and, since there are many vision-impaired Malians, most people are familiar with this symbol and respect it. But what happens when a white cane ends up in the hands of a white girl I found out that this turns the white girl into a more approachable person.

Thanks to my white cane, I was able to make contact with many people who may not have talked to me otherwise. I was told that in Mali, colonisation has left deep scars and has damaged relationships between black and white people. When I came to Mali, I knew that, even as a development worker and an intern, I was carrying the burden of this wounded relationship. However, I have a degenerative retinal disease, a condition that many Malians have. Moreover, by talking about our lives and our backgrounds, Malian women with disabilities and I discovered that there are more elements that unite Malians and Canadians with disabilities than elements that keep them apart. In a way, we are all in the same big boat.

I know that many specialists on disability and development and development workers will disagree with what I am saying. How can a Canadian intern and a vision-impaired Malian woman share the same realities and challenges How can we be all in the same big boat What about the link between disability and poverty

Indeed, the causes of disability may vary greatly from one country to another. In Mali, there are many cases of preventable blindness caused by easily treatable conditions such as trachoma or vitamin A deficiency. However, the consequences of disability on one's professional and personal life, and attitudinal barriers towards people with disabilities can bear many similarities.

Both Canadian and Malian women with disabilities may be overprotected by their family or considered as not as gifted as their siblings. Both may have difficulties in accessing equal education opportunities, in finding and keeping a job and in meeting people who will consider them for their abilities rather than their disabilities. Both may have difficulty in finding a spouse or may be considered as inadequate mothers because of their blindness. Both may meet people who will say that their disability is a tragedy and who will pity them.

I also learned that Canada was sometimes perceived as a country where discrimination does not exist. When I told my friends that, when I was a student, many of my job applications were turned down, that I was discriminated against during job interviews, that I was often laid off from work because of my disability, that some of my teachers gave me a hard time and that I had to rely on justice to untangle two cases of discrimination based on disability, a huge myth came crashing down. There is discrimination in Canada too!

I adored my experience in Mali, made great friends in Bamako and wanted to stay there for longer than the duration of my three-month internship. When I was in Mali, I tried to find opportunities to work with Canadian development agencies in programs on a disability and development or disability-mainstreaming project. However, I was also told that none of the main Canadian development agencies initiated a project in this field.

I hope that this will change soon. Since we are all in the same boat, I hope that we will start working together. When this happens, I'll be ready to go!

*Image: Author Julie Sanfancon