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Aboriginal Blindness

Editor's Note: Geoff Fierce is a former Public Education Coordinator with AEBC.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Doreen Demas of Winnipeg, where she discussed what it is like to live as a First Nations woman who is blind. Doreen is an amiable and well-spoken woman who knows what she wants. She shared some of her thoughts about some issues that are important in her life and also for other First Nations Peoples who live with blindness, both on and off Reserves.

Following is part of our conversation:

Geoff: How long have you been blind, what is the cause of your blindness, and where were you living at the time?

Doreen: I was born with a vision impairment and have been considered legally blind all of my life. Over the past few years my vision has decreased to the point that I only make out shadows of objects and have some light sensation. I am unable to read words anymore and rely on a screen reader on my computer to access information. As well, I rely on my guide dog, to find my way around.

I am not sure what the exact cause of my blindness is, but the doctors feel that it may be a combination of things, which include an autoimmune disorder and the fact that I am diabetic. When I was first diagnosed as being blind/partially sighted, I was living on a Reserve, but now choose to live in the city where services and programs are more readily available.

Geoff: How prevalent is blindness among First Nations Peoples?

Doreen: Because diabetes is one of the largest health problems among First Nations Peoples of Canada, particularly in Manitoba, blindness is much more prevalent in our communities than it is with the rest of society.

Geoff: What are the attitudes of Aboriginal People toward disabilities and blindness, and how are you treated by others who are non-disabled?

Doreen: The attitude of Aboriginal People toward those who live with any disability is not that much different from those of the rest of society. People live with fear of the unknown and ignorance of the facts. Because of these factors, they tend to not know how to treat or interact with someone who is blind.

There is not a lot of expectation of people living with any disability on the Reserves. I find that those who move to cities are better informed of what it like to live with a disability and these people are more apt to treat me better than those living on a Reserve, simply because of their improved education.

Geoff: What issues do you have personally as a blind Aboriginal woman?

Doreen: I feel that my opportunities are greater as a blind First Nations woman than someone else might be, but this is more related to my personality and not so much based on the fact that I am Aboriginal. If you were to rephrase this question and ask me what issues First Nations Peoples face in general, I would be able to respond better.

For example, we find that the services offered to people in the city by agencies such as the CNIB are far greater than those offered to Aboriginals living on Reserves. The support services on Reserves are either very low or non-existent. There seems to be very little funding for programs and services available to those living on Reserves, and because of the inconsistencies that have been established by some First Nations Reserves, credit ratings are low and there is difficulty getting funding to establish new programs and services.

Geoff: What are the primary differences between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal blindness, both in treatment from others and internal struggles?

Doreen: I feel there are cultural differences and language barriers that make up the largest differences between the two. There are also stereotypes within both of these segments of society.

Geoff: How do you look at others who are blind and do you differentiate between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginals in how you treat them?

Doreen: To me there is no difference in how I treat other blind people. It is more of an environmental treatment than a racial treatment. To me personally, I look at each person as an individual, not whom they were born as or what race they belong to.

Geoff: What is the most important blindness-related issue to the Aboriginal community in general?

Doreen: As I mentioned earlier, access to services is the most important issue for those living on Reserves or remote communities.

Geoff: What thoughts would you like to share concerning the future?

Doreen: I feel that it is up to the Aboriginal community to develop their own programs and services for Aboriginal disabilities, including blindness. There needs to be a central organization revolving around this and other related health issues for the First Nations Peoples of Manitoba and Canada, and this needs to be established with representation on each Reserve and in each remote community where Aboriginal people live, in order that we can obtain the same services as those living in larger cities across Canada. This way we would not have to rely on agencies such as CNIB to provide our people with badly needed programs and services, which they struggle to offer and maintain.