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11 Native Women, Disabilities


This article is from the Essays on the topic of Women and Disability.

11 Native Women, Disabilities

Triple Jeopardy. Native Women With Disabilities

by Doreen Demas

It is estimated that in some Native communities, more than 40 per
cent of the population lives with a disability of some kind.

In Northern Canada, otitis media is a persistent problem. In many
communities this middle ear infection affects 80 per cent of the
individuals at some time during their life. This
infection is a major cause of hearing impairment.

Fully one-third of all deaths among Status Indians and Inuits are
alcohol related, while over 60 per cent of the Native
children in care arrive in that situation as a direct result of
alcohol abuse.

The number of Native children who attend school until the end of
secondary level is 20 per cent, compared with the national rate
of 75 per cent.

Native unemployment is about 35 per cent of the working age
population, and in some areas it reaches as high as 90 per cent.

People with disabilities are disadvantaged in the areas of
education, access, transportation, housing, employment
opportunities, recreation, cultural opportunities, etc. Women
with disabilities speak of double jeopardy. I believe that
Native women who have a disability are in a situation of triple
jeopardy. You may be familiar with many of the concerns that
Aboriginal people in Canada have--poor housing conditions, lack
of adequate medical care, and substance abuse. When you add
disability and being female to this, you have a situation of
extreme disadvantage.

As an example, when it was time for me to start school, I had to
leave my home in Manitoba to attend a special school for
visually impaired children in Ontario. Not only did I have to
leave my family, but I was in a different culture with its own
language and norms. Like all the children there, I experienced
the negative effects of being educated in a segregated
institution, but for me there was the additional burden of being
in a different culture. This is still happening today. There are
many Native children from remote communities in the North who
must come to the South for educational or rehabilitative

Who we are

Native people are not a homogeneous group. Just as you cannot
talk about "the disabled" with any clarity, you must remember
that Canada's Aboriginal population can be divided into the
following groupings--Status, Non-status, Treaty, Metis, and
Inuit. Aboriginal people are urban and rural dwellers; some live
on a reserve while others live off the reserve; and many still
live in the North. This means that there are many varying
circumstances and realities for Canada's Aboriginal population.


Self-government is the number one priority for Aboriginal
people. It is seen as the best way to improve their status in
Canadian society. While Native persons with disabilities are in
agreement with self-government, there is the concern that their
needs as persons with disabilities may not be included in the
process of self-government. I saw evidence of this when doing the
interviews which comprise the Coalition of Provincial
Organizations of the Handicapped (COP OH) report "Disabled
Natives Speak Out."

Jurisdictional problems

It is often said that for disadvantaged groups, education is the
key to escaping poverty, dependency on welfare, unemployment,
etc. Natives with disabilities are being denied access to the
services that would enable them to get the education that
assists in obtaining employment. Employment is crucial if an
individual is to have an independent and financially secure
lifestyle. What is denying us that access? That access is being
denied by jurisdictional quagmires. For those of us who have
status or treaty rights, we have always been viewed by service
agencies as being the responsibility of the federal government.
This means that provincial rehabilitation resources that are
available to other Canadians with disabilities are not always
available to us. For example, in Manitoba, the Society for
Manitobans with Disabilities, formerly the Society for Crippled
Children and Adults, does not include people with Status in their
mandate. This makes it very difficult for Native people to get
needed services.

I have my own personal example in this area. I was told by one
worker at the Canadian Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in
response to my request for a closed circuit TV reader, which I
needed for my education, that as a Native person with status that
I was not eligible for VRDP allocated equipment, and that VRDP
students had first priority to these devices. The worker told me
that as a Native person I was not eligible for VRDP and as a
status Indian I was the responsibility of Indian Affairs and it
was to them that I should make the request. However, not more
than two days prior to that I had been told by someone from the
education department of Indian Affairs that there was no money in
their budget for these devices and that I was
registered with the CNIB and that I should make my request to
CNIB. This is just one example of a situation where the lack of
clarity and the bureaucratic-run-around prevents Natives with
disabilities from getting adequate services.

Now that Native people have started to set up their own
education services, the whole situation has become just that much
more complex. Despite the fact that Indian Affairs has a policy
on Native people with special needs, this policy is not clear or
well understood by many of these organizations. As a consequence,
they do not know how to access the funds that are theoretically
available to meet the rehabilitation needs of Native persons with
disabilities. So who is the loser in all this? It is ultimately
the person with the disability, of

Just as there is a lack of clarity in the education area, there
is a lack of clarity in the area of Medical Services. I have come
across many situations where a person with a disability whose
health is stabilized and who is eligible for assistance from
other programs is rejected by those programs because those
programs assume that Medical Services should be taking care of
all their needs. We are running up against the domination of the
medical model. This is something that non-Native people with
disabilities were fighting in the early 70s when the consumer
movement was born. Native people with disabilities are still
fighting that battle. Often, these people end up going home to
their reserve with nothing, because none of the programs would
accept responsibility for them.

These are just a few examples of the bureaucratic problems which
Native people with disabilities encounter when they attempt to
access necessary services. Add to that coming from a different
culture, speaking a different language, having to deal with non-
Native bureaucrats, and you will get an idea of some of the
obstacles encountered by Native people with disabilities and why
I am talking to you about a situation of triple jeopardy.


Recently, I attended a conference which focused on the concerns
of parents of children with disabilities from the North. There
were a number of women at the conference who were single
parents. These women felt that their needs, and the needs of
their disabled children were not being met. For the most part,
these women were living in poverty and it was difficult for them
to meet the dietary needs of a child with a disability. At this
conference, I heard many accounts from parents whose children
were living in Southern institutions. These children have come
from Northern isolated communities to Southern settings to get
needed services which are unavailable in the North. I heard about
how these children lose contact with their families and their
communities. The length of time spent away from family and
community can be months and even years. The only way for parents
to see their children is to fly down. Flying from North to South
is very expensive. It is impossible to make frequent trips. This
is particularly true if you have a low income or are on social
assistance. The end result is that you lose contact with your
child. You have really no choice in that matter, because there
are no services in your community. If the child is to get those
services, she/he must come South.


People can become disabled as children or it can happen later in
life. If you have a disability as a child and you have to leave
your community to get access to services or for education, the
more time spent away from your community and family the more
assimilated into white culture you become. Earlier I made a
reference to going away to school. I spent six and a half years
of my childhood away from my family and community, and during
that time I lost most of my language, a lot of my cultural
roots, and perhaps the most devastating to me was the loss of
family contacts and bonds. While language and culture are
important, these are something I think one can re-learn. But not
growing up in a family atmosphere is not something that you can
make up for in later years. Being assimilated into another
culture makes you a stranger in your own culture, but it does not
make you belong in the other, so in a sense you belong in neither
culture. Ultimately, if you have different norms and values than
that of your family, it makes it harder for you to be part of
your own family, so you tend to be isolated.

When you are disabled as an adult, you have to learn to adjust to
your disability while simultaneously adjusting to white
culture in order to receive services. If you need services to
assist you with these adjustments, they are very difficult to
find. There are very few service providers who have the
necessary understanding of both the cultural factors and the
disability factors to assist a person in coping with the
transitions they are experiencing in their life.

Non-Native disability organizations do not always have
culturally appropriate programs to help people who are Native.
Native organizations do have these programs, but they often do
not have the understanding of disability issues.

We need to aim some of our attention at Native women's
organizations, so that they become sensitive to the issues and
concerns of their Native sisters who have disabilities.

Conditions on reserves

I have met a number of Native women and men with spinal cord
injuries at 1010, which is a housing project in Winnipeg for
disabled people. These women and men were preparing for a life in
Winnipeg, because there are no options at home on their
reserves. There are no accommodations on their reserves to
assist them to live in that setting with their disability--
ramps into buildings, modified living units that are accessible,
accessible transportation, etc. The condition of existing
facilities on reserves can make independent living difficult. For
example, gravel roads that are poorly maintained are
difficult to travel on when using a wheelchair. These
individuals had no choice but to live in the city.

People who live in isolated communities in the North get into the
community either by winter road or by air. During spring when the
ice is breaking up there is total isolation, because the winter
roads are not usable and you can't fly in. So you are stuck
either in or out. That makes it difficult for a person with a
disability. It doesn't make it easy for you to live in your
community. Situations such as this also force people into urban

Substance abuse

It is well known that the high rate of substance abuse leads to
disabilities. For example, children born with fetal alcohol
syndrome can have learning disabilities. People become disabled
in accidents that are brought on by substance abuse.
Furthermore, drug dependency does not end with disablement. Many
treatment facilities are inaccessible. This is particularly true
when it comes to women's treatment facilities. We need to work to
see that these facilities become accessible and have programs
which are culturally appropriate for Native women with

Substance abuse is a contributor to domestic violence. There are
many Native women who are survivors of violence. As the Disabled
Women's Network (DAWN) report indicates, violence can lead to
disability. Shelters for abused women need to be made aware of
the needs of Native women with disabilities. Non-Native shelters
for abused women need to be encouraged to have culturally
appropriate programs for Native women with disabilities.

Medical conditions

Native people are susceptible to certain kinds of diseases and
medical conditions such as diabetes which can cause loss of
limbs, blindness, etc. These medical conditions are exacerbated
and triggered by poor living conditions on reserves--i.e.
malnutrition, poor housing, etc. Many reserves still have poorly
constructed houses which lack plumbing, water systems, and
adequate heating systems. These living conditions make it
difficult for a person with a disability to live independently,
and it is particularly difficult for women who are raising
children. You can imagine how difficult it is for a Native woman
who is a wheelchair user to raise her children in a house which
does not have indoor plumbing.

Inadequate health services on reserves compound the problem.
There are examples of people who are more disabled than they need
to be because they were treated by people who were poorly
trained, under qualified, etc. in limited facilities with poor
diagnostic equipment.

It would seem to me that clarity of jurisdiction, clear lines of
responsibility, and a better internal understanding of the
lines of responsibility would improve the situation immensely.
Some recommendations are as follows:

Clarify methods for accessing services and make this information
well known at the individual level. If people understand better
how to access services, it is easier for consumers to get the
services that they are looking for.

Decentralize services. Services should be available on reserves
so the people living there would not have to leave their

Improve access on reserves. For example, schools could be made
accessible. Make access to people with disabilities a priority
everywhere--including on reserves.

Develop information programs, so that the people who need this
information can get access to it. Native organizations need to
have an understanding of their funding process so they can get
the funds to provide the services they require.

We must do public education with Native women's organizations, so
they become aware of the issues and concerns of Native women with
disabilities. We must also encourage non-Native women's
organizations to provide culturally appropriate programs which
meet the needs of Native women with disabilities.

A version of this article was presented at a conference held by
COPOH in Toronto in 1989.

Doreen Demas has been active in the disability consumer movement
for the last ten years. More recently, she has been involved in
the Aboriginal disability self help movement, both nationally and
regionally. She is currently Executive Director of the
newly-formed Manitoba Aboriginal Network on Disability. Her
personal experience as a Dakota woman with a visual impairment
has helped shape her skills and abilities as an activist in both
the Aboriginal and disability communities.


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