1/3 of First Nations Students Struggle With Visual Impediments to Learning

Think about that number: 1 of every 3 First Nations children have enough trouble with vision that it interferes with their ability to read, and therefore learn. Given this, it is no surprise that these children also have the lowest graduation rate, lowest rate of participation in post-secondary training, and generally find schoolwork to be frustrating, if not impossible. This almost certainly also contributes in part to the great over-representation of First Nations in the Canadian penal system.

… it doesn’t take a lot of analysis or a PhD to realize that if vision prevents learning, many life opportunities will then be lost.

I did not say poor vision is THE reason for all these, but it doesn’t take a lot of analysis or a PhD to realize that if vision prevents learning, many life opportunities will then be lost. This lost productivity has a major impact on society as a whole, and on the individual who loses out. It is then up to society to try to pick up the pieces, but the greatest cost is borne by the child.

Idle No More supporters must recognize that First Nations people cannot expect to fully participate in a Canadian information-based economy without at least some formal education.

In light of the social-political awakening known as Idle No More, whose message portrays the great frustrations of First Nations in Canada, attending to fundamentals appears as an easy means of moving forward. Idle No More supporters must recognize that First Nations people cannot expect to fully participate in a Canadian information-based economy without at least some formal education. Education will not happen if something so fundamental as vision is missing.

So, why is it that First Nations people have such difficult vision, and why is nothing done about it? The first question is the easiest to address: Who knows. We can speculate, but the research tells us that different ethnicities have different visual ‘profiles’. Aboriginals have a much higher occurrence of astigmatism than any other group. This, like most other visual impediments, however, is mostly inconsequential if addressed in a timely fashion. The answer to the second question is much more involved.

If schools do not require vision assessments, and if family doctors do not encourage them, it is easy to simply ignore the problem – even if vision care is available, even if the child suffers.

First, as with any population in Canada, most parents, teachers, and family doctors are unaware of how to check vision needs, and how visual impediments will affect child behavior. So, if you’re not looking for something, you will not likely find it. If schools do not require vision assessments, and if family doctors do not encourage them, it is easy to simply ignore the problem – even if vision care is available, even if the child suffers.

The Alberta Association of Optometrists does not recognize the immediate and desperate need on reserves, where embarrassingly low Third World rates of detection and treatment can be found.

Second, accessibility is a great problem. There is simply a lack of professional care available to First Nations on reserves. In our reviews of data, we have found that perhaps 3-5% of aboriginal children are checked for vision concerns before it’s too late. This does not have to be the case. The Alberta Association of Optometrists (AAO) is a staunch supporter of ‘OGS’, Optometry Giving Sight – another vision charity aiming at rectifying vision needs oversees. They do not, however, recognize the immediate and desperate need in our own schools, especially on reserves, where embarrassingly low Third World rates of detection and treatment can be found. Currently the AAO does not have a committee or movement to try to address this critical local need. Our clinic in Black Diamond has arranged vision assessments in a number of reserve schools, and have had a chance to at least try to raise awareness and to intervene. The response has not always been positive, even though we have seen an increase in diagnosis and treatment from single digits to over 80%.

… if you know a child might have a problem that prevents learning and you do not intervene, this is neglectful to the point of abuse.

Third, there appears to be very little will with local band authorities to intervene, even when the facts are put before them. In most cases, the schools themselves have been open to onsite visits and care. It has been the higher band and education administrations that have blocked these efforts. Not ignored, not questioned, but blocked. Strictly speaking, if you know a child might have a problem that prevents learning and you do not intervene, this is neglectful to the point of abuse. Why would it make sense to block access to care when so many children are affected? My sense is that there is a great suspicion around a third-party coming onto the reserve and telling people there is a problem, expert as they might be. There is an element of racism, and possibly gender discrimination, but this can be attributed to a retained resentment of past history when white male doctors would force assessment and glasses without really consulting with parents. Rather than being open to care and assistance, it seems pride gets in the way these days with the expectation that if help is offered, it is done in a condescending and self-serving manner. Today’s minds are closed, and past experience seems to be the justification. As one health official at Tsuu T’ina proclaimed, “Our children don’t need vision care.” Thankfully, not all bands have the same view.

Last, and similar to the previous point, there is a feeling on reserves that if a Caucasian optometrist arrives on scene trying to help, that he is doing so strictly to try and profit from ‘the natives’. The fact is, the bands themselves never pay for service or for glasses, and as part of our efforts, we also conduct professional education sessions pro bono. It is difficult to bring a mobile clinic to remote locations for proper care, but it is a worthwhile endeavor if it can reduce waste, improve health and education outcomes, and lead to more children graduating. The assertion that I, or any optometrist, would go out of the way to deliver care for profit is not only ludicrous, it’s irresponsible. It also belies a great misunderstanding of what proper vision care actually means to child health and education.

First Nations should reject local leadership that prevents expert attention to serious child developmental concerns.

If Idle No More is to have any lasting impact whatsoever, it’s supporters must take their new found activism and project it onto real practical solutions, and not simply disruptive acts of complaint. First Nations should reject local leadership that prevents expert attention to serious child developmental concerns. At this time, there is little desire to attend to the dire need for adequate vision care on reserves, and we will all pay the accumulating costs of this disregard for basic rights of children.

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