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The Senate

May 26, 2015

Motion to Take Notice of the Month of June as the Birth Month of Helen Keller and to Recognize it as “Deaf-Blind Awareness Month”—Debate Adjourned

Hon. Yonah Martin (Deputy Leader of the Government), pursuant to notice of May 6, 2015, moved:

That the Senate take notice of the month of June as the birth month of Helen Keller, who is renowned around the world for her perseverance and achievements and who, as a person who was deaf-blind, is an inspiration to us all and, in particular, to members of the deaf-blind community; and

That the Senate recognize the month of June as “Deaf-Blind Awareness Month”, to promote public awareness of deaf-blind issues and to recognize the contributions of Canadians who are deaf-blind.

She said: Honourable senators, I rise today to ask for your support to recognize the month of June as Deaf-Blind Awareness Month in Canada. I had the honour to introduce this motion back in 2013, but the session ended prior to its adoption. Therefore, today, Senator Jim Munson and I are pleased to bring forward this motion once again.

In May, we recognize National Vision Health Month as a result of the leadership of our former colleague Senator Asha Seth. This motion to recognize June as Deaf-Blind Awareness Month will build even greater awareness about those who live with deaf-blindness and will celebrate the life of their greatest inspiration, Helen Keller.

June 27 is Helen Keller Day, which was enacted by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, on the day of her birthday. As many of you know, Helen Keller’s journey is an inspiration to many, as she triumphed over adversity and went from a world of silence and darkness to vision and advocacy.

Honourable senators, I rise once again in the hope that we recognize deaf-blind awareness and the challenges deaf-blind citizens experience in Canada from coast to coast to coast. I will quote former Ontario MPP David Young, whose private member’s bill created Deaf-Blind Awareness Month in Ontario, to describe why a month like this is so essential:

. . . I believe this legislation is a step in the right direction to further improve the lives of deaf-blind Ontarians. With June declared Deaf-Blind Awareness Month, it will appear on every politician’s calendar and many will make that extra effort to promote this cause in their communities. Why? Because it is the right thing to do.

Honourable senators, we now have the opportunity to recognize the month of June as we take important steps in raising awareness among Canadians. In doing so, we recognize the strength, courage and perseverance that deaf-blind people show every day in living their lives and facing their daily challenges. A month dedicated to honouring them will mean so much to them, their families and those who work closely with them.

The number of people who live with deaf-blind challenges in Canada is significant. Statistics Canada reports that there are approximately 69,700 Canadians over the age of 12 living with the dual disability of deafness and blindness or a combination of both vision and hearing losses that limit their everyday activities. Only 3,000 of these have been acknowledged by the organizations providing intervenor services.

I would once again like to describe three important terms to better understand the deaf-blind community. The first is a person with deaf-blindness, which is unique and separate from deafness or blindness on their own. A person living with this disability is an individual with a considerable degree of loss in sight and hearing, the combination of which results in significant difficulties in assessing information and in pursuing educational, vocational, recreational and social goals. An individual with the combined losses of hearing and vision requires specialized services, including adapted communication methods.

The second term is “intervenor.” Intervenors are specially trained to act as the eyes and ears of an individual who is deaf-blind. The intervenor’s job can include providing access to information — auditory, visual or tactile — by means of a variety of communication methods, acting as a sighted guide. Some methods of communication include tactile signing systems, Braille, large print and communication boards. In fact, I met an intervenor at the May event on the Hill and was amazed at how the hand becomes a typewriter, so to speak. The role they play is essential to a deaf-blind person being able to access the world — to be able to see and experience life through these intervenors.

The third item is “intervenor service,” the provision of a professional service, paid or voluntary, that facilitates interactions of persons who are deaf-blind with other people, places and environment. Our former colleague Senator Vim Kochhar cofounded the Canadian Helen Keller Centre and Rotary Cheshire Homes, which are two examples of excellent facilities. In fact, Rotary Cheshire Homes is said to be the only facility in the world where those who are deaf-blind can live independently.

I wish to recognize Senator Jim Munson who is also a champion of this cause and the co-sponsor of this motion once again.

Honourable senators, there are many deaf-blind persons around the world who have overcome adversity and achieved leaps and bounds like Helen Keller. The determination of people living with deaf-blindness and all those who dedicate their time to working with them leave me inspired. It is my hope that we can unanimously pass this motion to endorse June as Deaf-Blind Awareness Month. I urge all honourable senators to support this motion.

Thank you.

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, it is my pleasure today to express support for Senator Martin’s motion to recognize June as Deaf-Blind Awareness Month. The purpose of this motion, as Senator Martin put it, is to raise public awareness of the issues impacting people with deaf-blindness and to recognize the contribution of these people to our society.

Helen Keller was born in June, so it is appropriate to select the month to direct our attention and energies to learning about this particular disability and inciting Canadians to do the same. For many of us, the inspiring story of Helen Keller is a reason we know anything at all not only about the challenges of being deaf-blind, but also about the human capacity to overcome them. This woman, after all, broke through the walls of limited vision and near silence to establish connections with people, her community, the world and future generations like us. A writer, an activist and a humanitarian, Helen Keller is today, almost 50 years after her death, an example of hope, heroism and the reason a motion like Senator Martin’s should be supported.

Overcoming adversity is, by nature, difficult. Overcoming adversity alone — well, I doubt that is even possible.

We are fortunate as parliamentarians to have a public profile. We are well-positioned to nudge social issues like those related to deaf-blindness into the light. Earlier today, we saw former Senator Asha Seth with us. Look what she has done, as well, with her inspiration and passion in this regard. She is still passionate about the issue, as we look at her good work at the Canadian Helen Keller Centre.

We talk about our good friends. There was Vim and now there’s Jim. Vim Kochhar has already cleared the path for us. You certainly couldn’t say no to Senator Kochhar. For more than 30 years, he has been helping those with deaf-blindness through activities that bring real, meaningful improvements to their lives. In the 1980s, he was instrumental in raising the necessary funds and bringing plans to provide housing for deaf-blind people to fruition. As Senator Martin said, I’m referring to the Rotary Cheshire Homes. It is the only facility in the world that specifically enables deaf-blind people to live independently.

The Great Valentine Gala also bears Vim’s distinct stamp. Since 1984, he has been doing the front-line work, putting on this annual fundraising event to benefit people with disabilities.

Currently, there are almost 70,000 deaf-blind people over the age of 12 in Canada. The prevalence of this dual disability is surprising to me. In part, that is because I know little about deaf-blindness; I need to know more. I work so much in so many other areas dealing with disabilities that this is the one that caught my imagination. It is the influence of senators like Senators Martin, Kochhar and Seth that has spurred me on to talk about this particular area of life.

I hate to look at the word “dis-.” I look at the “ability.” I don’t like that “dis-” word, but it seems to be in our vocabulary.

I understand that disabilities limit people in their everyday activities. Here, I can apply what I know of some other disabilities to appreciate the emotional, financial and other hardships these limitations create. I can also apply my insights into the experiences of people with disabilities to appreciate that limitations like these betray what our society is failing to do in the interests of deaf-blind people.


As Senator Martin has said, only 3,000 deaf-blind people have been identified as clients of organizations that help them interact with other people, places and environments. That is 3,000 out of 70,000 deaf-blind people. Think about it. In terms of the fundamental rights we all have to live as fully as possible and to realize our potential, this is a travesty.

In terms of what Senator Martin is proposing in her motion to recognize June as deaf-blind awareness month, these numbers are a starting point for us all. We can begin to change the odds by learning about deaf-blindness and the real life experiences of people with this distinct disability.

Unwilling to simply tuck the few facts I know away, I’m inspired by what I glean from them. It is clear to see there is so much work ahead for us if we are to set this imbalance right.

Senator Martin, I thank you personally for your motion and your determination to get it passed. It is simple. I hope we can do it faster than my autism bill, which took three years, but was still worth it. Every minute, every day, it is worth it to do these things, because people do pay attention.

If I can get in a plug on autism, there is more money than ever before in the last decade and people are doing better things. The same thing should be happening here. Your motion is a simple and straightforward request.

I am sure all honourable senators can see clearly the moral and social purpose of this measure. I urge you to join us in supporting it.

Thank you very much.

(On motion of Senator Fraser, debate adjourned.)


The Senate

May 28, 2015

Motion to Take Notice of the Month of June as the Birth Month of Helen Keller and to Recognize it as “Deaf-Blind Awareness Month” Adopted

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Martin, seconded by the Honourable Senator Munson:

That the Senate take notice of the month of June as the birth month of Helen Keller, who is renowned around the world for her perseverance and achievements and who, as a person who was deaf-blind, is an inspiration to us all and, in particular, to members of the deaf-blind community; and

That the Senate recognize the month of June as “Deaf-Blind Awareness Month”, to promote public awareness of deaf-blind issues and to recognize the contributions of Canadians who are deaf-blind.

Hon. Joan Fraser (Deputy Leader of the Opposition): Honourable senators, I am very pleased to speak in favour of Senator Martin’s motion that we recognize the month of June as speech and hearing awareness month — I’m sorry, as deaf-blind awareness month. Speech and hearing is a separate matter that I’m going to get to in a moment. It is deaf-blind awareness month.

I was deeply moved, as I’m sure we all were, to listen to Senator Martin and Senator Munson as they spoke about something most of us probably did not know, which is the great numbers of people in Canada who suffer from deaf-blindness — nearly 70,000 Canadians, of whom apparently only maybe 3,000 are enrolled in programs getting the help they need.

The month of June was chosen because it’s Helen Keller’s birth month. I am sure we all remember, most of us, seeing years ago now the incredible film, The Miracle Worker, showing how Helen Keller, a child who was blind and deaf and lost, living basically like an animal, was saved by the work of what we now call an intervenor, Anne Sullivan. Thanks to that intervention, that long patient work, Helen Keller was able to overcome the terrible isolation in which she lived and become a beacon of hope and an inspiration for people all over the world, not just because she learned to speak and talk but because she had, once she was able to show it, such a wonderful mind that she could apply to the great issues of the day. She was truly an inspiring figure.

Not everybody is born with the mighty brain that she was able to put to such good use. Not everybody has the good fortunate to have parents who can afford to have a full-time carer, as Helen Keller did, to bring her out of her prison. That’s why we need to take a collective sense of responsibility for helping people who suffer from this unimaginably lonely condition. They may not all be Helen Kellers, but every one of them can contribute to the betterment of our society, and it begins with awareness.

I think it would be really terrific if today, on our last sitting in May, we recognize June as deaf-blind awareness month. But before we leave the month of May, I would like to remind all colleagues that the month of May has been designated by Speech-Language and Audiology Canada as speech and hearing month. Speech-Language and Audiology Canada is an organization representing about 6,000 professionals in the field of speech and hearing loss across Canada. Every year, in the month of May, they have a specific campaign to raise awareness and get help for some element of speech and hearing difficulties.

This year, I think we in the Senate may have a particular interest. This year, their focus was on communication, health and aging. I don’t know how many of us know that people who have hearing loss are two to five times more likely than others to develop dementia. We know that hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic condition, behind arthritis and hypertension, and yet only one in five people who could benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one.

To have lost your hearing or never to have had your hearing is not as bad as to have lost both your hearing and your sight or never to have had your hearing and your sight, but to have lost your hearing is also a terrible factor of isolation. I sometimes think that if I had to choose between the two, I would almost rather be blind.

We see it. We sometimes feel it ourselves. As we age, we’re more and more likely to feel it. When you’re deaf, it’s very difficult to be part of the communications network of the people around you. It starts out with not quite catching what they say, not quite understanding the joke because you didn’t quite get the punch line, and then it progresses until there you are, surrounded by people who think you look normal but cut off from them by an invisible wall.

I’m sure most of us here today remember our former colleague Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier, who was my seatmate for several years. He was deaf, and he was very much alone in the Senate Chamber despite his years of extraordinary parliamentary service. He was functionally alone here until the Senate figured out a computer system that would allow him to receive the stenographer’s debates on a computer screen. The whole world opened up to him.


Even so, I mean, I respected Senator Gauthier and I liked him, but I can’t say I communicated much with him. I was sitting beside a man who was incapable of hearing a word I said. Then I had a colleague who used to send me written jokes and I started passing them on to Senator Gauthier. He could read — oh boy, could he read — and his world lit up. He would giggle and that brought home to me, as much as anything ever has, how alone he was when he was deprived of the written word, even though he could see everything.

Thanks to help from people like the members of Speech-Language & Audiology Canada, some people can achieve miraculous progress. I once met a man who had been born totally deaf and who spoke fluent English, French and Spanish. I think he was working on his fourth language when I met him.

All things are possible if you have the determination, the resources and the talent. But how many of us have all of those things and, in particular, how many have the resources they need?

So let us move forward into June, thinking about deaf-blindness. I thank Senator Martin and Senator Munson again for bringing this terrible condition to our attention. But let us also think about the month of May. Remember that the campaign this year was about communication and aging, which is something we all need to pay attention to, colleagues.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

Hon. Yonah Martin (Deputy Leader of the Government): I thank the Honourable Senator Fraser for her statement, as well as her support, and to all honourable senators for supporting the motion. I also wish to acknowledge once again Senator Jim Munson for being the co-sponsor of this motion.

The Hon. the Speaker: Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

(Motion agreed to.)


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