Canada’s Elite Vision-Impaired Athletes Are Raising Awareness For Universal Eye Health
Education and Advocacy Blind paralympians Jason Dunkerley & Priscilla Gagne discuss competing in Rio and how they achieved success despite being visually impaired.
n commemoration of World Sight Day, led by the International Association for the Prevention of Blindness, we celebrate advances in universal eye health and recognize all those who have contributed to or been impacted by eye health, from the irreparably blind and those with low vision to the medical professionals and advocates who are working to make eye health a priority around the world.
A big part of celebrating eye health is recognizing those with blindness and low vision who have achieved great success in the face of their challenges. This year’s Paralympics in Rio saw a team of incredible vision-impaired Canadian athletes competing on the world stage and drawing attention to not only the importance of eye health, but also the great heights that that can be reached by people with vision impairment.
Middle-distance runner Jason Dunkerley had represented Canada at four Paralympics and three Parapan Am Games before heading to Rio. Jason took up running at a young age and feels that being encouraged in athletics played a big role in shaping his life. “I attended a school for blind students where we were encouraged to participate in sports,” says Dunkerley. “Often, kids who are blind don’t get a lot of exposure to sports. Having that chance is really important.”
"...They were afraid for my safety. That frustrated me to the point where I would try even harder to prove them wrong."
In the 16 years he has been representing Canada at these international competitions, Jason has seen the world of sporting events for people with disabilities grow dramatically. “We’re really seeing this become a world movement,” he says. “The depth of competition is so much stronger than when I started. Using the 1,500 metre as an example, in the year 2000 the winning time was 4:10, but in Rio we came fifth running 4:07. The whole field has really improved a lot.”
Jason is expecting to retire from international competitions in the near future, proclaiming that Rio will be his last Paralympics. “Life is good,” he says. “My wife Colleen and I have been together for 10 years and it’s so nice to finally be spending Saturday mornings together and not running off to the track.”
Just as Jason moves on to the next stage of his life, the subsequent generation of visually impaired Canadian athletes are taking up the torch. For Priscilla Gagné of Quebec, Rio was her first Paralympics competing in judo and the culmination of a lifelong fight. “I was always competitive,” Gagné says. “I just always wanted to be doing what the other kids were doing. But a lot of the time the adults in charge didn’t want to allow that because they were afraid for my safety. That frustrated me to the point where I would try even harder to prove them wrong.”
She has proven them very wrong indeed, building a successful judo career which will hopefully extend far into the future. Celebrating the success of blind and low vision Canadians should not detract from, but rather contribute to, awareness of the overwhelming importance of eye health. Every year, more than 50,000 Canadians lose their sight. Simultaneously, new treatments and procedures are being developed to help preserve and repair vision. It’s of the utmost importance that all stakeholders — and every Canadian is a stakeholder in health care matters — come together to ensure a brighter future both for those with vision impairment and those whose potential future impairment is preventable.