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Breaking down barriers and celebrating the contributions of Indigenous people living with disability

​​​​​In Canada, there have been great strides to ensure that people living with disabilities have equitable access to care and services.
Paula Wesley, a member of the Provincial Language Service's community advisory group
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​Paula Wesley, a member of the Provincial Language Service's community advisory group.

But when it comes to Indigenous people living with disabilities, many additional barriers can create unique challenges.​

First Nations people continue to be impacted by colonization, oppression and systematic racism, which in turn, affects their access and interactions with our health care system. According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous people in Canada experience a disability rate significantly higher than the general population; however, due to our current structures and practices, they continue to face unique challenges in order to access the supports they need. 

November is Indigenous Disability Awareness Month (IDAM)​—an opportunity to bring awareness of these barriers and the issues that Indigenous peoples living with disabilities and their families face every day. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Indigenous peoples living with disabilities who despite the obstacles they have faced, have made significant and valuable contributions to their communities.

Paula Wesley is one such individual who has made it her life’s purpose to give back. In addition to being a member of the Provincial Language Service’s community advisory group, she’s a strong advocate for Indigenous Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard of Hearing (DDBHH) individuals, and supports them in accessing the care and services they need. Paula is also a teacher—hosting workshops on a variety of topics including anti-racism and cultural sensitivity. 

Paula says when it comes to accessing services, Indigenous DDBHH individuals face many obstacles.

“The number one barrier is a lack of access to technology. Indigenous people sometimes don’t have a mobile phone, tablet, or even access to wifi that can connect them to tools and resources that are available to other DDBBHH Canadians." — Paula Wesley​
She adds that health-care providers on reserves or in remote communities also don’t often have access to interpretation services.​

“Indigenous DDBHH individuals end up relying heavily on their families, which doesn’t provide them with autonomy when it comes to their health. Not having been exposed to many other deaf people in their communities, their sign language can also be delayed and not consistent with American Sign Language, which is used by most interpretation services," says Paula.

While most Canadian DDBHH individuals use American Sign Language (ASL), Indigenous languages are not easily translated. Some nations such as the Inuit and the Salish people have Indigenous sign languages that date back centuries; however, these dialects are rarely known by most ASL interpreters.

“This is why literacy and connection are so important,” says Paula. “If we can connect Indigenous DDBHH individuals with those who speak ASL, and increase their written language skills, they can learn the language and be able to connect with a broader range of services.”

How health-care providers can help

When it comes to learning about how to best support any person with disabilities, the most important thing is education.

“Educate yourself about the barriers people face and the accessibility and resources that are available to support those who are marginalized,” says Paula. “We need to ensure equality is there every step of the way and look at things with a cultural sensitivity and non-ableist lens.”

Providers should also remember that it is their responsibility to provide translation and interpretation services to those who need them. From doctors and nurses to clerks and paramedics—we all have a role to play in creating equitable language access for our patients and clients. 

“People often see an Indigenous person first, then a person with a disability. But we need to just see them as human beings and do everything we can to support them.” — Paula Wesley​

Accessible services for Indigenous peoples

In addition to seeking feedback from Indigenous people through PLS’s community advisory group, other PHSA services such as the San’yas Anti-Racism Indigenous Cultural Safety Training Program are available with closed captions to increase accessibility for program participants who are DDBHH.

You can learn more about the San’yas program on their website.​

Provincial language services resources

For more information on how to access interpretation or translation services, visit the Provincial Language Services web page.​

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