Refugees, Disability and Technology in Transnational Postwar Canada, 1946-1953


CNIB Displaced Person Case File, 1951, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 12, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.


There are 65.3 million displaced persons around the globe today, and one third of them are classified as refugees. This unprecedented number only seems to be growing –  the UNHCR Refugee Agency estimates that 34 000 more people are forcibly displaced everyday.[1] Migrants are forced to leave their homes for a variety of reasons, whether they are escaping war, violence, persecution or natural disasters as a consequence of climate change. People with disabilities face a number of barriers in addition to these challenges. These barriers can frequently be physical, but societal and cultural attitudes that systemically discriminate against people with disabilities are also obstacles.

More engineers, designers, activists, NGOs and policy-makers are recognizing that technology can play a role in lessening this difficult situation by creating accessible spaces in refugee camps, offering vital access to information, communications, and resources, as well as assisting during the resettlement process.[2] At the same time, it is important to recognize that technology continues to be wielded as a harmful tool for exclusion. It has often limited the options of people with disabilities for resettlement, and contributed to their ongoing displacement. This is especially true in the context of Canada, where refugees were historically refused admission, as it was feared they might “cause excessive demand on health or social services.”[3] As Dr. Roy Hanes has shown, this history of exclusion reaches back to 1869 and continued up until 2001, when new legislation in the form of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act declared refugees exempt from the "excessive demand" provision. Other immigrant categories are nonetheless still subject to this provision. [4] This characterization of people with disabilities has effectively barred many from finding asylum in Canada. Medical technologies, often used to provide the so-called evidence for this ongoing exclusion, have contributed to this discriminatory system.

This episode explores the challenges of migrants and new Canadians with disabilities, as well as the mixed role of technology in their lives. It does so through the lens of the postwar refugee crisis and examines the ways in which Canadian and international organizations responded to the resettlement needs of a small group of displaced persons who were blind or partially sighted.

[1] United Nations Human Rights Commission, UN Refugee Agency, “Figures at a Glance,”, accessed 1 June 2017.

[2] Edward Steinfeld and Jordana Maisel, Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012), 147-148; Gregor Wolbring, “Disability, Displacement and Public Health: A Vision for Haiti,” Canadian Journal of Public Health 102, 2 (Mar/Apr 2011): 157-9.

[3] Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), Canada, SC 2001, c.27, section 38 (1), p.38. Accessible online via the following link:

[4] Roy Hanes, “None is Still Too Many: An Historical Exploration of Canadian Immigration Legislation as it Pertains to People with Disabilities,” Canadian Council of Canadians with Disabilities, 20 January 2011,, accessed 21 June 2017.


Refugees, Disability and Technology in Transnational Postwar Canada, 1946-1953