The Medical Exclusion of Displaced People who were Blind

Photograph of a few of the eight individuals who were blind, sponsored to come to Canada by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, 1951.

Photograph of a few of the individuals sponsored to come to Canada by the CNIB, 1951, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON

X-ray apparatus (c.1940s), Artifact No. 1987.2154.001, CSTMC, Ottawa ON. Photograph taken by Beth A. Robertson, 28 June 2017.

X-Ray machine (c.1940s), Artifact No. 1987.2154.001, CSTMC, Ottawa ON.  

When agreeing to help resettle ten displaced people, the CNIB entrusted Eric Boulter with the selection. Boulter was the Assistant European Director of the American Foundation for Overseas Blind. To help guide Boulter, the CNIB offered him a set of stipulations that they felt would appease Canadian immigration authorities. CNIB’s sponsorship meant that these migrants’ blindness would not be considered a medical factor barring them from resettling within Canada. Baker therefore did not list stipulations that fell within the category of health, but focused on perceived ‘employability’. An April 1950 letter between Edwin Baker and Boulter reads that preferable candidates would be “adults between the ages of twenty-one and fifty,” that they should` “have at least some working knowledge of English or French,” and finally “that they should, preferably, have some skill or craft, or if not trained, then intelligence and aptitude coupled with ambition to make a new life.”[1] When the language requirement proved to be too difficult to meet, the CNIB adjusted their request to individuals who could speak German, or people whom the IRO offered language instruction while at the camps.[2]

The IRO, asking the CNIB to be “generous and flexible”, responded by inquiring into other possible reasons for a refugee’s exclusion from the sponsorship program. They asked the CNIB whether they would take someone with an illness, or “parallel handicaps”, or someone who had become blind due to a sexually transmitted disease. The IRO’s refocus on health largely reflected how the organization tended to classify people who were blind within their own resettlement program. A list drawn up by IRO officials that same year of certain groups requiring resettlement lumped people who were blind together with people who had “tuberculosis”, were “chronically ill”, “mental cases” as well as children of any of these groups.[3]    

Edwin Baker replied to the IRO that they would not exclude anyone based on causes of blindness, including “V.D.” (sexually-transmitted diseases). As for “parallel handicaps”, he agreed to accept individuals with a non-life threatening and temporary illness that would not “constitute a serious or complete obstruction to any reasonable rehabilitation.” Baker drew the line, however, with anyone who had “cancer or active tuberculosis or some other active progressive condition…”[4] The CNIB would not necessarily object to people with multiple disabilities, but this did not extend to cognitive or mental disabilities: Baker explained that they could not accept people who were of “low intelligence” or with “irrational conditions” as Baker and his colleagues assumed that, otherwise, the CNIB would not be able to meet the demands of Canadian immigration authorities that insisted that everyone accepted for resettlement be employable.[5] 

The strict standards stipulated by Canadian immigration also led to the exclusion of disabled women.. Notably, Baker initially stated that the CNIB had no preference as to gender. Yet overseas workers facilitating the selection on the CNIB’s behalf did not chose a single blind woman for resettlement, unless she were listed as a ‘dependant’ of the primary person.[6] Mary Clark, Director of the CNIB Department of Welfare, explained this choice a few years later to a woman requesting resettlement. Clark wrote that CNIB, again, was limited by the employability demands of Canadian immigration authorities. “It is not so easy to secure work for blind women,” Clark wrote, “and for that reason we have been unable to include any women in the group we take direct responsibility.”[7]

Boulter identified twenty-eight men as possible candidates between August and December 1950. Although the target was ten, of this pool of individuals, only eight men and their families received official approval by Canadian immigration once it was affirmed they were in “good health.”[8] Many of the others were deemed “inadmissible” or detained for long periods. Kristupas Jankus and his sighted sister Elze Jankus were originally from Lithuania. They had fled the country in an attempt to escape the occupying regimes of the Germans and Soviets, whose violence had left approximately one million Lithuanians dead by the end of the war. Many other displaced people had been safely relocated elsewhere by this time. Yet the brother and sister were still living in the British-controlled Neustadt camp in Germany by 1950, when IRO officials interviewed them for possible resettlement to Canada with CNIB sponsorship. The Jankus family had originally been high up on the priority list put together for the CNIB, since they knew a limited amount of English and Jankus was a skilled basket maker. But they were delayed repeatedly over Canadian medical officials’ objections regarding their health, even though the precise concerns were never clearly explained.

Officials seemed particularly preoccupied with Kristupas, whom they subjected to multiple X-rays and exams, quite possibly making use of a machine like the one pictured above. As a result, Jankus and his sister were not included within the initial eight families to come to Canada.[9] The Jankus family succeeded later in overcoming the multiple hurdles placed in their way, and they arrived in Canada close to a year later with the CNIB’s support.[10] The reasons for Jankus’ detainment and many others are generally ambiguous outside of a general reference to concerns over ‘health’. Due to CNIB’s sponsorship, they were not to be deemed inadmissible on account of their blindness, but even this did not seem to stop medical officials from excessively scrutinizing their bodies through the rigorous and repeated application of medical technologies like the X-ray.  



[1] Letter of E.A. Baker to Eric Boulter, 25 April 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[2] Letter of E.A. Baker to Hector Allard, 25 July 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[3] Letter of Grierson Rickford to Hector Allard, 12 June 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON; J. Donald Kingsley, IRO Director-General, “Appeal to Voluntary Organizations on behalf of Refugees Requiring Institutional or Other Care,” Memorandum, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 12, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[4] Letter of Rickford to Allard, 12 June 1950; Letter of E.A. Baker to Hector Allard, 23 June 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[5] Letter of Baker to Allard, 23 June 1950.

[6] Memorandum, “Selection of Blind for Canada,” from A.W. Clabon, Chief of Australia, Canada and New Zealand Branch to IRO Office, Hull, Quebec, 7 August 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON; Letter of E.A. Baker to Hector Allard, 15 December 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON; Letter of E.A. Baker to Hector Allard, 5 January 1951, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[7] Letter of Mary Clark to Milda Ansmits, 14 January 1952, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 12, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON

[8] Letter of Laval Fortier, Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, to E.A. Baker, 14 October 1950, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[9] Memorandum, “Selection of Blind for Canada,” from A.W. Clabon, 7 August 1950; Memorandum, “Blind Refugees for Canada,” N. Woolward on behalf of A.W. Clabon, Chief of Australia, Canada and New Zealand Branch for Director of Resettlement and Repatriation, 7 December 1950,  Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 11, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.

[10] Mary A. Clark, “Blind D.P.’s Report” 13 May 1953, Canadian National Institute for the Blind Fonds, box 49, file 12, R3647-0-9-E, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa ON.