Thunder Bay

Girl from Kenora, Ont. inspires House of Commons petition to promote accessibility for visually impaired

Samantha Atchison remembers the day her daughter Jo-Hannah was diagnosed with optic nerve hypoplasia at four months old. "I had a little bit of a break down from it. You grieve a dream, but you can only grieve for so long before you wake up and you figure out how life is going to move forward."

Petition calls on government to require braille or tactile symbols on consumer product warning labels

Jo-Hannah Atchison of Kenora, Ont. has inspired a House of Commons petition calling on the government to require Braille or tactile symbols on consumer product warning labels. (Ryan T Fisher Photography)

Samantha Atchison of Kenora, Ont. remembers the day her daughter Jo-Hannah was diagnosed with optic nerve hypoplasia at four months old.

"I had a little bit of a break down from it. You grieve a dream, but you can only grieve for so long before you wake up and you figure out how life is going to move forward."

Atchison says her daughter's diagnosis made her realize just how inaccessible the world is for her daughter, "from infant toys to things such as hazardous materials."

Jo-Hannah Atchison speaks about the importance of the petition

1 year ago
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Jo-Hannah Atchison speaks about the importance of the petition 0:21

One day, Atchison made over one hundred phone calls to companies like Proctor & Gamble and Pepsi, asking them why they didn't produce Braille labels on their products to improve accessibility for blind or low-vision consumers.

"Every answer I got was, 'oh, gee, wow, I've never been asked that before.' So that was fuel to my fire, because how have you not been asked this question before? My daughter is not the first person to be born with this disability. And how is it that after so many years of Braille being available, nobody has put a policy into place that states that it must be accessible to all?"

Thanks to a relationship started during the 2019 federal election with Eric Melillo, the member of Parliament for Kenora, steps are being taken to make that a reality.

Petition currently open for signatures

Melillo sponsored a petition by Atchison in the House of Commons on Tuesday that calls on the government to require braille or tactile symbols on consumer product warning labels. It is currently available for members of the public to view and sign the petition.

Atchison said hazardous materials are a "no-brainer."

"Children who are visually abled can see a skull-and-cross and either identify it as a pirate or poison depending on the child. My daughter has nothing on that can that says that she maybe shouldn't be touching it, maybe she should ask for help. And when information isn't made accessible, it's really hard to be independent," added Atchison.

Eric Melillo, Member of Parliament for Kenora, met Jo-Hannah Atchison and her mom Samantha while campaigning during the 2019 federal election. (Submitted by Samantha Atchison)

Melillo said, "the petition is really to generate some awareness. And once we submit the petition, it will be presented to the government and they will have a period of time in order to issue a formal response addressing the concern. So this is one piece of the puzzle for sure."

"It's a small piece, but I think it's an important one, especially given the fact that parliament has been prorogued, and we don't have a lot of those similar legislative avenues that we would during normal time," added Melillo.

Greater accessibility will lead to more independence

Atchison said a law requiring all hazardous materials to be labelled either in Braille or tactile form would help her daughter and so many other people with visual impairments to achieve greater independence.

"I know that there's going to be a lot of times in her life where she is going to require assistance from other people. It's inevitable. But one less thing that she has to ask for help for means that she can hold her head high and be independent."

Melillo and Atchison don't want to stop there.

One less thing that she has to ask for help for means that she can hold her head high and be independent.- Samantha Atchison, mother of Jo-Hannah

In his conversations with stakeholders, Melillo said he's heard many calling for a national framework to address accessibility concerns.

"The federal government has a role to help bring together policies that might be different across provinces or different jurisdictions. And I think that that would really go a long way in making life more supportive."

Atchison said there is no reason why accessible packaging and labelling has to stop at hazardous materials.

"They place Braille on our currency, so why not make it accessible for them to spend it independently, so that Jo-Hannah can walk into a store by herself and pick up whatever she wants without needing somebody by her side?"

The House of Commons petition closes for signatures on October 24.

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