by Kat Hamilton, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
After insulin was discovered in 1921 by a team of researchers at the University of Toronto, it has gone down in history as one of the great Canadian inventions. Last year marked 100 years since this discovery, which gave us the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate how far we’ve come, as well as how far we have to go.
Ten years ago, I was working for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in London, England and would speak with people who were blind and living with diabetes who wanted to know where to get an accessible insulin pump. At that point the question wasn’t if an accessible pump existed (because we had assumed that must be the case), but where could they find it. After carrying out some initial research, I was shocked to find that there were no fully accessible insulin pumps available, not just in the UK, but on the global market. I tried my best to support people and connect them with healthcare resources, but that’s as much as I could do at the time. As a relentless advocate, it left a very bitter taste in my mouth.
Now working in Canada for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), the feeling of déjà vu came upon me a couple of years ago when I was speaking with those living with sight loss and diabetes who were lamenting the fact that their insulin pumps weren’t accessible. As so many years had past, I thought that surely this couldn’t still be the case.
As it happens, it’s still very much the case. This is not for want of trying by the sheer determination of those who have been advocating for accessible insulin pumps and glucometers for many years. There are 750,000 people living with diabetic retinopathy in Canada, not taking into account the number of people living with other sight conditions and diabetes, so we knew that this was something we needed to take on.
As we got started, we were not aware of the extent of the great work that others were doing across North America (and beyond), and so we tried to go it alone and reach out to the manufacturers to gather more information and have a further discussion. Sometimes community advocates believe that a large organization like CNIB holds more weight than individuals, but our letters to the four main insulin pump manufacturers who operate in Canada remained unanswered.
This led us to be incredibly disheartened, and we would not be where we are today if it wasn’t for the support of Diabetes Canada, who hold those key relationships with the manufacturers in Canada and were able to open doors for us. Through those initial discussions, we were also able to build momentum and find out about other allies across North America, including other groups representing people who are blind or partially sighted, healthcare professionals, researchers, and government representatives.
A hundred years ago, if a person was diagnosed with diabetes, it would’ve been a death sentence. Ten years ago, when I heard the frustrations of people who couldn’t independently manage their diabetes due to inaccessible pumps, the problem seemed insurmountable. It is so easy to see the task ahead of us and believe it will never happen in our lifetime. If those University of Toronto researchers had felt the same in 1921, I would not want to imagine where we would be now.
Big problems call for big solutions. It is through the collaborative efforts of everyone who owns a piece of this issue that we continue to gain traction, even when it sometimes feels like pushing a very heavy boulder up a steep hill. And yet we must persist, because the option that people who are blind remain unable to independently manage their own personal health is not a viable one.
We are grateful to stand alongside the ACB and other American partners in tackling this issue. If you are interested in learning more about the work CNIB is carrying out in Canada, please visit our accessible insulin pump advocacy page on the CNIB website.