Professor, med student design Inuktitut based eye test chart

By David Venn

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

rip to Puvirnituq last year that inspired Shaan Bhambra and Dr. Christian El-Hadad to develop a way to test eyesight using Indigenous-language charts.


Bhambra, a recent medical graduate, travelled to the Nunavik community for a rural medical placement. He was paired with El-Hadad, a McGill University faculty ophthalmologist.


The pair met several patients during the placement who could only read or write fluently in Inuktitut.


“We have these patients who are fully literate adults, but because we’re not providing them with a chart in their alphabet, it brings on this pejorative notion that they might be illiterate or that they are unable to read,” Bhambra said.


So they brainstormed the idea of creating a visual acuity chart using Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, which can be recognized by Inuktitut, Ojibwe and Cree speakers.


Visual acuity charts are ubiquitous in the office of any eye doctor: Letters line the top in a very large font and each line down gets progressively smaller. Doctors use these charts to assess patients’ eyesight.


El-Hadad, who routinely provides eye care to people in Nunavik, said the Indigenous-language charts are helping his Indigenous patients.


“This chart actually allows them  to move from feeling illiterate  to feeling literate in their own language, and feel empowered to kind of feel free to use their own language to express and be tested and receive medical reports,” El-Hadad said.


“It allows us to test several First Nations and Inuit patients using the same tools.”


A lot of research went into deciding how to develop the chart.


Bhambra and El-Hadad only used characters that are used in written Inuktutit, Cree and Ojibwe syllabics.


“These seven letters that we use, we’re able to cover the languages of, I believe, 85 per cent of the 260,000 Indigenous Canadians who speak an Indigenous language in Canada,” Bhambra said.


“So we really try to use this as a testing ground to start developing a visual acuity chart in Indigenous scripts, but try to make it as broad as possible as well.”


So far, the rollout of the chart has been a success, said El-Hadad.


Printed copies of the chart are available to use at clinics in the 14 Nunavik villages, the Ullivik lodging facility for medical patients in Dorval, and El-Hadad’s clinic on the McGill campus.


“It makes me very, very happy to know that we are providing something that patients are really appreciative of,” Bhambra said.


“It’s been really inspiring, I would say, to be able to provide care in a patient’s native language and to respect their culture and language in a way that hasn’t been done before.”


The chart is open-source material, meaning anyone can access it.


El-Hadad and Bhambra are trying to spread the word about it in many forums.


Bhambra, however, said he hopes people can look at the chart and come up with their own ideas to improve the relationships doctors have with their Indigenous patients.


“We’re just in a small aspect here, but we hope that it inspires other people to look for solutions in other specialties, or in ophthalmology or in medicine more broadly: How can we make sure that we’re serving our patients as effectively and in a way that’s culturally respectful as possible?” Bhambra said.


“We really do owe the patients the right to use their language and to follow their customs and to respect the culture that they share with us.”

 David Venn is a  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with NUNATSIAQ NEWS. LJI  is a federally funded program

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