Remembering the Halifax Explosion: How volunteers helped hundreds see beyond vision loss

12/3/2012
On December 6, 1917, one of the most catastrophic events in Canadian history struck the shores of Nova Scotia. But few Canadians realize that the Halifax Explosion sparked an outpouring of community support for survivors who were blind or partially sighted and served as a catalyst for the formation of one of Canada’s oldest charities, CNIB.
 
When the SS Mont Blanc accidentally collided with the SS Imo in Halifax Harbour on that fateful December morning, hundreds gathered along the shorelines, while others watched from their windows, to witness the fiery aftermath.
 
What they didn’t realize was that the Mont Blanc was fully loaded with wartime explosives, and it was ready to blow.
 
Twenty-four minutes later, the wreckage exploded – causing a tsunami in the harbour and a massive flash that leveled buildings for kilometres around. It was the largest manmade accidental explosion the world had ever seen. 
 
Two thousand people were killed, and a further 9,000 injured – more than 1,000 of whom sustained serious eye injuries from flying glass and debris, which left them blind or with significant vision loss. A staggering 250 eye removals were performed over a period of two weeks following the explosion, an additional 206 survivors had lost one eye and required monitoring to ensure they retained their vision in the other, and 260 more people had glass embedded in their eyes.
 
Coupled with the onslaught of veterans returning home blind after World War I, the explosion meant there were suddenly more Nova Scotians living with blindness or partial sight than ever before.
 
“Hundreds faced a life of social isolation, poverty and dependency that was traditionally associated with being blind or partially sighted at that time,” said Jane Beaumont, CNIB’s National Board Chair. “Thankfully, dedicated groups of volunteers rallied together to help those significantly affected by the explosion – especially those who were blinded, adjusting to a sudden change in vision and their quality of life.”
 
CNIB, then just a small crew of volunteers, set to work helping the survivors improve living and social conditions by teaching skills, such as knitting, reading braille, using washing machines, bread mixers and other domestic products to make life with vision loss easier.
Relief volunteers and social workers throughout the region visited people with eye injuries in the hospital and later escorted them to medical appointments – as recent blindness made people afraid to leave their homes.
 
Little by little, things started to change – not just for those blinded in the explosion, but for all people who were blind or living with a serious loss of sight. People started to think differently about what it means to be blind.

Following the disaster, various local women’s groups realized the great need for social inclusion by arranging outings, including picnics, boat rides and musical evenings for individuals in the community who were recently blinded, and their families.

CNIB and community volunteers also hosted classes and social gatherings, where survivors with vision loss could discuss challenges, overcome fears and celebrate achievements.

“Back then, CNIB and community volunteers helped survivors of the explosion adjust to life with vision loss, learn skills and regain some of their independence,” said Peter Parsons, CNIB’s manager of programs and services in Nova Scotia. “Ninety-five years later, we are continuing our commitment to helping Nova Scotians deal with the emotional and social side of vision loss, while building the skills to do everyday tasks with confidence.”

Today, CNIB is still the primary provider of vision rehabilitation in Nova Scotia, delivering services right where clients need them – over the phone, online, or in clients’ own homes, communities and CNIB centres in Halifax and Sydney. In 2012, Nova Scotia is home to more than 34,300 people who are blind or partially sighted.

“As we commemorate the 95th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, CNIB remembers the hard work and generosity of volunteers who helps hundreds of survivors to see beyond vision loss,” said Ms. Beaumont.

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