Ontario woman told she can’t donate blood because of intellectual disability fights back
Yanhong Dewan was literally born into adversity, but when she turned 17, she wanted to help others by donating blood. What followed was a years-long legal battle
Yanhong Dewan, seated, and her mother, Yvonne Soulliere, have fought a five-year legal battle after Dewan was prevented from giving blood because of her intellectual disability.Dax Melmer/Postmedia News
Yanhong Dewan was literally born into adversity, her first years spent in an overcrowded Chinese orphanage with little to eat and less human comfort.
It hasn’t always been easy in her adopted Canadian homeland, either, but when Dewan turned 17, she had an unusual wish: to donate blood and help others get well.
It was not to be.
The resident of the Windsor, Ont., area has no known blood-borne infections or other relevant health risks. She was rejected as a potential donor because her intellectual disability made it difficult to understand a lengthy screening questionnaire.
“I felt disappointed, not too happy about it,” Dewan said this week with characteristic directness. “Mad, too.”
Mad enough, in fact, that she and her mother lodged a complaint accusing the blood agency of discriminating against her on the basis of intellectual disability.
The resulting legal tussle has already lasted five years, and could stretch on longer. The Canadian Human Rights Commission essentially cleared the organization of any violations and the Federal Court of Canada has just upheld that ruling, but the young woman is now pondering an appeal.
At the heart of the case is how far CBS must go to accommodate a potential donor who seems physically healthy, yet is intellectually challenged.
Aided by a disability rights lawyer, Dewan argued she could have completed the screening with the help of a “clear-language interpreter,” similar to how deaf people or foreign-language speakers are vetted; CBS said that would undermine the system’s safety.
The dispute also cuts to the core of a key issue for all disabled people: the right to fully participate in society, and repudiate a past that saw many isolated in institutions or subjected to sterilization.
“It’s about people with disabilities having an equal chance to take part,” said Tess Sheldon of Toronto-based ARCH Disability Law Centre, Dewan’s lawyer. “It’s about making sure that the blood-donor screening process is accessible.”
Marc Plante, a CBS spokesman, said the agency works hard with various groups to accommodate donors and it is “unfortunate” it could not do so in Dewan’s case.
“To ensure safety, all donors must understand the risks and responsibilities of blood donation, which can be somewhat complicated,” he said.
The solutions suggested by Dewan and her lawyer “could undermine Canadian Blood Services’ ability to assess that understanding.”
The agency was created in the wake of the tainted-blood tragedy, mandated to ensure the blood supply is as safe for patients as possible, the Federal Court ruling notes.
Dewan was living in an orphanage in Wuhan, China, when her Canadian mother, Yvonne Soulliere, adopted the four-year-old and brought her back to live in LaSalle, Ont.
Her challenges have sometimes made it difficult to fit in, but she has always thought of others, repeatedly growing her hair long, then having it cut off to be used in wigs for cancer patients, working for Meals on Wheels and helping raise money for the Special Olympics.
Even as he dealt her another courtroom loss last month, Federal Court Justice Alan Diner acknowledged that Dewan was “a young woman of exceptional kindness and generosity.”