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Film on inherited vision loss premiers at WMU

July 20, 2009

KALAMAZOO--A documentary film produced by current and former Western Michigan University professors on inherited vision loss among native people in subarctic Canada will have its world premiere on Thursday, July 23, at WMU's Little Theatre.

The documentary, titled "Sing Me a Fish: Tlicho People of Subarctic Canada Living with Vision Loss," will be shown at 6:30 p.m. at the theatre, located at corner of Oakland Drive and Oliver Lane, and is free and open to the public. It was produced by Dr. Susan Ponchillia, WMU professor of Blindness and Low Vision Studies, in collaboration with the husband, Paul, and Frank Jamison of Lotus Media. Both Paul Ponchillia and Jamison are emeriti professors of the department.

Using the words of the people themselves, the film provides insight into the struggle of the natives of Tlicho, a nation in subarctic Canada, who deal with a high rate of vision loss. In Behchoko, a remote hamlet of approximately 1,900 residents, it is estimated that nearly 25 percent of the population is affected by vision loss or carries the gene for forms of retinitis pigmentosa (RP) that result in night blindness and tunnel vision.

The documentary helps educate people on the risk of inherited vision loss and how other cultures cope with such diseases.

"There is a typical lack of public understanding about the capabilities of people who can't see," Susan Ponchillia says, "so besides informing the public about the genetic nature of the blindness, we wanted to show the true abilities of the native people who have it."

The film is the latest of a number of projects Susan Ponchillia has embarked on in the community at the edge of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. She and her husband have also created a software-based family tree of the Tlicho people, collaborated with genetic researchers to study the genetics of eye diseases, and led a number of rehabilitation workshops to provide blindness and low vision services on site. She is especially proud of the creation of the family tree, since it allows church and health officials to counsel people regarding their genetic risk of blindness.

Avid arctic kayakers, the Ponchilias heard about the high rate of blindness in Behchoko during one of their northern vacation trips more than 20 years ago. Susan Ponchillia wanted to learn more about the effects of night blindness on people who live in a part of the world where the sun does not shine for months. Her work in the north began there, and she considers the film to be a career capstone.

A reception will follow the 6:30 p.m. showing. For more information, contact Dr. Susan Ponchillia at (269) 387-3450 or susan.ponchillia@wmich.edu.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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