Imagine waking up every day losing more and more sight. Imagine losing the ability to read, drive, or even see familiar faces. Mark DeMontis, an advocate for Canada’s blind youth, unfortunately doesn’t have to imagine losing these things others take for granted, but he couldn’t imagine giving up his passion for hockey. So he did something about it.
DeMontis, a 25-year-old Toronto, Ont. native, was diagnosed with Leber's Optic Neuropathy at age 17, only one year away from playing NCAA hockey with dreams of going pro. He slowly lost the central vision in both eyes, leaving him legally blind. But the experience drove him to make the most of life and eventually start Courage Canada in 2008, a non-profit organization that provides blind youth with the opportunity to play hockey.
DeMontis recalls staying in Toronto's SickKids Hospital following his diagnosis, alongside terminally-ill children who would never leave.
“I just found it very tough for me to give up over a little bit of lost sight when a lot of these children are being diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses,” he said.
Weeks after he left, he took up blind hockey, which uses a plastic puck that makes noise players can follow. But DeMontis soon learned not every blind child has access to the sport.
“Every kid, no matter whether you’re sighted or not, should get to have that opportunity to play one of the national pastimes,” he stated with conviction. "If all it takes is for one puck to make noise, there’s no reason why we can’t be providing thousands of individuals around the world who are blind and partially sighted with that opportunity.”
Courage Canada, assisted by CNIB and Accessible Media Inc., now works collaboratively with school boards to bring together blind youth and start small hockey programs primarily in Ontario, B.C., and Quebec. It assists roughly 150 kids, a considerable number in the blind community.
While the program teaches skills on the ice, it also teaches kids life lessons.
“It’s very important for these youngsters to be able to speak up for what they need... to make their life more accessible or to essentially live a better life,” DeMontis said.
He hopes those lessons carry over into adulthood, where he acknowledges blind people face significant challenges, such as a staggering unemployment rate.
The employment rate for Canadians with seeing limitations stood at 34.7 per cent as of 2006, according to StatsCan. Over half of the 816,250 Canadians with vision limitations said their condition limited the amount or kind of work they could do. A majority, 95.5 per cent, said vision was not their only limitation (many cited pain and limited mobility). One in five people with severe seeing limitations stated they had unmet aid requirements.
While not all are able to do so, DeMontis took it upon himself to create his own opportunities. A year after founding Courage Canada, he inline skated from Toronto to Vancouver to raise funds and awareness, and skated again in 2011 from Halifax to Toronto.
“I said, ‘I’m doing this and no one’s telling me I’m not doing this,’" he recalled.
In addition to his Courage Canada interests, he works as a reporter for Accessible Media Inc., has a speaking business, invests in real estate, and is also writing a book and creating a documentary about his experiences. He encourages others to become successful by taking matters into their own hands.
“Don’t ever shy away from starting something... If there’s an area in your life that’s a passion to you or you have an interest in, there should be no reason why you cannot find an opportunity to start a business with it,” he said.