Tessa Hawkins and her service dog, Merlot, quietly sat in the public gallery at the B.C. Legislature on Tuesday morning. They were waiting to hear Anne Kang, MLA for Burnaby- Deer Lake, make the official proclamation for Purple Day, or epilepsy awareness day.
“I think it was a really big step forward to have some political acknowledgment, it’s been really difficult to get some awareness for epilepsy even though it’s really common,” said Hawkins, who is the vice president of the HeadWay Victoria Epilepsy and Parkinson’s Centre.
“It seems to be overlooked a lot because people are really hesitant to come out. They’re scared and they feel really alone and isolated, so to have something like this to acknowledge that you’re not alone, that there’s 50 million people just like you, I think it will encourage other people in B.C. and Victoria to start coming out and saying ‘its okay I have epilepsy, we have a community.’”
One in 100 Canadians have epilepsy, and every day 42 Canadians are diagnosed. The neurological disorder causes misfirings in the brain, which can trigger physical or mental manifestations of seizures. Some people may know the cause of these seizures; a head injury, a physical mass in the brain, or a genetic condition. However, for up to 60 per cent off people with epilepsy the cause is unknown.
Hawkins, who has lived with epilepsy for 30 years, said throughout her life she has faced a lot of stigma because of her condition.
“I had difficulty finding a job and making it through school. I didn’t realize how important it was to have a support group, because there wasn’t anything available when I was growing up in Chilliwack,” she said.
Hawkins now works as a policy analyst for the B.C. Accessibility Secretariat and hopes to use her personal experiences in her work.
“I think it’s really empowering because I’ve gone through a lot of negative stuff,” Hawkins said. “I can take all of my experiences, and take those steps forward to make things better for the next generation.”
This year HeadWay has expanded their services to farther north up the Island, and also established more support groups for a larger demographic of people, including First Nations people with epilepsy.
Hawkins said that recently the group has also become more vocal and attracted more media attention, a positive step in the right direction.
“What I’d like to see is a community where people aren’t afraid to tell others. I’ve had so many people ask me ‘when should I tell my boyfriend?’ and I want a community where it shouldn’t matter,” Hawkins said. “I want to end that stigma, that’s the ideal.”
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