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It was a warm and sunny spring day in June 2016 in Ottawa as I made my way to the centre Block on Parliament Hill high above the Ottawa River. Crowned by The Peace Tower, it is gothic revival architecture that both memorializes our past as a young and evolving parliamentary democracy and marks our path to a modern digital future with the means to enable all of us.

The sound of voices in the cavernous Centre Block Rotunda makes me feel so small, yet still significant… simply because I am there and open to all that unites us to each other. I am there because I am a dreamer of a world that celebrates our differences, armed with the passion and determination to do my part for transformational change.

On this day, I was attending a reception in recognition of Vision Health Month hosted by the Senate with CNIB. I was not focused on the celebration, but instead was there to engage others about what works and what doesn't. I wanted to discuss a more optimistic vision of inclusion and the opportunities for blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people to participate more fully and contribute to the discussion about the possibilities created when people with disabilities, businesses and governments work together for the change we need in an evolving digital market.

Teddy, my handsome and prancing royal black Rasta Poodle guide dog and I made our way to Centre Block in hopeful anticipation of the event. Perhaps I could convince one more parliamentarian to consider how the current models of service delivery were not just holding back blind people, but ALSO Canada's business community from leveraging accessibility in product design for both domestic and international markets.

Teddy and I successfully navigated through security with confidence. We were escorted to the reception hall where many Parliamentarians, Senators, a host of CNIB staff and many independent blind people, some being clients of the Agency, were in attendance enjoying a glass of wine; the chatter was far too loud. Upon entering the Hall , I was escorted to a table where I joined other blind people and just knew I would not have the opportunity to speak to Government decision makers about the bold action needed to change our story from the one being told about us as a community dependent on CNIB for the delivery of services. There is of course another story told by blind people. It is a story of people enabled and empowered by digital content, channels and the personal computers and devices that continue to connect us to each other and the mainstream of our modern society, challenging the status quo and propelling us into the future we choose for ourselves individually and collectively. Our story as blind people is much more fulsome than the vision CNIB has for its clients.

I founded, grew and sold a successful business with offices in Canada and the United States, serving the alternative format requirements of governments, financial, telecommunications, healthcare, and educational sectors. We invested in the development of innovative technologies that ensure that regulated organisations have the means to deliver essential alternative formats such as audio, braille, large print and e-Text to meet customer requirements. As customers, we must be informed and must be able to independently access confidential information in order to make important decisions in our lives. We must be able to independently review our bank statements and credit card bills, lines of credit, telecommunications fees, contractual terms and conditions, side effects of prescriptions and more. Who would deny us access to the same level of service as all other customers when we pay the same service fees, especially as independent access reduces the risk of fraud and identity theft?

As a member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, I am committed to living a self-determined and independent life. Our voices are far too often ignored because, in the eyes and minds of our Government and the general public, we are already being cared for through the non-profit service models, although they are quickly becoming irrelevant in the lives of blind people in this brave new digital world.

I was there to engage others on matters important to blind people such as the following:

  • How an accessible digital infrastructure can support our information, communications and technology needs and how it opens opportunities to business and ensures economic growth, consumer choice and options;
  • How accessibility has the potential for governments to reach more constituents with information which informs, and business with access to a much larger market for their products and service innovations;
  • How our tax dollars are being used to support outdated models of custodianship, service delivery through grants and contributions to support initiatives where there is already capacity and capability in the private sector to deliver services on a competitive basis;
  • How non-profit service providers are invited by governments to discuss matters of accessibility and are able to unfairly influence policy direction, while consumer groups are neither invited, consulted nor made aware of the policy discussion, and private sector business concerns are summarily dismissed
  • How our Government rationalizes and condones the use of language and images that portray blind people as helpless and dependent as a way to help non-profit corporations garner donations, when has only resulted in unacceptably high levels of unemployment because the uninformed public believes it must be true;
  • Why CNIB receives special treatment through grants and contributions, lobbying opportunities through special events on the Hill that heighten their influence and negatively impact the rights of blind people and block the success of investments in the work of SMEs making real contributions to the independence of blind people and our business community;

These were just a few of the matters which I wanted to explore that day with the parliamentarians on the Hill, but I simply was not able to figure out exactly who was there or where they were. So for a few minutes I sipped my wine thoughtfully and waited to see if anyone would find the courage to approach to talk. None did.

It was too late as I heard the click of the microphone and the feedback coming from the speakers. Upon welcoming CNIB and all of the guests, a Senator whose name I could not make out welcomed us to celebrate Vision Health Month.

We were all asked to close our eyes and imagine…

Imagine you are blind...

Now imagine waking up in the morning as a blind person and getting dressed...

Now imagine making your own breakfast...

Shocked and amazed by the ignorance of our leaders, I just knew that our Parliamentarians had drunk the cool-aid of misinformation.

With tears of frustration threatening to overflow, I asked Teddy my handsome dog to take me out of the room, which he did with grace and speed. As we left I thought to myself,

Imagine waking up every day as a blind person and being faced with the paternalism and frustration of needless and prohibitive attitudinal and systemic barriers which are digital in design;

Imagine investing in starting and growing a business, only to be excluded from competing on a level playing field in a competitive market for products and services;

Imagine going to school and getting a degree, only to discover that there are no jobs available because the public believes that we are dependent and helpless so we face needless barriers in finding a job and living a full and equal life in a developed and advanced society;

Imagine how the stigma of blindness debilitates and frightens the public and we stand alone at a reception and no one approaches to speak with us because many believe that blindness is worse than death?

Where are the assessments to determine the impact on SMEs prior to the issuance of grants and contributions to ensure that the investments in non-profits do not harm consumers or small and medium sized businesses?

Where is the leadership we need to focus Government decisions and push the change we need to create a level playing field?

Where is the accountability and evaluation of non-profit initiatives funded through our tax dollars to assess success or failure with the clients they are designed to serve?

There are many businesses, owned and operated by blind people, that have emerged to fill gaps in service delivery and are making their mark with innovative products and services. It is hard enough starting and growing a business, but as blind people, there is a lack of opportunity because many organisations cling to old institutions which are out of step with technology and with the opportunities that digital information, communications and technologies make possible. The model is broken, and until the governance of CNIB is overhauled and is democratic in structure the possibilities for the achievement of full and equal citizenship will continue to elude a community of blind people who are educated, skilled, talented, innovative and committed to a change that reflects our needs and aspirations in the mainstream of Canadian society. Together we can all participate and contribute to Canada's prosperity.

My name is Sharlyn Ayotte and I live in Ottawa. Importantly, #IAmYourCustomer


This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.