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The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians’ 30th Anniversary theme: "Our history, our vision, our guide; forging the roadmap into our future."

How old were you when our organization was born?

In 1992, when Paul and Mary Ellen Gabias successfully birthed the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality, which was modeled after the National Federation of the Blind in the US, I was married with two preteen girls. My husband and I were both working full-time, and I was volunteering for a provincial cross-disability organization in Alberta. The articles of incorporation for the new organization were signed in June that year.

For Paul and Mary Ellen, bringing their dream to fruition was analogous to building a house from the ground up requiring a plan, a strong foundation, bricks and mortar for building, and resources to make NFB:AE a sustainable reality. The plan was the NFB model, and the philosophy of the consumer driven movement -- that we must have access to, and control over, the goods and services we require that allow us to live productive and independent lives.

The foundation was advocacy and public education, which remains our focus today. The bricks and mortar is the membership that grew slowly at first, blossoming over time, and at its highest, included 16 chapters across the country with our membership peaking at 268 in 2008. Today, we have 183 members. The founding members and the slowly increasing volunteer membership base as the organization grew were the worker bees along with those elected to the national board and committees, developed the bylaws, policies and procedures that along with a growing list of member resolutions were ratified by the general membership at conferences and AGMs. If you follow the themes and discussion threads in the conference programs over the years, you can clearly see how the organization has steadily grown and evolved, training our members to become stronger and better advocates.

Though initially some of our funds resulted from government project grants, much of our resources were gleaned from the hard work of fundraising initiatives like door-to-door canvassing, telemarketing campaigns, 50/50 ticket draws, and by holding auctions silent and in-person, selling T-shirts and cookbooks, and bake sales of all kinds, hosting trivia nights and talent shows, and supporting purchases through Fundscrip.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, at both chapter and national levels, fundraising efforts were successful. Though we cannot deny that the Internet has given us many positive and necessary tools to carry out our work more effectively and efficiently, over time, it has also all but erased the face of human connection that was often the saving grace of fundraising initiatives, which has made it much more difficult for charitable organizations like AEBC to use fundraising as a viable revenue stream.

AEBC has other program and membership recognition initiatives that include:

• First scholarship recipients in 2000. In the beginning AEBC covered these funds for postsecondary students to continue their studies, However, over time as our resource streams dwindled, this was no longer a sustainable option and we began to seek sponsors, along with other chapter fundraising events that have continued to this day. • The first volunteer of the year award recipient was Mike Hambly from Alberta in 2006. • T-Base was our first sponsor beginning in 2002. In 2012, we added a memorial scholarship sponsor and more recently, we have now added an anonymous donor and the BC Affiliate to this list.

Though we have never gotten all of the attention we hoped and craved, government ministers and bureaucrats cocked an ear and began inviting us to meetings and stopped shuffling their papers long enough to consider some of our issues. At our Montreal conference in 2003, we were honoured to host the Honourable Minister Jane Stewart, Minister of Human Resources and Development Canada as our keynote guest speaker.

Can you imagine a time before Email?

By 1996, Email became a game-changer connecting members across the country allowing for almost real-time collaboration and ideas exchange. Since then, technology and the growth of the Internet has helped us to include listserv, website, social media, video and podcasting, teleconferencing, and most recently the use of the Zoom platform to improve connection and communication with our membership, bureaucrats and ministers at all levels of government, and the general public. Also, as our skills and our use of technology grew, and the technology itself improved, we could work faster and more efficiently to produce more papers, briefs and letters for submission to government departments and anyone else who would listen.

NEWS Flash! Upheaval in the Ranks leads to a new regime and a name change

In the early years, the membership very much appreciated and benefitted from attending the NFB conventions in the US, where they gained valuable advocacy skills and a greater understanding of the principles of the consumer movement. Confidence and knowledge, however, also brought grumblings and unrest with a drive to build a more Canadian brand for our organization, based on our national values and principles. This resulted in major changes in the organizational structure and the NFB:AE itself.

Were you part of the action? …

• 1998: First Canadian NFB:AE conference hosted in Vancouver, and Richard Marion is elected as the second president ending Paul Gabias; 6-year presidency. • 1999: The second Canadian conference is in Victoria. Robert Fenton is elected president, a post he holds for two years. A push towards a more Canadian philosophy and structure causes a split within the membership. forming a new organization, the Canadian Federation of the Blind (CFB). • October 16, 2004: A special meeting membership vote finally agrees on our name change: The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), which we have proudly kept to this day. • March 17, 2005: Our new name takes effect, and is first used at the Ottawa conference in April of that year. • May, 2006 meeting in Kelowna: The first resolution to push for accessible elections to all levels of government, Michael Yale introduces AEBC’s first advocacy efforts to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy to all levels of government for people who are blind, deafblind or partially sighted. • 2007 Victoria: AEBC reaffirms its commitment to and focus on Advocacy and Public Awareness, which has been maintained throughout our history. Initial discussions begin around universal accessible design, and the concept of a National Disability Act is introduced by our CCD representative, Pat Danforth. B.C.’s new Disability Strategy including a network of integrated services and personal supports is presented. AEBC receives funding by B.C. Government for a new service delivery model for a low tech assistive devices program. Also, introduction of AEBC’s advocacy manual, and Resolution to encourage cable providers to include access to description services on their remote controls. Albert Ruel is hired as National Equality Director to seek new core funding sources.

Do you remember when? …

• We speak against the use of blindfolds in public education/awareness demonstrations. • The use of the term “partially sighted” is adopted to designate this group within the AEBC’s membership. • The work spearheaded by Robin East and Chris Stark changes the face of accessible transportation on planes, trains and busses. • Early on, Irene Lambert speaks to the CRTC advocating for more audio-described programming on television. • AEBC Advocates for Canadian companies to produce bank statements, telephone bills, restaurant menus, … in braille and alternate formats. • Our organization is part of a joint committee developing a Canadian position for international standards for audible traffic signals. • We put forward concerns related to the danger to blind and other pedestrians posed by the introduction of quiet (hybrid) cars and more recently e-scooters. • Our organization supports VoicePrint, a forerunner of AMI, very much appreciate AMI’s continued sponsorship of our conferences, and our proud to be working together on video projects and podcasts. • In 2006, Donna Jodhan launches a charter challenge court case highlighting the inaccessibility of government web sites. Many AEBC members and supporters attend the hearings, and continue to provide assistance throughout a 4-years, until the judge releases his favourable decision, ensuring that the government complies in making a specific number of their websites accessible. We continue to monitor this issue to the present day. • Chris Stark is instrumental in making bank machines accessible, and you discover that now you can take out cash from an accessible ATM independently. • AEBC publishes The Canadian Blind Monitor, which is unfortunately discontinued in 2012, due to lack of sponsors and funding constraints. • 2015: Sharlyn Ayotte mounted a “We Are Your Customer” campaign,” aimed at companies and service providers of all types who have a responsibility, to accommodate our access and service needs along with those of the whole of society. It was great in terms of awareness, but difficult to maintain because we needed a much larger membership base to truly have an impact. • The first issue of the Equalizer newsletter is published in 2018. • The podcast Executive Update, first hosted by David Best in 2018, was renamed Walking the Talk after about a year by Devon Wilkins, who remains its host today. • 2021 and ongoing: Working Together with AMI, the Pandora Project Triple Vision podcast tells the personal stories through the lived experiences of blind, deafblind and partially sighted members dealing with barriers such as library service, schools for the blind and mainstream education, eugenics and disability, employment, and the Accessible Canada Act.

Did you know? …

• John Rae is our longest serving national board member, holding every position except secretary for over 14 years. He held the position of President for just over 4 years between 2002-06. Robin East is his successor. • There have been 12 presidents throughout our history, 4 women and 8 men. • As well as our National board, AEBC currently has 7 national committees: Bylaw and Governance, Government Relations, Membership and Retention, Fundraising, Student and Education (Scholarship), Communications, and Information Technology. • The 2014 AGM/conference launches a national strategy for AEBC. Anthony Tibbs, who was president at this time explains it this way: “The work we do must not only focus on advocacy, but on supporting our advocates. We are a collective of blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians working together with those who support us to improve our lives, and to create opportunities for our community to succeed in all aspects of life.” • In 2022, following on the joint work of the communications and IT committees, the AEBC national board has approved a proposal to redesign our web site, and it is anticipated that work will begin this fall.

Many of the advocacy issues we raised in the early ‘90s are still ongoing today and we continually add to the list …

• Delivery of specialized library services for the blind, AEBC has always had difficulty having its voice heard at the consultation table. • Continue to lobby for copyright and publisher/published material to be in accessible formats. • Monitoring the designation of suitable definitions for and the standards that govern service animals and assistance dogs. • Monitoring progress as our access to point of sale terminals improves; • Monitoring affordable accessible housing in local, provincial and national jurisdictions. • Ongoing, constant conversations around improving access to employment and training opportunities. • Back and forth communication between CHRC, CRTC, and CTA. • Continuing as part of a joint committee to advocate for accessible kiosk services in grocery and department stores; ordering in fast food and other restaurants; ticket sales in movie theatres, airports, bus and train terminals. • Since the Accessible Canada Act (Bill C 81) was proclaimed in July 2019, AEBC remains actively committed to providing input ensuring that we have a voice in the development and adoption of standards that must include us – Nothing about us without us. We also follow the progress of provincial disability strategies as they become legislated.

Access covers many broad categories. We must have access to the following goods and services …

• Healthcare devices and services – glucometers and insulin pumps, pharmaceuticals and prescription labels, personal healthcare portals, records and medical forms. • Accessible local, provincial and federal voting and election materials. • Education – ensuring that delivery services in-class and online meet our needs, and that materials are available in alternate formats. • CRTC – Having a presence at commission meetings that deal with TV, radio and streaming services. • Constant push to maintain and improve the accessibility of web and social media sites and the internet in general. • Voice our environmental safety concerns dealing with signage, audible signals, quiet cars/e-scooters, maps, wayfinding and GPS technologies. • Maintain an overall commitment to information access that includes the use of, access to and connecting with assistive devices that technology supports. Though technology may solve a myriad of problems, if providers and/or the users are not aware of its potential or even existence, or the knowledge, skills and training required to use it, it benefits no one.

Past Movers and Shakers in the Advocacy/Blind Consumer Movement ...

These individuals, and many more like them, have spent their lives focusing on removing barriers for those of us who are blind, deafblind and partially sighted, increasing our confidence and showing us that we are rightsholders, not stakeholders in society and always promoting our ability over disability.

• John Rae, • Chris and Marie Stark, • Donna Jodhan, • Robin East, • Michael yale, • Mark Workman, • Irene Lambert, • David Lepofsky, • Richard Marion …

Consider that we, the members of AEBC are the present. Who are your mentors and heroes to add to this list walking hand in hand navigating your roadmap into our future?

This was written by the Thirtieth Anniversary Committee: Chantal Oakes, Diana Brent, Louise Johnson, Maryse Glaude-Beaulieu, and Devon Wilkins

On Friday, September 9, 2022, we held a virtual event to celebrate this history. Please feel free to download the recording!


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.