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Presentation to the 2008 CNIB Annual General Meeting

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The CNIB held its AGM in Toronto On September 27. At this meeting, a Board-approved motion called for the elimination of the requirement that the CEO be a client of the CNIB. This would effectively mean that a sighted person could take over the organization when Jim Sanders steps down in the near future. John Rae, representing the AEBC, spoke against the motion under consideration. He was promised ten minutes but stopped after five. Unfortunately, the motion was carried, and the voting procedure used made it impossible to determine just how much support or opposition the motion actually received. This was John’s address to the AGM, also submitted to the entire CNIB Board.


The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians / L'Alliance pour l'Égalité des Personnes Aveugles du Canada (AEBC) appreciates the opportunity to appear before the members of the CNIB at today's AGM. I would first like to bring greetings from our National President, Mr. Robin East, who lives in Saskatoon, and the rest of our National Board of Directors and membership from across Canada.

We are here for three purposes:

  1. To voice our opposition to the proposed bylaw amendment that would drop the requirement that CNIB's President and CEO be a client;
  2. To recommend a change to this bylaw amendment that would more fully encompass the blind community; and
  3. To voice concerns of Blind Canadians regarding a continuum of events over the past number of years that leads us to conclude that CNIB is systematically turning its back on blind people in Canada and reducing services to this population.

CNIB is clearly at the crossroads and in need of a thorough review of its role and direction. We believe this is particularly timely at this point, given that Jim Sanders has tendered his intention to retire, and while the search for a new President and CEO is in progress.

The AEBC is a national, democratically structured, not for profit organization of rights holders who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, whose work focuses on improving public attitudes, and providing input on legislation, policy and program issues of concern to our community. Further information on the AEBC's work can be found on our website:

A brief continuum of events:

It is impossible to address today's bylaw amendment in isolation; rather, it must be discussed within a framework, and some of the changes within CNIB over the years will illustrate this point.

  • Closure of CNIB Residences
  • Closure of broom and other workshops
  • Cancellation of CaterPlan in most of Canada
  • Conversion of CNIB's free library service to daisy which requires purchase of a player or software

Were these changes entirely inappropriate? No. But we must ask what programs were put in their place to assist blind Canadians, what new programs were developed by government, business, or other community service providers, why weren't blind persons directly consulted before these decisions were taken, and what happened to the funds that were donated to CNIB by the public or bequeathed for specific programs and services to assist blind Canadians?

In more recent years:

  • Full length TV Fund raising video Similar to a World Vision type appeal
  • Release of the National Needs study in 2005, which indicated the plight of blind Canadians had improved little since the last review 30 years before
  • Rebranding to the name CNIB where the word "blind" was dropped
  • Expansion of clients served beyond legal blindness despite failure to adequately serve its existing client base
  • Adoption of a new motto, "Vision Health, Vision Hope"
  • Distribution of very negative and inappropriate Public Service Announcements in support of this rebranding, in which sighted actors portrayed blind persons in a demeaning fashion
  • Elimination of the home volunteer service program.
  • Closure of technical aids stores across most of Canada, which forces clients to order through a catalogue where they cannot examine an item before purchase, and where a mailing charge is imposed
  • Dismal CNIB Employment statistics. CNIB has approximately 950 employees excluding those working for CaterPlan in Atlantic Canada. Of these, 112 are "blind". Three of the seven members of the Executive Management Group are blind.M
  • Recent demeaning fund raising e-mail campaign
  • At today's AGM, a proposal to drop the requirement that CNIB's President and CEO must be a “client”

Again, we must ask, when programs were cancelled or significantly modified, what alternative programs were created by government, business or other community service providers to assist Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, and why weren't rights holders and their organizations directly involved in making these decisions which directly affect our lives?

Recently, members of the blind community were outraged by a fund raising letter that many CNIB clients received. We have no idea how many members of the public also received this demeaning letter.

We understand that CNIB staff undergoes training, which includes some sensitivity training about blindness. Clearly, the extremely negative attitudes that were portrayed in the recent fund-raising campaign indicate this program is failing to meet its objectives and cries out for a significant overhaul.

When a furore raged over this fund raising letter, the campaign was pulled, an apology given, and an assurance offered that a review would be undertaken.

The AEBC has met with CNIB officials on several occasions, and were promised that future fund-raising campaigns would be vetted with our organization before they were released, to prevent very demeaning and inappropriate messages from going out again. This commitment has never taken place, which amounts to an important promise broken. So why should blind Canadians have any faith in your internal review?

Actually, in most organizations, some heads would have rolled over the release of such a personalized, humiliating and demeaning fund-raising letter. If CNIB was truly serious about its apology, heads should have rolled, including perhaps the current CEO. At the very least, the letter of apology should have reported on any concrete actions that were taken.

We can conclude from this brief history that blind Canadians have not been well served by CNIB through the implementation of the current bylaw.

However, the real questions that must be asked are these:

  • How many women's service organizations are led by a man? How many First Nations service groups are led by a non-First Nations person? If there are, what message does that send?
  • Are blind Canadians likely to be better served by a person who may be well meaning but who lacks first hand experience living with blindness? We cannot see how this is likely to be.

Since the AEBC learned of this bylaw amendment, we have conducted a quick survey and also asked individuals to sign a petition. Results as of yesterday morning of this week were as follows:

- 97 signatures on a petition (almost the same number as CNIB staff members who are blind)

- 114 survey responses, 53 from known contacts, 61 anonymous

Survey Questions:
  1. Are you a member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians?
    - Yes: 64% (65)
    - No: 36% (37)
  2. Do you believe that, as a matter of principle or philosophy, the President and CEO of CNIB (or any similar blindness organization) ought to be a person who is blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted?
    - Yes, assuming that they are qualified for the position: 81%(81)
    - No, I do not think that being blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted should be a qualifying consideration: 13% (13)
    - Other: 6% (6)
  3. Have you received, directly or indirectly, the CNIB fundraising letter sent out in late August entitled, "What would you sell to keep your sight?"
    - Yes: 57% (60)
    - No: 43% (45)
  4. With respect to the CNIB fundraising letter entitled, "What would you do to keep your sight?", what was your personal reaction to the letter?
    - Indifferent - It was just more spam for me: 10% (5)
    - I thought it to be a very effective fundraising letter: 2% (1)
    - I thought it was effective, but was a little upset at its portrayal of blindness: 8% (4)
    - I thought it to be highly offensive and degrading to persons who are blind: 73% (38)
    - Other: 8% (4)

Since the general public fears blindness more than any other disability or disease, we, in the blind community, still have a great deal of educating to do regarding the reality of living one's life as a person who is blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted. This can occur most effectively if it is led by a person who is blind.

In conclusion, we strongly recommend that the current bylaw which states that the President and CEO shall be a Client, be amended to require this position be held by a legally blind person who may or may not be a CNIB "client," or that the motion be defeated altogether and the current practice continued.

Respectfully submitted

By John Rae
On behalf of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians

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