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Meet The NFB:AE Board: Who Are The Blind Who Lead The Blind?

The NFB:AE is fortunate to be able to call upon blind men and women from diverse backgrounds to give leadership to our organization. We thought Canadian Monitor readers might like to know more about the Members of the Board of their organization.

Paul Gabias, President

Paul Gabias entered the world nearly three months early on June 17, 1952, in Montreal. His twin sister, Joanne, lived less than 24 hours. Paul was blinded by the oxygen needed to keep him alive.

The second of three children, he was raised in East Montreal. His father, Pierre Maurice, was Francophone and his mother, Eveline, was an Anglophone of French and English descent.

Paul spent five years at what was then known as L'Institut Nazareth, a school for blind boys and girls and six years at L'Institut Louis-Braille, a school for blind boys. Today the schools are combined under the name of L'Institut Nazareth Louis Braille. After the first grade, Paul had become fluently bilingual. He graduated Cum Laude from Concordia University at the Loyola Campus with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology in 1975. He received his Ph.D. in experimental psychology with a concentration in Perceptual Psychology from New York University in 1988. He currently holds a tenured continuing appointment as a Psychology Professor at Okanagan University College in Kelowna, British Columbia.

I was five or six years old before I really began understanding what it meant to blind. I remember being surprised and annoyed as a small child when well-meaning adults tried to keep me from doing the things that other kids in the neighborhood were doing. It was only when I was taken to a residential school for the blind that I understood that the world thought of me as very different from other children. No one seemed to believe it was possible for me to be educated along side sighted children. I hated the years of separation from my family, but I'm deeply grateful for the good education I received. The nuns, brothers and priests expected quality academic work from all of us.

University life brought a major expansion in Paul's belief about the capabilities of blind people. When I took Introductory Psychology, I asked the professor to excuse me from learning the chapter dealing with Visual Perception. I reasoned that, as a blind person, I would have no way of comprehending the material. Then I heard about Bob Lambert, a blind professor who taught Visual Perception. I was intrigued. I took his course and found him to be the best professor I ever had. Knowing him truly changed my life. He taught far more than how sighted people see. He taught me that many of the limitations I thought were inherent in blindness were actually limitations created by society which I had internalized.

It was through Bob and Irene Lambert that I gained the confidence to train my own guide dog. Bob and Irene had trained their own dogs and they were superb working animals. I bought a Labrador puppy and asked Bob for suggestions on how to train him. The next year was a rough learning experience for me and my dog, Raifa, but we got through it. Raifa worked until he was fourteen years old. I've now trained six guide dogs - three for me and three for other people.

Paul has earned the respect of other guide dog users. In 1992, he was elected President of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, a division of the National Federation of the Blind. He was re-elected in 1994.

Paul's first contact with the National Federation of the Blind occurred in 1973 when he was visiting a friend in New York. The Federation was holding its National Convention in New York City that summer and we attended several sessions. I was deeply impressed with the spirit and philosophy. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be if we had an organization like the Federation in Canada. But I went back to Montreal and did nothing about it.

I didn't really get involved in the Federation when I moved to New York for graduate school, either. In fact, I disagreed with some of the Federation's policies - or I should say what I understood to be the Federation's policies. It wasn't until I was having trouble with a landlady who was trying to evict me (at least in part because of my guide dog) that I took another look at what the Federation truly stood for. Federationists helped me with my landlady problem; some even joined with me in picketing the apartment building. With the help of a good attorney, Sam Himmelstein, I won the case. I was not evicted. But I think the most important lesson I learned from that experience was the value of working with others to solve problems. If I had not had help and support, I would have been walking the streets of Brooklyn looking for a place to live.

It was during this time that Paul became acquainted with the work of John Kennedy, a psychologist studying the way blind people perceive raised line pictures. At first I was not very impressed with his work. However, the more I examined it, the more I realized that he was making a very important point. Perception is perception. There are many ways to perceive information. Blind people certainly can understand concepts which have always been presumed to be visual. Paul began a collaboration with John Kennedy which continues to this day. Paul's doctoral dissertation is entitled Drawing Systems: Blind and Sighted Adults Judge Developmental Priority. It is available from Recording for the Blind. The thesis expands upon Kennedy's earlier works. His current research broadens the original concept, applying it to Gestalt Psychology.

After graduate school, Paul followed the same trying career path as many other new psychologists. He filled successive one-year vacancies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Reno, Nevada; Pueblo, Colorado; and Fredericton, New Brunswick before attaining his present position in Kelowna.

This time, when I returned to Canada, I vowed not to make the same mistake I had made the last time. I brought my Federationism with me and began searching for like-minded people. I've been greatly heartened and encouraged by the kindred spirits I've found across the country. With the help of stalwarts like Alan and Doreen Neville, Janet Erikson, Ken Westlake, and, of course, my wife, Mary Ellen Gabias, to mention a few, the NFB:AE was incorporated on June 8, 1992. I believe we are on the brink of great expansion.

As the president of the NFB:AE, Paul spends countless hours encouraging other blind people as well as doing the mundane administrative tasks required in any expanding organization. Every person's story is unique, but the thread running through all of them is the same. Each of us has to learn that with proper training and equal opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance. My job as president is to help people come to believe in themselves and in other blind people. The National Federation of the Blind is the only organization I've ever found anywhere which really lives out that philosophy. That's why it's so important that blind Canadians have their own organization which is an integral part of the Federation movement.

Paul works full time teaching psychology, mentoring students through the Directed Studies Program and conducting psychological research in the area of Tactual Picture Perception. He is married and places his highest priority on family life. The best sound in the world is the sound of my children (Joanne aged 5 and Jeffrey aged 2) calling me 'Daddy.'

Mary Ellen Gabias, Secretary

Toledo, Ohio is an industrial town on the south shore of Lake Erie. It's not generally known as a hot bed for political and social activism. Yet, Toledo is where Mary Ellen Gabias began learning valuable lessons in community organizing.

The third of five children, Mary Ellen was blinded by retrolental fibroplasia (now known as retinopathy of prematurity). Her father, Ken, and mother, Ellen Reihing, were dismayed at the thought of sending her 120 miles to the nearest residential school. A number of other parents of blind children in Toledo felt the same way. They formed a Parent Organization and set about changing the system. It took several years of being evicted from schoolboard offices and appearing uninvited at local political functions, but the parents prevailed. The local school district hired a Braille teacher by the time Mary Ellen was ready to begin first grade.

I can remember removing staples from books of raffle tickets which the Parents Group sold in order to buy Perkins Braillers for all of us. My parents could not have afforded a brailler for me, and neither could many of the parents of other kids in my class. Working together, the parents were able to buy braillers for all of us. I never forgot that lesson.

Throughout elementary and highschool Mary Ellen tried to distance herself from other blind people. I thought that, if I could just be perfect enough, everyone would forget I was blind. Of course, I was never perfect enough. Nobody could be. I wasted a lot of energy trying to get people to ignore my blindness. I should have been pursuing excellence for its own sake, but I was trying to do things too well, so that I could convince myself that I was really worthwhile.

The Junior Achievement Program put a sobering end to Mary Ellen's fantasy of ignoring blindness. She enrolled in the program, which was designed to teach highschool students about the world of business, as a sophomore. She worked hard and did well. In her senior year, she was elected Executive Vice President of her Junior Achievement Company. In competition with 94 other students holding similar positions, Mary Ellen was chosen Executive Vice President of the Year for all of Northwestern Ohio. The winner of this honor customarily received a trophy and a trip to the National Junior Achievement Conference. Mary Ellen was devastated to learn that she would be denied the opportunity to attend the conference because of her blindness.

It wasn't until a year later that Mary Ellen learned about the National Federation of the Blind. I had begun to wonder whether I was being unrealistic. Maybe the people from Junior Achievement were right after all. It was a relief - no, a liberation - to learn that other blind people would be prepared to stand with me just as my parents and other parents had stood together many years ago. It was also wonderful to discuss blindness openly with people who really understood. So many of the people I met in the Federation were doing things I had not believed possible for a blind person. Of course, I was doing some things that were encouraging to other Federationists. Everyone I met taught me something and learned something from me.

Mary Ellen earned a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She spent six months supervising profoundly mentally handicapped adults at a sheltered workshop. Then she was hired to develop programs for the senior blind in the State of Nebraska.

I had a great deal of responsibility for a 23 year old. I learned a lot about good rehabilitation and about the differences and similarities between being born blind and becoming blind later in life. Those seniors who handled blindness by asking 'How can I do things?' did much better than people who asked 'Is it possible for me to do anything?' I met people in their seventies and eighties who refused to let blindness stop them. I met other people who were much younger and healthier who assumed that blindness was a reason for sitting back and doing nothing with their lives.

After nearly five years in Nebraska, Mary Ellen accepted a job as a Special Assistant to the Speaker of the Illinois Legislature. She was assigned to the Legislative Field Office in Chicago and spent nearly three years in the Windy City.

Legislative work can be fun. It can also be frustrating and demoralizing. I learned that politics can bring out the best and the worst in people. I lost some of my niavete, but I never lost faith in the ability of ordinary people to bring about major changes - especially ordinary people who are part of organizations.

Mary Ellen had been working closely with the Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB) program since its beginning in 1980. In fact, she had heard about her legislative position through JOB. When the Assistant Director of JOB left to take another position, Mary Ellen was offered the job. The seven years I spent working at the National Center for the Blind were challenging and fun. I had the opportunity to meet thousands of blind people from all over the world. Dr. Jernigan and Marc Maurer are both wonderful bosses. They expect and respect hard work.

Mary Ellen was often called upon to give tours of the National Center to visitors. Paul Gabias was part of a seminar group which took one of those tours. He told me that he fell in love with me during that tour. One day shortly after that, he sent me roses. Since he lived on the other side of the continent, I was very reluctant to start such a long distance relationship. I told him I wanted to be "just friends". We were married ten months later.

Mary Ellen and Paul presently live in Kelowna, British Columbia, with their two small children. Being a mother is the most challenging and rewarding work I've ever done. Joanne and Jeff are loving, delightful, sometimes mischievous children. Because their parents are blind, they're learning what it's like to be part of a minority. Because they're being raised within the Federation, they'll grow up with a more positive attitude and a deeper understanding of blindness and of the need to work with others to get things done. I'm sure they'll join with others as they grow older, to make the changes they feel are important.

Ken Westlake, Board Member

Until 1991, Ken Westlake called the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, home. From his birth in Burnaby on March 28, 1950, until his 1991 move to Kelowna, he lived (for at least a short time), in almost every community in the Vancouver area.

The eldest of eight children, Ken remembers an active boyhood. He developed a wide range of lifelong interests.

I was a cadet and in the militia in highschool. I was a real "techie" - a military radio operator. I was part of a very active group. In fact, our small group did more than many units in active military service. We were fortunate to be on duty and assist in a rescue operation that saved lives.

No one was surprised when Ken decided to enter the military after highschool. He spent one year at Le College Militaire Royale de St. Jean in Quebec. But he found military life disappointing. Compared to the active militia, the college felt like "playing" soldier. It looked as if I was going to be a paper pusher. I didn't think I would make a good bureaucrat, so I left the military.

Ken returned to the Lower Mainland where he met his wife Beverly. They were married on December 19, 1981. He has a twenty-two year old stepson, Darryl, and a twelve year old daughter, Cassie.

During this time, Ken worked at a variety of jobs. He cooked pizza, drove trucks, and worked for a courier company. While working as a garage mechanic, he became interested in selling automotive parts. The company I worked for was one of the last of the full-line jobbers. That means that we had parts and tools for everything from motorcycles to heavy trucks. I had to know something about all of them. What I didn't know, I had to be able to look up quickly. I did sales and worked in the warehouse. The automotive business has changed radically since then. The kind of operation I worked for no longer exists.

With the changes in the automotive business, Ken like many others, found it necessary to change occupations. He was enjoying a new career as a security guard when misfortune struck. One morning at 1:30, I was driving home from work and got hit by a drunk driver. The police said he was going about 150 miles per hour. My car was crushed. It's amazing that I'm alive to tell about it. Ken spent nearly two years recuperating before he could go back to work. For the first several months I could barely move. I worked hard to recover enough to get back on the job. Even today I have some physical problems which I'm sure are the result of the accident.

When he had been back at his security guard job for less than half a year, Ken began noticing some unusual problems. He kept missing things that he should have seen out of the corner of his eye. One day I walked off a loading dock and fell onto a stack of wooden pallets. One of the nails in the wood sliced a six inch gash in my leg. I decided it was time to get my eyes checked.

Several visits to the ophthalmologist later, Ken received the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa. In fact, the disease had already progressed to the point of legal blindness.

I found out that I was registerable on Wednesday. I was out of work by Friday afternoon. My employer was nervous about having a blind security guard. I was nervous, too. I was afraid it was only a matter of time before I injured myself seriously. Remember, I knew absolutely nothing about alternative techniques for blind people.

Ken contacted the CNIB and was visited by a community rehabilitation counselor. She told me about what the Institute had to offer. The most helpful thing she did on that visit was to give me a pair of dark glasses that really cut down on the headaches I was having.

Ken received limited home teaching and mobility training from CNIB. He still had a good deal of vision remaining and he was not trained under blindfold.

I was looking for any resource I could find. I joined what was then the Surrey White Cane Club and was soon elected vice-president.

Brian Gage, a member of that organization, said something that would change Ken's life. At a pot luck supper at our home, he pulled me aside and asked me how I was managing reading and writing. I was still able to read print, but it was quite a struggle. Because of the neurological problems from the accident, my hand went numb whenever I tried to read Braille for more than a few minutes at a time. He listened to my explanation and said, 'You're functionally illiterate.' Then he told me that the computer could help solve my problems.

Ken decided to take the plunge. He bought a used IBM PC and began dabbling. Within a month, friends were coming to him with computer problems. I was helping guys who'd had their machines for two or three years. I began to think that maybe I'd latched-on to something useful. Ken spent several years teaching himself how to program. Finally, in the Fall of 1993, he enrolled in the Computer Information System Program at Okanagan University College. The work was really interesting. My biggest problem was that the voice output and large print equipment I was given to use just wasn't reliable. I just wore it out. Even though his equipment was not in good working order a great deal of the time, Ken received very respectable marks in all of his courses. He's taken a break from classroom work this semester with the hope of finding an internship that will give him practical, on-the-job experience.

Ken first learned about the NFB when he met Paul Gabias on a Kelowna City bus. At first, I just thought the NFB might be one more resource. I read quite a few of the banquet speeches Paul gave me. They made sense. In fact, they stated a lot of the things I'd always felt.

Ken was one of the charter members of the NFB:AE. He served as National Treasurer until July of 1995, when he declined re-election to that position. His enthusiasm and experience are now being put to use on the Board as a Director-At-Large.

Elizabeth Coates First Vice-President

Elizabeth McNicoll Coates grew up in Elliston, Ontario. She moved to Toronto to obtain a bachelor's degree in psychology and mathematics from York University. A BA in psychology may help broaden your personal knowledge but it doesn't put bread on the table. I knew I would have to get further education, so I decided to go to teachers' college.

Elizabeth found that she enjoyed teaching. She used what she'd learned about psychology to teach emotionally disturbed children for one year. She also taught sixth grade. Altogether, she spent seven years teaching in the public schools.

During that same time, Elizabeth was married. She was delighted when her twins, Drew and Meg were born.

I was a busy working mother, and things seemed to be going very well for me. I'd been diabetic for quite some time, but it hadn't caused me too many problems. Then one night I went to bed sighted and woke up blind. The date was December 1st, 1973. I'll never forget it because it was my twins' second birthday.

Many people would have been demoralized by such a traumatic change. Elizabeth chuckles when she remembers how it was. I just kept on. With two small children to care for, I didn't have time to feel sorry for myself. It was hard at the time, but keeping busy was the best thing for me.

Elizabeth finished the teaching year. I had nine percent vision. That really wasn't enough for me to function efficiently as a sighted person. I didn't know how to function efficiently, using blindness techniques. I now know that there are many blind people working as teachers in the public schools, but I didn't know it then. I gave up my job at the end of the school year and sought rehabilitation.

Elizabeth took classes at the CNIB. Later, she completed the rehabilitation teacher training program. I was offered a job in St. Johns, Newfoundland, but I didn't really want to move that far from my family. By then I had moved back up to Elliston so that my children could be near their extended family and have the advantages of being brought up in a small town.

As her children grew older, Elizabeth began thinking about finding a new career. She was excited when she heard about a new program called Alternative Computer Training for the Disabled. She felt that her background in math and her interest in precision and logic would be of help to her as a programmer. She was right. She moved back to Toronto and enrolled in the three year training course. When she completed her training, Elizabeth was hired by Bell Sygma Telecom Solutions as a Computer Programmer/Consultant. She has been working successfully since 1990.

Elizabeth heard about the NFB from her friend Kathleen (Bubbles) Jacobs. It all sounded very good, but I had to know more because so many groups have come and gone. There's a real need for advocacy - especially in the area of employment. Service provider agencies aren't in a very good position to advocate. People think they are just trying to feather their own nests. But someone has to advocate for blind people when the government is developing policies.

It took Elizabeth some time to understand the distinctive role of the Federation. I wanted an organization that would really advocate for blind people. I didn't want to be part of any group that spent most of its energy criticizing existing programs. There is certainly room for improvement in those programs, but that's not my focus. I want to spend my time building something new and positive.

Elizabeth was exhilarated by the message contained in NFB literature. I've learned that I don't have to tolerate ignorance and misconceptions. I've got a whole family of blind people in the Federation who believe in me and really understand my aspirations. It's nice to be able to talk with people who understand immediately. I believe we can get a lot done through the Federation.

Elizabeth was elected president when the Toronto chapter was formed in early January. We're beginning to reach a lot of blind people. There are a lot of good people in the chapter. The Federation attracts people who believe they can make a difference.

Our biggest problem as a chapter is trying to focus on one or two of the many activities we want to accomplish. We want to educate employers about the capabilities of the blind. We want to encourage the development of a rehabilitation program for the senior blind operated on Federation philosophy. We want to establish Newsline for the blind in Toronto and throughout Canada. We can't do everything all at once.

Elizabeth laughs when asked about her hobbies. She has found time to take up square dancing. It's good exercise and a lot of fun. She chuckles when she adds, Exercise is important after I've indulged too much in my hobby of trying out recipes from cookbooks.

One thing is certain, Elizabeth's enthusiasm, the talents of other chapter members, and the positive philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality add up to a sure recipe for success.

David Brun Treasurer

David Brun was born in Vancouver on March 10, 1959. I can remember playing in the hills north of the city and looking down over the beautiful Vancouver harbour. This city will always mean home to me.

After graduation from high school, David joined the Management Trainee Program at Sears. I worked there for two years. My life was changing though, and I felt a strong desire to be out on my own. I started a business as an importer of wine and liquor. I would work with foreign companies who wanted to market their products in Western Canada. I acted as a broker between them and the Provincial Liquor Stores. Although I covered all of Western Canada, the majority of my business was done in British Columbia and Alberta. I lived in Vancouver, but I also kept a small apartment in Edmonton, since I traveled there so frequently.

After twelve years it was becoming increasingly difficult for small businesses like mine. Large companies were taking over. They really didn't need someone like me to work on their behalf. I decided it was time to make a change.

David spent two years selling real estate. The business was quite a bit different from my expectations. I realized it wasn't really for me. There were times when driving a car would have been an asset. I could do quite a bit using public transportation and taxis, but I couldn't do the job with top efficiency without the use of an automobile. That would have necessitated developing a partnership with another realtor. I decided I didn't want to do that.

David had never been able to see well at night. His father, his sister and one brother also had severe vision loss from retinitis pigmentosa. In a way, I was very fortunate. Blindness was normal in our family. I felt frustrated at times when I couldn't see well enough to play ball or do some other things with my friends, but I never felt alone. The negative side of our family experience was that blindness was never discussed. We could tell that our father's vision was diminishing, but he did everything he could to hide it for fear of losing his job. I think that caused a lot of unnecessary tension for him. I decided I didn't want to pay the heavy psychological price of trying to hide my vision loss.

David's loss of vision hit home emotionally when he was twenty-five. I went up to the hills overlooking the harbour expecting to enjoy the same beautiful view that gave me such pleasure as a child. I discovered that I couldn't see the whole harbour at once. I had to keep turning my head to take in the scene. That's when I knew that I really wasn't seeing very well. Still, it was five years later when I went to a doctor who confirmed the obvious. I was legally blind.

When David left real estate sales, he thought that his good employment history would make it easy for him to find work. I decided not to hide my blindness and mentioned it in my application letters. I was perfectly confident in my ability to work effectively; I assumed employers would take my word for it.

Several months of polite rejections began to convince David of the tremendous need for public education. I talked to people in personnel offices who were responsible for ensuring that companies did not discriminate against people with disabilities. They were all very nice. Somehow, it never went any further. I remained unemployed.

One day David's brother telephoned to tell him about a program sponsored by Douglas College and the Canadian Banking Association to train people with disabilities for entry level jobs in Customer Service at banks. Banks don't have tellers anymore. The people behind the counter are now responsible for a wide range of banking services. Those were the kinds of jobs the program was aiming to fill.

I felt I was overqualified for those jobs, but then I thought a little harder. I was unemployed. This job might have potential for advancement. I was accepted into the program.

When David completed the program, he was hired by the Toronto Dominion Bank. I spent four months behind the counter handling cash transactions and other customer service responsibilities. I did an adequate job, but I found it stressful because of my poor vision. I began talking to my employers about ways in which I could be a more valuable employee. They agreed, and I entered the bank's management training program. I've now completed it and begun working as a personal banker. I'm the person you come to when you want a loan or advice on your RRSP.

David has strong opinions about the needs of blind job seekers. Blind people have to find a way to reach employers and tell them about our capabilities. Employers have to meet blind people who are currently working and learn about the methods we use. That's one thing that impressed me so much about the Job Opportunities for the Blind Program (JOB) that the NFB operates in the US. Blind people are educating employers and encouraging one another. We also have to find a better way of letting blind people know what services are available. I only found out about the program at Douglas College because my brother had happened to see it in the newspaper. I was in touch with a number of organizations which were supposed to be dealing with employment for the blind. The information didn't come from any of them.

David credits the Federation with giving him a new perspective on blindness. When I attended the NFB convention in Chicago, I was nearly bowled over by the difference self-confidence can make. The people who had been part of the Federation for a while believed in themselves and it showed. They moved with confidence and grace. People without that confidence were very hesitant in their movements. We need to spread that confidence to blind people here.

I've learned that I need to come to terms with the real meaning of my blindness. The more directly I face it, the easier it is for me to handle. For instance, I'm beginning to realize that there are times when using a long white cane would be helpful. That's quite a step, but it's one I need to deal with.

David was elected Treasurer of the NFB:AE in July of 1995. There's a lot of work to do. The prospects are exciting. I believe we can work together to bring about meaningful positive change for ourselves and for blind people in the future.