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None of us chose to be blind. Most of us have thought at one time or another that the mere fact of our blindness deprived us of meaningful choices in every area of life. The NFB exists because blind people began dreaming about lives full of choices and set out to make those dreams a reality.

But what does choice mean? What choices are available to us now? How can we increase our options?

It is possible to have a wide variety of things to choose from without having any meaningful choice at all. This paradox was brought home to me last February during RRSP season. Neither my husband nor I have taken any great interest in the details of mutual funds, bonds, GIC's, or any of the jargon associated with financial planning. This is largely because, as a new family, we've had very little left over with which to plan our retirement years. So, when it came time to invest our RRSP funds for this year, we were astonished and overwhelmed at the bewildering array of choices we were given. We spent a few days reading the prospectuses from several companies. Finally, our heads aching from the effort, we gave up and asked our banker for a recommendation. I still do not know whether we chose wisely or foolishly. In reality, our lack of knowledge led us to abdicate our choice. We had a great deal of information, but we couldn't make meaningful use of it.

. . . choice is only meaningful if its implications are thoroughly understood.

I think some people approach services to the blind in the same way. A counselor visits a blind person and says "You have a choice of braille, cane travel, guide dogs, computers, large print, activities of daily living...What'll ya have?" The blind person, particularly a newly blind person, finds the whole thing confusing and responds, "What do you think I should have?" In the name of offering the client a choice among available options, the counselor has achieved complete control.

In the NFB we take a somewhat different approach. We believe that a choice is only meaningful if its implications are thoroughly understood. Fear of blindness and lack of self-confidence often lead blind people to narrow their horizons and "settle" for less than a full life. "I don't really need to learn cane travel because my spouse has a car and can take me wherever I need to go. The buses in this community aren't efficient anyway." We believe that a proper counselor response to such a statement would be: "Once you know how to travel you may very well decide that riding with your spouse is the most efficient means of getting around. However, after you've conquered your fear, both you and your spouse will have more flexibility for those times when you wish to pursue separate interests or you just want to get out of the house alone for a few hours." In other words, the choice not to travel independently, if it's based on lack of knowledge or fear, is not a fair or meaningful choice.

Federation Rehabilitation Centers insist on a core curriculum for every student. Law schools do the same thing. The reasoning is the same in both instances. A new law student may begin with dreams of becoming the next Perry Mason, only to discover the course in corporate law, which had seemed so unimportant and burdensome, opened up a whole new avenue of possibilities. A blind person with a computer phobia might discover a whole new world of possibilities after being required to take the Center's computer course. It is also quite possible that the law student will despise corporate law and continue to want to be the next Perry Mason and the blind person will vow never to lay hands on another computer keyboard, once the required class is over. Those are informed choices.

But what about those situations where there seems to be no meaningful choice? What about the blind child in a rural area who needs intensive special education? If there is no school for the blind or intensive program to supplement what the rural school has to offer, that student has no choice but to receive an inadequate education. What about the blind adult who needs an intensive residential rehabilitation program and is only offered periodic visits by a rehabilitation teacher? That person is also being denied meaningful choices which affect all areas of life.

The role of organized consumers of services for the blind is to advocate for genuine choice, not just the appearance of choice. A philosophy which says "You can be as independent as you want to be", is a cop-out unless it also says "With training and opportunity, you can lead a truly full and equal life."

But what is reasonable and productive? What role should we allow any service provider to have in our lives? To what extent can we credit or blame any service provider for our successes and failures?

The best service program in the world cannot achieve independence for any individual. It is also true that the lack of service or inappropriate service can pose a formidable obstacle. Even so, there are individuals who have achieved success despite overwhelmingly negative odds. The difference between success and failure is often a matter of strong will and an independent, uncrushable spirit.

It is not reasonable to deprive people of services and blame them for lacking the will to overcome the deprivation. It is also not reasonable to blame service providers for the failure of someone who chooses not to put forth a reasonable effort to succeed. It is reasonable to demand services that reinforce positive aspirations.

No discussion of services for the blind in Canada can proceed very far without mention of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). They are the primary, and in many places the only, agency for the blind. As such, the CNIB has all the strengths and weaknesses of any monopoly. Whether fairly or unfairly, blind people focus strong emotion on the CNIB. Some people find the direction, philosophy and services of the Agency quite helpful. Others disagree vehemently with the type of service they receive or feel that needed services are not available. Most people would like a greater choice in the types of service available to them.

Our focus as a consumer organization should be on building up the independent spirit of blind people. We need to articulate a point of view about blindness which gives substance and direction and makes meaningful choice possible. We also need to have the courage to praise or criticize policies and practices of the government, the CNIB, and other agencies, based on our view of their performance.

Knowledgeable, articulate, assertive blind people offer the best hope for increased opportunity and better choices. The National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality is the vehicle we have chosen for focusing our collective efforts for change.

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