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New Zealand Blind Groups Pound Nail in The Coffin of Paternalism

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from "Disability World," A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 10 September-October 2001

Blind and sight-impaired New Zealanders have voted for self-determination in a national referendum held by the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind (RNZFB).

The result means that blind and sight impaired people and their families will control the services they receive.

The referendum asked the Foundation's 12,600 members to vote on how they wanted the Foundation to be organized constitutionally and how they wanted the Foundation's Board of Trustees to be elected.

80% of respondents voted for change.

The RNZFB is the national and sole service provider for blind and vision impaired New Zealanders.

"I believe this result is of historic importance not only in terms of the result, but because of the number of blind and sight-impaired people that participated in the process," says Gordon Sanderson, Chairman of the RNZFB Board of Trustees.

Reaction of blind and sight-impaired people is positive. The change is described as "a nail in the coffin of paternalism" by one long-time blind activist.

Today marks the high point of 56 years of advocacy by the organized blind, according to Association of Blind Citizens President, Jonathan Mosen.

"When our Association was formed in 1945, one of the key drivers was the desire of blind people to have a greater say in what services were provided to us by the Foundation, and how they were provided," Jonathan Mosen says.

"After years of intense debate, blind people have finally had an opportunity to make it resoundingly clear that we are capable of, and willing to, make our own decisions about who governs the Foundation for the Blind."

Changes include changing the name of the organization to "The Royal New Zealand Foundation OF the Blind," and the election of eight of the nine board members by blind people and the parents of blind children.

"Not only is this the first time a referendum has been held by the Foundation, it is also the first time voting papers were fully accessible to blind and sight-impaired New Zealanders." Mr Sanderson says.

"It was important that members could vote independently, without other people knowing what they had voted for - something that most New Zealanders take for granted."

Each member received a voting pack in his or her preferred format (standard print, large print, Braille or audio) explaining the options to vote for and how to use the voting paper. The voting paper had both large print and Braille writing with an embossed circle to tick inside for Yes and an embossed square to tick inside for No.

"Having embossed areas to tick within meant people who could not read large print or Braille could vote without assistance," says Mr Sanderson. Providing accessible voting documents is one step towards self determination."