You are here:

2003 Agm President's Report: The Times They Are A-Changin'

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following are notes for a report delivered at the 2003 NFB:AE Conference in Montreal, Quebec, May 16, 2003.

Come gather 'round people Wherever you roam And admit that the waters Around you have grown And accept it that soon You'll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you Is worth savin' Then you better start swimmin' Or you'll sink like a stone For the times they are a-changin'. Come writers and critics Who prophesize with your pen And keep your eyes wide The chance won't come again And don't speak too soon For the wheel's still in spin And there's no tellin' who That it's namin'. For the loser now Will be later to win For the times they are a-changin'. (Bob Dylan, "The times They Are A-Changin'," 1964)

When Bob Dylan released this song in 1964, "The Times They Are a Changin'" became a phrase that defined an entire generation. It is a phrase that aptly describes the past two years for blind Canadians generally, and for our organization, the National federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality.

I wasn't expecting to be standing here today delivering this report. Just one short year ago at our 2002 Annual General Meeting in Toronto, I was elected 2nd Vice President. However, the times have been a-changin' during the past year and here I stand.

Milestones

There have been a number of watershed moments in our organization's ten and a half year history, and three of them took place during the past year.

September 29, 2002 marked the tenth anniversary of our incorporation. Ten years is an important milestone in the history of any organization, especially any consumer organization these days, and we are celebrating that important achievement during this Conference.

Between August 29 and September 9, four of our seven member Board of Directors-President Gord Dingle, 1st. VP Richard Marion, Secretary Mike Yale and Director at Large Corry Stuive resigned for various reasons, including personal issues, a fundamental disagreement with continued use of third-party fund-raising, and simply having enough of the in-fighting and failure of the blind community in Canada to come together in a more cohesive manner. I want to thank each of them for their years of involvement in the disability rights' movement across Canada, and for their contributions to the work of our organization.

Their departure left quite a hole in experience and work.

This left two options, to fill Board vacancies or call a Special Meeting of the membership and hold elections. Marcia Cummings was steadfast that we should recruit new board members, fill the vacancies and continue our work. Members were contacted, nominations were sought, and we were delighted with the number of members who stepped forward and offered to stand for election to serve out Board terms. At that point, I was selected President. I am convinced Marcia's position was the correct approach, and I believe we should thank Marcia and Denise Sanders who remained with me, and those who stepped forward-Beryl Williams, Paul Thiele, Sara Bennett and Diane Dobson.

Staffing

Another watershed event occurred earlier last year, and it involved staffing. You will recall we had two persons working in our Kelowna office during the past several years, Ken Westlake and Kelly Boychuk. When Ken was forced to leave for health reasons, Kelly assumed a greater load throughout the remainder of her contracts with us. Since Board discussions on staffing over the course of a couple of years had not progressed very far, in July, Mike Yale moved a motion creating a Committee consisting of Corry Stuive, Denise Sanders and myself to review our staffing structure and develop options for the Board to consider. When Corry left, Paul Thiele took his place. These discussions lead to our new, cutting-edge staffing approach, more of a virtual office, where it is no longer necessary to live in Kelowna, where our Head Office remains, to work for our organization.

We conducted a national recruitment campaign and now have a new team in place - Dr. Marie Paul of Toronto as Coordinator, Wanda Fitzgerald of Toronto as Public Relations/Public Education Coordinator, Karen Klemp of Kelowna as bookkeeper, Monika Penner of Kelowna as Office Support and Karen Leboe of Kelowna as Grant Writer/Fund Developer.

We have undergone a considerable transition to this new approach and new team, and some work remains, but I believe we are well on our way to a new era where the Board can play less of a hands on role and spend more of its time and attention to determining policy and setting overall organizational direction.

I want to thank both Ken Westlake and Kelly Boychuk for their years of work on behalf of our organization.

Funding

I have spoken about some watershed events over our first ten and a half years, and early in our history, third-party fund-raising was begun. Despite its drawbacks-and I am well aware of its problems - it has provided our organization with a reliable source of funds that do not have the kinds of strings attached that come with most other sources. It has enabled our organization to conduct our activities.

To date, we have not succeeded in attracting alternatives that will bring in the revenue our national activities require, though we are anxious to develop a much wider range of revenue sources. Until this year, we have not had the luxury of having funds available that could be dedicated to this search, and there are costs associated with any method of fund-raising and risks associated with some approaches.

The most blatant example of the risks of fund-raising was contained in an article entitled, "Charity loses $7M gamble: Lottery backfires for diabetes group: by KEVIN DONOVAN, which appeared in the Toronto Star, December 2, 2002, which indicated the charity lost "$7.1 million in an unsuccessful lottery."

Your Board is very cognisant of its fiduciary responsibility to be cost efficient and to consider carefully the spending of our resources. We down-sized our Kelowna office, and are moving to less expensive premises that will accommodate our current staff.

Any organization should try to develop a contingency fund to cover against lean years when income drops, like it did following 9/11. During 2002, we achieved an impressive surplus and we should all be very happy about that. However, this surplus must be managed carefully and at least part of it retained for use during a future rainy day.

Karen Leboe has been hard at work, familiarizing herself with our funding history, and researching what's out there that might be relevant to our work. She has just submitted a report with recommendations for the new Board to consider.

Today, third-party fund-raising is under attack as never before, particularly in Ontario, where the bulk of our funds are raised. In February, we received a letter from the Public Guardian and Trustee's Office of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General which commenced a review of our fund-raising operations via third-party sources in Ontario for the years 2000, 2001 and 2002. The board has taken this matter very seriously, and has provided the requested documents, including authorization for the Public Trustee to obtain documents from the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA). While we would like to see a speedy conclusion to this review, in the meantime, we are moving forward, business as usual.

Fund-raising for all organizations is about to get more difficult, as federal privacy legislation takes effect. This legislation not only prohibits the selling of donor lists, it also imposes other restrictions on the use and contacting of prospective donors.

Mentorship

Mentorship was embodied in our Letters Patent, and we believe it is an important initiative. It was begun to assist blind children and their parents. The Board believes that mentoring can be equally beneficial to blind adults, and we are in the process of re-invigorating the program and expanding its mandate to also include blind adults as possible mentees. Consider getting involved in this important program.

Importance of Local Chapters

Our chapters provide an opportunity for individuals to come together locally for personal support and to work collectively to effect positive change on issues. If the trend towards divestment of federal powers continues, more and more attention will need to be focused at the provincial and municipal levels and I am hoping our existing chapters will play an increased role in our activities in the coming years, and that new Chapters will be organized.

This year, we have added a new chapter - welcome Saskatoon!

Traffic issues, audible traffic signals and other access concerns have been high on our chapters' agendas over the past year. Montreal has remained active on the "right turn on red" issue and its effect on traffic patterns. Toronto has been concerned about the development of the silent electric car, and is working to ensure more regular calling out of subway and bus stops. Saskatoon came together to push for an increased number of audible traffic signals. Kelowna is involved in discussions over traffic flow in the downtown core, and again audible traffic signals are on the agenda. Our Lower Mainland Chapter and BC Blind sports are participating in the 2010 Para Olympics Organizing committee and I believe we should be proud of this level of recognition.

Our Toronto Chapter also held a successful fund-raiser at Jeff Healey's club, where Jeff and his Jazz Wizards provided an afternoon of great entertainment and plenty of fun, and, of course, Montreal has spent countless hours organizing this Conference.

And while I am on the subject of public transit, I must tell you a story that shows how crucial our public education work remains. Last Saturday night, I boarded a streetcar on my way home from a great concert. At the stop immediately prior to mine, there are tracks, and the streetcar rattles over them, so I know when I am almost home. I got up, went to the front of the car, heard the driver call out "Jarvis," - my stop - and I thanked him, as I often do when a driver calls out stops. To my astonishment he asked me "How did you know I was here? ..." Now I am not often rendered speechless, but there are times ... and these times need a-changin'!

Canadian Blind Monitor

Our national magazine remains our most public product. We have just published an issue which focuses on national issues, including the work of a number of other consumer organizations across Canada. The next issue will continue the theme of national issues, including material from this Conference. Later this year, we intend to publish an issue on health issues and blind Canadians. Shortly, the Publications Committee will meet again, to develop themes for future issues and strategies to expand the magazine's circulation.

CCD Membership

Externally, we finally succeeded in implementing the Resolution passed at our Victoria conference to obtain membership in the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), and we participated in both our first National Council meeting in Winnipeg in January and the Disability Supports Policy forum in Ottawa in March. At the Council meeting, discussions took place on various issues, including international topics, such as the proposed UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and DPI (Disabled Peoples' International) Peace Statement. These issues were discussed in our Brief on Canada's Foreign Policy. I am delighted that we are finally at the CCD Council table, offering a blindness perspective on all the Council's deliberations, and I also believe membership in CCD can assist us in opening new doors for our organization at the federal level.

We are delighted to have the Honourable Jane Stewart, Minister of Human Resources Development Canada here with us today as our Keynote Speaker.

Focus on Fighting Poverty

An era of cutbacks has hit our community disproportionately hard, eliminating vital programs and cutting others that were vital to many blind Canadians.

This is why we have supported efforts to preserve and extend Canada's health care system, supported retention of the federal Disability tax Credit, supported fight back efforts in BC, and begun "barrier busting" work in Ontario.

At last year's AGM a high priority was set on fighting the chronic level of poverty that still confronts much of the disabled community across Canada and throughout the world. Members of my age may remember the 1960's when U.S. President LBJ declared his famous "War On Poverty," when governments took proactive steps to create jobs and irradiate or at least lessen the negative effects of poverty.

Today, it seems as if governments are treating the poor as criminals, rather than treating poverty as being criminal in a land of plenty like Canada. Looking at reports from across the country, but especially from Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, one might easily believe our governments had declared war on the disabled and the poor rather than protecting their most vulnerable citizens. The times they have been a-changin', and we must help them change again.

We established a special committee to look at and develop proposals for fighting poverty. Determining how to focus our limited resources on such a vast and growing crisis, was very frustrating. The Committee got diverted and applied its meagre energy to British Columbia's immediate crisis, rather than the overall picture. When that did not result in positive action, our momentum flagged and eventually died out.

There is a lesson to be learned here! While our Committees give members the opportunity to participate directly in implementing the Resolutions we adopt, to achieve the results we would like, we must increase our membership and attract more members who will participate directly in doing our work. We must focus our activities in areas where we believe we can have some real impact; otherwise, we can end up spinning our wheels, and that only leads to further needless frustration.

The Electoral Process

Over the next year, elections will take place in several provinces across Canada, and Canadians with disabilities must be active, seeking positive planks in party platforms, election information in formats we can read, and being visible at candidates' meetings asking questions of all candidates about issues that are of direct relevance to the lives of persons with disabilities. Asking questions at public meetings may also bring some media attention to our issues.

Some Other Primary Issues

We submitted a Brief to the Ontario Human Rights Commission's Consultation on Education Issues Affecting Persons With Disabilities in Ontario and appeared at their public hearings in which we discussed such issues as the need for the school system to do far more to encourage persons with disabilities to consider the teaching profession as a viable career, access to textbooks in a timely manner, and the need to provide adequate funding to enable School Boards to discharge their legal obligations to provide accommodations, which must include needed supports.

We have remained active in broadcasting issues, supporting the licence renewal application of the National Broadcast Reading Service (NBRS) which operates Voiceprint, and intervened in the licence renewal applications of a wide range of specialty channels where we called for all of them to provide verbal access to both audio and visual portions of their programming where there is no dialogue and to develop programs to increase the hiring of persons with disabilities in the broadcasting industry.

We have remained involved in the Transport Development Centre/CNIB Accessible Signals Committee, which is still integrating the recommendations from consultations into the project's final report.

We have continued to participate in both the Advisory Committee on Accessible Transportation and the CTA Advisory Committee where we have pushed for accessible check-in kiosks and information, adequate space for dog guides on aircraft and trains, full accessibility to the new Via Rail trains, and consideration for persons with disabilities as more stringent security measures are implemented.

The Court Challenges Program project researching the possibility of a Charter challenge in the copyright area was completed, and I am seeking clearance from the Program to post the final report on our web site. We made a submission opposing the legalizing of optician sight testing in BC, and conducted some research into alternative methods of voting for our conference and annual general meeting, but do not have proposals to put before this year's meeting.

Approaches to disability issues

As the 2000's began, many of the gains we as a community had made over the previous two decades were under direct attack. During the past twenty years, the disabled community in the western world, including Canada, had made major strides in changing the ways in which we were perceived and our issues addressed. We had progressed a long way from the outmoded approach embodied in the charity ethic to a more rights-based paradigm where many of our issues moved from the human interest pages to the news section, where our issues were dealt with in the context of human rights, rather than charitable niceties.

However, even when a paradigm shift occurs, the old approaches are not entirely discarded or even fully set aside. And over the past few years, as the era of government cutbacks has accelerated, the old ways of expecting increased reliance upon charity are again in the ascendancy, we are being forced to fight back to retain the gains we won, and to avoid being relegated again to the backrooms.

Many argue the old ways of bringing public attention to deprivation and wrong is outdated and inappropriate, but I believe there are times when it is still desperately needed, and I also believe the disability rights movement in Canada has been too quiet for too long.

It is now very fashionable to say that strong words, demonstrations, active lobbying, and visible confrontational politics are no longer in fashion. But when you analyze who are saying this, it is today's decision makers, the power brokers, the business leaders - those who would most likely be demonstrated against. so are you surprised when they tell us direct action is no longer fashionable or appropriate?

Sometimes quiet diplomacy is right; at other moments, a more public show is the proper tactic. The point is to match tactics to issues and circumstances. But never shy away from a tactic because someone might become uncomfortable by the tactic. Whatever works. Whatever brings freedom and makes the quality of life better for those needing a "prosperity transplant" should be considered. Again, more public activities require a larger membership, and increasing our membership must be a priority in the years ahead.

Developing Greater Community Cohesion

But those who say these times are different are also correct. We now find ourselves in an era where the word "partnerships" is the norm, and organizations are expected to work together to achieve any goals.

We applied to HRDC for a grant to devote a significant portion of this year's Conference to sessions aimed at building a more collaborative working relationship among consumer organizations and a national agenda, but unfortunately we did not secure that funding. We remain firmly committed to working more and more collaboratively with other organizations, especially other consumer organizations of blind partially sighted and deaf-blind persons, both provincially or nationally, but this remains a difficult goal to achieve.

The blind community remains a very fractious community. We are not unique; but we are most familiar with our own community.

We can expect to have some differences. After all, each of us is the sum of our lifelong experiences. Some of us come from the community, others from a business background, others are civil servants, and still others have remained marginalized. Some of us are conservative in temperament and political belief, while others believe in a more radical analysis of our plight and activist approach.

However, all of us must confront the common stereotypes and negative attitudes that pervade our daily lives and negatively affect our opportunities. We are all affected by various barriers, and this should lead us to bury some of our differences and work together to improve our overall situation within Canadian society. We remain committed to pursuing this objective.

Change Comes to New Zealand's Blindness System

A new era for persons who are blind was recently inaugurated in New Zealand. Established in 1890 in Parnell, Auckland as the Jubilee Institute to educate blind children, on April 30, the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind became the New Zealand Foundation "of" the Blind. For some, the change in those two little words from "for" to "of" may seem insignificant, but this change did not come about easily or overnight, and this transformation will usher in a new era where blind consumers control the future of services.

As Jonathan Mosen wrote in a note to me: "there'll be a board of 9. And the beauty of this system is the Board doesn't have to have a single blind person on it if the blind don't want. What's important here is that we matured to the point where we realized that it's not whether the Board members are blind that counts, but who they are accountable too. So eight out of the nine members are elected directly by blind people. (the ninth is elected by volunteers, who join as associate members of the Foundation.) We had 25 candidates, and as it happens, the blind of New Zealand have elected four blind and four sighted, and the Associate member is sighted, so that makes five sighted, four blind, but eight directly accountable for their actions to blind people."

Change Needed in Canada

In Canada, the situation is not nearly as rosy. In a presentation entitled, "CNIB Employment Accommodation Service: Successful Model of Job Placement for Disability Groups," presented by Chris Sutarno and Robert Eichvald, which appears in the Proceedings of the 2003 CSUN Conference, the section on history/rationale for the program states: "The CNIB is a national agency that governs the provision of services to Canadians who experience vision loss."

To me this is either another example of CNIB's typical arrogance, or something far worse. Since the late Dr. Kenneth Jernigan coined the phrase "changing what it means to be blind" CNIB has frequently mouthed that phrase, but it is yet to walk that talk, and it is about time that it did so!

On February 19, 2003, a conference call took place involving representatives of CNIB, CCB and Marcia Cummings and myself representing the NFB:AE. During that call, very preliminary discussions took place on the following five topics, along with the prospects for further discussions on a range of subjects to be agreed to by the respective organizations:

  1. CNIB Governing Structures 2. CNIB Service Mission 3. Commitment to continuous improvement and quality assurance 4. Definition, specifically the term "visually impaired"

  2. Recognition of the importance of research and advocacy and defining roles

Last week, we received a pre-publication copy of CNIB's new Strategic Plan, and at this year's Conference, we must make some important decisions. We must decide if we wish to get involved in such a dialogue at all and, if so, in what ways and to what extent? How much time and energy are we prepared to invest, and if we are interested in participating, what kind of agenda do we want to advance?

If we decide we are interested in participating in this process, I believe it is imperative that we develop a clear agenda to take to the table. I believe we must focus our time and energy on obtaining greater representation for blind Canadians within the real decision-making structures of CNIB, getting CNIB to focus its activities on providing a somewhat narrower range of higher quality and nationally available services, and determining a realignment of roles and resources where blind consumers are seen as the legitimate spokespersons for our own needs and aspirations, and where we can obtain the capacity to take on a greater share of what should be our rightful role of representing blind Canadians.

On the other hand, should we decide not to take part in a formal, ongoing discussion process, this should not close the door on [participating in issue by issue discussions with CNIB, whenever we feel such discussions are appropriate or likely to be useful.

I would like to thank each member of the outgoing Board - Beryl Williams and Paul Thiele for their political savvy, wisdom and work on our hiring committees; Marcia Cummings for taking excellent Minutes, helping revise our web site and editing some of my own writing; Sara Bennett for all her work with the Canadian Blind Monitor, Diane Dobson for reminding us of the importance of fighting against poverty and vicious government cutbacks, and last but by no means least, our Treasurer, Denise Sanders.

Most individuals in my position have at least one person whom they particularly rely upon for advice and assistance, and in my case, that has been Denise. I have known her since my election to the Board five years ago, and know that, normally she is happiest to remain in the background and let others stand in the limelight, but she has taken on a tremendous amount of work connected with developing our new approach to staffing, fund-raising and finances and the transition in our Kelowna office, and for all of her help and advice, I offer her my particular thanks.

Future Direction

Finally, I want to look to the future. During this weekend's conference, we the membership of the NFB:AE will set direction which will have profound effect on the organization's future. Once that is completed, please elect a President and a Board of Directors who are in full support of whatever that direction is, and who are committed to carrying our wishes and direction into effect.

At last night's reception, we created the kind of spirit that Montreal is noted for, and if we deliberate together in that sane spirit of respect and search for consensus, we can build an even more successful and much stronger organization that can help blind Canadians overcome the barriers that are still in our path to first class citizenship and full participation in all aspects of regular Canadian Society.

Amandla!