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President's Report: The Changing Landscape--The Landscape Must Continue to Change

Editor's Note: The following is taken from notes for an address to the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, May 15, 2004.

When we met in Montreal last year, we celebrated two important events--our tenth anniversary, an important milestone for any organization, and the formation of our Saskatoon Chapter. This year we are meeting here in Saskatoon. I just received an email indicating that, at a meeting in Ottawa on Thursday evening, the members present voted to form the Ottawa-Gatineau Chapter, and we are excited and delighted to welcome this new Chapter to our growing family.

From time immemorial blind people have been the victims of mistaken identity. Not that their lack of sight has gone unnoticed or unrecognized--far from it. But at one time or another they have been falsely identified also as a class of pariahs, as divinely accursed, as mentally defective, physically incompetent or socially unstable. It is only in very recent years that society has begun to give recognition to the novel doctrine that blindness means only the loss of sight, neither more nor less, and that any further loss to the blind person is the consequence, not of his blindness, but of the social and psychological conditions in which it occurs. In short, the disability of blindness is physical, but the handicap of blindness has always been predominantly social.

This is still today a revolutionary doctrine, not only among the public, but among the professionally informed and expert as well. In the social diagnosis of blindness, mistaken identification is still the rule rather than the exception.

While these words were spoken by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, in a speech entitled, "The Blind: A Case of Mistaken Identity", delivered in Berkeley, California, May 22, 1960, they resound as if they were spoken only yesterday, and they amply demonstrate how much further we still must travel before blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians achieve the promise of "equal benefit of the law" that is contained in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is one of the reasons why the national Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality was founded, and why a strong, vibrant, national movement of blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted consumers remains so vitally needed today!

Since we were together in Montreal one short year ago, the political landscape in Canada has undergone numerous changes. As expected several provinces held elections, and some new provincial governments were elected.

In my own Province, voters were asked to "choose change", and many did so, electing a new Liberal majority government, but since then many Ontarians have realized very clearly that "choosing" change was far easier than making change actually happen. And this is another reason why organizations of ordinary people like ours are so important today, as it is up to the people to make sure all elected officials follow through on their election promises.

Since the close of the Decade for Disabled Persons in 1992, we have seen the amount of attention given to our issues gradually diminish until earlier this year, one leader in the disability rights movement went so far as to say the real issue for all of us is to remain on the political radar map of Canada.

With this in mind, consumer organizations across the country have redoubled their efforts at the federal level, and together we managed to get some disability content included in both the Speech from the Throne and the federal Budget. While these items did not go nearly as far as Canadians with disabilities need, it was encouraging to see some small recognition of our needs included. But we still wonder when our time will finally come

A federal election could be called any day. It is important that electors with disabilities play an active part in the upcoming election, being visible by working for candidates and asking questions at all candidates meetings about what planks on disability issues are contained in each party's platform.

Let me remind you of the words of famous anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

2003-04

This has been another busy year for the NFB:AE. We have participated in more meetings, round tables and consultations than ever before. These have covered such diverse topics as the Disability Tax Credit, the Ontario Human Rights Commission's Consultation on Education and Persons with Disabilities, braille credit card statements, a new concession plan from the theatre industry, health care, access to restaurants, the proposed UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, housing, the state of human rights protection in Canada, a national disability supports program including funding for assistive devices, continuing discrimination under Canada's Immigration Act, expanding integrated education, strengthening the Ontarians With Disabilities Act, and a variety of transportation issues from Via Rail's steadfast refusal to make its new trains fully accessible to the electric car and emerging issues such as automated check-in kiosks at airports. I believe our participation at more of these tables stems in part from being a member of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), and I expect this trend will continue. And speaking of CCD, every year each member group has the opportunity to nominate an individual or organization to receive an award, and the Board has nominated Penny Leclair to be the NFB:AE's 2004 recipient.

We remain involved in a variety of other organizations, and as a result of discussions at the Toronto Chapter, the NFB:AE has rejoined ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities, based in Toronto. ARCH's work focuses primarily on test case litigation, and education of the legal profession so it will better serve us and advance our rights. I think there will be future opportunities for collaborative work that will prove mutually beneficial.

International Work

At last year's Conference, we adopted two resolutions endorsing Disabled Peoples Internationals Peace Declaration and support for the proposed UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, and we are supporting the proposed UN convention, which is being fast-tracked at the UN.

While we have decided to focus the bulk of our work on issues that will have impact in Canada, we must never forget the plight of our brothers and sisters in other countries. In addition, we must participate in the UN convention process, for the adoption of a weak Convention could be used to weaken the strong legal base for persons with disabilities that currently exists in Canada.

At our 1999 Conference in Victoria, our membership adopted Resolution 1999-12, to seek membership in the World Blind Union (WBU)--"provided that the above process is not inordinately difficult or expensive." Boards have pursued full membership for our organization in the WBU and attained Associate Membership in the North American-Caribbean Region. However, this year's Board believes that we should retain Associate Membership, but not pursue further the attainment of full membership even though it may now be available to us.

Common Look

Since joining our organization, our new Coordinator, Allan Shaw, has emphasized the need for our organization to focus on "branding", so that whenever an individual sees a pamphlet, magazine or brief, it will be immediately recognizable as coming from our organization. Our website has undergone some changes, and more are planned in the months ahead. It receives many visitors, and we must use it more effectively to promote our organization and its activities, to provide a wider range of information, and to use it as a vehicle for membership recruitment. Geof Collis has developed a new logo for our organization, and he has taken over from Marcia Cummings as Website Liaison to our new Webmaster, Jeff Burwick, who we recently welcomed when he succeeded Chris Gaulin. Directors now have organizationally based email addresses. We will also be resolving the current difference between our Mission Statement and Bylaws in the use of the terms "partially sighted" and "vision-impaired" so all our materials will possess a common look and feel.

Public Education

During the past year, over sixty thousand brochures have been distributed to households across the country. Our national magazine, the Canadian Blind Monitor, remains the most important vehicle for the public education side of our work. We have expanded overall distribution, and targeted ophthalmologists and optometrists with the "Focus on Health and Well-Being" issue. The next several issues are being planned to focus on the NFB:AE and Advocacy, Home Sweet Home, and Art and Attitude. Everyone is encouraged to contribute articles for these upcoming issues.

Mentorship Program

As the result of Resolution 2003-8, many hours have been committed by the Mentorship Committee, chaired by Linda Bartram, to the expansion of our Mentorship Program. After an extensive internet and literature search determined that a suitable manual was not currently available, the committee began gathering the necessary information, and Monika Penner was contracted by the Board to compile the Manual.

A comprehensive mentor application process has been developed. The program now invites blind, partially sighted and deaf-blind adults, as well as parents of blind, partially sighted and deaf-blind children, to apply as mentees, who now complete an expanded application form and undergo an informal interview prior to the matching process.

As of May 1, 2004, two mentor/Mentee matches have been made, and six other Mentors are at various stages of the application process, and will be matched with mentees in the near future.

Scholarship Program

In past years, we have announced our annual Scholarship recipients at our Conference or AGM. However, this year the deadline for applying has been changed to October 15, and we will be increasing the number awarded to five, thanks to our Toronto Chapter and Courtesy Call Inc.

Assistive Devices

At last year's Conference, we adopted Resolution 2003-18 to research and promote a national Assistive Devices Program. We established a Committee, chaired by Linda Bartram, and we succeeded in obtaining a summer student project to do the research and help us develop proposals. A report from this project should be available in early fall.

Financial Picture

When I joined the Board six years ago, we were subsisting from month to month, and I was determined that situation had to change. Again this year, our Treasurer, Denise Sanders, will be presenting a financial statement that shows a considerable surplus. Due to frugal management and increased revenue over the past couple of years, we now have the kind of cushion that every organization needs and would love to have, especially in these times of government cutbacks. While future Boards must remain cost-conscious, our current situation will enable us to self-fund some initiatives, and this will be a priority item for your new board, so don't wait--send in your suggestions.

Funding

Funding remains a controversial subject. Despite the resounding defeat of Resolution 2003-5 Third Party Fund-Raising at last year's Conference, the Board has given priority attention to the search for additional/alternative sources of funding for our organization, and I believe we have devoted more resources than ever before to this elusive search, but so far we have not succeeded in attracting significant results, though we have just secured a summer student project to work on proposals for a National Assistive Devices Program, and we are receiving $1,000 from the Union of Taxation Employees and $400 from Sask Tel towards this year's Annual General Meeting. We have also received an S.A.P. receiver from Audio Vision Canada as a major door prize, and we thank all of these organizations for their support.

We have an active Fund-Raising Committee, Chaired by our treasurer, and our Grant Developer/Writer, Karen Leboe, has worked hard to search out those new sources of funding that we would all like to find. Almost 100 applications were sent to foundations, corporations, in search of funding, for activities such as public education, mentorship, the CBM and this AGM.

For the past several years, HRDC said it would not consider new organizations for core funding. We had expected their position would change this year, but the new Department of Social Development decided to only accept proposals for projects and not to cover core activities. Nevertheless, we have approached The Minister, the Honourable Liza Frulla, and put the subject of core funding for our organization on the table, and asked for a meeting to discuss our needs with her directly. In the months ahead, we will be pursuing this request.

I want to pause for just a moment and ask you to join me in thanking those who have devoted a great deal of time to our work over the past year. I work most closely with my colleagues on our National Board of Directors, our contractors and also with Sara Bennett, Associate Editor of the Canadian Blind Monitor. Sara has committed a tremendous number of hours toward this important publication. Again this year, our Secretary, Marcia Cummings, has produced excellent and timely minutes, and she is playing an increasingly important role in Ontario. Following last year's conference, Beryl Williams spearheaded the name change process, and kept me informed on discussions on our Listserve, which often becomes far more active than I can follow. I also want to thank Chapter Presidents and everyone who has stepped forward and participated directly in aspects of our diverse work, either by participating on Committees, writing articles for the Monitor, or offering their timely advice on particular topics. There are lots of ways to plug into our diverse work! If you have not yet found your niche, there is no time like the present.

2004-05

I now want to discuss several areas that I believe require added focus in the year ahead.

Membership

Building our organization must receive greater priority in the year ahead. Like most organizations, especially groups like ours, we attract some new members each year, while others slip away.

Chapters play an important role. Not only do they provide our organization with a presence in a community, they can offer personal support to individuals, public education, fund-raising and a vehicle for collective action on local issues.

However, too many chapter members still see themselves primarily as a member of their Chapter, and do not identify enough with our organization as a whole. In an effort partly to overcome this tendency, and also to give Chapters added encouragement, a meeting of Chapter Presidents took place, and they intend to meet quarterly to discuss activities and ways to increase membership.

We have an active Membership Committee, chaired by Paul Thiele, which needs to be expanded. Each Chapter will be strongly encouraged to designate a representative to this Committee. A Membership Survey has been developed, and it will be distributed to all members over the next couple of weeks. It is designed to learn what makes individuals join, and to develop more and better ways to involve you directly in our work, though in a self-help group such as ours much of that must come from within each of us.

We have held meetings in both Victoria and Ottawa, have attracted some new members from these meetings and have a brand new Chapter in the Ottawa area. However, from my experience, some membership recruitment comes in batches when new chapters are formed, but most of it is a one-to-one process, one member to another, and just consider where we would be one short year from now if each of us could convince one or two new or returning members to get actively involved in our work--what a difference this could make!

Over the years, we have heard various reasons why individuals have shied away from joining us, and one of those excuses has been the name of our organization. At last year's Conference, Resolution 2004-17 was adopted to conduct a "feasibility study" of a new name, and your Board began working on that resolution immediately following last year's Conference. A contest was held, and 35 proposals from members and non-members alike were submitted. Later today, we will determine that very fundamental question--the name by which we want to be known. If a change is adopted, that will remove that excuse for not joining our work, but a new name will give us new challenges of name recognition. The Board has a road map already in place should a new name be adopted.

I challenge each of us to talk with our friends, and encourage them to join our organization and its work.

Consumer Input

Over the past ten years, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) has begun using such words as "collaboration" and "consumer involvement" more and more. However, the change has seemed more in the area of rhetoric, rather than real substance

In January of this year, CNIB organized a two-day, by invitation only, symposium on the Cost of Blindness as a follow-up to the October, 1998 National Consultation on the Crisis in Vision Loss. This major event, organized by service providers, health care professionals and researchers, brought together an impressive array of speakers from around the world, but not one of these presenters represented a consumer organization. At that Conference, the question "who represents consumers" was raised several times, and shortly afterward the NFB:AE and CCB were both invited to participate on the Steering Committees of two major CNIB research projects--"A Lack of Social Policy in Low Vision Service: a Case Study of the Impact on Patients and Providers", in collaboration with Health Canada and "Nationwide Study to Identify the Needs of People in Canada Who are blind or Vision-Impaired".

These invitations caused your Board a considerable degree of soul-searching, trying to determine whether and in what way we might wish to participate in these initiatives, so that our limited time is well spent and the real needs of consumers are advanced--not just the interests of CNIB.

Needless to say, this does not go nearly far enough. Today, the federal government provides some research grants in the field of disability. While there is room for some new research, what is generally needed far more than new research is government will to implement research that already exists and to implement new programs that will improve our quality of life in tangible ways. We have written the Minister of Social Development, advancing the view that consumer partnership and meaningful and demonstrable involvement should be present in all new research projects they fund.

Access to Regular Products

As a human rights organization, we and many other organizations have worked hard to ensure that an equitable legal base will be in place, and much success has been achieved in that area. However, especially in these times of government cutbacks, we must never rest on our laurels, and there is always room for improvement in the area of the law and especially in the ways in which it is administered and enforced. Thus, we must continue to play a leading role in that area.

It is also abundantly clear that, while Canadians with disabilities may have achieved a considerable degree of the Charter's guarantee of "equal Treatment under the law", we are a long way from achieving the other important part of the Charter's promise, namely "equal benefit of the law". Today, persons with disabilities remain among the poorest of the poor in this plentiful land.

I believe we must devote more of our time and energy to the more practical side of life, both as a way of attracting membership and also as a means of making it easier for each of us to go about our daily lives, and after all that's what it's really all about--being able to participate on terms of equality in everyday life as members of the community.

We applied unsuccessfully for a second summer student project, which would have begun work in this area. Nevertheless, this work is vitally important, and we will be establishing a new Committee charged with developing what I hope will be a major new initiative in the area of access to ordinary, everyday products, and I invite those of you who are interested in this area to step forward and join this Committee.

Conclusion

Our former cost-cutting Finance Minister, now Prime Minister, Paul Martin, said on November 7, 2002: "I think it's unforgivable that we've not developed a comprehensive program and level playing field for disabled Canadians. If there's anything a wealthy country like Canada should do, it's that."

We agree wholeheartedly with those words of our new Prime Minister, and it's up to organizations and individuals like us to turn those noble words into reality. We have recontacted some other consumer organizations across the country, and developing a closer working relationship among consumer organizations remains an important goal for us. Let us redouble our efforts, put aside our differences and build towards a better future for all Canadians, including those of us who are blind, deaf-blind, partially sighted or otherwise disabled.

Thank you.