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Taking a Hard Line on Independence

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from Vision Magazine, Vol. 6, Issue 2, Fall, 2003:

So important is his sense of privacy and independence to Robin East that he took the Saskatoon City Council before the Human Rights Commission for not having municipal election ballots available in an alternate format. At the next municipal election, the ballots will be brailled, and there will be information sheets in braille as well. The province says it won't be ready to do the same by the next provincial election, but he has the promise of the clerk and the Minister that they will make polling booths accessible for voters who are blind or visually impaired.

Parents bring their Grade 9 students to see Robin on "Take Our Kids to Work Day". The Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA) collections officer turns off the monitor on his computer and asks, "OK, how are you going to get the information you need to do the job?"

Welcome to Robin East's world. Papers for a meeting? Get them brailled. Email attachments? Give them a name, not a number. Power Point presentations? Get them reformatted or brailled. Something in his In basket? Tell him before you walk away.

His clients at CCRA first "meet" him over the telephone, so they don't know he's blind. When they eventually come into the office, they see his guide dog and realize. "They're usually very curious and want to know how I do things."

Blinded by retinitis pigmentosa in 1982, Robin went back to school to get a degree in social work but was unable to find work in his chosen field. He succeeded in obtaining the position at CCRA and uses his social work skills in his volunteer and community work.

Robin is President of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality in the Saskatoon area, President of his local community association, an active union member, and a member of the Minister of Community Resources and Employment's Advisory Committee. Oh yes, and he has three children who expect him to turn up for soccer games.

Robin has had to take a hard line to achieve the level of independence he wants. "Mail that isn't in alternate format gets shredded. My bank statements come in braille. My telephone bill I can look up on the website. I have to do this, otherwise my wife has to do it for me. And I didn't marry her so she could be my reader!"

What advice does he have for others? "Be honest. If you need something, put it in writing. Follow a process for getting what you need. Be professional and courteous--and don't give up." It also helps to learn braille: "You can't file documents without it. I used to say I don't need it, I've got a computer, but you can't do financial statements in speech. They're easy in braille."

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