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Blinded By The Light

Editor's Note: (Reprinted with the permission of the Kelowna Capital News)

Losing your sight, even for a short length of time, is an eye-opening experience. Up to three days ago there was no sense I took more for granted than my eyesight. Seeing the world through slightly less than perfect eyesI wear glasses, but my prescription is not strongwas something I never really thought about. Seeing, for me, is part of my being.

But as soon as I put the blindfold on and was plunged into total darkness, a sense of helplessness engulfed me.

I gripped the arm of my guide, vision rehabilitation specialist Yvette McDonald, with one hand and squeezed tightly on a short white cane in the other.

Having been instructed to use the cane to feel what was in front and to the side of me, we set off from the CNIB office on St. Paul Street, the click-clicking of the cane in front of my feet.

The melting snow underfoot made traction slippery and I wondered how a visually-impaired person manages when the ground is covered in slippery ice and snow.

"For blind people, snow is our version of your fog." Bill Mah told a gathering of the participants after the downtown stroll. "It masks features that we use as land marks."

Walking the Kelowna streets, I was suddenly much more aware of the sounds, smells and obstacles that presented themselves, things that moments earlier I had not given a second thought.When we came to a thin alleyway I suddenly had a claustrophobic feeling, sensing the walls were no more than a metre on either side of me.

Using my cane to feel, I found my other senses were correct.

Sidewalk signs, fire hydrants, benches and garbage cans are of little concern to sighted people, but when you depend on a cane to feel your way, they can appear as big as a house in the middle of your path.

Moving indoors also creates a different atmosphere and I found myself immediately sensing the change as we moved into the Town Centre Mall.

"Someone is using varnish," said Betty Waterman, a 65-year old local woman who accompanied us on the walk.

Waterman, who only has peripheral vision, uses only her cane to regularly navigate around town.

My guide, McDonald, who works with hundreds of clients with varying degrees of visual impairment, said Kelowna is quite a blind-friendly place, but feels more sighted people should start thinking like visually-impaired to make sure they do not inadvertently create obstacles.

That point was brought home graphically, moments earlier, as we hurried to catch up with the rest of the group and narrowly missed a car coming out of a blind alleyway.

For a blind person there would be no visual warning of oncoming traffic, only the sound of a car's tires on the wet pavement.

After leaving the mall, we navigated steps -- a nervewracking experience for me as I kept envisioning one misstep causing me to tumble to the ground twisting my ankle in the process. I was quickly discovering that fear is as big a limitation in mobility as the actual loss of sight.

"Some people just don't get over it and that doesn't help them."

According to the CNIB, the loss of sight has the emotional impact equal to the death of a close family member and a grieving period normally follows.

But once a person is ready to learn how to deal with the loss, the CNIB offers a host of services including rehabilitation.

As part of the White Cane exercise, I tried some of the tests after arriving back at the CNIB office.

Continuing to wear the blindfold, I attempted to cut up vegetables, make peanut butter sandwiches, sort socks and play tic-tac-toe.

The sock-sorting was one of the most difficult because with visual help signs gone, I had to rely entirely on texture and other feel-related signs such as sock length.

Of the 14 pairs in the basket, I matched just one.

"Eighty percent of our learning is done through visuals," rehabilitation teacher Pamela Kaufman told me."(Sighted) people walk into a room and don't think anything about it but a visually-impaired person has to concentrate so much harder."

"That is why they get so tired, they have to compensate by using their other senses."

The CNIB hopes its annual White Cane campaign will raise awareness about issues facing the blind.

Having walked just a few blocks in a blind person's shoes, I know I will look at my surroundings with a very different eye in the future.

Those are the transcripts. Their tone and substance was predictable for any blind person who has observed such exercises in the past.

Members of the Kelowna Chapter were made aware of the impending blindness simulation when a CNIB staff member was interviewed on a local radio station. Several Chapter members called the district manager of CNIB to try to dissuade him from this course of action. He was unconvinced by our arguments. He believed the blind community would be helped by the publicity from this event.

At its February 17 meeting, the Central Okanagan Chapter of the NFB:AE discussed the issue in great depth. The following resolution was adopted unanimously:

Resolution Adopted February 17, 1996

Chantal Oakes, President

Whereas: Effective public education about blindness which stresses the capabilities and innate normality of blind people is essential if we are ever to take our rightful place as firstclass citizens in Canadian society; and

Whereas: Although good public education can certainly include discussions of the challenges faced by blind people, it should always emphasize means of overcoming difficulties and reducing the negative perception of blindness too commonly held by the public; and

Whereas: Long painful experience has demonstrated that the practice of temporarily blindfolding sighted people to 'show them what blind people have to go through' emphasizes and exaggerates the potential problems which can sometimes be associated with blindness when training is lacking, and reinforces the worst negative stereotypes of the helpless, hopeless blind; and

Whereas: On Wednesday, February 7, 1996, the Kelowna District Office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) conducted a session in which prominent members of local and provincial government, as well as civic leaders and representatives of the local media were blindfolded and paraded through the streets, shops, and back alleys of Kelowna; and

Whereas: Several blind citizens of Kelowna, having heard in advance of this ill-conceived publicity stunt, attempted to dissuade the CNIB District Manager from this destructive course of action because of the potential for harmful publicity about blindness; and

Whereas: The television coverage on CHBC TV and the newspaper article in the Kelowna Capital News, which resulted from blindfolding the sighted had the predictably negative tone in substance; and

Whereas: Although one of the objectives of the CNIB is to ameliorate the condition of the blind, the actions of the Kelowna District staff in this instance had the effect of exacerbating the negative conditions the blind face by creating a climate in which discrimination against the blind, based on misconceptions about the nature of our problems, is more likely to occur;

Now, therefore: Be it resolved by the Central Okanagan Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality in meeting assembled this 17th day of February, 1996, in the City of Kelowna that we call upon CNIB executives to direct all staff within the Agency to cease using temporary blindfolding of sighted individuals and to replace this public miseducation campaign with positive demonstrations of the abilities and accomplishments of real blind people; and

Be it further resolved that we request that the National President of the NFB:AE communicate our feelings on this subject in the strongest possible terms to Dr. Euclid Herie; and

Be it further resolved that copies of this resolution and the transcript of the CHBC television coverage and the Kelowna Capital News article be sent to all organizations and individuals deemed appropriate by the Chapter executive.

At the Chapter's request, NFB:AE president, Paul Gabias, contacted CNIB president, Dr. Euclid Herie, by telephone to raise our concerns to determine CNIB's policy toward blindness simulation. The following exchange of letters is self-explanatory.

Dr. Euclid Herie Executive Director Canadian National Institute for the Blind 1929 Bayview Avenue Toronto, ON M4G 3E8 February 22, 1996

Dear Euclid:

In response to our telephone conversation on February 21, I am faxing you responses from the media associated with the fund raising efforts of the CNIB in the Kelowna District office during White Cane Week. The Kelowna office portrayed blindness as a severe disability. Its purpose was to evoke pity for the blind in the public and politicians of the Central Okanagan Region in order to increase fund raising capacity for the CNIB.

I have nothing against fund raising per se, provided that the image of blindness is not damaged in the process. As you know, in the National Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality, we believe that, with training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance. We also believe that it is respectable to be blind and that with training and opportunity blind people can compete on terms of equality with the sighted. We believe that the practices of blindfolding sighted people or having sighted people wear glasses which significantly distorts their vision increases their fear of blindness and gives them a very negative idea of what it's like to be blind. It makes them feel helpless and it does nothing to give them the feeling of competence and pride which blind people can achieve with training and opportunity.

In our conversation, you expressed to me your strong disagreement with the practice of blindfolding sighted people for educational or pecuniary purposes. Therefore, I am enclosing a resolution from the Central Okanagan Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality, which condemns the practice of blindfolding the sighted for demonstration purposes. This resolution echoes the spirit of resolutions supported by the National Federation of the Blind in the United States.

On several occasions, you have addressed national conventions of the NFB in the United States and you have often begun your presentation with "Greetings, fellow Federationists". In the United States, you are well-thought of in the Federation. You are considered a friend. We want to achieve a similar rapport with you in the Federation in Canada. I am sure that you will do your utmost to stop the practice of blindfolding sighted people by certain Divisions and District offices of the CNIB. The blind of the nation are depending on you. We are looking forward to a strong supportive response to our resolution. At your suggestion we will be publishing the resolution and your response to it in the Canadian Monitor, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality.

I am looking forward to our meeting on May 5, 1996, in Kelowna. As in Chicago, I also look forward to spending some time with you in Anaheim.


Paul Gabias, Ph.D.

cc: Kenneth Jernigan

Paul Gabias, Ph.D. NFB:AE P.O. Box 5058, Station A Kelowna, B.C. V1Y 7P5 March 13, 1996

Dear Paul:

Further to our telephone conversation and your February 22, 1996, letter and enclosures, I have had an opportunity to read and consider several of the points raised with reference to the practice of blindfolding sighted persons.

Your letter, detailed resolution, and the media extracts, pose a rather wide range of issues with reference to the onset of blindness, rehabilitation, public attitudes and awareness programs, fundraising and professional training. If I read the material even more thoroughly, there are likely additional points which would give rise to, further thought, discussion, and possible debate.

From our several meetings and conversations in the past, I know for certain that the two of us, as well as our friends and colleagues throughout Canada and the United States, accept fully the principle that it is respectable to be blind, that with adequate resources and training combined with positive public attitudes and acceptance, blindness or severe visual impairment in itself ought not be a barrier to equality and full participation. However, getting from here to there, is not a simplistic notion, nor is the path free of barriers and obstacles.

I am enclosing the text of three talks which I have given on rehabilitation, including Attitude Change toward Blindness/Visual Impairment -- Quebec City; Children of Minor Wives presented on my first NFB convention in Chicago; most recently my talk on Blindness and Immortality presented to the National Conference of our rehabilitation personnel this past summer. This written information is forwarded as reference, and is background on my own thoughts and approach to a number of issues raised in your letter and accompanying resolution.

On February 27, 1996, I distributed the information which you forwarded to our Executive Management Group, and as it arrived just at the close of our meeting, discussion and consideration of the resolution was necessarily brief. Within our organization, there no doubt exists a wide range of views on the specific issue on the use of blindfold with reference to creating public awareness, and also as a methodology in the professional training of sighted individuals in the specialty fields of orientation and mobility, rehabilitation teaching and related daily living skills. Perhaps this response and the material you have forwarded, will broaden the discussion and serve to heighten awareness among all of us.

I have taken the liberty of sharing the information more widely with a number of my colleagues within the CNIB with the encouragement that they will read, consider and comment upon the NFB:AE position.

In the interim, I have given direction to all our personnel, that under no circumstances are we ever to invoke pity, ridicule or any other approach in our portrayal of blindness or awareness programs for whatever purpose, including education, training, fundraising, etc. I personally, have always felt uncomfortable, and reject the notion that a temporary blindfold can equate awareness to blindness. As I said to you, I have the same view for so called 'able bodied persons' who spend an hour in a wheelchair and any other similar experiments or portrayals. The matter of professional training, however, may pose a different set of questions, and I would need to give that much further thought and research than I have done to date.

Paul, the fact that you have called me and directed this information to me and the CNIB in a open and candid manner, is most reassuring in furthering the friendship and rapport which you mentioned in your letter to me.

On May 5, 1996, when we meet in Kelowna, we can pursue this and other priorities more fully.

Yours truly,

Euclid J. Herie

President and Chief Executive Officer

cc: F. Gary Homer, National Chairman, The Canadian National Institute for the Blind; CNIB Executive Management Group; M. Davey, Chair, National Client Services Committee; G. Bate, Chair, National Communications Committee; E. Drover, Chair, National Fund Development Committee; Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, President Emeritus, National Federation of the Blind; Marc Maurer; President, National Federation of the Blind

The issue of the use of blindfolds goes to the very heart of how we perceive blindness. If the problems of blindness are truly caused by the physical lack of eyesight, simulating blindness is a dramatic way of bringing those problems to public attention. If, on the other hand, as Dr. Herie states, ". . . with adequate resources and training combined with positive public attitudes and acceptance, blindness or severe visual impairment in itself ought not be a barrier to equality and full participation", the validity of temporarily blindfolding of the sighted to create 'awareness' is called into serious question.

Public education about blindness is so important to the NFB:AE that we listed it first among the five purposes of our organization in our founding documents. We will continue to do all that we can to help the public reach a new understanding of blindness. We hope that the spirit exemplified in Dr. Herie's letter is a sign that the CNIB at all levels wishes to work in partnership with us to make sure that the public receives constructive information about the capabilities of blind people. The job is so big and the need is so great that it will engage the energies of all of us for a long time to come.

Education in Vancouver: Restaurant Manager Learns About Equal Access for Guide Dog Users

Canadians are becoming used to seeing blind people accompanied by well trained guide dogs. Most citizens assume that the right of the blind to take their dogs into public places is universally accepted. Unfortunately, there are still occasions when that right must be asserted firmly.

On Sunday, October 29, 1995, a group of blind people in Vancouver were reminded just how important assertiveness can be. They stopped into a local restaurant for a bite to eat after the Lower Mainland Chapter meeting. The manager, who was apparently new on the job, was unfamiliar with equal access laws. He insisted that health regulations prohibited dogs from entering his establishment. Fortunately, the blind people involved knew their rights and insisted upon them. Other staff members of the restaurant also helped to educate the manager and the group was able to eat its meal in peace and dignity.

Maureen Martin is a member of the Lower Mainland Chapter. She was concerned that discrimination not be permitted to reoccur. Maureen contacted the Corporate Offices of the restaurant in question. The following correspondence shows what can happen when blind people politely but firmly take charge of their lives.

Mr. Paul Gabias President, National Federation of the Blind 475 Fleming Road Kelowna, B.C. V1X 3Z4 November 3, 1995

Dear Mr. Gabias:

Please accept my sincere apologies for the unfortunate incident that took place on Sunday, October 29, 1995, at our Georgia and Seymour location.

I spent some time reviewing the incident over the phone with Ms. Maureen Martin. Please find enclosed a copy of the letter which I have written to her. I want to assure you that we at White Spot are committed to meeting the special needs of our guests, and I will take appropriate steps to ensure such an incident does not occur again.

Please find enclosed a guest certificate for your enjoyment at any one of our locations in B.C.

Once again, please accept our apologies for this unfortunate incident.

Yours truly,

White Spot Restaurants (A Division of White Spot Limited) Amir Mulji Vice President, Operations

Ms. Maureen Martin 5932 Nancy Greene Way North Vancouver, B.C. V7R 4W1 November 3, 1995

Dear Ms. Martin:

Please accept my sincere apologies for the unfortunate incident that took place on Sunday, October 29, 1995, at our Georgia and Seymour location. We at White Spot Restaurants have built our reputation on taking care of the needs of our guests. Unfortunately, we certainly failed to do so on this occasion.

I have spent some time with Mr. Henry Wong and he is extremely apologetic about the way he reacted to the situation.

On the 18th of November, we have a Corporate General Managers' meeting and I assure you that I personally will take the opportunity to ensure that our managers are aware of the appropriate ways to accommodate our guests' diverse needs.

I look forward to receiving the literature you will be sending us. The information will be incorporated into our existing programs and used to upgrade training materials for our staff and managers.

Please find enclosed a guest certificate for your enjoyment at any one of our locations in B.C.

Once again, please accept my apologies and I thank you for your call and your interest in assisting us to better equip our managers and staff to deal with the special needs of our guests.

Your truly,

White Spot Restaurants (A Division of White Spot Limited) Amir Mulji Vice President, Operations cc: Warren Erhart, President

Mr. Amir Mulji Vice President, Operations White Spot Restaurants 1126 S.E. Marine Drive Vancouver, B.C. V5X 2V7 November 5, 1995

Dear Mr. Mulji:

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your prompt attention to my complaint re an incident that took place on October 29, 1995, at your Georgia and Seymour restaurant.

I was very pleased to hear your sentiments regarding guide dogs and of the sensitivity which you and your staff wish to display to disabled clientele. I am enclosing a message from the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality in the hope that it will be of some use to you in understanding the aims of our members.

We have very limited written material to distribute at this time as we are a young but growing group. I will be happy to provide you with information on an ongoing basis as it becomes available in order to help you understand our goals.

Thank you for the gift certificate. It is much appreciated. I am very pleased that we have been able to resolve this incident so favourably.

Yours truly,

Maureen L. Martin

The management of White Spot did more than the bare necessities. They made a point of educating all their managers about the rights of blind restaurant guests. They were not hostile or defensive. They were open and thankful that the matter had been brought to their attention so that they could take action.

Of course, it would have been better if there had been no discrimination at all. Still, it is heartening to know how many people in our society are willing to change their behaviour when they come to understand the rightness of our cause. Good laws encourage equal treatment. Good business recommends it. And good sense demands it.

Quickie Course On the Canadian Braille Authority by Mel Graham

From the Editor: Mel Graham works in Winnipeg with the Council of Canadianswith Disabilities as its communications officer. He is also an active member of our Winnipeg chapter.

I pay $20 a year in dues to an entity known as the Canadian Braille Authority. Furthermore, in spite of its slightly intimidating name, I chair its Committee on Promotion of and Access to Braille. Am I a teacher or rehabilitation specialist by trade? A producer of Braille materials, perhaps? Do I sell high tech Braille production equipment? Or am I just a garden variety masochist? None of the above, as it happens.

I am instead a totally committed, life-long consumer, which makes me much more dyed-in-the-wool on the subject. You'll know just what I mean if you are so fortunate as to use Braille every day. If you don't, it can never be adequately explained to you. Being a Braille user is a bit like being rich.

The Canadaian Braille Authority (CBA) represents a gathering point for a diversity of Braille interests -- including educators, librarians, braille producers, technology buffs, parents of sight-impaired children, rehabilitation personnel and consumers -- to name just some obvious ones. Though not completely trustful of one another in every area of day-to-day contact, these disparate elements work fairly compatibly nonetheless on the single common denominator of protecting, promoting and carefully managing changes to Braille. It goes without saying that an organization composed of such diverse elements is easily criticized.

There are those who have questioned the relative influence of the various groups within the CBA, and those who have wondered about the possibility of behind-the-scenes manipulation.

I think much of that kind of concern is over-rated. We tend to forget that consumers are just as obliged as everyone else to keep on the watch for opportunity, and to be fast off the mark when it knocks. While I'm busy spouting old saws anyway: We consumers get no more and no less from any democratic organization than what we're willing to put into it. Whatever you might happen to believe about the motives behind its establishment, I chose to get involved with CBA because I believe its timely appearance on the scene may well be looked on by future chroniclers as one of those proverbial stitches in time. CBA not only provides the means of building the community consensus Braille will need to respond to the changes demanded of it, but it also will tend to focus needed resources on Braille in the long haul. This latter, in itself, will have represented a considerable achievement, given how dollars spent on the public good have become stretched over the past decade.

One more word on this topic. All this might seem as though I am bestowing needless advance credit to what is, admittedly, still a fairly fledgling organization. But I'm sticking my neck out because I've been closely associated with CBA since its founding in 1990. Though I know there's plenty of room for improvement, I'm just as certain there's absolutely none at all for cynicism or avoidance.

CBA has no headquarters. What it does have is a chronically over-worked executive, and committees whose activities usually are concentrated in the geographic area where their chairs reside. An exception to that rule is Promotions and Access. I live in Winnipeg, while our secretariat consists of the International Affairs office of the CNIB in Ottawa.

But otherwise it holds true; the teaching and learning committee's work centres around Edmonton, technology out of Halifax, membership is handled from Winnipeg, our newsletter is compiled in Vancouver, and the work of representing Canadian interests, in terms of the numerous committees working on the Unified Braille Code (UBC), is co-ordinated by Darleen Bogart in Toronto.

The potential development of the UBC is the major event in the Braille system's dramatic career since its invention over 170 years ago in France (as far as we Anglais are concerned anyway). Its purpose is to amalgamate the current English Braille codes which include Grade II Braille and the Nemeth code for math and science. This is extremely complex, technical work, virtually unimaginable in the days before the Internet without dozens of costly face-to-face conferences. Almost all major English-speaking countries in the world are involved in every decision made, from preliminary draft reports, to the fruits of the exhaustive evaluation process.

UBC encompasses several groups working on various aspects of the ultimate formulation of the new English Braille code. At any one moment (I'll arbitrarily pick one from last January), aspects of the code might be under study, ranging from contractions, interface with foreign languages, phonetics and phonemics, chemistry, alignment in mathematics, format guidelines, and transcriber rules. Things are slowly taking shape, but there is still time for genuine input, especially if you're an active, paid-up CBA member.

Co-ordinating UBC here in Canada is a massive job. Darleen Bogart handles it well. In my opinion, she is probably CBA's greatest asset. In my view, she is certainly the Canadian who has given most in the service of making Braille available and keeping it viable in this country. Since it is impossible to list all of her achievements here, I'll just say that she began as a volunteer Braillist some years back, and wound up being secretary of the International Council on English Braille (ICEB). She's currently taking a turn as president of CBA as well.

Mind you, if I were really interested in making you feel exhausted, I would go over the numerous surveys and similar activities of our other committees over the past couple of years, such as English Braille Standards (they are just about finished with a tactile research project), French Braille Standards, Braille Teaching and Learning, and the rest. Hopefully, in the limited space provided by a single magazine article, I will have whetted your appetite to want to become a member of CBA for at least next year, and find out what it's all about in somewhat greater detail. Of our 100 non-corporate members, 30 serve either on the board or on one or more of its committees. We desperately need a much larger membership base from which to draw expertise and direction. Why shouldn't consumers move out of the veritable token category we're in now, and adopt a leadership role in regard to future CBA boards and committees? It's there for us to do. All we have to do is sign up.

For a membership application, write to or call Judy Rannard, Chairperson, CBA Membership Committee, Room 206, 1181 Portage Avenue, Winnipeg MB, R3G 0T3 (Telephone: 204 945-7840).

Finally, by way of conclusion, just a quick word about my own committee's work. The CBA's Promotion of and Access to Braille committee is looking for testimonials from people all over Canada who have found Braille invaluable in their lives. Our project concerns students in Kindergarten through Grade 12 who, now that they no longer attend residential schools, might not be getting the base literacy benefits of Braille that they need. This is a real problem in the U.S., as those of you who have been following the record of the NFB will know.

We are taking our case to the political and administrative decision makers, of course. We also want to be sure that when we move on to plan B -- assailing the media with instances of Braille's efficacy -- we're doing so from a wide range of backgrounds and experience. We need anecdotes to prove that Braille really does represent the pen-and-pencil base literacy equivalent that we say it does. It's the sort of ammunition you have to have on hand to counter the facile argument, "But why can't they just use computers?" Imagine the ruckus if sighted kindergartners were expected to go from the sand-box to the keyboard!

If you are the kind of person we're looking for, or if you are familiar with such, please contact me at : 170 - 14 Shelmerdine Drive, Winnipeg MB, R3R 2Y2 Telephone: (204) 832-8414.