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Fighting For Dignity of The Blind

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Enterprise Bulletin (Collingwood), April 22, 2005.

Dignity and independence. Those words come up often in conversation with John Rae. As president of the newly named Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, just about everything he spends his days fighting for comes down to some combination of those words: dignity and independence.

The Toronto-based Rae was in Collingwood this week, meeting with members of the local AEBC chapter. He's travelling the country in the wake of the organization's recent decision to rebrand itself after 12 years as the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality.

"We're celebrating our new name," said Rae. "We think it's a fairly good description of who we are and what we do."

It also better reflects the group's distinctly Canadian identity, he explained. A similar National Federation of the Blind exists in the United States, and before the name change his group had often been confused with that one.

The not-for-profit AEBC welcomes all blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people, as well as their families and other interested individuals.

Its mandate is to preserve and enhance the rights of such persons through public education, advocacy and other initiatives.

"We are a consumer group," explained Rae. "And as persons living our own lives, we are our best spokespersons."

Members of Rae's group have several issues they feel warrant more exposure--chiefly among them the need for more braille in our society.

"Our greatest barrier is access to information," he said. "Instruction manuals, local newspapers, shopping flyers, catalogues, tour brochures, these are all things we have trouble reading."

And the problem doesn't end with information.

So many consumer products and other aspects of modern life are designed without consideration for those who can't see, he said, that it can make life for the blind incredibly difficult.

"If the needs of all people were thought about when a product, a building, a street corner were being designed, then we wouldn't have to lobby to have these things changed later on," said Rae.

Street corners and the need for audible crossing signals is one area the AEBC has lobbied for extensively. Another--and one close to local chapter president Devon Wilkins' heart--is the need for a voting system that enables blind people to exercise their rights without the help of another person.

"Right now, all of our elections are mail-in elections," said Wilkins. "Someone without sight cannot vote privately and independently."

Not only that, added Rae, but the vast majority of information distributed by candidates during elections is not available in a blind-friendly format.

"Again, it's about dignity and independence," he said. "Braille is our answer to literacy, and it needs to be more available."

Most of the AEBC's work revolves around getting messages like this out to the general public, but the organization does not limit itself to advocacy.

A big part of its agenda lies in mentorship. Through the AEBC, young or newly blinded people can be connected with a mentor--someone used to life without sight--in order to learn important life skills.

"Sometimes, all people really need is a bit of personal support," said Wilkins, who has mentored several people since becoming involved with the organization.

The Collingwood AEBC chapter is a young one, having just started up last July.

But there are enough visually impaired people in the area--especially with today's aging population--that Wilkins is sure it will grow and thrive.

"We're putting on a push," she said. "We're celebrating the new name, and we want to tell people what we're about, and recruit new members if we can."

There's strength in numbers, after all. And dignity. And comfort, added Rae.

"Sometimes, people just enjoy the camaraderie of a group," he said.

Anyone wanting more information about the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians can call Wilkins at 705-444-4512 or visit: www.blindcanadians.ca