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President's Report: Celebrating Our Future

Editor's Note: The following are notes for an address to the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians' (AEBC) biennial conference in Ottawa, Ontario, April 29, 2005.

We are here to celebrate! And we have a lot to celebrate!

The AEBC is now a reality!

We have an organization with a new name and look; an organization that has a hard-working Board and many committed members; an organization that is growing in the amount of work it is called upon to do.

Our new name, improved look, and state-of-the-art website represent an important milestone in our organization's history, a move which took far more time and energy than any of us could have imagined, but the AEBC is now a reality, and we are here to celebrate that achievement.

But before we can look to the future, we must review where we have come from and this last year's work.

In 1992, there was no National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE) and no Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC). A few visionary individuals in Kelowna, British Columbia, decided it was time to found a new organization--the NFB:AE. Since our founding, the organization has grown, and the members who have joined have brought with them new ideas that form the basis of today's distinctive Canadian organization, now known as Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.

The year just passed has been our busiest to date and that is exactly what we wanted! During this year, we have participated in more meetings, conferences and issues that directly affect the lives of all Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted.

New Name and Image

With the adoption of our new name and new look, there should be no further confusion about who we really are, and no more questions like "Aren't you the National Film Board?"

The AEBC, like its predecessor the NFB:AE, is a made-in-Canada consumer organization of persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

Our new name is descriptive of whom we are and what we are trying to achieve. We are a coming together of individuals in an ever increasing number of locations every year. All of our work focuses on attaining greater equality. We are a consumer organization, run by and for our members, and we are a Canadian based and Canadian focused organization.

This does not mean, however, that we are not interested in the situation of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world. We retain Associate Membership status in the North American-Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union (WBU) and we participated in a recent Regional meeting in Toronto.

We continue to participate actively in consultations towards the United Nations convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the next meeting is scheduled to take place in New York this summer. Perhaps by next year's Annual General Meeting, we may be approaching the completion of these negotiations and have a convention ready for adoption by the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2006.

But, just like the passage of any piece of domestic human rights legislation, passage is merely the beginning. Much further work will be required to gain its ratification and implementation by nation states around the world.

Conferences and Events

During the past year, we presented at the biannual conference of the national Education Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), the annual Conference of Canada-Wide Accessibility for Post-Secondary Students (CANWAPSS), the Rae Review into the Future of Post-Secondary Education in Ontario, and made two presentations to the Ontario Legislature's Standing Committee on Social Policy concerning the proposed Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2004.

Issues

During the past year, we wrote letters or participated in meetings on an ever-widening range of issues, which included: the future of the motion picture industry; discrimination under Canada's immigration Act; access to credit card statements from CIBC; voting independently and in secret in elections; the disability tax credit (DTC); Canada's federal budget; hotel and restaurant access; transportation; cuts to employment programs for persons with disabilities; library access; dog guide issues; and funding for consumer organizations such as ours, to name only a few.

We participated in an important consultation by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), which published a report on the often negative portrayal and lack of representation of persons with disabilities in the media; participated in another Council of Canadians with Disabilities consultation on social policy; made a submission on the future of library programs across Canada; and continue to make submissions to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to expand access to and descriptive video service in television programming.

We conducted research into existing government programs for funding needed assistive devices, and released a major Report. The research found that still only four provinces--Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta--have any government program to assist individuals in purchasing equipment that is needed to live independently. This Report will form the basis for our future work in this crucial area, and British Columbia Chapters are attempting to inject this issue into their provincial election campaign.

Human Rights

We have been asked to assist with more and more human rights cases. As a human rights organization, we were naturally dismayed over the Ontario government's cuts to intake staff at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a move that will make it even harder for Ontario's most vulnerable residents to file complaints of discrimination with the Commission. We participated in a number of unsuccessful fight-back activities.

We are supporting David Lepofsky by attending the tribunal hearings in his case against the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) concerning its failure to call out all subway stops. Marcia Cummings, our National Secretary, was quoted in the Toronto Star and appeared on both CBC and Global Television on this issue.

We have also been consulting on a number of other cases involving the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and various education issues, particularly the nagging access to information barriers that continue to plague students who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted.

Past Resolutions

We conducted the first comprehensive review of all membership resolutions, and a considerable number of these dealt with education and employment issues. As a result, we created the new education/employment committee and its initial work was to prioritize related resolutions. The committee adopted "access to information" as the first area of focus, and that subject is a major theme of this conference.

Chapters

Local chapters are an important part of our organization. They provide a presence in our communities and also offer members the opportunity to come together for mutual support, camaraderie, and to collaborate on local or national issues. During the past year, we organized two new chapters--Collingwood in July and Victoria in November.

Chapters have been playing a more active role in our overall work. Some highlights include: a pilot essay contest for public awareness conducted by our

Central Okanagan Chapter; a martial arts self-defense course that has developed new enthusiasm in the Lower Mainland Chapter; the spearheading of a campaign for a publicly funded assistive devices program for British Columbia by our Victoria Chapter; liaison with the local police in Collingwood; work with the

Toronto Transit Commission and participation on the local Accessibility Advisory Committee in Toronto; a national survey of accessible banking services by Saskatoon; and growing work on library access issues and our 2005 conference by Ottawa.

We held our first face-to-face meeting of chapter presidents in conjunction with our Special Membership Meeting in Toronto in October. This meeting was designed to improve communication and to help chapters feel more a part of our overall work.

Chapter Presidents now meet quarterly and Chapters in both British Columbia and Ontario have begun to work together on provincial issues. Considering the growing decentralization in Canada, more and more work needs to be carried on at the provincial level.

Expanded Work with Other Organizations

We have made some new friends over the past year with organizations with which I expect we will be working collaboratively in the years ahead. Most particularly are the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres (CAILC) and the Canadian National Society of the Deaf-Blind. We attended our first Annual General

Meeting of ARCH: A Legal Resource Centre for Persons With Disabilities, and have recently joined the Provincial Equipment and Assistive Devices Committee in British Columbia.

We continue to be active members of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities (CCD), and have participated in meetings involving disability supports, the disability Tax Credit, the proposed UN Convention, the last federal budget, Via Rail and others.

Each year, each CCD member organization can nominate one recipient for the annual CCD Award, and this year I am pleased to report the Board has chosen Beryl

Williams of Saskatoon to receive the AEBC 2005 CCD Award. Beryl has been a long-time disability rights advocate, was an early member of the NFB:AE and served twice as Vice President on previous Boards. Congratulations to Beryl!

Work with the Canadian National Institution for the Blind (CNIB)

During the past year, we were invited to participate on a number of committees overseeing CNIB research projects, and we have another request to decide upon--a national study into what makes individuals successful in employment. Without clear membership direction, these requests always create much soul searching as to how much time we should devote to CNIB's research rather than pursuing our own work, and what real benefit might result for blind consumers.

After some intense discussion, your board accepted two invitations to participate on the steering committees overseeing the VOICE Study (dealing with vision health) and National Needs Study. Helen Simson, Project coordinator of the National Needs Study, will be presenting some of the data during our next panel, which will give members a snapshot of the data that has been collected.

Human Resources

Over the past year, a lot of new policies and procedures have been developed. For the first time, we created a Human Resources Committee, and that committee has worked extremely hard.

Again this year, we have some new staff. Kim Kilpatrick as Executive Assistant is providing our organization with improved internal communication, especially with chapters; Judy Smith as Public Information Coordinator brings her extensive media experience to our work at a time when we need to publicize our new name; Sara Bennett as Assistant Editor of the Canadian Blind Monitor continues to take on more and more of the work of our magazine; and Carla Whitten as Clerical Assistant replaces Monika Penner, who left to accept an outstanding opportunity with Okanagan University where she is making excellent use of the knowledge she gained while working with us. I am hoping our new recruits will be with us for sometime to come.

Funding

We continue to search for alternative sources of funding for our activities, and this search for significant new sources remains very elusive. We have met with federal officials who assure us no new organizations will even be considered for core funding until after they conduct a comprehensive review of current recipients.

Again this year, our Treasurer Denise Sanders will be presenting an audit that contains another surplus. We remain reliant on contracts with third-party fund-raisers, but considering the continuing decrease in government funding initiatives, many of us consider this to be a strength. Our funding is more secure and not vulnerable to changes in government or government priorities. In addition to raising funds, our fund-raisers are critical to our public education initiatives as they distribute our materials as part of their work on our behalf.

The AEBC Board

Our organization continues to be governed by a group of extremely committed individuals who work very hard on our behalf, and I believe this is another strength of our organization. I want to thank each of them for their contributions to our varied efforts.

Paul Thiele, whom I will always remember as being the first person to approach me about the need to change our organization's name, has announced his intention not to seek re-election at this year's conference. I want to thank him for his years of service.

Your Board remains too much of a "hands on" Board, and this prevents some excellent candidates from putting their names forward. We must find ways of transferring some of the work currently performed directly by Board members to our paid staff.

The year ahead

There remains much to do!

We have a new name to publicize and promote. For those who have been waiting for us to adopt a new, made-in-Canada name, we have responded, and now it is time for you to join us and participate in our varied work.

For us as members, we must redouble our efforts to publicize this new name and image, encourage our friends to join, to reach out to the wider blind community, and to make all new members feel welcome and valued, especially younger members.

Our organization, like the rest of the disability rights movement, is led mainly by older individuals. We must reach out and attract new and younger individuals to our organization as they are our future! I believe our wide range of Committees provide an excellent training ground for all members, old, young or new, and I encourage all members to look over the list of Committees and sign up.

I believe the elusive search for the "burning issue" is over, and it is access to information. We must develop our own niche, set more of the agenda, and repackage some of our work and give greater attention to various access issues.

As a human rights organization, we must continue to advocate for needed changes in legislation, programs and policies, and support individuals who are challenging out dated and discriminatory practices, but at the same time we must expand our work on the practical side of life--advocacy for making regular everyday products, print information and websites universally accessible to all, including persons who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted.

We have applied for two summer student projects, one to work on developing an inventory of accessible products and the second to begin reviewing companies' websites. I am hopeful we will be successful with both applications. If not, the board has set aside funds to pursue both of these projects, and the new board must make these initiatives its priority.

We must continue to take our message of "nothing about us without us" to every corner of this vast country and to seek new events, conferences, and media opportunities to present our views, policies and proposals to improve the lives of Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

One such opportunity comes in May when we will be participating in the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority's (APSEA) conference in Halifax. This should provide us an unprecedented opportunity to reach special education personnel, staff who will have a profound effect on the future lives of young blind individuals. This is an important group for us to reach.

In his book, "Freedom for the Blind: The Secret is Empowerment," James H. Omvig tells a story that I think we all can learn from:

In ancient Egypt a King was having a temple built as a monument to himself. He frequently visited the construction site to follow the progress. On one such visit, he asked a laborer, "What are you doing?"

The laborer replied, "I'm cutting this rock."

The King walked along the site and then asked a second laborer what he was doing, and the man replied, "I'm chipping this stone."

The King then thoughtfully approached yet a third laborer who was doing the same work. This time, when the King asked the man what he was doing, the laborer replied, with real pride and satisfaction, "I'M BUILDING A TEMPLE!" This insightful laborer saw the wisdom of perceiving himself as a valuable part of the larger picture--as an integral part of a team with a vision and a mission--rather than merely as an end unto himself.

It is my fervent hope that all of us who are involved in our work will also see ourselves as an important part of a larger team with a vision, integral to our objective of building that brighter future of maximum opportunity and empowerment for all Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted.

Regardless of what role we may play, it is up to each of us to make a contribution towards realizing our rallying cry of "nothing about us without us" the reality in Canada for all persons who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted.

Remember the words of Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has!"

Thank you.

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