You are here:

Blindness Consumerism in New Zealand

Editor's Note: The following speech was given at a National Federation of the Blind (NFB, United States) convention. It is reprinted from the Braille Monitor, May 2005:

On October 8, 1945, a group of about a hundred blind people met in the Municipal Hall in Newmarket, Auckland. Their purpose was to discuss their future welfare. At the time outside observers could not have imagined what brought about this impassioned gathering. Since 1890 the needs of the blind seemed to have been well catered for by the New Zealand Institute for the Blind. The Institute was a respected charitable organization, and its governors were leaders in the community. What could be the trouble now?

In truth, discontent among the blind had been festering for some years. By 1945 autocracy, paternalism and the Institute's refusal to listen to its clients had created a virtual impasse. The response of the blind was to form a group to lobby for their interests and concerns. The group originally called itself the Dominion Association of the Blind (DAB).

The New Zealand Institute for the Blind, now the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB or Foundation), was then, and remains today, a monopoly service provider of education, rehabilitation, library services, adaptive technology, aids and appliances, and everything else that the blind community of New Zealand could reasonably be expected to want or need. In short, the Institute of 1945 was the dominant agency for the blind, and if you didn't get what you wanted or needed from the Institute, you simply didn't get it at all.

The Institute's cultural attitudes about blindness closely paralleled the American experience of the middle 1940's; i.e., agencies for the blind know best. But the oppression experienced by blind Kiwis of this era was exacerbated particularly by the womb-to-tomb dominance of this single agency. Where in the United States there was some potential for an innovative spark to take hold under the auspices of a particular agency, owing to the fragmented nature of service delivery, in New Zealand all power and authority was vested in the management of the Institute alone.

Historically, blind New Zealanders went to the Institute early in childhood for their education, graduated to the adult-living accommodations of the Auckland campus, and often spent their entire lives as custodial wards of the agency. The management style of the day was authoritarian, a posture adopted even by the two notable blind directors, who served the Institute during its early days, John Tighe and Clutha Mackenzie.

Personal liberties were regularly infringed. Permission to marry needed to be granted by the Institute's Board of Governors, what little personal money blind people possessed was micromanaged by the Institute's leaders, and people worked long hours for low wages in the organization's workshops. While occasionally today those who lived at the Institute share nostalgic reminiscences of "the good old days" with the younger generations of the New Zealand blind community, it is generally acknowledged that the middle forties represented a Spartan and hostile time for blind people affiliated with the Institute.

So the blind of New Zealand, like the blind of America, drew upon their depleted emotional reserves and found intuitive kernels of self-determination and personal strength to buoy them. When their wages were low, they organized. When their treatment was poor, they strategized. And when they had had enough, they had had enough and formed the first advocacy organization of the blind in New Zealand, the DAB.

When I met with Jack Short, one of the charter members of the Association, he explained to me in poignantly succinct language just how significant and revolutionary the founding of the DAB was in the context of the New Zealand blind community:

"DAB men were brave. If somebody walked into the Institute with a DAB pin on his lapel, it was understood that he was someone to be reckoned with. It was clear that he was a person who stood for principle and was probably willing to jeopardize himself both personally and professionally through blatant association with the DAB. In the eyes of Institute authorities, such people were marked as troublemakers and dangerous agitators. Yes, DAB men were brave."

The DAB has dramatically evolved and matured during the 59 years of its existence. Undergoing several name changes to reflect the tenor of the times and the purposes of the organization, the former DAB is today the Association of Blind Citizens of New Zealand (ABC NZ or Association).

The one constant aim of the Association throughout its almost six decades of existence has been its unwavering devotion to the cause of advocacy on behalf of the blind community through the vehicle of collective action. Peer support, public education about blindness, and all of the other functions traditionally aligned with an organization of the blind had and have their place in the dynamic life of the ABC NZ, but advocacy, in one form or another, has been the mainstay of its existence.

In its governance, the ABC NZ is administered by a president, two vice presidents, five directors, and a World Blind Union representative. Collectively, these people are known as the national Executive, and they function much as does the board of directors of this organization. For particularly crucial decisions that warrant conference-level endorsement, an appointed representative from each of the 16 local branches, entities comparable to chapters here, join with the National Executive to form the National Council.

While still in existence, my impression is that its purpose remains largely an anomaly of organizational history. The National Council was called to act more often when the ABC NZ met in national conference every three years, but now that national conference is an annual affair, there is less need for National Council to act in conference's stead between meetings. As in the American consumer organizations, the deliberations of the delegates in attendance at national conference represent the supreme governing body of the organization. The official communications organ of the Association is its quarterly publication, Focus.

The ABC NZ is organized into local branches. Mostly, branches are based on designated geographical regions of the country, but recently provision has been made for the development of Special Interest Branches to consist of ABC NZ members with common personal or professional interests. These local entities are charged with promoting the policies of the national organization in their communities and working on issues of particular local concern to their members.

The exercise of grassroots influence by Association members on the policy positions espoused by the organization stems from a historically deep-seated respect for transparent and democratic processes. Individual members and branches shape the messages of the ABC NZ through a formal system of remits and resolutions that are submitted to national conference directly from branches or are adopted at the direction of conference duly assembled. Branches are required to convene meetings of their general membership minimally three times a year, in addition to their annual general meeting (AGM).

Members of the ABC NZ must be affiliated with a branch of the organization. Five types of membership can be held or bestowed within the ABC NZ: Ordinary Membership, Associate Membership, Junior Membership, and both Honorary and Honorary Member for Life. Membership reflects the diverse demographics of the blind community currently existing in New Zealand and internationally. A disproportionate number of members are older, and many experience the social disadvantages of blindness manifested through high rates of unemployment, inadequate training in the skills of blindness, and social isolation. But the blind people who choose to affiliate with the ABC NZ represent the strongest core of the community passionately interested in effecting positive social change through collective action.

The ABC NZ is today able to pursue its goals because of the financial sponsorship of the RNZFB. As you will see, the cool and then warm relationship between consumer and service provider in New Zealand has been a central characteristic and focus of Kiwi consumer activism. Since the early 1960's, the Foundation has contributed some financial support to the ABC NZ to supplement its administrative operations, and in the early 1980's the Foundation, through agreement, became the exclusive funder of the organization.

Naturally, this symbiotic rapport is quite different from the experience of American blind consumers. To the discerning person, at first blush this arrangement may reasonably raise questions of consumer autonomy. The rationale for the financial relationship between the Foundation and the ABC NZ has more, in fact, to do with the economics of a small country and the finite resources available to benefit blind people than anything else.

Because the Foundation has always operated primarily on the charitable dollar and not as a state-funded entity, the successful fundraising of the ABC NZ began to have a discernible impact on what the Foundation was able to attract from the general public to devote toward its programs of human service. The Foundation approached the Association with a proposition that it fully fund the organization in exchange for the Association foregoing any public fundraising. In this way, they reasoned, vigorous competition for the charity dollar, limiting both organizations' capacity to offer optimal services to their constituencies, would be eliminated.

Not wanting to harm service delivery to blind people in New Zealand and eager to devote its energies to issues of social significance instead of to the dominant distractions of fundraising, the ABC NZ agreed to be exclusively funded by the Foundation. An understanding was firmly established that there would be no correlation between the receipt of funding from the Foundation and the right of the ABC NZ to substantively challenge the Foundation when necessary. Other reciprocal conditions apply to the financial agreement, but the principle that the consumer voice is not to be compromised by this arrangement and that a single entity attracts the charity dollar for the vocational and educational advantage of blind New Zealanders justifies the practice and preserves it to this day.

What then has the Association accomplished that distinguishes it and warrants consideration of blindness consumerism in New Zealand by the delegates of this convention?

Many organizational achievements come immediately to mind, but I will briefly focus today on three notable victories. These successes offer a commentary on the collective resolve and conscience of blind consumers in New Zealand; promise to promote measurable improvement in the quality of their lives; but, most significantly for our purposes at this convention, represent an innovative model for self-empowerment that can be emulated by the interested international blindness community.

In 2003, the Foundation underwent a process of significant governance reform that was the culmination of almost eight years of sustained pressure by the members of the Association. The twin objectives of the organized blind community in New Zealand were to sever the control held by the state since 1963 over the composition of the Foundation's board of trustees and to enable blind people to determine for themselves who should represent their views and interests in the governance of the primary service-providing agency in the country.

Without exhaustively detailing the substantive grievances of the blind community toward the Foundation, I will say merely that ABC NZ leaders, like Jonathan Mosen, Geraldine Glanville and Clive Lansink, legitimized by a groundswell of support from the rank-and-file membership of the Association, led the charge to take governance ownership of the Foundation on behalf of the blind community. With faith in the collective wisdom of blind people to identify their own basic needs and to mold responsibly the principles and culture of the nation's largest vendor of blindness-related rehabilitation and social services, the Association relinquished its two designated seats on the Foundation board of trustees in exchange for the prospect of direct member influence and control of the agency.

Members of the Foundation, blind people eligible to receive services from the agency, are now entitled to vote for members of the newly constituted board of directors and, of course, to stand as candidates themselves to this board. A variety of new constitutional provisions affirm the general right of Foundation members to exercise sway over service delivery and organizational direction. In short, the eight-year struggle against member disenfranchisement has been satisfactorily resolved by a fundamental shift to understanding that blind people will dictate their own destiny when it comes to the functioning of the Foundation.

The consumer-driven, revolutionary nature of this rehabilitation reform should not be underestimated. It did not come easily. It was not won without personal sacrifice, and it stands as a testament to the resolve of determined Association members. It is a symbolic gift to the international blindness community from blind activists in New Zealand.

It is still too early for any thorough evaluation of the success of this experiment in governance reform, but all current signals suggest that the blind will be equal to the challenge of governing for themselves. By contrast, then, governance reform in New Zealand rehabilitation adds a significant dimension to the work of American blind consumers to advocate for informed choice in rehabilitation.

A second landmark change brought about by the Association occurred in the middle 1950's. Through the sophisticated lobbying efforts of leaders like Cyril White and others, blind consumers of New Zealand managed early on to persuade officials of New Zealand's government to remove means testing from the benefit received by blind people. This universal benefit provides a meaningful work incentive for blind benefit recipients and helps to defray the additional social costs of blindness encountered by Kiwis of our community. Some aspects of the benefit warrant improvement and reform, but earlier than most, the Association secured for its members a substantial government benefit, which has helped to improve the overall quality of life for its membership.

Finally, in July of last year [2003], the ABC NZ published an access audit that surveyed existing facets of Kiwi society and evaluated their relative accessibility for blind people. This policy document addressed such topics as civil rights, education, employment, public transportation, and environmental and information access. Following a detailed analysis of existing New Zealand law, a comparison to other international jurisdictions, and an assessment of whether or not New Zealand met reasonable access standards in these identified areas, policy recommendations were offered at the conclusion of each subject chapter with the aim of promoting necessary change or improvement in these areas.

Members are beginning to see various segments of New Zealand government rely on the ABC NZ's signature policy publication as a definitive resource for what must be done to create an accessible society for blind people in New Zealand. The exertion of such influence is a noteworthy accomplishment of which the Association can feel justifiably proud.

Stemming from this policy work, the Association has devoted its energies in the last year or so to the development of major special education reform with the goal of creating a model national learning support network for the education of blind children in the country. This national system aspires to marry appropriate residential instruction with mainstream academic tutelage, and concentrates on ensuring that blind learners receive quality tuition in blindness skills instruction.

Similarly, the ABC NZ is keen to find a solution, as a small country disadvantaged by its limited capacity to create or access digitally recorded books, to the perceived legal obstacles in sharing these specially formatted materials across international boundaries. These and other matters currently occupy the energy and commitment of the ABC NZ.

New Zealand is a lovely land. Its people are warm and friendly, and a touch of British formality characterizes day-to-day life there. If I have learned anything, though, as a result of immigrating to New Zealand, it is that both the positive and negative aspects of blindness are surely universal.

My wife, Renee, and I were approved to be foster parents by the Child, Youth and Family Ministry of the New Zealand government. Naturally, there were questions initially about our capacity to parent in view of our blindness, but with a little advocacy and education the officials, in typical Kiwi fashion, said "fair enough" when it became clear that we were well suited to the task. We successfully fostered our first eighteen-month-old baby just before coming home this summer. This strikingly illustrates one example of the willingness of a culture that prides itself on the promotion of principles of equity to apply these practices to blind people, as well as others.

Conversely, I have devoted myself in the last year to championing the trampled rights of New Zealand guide dog owners, who have been denied entry into taxis, planes and restaurants. I have fought to ensure that a blind immigrant to New Zealand was not denied permanent residency based on the prospect that, as a blind person, he was more likely than his sighted colleagues to lose his high-paying job and become a social parasite on the taxpayers of the country.

In short, the experience of blind people in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres is similar, and our consumer organizations, while different, share in common a basic spirit of consumerism that should forge a lasting bond across the globe. Our different experiences and successes can and should inform one another's advocacy. Through the forum of the World Blind Union or by bilateral relations, the Association is eager to fashion a mutually beneficial relationship with American consumers. Together we can work in common cause to advance our mutual interests. Together we can make life better for blind people around the world.

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.