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Newer Vision Sought For Visually Impaired-Government Needs to Start Supporting Visually Impaired, Advocates Say

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Saanich News, August 30, 2006.

Caption: Graeme McCreath, top, can print out material on a special braille printer, below. But, as an example of the challenges the blind face, McCreath notes that the device is 13-years-old, and if it ceases to work it will be almost impossible to replace.--Sharon Tiffin/Oak Bay News Graeme McCreath gets up every morning and goes to work. He collects his patient list from the printer and goes about his day as a physiotherapist.

He does so without ever seeing a single patient. His printer raises each name and time into raised bumps, allowing him to read the day's tasks through braille.

His printer was purchased in 1993 for $5,000. It still works but he is certain that one day in the future it won't and McCreath can't afford a new one without assistance.

"My equipment is aging and there are no programs to assist anybody with equipment and there should be," he said.

McCreath lost his sight when he was 10 years old and he is sick of people treating the visually impaired as incompetent.

"The remnant of the Victorian age is the perception that the blind are always wanting and that other people must collect and care for us. We want to get rid of this image--it is not appropriate in the 21st century," McCreath said.

But that's never going to change under the current funding system, he added.

Charity collections are a Band-Aid on a real problem, McCreath continued. Social programs that provide funding directly to the individuals to purchase adaptive programs for work or to hire their own assistance is a better option than funnelling money through representative organizations.

"A charity-based philosophy for any group creates a negative image and where the blind are concerned, people think we are incapable and it's not right," McCreath said.

Events, like the Sept. 1 Walter Gretzky golf tournament at Bear Mountain golf resort to raise money for the Canadian Institute (for) the Blind, may mean well but the fundraiser supports outdated views of blindness, McCreath said. Having celebrities collect money through an event that most visually impaired people cannot partake in reinforces the idea that blind people cannot sustain themselves. Fundraising should be done by the blind for the blind,

McCreath said.

All proceeds from the tournament will go to the CNIB and a scholarship fund established by the Gretzky family. The money is then used to fund rehabilitation programs around the province. The CNIB is moving away from charity fundraisers but the need for money is a reality, said Bonnie

Denford-Nelson, director of CNIB client services for B.C. and the Yukon.

"One way of making awareness happen is the fact that CNIB is holding this and, yes, it is not a direct correlation to vision loss, but it is a way of getting our name out," she said, adding that is when funding and education increases.

CNIB is the only rehabilitation-based organization in Canada for visual impairment and they receive little government funding, Denford-Nelson said. Fundraisers like the tournament give the non-profit organization a chance to appeal to the business community, she said. Making them aware of the cost of adaptive equipment--upwards of $2,000 for most software--teaches people about the employment barriers for the visually impaired.

Talking computers can run upwards of $25,000 and that doesn't cover additional scanners and printers to help people do their work.

Like any health issue that demands adaptive equipment for people to be active in the employment community, blindness should be covered by the government and not public fundraising, said Linda Bartram, Victoria chapter president for the Alliance for Equality of Blind (Canadians).

"That (charity) model just seems to have been taken for granted that that model would take care of people who are blind. The perception in the community is that they do, but because of lack of funds, that is not a reality," Bartram said.

Bartram was born with a degenerative eye disease which left her completely blind 15 years ago. She cautions that while the current system may not be ideal, it cannot be ripped apart without having something to replace it with.

That process is going to start by reevaluating the way we use basic language, she said. Using the word blind in a negative connotation reinforces stereotypes that blindness is a negative thing. "It puts such a negative spin on blindness," she said. Instead of focusing on the negatives of not having sight, people need to look at people's abilities more, she continued.

As the baby boomers age, things are going to continue to change, Bartram said. The existing perception of age and rehabilitation will change as more people demand treatment for things like loss of vision.

"Previous generations of older persons have not demanded that things be done for them. As baby boomers, we are and we will demand that things be done for us," she said.

There are currently more than 20 organizations and awareness groups, including the Alliance for Equality, working to get federal funding for blind individuals.