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Editorial: Misconceptions Hurt People's Lives!

Today, even after decades of extensive public education work, outdated and stereotypical notions about blindness and the capabilities of persons who are blind still abound. These misconceptions remain pervasive and hard to dispel. For some reason, progress is painfully slow, even when facts are presented that contradict these myths.?

Prevailing erroneous beliefs prevent our full participation in all aspects of Canadian society--they hurt people's lives. Why are they still so ingrained???

Part of the answer can be found in the media and literature where persons who are blind are too often portrayed as "super," "amazing," or virtually helpless, and very little in between, but these depictions do not adequately or accurately reflect our reality, and only serve to reinforce false notions.??

Family, friends and even people who are, or become, blind themselves frequently hold these same views about blindness. However, we are neither heroic nor tragic figures. We are people who simply cannot see fully and who have learned, and continue to learn, how to function without sight-nothing more and nothing less.??

In the 21st century, many sighted individuals still cannot conceive how persons who are blind do things, but we do! The evidence is all around us.??

We go to school and gain post-secondary degrees; we work in an ever growing range of jobs, though our level of unemployment remains a national disgrace; we travel on buses, trains and airplanes; we cook enjoyable meals for ourselves and friends; we go to the theatre and movies; we enjoy sex; we marry and raise children; and we vote.??

We may do some things a bit differently--reading and writing using large print or braille; travelling safely and independently with a white cane or guide dog; cooking a meal and determining food readiness by texture, smell, sound or taste; surfing the internet using screen magnification or screen reading software--but the important point is that most of us want to be seen as ordinary individuals, pursuing the same range of life experiences as our sighted counterparts do.??

We assumed that our increased visibility in our communities would make a real difference in the ways we are viewed and treated, and it has helped some. But showing by example is seemingly still not enough.?

Our lives would be enhanced by increased common courtesy. We wish the public would ask if we need help in reaching our destination instead of dragging us in a direction we may or may not wish to go. We would like to be addressed directly, as we can speak and make decisions for ourselves, rather than have someone speak to our companion instead of to us. And those with guide dogs would appreciate the public asking permission to pet or talk to the animals when they are in harness, as distracting a dog while it is working can be dangerous for both the guide dog and the handler alike.??

Do we really respect and embrace diverse groups, including people who are blind, within Canadian society, as we profess to do???

According to Helen Henderson's article, "Diversity Ideal Excludes Disabled," (Toronto Star, November 17, 2007) there's a growing disconnect between the terms "diversity" and "inclusion." She says, "Diversity should include all people who look and think and communicate and move in ways that distinguish them from the majority, but these days the term 'diversity' is used almost exclusively to refer to skin colour and ethnicity."??

This is one reason why the disabled community has begun using the terms "inclusion" or inclusive communities."??

People with disabilities must be active participants in constructing accessible communities, building a truly inclusive education system, and drafting government or private-sector policies and programs that actually respond to our needs. Henderson adds, "Given the right tools, kids with disabilities can thrive. Given the right supports, adults with disabilities can reach our full potential."??

But all this takes planning and real commitment! It also requires an "awareness" that investing in the necessary participation and inclusiveness pays off, both for persons with disabilities and for society as a whole.??

The phrase "Nothing about us without us" reflects our frustration over the slowness of progress, and that so many life-affecting decisions are made without our meaningful involvement. We know best what we need, as we live disability every day. We are our own best spokespersons.??

We know how marginalization hurts! We know what the increasing wealth gap is doing to us. We know that unemployment and poverty add to health care costs. And we want our governments at all levels to commit to a true poverty reduction strategy that will set targets and timetables and include us in developing the needed programs to make such a policy reality.??

We want to see the achievement of the elusive theme of the International Year of the Disabled Persons 1981, "full participation and equality," and see it achieved in our lifetimes, and we expect to play a key role in attaining that goal.??

Organizations like the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians exist to encourage individuals to dream, to try out new ideas, and to provide a vehicle for collective action aimed at change. We are here to shatter stereotypes about blindness and to show others (including those who are blind themselves sometimes) not only what is possible, but also what barriers and challenges we face, and solutions to meet these needs. We're on the way to making lasting change. Will you join us???

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."--Margaret Mead?

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