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President's Report: Perspective and Possibilities

Editor's Note: The following is adapted from notes presented at the biennial conference of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), Victoria, British Columbia (BC), May 18, 2007.

This year, the AEBC turns 15. This is a significant milestone for any organization, especially a consumer organization such as the AEBC.

When we last met here in Victoria eight years ago under our original name, the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE), we had four chapters, while today we have 11.

Until that tumultuous Conference, we looked southward to the NFB in the United States for much of our philosophy and inspiration.

However, at that watershed event in our history, much changed!

Two different philosophies and approaches clashed, and the membership decided that this country needed a vibrant, forward-looking, "made in Canada" organization that was aware of Canada's unique history, culture, geography, political system and psyche, and that would develop "made in Canada" approaches to solve Canadian problems.

During that conference, our membership adopted Resolution 1999-02, which clearly enunciated that philosophy and approach. I think it is useful to remind ourselves of at least a part of what that resolution said:

"As NFB:AE members, we take our rights and responsibilities seriously. We will not tolerate being discriminated against by any corporations, governments or other entities because we are blind or otherwise vision-impaired;

"NFB:AE members believe that blindness is only one characteristic of an individual's overall being;

"NFB:AE members believe that, with appropriate training, education, and reasonable accommodation, individuals who are blind or otherwise vision-impaired can function successfully in the community and can compete effectively in the workplace;

"NFB:AE members expect the provision of information in various alternative formats--as a right, and not a "special need"--and that this right should be universally recognized."

Since that conference, we have held many important discussions with one another, consolidated our fundamental beliefs, changed our organization's name, established new chapters, worked on many important issues, and taken our message to an ever-widening range of events and other organizations. Throughout, we have been guided by thoughtful membership resolutions, and the participation of a group of extremely talented and committed individuals who have devoted incredible amounts of time and energy to developing the AEBC into what it has become.

The AEBC exists to challenge outdated stereotypes and misconceptions about blindness; to promote the capabilities of Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted; to provide a focal point for personal support and work on issues in communities across our country; and to offer a consumer perspective on the development of programs and services that affect us.

Our "nothing about us without us" message focuses on developing mainstream solutions to the issues and barriers we continue to confront. The AEBC works hard to expand our range of rights and opportunities, as we attempt to achieve the elusive goal of the 1981 International year of the Disabled Person, "full participation and equality."

Today, the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians works on a wide range of issues, from assistive devices, increasing access to information in multiple formats, to electoral reform, transportation, assisting individuals to file human rights complaints, changing public attitudes, and the bread and butter issues of increasing employment opportunities and fighting poverty.

This philosophy and approach sometimes requires us to examine our own ideas, and challenge and expand our own thinking and confront some tough issues head on.

The application by the National Broadcast Reading Service (NBRS) to the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission) seeking the licensing of a specialty channel to broadcast DVS (descriptive video service) programming is a prime example. While AEBC members would love to see an increase in the availability of DVS programming, we filed an intervention opposing this application, believing that a new "special" service would be a backward step in our elusive search for equality through mainstream solutions, and fearing that its approval would be used as yet another excuse by Canada's broadcasters to further drag their feet on providing DVS programming through their regular programming.

During this weekend, we will devote some time to examining the principles of Universal Design, and attempt to further elaborate how they should be applied to assist persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted to live full and fulfilled lives.

The past year has been one of the most challenging in our history, especially in the areas of political climate and funding. At the same time, it has also been one of our most exciting and productive, especially in the areas of external work, organizational growth and transition, and I believe we should be extremely optimistic about our future, though much hard work is ahead.

In the summer of 2004, the AEBC Assistive Devices Program Committee conducted a nationwide survey to determine the unmet needs of Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted when it comes to the equipment that would increase our independence and quality of life. In 2005, AEBC joined the BC Provincial Equipment and Assistive Devices Committee (PEADC) and Linda Bartram became co-chair.

One year later, the PEADC was working with the provincial government to develop a provincially funded Equipment and Assistive Devices Program, with AEBC playing a lead roll on the community side. As the program was taking shape, the needs of persons with vision loss became more evident to the lead Ministry, compelling them to start addressing this gap as a priority.

In March of this year, the AEBC was awarded a $355,500 grant to develop and administer a low-tech assistive devices program for British Columbians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted. This is a pilot project, which will be based on the "Participation Model" being further developed for a broader, cross-disability equipment and assistive devices program. The scope of the program (what equipment will be included, eligibility etc.) is still being finalized at this time.

The AEBC will be coordinating a program that will demonstrate the Participation Model for Personal Supports, determine the current gaps in community capacity to deliver assistive devices to British Columbians who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted, and increase community capacity to implement the Participation Model.

At the same time, British Columbians with vision loss will benefit from the provision of at least some of the low-tech devices they need.

This project should not be interpreted as a move away from our traditional work of public awareness and advocacy. Literature on advocacy work includes developing pilot or demonstration projects, to explore different or better ways of operating. That's exactly what the AEBC is doing by testing this "participation model."

The AEBC remains active in the work of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities (CCD). In November 2006, we participated in the End Exclusion conference in Ottawa, Ontario, where the pros and cons of a possible National Disability Act were outlined, and a paper on fighting poverty was released.

In March 2007, the AEBC joined with the broader disability rights movement in Canada to celebrate two important and hard-won victories!

Last year, I reported the AEBC and three other organizations retained ARC Disability Law Centre to intervene at the Supreme Court of Canada in support of CCD's case against Via Rail. On March 23, the high court handed down a 5-4 ruling in favour of CCD that is expected to have implications for other human rights cases.

The Court's ruling reinstates the decision of the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), which requires Via Rail to modify 13 economy coach cars and 17 service cars in the Renaissance fleet so every daytime train and overnight sleeper train would be accessible to passengers using their own wheelchairs.

Having accessible trains travelling along some routes does not justify inaccessible trains on others, reasoned Justice Rosalie Abella, saying VIA offered "no concrete evidence" that refurbishing the "Renaissance" cars would create undue hardship for the carrier.

The benefits of accommodating disabled travellers are impossible to quantify in monetary terms, but financial cost isn't the only consideration, wrote Abella for the majority of the Court.

"What's really at issue is how far society, in this case transportation carriers, must go in accommodating the disabled and other minorities," said David Baker, who has represented the Council of Canadians With Disabilities throughout this case.

"Persons with disabilities must be accommodated unless doing so would create undue hardship. Now, just because there are significant costs involved, it doesn't mean it's the end of the story," he said.

Transportation Minister Lawrence Cannon told reporters "VIA obviously will conform to the decision of the Supreme Court."

Throughout the past several years, the AEBC participated in meetings to help the Government of Canada develop its position on the proposed UN (United Nations) Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, and On March 30, Canada was among 81 States and the European Commission that signed the Convention. 43 States also signed the Optional Protocol.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities is the first human rights convention of the 21st century. The federal government is continuing to consult with the provinces and territories, and we hope Canada will also soon sign the Convention's Optional Protocol.

Signing is by no means the end of work on the Convention; ratification and effective implementation are still ahead, and the disability rights movement in Canada must continue to be involved to help ensure this Convention makes a real difference in the lives of the world's 650 million persons with a disability, most of whom live in the developing world where progress is so desperately needed.

We continue to meet with Elections Canada, and expect that voting at the next federal election will be somewhat more accessible to blind electors. Elections Canada has developed a new template, which is made of plastic, and contains both braille and raised numbers. All of their radio and TV ads will announce phone numbers. They are also working to provide lists of candidates in braille and large print at each poll location. I am delighted that the new template is being exhibited at this year's Conference.

AEBC's Scholarship Program, which supports outstanding blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted students, remains an important part of every year's work. We would like to congratulate the following recipients of our 2006 Scholarship awards and wish them every success in their futures: Laura Bulk, Victoria, British Columbia; Jennifer Dillon, Toronto, Ontario; Danielle Laplante-Ip, Montreal, Quebec; and Jacob Vaynshteyn, Edmonton, Alberta.

We continue to take our message to new places, either by staffing a booth or making presentations.

The AEBC Participated in the Northeastern Regional Conference of the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) Conference, Montreal; the biennial National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) Conference, Ottawa; the BC Vision Teachers Conference, Kelowna; the Disability and Information Technologies Research Alliance Conference, Winnipeg, Manitoba; the ARCH Annual General Meeting (AGM), Toronto; Inclusion and Participation: Persons with Disabilities in the Workplace--an invited symposium, Edmonton; the Vocational Disability Resource and Information Fair, Victoria; the W. Ross Macdonald School reunion, Brantford, Ontario; and the Jobs and Justice Conference of the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives, Vancouver, BC.

AEBC members presented at CAILC's (Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres) Executive Directors Forum to discuss access issues; the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum Conference to raise awareness of disability issues in the apprenticeship process; two seminars on museum access for the Ontario Historical Society; appeared twice before the Ontario Citizens Assembly to discuss access to voting issues; appeared before the Ontario Standing Committee on Justice Policy concerning an overhaul to the Ontario Human Rights Code; and appeared before the federal Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities at which we called on the federal government to develop a new National Economic Strategy for Canadians with disabilities.

And we will be making presentations at both the 11th International Conference on Mobility and Transport for Elderly and Disabled Persons (TRANSED), Montreal, and the Festival of International Conferences on Caregiving, Disabled, Aging & Technology (FICCDAT) 2007 Conferences, Toronto, in June. (Note: To read AEBC's FICCDAT paper, see "Boomers Aging with Vision Loss: Public Attitudes are Key" elsewhere in this publication.)

The AEBC is a member of ARCH Disability Law Centre; the Association of Sight Impaired Consumers (ASIC); the media Access and participation initiative; CAILC's virtual independent living centres project advisory committee; and a National Telecommunications Working Group.

As part of our public awareness work, we continue to publish our national magazine, the Canadian Blind Monitor, in various formats; created six public service announcements and circulated them to media outlets in cities where we have chapters or potential chapters; and developed employment, mentorship and guide dog brochures, all of which are available at: www.blindcanadians.ca

We also published an extensive advocacy manual, "Stand Up! Speak Out!", also available on our website, which examines various areas of advocacy, provides past "real life" examples, and discusses assertive and effective communication techniques to assist individuals interested in advocating for themselves or others. The AEBC believes that education about the advocacy process, assertive communication, and available resources can help individuals successfully advocate, and that through this means, and public education, a more equitable and accessible Canadian society can be created.

Despite funding uncertainty, AEBC's Human Resources Committee took the bold step of recommending that we move ahead with the recruitment and hiring of our first National Equality Director. After a national search, Albert Ruel of Victoria started work in February 2007, and he has already added a lot to our organization.

Having Albert on board gives the AEBC a senior staff member that most other national organizations take for granted. It should make it somewhat easier for future Board members, but when we hired Albert we made it very clear to ourselves that we would remain involved and active on your behalf, though hopefully somewhat less involved in day-to-day work.

As part of the transition process, we have re-established a chapter in Winnipeg, reorganized our Calgary, Alberta, chapter, and formed our very first chapter in Edmonton. Several chapters have elected new Presidents--Lisa Neufeld in Kelowna, Mitch Lindsay here in Victoria, Beryl Williams in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Lorne Daley in Ottawa, Richard Marion in Vancouver, and on Sunday we will elect a new National President.

Following last year's AGM in Kelowna, the Board was forced to sever our relationship with our primary fundraiser, and throughout this year much time and energy has been spent on disentangling our organization from the problems that remained from that relationship. We are fortunate that previous Boards had accrued surpluses that have enabled us to weather this past year quite well.

The Board has proceeded very cautiously in signing new fundraising contracts. To assist our fundraising activities, the Board established a sister organization, the Alliance for Blind Canadians (ABC), a non-profit corporation that does not have a charitable number. This fact enables it to undertake fundraising activities that would cause difficulties for a charitable organization.

As discussed last year, the political climate in Canada has changed considerably. The new Conservative government believes in far less federal involvement, especially in areas of provincial jurisdiction. And this means we must become more effective in engaging decision makers provincially.

Future Priorities: While our new National Equality Director now plays an important role, the new President and Board will remain busy and directly involved in carrying out the work of this organization. Some priority areas I see for the next couple of years will be:

  • Increasing the name recognition of the AEBC across the country;

  • Developing new sources of funding;

  • Establishing new chapters and strengthening their Capacity to Engage. More and more, important decisions are being made at the provincial/territorial/municipal levels, and we must develop the capacity to engage politicians and other decision makers at these levels;

  • Increasing membership. Every member needs to talk to friends, as the one on one approach is often what brings in new people;

  • Seeking younger members. Canada's disability rights movement is led by a group of graying individuals. All organizations, including the AEBC, need to devote some concentrated time on attracting new and younger individuals;

  • Seeking more members who are partially sighted and/or seniors;

  • Membership development: The AEBC must continue to encourage members to participate directly in our work. All are encouraged to join at least one national committee. This is the way many of us developed the skills we now possess.

For the past nine years, I have been proud to serve on our Boards alongside a group of extremely talented and dedicated individuals. At times we have been criticized for being too slow to act, and at others for being too tough. That leads me to believe your Boards have done a pretty good job of representing the Resolutions we have adopted together.

I believe in the words of American author, Leo C. Rosten (1908-1977): "I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honourable, to be compassionate. It is, after all, to matter: to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all."

I look forward to continuing to serve.

I want to thank all of those individuals who have contributed their energy, talent and ideas to our work, and would like to mention three in particular.

Throughout my Presidency, Denise Sanders has taken the lead on the internal side of our work, thereby enabling me to focus on my own particular strengths of writing briefs and representing our organization.

Rick Oakes, who is leaving the Board this year, has brought a wealth of experience to our deliberations.

And our youngest Board member, our Treasurer Anthony Tibbs, came on board at an extremely difficult time, and jumped right in as if he had been on the Board for years.

In conclusion, "You don't lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case."--Ken Kesey

"Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but give us the determination to make the right things happen."-Peter Marshall

Persons who are different can make a difference. Let's all redouble our intentions to make a real difference in the lives of all Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

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