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Editorial: The Disability Industry, Alive and Well

Our vision for volume 30 of the Canadian Blind Monitor was to review what has taken place for people with vision limitations, and for those with disabilities in general, over the past three decades, from around 1981 (International Year of Disabled Persons) to 2010, when Canada ratified the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Since I was a little dubious about just how much progress has been made, I procrastinated as long as I could before finally sitting down to write this article. I wanted it to be positive and encouraging, but was afraid it might not be. As it turned out, I was feeling pretty good about this editorial by the time it was finished.

In 1982, the UN declared December 3rd to be International Day of People with Disabilities. Since the late nineties, themes have highlighted specific disability issues. Examples include: Arts, Culture and Independent Living (1998); Making Information Technologies Work for All (2000); and Action in Development (2005). The theme this year is Making the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Disability-Inclusive: Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities and Their Communities Around the World.

According to the UN's "Enable" website (http://www.un.org/disabilities/) the Day's purpose is to "...promote an understanding of disability issues, the rights of persons with disabilities, and gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of the political, social, economic and cultural life of their communities. The Day provides an opportunity to mobilize action to achieve the goal of full and equal enjoyment of human rights and participation in society by persons with disabilities..."

While some in the disability consumer movement are somewhat unsure, others see Canada's ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on March 11 of this year as a specific outline of what rights we can expect to have realized--more specific than prior human rights legislation. The Convention also contains mechanisms and reporting to hold societies and governments accountable. Considering the benefits for both society and people with disabilities (PWDs), the CRPD should be a win-win endeavour.

It's good to see that disability is still on society's radar, but I have to wonder if December 3rd has become the same as all of those other special days of the year--once the day is over, we go back to "business as usual". I also can't help but wonder how much attention the religious and commercial sectors of society pay to disability just prior to Christmas and other faith-based celebrations, not to mention the distractions that season entails.

Since 1981, a generation has grown up exposed to a more progressive value system concerning disability, and yet most people in the disability rights movement would agree that we are a long way from a time when disability is considered to be just a reality of life and PWDs are an integral part of our society, where they enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as those without disabilities.

Canada is, in my estimation, 20 years behind our neighbour to the south, especially in the area of blindness. For example, our American cousins have managed to establish democratically structured consumer-driven rehabilitation services, such as Blind Inc. in Minnesota. Not the case in Canada. Some centres in the U.S. also employ persons who are blind to teach orientation and mobility--not permitted in Canada. This is one instance where Canada's sparse population and conservative nature are not positive characteristics; there aren't enough blind consumers to warrant several alternative community-based training centres, and Canadians are typically quite accepting of the status quo.

How much more time is needed, or will there always be a booming disability industry? If so, I look forward to the day when 90 percent of people who benefit from it are PWDs--through the services they receive to improve their lives, and through the careers and money made by being the ones to determine and deliver those services. I also look forward to the day when the majority of those being consulted by mainstream decision makers about disability issues represent consumer groups and are democratically elected by members, the majority of whom are PWDs. People with disabilities, however, should not be ghetto-ized or pushed into only working in the disability field, as that would hinder attempts of PWDs to integrate into mainstream society.

My experience is that the general public still thinks of disability and accessibility as being about wheelchairs. One reason for this is high-profile personalities who use wheelchairs, as well as what they talk (and don't talk) about. I look forward to the day when a person who is blind is afforded the same level of support and profile. Meanwhile, those of us with seeing limitations are way at the back of public consciousness, and we continue to "enjoy" the public’s lack of knowledge about and comfort with, those with vision loss, and unemployment and poverty rates of at least 60%. Wait a minute! The UN did appoint Stevie Wonder (a blind musician) as the Ambassador of Peace. Unfortunately, as far as I know, Stevie doesn't use his profile to specifically improve things for his brothers and sisters who are blind.

In this editorial, I was hoping to report positive changes in the area of disability from over the last 30 years, as well as relevant statistics, but I discovered that comparative numbers are next to non-existent, and that the UN has only this year initiated a guideline for CRPD-signing countries to gather and report statistics in a consistent manner. It has taken 29 years to create a standardized method of showing improvement, or lack thereof, in the lives of PWDs. At this rate, persons employed and in leadership on the journey toward equality will be assured of "a job" for many years to come.

What has taken place in the blindness consumer movement, and specifically in AEBC, over the last 30 years?

In 1981, blind Canadians did not have a strong progressive voice in advocating and educating Canadian society about the achievements and challenges associated with vision impairment. The national consumer group that did exist focused on social/recreational activities, philosophically and financially aligned itself with the only service provider in the country, and appeared not to speak against things that did not suit the service provider or that might imply changes to the way that service provider did business.

There had been small groups in various areas of Canada, but due to inexperience, burnout and lack of resources, they soon folded. An Ontario group had gone so far as to design an alternative service model, but to this day that model has not been tried, due to a struggling and reticent consumer movement and the preference of government and Canadian citizens--when they do happen to think about blindness--to believe that one service provider can take care of all blind Canadians' needs. What happened to democracy and choice for blind people?

In the early nineties, the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE) was founded and later became the AEBC, when the majority of members recognized that a national consumer group in Canada should have a Canadian approach to advocacy rather than the American style it had been using. Presently, Canada has about five national blindness consumer groups that have fairly different philosophies and purposes. Just recently, however, AEBC initiated discussions on establishing a mechanism by which some groups can work together on areas of mutual concern.

In the meantime, AEBC, in a quiet and steady manner, has also been doing advocacy and public education on several blindness issues such as: accessible voting, websites and household products; assistive devices; and the danger of hybrid cars. One positive change presently taking place is working toward library services and materials for print-disabled Canadians being paid for and administered through tax dollars--like mainstream public library services--rather than through charity. We probably have the recession to thank for this turn-about in that charity dollars are less plentiful.

I am very proud of being an AEBC activist and of my vision-impaired colleagues who volunteer hundreds of hours per month "to continue to fight the good fight", as AEBC Second Vice President, Donna Jodhan, says. We all just have to keep our irons in the fire, learn from our mistakes and be patient with each other. The alternative is possibly losing what we have gained, sitting on the street corner with a tin cup or selling pencils, sitting at home in isolation "out of sight and out of mind", and remaining in a life of poverty without hope. Don't wait another 30 years. I invite you and other progressive thinkers to join and support us now as we strive for the just society in which we want to live.

Best Wishes,

Brenda Cooke

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