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Celebrating Our Chapters

Editor's Note: The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians’ Chapters play an important part in effecting change in the lives of persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted. Be it advocating for increased accessibility, educating the public, holding social events, or providing a forum for mentoring and leadership development, Chapters give members the opportunity to grow, personally and collectively, and to make a difference in their local communities. Below are glimpses into several Chapters’ histories, activities, challenges and achievements.

Toronto, Ontario
By: Carole Robertson, Former President

Toronto is one of the longest-standing Chapters of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (formerly the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality, NFB:AE). It was established after Alan and Doreen Neville, NFB:AE founding members, along with Don and Bubbles Jacobs, returned to Toronto from attending the 1994 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the United States. As the NFB:AE had been founded as the “Canadian affiliate” of the American NFB, members travelled to the U.S. NFB Conventions where NFB:AE also held its Annual General Meetings. The Canadians were so impressed with the work that was being done by the NFB in the U.S. that Bubbles insisted that a Toronto Chapter of the NFB:AE be formed.

At Toronto’s first meeting, in January 1995, NFB:AE National President Paul Gabias outlined the goals and mandate of the NFB:AE and clarified any questions. With the installation of Elizabeth Coates as President, Susan Pinder as Vice President, Craig Spurrell as Treasurer and Sharon Neville as Secretary, the NFB:AE’s Toronto Chapter was born.

The Toronto Chapter was founded, in part, to advocate on blindness-related issues in the central part of Canada. People joined because there was power in numbers when advocating, and because they wanted support and social interaction with other blind citizens.

Although some NFB:AE National Board members felt that "blindness was just an inconvenience", the Toronto Chapter strongly disagreed. Chapter members felt the blind needed consideration by government in policy, and public awareness of challenges faced by the blind. They were also very dissatisfied with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind’s (CNIB) response to blindness-related issues brought to them and the way they represented the blind. Although they wrote a well thought-out letter to the CNIB outlining their concerns, they received no reply.

Many new members of the Toronto Chapter took leadership roles. Phil Wiseman, for example, ran for Chapter President when he had only been a member for two months. He served as President twice and contributed much in other Executive positions. In December 2000, I became President even though I had just lost my sight that June, and went on to serve for nine years. My successor, Richard Quan, saw Toronto Chapter membership increase significantly under his watch. Many Chapter members have also gone on to serve on the NFB:AE/AEBC National Board and Committees, which has helped to strengthen the organization.

At a 2004 Special Meeting held in Toronto, NFB:AE members decided to change the organization’s name, in order to differentiate it better from the NFB in the U.S. and to reflect our uniqueness as Canadians. With five minutes left in the meeting, attendees had still not chosen a name, though they had some 100 from which to choose. I got up and suggested a compromise name, using the key words from all of the previous options. This new name, the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), was then approved by the organization’s membership.

Over the years, the Toronto Chapter has been involved in many activities. In 2011, its 15-year battle for a government-issued identification card met with success when the Photo Card for Ontarians was introduced. We have also had an electric car demonstration and made suggestions about the types of sounds manufacturers could use to alert blind pedestrians to these vehicles’ presence on city streets.

Other issues we’ve worked on include accessible voting machines, audible pedestrian signals, the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) calling out stops, tactile flooring in subways, large-print bank cheques, talking bank machines, alternate-format materials in public libraries, the Access 2 Entertainment Card (which gives persons with disabilities admission to cinemas etc. at a discounted rate), and many more.

We have increased the effectiveness of our fundraising efforts, from small garage sales to larger venue events at clubs like Jeff Healey’s and Hugh’s Room, with revenues ranging from several hundred dollars to $4000. As a result, we have funded scholarships for post-secondary students and sent members to National Conferences.

For public awareness, we have spoken at Lions Clubs and other groups, set up booths at malls, held information meetings and community fairs, given radio and TV interviews, attended public hearings, and worked with the ARCH Disability Law Centre.

At our monthly meetings, we have hosted guest speakers like blind lawyer David Lepofsky regarding the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, representatives from the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) re calling out stops, a policeman on safety, and someone on audible pedestrian signals. After each meeting, we go out socially for dinner. We have Christmas and summer socials and often meet in small groups. We have made many friendships over the years, which has contributed to a wonderful sense of belonging.

The Toronto Chapter is proud of our achievements over the years, and looks forward to continued success.

Author’s Note: I have written this article based on the reminiscences of Bubbles Jacobs, Susan Pinder, Ross Robertson and Phil Wiseman. Many thanks to them for their assistance.

Montreal, Quebec
By: Irene Lambert, Former President

The 2000 Toronto Conference of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE) spawned the birth of the Greater Montreal Chapter. Six people from Montreal attended the Conference and I, one of them, was elected to NFB:AE’s National Board of Directors. This, coupled with the opportunity for English-speaking people in Quebec to join together to overcome the barriers that deny us our rights and full inclusion, increased interest, not to mention membership, in the Greater Montreal Chapter.

The NFB:AE National President at the time, Robert Fenton, inaugurated the Chapter once the by-laws were approved. Chris Gaulin and Rajesh Malik were elected as our first President and Vice President respectively, with Ezra Chitayat as Treasurer. The Downtown YMCA provided us with our monthly meeting room.

The challenges began sometime later, when some members decided they were not interested in the political aspects of advocacy, were frustrated at not seeing any results from their advocacy efforts, or did not like going downtown at night.

Soon, the monthly meetings were moved to the Montreal Association for the Blind in the Notre-Dame de Grace district, to which it was easier to travel. When I was elected as President, I was able to keep the Chapter alive with the help of a few very loyal members. Eventually, Anthony Tibbs came along, bringing other students with him. Heather Rupert is now at the helm, with the level of membership and attendance getting back to normal.

Some of our most memorable activities have been to represent the NFB:AE (now the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians) at Elections Canada with respect to accessible voting, including the style of the template that holds the ballot, large print availability, and proper assistance from staff at the voting poll; and at the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission) regarding descriptive video (DV), where visual features of a show are verbally described on an audio track, so that blind and partially sighted audiences can enjoy and benefit from programs as much as possible. At the time, Global and CTV were renewing their licences, and the CRTC ruled that they had to start providing DV services during prime time, and increase the number of hours of DV each year for the duration of their licences. We also won our protest against vehicles “turning right on red” for the Island of Montreal in order to reduce the chances of blind and partially sighted pedestrians getting hit at intersections.

Other highlights have been the visit of a Honda car dealer to demonstrate the Acura hybrid for us, two Comedy Nest fundraisers, the hosting of NFB:AE/AEBC National Conferences in 2003 and 2010, and celebrating our Montreal Chapter’s 10th anniversary at that same 2010 Conference.

Long live the Montreal Chapter and the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians!

Collingwood, Ontario
By: Devon Wilkins, Former President

There’s no doubt that the South Georgian Bay Chapter of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians had more downs than ups during its reasonably short history. Three of our members passed on, two spent a good deal of time either in Florida or at their cottage, and none of the remaining three felt capable of taking meeting minutes. Although the Chapter is now closed, something occurred in the fall of 2010 that made it worth all the frustration.

Ever since the South Georgian Bay Chapter was established approximately eight years ago, one of my pet peeves has been the fact that the town of Collingwood conducts its municipal elections using mail-in ballots, making it totally impossible for people who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted to vote privately and independently. In an attempt at a compromise, our Chapter suggested that people with disabilities be permitted to email their choices of candidates to the town clerk, but that was rejected out of hand. The town’s position was that the likelihood of vote tampering was far too high.

Our second attempt at a compromise was to suggest that people with disabilities could be allowed to vote by phone, but that, too, was rejected for the same reason.

I was aware of the fact that it isn’t permissible for organizations to register human rights complaints, so I made no bones about my intention to take the town on as an individual if I was unable to vote privately and independently just like any other tax payer in the 2010 municipal election.

In the winter of 2010, the gentleman who had held the post of town clerk retired. When his successor was hired, I spoke with her by phone, and told her in no uncertain terms how unhappy the members of our Chapter were that the town seemed determined not to give our request for private and accessible voting the attention that we felt it deserved. She told me that she would be dealing with election issues sometime in August, and that we should talk again then. Before I could call her again, though, I heard from a fairly reliable source that our concerns had indeed been addressed.

On Election Day, I was not disappointed. The voting process was quite lengthy, but it was accessible, and it was private.

I have to hand it to Collingwood’s new clerk for the professional way in which she addressed the needs not only of residents who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, but the needs of people with mobility challenges as well. I remain convinced, however, that if it hadn’t been for our perseverance, the mail-in ballot would still be the only alternative. For that reason, I boldly claim the proverbial feather for our cap.

Our Chapter has now closed its books for the last time, but private, independent and accessible voting is our legacy for the rest of Collingwood’s citizens with disabilities. Our members benefited because they have reaped the reward for their persistent advocacy efforts. As for me, the lessons that I’ve learned about what is required in order to establish a viable Chapter will stand me in good stead when I move to Peterborough.

Edmonton, Alberta
By: Marc Workman, Chapter President

The Edmonton Chapter of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) was formed in 2007. It has not become what anyone would call a thriving Chapter. The reason for this is a lack of leadership. The Chapter needs someone who has the time and energy to build the Chapter up and turn it into a strong advocacy presence in Edmonton.

The fact that the Chapter is small, however, does not mean it has made no difference in the lives of blind Edmontonians. On the contrary, the Edmonton Chapter of the AEBC, I believe, is largely responsible for bringing automated bus stop annunciation systems to the Edmonton Transit System.

Late in 2009, Diane Bergeron, another member of the Edmonton Chapter, and I began working on the issue of automated bus stop annunciation systems, with the goal of eventually bringing such a system to Edmonton. Over the next eight months or so, we met with transit officials, bus operators and city councillors, explaining the importance of these systems, not only for blind passengers but for all transit users. We listened to operators’ concerns and tried to address them. I believe that explaining the issue in our own words, face to face, made the issue real in a way that it would not have been otherwise.

At a meeting in February 2011, Edmonton City Council approved approximately $4 million in spending for a pilot project to install smart bus technology, including a bus stop annunciation system, on several buses in Edmonton. But the work is certainly not over. We need to ensure that this technology is implemented in a way that truly benefits passengers, so Diane and I will be offering a great deal of feedback throughout the pilot project. We also need to ensure that the pilot project is expanded to cover the entire city of Edmonton. Although the work is not over, it was an important achievement to get this far.

This accomplishment shows that even one or two people can have a significant impact. It also shows how important connecting with other blind persons, like AEBC members, can be, as Diane and I met through the Edmonton Chapter. The sense of community that AEBC Chapters foster can be invaluable, both on a societal and a personal level. If anyone is interested in helping to build the Edmonton Chapter so that more stories like this can be shared in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me. Email Marc Workman at: mworkman@blindcanadians.ca

Kelowna, British Columbia
By: Lisa Neufeld, President

The Kelowna Chapter of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians is active in the community and had a busy 2011, attending public events including a number of art shows. The Kelowna Art Gallery has made a huge effort to render art accessible to persons who are blind and partially sighted. It has provided good descriptions of paintings and also made small samples of works that were shown to us on our many visits. Chapter members have learned a little bit about what goes into an art project.

In the early spring of 2011, our Chapter attended a demonstration of an accessible voting machine. We all found the device easy to use; the speech output was clear and the font of the print was adjustable. In addition, the screen could be darkened to prevent others from seeing what selections were made. This machine was used in our city’s elections in November.

In June 2011, we visited a tech fair with many high-tech devices to peruse and try out, including scanners, braille displays, screen readers such as JAWS, screen magnification software like ZoomText, and even the GPS (global positioning system) product Trekker Breeze. Assistive technology companies like Humanware and Abletech were in attendance.

The Kelowna Chapter tries to make it to as many public events as possible. We are looking forward to hosting AEBC’s 2012 National Conference and Annual General Meeting, May 25 to 27, marking our organization’s 20th anniversary. Hope to see you all there!

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