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Guest Editorial: Building an Active Canadian Organization

Editor's Note: John Rae has served in various positions on AEBC's Board of Directors over the past 13 years, and has also been active in numerous other disability and broader human rights organizations over the past 37 years. He is currently AEBC’s 1st Vice President.

On May 25, 2012, members of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) will gather in Kelowna, British Columbia, to celebrate our 20th anniversary. Celebrating the accomplishments of organizations and their members is something most community groups do not do often enough, and the AEBC is no exception.

The 20th anniversary of any organization should be cause for celebration. But it is doubly so in the case of the AEBC, when you consider the times and context in which the AEBC has operated.

Over the past 20 years, many, many organizations--some with far, far greater resources than the AEBC has ever enjoyed--have come and gone from the Canadian scene. Also, the AEBC has had to seek its niche in the midst of the CNIB, an omnipresent service provider, whose size, scope, resources and image make it extremely difficult for any other organization to become known and its work respected. Thus, simply being present on the Canadian scene for this length of time, providing blind Canadians with our own, independent voice makes an important statement and is an impressive accomplishment in itself.

From our humble beginnings in Kelowna, designed to bring the work and philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the United States to Canada, the NFB:AE (National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality), as we were known in our early days, went through some fundamental and difficult deliberations at our 1999 Victoria Conference. Our members decided to reorient the organization and the NFB:AE (later renamed the AEBC) emerged from that Conference with much more of a Canadian focus and work plan.

Since our early days, the AEBC has grown and now has Chapters from Halifax to Victoria. Our Chapters represent a presence for the AEBC in these communities, and provide an opportunity for individuals to come together for mutual support, camaraderie and collective action. Chapters have conducted a variety of public awareness and fundraising activities, and held discussions with local officials on such topics as public transportation, audible pedestrian signals, snow removal, useful gadgets for personal independence, and increasing access for guide dog users. Information sharing among members has assisted many to solve problems, live more independently and participate more fully in their own communities.

The AEBC's Legacy
Active membership in the AEBC has provided many people with their first opportunity to participate directly in shaping policies and initiatives, developing public speaking skills, and feeling truly valued. These new skills will enable these individuals to more effectively advocate for themselves and their fellow citizens throughout the rest of their lives. We are, after all, our own best spokespersons. We live with the reality of our particular disability every day. We know best the barriers to full participation and equality that still cry out to be removed. Our needs and aspirations have been amply documented, and it is time they were dealt with more effectively by decision makers at all levels.

Despite the growing presence of democratically organized consumer groups that AEBC Past President Robin East described first as "rights holder organizations," decision makers too often continue to turn to service providers for input on disability issues, and avoid dealing with us directly. We must continue to remind them of a phrase that is commonly used throughout the disability rights movement: "Nothing about us without us." Our expertise and right to speak for ourselves must be respected and enhanced.

Some of the diverse issues we have addressed during our history include:

* The need for improved public attitudes, where blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians will be treated with dignity and respect.
* The need for employers, both public and private, to discharge their legal duty to accommodate employees with disabilities short of undue hardship.
* The need for adequate space for the comfort of a guide dog and its owner on all modes of transportation.
* The need for improved environmental access, including audible pedestrian signals.
* The dangers of the increased presence of the hybrid or quiet automobile on our streets.
* Access to accessible information in multiple formats, including websites, textbooks, correspondence and books of all kinds.
* Advocating for a publicly operated library service.
* Developing more accessible and usable Information and Communication Technology.
* Increasing access to described videos in movies and on television.
* Seeking independent access to Point of Sale devices.
* Increasing access to Canadian currency.
* Making elections fully accessible so we can vote independently and in secret, and then verify our vote.
* Development of Canada's leadership role in negotiating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Our Future Needs Us
Attempting to predict the future is always a perilous pursuit. The disability rights movement has worked hard, and to some extent has succeeded in having our issues dealt with in more of a human rights paradigm rather than the previous charity model; yet, too many of the issues that were outlined in the landmark Obstacles Report back in the International Year of the Disabled Person (1981) are still the same issues we deal with today.

In today's more conservative times, the pendulum seems to be swinging back, and it is critical that we stand firm. We must continue to press our issues and work together to develop new allies, messages, policies, programs, legislation and approaches, as the ones we have used to date have failed to achieve the International Year's stated goal of "full participation and equality."

As we continue the fight to remove old barriers, we must also continue to devote some of our attention to maintaining the hard-won gains we have struggled so hard to achieve, and prevent the introduction of new barriers.

The research has been conducted. The recommendations are in. When will our issues be adequately addressed, particularly given the fact that the population is aging and that the rate of vision loss is expected to increase?

In the years ahead, will we see increased government and business commitment and concrete action, or will we remain relegated to the margins of Canadian society? Are we prepared to redouble our efforts to ensure a brighter future for ourselves and the younger Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted who are following in our footsteps?

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