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A Matter of Identity: Proving Who You Claim You Are

Editor's Note: Beryl Williams, Brenda Cooke and Dave Greenfield are three long-time blind rights activists from Saskatchewan active in the Saskatoon Chapter of AEBC.

It is usual for a person to be asked to produce two official government-issued documents as valid proof of one's identity. Most people have little reason to devote much time to considering the question of what to show. There are several options from which to choose: Canadian passport, Canadian permanent residence card, Canadian birth certificate, social insurance number card, provincial driver's licence, provincial health card, provincial photo identification card and possibly others.

While the task of producing two pieces of identification may seem simple enough for most Canadians, producing a second piece of ID may be a bit more difficult if you are someone, such as a blind person, who cannot legally drive a car and who, therefore, does not have a driver's licence. The driver's licence is one of the most commonly requested sources of ID, since most adults able to drive tend to carry their driver's licence with them.

In addition to the need to be able to show two pieces of ID in general situations, such as when boarding an airplane, there are a number of public services, rights and benefits to which blind Canadians are entitled and for which a blind person must be able to show proof of blindness or disability. A few examples of this would include being eligible for the disability tax credit, being able to access local library talking book collections, and being able to ride buses for free or for a reduced rate (which vary somewhat across Canada).

The need for an ID card to use as an alternative to a driver's licence, and the need for some way of identifying oneself as a blind person eligible for blindness or disability specific services, are two distinct needs, but they could be satisfied with either a single card or two distinct cards.

For most of the past century, the most prominent form of blindness-related identification in Canada has been the "CNIB card" demonstrating one's registration with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), the predominant provider of services for blind people in most of Canada. Most Blind people become registered with the CNIB, either at birth or upon becoming "legally blind" and receive an ID card with a client number, useable in various circumstances. The "CNIB card", over the decades, has become, in the minds of many, the only recognized and accepted proof of one's blindness. The "CNIB card" came to be used to gain access to a variety of government-approved benefits, entitlements and services, along with concessions negotiated and acquired on behalf of agency clients.

Over the years, many progressive-minded blind people have seriously questioned whether it is appropriate for one’s registration with a private charitable agency to be used as proof of one's blindness to access public services. Besides the privacy reason, another aspect to this concern is that many legally blind persons choose not to be associated with the CNIB, but still require identification for disability related services not associated with that agency.

In the mid 1980s, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) decided that it would no longer accept a CNIB client number as eligibility for the disability tax credit. CRA's reasons for making this change are unclear, but this change was largely welcomed by those blind Canadians who wish to be seen as citizens of Canada, rather than as wards of a private charitable agency.

Instead of one's CNIB registration number, CRA now requires that proof of one's blindness from a qualified professional, i.e. an ophthalmologist, optometrist, or other medical or social service person be provided periodically upon the request of CRA. While this is certainly a step forward in reducing blind people's dependency on the CNIB, getting a letter or signed form from a medical professional isn't necessarily the most convenient way of identifying oneself as blind. Cost being one of the detriments, carrying a paper letter or form around also proves to be cumbersome and disintegrates in ones wallet.

By the 1990s, many blind people in Canada had begun to articulate the idea of creating some kind of blind identification card for accessing blindness-related services and benefits, other than the charity-based "CNIB card", and more convenient than requiring a letter from a medical professional.

Overall, two possibilities presented themselves. The first was the idea of a provincial government-issued photo ID card for people unable to drive a car, with the added idea that this provincial ID card could indicate that the person was blind and include a provincial blind identification number. The second
possibility was the concept of a national government-issued blind ID card, which would affirm that one is blind and include a blind identification number registered with the federal government.