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1997 Presidential Report

Editor's Note: On Monday, June 29, a large and enthusiastic gathering of Canadians met at the NFB Convention in New Orleans. The first order of business in the packed agenda was a presidential report from Dr. Paul Gabias. Here is what Dr. Gabias had to say.

In the last year the National Federation of the Blind:Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE) has experienced tremendous growth. Last year, at the NFB US Convention in Anaheim, California, there were over forty delegates from the NFB:AE. This year, at the 1997 US Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, there are ninety delegates from Canada. Last year in Anaheim, I pledged that we would double the delegation from the NFB:AE in 1997-and we have! Isn't it wonderful to be here?

There can be no doubt that attending NFB US Conventions is educational for blind Canadians. In addition to programs dealing with employment in various fields, there are also seminars on adaptive technology, as well as research and development of technical aids for the blind. There are also workshops for students, parents of blind children, blind parents of sighted children, guide dog users, people with diabetes, blind children, and the deaf-blind. Throughout the convention every program item and activity presents a positive attitude towards blindness. This is not what blind people normally get in their day-to-day interaction with society where blindness is still thought to be a severe disability. At NFB Conventions the contrast is refreshing to the mind and uplifting for the spirit. It charges up a person's batteries for another year of work in the relentless quest for equality for the blind.

Consider the group of blind professionals represented at NFB Conventions. There are meetings of blind lawyers, blind educators, blind computer scientists, blind journalists, blind musicians, blind human service workers, blind secretaries, blind merchants, blind scientists, blind government employees, and blind entrepreneurs. Although these groups of blind professionals are primarily working in the United States, blind Canadians find the interaction with these various professionals invaluable. Almost every Canadian who attends NFB Conventions sends us a letter of appreciation for the opportunity to have attended an NFB Convention. They say that the convention improves their outlook on blindness and provides them with practical skills and techniques for their daily lives. They say that they look forward to attending future conventions of the National Federation of the Blind and that networking within the expertise of the blind community within the Federation on a yearly basis improves their lives and the lives of blind people in their local communities throughout Canada. They say that these conventions will increase the organizational efforts of the blind in their own communities.

Therefore, it is extremely important to help blind Canadians attend NFB Conventions-both in Canada and the US. The national office will do what it can to help as many blind Canadians and family members of blind Canadians to attend NFB Conventions. However, the membership of the organization must find ways to fund the organization.

This year the National Office spent $89,209.92 to help the delegation of the National Federation of the Blind:Advocates for Equality attend the US NFB Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana. This included helping blind children and their parents attend NFB Camp-a place where blind children can meet, play with, and learn from blind role models.

It is important that we spend the money to foster attendance at these conventions because ignorance about blindness and the capacity of the blind is widespread in Canadian society. It is not likely to be dispelled any time soon-unless we do something about it. The best place to gather the required experience and the emotional strength to do something about it is at NFB US National Conventions-the largest gathering of blind people anywhere in the world.

In the National Federation of the Blind we believe, that with training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to a level of a nuisance. We believe, that with proper training and opportunity, blind persons can compete on terms of equality with the sighted. We also believe that blindness is respectable.

These beliefs have powerful implications. And yet most of society, including agencies for the blind and blind people themselves, do not believe what we say. This is illustrated most graphically in a 1997 CNIB publication called Consumers First: Focus on Service, Report of the Core Services Review. I could have picked almost any agency for the blind, but I have chosen to comment on a CNIB publication because this agency is the most relevant to Canadians. In commenting on the reports of the Core Services Review, I do not mean any harm to the CNIB. In the spirit of co-operation, I wish to emphasize how much needs to be learned and how much Federationism needs to be injected into the agency as soon as possible.

In chapter two, entitled A Good Start: Report of the Sub-Committee on Services to Children the following phrases can be found:

"Vision may account for up to 90 percent of what children learn ... " "Vision integrates information from the other senses and provides immediate feedback-we use our vision to confirm what we hear and touch." "...the blind child is limited to what can be touched and felt." "... without vision a child can not confirm what was heard ..." "The blind child must make sense of an object through touching each small detail and trying to make a whole concept, a far more difficult way to make a conceptual map of her world." "Vision integrates language. The sighted child relies heavily on vision to understand the language he is hearing; looking at faces and expressions to understand the unspoken part of communication."

"Vision is a motivator ... the reason a toddler learns to walk across a room is because he has seen something interesting. It is important for parents to learn the process through which children who are blind learn about their world ..."

This is the "good start" that parents of blind children will get when they read the CNIB's report of the Core services review published in 1997. A start like this kills the soul and crushes the spirit! I am glad my parents never benefited from such a start-that is why I am a competent blind adult today. My parents believed that through language and my other senses the world was my oyster. I could profit from it like anybody else given proper training and opportunity. Look at the convention here and how organized it is. Look at the people here. Talk to the people here. Ask yourself if you really believe that we came from such sorry beginnings as infants.

The saddest thing of all is that these passages are written by the parent of a blind child who turned to the professionals for help. She received her PhD in Education and this is what it gave her. I know that field of psychology well. I teach perception at Okanagan University College. Perception psychologists and developmental psychologists are far behind in their understanding of blindness. Who can blame them? They are part of society and have not been exposed to the National Federation of the Blind. I am happy to tell you that the parent who had something to do with the writing of these phrases is attending this convention and is in this room today. She is Diane McConnell, the Chairman of the sub-committee on services to children. She is here today with her husband, Roy, and their son, Ben, who is blind. We welcome you here as a family to share in the growth of the organized blind in Canada.

Blindness, after cancer and AIDS, is the most feared disability on earth. As I have said, there is a prevalent belief that ninety percent of the information about the world that is necessary for survival is perceived visually. Most psychologists believe that eye contact is critical for the bond between infant and mother. It is said that bonding between infant and mother is crucial for infant development and that lack of eye contact will retard bonding. Researchers tell us that language development depends on vision and that it is delayed without vision. We hear over and over that concept formation is seriously distorted without vision and that professional intervention is necessary to save us from an understanding of the world that is stunted and incomplete.

Everyone is concerned about our safety. We are given the impression that left to our own devices we would unwittingly place ourselves in perilous situations at every turn. Similarly, in emergency situations, we are regarded as safety hazards to the sighted by the Government of Canada.

The Canadian Aviation Regulations became law in 1996. For airline operations, new regulatory requirements respecting occupancy of seats in emergency rows are provided in sub-section 705.40 (1) which states in part, "An air operator shall establish procedures to ensure that seats that are located at emergency exits and seats that are not located on a main deck of an aircraft are not occupied by passengers whose presence in those seats would adversely affect the safety of passengers or crew members during an emergency evacuation." In a letter to John Rae, treasurer of the Toronto Chapter of the NFB:AE, Frances Wokes, Acting Chief of Cabin Safety Standards states, "The intent of the safety legislation is to ensure that, in the emergency evacuation scenario, neither access to the exits nor their operation is hindered from the outset because seat(s) adjacent to the emergency exit, or in the exit row, are occupied by persons whose presence in that location could adversely affect the evacuation." She continues: "Ideally, the occupant of each seat in an emergency exit row should be capable of quickly recognizing an emergency, responding to verbal directions from the crew member(s), and taking action as necessary to operate the exit and initiate evacuation through that exit." This all sounds very serious, until you realize that the airlines serve liquor to people seated in emergency exits.

The sighted blind-drunk is expected to still be capable of quickly recognizing an emergency, but not the sober blind person. The sighted blind-drunk is still expected to be able to respond to verbal directions from the crew members, but not the sober blind person. The sighted blind-drunk is still expected to possess the judgment and capacity to take action, if necessary, to operate the exit and to initiate evacuation through an exit. A sober blind person is not expected to posses the judgment and capacity to take action if necessary, to operate the exit and to initiate evacuation through that exit. You can drink alcohol to your heart's content and still sit in an emergency exit or on the upper deck of the aircraft. If you are blind, you cannot, even sober. If you are blind, the Government of Canada and the airline, seat you in the same way they would treat persons with an injury, unaccompanied minors, and the very frail elderly. Do I exaggerate? Not at all. In her letter to John Rae, Frances Wokes writes, "Passengers who are responsible for another person, those with an injury or disability, families travelling with infants or young children, unaccompanied minors and the very frail or elderly, should be seated close to, but not at, an emergency exit." So, according to this spokesperson from Transport Canada we cannot be too close and we cannot be too far away from an emergency exit. I am beginning to wonder whether there is any place left for us on the plane!

The negative cultural attitude for blindness I learned early. Many of you who have spoken to children at school must deal with these sorts of questions from the children-very basic questions, but nonetheless very revealing in their simplicity. "How do you know where you are going? How do you know where you are? How do you know what colour of clothes you have on? How can you tell the time? How do you read and write? How do you dress? How do you brush your teeth?" In short, how do you do anything without sight?

The most profound question a child ever asked me was, "How do you know who you are and what you look like? How do you know where you are? How do you know who I am and where I am?" We deal with these questions patiently. In fact, we are glad that the children are asking such basic questions. But while they are basic questions, they are profound in their implications because they are the questions most adults harbour in silence because they are too afraid to ask. It is not by accident that one of the Federations Kernel books is called Toothpaste and Railroad Tracks for it answers the simple questions and it does so in a light-hearted way that teaches without preaching. We hope that our answers make us seem a little less foreign and a little more human to the children and their elders.

Yet I fear that even after we answer their questions there is still lurking beneath the surface a tremendous fear of the dark. That fear of the dark makes people frightened of blindness. Most people would say that they would not want to be in our shoes. They say that they would rather be deaf than blind even though deafness would deprive them of spoken language interaction. At conventions of the National Federation of the Blind, most of us are comfortable in our shoes and walk proudly in them.

Is it biologically adaptive to be frightened of the dark? Dogs and cats and other animals do very well in the dark. In fact, cats are nocturnal animals. Their romantic escapades and territorial fights have kept all of us awake on many a summer night. Their visual system is constructed in such a way that they can take advantage of a minute amount of light. Their smell is keen and their whiskers give them a sense of direction. Dogs function very well in the dark. I have never noticed that any of my guide dogs required a flashlight. Bats get about and hunt through echo location and use vision to a minimal degree. In the jungle, nocturnal hours are teeming with activity. Even though it is dark, predators and prey animals must be keenly aware of their surroundings and interaction. Survival depends on it.

As we evolved up the phylogenetic scale, we humans traded off some things with the animals. For the most part, we kept the visual acuity of the birds, although we lost the way-finding ability demonstrated by many pigeons. We lost speed, agility, and a developed sense of smell common to many mammals. We lost their keen sense of hearing, their fur, and their powerful jaws. But we gained language and with it the ability to reason. We also gained the upright posture which allows us to manipulate our environment with our hands and with tools in a way that is unmatched in any other animal. Giving up keenness of hearing and smell, we have acquired fear of the dark. But we can use language and thoughts to get rid of that fear. This is one reason why we have National Federation of the Blind:Advocates for Equality. We continue to show that blindness is not dark: blindness is a set of skills. We demonstrate every day-and particularly at NFB Conventions-that blindness is not something to be feared. If blindness comes, we must learn to work with it as we would with a new friend who has something to teach us.

The fear of the dark that permeates society affects blind people as a social class in a manner which is just as powerful as the hatred which affects many other minority groups. It is possibly worst for us because while society means us no harm it regards us as second rate, incomplete and incapable of functioning in terms of equality. In fact, with the professionals in the fields of special education and blindness, it seems that the more we proclaim our innate normality the more we are said to be delusional or unrealistic about our true capabilities. To them, if we understood blindness in perspective, in a professional manner, we would agree that blindness in and of itself is a severe limitation which can be ameliorated to some degree with the support of the agency for the blind.

In the National Federation of the Blind, we have asserted for years that blindness may not be a severe limitation. We have chosen to believe that blindness in and of itself is no more limiting than hair colour or left-handedness. We have said that although blindness is sometimes a nuisance it can be dealt with given proper training and opportunity. We have said that with training and opportunity we can compete on terms of equality with the sighted. We have said that the real problems of blindness is not the lack of eyesight. The real problem of blindness is society's negative attitude to blindness. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan said, Before you come to truly believe something you must be willing to say it. If you say it enough times, you come to believe it. As you come to believe it, you come to act like it.

Every person in this room who has become a member of the National Federation of the Blind:Advocates for Equality wants to believe in the innate normality of the blind. Of that I am absolutely certain. Every person wants to believe that with training and opportunity we can compete on terms of equality. Every person in this room wants to believe that it is respectable to be blind. Every person in this room would like to believe that there is no shame in being blind, that there is no shame in walking as a blind person, in moving as a blind person, in asking directions as a blind person, in reading and writing as a blind person, in working as a blind person, in parenting as a blind person and in using the white cane, the guide dog, or the sight of human beings, as a blind person. We all would love to believe these things, but do we really believe them? Do we really believe that it is respectable to be blind? I don't always believe it! If I did, I would say something when print material is handed to me and my sighted colleagues at a meeting and we are expected to make some decisions based on this material on the spot. How could I be expected to make decisions based on materials I haven't read? But of course, I am not expected to read it. I don't matter. I am not assumed to have any power. What I think is regarded as of little consequence. Do I say anything? No, partly because the material is not of sufficient importance to me to make an issue of it, but also partly because I don't want to make a fuss. After all, it is socially acceptable to hand blind people print materials at meetings without reading it aloud.

As a class, we are not in a respected position. When we are the only blind person in a group it is hard to ask for accommodations when the group would find it easier to pretend that we don't exist. If blind people were perceived to be part of a social group with clout, we would be bolder in requesting that our needs be met in working groups like this. If sighted people were aware that there is some advantage in considering our needs as blind persons, our needs would be met. Funding cuts, or the threat of funding cuts, are usually powerful motivators. The accusation of social ineptness is also a powerful motivator, but in our society excluding the blind from proceedings in other aspects of society is not considered socially inept on a wide scale. To change these social attitudes about blindness we gather at meetings of the National Federation of the Blind.

If we were respected as a class, valued, or even acknowledged, blind people would be taught Braille as a matter of routine. Braille menus would be available in restaurants as a matter of course. All computer hardware and software would be accessible to us. Phone numbers on TV screens would be read aloud. Parenthetically, the CNIB is working on this problem and we applaud these efforts and will support them.

If we were thought to be a significant force in society, the options on control panels for appliances would be discriminable by touch. In Canadian society we are thought of as isolated individuals, as clients of the CNIB, who are to be taken care of by the CNIB. To the public at large it is perfectly acceptable that the CNIB speak for us and about us as a collective blind group. The public believes that we are not capable of speaking for ourselves. That an agency must speak for us in the same way that medical societies are thought to be the best defenders of patient health. But we are not patients and we are not just clients. We are people who have gathered together to act as the National Federation of the Blind:Advocates for Equality.

We come to conventions of the National Federation of the Blind to reinforce within ourselves what we want to believe in. Remember, we are regarded as isolated individuals, not as a people. We are regarded as people who cannot know where we are and where we are going. We are regarded as safety hazards to ourselves and others. We are regarded as unemployable and this is why there is a ninety percent unemployment rate in the blind of Canada between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five. There is not a continuance course of government funding, provincial or federal, that is specifically allocated to the rehabilitation of the blind. This must be changed if we are to have any real progress for the blind people in Canada. Most of all, what must change is our collective attitude towards blindness. Our obstacles are formidable, but we are put to the task. That is the way it is in the National Federation of the Blind.

A fear of the dark is ubiquitous. And yet we must remember that the sighted public, despite this fear of the dark and this fear of blindness, wants to help us. We would not be here today without the supporting gifts from the Canadian society at large. We are grateful for this help. We know people want to help. What we must do is make them understand that with proper training and opportunity we are capable of working alongside them, competing on their terms of equality.

The US Conventions of the National Federation of the Blind are the largest gatherings of blind people in the world. The collective strength of so many blind people acting for ourselves, believing in ourselves, has no match anywhere else in the world. It is vital for the attainment of freedom of the blind in Canada, that blind Canadians, parents of blind children, blind children themselves, and sighted supporters, all take part in conventions of the National Federation of the Blind whether they are held in the United States or Canada. Our success as an organization of the blind in Canada depends on it.

We are here for very specific purposes. We are here to conduct business that will improve the lives of blind people in Canada and to partake in conducting business that will improve the lives of blind people in the United States, but most of all we are here to foster love, loyalty, and commitment to the National Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind:Advocates for Equality.

The National Federation of the Blind in the United States is a separate organization from the National Federation of the Blind in Canada. In the legal sense this is absolutely true. We have no legal obligations to one another. But in the spiritual sense and the philosophical sense-in the ways that really matter-I am determined that we shall be one.

At the first International Leadership Seminar which was held in December 1996 in Baltimore at the National Center for the Blind, this spirit of oneness was evident as solid as the mortar in the building itself. I will continue to encourage this oneness, because I know it will generate Canadian advocacy activity as never seen before in Canada. I know that many blind Canadians here today have worked hard in the past in different advocacy organizations throughout Canada at different periods of time. We can use your strength, your courage, your knowledge and your determination to build our Federation in Canada and to spread Federationism throughout the country. In a Federation context we will survive, we will not fail. We will prevail! To paraphrase the biblical statement, "Upon the rock of federations we have built our movement and the very gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

In the last year, in addition to the National Leadership Seminar, I travelled to Toronto twice to help with Chapter development. The Toronto Chapter is growing under the leadership of Phil Wiseman. It is producing an excellent newsletter.

In the fall, the Board of Directors of the NFB:AE met in Saskatoon. We met with a number of blind people there. As a result of that meeting, three people from Saskatoon attended the National Leadership Seminar. It will take time and money and a great deal of human effort to cultivate leadership and membership in Saskatchewan. But eventually we will do it. You can be certain of that. No force on earth will stop the Federation from growing in Canada. Too many of us here are determined to see it happen.

During the winter we visited the Winnipeg Chapter twice. On the first occasion, I was accompanied by David Brun, our national treasurer, and Richard Marion, the president of our Lower Mainland Chapter. The going was tough, but the tough got going. The Winnipeg Chapter was visited again, this time by Richard Marion and Elizabeth Coates, our first Vice President. The Chapter survived and is headed by Ross Eadie, a promising leader.

The Blind Children and Youth: Parents' Association of British Columbia was formed in early April. It is the first division of the National Federation of the Blind:Advocates for Equality. The president of the division is Archie McNab. The parents' division, along with the Lower Mainland Chapter, sponsored a parents' forum on May 31, 1997. As a result of the forum the NDP government in power in British Columbia, and the Liberal opposition, are working with the NFB:AE to improve opportunities for blind children.

On June 21, 1997, the Vancouver Island Chapter was formed. It comes to this convention with the largest delegation-a delegation of at least twenty-eight people. The Lower Mainland Chapter is close with at least twenty-six people. I count fourteen people from Ontario and eight from Kelowna. I count at least twelve others from the parents' division. The total I come to is eighty-eight people from the NFB:AE.

The Vancouver Island Chapter elected an acting Board until September. Sandi Dewdney was elected the acting president. Sandi Dewdney and Oriano Belusic have worked hard to organize the Chapter. Sandi arranged the travel and financial logistics for the Chapter and she deserves our applause.

The Vancouver Island Dog Guide Society, the springboard for the development of the Vancouver Island Chapter, has been effective in improving the lives of blind people and guide dog users. Taxi companies and BC Transit are learning that it does not pay to mess with guide dog users.

The Lower Mainland Chapter, under the influence of Maureen Martin, the Chapter Vice President and Chapter Treasurer, Frances Tomaso, will have an original cookbook to sell in the near future. Maureen is also working to improve access to the court system in BC for blind people on jury duty.

The Kelowna Chapter has taken interest in the education of blind children in the local school district. Sarah Mainland, one of our Chapter members, goes to school in Kelowna. The Chapter is working diligently to secure for Sarah the best possible education. The Kelowna Chapter has worked hard on educating the community about blindness through a public education table and a fund raiser at Orchard Park Mall.

The Toronto Chapter is taking steps to secure for blind people in Ontario the non-driver's identification license available in other provinces. It has raised money with its annual garage sale and it is spreading the good word about the Federation and blindness through its quarterly newsletter.

Speaking of spreading the good word, my wife Mary Ellen spends a great deal of her precious time volunteering as Editor of the Canadian Blind Monitor. The next issue is now being recorded and the Braille and print versions are ready. You should be receiving it soon. Mary Ellen is absolutely committed to our cause. She works hard. She often manages the children and affairs at home without my help. Sometimes it is very tough, and it would be easier to have me there with her, but she never complains and works alone. She does this for the Federation so that I can lead the organization with as much knowledge and love as I possess. Mary Ellen and the children deserve our applause for the sacrifices they make for this Federation.

Our public education message about blindness has reached over 125,000 households across Canada either on the telephone or at the door. To date our message has been spread primarily in Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia. Our statement that with training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to a level of a nuisance is being met with acceptance and encouragement. The number of people here today is the tangible result of that encouragement. Peter Watson, our director of public education and fund-raising, has done an admirable job for us.

In May of 1996, I received a research grant from Okanagan University College for $7,000. My research compares vision and touch with respect to perceptual laws of organization. The research was made possible with $2,000 in funding from Okanagan University College and a $5,000 grant from the NFB:AE. All faculty doing research in hearing and touch which would benefit blind people were eligible to apply. I won the competition. The award decision was made by the Grants-in-Aid Committee at Okanagan University College. I am a member of that committee, but I was not involved in the selection process for the NFB:AE grant. The research is under way and many Federationists have offered to participate in it.

Speaking of participation, I want to commend Richard Marion for the outstanding job he is doing co-ordinating the Scholarship Committee. Wayne St. Denis and Elizabeth Coates are also working on that committee.

This report would not be complete without acknowledging the tremendous job CNIB has done in bringing Newsline for the Blind to Toronto. We hope to be able to work co-operatively with the CNIB to expand the program in Canada.

Before I end, I would like to thank each and everyone of you for all of the work, time, and money, which you have put into this organization in Canada also, the door prizes donated by each of the Chapters at this convention are prizes to be proud of. They reflect our love and goodwill to the NFB in the United States.

In Canada, the Federation is strong and growing and we are looking forward to our inaugural convention in Canada. It will be held in Vancouver on February 26, 27, and 28, 1998.

As an organization of blind in Canada, our future is bright with promise, but there is much work to do. I hope you will join me. Thank you all for your support. I need it as president more than words can ever tell you. If we work together our future will be productive. If we will make the effort, for the first time we will have the power to make a difference for the better in the lives of blind people in Canada. Let us all pull together to get the work done.