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Not So Blind She Can't See Injustice

Editor's Note: Maureen Martin is vice-president of the Lower Mainland Chapter of the NFB:AE. She is the soul of courtesy, but she is no pushover. She is a tireless advocate for blind people. The following article reprinted from the Vancouver Province describes her effort to fulfil her civic responsibility as a juror.

Justice, like Maureen Martin, is blind.

When a judge and jury are deciding your fate, they must not see your colour, sex, shape, religion, disabilities, income, wardrobe, hair, sexual orientation, politics, pierced body parts, and whether you read the "Globe and Mail" or "The Province".

Maureen Martin, 50, cannot see any of the above. She is almost totally blind and fully aware of her abilities. She is a successful single mother, wage-earner, and cookbook author.

In the best conditions, she can see only light and shade. In too bright light-like in the open areas of the big glass building that houses the Law Courts in downtown Vancouver-she sees nothing. Maureen arrived there for jury duty one day last week carrying a white cane and looking, in truth, like the ideal of blind justice in human form. In the courtroom, out of the direct glare of the lobbies, Maureen can make out shapes but she can neither recognize a face nor read a document. Those were the two inabilities cited by sighted sheriffs when they goofed last week and disqualified her from jury duty because of her blindness.

Maureen objected with such zeal and clarity that she threw the deputy sheriffs into a panic. One deputy, flailing around for an irrefutable point to make, asked her how she could possibly identify a witness. Maureen blandly pointed out that jurors never identify witnesses.

Another deputy said a forthcoming civil case would necessitate a lot of reading and, therefore, Maureen couldn't do the job. Maureen said she deals all the time with words on paper, either with a scanner and computer program that translates written passages into voice, or with a human reader narrating it.

Sorry, said a deputy, neither special equipment nor an extra person is allowed in the jury room. He didn't say that this would be up to a judge, not him.

As it turned out, the civil trial for which Maureen was called to jury duty was cancelled when the parties settled out of court. But Maureen followed up the next day with a phone call to the Vancouver sheriff's office to find out if she would be considered for future duty.

She talked to the second sheriff, whose position was the same as the first. He didn't actually say she was disqualified, but he listed reasons why he felt she couldn't do the job.

So I phoned, seeking confirmation of her rejection. I talked to a third deputy, who refused to identify himself for publication, although he wasn't shy about giving his personal opinion that a blind woman could not be a juror. He read from a form that said, "A person is disqualified from serving as a juror who is . . . subject to a mental or physical infirmity" rendering her/him "incapable of the discharge of the duties of a juror." Reading, in his opinion, is one of the main duties. Other functions involving sight are being able "to watch the reactions of a person and all the things that happen in a jury room." The man on the telephone said he was a deputy sheriff but didn't want his name used.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because I'm not in charge. I'm just passing on the regulations."

I needed someone I could quote by name. He said he would try to have a higher-ranking official phone me. A few minutes later, I got a call back from a superior at another jurisdiction, senior deputy sheriff

John Northrop of New Westminster.

"Can blind people serve on a jury?" I asked.

"Yes, they can," he said.

"Three sheriffs in Vancouver have said the opposite," I said,

"they say there are rules against it. "

"They were wrong," said Northrup.

Maureen was glad to hear that the law was not against her. I asked why she regarded the issue as so important. "I've been able to cope in life," she said "and now to be told I can't sit on a jury because I can't cut the mustard ... that doesn't thrill me."

"It would be real nice if people said, `Please don't pay your property taxes or your income taxes because you have this terrible eyesight problem,' but that isn't the way life works. I have to take my responsibility in everything else and if I'm called to a jury I expect to be able to do it. We can pay our taxes and we do. We can be parents and we are. But if we are discriminated against at the justice level, we can't hope for redress on employment and other issues."

But how could she judge a witness's credibility if she can't see his/her shrugs, flinches, quivers or general shiftiness? Wouldn't she miss all the visual cues? Seeing is believing, isn't it? Maureen gave me an education. "A person like me concentrates much more on the here and now -more on what she's doing-than a sighted person does."

She gave as an example you or me having driven to work, then realizing that our minds were blank for much of the journey. Often we can't remember several blocks or miles. Compare that to Maureen Martin or any other blind person who knows exactly how many steps it is from here to the curb, not to mention the texture of the concrete, the asphalt and the air, as well as the meaning of every tremor, sound, echo and smell.

Yes, you may not see if you're blind, but you will focus more intensely on every moment. "And it's a fallacy," said Maureen, "that blind people have better hearing than sighted people-they don't hear better; they listen better." Missing visual cues will be more than made up for by hesitations, quavers, or varying speech rhythms that a focused blind person will catch more often than a person with sight. Do you see what I'm getting at here? Listen.

If the ability to focus and interpret is enhanced in one member of the jury, then the whole group will gain, not lose. And justice will not only be blind, but better for it.