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Blindness and The Adventure Ahead in Canada

Editor's Note: The Friday evening banquet was the highpoint of the NFB:AE convention. More than eighty people assembled in the elegant rooftop restaurant at the Hotel Vancouver for an evening of good food, high spirits, and rededication to our movement. Oriano Belusic served ably as Master of Ceremonies. Scholarships were awarded to two outstanding students. Door prizes including a new reading system worth $1,800 from Arkenstone, and $500 in cash from the NFB:AE were given to happy convention goers. As always at NFB conventions, the banquet address was the highpoint of the evening. Here it is as presented by founding NFB:AE President Dr. Paul Gabias.

For the purpose of this speech, the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality will be referred to as the National Federation of the Blind of Canada

In his first banquet speech as President of the National Federation of the Blind of the United States, Marc Maurer said: Fire is generally regarded as the essence of drama. Flames shoot dozens, even hundreds of feet into the air. But fire is merely oxidation at a rapid rate. Although it is momentarily spectacular, its consequences are less significant than those of other forms of oxidation. In the total range of rust, rot, leaf mold, and metabolism, fire is, so to speak, only a flash in the pan, a momentary aberration. Of vastly more importance to the people of the world, are the slow, unspectacular chemical changes which take place every day; the oxidation of millions of tons of matter, occurring so slowly as to pass without comment.

Through this brief foray into science, President Maurer meant to emphasize that The events that cause hope and despair, joy and depression, are of tremendous significance, even when the pass unnoticed and without remark. The process of quiet but dramatic change is an integral part of being human. It is also the very essence of the National Federation of the Blind. The cumulative effect of the drama without fanfare, which is reflected in the growth of our movement and the lives of its members, is perhaps more spectacular than any other single event which the decades have brought, regardless of how pivotal and far-reaching that event may have seemed at the moment.

In 1973, I attended my first convention of the National Federation of the Blind in New York City. I was 21 years old. Who could have foretold that twenty-five years later I would be delivering my first banquet speech as President of the National Federation of the Blind of Canada? I was also there, in Phoenix, when President Maurer uttered those words in 1987, and at that time, I could not know what a comfort those words would be to me 11 years later. In 1987, I did not know that his words would become my words, in my own banquet speech to you tonight.

Between 1973 and 1998, time passed; day after day, month after month, year after year. I grew in the movement, and I became much stronger and prouder as a blind person. Between 1973 and 1998, I lived in seven different cities: Montreal, New York, Milwaukee, Reno, Colorado, Fredericton, and Kelowna. I graduated from two universities, Concordia University, in Montreal, and New York University. I have worked at five different universities. I have lived in two different countries.

Back in 1973, who could have predicted the different paths my life has taken. I was married to my wonderful wife Mary Ellen in 1989. Our wedding reception was held at the National Center for the Blind. Again, who could have predicted that nine years later, we would be expecting our fourth child. Life is full of surprises. The slow, inexorable twists and turns of life can yield a cumulative effect, even beyond our wildest dreams.

The National Federation of the Blind of Canada has been that way for me. When my wife Mary Ellen and I came to Canada, we burned with a yearning desire to bring the Federation to Canada. We wanted to work with blind Canadians in a Federation family; with Federation ways of doing things, and believing in ourselves. I am so glad to see that our dream has become a reality, in our first convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Canada. At the edge of this precipice of change, we must look back before we plunge forward into the adventure ahead. We must take stock of where we are vis a vis our brothers and sisters in the United States. We are the first generation of Federationists in Canada, and as Dr. Jernigan has so often put it: we will never go back. To find strength in our resolve, we will look back to the 1940's when the National Federation of the Blind was founded in the United States. How was it for them, and what drove them on? Can we learn from the experiences of our blind ancestors, so that we can be carried by their spirit?

At the banquet speech of the first convention of the National Federation of the Blind, President tenBroek said that the Social Security Board represented the greatest single menace to the welfare of the blind at that time. In 1935, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, what was known as the Social Security Act. The primary aim of the Social Security Act was security against, as Dr. tenBroek put it:, Certain of the major social and economic hazards of life.

However, as Dr. tenBroek explained, so far as the blind were concerned, the Social Security Act was used as a weapon to compel the states to treat their blind in such a way that they would be kept on the edge of destitution. As Dr. tenBroek put it: The Social Security Board has arbitrarily, unlawfully, and oppressively insisted that the states, in order to gain or retain Federal participation in their plans for aid to the blind, must determine need on an individual basis, and not on a basis of legislatively fixed general standards. Thus, the question of whether a blind person was a needy individual was left to be determined on a case by case basis by state government, with the approval of the Social Security Board.

It was in this vein that Dr. tenBroek wrote 58 years ago: Individually, we are scattered, ineffective, and inarticulate; subject alike to the oppression of the social worker and the arrogance of the governmental administrator. Collectively, we are the masters of our own future, the successful guardians of our own common interests.

In 1940, the National Federation of the Blind sought legislatively fixed general standards to determine the amount of financial aid required by a blind person. This meant that one of the Federation's first goals was to achieve governmental recognition of the inalienable right of the blind to receive public assistance, while still retaining economic, social, and political independence; intellectual integrity, and spiritual self-respect. In 1940, the definition of a needy blind person, according to the Social Security Board, was that: A needy blind person is one who lacks the physical necessities of life, and one whose needs will be satisfied by the provision of a bare animal minimum in food, shelter, and clothes. This is not an exaggeration.

In a letter to Dr. Newel Perry, his mentor, on the results of a week's intensive lobbying in Washington, the purpose of which was to liberalize the public assistance blind people received under the Social Security Program, Dr. tenBroek wrote: Gradually working our way upward we first presented our case to Jane Hoey, (Director of the Bureau of Public Assistance) and her associate, a lawyer named Cassius. Next we went to Oscar Powell, executive director of the Social Security Board; and finally, to Paul V. McNutt, administrator of the Social Security Agency. Dr. tenBroek reported having asked McNutt: Are you saying to us that blind men should have their grants reduced, no matter how small their private income, and no matter how great their actual need? McNutt said that his answer was precisely that.

At the first convention of the National Federation of the Blind, 16 delegates from seven states passed two resolutions. The first resolution called for a national pension for the blind. The second resolution sought congressional action to block the Social Security Board from obstructing the purposes of the Social Security Act. The delegates felt that, in the short term, they should concentrate their energies upon the passage of an amendment to the Social Security Act, reserving to the states the right to define need, and the right to determine what should result from a consideration of an aid recipient's other resources and income.

In Walking Alone and Marching Together, a history of the organized blind movement from 1940 to 1990, Dr. Floyd Mattson writes: The efforts of tenBroek and his fellow Federationists to reform the policies of the Social Security Board were unsuccessful in the short run, but not in the long run. Within the next two decades, virtually all of their demands for the improvement of aid to the blind were to become law; and by the mid-sixties, the program was so broadly liberalized as to represent a model for other public assistance programs, such as aid to the aged and aid to the disabled.

The Social Security program for aid to the blind is substantially better in the United States than it is in Canada and it is because of the work of the National Federation of the Blind. One of our aims in Canada must be to examine the welfare and social security programs of the United States with respect to Supplemental Security Income, commonly known as SSI, and Social Security Disability Insurance, commonly known as SSDI.

In Canada, blind people requiring public assistance are on social welfare. They may receive a tiny supplemental income from the welfare program based on disability. However, the threshold beyond which a blind person is penalized for earning money is extremely low in every province. In British Columbia for example, it is $200. In Manitoba, it is substantially lower. Under the welfare program in Canada, after the threshold of earnings has been reached, a dollar is taken away for every dollar earned. In the United States, under SSI, which is part of the welfare program, a dollar is taken away for every two dollars earned. This is after a whole set of work and disability-related expenses have been excluded from the amount of money earned.

The Social Security program in the United States is comparable to the Canada Pension Plan. The chief benefit for blind people in the United States is that blindness is considered to be a disability under the law. This means that a blind person does not have to prove that he or she is disabled. In Canada, under the CPP program, blind people have to prove that their blindness is a disabling condition before they are eligible to receive disability benefits. In the United States, the fact that blindness is considered to be a disability under the law is solely due to the work of the National Federation of the Blind. The lives of blind Americans have been helped substantially by the early pioneers of the National Federation of the Blind.

In Canada, things ought to be arranged both federally and provincially, so that blind people are not penalized for working. This will only occur when we have strong provincial affiliates in every province. Because, in Canada, penalizing low-income blind people for working is largely a provincial matter; legislative reforms will be necessary province by province. There will, no doubt, be an attempt to lock us into the general class of the disabled. Our needs will be thrown into a larger grab bag of disability needs. It is not that we would deny other disabilities, humane treatment from government; it is rather that we know our own potential and the help we need to achieve it.

As Dr. tenBroek said in 1940: A needy blind person has a greater need than paupers, indigents, and the aged, because there are additional elements comprising it. Besides the physical necessities of life, his need consists in some fair utilization of his productive capacity. This can only be obtained by restoring him to economic competence in a competitive world. Without it, his need will never have been terminated. With it, he is a normal, useful, self-respecting citizen. Hence his need is as broad as the effects of his blindness. It can only be met by a rehabilitation that is social, economic, and psychological. That is what Dr. tenBroek said.

Economic rehabilitation is simple to understand. It means a good job, or enough money to support a person, while that person is looking for, or working at, a low paying job. Social rehabilitation means teaching society that with training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance. It means teaching society that with training and opportunity, blind people can compete on terms of equality. It means teaching society that it is respectable to be blind. These have been goals of the National Federation of the Blind since the 1940's and they are goals of the National Federation of the Blind of Canada in the nineties.

Psychological rehabilitation means that blind people must learn that there is no shame in being blind; that the limitations that are associated with blindness are often self-imposed. To instill confidence and self-respect in every blind member of the Federation is a goal of the National Federation of the Blind in the United States, at every national and state convention. It is the goal of the National Federation of the Blind in its three rehabilitation centers. It is also a goal of the National Federation of the Blind of Canada in our chapter meetings, in our outreach programs, and at this first convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Canada.

In his banquet address of 1944 at the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. tenBroek said that: We have come to realize that we must organize. We know now, that we can not solve our problems on an individual basis. We can not face the power of government single handed; nor the tyranny of unthinking, groundless discrimination; nor the desolation and frustration of enforced idleness; nor the absence of organized opportunities to earn a livelihood, and to become self-respecting, active participants, in the lives of our communities. We cannot face these things single handed if we hope to overcome them. Individually, we are scattered, ineffective and inarticulate. We have come to realize that we must organize. We must act collectively and must supply ourselves with the machinery to unify the action and concentrate and direct the energies of the blind to a common goal. Once we have this basic organizational faculty in mind, several other things follow more or less automatically. Since the blind, because of their experience, know their problems better than anyone else, better than social workers, or teachers, or government administrators; since they alone, fully understand the problems of blindness, their organization must be democratic. There must be general participation by the blind in the determination of policies, and in all major decisions. And the officers of the organization must be subject periodically to removal, if they do not perform their duties satisfactorily.

It was in 1944, that the dictum that appears at the beginning of the Braille Monitor and the Canadian Blind Monitor was first proclaimed by Dr. tenBroek. In his banquet speech he said: The National Federation of the Blind is not an organization speaking for the blind, it is the blind speaking for themselves.

At the 1942 convention in Des Moines, Iowa, no fewer than 150 delegates representing 15 states were in attendance. Dr. Newell Perry proposed a motion to the effect that every delegate present assume that it his obligation to make a definite, personal, active effort to induce in any way, all non member states to join the Federation as soon as possible; and that we make ourselves each a committee of one, to enlarge the organization as rapidly as possible. The motion was enthusiastically adopted by the convention.

We, in Canada, need to take personal responsibility for the development of the National Federation of the Blind of Canada. Those who want to work with us, within the spirit and philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind of the United States, are welcome. However, those who would like to start a Canadian organization that is different in character to that of the National Federation of the Blind of the United States, are welcome to do so outside this organization. If you are not prepared to learn to believe that--with training and opportunity--blind people can compete with the sighted on terms of equality, then this organization may not be for you. We believe that our problems are largely due to negative attitudes toward blindness--within ourselves and others--and we intend to concentrate on changing those attitudes for the better.

Just after the 1966 convention, Dr. tenBroek learned that he had cancer. He died in March of 1968. In his last banquet speech to members of the National Federation of the Blind at the 1967 convention, Dr. tenBroek talked about the relationships between the blind and the agencies in different parts of the world. Having characterized the relationship of the National Federation of the Blind and the agencies of the United States as strained, he said, with respect to the rest of the world, that much the same tense and tortuous relationship existed, at that time, between the blind in other parts of the world and the agencies. He explained by saying: It exists, to be sure, at different stages and in various forms. In many countries of Europe, although rear guard battles are still being fought, the course of the struggle has long since been determined. The pattern has been one not of extinction of the agencies, but of their conquest and assimilation. The blind people of Europe have organized themselves, and have taken over their agencies. In England on the other hand, almost alone of the principle European nations, the battle continues to rage unabated. There, a large national organization of the blind stands alone in the battle of the blind against an entrenched and powerful agency and numerous satellites. It's an unequal struggle, though far from a one-sided one, and the organized blind of Great Britain have no early hope of carrying out the continental pattern. Rather, they are attempting to secure their goal through increasing governmentalization, thereby gradually superseding the voluntary societies, by having the government take over their functions and activities.

In Canada, the story is perhaps the saddest and sorriest of all. In that northern clime, an agency colossus bestrides the world of the blind from coast to coast, making free use of company union tactics wherever any independent sentiment dares to express itself among the disorganized blind. Only a handful of undaunted spirits remain to hold the banner aloft in the deserted battlefield. That is what Dr. tenBroek said in 1967. Dr. tenBroek's words do not paint a pretty picture for blind Canadians. Yet, I believe that many of us can relate to the dismal situation he described.

And what has occurred since that time in the development of the blind community in Canada? Two provincial organizations have come and gone; BOOST in Ontario and VIPAC in Saskatchewan. The CCB (Canadian Council of the Blind), which largely concerns itself with recreational activities, is barely able to keep itself financially alive. Many White Cane Clubs have deserted the CCB to operate on their own. In Quebec, Le Regroupement des Aveugles et Amblyopes du Quebec, has annual day long general meetings. Regional delegates attend these meetings. It publishes a monthly magazine called Info RAAQ. Some have said that RAAQ has done well because the influence of the CNIB is not strong in Quebec.

For whatever the reason for RAAQ's continued existence, we in the National Federation of the Blind of Canada intend to cooperate with the CNIB--whenever we can. In the past, the CNIB and the National Federation of the Blind of Canada worked together to change Canadian copyright law so that blind Canadians could continue to have Braille and recorded books available to them without additional restrictions. It is also true that we do not seek strife or confrontation, but it must be understood that we do not intend to be second class citizens. Through the influence of Dr. Jernigan, Dr. Herie, and Jim Sanders, the CNIB has become more receptive to the idea that there is a need for an independent, organized blind movement in Canada. We appreciate the participation of the agencies in our first convention, and we look forward to long and cooperative relationships with them.

In his 1997 banquet speech to the National Federation of the Blind convention in New Orleans, Dr. Jernigan said that the history of the Federation could be divided into four stages. In each stage, a different pre-occupation concerned the Federation. In the forties to the late fifties, as I have already explained, the pre-occupation was with the attainment of bare economic necessities such as food and shelter. In the late fifties, sixties, and seventies, the Federation's main focus was on jobs and rehabilitation. In the eighties, it was on civil rights. Dr. Jernigan explained that a concern for civil rights means: The search for self-esteem and equal treatment and the yearning to belong and participate, to be part of the family in the broader community. But he also said something that we should not forget in Canada. In that particular banquet speech, as in many other banquet speeches, Dr. Jernigan has said that: For us, as with other minorities, there is only one way to achieve civil rights--that is, confrontation. As he put it in his last banquet speech: The status quo always fights change. He went on to explain by saying, Many people think that civil rights and integration are the same thing. They aren't. The concept of civil rights precedes integration, and is a necessary precursor to it. As used in the late twentieth century, the term civil rights, although some will deny it, always means force, an 'in your face' attitude by the minority; laws that make somebody do this or that; picketing, marches in the street, court cases and much else.

Dr. Jernigan explained that in the United States, the Federation had done those things; all of them. It had to, he said. If his assessment of the attainment of civil rights is correct, that there must always eventually be confrontation, particularly when a minority group gets close to reaching its goal, then our path is laid out for us and sooner or later we, the organized blind of Canada, will have to engage in confrontation in order to achieve equality. This is true, unless Canadian society can reap the benefits of the battles won by our brothers and sisters in the United States.

My own assessment of the situation in Canada is that we are still in the first stage of development. Our efforts must be concentrated on the development and the expansion of the organization throughout Canada. We must keep in mind that despite the fact that our society has advanced in many ways, many blind people still end up on welfare. Surely, we can expect better for our blind in Canada. A dollar taken for every dollar earned is not freedom. What blind person will risk food and shelter for a low-paying job with no security, in a society where negative attitudes about blindness prevail. The provincial laws for disability payments must be changed so that blind people can look for work, and earn money, without the floor being pulled from under them.

In Canada, the absence of good rehabilitation is a major problem. We see the regionalization of rehabilitation services in Quebec. In these cross-disability regionalized service centers, we see the melt down of services for the blind to the lowest common denominator. We must fight this trend in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. We must work together so that each provincial government has money appropriated specifically for the rehabilitation and education of the blind.

As the blind community of Canada, we are no longer willing to be de-personalized under the umbrella of disability. We don't need shelters. We need work, opportunities, and understanding, as a separate but equal class of people with specific needs. We have specific assets too, to offer society. We have talent, effort, time, potential, and the human capacity to produce valuable work. One of our most important assets is our understanding of blindness and our capacity to function in the world without vision. It is good for society to understand that vision is not the be-all and end-all of existence. It is good for society to understand that human beings are sufficiently complex to be able to adapt quite readily to functioning competitively without vision, even in a world that is highly visual. It is good for society to recognize the capacity of the human species to adopt alternative techniques to accomplish the same goals. We have much to teach society, if they would only look, listen, and learn. At conventions of the National Federation of the Blind of Canada, we provide such opportunities, and we will continue to do so for years to come.

Dr. Jernigan has been a teacher for me, and I will endeavor to be for you, the teacher he has been to me. I only hope that I can be half as effective. If I am, I will have done well. Much of Dr. Jernigan's work and teachings have been preserved. We know that Dr. Jernigan is battling cancer. We wish him well. We care about him. We hope to be able to listen to many more speeches delivered by him. Of course, there will come a day when he will no longer be able to speak to us in the flesh. He will have passed on to another realm.

In what may be his last banquet speech, Dr. Jernigan said: Legislation can not create understanding. Confrontation can not create goodwill, mutual acceptance, and respect. For that matter, legislation and confrontation cannot create self-esteem. The search for self-esteem begins in the period of civil rights, but the realization of self-esteem must wait for the day after civil rights.

Here in Canada, it is important that we who are blind find self-esteem, both individually and collectively. This occurs in the quest for civil rights. I hope we can avoid the confrontation that Dr. Jernigan says is required, but it may not be possible. Confrontation may be a necessary part of building muscles and gaining strength.I don't look forward to it at all, but if we must do it, we will. Of course, our horizons must not be set on confrontation. In Canada, we must long for the day after civil rights; the day when self-esteem can be completely realized, individually and collectively. We must prepare to go after what is rightfully ours by birth - security, equality, and opportunity. We will need to learn from our own mistakes.

We can work with the National Federation of the Blind of the United States as a parent or guide. But in the end, we must learn to walk on our own two feet and fight our own battles. In matters of blindness, it is often true that we walk alone and march together.

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