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The Canadian Reality: The Challenge to Organizations of The Blind

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Neil Graham is Vice President of the Toronto Chapter of the NFB: AE.

Not long after I joined this organisation in early 1996, I came to realise that I was far from being completely comfortable with it. Observing that many others expressed similar reservations, I set about trying to determine precisely what was the source of these misgivings. Much reflection led me to the conviction that at a fundamental level, the philosophy espoused by the NFB in the U.S.-and promulgated by those then in control of the NFB: AE-was in many ways at variance with some of the most salient traits of most Canadians' world views. I was then spurred on to consider just what kind of philosophy and structure Canadians who are blind would expect an effective, national organisation of blind citizens to have.

Many of these questions were addressed-some explicitly, as with the resolution on philosophy, and others more implicitly during debate-at our cathartic meeting in Victoria. Mainly to help provide a philosophical grounding (or at the very least some explanation of the direction we chose to take), I felt that this might be a useful time for me to share some of my thoughts on the question of how best to fit an organisation of blind citizens into the Canadian reality.

Surely one of the hallmarks of Canadian culture is its respect for diversity. Whether one considers ethnicity or political views, Canadians tend to be very tolerant. Most Canadians reject absolutes and dogmas; we feel everyone has valuable experiences to contribute, and that no one should be shut out simply because their backgrounds and attitudes are different. Likewise, there are few among us who believe that any group has a monopoly on truth-regardless of the domain under consideration. This tolerant and inclusive spirit must be reflected in any organisation of blind Canadians. Just as in any other group of Canadians, every member should be made to feel comfortable contributing while recognising that there is always much to be learned.

Canada is a parliamentary democracy. Some might argue that this is peripheral to this type of discussion, but when one considers the effect of our political system on our attitudes towards leadership, the importance of this fact is brought into sharp relief. The fact is that when Canadians vote they are more likely to vote for parties-and their platforms-than for individuals. Since we do not tend to seek visionaries, we do tend to demand that those who wish to lead echo our concerns and take their direction from us. It is only individuals who can have the charisma to move countries with their ideas; since Canadians focus more on parties, we are not amenable to following but rather tend to want our leaders to tread cautiously along a path defined by consensus and common consent. For an organisation such as ours, this has obvious ramifications in terms of forcing a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, structure where ideas are generated by the membership and implemented by leaders and not advanced by charismatic leaders and accepted by a silent membership.

The impact of the Canadian reality upon organisations certainly goes well beyond an emphasis on grass-roots participation. Any national organisation must come to terms with the presence of a large and vibrant French minority in Canada, both inside and outside of Quebec, and ours is certainly no exception. In addition to the obvious cultural and linguistic complexities, there is a powerful and mature organisation of blind consumers in Quebec (RAAQ) with which we have to determine how to relate. No region of Canada is culturally homogeneous; with high proportions of Aboriginal Canadians in some parts of the country, and people from Asian, Caribbean or African backgrounds in other parts, Canada's ethnic and cultural mix is both tremendously rich and complicated.

While misconceptions about the capabilities of disabled people in general and blind people in particular are as prevalent in Canada as in any other country, attempts to counter these attitudes will have to be both more regional and more sensitive in Canada than virtually anywhere else. Hence, any national organisation of blind people in Canada will have to be cognisant of and respectful towards the differences between regions and the cultural backgrounds of all Canadians. The fact that protection against discrimination on the basis of disability is enshrined in our Constitution gives us opportunities to seek equality that exist virtually nowhere else; any disabled peoples' organisation in Canada can ill-afford not to recognise and exploit those opportunities. This shows that a structure or philosophy from outside of Canada cannot be assumed to succeed in improving the lives of blind Canadians. We will need to chart our own course towards an effective national body of blind Canadians.

Canadians who are blind will expect more from their organisation than a solid grasp of fundamental truths about Canada. This organisation's answers to questions specific to blindness will be critical. To start, it seems very clear that almost all Canadians-including those with vision disabilities-view blindness as a disability. We know-and must make others aware-that blindness is only one part of a person, and cannot be permitted either to obscure or explain any of a person's other characteristics.

Equally, we must show others that blind people have unique needs which other disabled groups don't have, and that without appropriate and timely training a blind person has little hope of achieving real productivity, happiness or security. That we are physically disabled is beyond question, as is the fact that there are myriad issues that we can make far more rapid progress on if we ally ourselves closely with other groups of disabled people (ensuring access to government services and making strides on questions of employment equity spring immediately to mind). If one wishes to categorise disabilities-and it might help to clarify the differences and similarities between ourselves and other groups if we did-then we would refer to ourselves as being "sensory disabled" as opposed to "mobility disabled." Thus the barriers we face are attributable not so much to physical obstacles in the environment as to the fact that information is presented solely in formats we cannot perceive. This explains the attitude commonly held by blind Canadians towards environmental access (around which this organisation already has some policy): That is, we don't require physical modifications to our environment, but we feel we have a right to access the same information that is conveyed to other citizens in forms we are able to perceive. Compromise being as integral an element in the Canadian character as any other, we are not dogmatic about this, we are unlikely to insist that every street lamp contain a means of audibly announcing whether its light is on or not-but the setting for the debate is "what information do we require?" and not "what information can we dream up ways to survive without?"

Probably partly because of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms (particularly given its comparatively recent adoption), Canadians tend to be very conscious about their rights as citizens. Disabled people are no exception. We believe we have the same rights to goods, facilities and services as those without disabilities. So we demand-we do not politely request-access to bank statements, phone bills, currency, computer software, governmental and corporate websites and the whole gamut of other things that are feasibly accessible. We believe in the central importance of the duty to accommodate. We believe we should have access to programs in the mainstream such as education, training and transportation, and not be forced to accept "special" treatment simply because we are too low on bureaucrats' priority lists. No organisation of blind Canadians can passively stand by, observing the systemic iniquities in information access to which its members are constantly exposed, telling them to learn to make do with what they have! Technology has taught us too much about the critical nature of information access to allow such an ethos to survive long in Canada.

I make no claim that the foregoing is a compendium of the basic concerns of blind Canadians, nor that it is the strongest possible formulation of these concerns. It represents only my personal analysis of how certain salient traits which most Canadians share impact on our attempt to develop a truly national and effective advocacy group for blind Canadians. I hope it will stimulate thought and discussion, since a firm understanding of where we come from and what we stand for will be vital in clearly delineating our purpose and differentiating our approaches from those of other similarly-chartered groups around the world. This organisation represents the best chance blind Canadians have had at organising effectively on a national level in many years. Let us lay the foundations and meet the challenge of the Canadian reality!