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The Cross-Disability Factor: What's It Got to Do With Us

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Mel Graham has worked in communications for the cross-disability movement since 1978, and currently works in this capacity with the Council of Canadians With Disabilities.

It may be proposed-and by just about any moderately sensible blind person committed to the setting up of a new advocacy organisation at that-in so far as inter-organisational relations at the national level may be concerned, NFB: AE could well make do with casual contacts dictated by mutual interest. "Why further impose on our autonomy by formally attaching ourselves to an umbrella, cross-disability organisation composed of eight provincial members and six national, uni-disability ones? Why risk potentially subsuming the interests of blind Canadians in such a far-flung enterprise, especially now, so early in our game?" such independent spirits may query.

And to be fair, there is fuel ready at hand for this argument. For instance, when the federal government has seen fit to host national forums on disability related matters, it has made a particular point not to appear to snub organisations which have even the remotest pretensions to national credibility as consumer representatives. To avoid potential political problems, every hint of favouritism is scrupulously suppressed; everybody gets the same background material, all are guaranteed at least five minutes to say their say (no more, no less than anyone else gets), and no one is left out of the drafting process at document composition time. This is not a dispensation carved in stone of course, but that's how government is running the show for the present. Yet while the forms and optics may be that everyone at the round table has an equal voice on such occasions, the reality is that leadership roles get conferred on those groups which, like CCD, have positions which have already gone through the crucible of being discussed and vetted by a large, active and knowledgeable membership. Cross-disability groups like CCD and CAILC (Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres) are expressly organised around the fulfilment of this function.

But the preceding amounts to just a snap-shot of CCD in action. Its more routine operations will be of interest to the readership of an organisation on the brink of sharing in the great undertaking, if I'm not committing the crime of over-anticipation here

CCD began life as COPOH, the Coalition of Provincial Organisations of the Handicapped. Before 1995 and our major bylaw change, membership of those who weren't part of a provincial cross-disability affiliate (e.g. DAWN Canada, the Canadian Association of the Deaf, etc.) was associate, if they had membership status at all. Our reasoning here was that we sought as direct a connection as we could maintain with those grass-roots organisations and individuals who were committed to the organised cross- disability movement. With the hind-sight of four and a-half years of experience, we now feel that our worries about becoming remote and out of touch were over-rated and, in any event, more than compensated for by the national credibility we achieved through the extension and full membership of uni-interest and uni-disability organisations. At the same time, our constituent formula maintains our original approach somewhat. CCD requires that there be at least one fewer national than provincial cross-disability organisation in CCD's membership. Currently, we have room for just one more national disability organisation by the terms of this formula.

For national NGO's, (non-government organisations) are notoriously hard to self-finance and in the case of one like CCD, which has no "community" as such to directly relate to, significant self- financing is practically out of the question. Well over 90 percent of CCD's support comes from HRD Canada and, to a lesser degree, other federal departments. In reality, such an arrangement bears no reference whatsoever to a dog biting its master's hand, as some still mistakenly would have it. People with disabilities take in the 17 percent of the population that remains, in all important ways, unconnected and desperately under-served. Those governments which have taken the trouble to consider the matter at all soon come to the realisation that a bad situation could soon become an impossible one if it were left to them to do all the necessary problem-solving and prioritising that the complex area of disability management demands. If it sounds like boasting, it's still true that the current level at which disability representative organisations are being funded constitutes one of the best consultation bargains around. As we have good reason to know, even the almighty forces of devolution and deficit fighting of two years ago weren't strong enough to persuade the Chretien government to do what governments all too often resort to in such situations; throw good sense to the wind, and pull the plug on meaningful bilateral discourse with the community.

The work of our various resident committees, plus the regular input of our members, operate in close tandem to define all CCD policies and major activities. The experience of the Canadian Association of the Deaf will give you some appreciation for how uni-disability interests fare in the CCD context.

The CAD's long-time membership in CCD has meant that we are unequivocal on the question of the importance of American Sign Language (ASL) along with QSL in every aspect of Canadian life. The practical consequences are that the CAD's position on 24-hour network closed captioning services, or regulations compelling TV manufacturers to build sets to be sold here which can accommodate CC equipment, are positions CCD takes to every gathering (human rights legislation reviews, CRTC hearings) wherever these issues may be seen as pertinent. These are more than impressions we have gleaned from occasional contacts with deaf cultural or advocacy group representatives, to be espoused whenever doing so might serve our turn. Rather, they are directives indelibly etched into the core of CCD's mission and message. However often we might forget our credit cards, take it from me-we don't go anywhere without our marching orders vis-a-vis deaf people's interests courtesy of the CAD.

Nor are the benefits of such a relationship only one way. The human rights committee was grateful for the experience of the years of CAD issues its members were exposed to when CCD's legal council needed to be instructed at the time of the famous Eldridge case. Who knows but that the CCD factum's incorporation of deaf people's service requirements might have been a deciding factor when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of holding governments' agents as responsible, as are governments themselves, for providing equal communications services in hospital settings.

As you may be aware, CCD has not had a group of blind persons with whom it could relate over the years as it's had with the CAD. None the less, we're still proud of our efforts on behalf of Canada's blind and vision-impaired community to date. Fortunately for all concerned, the cross- disability movement has been blessed with strong blind leaders from its earliest beginnings. People like the late Frank Rogodinski of Winnipeg, Yvonne Peters of Saskatoon, and Ontarians Herman Wiringa and John Southern represent some random names that pop into my mind as I write.

Issues like allowing blind persons to serve on juries, tactile buttons on elevators, and the inclusion of guide dog usage protections in human rights codes, serve as examples of concerns in the early days. But it was only after the coming into force of the disability component in the Charter of Rights Section 15, the so-called equality section, that a full-fledged rights-based analysis around equal access to information-for those requiring alternative formats to regular print media- emerged as a concern relevant to everyone associated with the advancement of human rights. CCD's chief contribution in this regard was the formation of the access to information working group.

Composed of a half-dozen blind activists with years of experience in and commitment to this issue area, the working group's interests are, from their staff person's point of view at least, as absorbing as they are wide-ranging. Their activities include everything from the promotion of audible traffic signals to a submission to government regarding a proposed levy on cassettes and similar audio retrieval material. At the same time, by far the bulk of the group's work over the past six years of its operations has gone into more conventional, information barrier-removal activities.

Currently, it's dividing its time between riding herd on the burgeoning new e-book industry, and attempting to get conventional Canadian publishers of print to set up a clearing-house for the provision of electronic copies for those who require books in alternative formats. This latter seems to have hit a sand-bar of late, and it may eventually require the collective weight of some highly motivated, blind and cross-disability consumer organisations to get it moving forward again.

There may yet remain a question as to why Canada's situation should differ from that of the U.S., where inter-organisational mutual respect passes for joint action. When the NFB got going six decades ago, the potential assimilation of people with disabilities into the everyday life of the community was not a concept that caused much excitement. Dr. Jacobus TenBroek and his contemporaries worked in a vacuum composed not just of ignorance-which, for some reason, always gets top billing-but massive public indifference as well. Merely to survive in such a social climate, a group operating at the fringe of both resources and credibility needed two things: immediate, strong identification (blindness) and the capacity to exert an enormous degree of committed self-sacrifice from its membership. As the years went by, the internal discipline associated with this brand of strong identification as "blind" citizens put disability and cross-disability questions beyond serious contemplation.

In any event, NFB was growing along at a steady pace, it had an enemy to combat (the American Council of the Blind), and there was still plenty of scope for expansion within the US's blind community. Cross-disability! They'd only make annual conventions unmanageably large.

NFB: AE is exhibiting real pluck and a spirit of adventure, not to mention firm resolve to be maximally effective in relation to all it sees as worth doing and becoming a part of, in applying for membership to CCD. Adding the dimension of cross-disability co-involvement to its already long list of work will no doubt strain already very taut human resources. The consolation lies in that in taking such a big step so early, this small but dynamic group is broadcasting the fact, loud and clear, that if change can really ever be effected through unified effort, NFB: AE is the vehicle to do it for Canada's blind and sight-impaired citizenry.