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The Importance of Change, Collaboration and Cooperation in Building a Consumer Movement

Editor's Note: Editors Note: The following is the Presidents Report delivered by Robert Fenton at the Annual Conference of the NFB:AE in Toronto, ON, May 26, 2000.

Welcome to the 2000 NFB:AE Conference. I am pleased to see members have travelled to Toronto from six Canadian provinces. Needless to say, I am pleased with the increased diversity of our membership.

Before beginning with the main text of my report, I would like to take this opportunity to thank a number of people who have made substantial contributions to the NFB:AE over the past 15 months. First, I would like to thank our three NFB:AE employees, Kelly Boychuk, Corry Stuive and Ken Westlake for all of their dedication, hard work and excellent service to the organisation. I would also like to thank those members who were elected with me in Victoria to serve on the Board of Directors, Richard Marion, Alan Neville, Betty Nobel, John Rae and Grant Robinson, who all contributed to the organisation by working on special projects, chairing various Board committees and performing their other duties. I would also like to thank the members who have served on the NFB:AE's committees. These members contributed in a number of ways, including the drafting and reviewing of organisational briefs, developing fund-raising strategies and determining the content of The Canadian Blind Monitor, NFB:AE's primary publication.

When my colleagues and I took office in Victoria, we inherited an organisation which was in desperate need of reorganisation. In the past, the organisation was plagued with a top-down leadership style, a philosophy which many of its members did not fully understand or accept, and limited participation of the membership in developing organisational policy. In the past 15 months, NFB:AE has made tremendous strides in all of these areas.

Since the last conference, those of us who are on the Board have spent considerable time consulting with members on various policy issues. Currently, the organisation has a very active electronic mail distribution list consisting of more than 60 subscribers. This list has acted as a forum for members to express and share their views on a number of topics of interest.

In addition, 15 different members were involved in drafting the organisations first brief on Special Education Reform in British Columbia. A second group of approximately eight members was involved in drafting the second Special Education brief, under the direction of Betty Nobel. An additional 10 members were involved in drafting the organisations policy on assistance animal legislation in British Columbia when the British Columbia government first asked for input on a new Assistance Animal Act in April of 1999. It is hoped that NFB:AE's recommended changes will make their way into the legislation when it is introduced.

A further example of collaboration occurred when a group of five members prepared and submitted a grant to the Canadian Millennium Fund to seek funds to run the Summer of Possibilities Children's Camp. Approximately 35 other members agreed to serve on various committees dealing with such issues as advocacy, fund raising, membership development, education, publications, bylaw reform and other matters.

The greater involvement of the membership in doing the work of the organisation has caused all of the members involved to focus on the real priorities for the organisation. The current membership of the organisation was formed as an uneasy coalition with the primary purpose to develop and promote a truly Canadian philosophical approach to allow consumers to improve opportunities and the standard of living for blind and vision-impaired Canadians. This coalition consisted of members ranging in age from 20 to 80 with varying degrees of education, skill and experience. The members of the coalition had differing views on how much of the organisations philosophy and outlook should be based on the experience of the National Federation of the Blind of the United States. Finally, members of the coalition had varying views on whether, and to what extent, NFB:AE should pursue a positive working relationship with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Canada's primary service provider for blind, deaf-blind and vision-impaired people. Over the past year, I am pleased to report that this uneasy coalition has begun to form into a cohesive outfit which promotes issues of democracy and the free exchange of ideas among its members.

In true Canadian fashion, this group has shown many examples of compromise among its members on several important issues over the past year. One illustration of an important compromise arose when the organisations bylaws were rewritten. Although the five members of the Bylaws Committee and the members of the Board of Directors had very definite views on what kinds of provisions they wanted included in a new draft of the organisation's bylaws, both groups were able to agree upon a series of comprehensive amendments which will allow the NFB:AE to function as a fully operational Canadian registered charity, while at the same time, recognise the importance of ensuring that the majority of its membership is composed of individuals who are blind, vision-impaired, or deaf-blind. All of the existing protections to ensure that the group is led by people who are blind, deaf-blind or vision-impaired remain in place.

A second illustration of significant compromise on philosophical and other grounds relates to the drafting of the organisation's briefs on Special Education Reform in British Columbia. This is the first time where blind and vision-impaired adults were able to combine their efforts with parents of blind and vision-impaired children to adopt positions in the organisation's brief that could be supported with equal strength and conviction by both groups. This has allowed both groups to present views before the Special Education Reform panel that were both strong and persuasive. These are only two examples of many of the compromises that individual members and groups of members have made to ensure that the end product produced by this organisation, whether it be a grant application, a brief or a presentation to a committee, was thoroughly prepared, well researched and well presented.

In the coming months and years, the membership of the NFB:AE will have to continue to develop its ability to compromise on key issues. We can learn from the histories of other groups of the blind in Canada which have dissolved or lost their focus because of faction fighting, disorganisation, or the inability of these groups during their tenures to address issues that were relevant to blind and vision-impaired Canadians. As we all know from our studies in school, history has a tendency to repeat itself. We must ensure that the same kinds of divisions that have plagued other groups of the blind do not affect the NFB:AE.

The NFB:AE does have the ability to show other blind and vision-impaired Canadians that it is possible to reach a consensus and to compromise, while at the same time having the ability to take strong positions on issues when required. What the NFB:AE does have to do though is show other blind, vision-impaired and deaf-blind Canadians who do not currently belong to the organisation that it is capable, willing and able to address all of the needs of blind and vision-impaired Canadians without falling into the same pitfalls that have plagued other blindness-related advocacy groups in the past. However, the NFB:AE must take concrete steps and establish processes to ensure that the same pitfalls do not plague this organisation as they have plagued others.

In my view, many of the pitfalls can be avoided by involving as many members as possible in the organisation's activities and establishing clearly defined roles for the membership in every aspect of the NFB:AE's operations. The committee structure that was established at the last convention is the first of many steps that must be taken in this arena. Apart from having the committees in place, individual members of this group need to start promoting the group to others, whether they be friends, family, or interested third parties. Both the membership base and the overall profile of the group need to grow substantially so that governments, private industry and other entities take its views more seriously in the advocacy arena. NFB:AE members must change their focus from one of merely belonging in the organisation to one of active recruitment of new members to the cause. We should all aim for the objective of doubling the groups membership within the next year. I challenge each of you to recruit one new member to join the NFB:AE and have them attend next years conference.

Another key priority for the NFB:AE to change past perceptions of blindness-related advocacy groups is to avoid the appearance of dissension among the ranks. While free, frank and open debate must occur within this group, the image of the group is weakened if such debate and questioning of the group's policies occurs in a public forum. All members of the group must unite behind the decisions made by the group. When resolutions are passed at membership meetings, I challenge all members to take whatever steps they can to enforce those resolutions. After all, the work of the group is better enhanced if more people, rather than less, are working to change what it means to be blind by promoting a positive view of blindness and vision impairment within Canadian society.

While it is ideal for all NFB:AE members to be involved in the organisation's activities, it is equally important that members be realistic about what support they can and cannot provide to the group. The organisation sets priorities depending on the amount of resources, both financial and human, that are available to it for a certain task. The organisation's priorities can only be achieved if people are realistic about the number of hours and the kinds of help they can provide within a given year. If various projects are understaffed, the possibility of success is reduced. I therefore strongly encourage each of you to realistically assess how much time and commitment you are prepared to offer over the coming year to promote the growth and profile of this organisation, whether it be through membership development, advocacy, public education or other initiatives.

Another problem confronting other blindness-related advocacy groups in the past was the inability to remain relevant to their constituents. Too often, the leadership of the organisations failed to both identify and act upon the real needs of the community which they purported to serve. In my view, the NFB:AE can avoid this problem by focusing on three key advocacy issues which have been identified for us both by members and non-members of the NFB:AE. These are: 1. to improve access to information in alternative formats, such as descriptive video (where appropriate), Braille, computer diskette, large print and audio cassette; 2. to promote the accessibility of banking machines, airport kiosks, and commonly used appliances, which are now being designed in fashions that are difficult or impossible for blind, deaf-blind or vision-impaired people to use; and 3. to reduce the amount of unemployment of blind, deaf-blind and vision-impaired Canadians by promoting a positive image of blindness and the capabilities of blind people.

These three key priority areas will be included in a detailed strategic planning process which will be undertaken by the new Board of Directors shortly after its election. I will be asking at least one member of the Board of Directors to assume carriage of each of these priority areas and to work with those interested members to come up with a strategy for addressing each of the priority issues identified above.

While the advocacy and other efforts are occurring in these three and other core areas, the organisation must also focus on raising enough funds to support its various activities. Resources must be found for operating costs, The Canadian Blind Monitor and to fund each of the major projects which the organisation chooses to undertake.

The NFB:AE's funds currently come from three distinct areas:

  1. third party solicitations, whether they be by telemarketing or by door-to-door fund raising; 2. direct donations; and 3. grants from governments and foundations.

One of NFB:AE's biggest problems is one of resources. This same problem confronts and has confronted other groups of the blind, deaf-blind and vision-impaired in this country. As the number of registered charities increases, the NFB:AE will have to become more creative in its fund-raising efforts. Given the proliferation of blindness-related advocacy groups in this country, members of the public are becoming more and more suspicious of which groups are and are not providing legitimate benefits to their membership and to the rest of society. In addition to working to increase the membership of this organisation, one of my own personal priorities as president is to work with the NFB:AE's existing employees and the Fund-raising Committee to develop new and innovative fund-raising strategies. These include the organisation of high profile special events, corporate donation campaigns and a well run direct mail solicitation effort. In all of these campaigns, a positive image of blindness and the achievements of blind people will be promoted. It will also be conducted in a way that is respectful to, and accepted by, all of the members of the public who have donated, or who are likely to donate to the organisation in the coming years. While seeking to raise the resources that this organisation desperately requires, we must respect both the needs of the public and the need to present a positive image of blindness, deaf-blindness and vision-impairment. If both of these propositions are not advanced together, hand-in-hand, the NFB:AE's ability to raise resources will be hampered, which will affect our ability to promote the message that we are as bright, as capable, and as successful as other members of society.

As I have stated throughout this report, we need to cooperate and collaborate to avoid the same fate that has plagued other consumer groups of the blind in the past. Where possible, we must have positive dealings with all Canadian agencies for the blind and other consumer groups of the blind. No Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind or vision-impaired will be well served by any agency or consumer group to which they are affiliated if the atmosphere between groups is one of resentment, disrespect, or disunity. No matter what our differences are with other groups, we must find creative ways to address them that do not show the NFB:AE as being poorly informed, unreasonable or unrealistic in the positions that it has taken.

I invite all of you to join with me in showing all Canadians that the NFB:AE is an advocacy force to be reckoned with in both the private and public sectors within Canada. Lets avoid the pitfalls that have befallen many other consumer groups of the blind in the past and through cooperation and collaboration, work together to change what it means to be blind in Canada.

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