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Attitudes and Beliefs About Vision Impairment, Deaf Blindness & Disability

Pathways, Potholes, Paradoxes and Possibilities

Editor's Note: John Rae is 1st Vice President of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC). This article is adapted from a similar one published in Celebrating Our Accomplishments, Council of Canadians with Disabilities, November 2011.

Over the past 20 or 30 years, the world has undergone dramatic changes. This is also true in the lives of persons with disabilities, including those of us who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted.

We used to say that access to information was our greatest barrier. Then the internet came along, and now we must also deal with information overload. Yet Donna Jodhan, AEBC’s National President, was compelled to file a Charter challenge against the federal government over its inaccessible websites.

Technology has made it possible for some individuals with disabilities to live more independently, yet much of the world's new technology is not developed with us in mind, often requiring expensive adaptations.

The range of jobs available today is probably wider, yet some that employed a number of blind persons, like darkroom technician, transcriptionist and telephone operator, have been rendered largely obsolete by this same technology.

Braille is easier to produce than ever before, yet less and less is being made available, as some incorrectly argue it is no longer needed.

More and more blind students are attending colleges and universities, yet even in this more technological era, these students must still deal with obtaining essential texts and other course materials in a readable format, and in a timely manner.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the rights of persons with disabilities, but the federal government cancelled the Court Challenges Program, which makes it extremely difficult now to go to court to test the reach of these rights.

Human rights codes now cover persons with various disabilities, yet enforcing our rights has too often become bogged down in legal procedural wrangling and growing case backlogs.

Descriptive narration is now being introduced to some movies and television shows, but some Canadian broadcasters will not, or cannot, "pass through" the descriptive-video track from some American programs that already include it.

Intervenor services for deaf-blind persons have been developed, but governments have failed to adequately fund these critical programs, and today they are also facing cutbacks.

Many museums are more physically accessible, but their displays often contain even more "hands off" restrictions than in years past.

More blind persons are out and about in their communities, yet few restaurants offer braille or large print menus.

More and more audible pedestrian signals are appearing in our communities, but community pressure leads to some being turned off at 10:00 or 11:00 PM, long before some of us are home and snug in our beds.

Studies tell us public attitudes towards disability have improved, but our level of employment has not increased significantly, if at all.

And while there is now a growing network of consumer-led organizations of we rights holders across Canada, governments and businesses too often still turn to service providers when seeking advice on disability-related issues.

The disabled community is the only equality-seeking group that everyone can, and many will, join during our lifetime, and with the aging of the baby boomer population, more and more individuals will experience disability, either permanently or temporarily, and so may family members, friends or associates. Thus, it is in everyone's interest to help persons with disabilities join the mainstream of Canadian society.

The more persons with disabilities are present every day in newsrooms, the more likely we are to see stories that cover the reality of our lives and that tell the public about our needs and aspirations. The more we work with developers and manufacturers of new technologies, the more likely universal design will be built in from the start. And if more Canadians with disabilities participated more actively in the political process as staff members of the various parties, sought nomination as candidates, ran for elected office, and succeeded in getting elected--the more that members of our community participate directly in the arena where decisions affecting our lives are made--the more likely those decisions will help bring us into the mainstream of Canadian society.

The research has been conducted. The recommendations are in. As our numbers continue to rise, will we see increased government and business commitment and concrete action?

Engage with us. Involve us. Collaborate with us.

Chronicling 30 Years of Achievements

Editor's Note: April D'Aubin is Research Analyst at the Council of Canadians with Disabilities in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Thirty years ago, in 1981, Canadians were commemorating the United Nations International Year of the Disabled and the Handicapped. Many projects to promote the equality and full participation of people with disabilities were undertaken. A very significant milestone was the House of Commons’ Special Parliamentary Committee, which travelled across Canada hearing from persons with disabilities about the barriers they encountered and the solutions needed to bring people with disabilities into the mainstream. The Committee published the groundbreaking Obstacles report, which served as an action plan on disability issues for many years. In 2011, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), a national organization of people with disabilities, invited Canadians interested in disability issues to share personal reflections on how Canada has become more inclusive and accessible since 1981.

CCD published these testimonials in a new book, Celebrating Our Accomplishments, which chronicles the story of how Canada has become more inclusive and accessible because the voice of people with disabilities has been supported and heard. As the Hon. Diane Finley stated in the Foreword, “Significant progress has been made in Canada over the past 30 years for those with disabilities. And it has been a collective effort by individuals, business, government and organizations like CCD.”

On November 2, 2011, at End Exclusion in Ottawa, CCD launched this new anthology. The first recipients were: Sen. David Smith (who will also be presenting a copy to the Rt. Hon. Jean Chrétien); Senator Janis Johnson (who will be presenting a copy to the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney); Dr. Kellie Leitch (who will be presenting a copy to the Hon. Diane Finley); Hon. Steven Fletcher; Shelly Glover MP (who will be presenting a copy to the Hon. Jim Flaherty); and the Hon. Carolyn Bennett. Steve Estey, the Chairperson of the CCD International Development Committee, presented a copy to the Hon. Peter MacKay, who played a key role in Canada’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Sixty-one leaders from the disability community shared their insights into milestones on the route toward an inclusive and accessible Canada. Jeffrey Stark and Donna Jodhan discussed information and communication technology; John Rae focused on how people with disabilities are achieving access to cultural institutions; Traci Walters, a community representative on the Andy Scott Task Force, shared an insider perspective; Steve Estey, Anna MacQuarrie, Dulcie MacCallum and Vangelis Nikias reflected on the creation of the CRPD; and People First’s Paul Young wrote about deinstitutionalization. Authors also revealed the personal dimension of working for social change. Human rights lawyer Yvonne Peters, for example, described her feelings about missing her sister’s wedding because she was on Parliament Hill advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While Celebrating Our Accomplishments focused primarily on achievements, it also tackled some of the hurdles that the cross-disability movement had to overcome and ongoing challenges. In her article on the inclusion in Section 15 of the Charter, Ms. Peters discussed how, initially, CCD was focused on the inclusion of people with physical disabilities, and then amended that position to include persons with mental disabilities, when it partnered with the Canadian Association for Community Living. Meenu Sikand, in “Multicultural Communities Making Progress on Disability Issues”, called attention to the under-representation of racialized people with disabilities in mainstream disability groups. “Perhaps the recognition and inclusion of diversity in the disability movement has overlooked the cultural diversity that also exists among Canadians with disabilities,” stated Ms. Sikand.

Two authors, Jim Roots and Henry Vlug, chose to use this new publication as a platform from which to dispel a persistent myth. Some people without disabilities often wrongly assume that initiatives sought by the disability community will only affect a small segment of Canadians. In “Just a Deaf Thing?” these writers take aim at this myth and give it the knock-out punch, by demonstrating who else is benefiting from measures the deaf community innovated.

Support for Celebrating Our Accomplishments was so overwhelming that CCD is developing a second volume. Send your contributions of 400 words to To read Celebrating Our Accomplishments, visit

Personal Reflections on the Cross-Disability Movement

Editor's Note: Yvonne Peters is a human rights lawyer in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

It is probably fair to say that, as a young blind person, I was a bit of an individual maverick. I believed that if I tried hard enough I could overcome negative stereotypes and barriers all by myself. But the wind was taken out of my self-righteous sails when I discovered that I could not count on the law for support.

It was the late 70s and I was finishing my social work degree. I had to do a paper on the law and the rights of workers. As I went about conducting my research, I came across the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. I was excited to learn that a law existed prohibiting discrimination on a number of grounds, but deeply disappointed to learn that disability was not one of them.

The fact that some people were protected, and others were not, was enormously shocking and seemed a glaring injustice to me. This point was made even more profound as I applied for jobs and encountered a variety of ludicrous and negative attitudes about employing a blind social worker. I had no legal recourse, while others experiencing similar discrimination did. When I realized that I could not count on the law for help, I knew that more than individual resolve was needed.

A community activist friend of mine told me about the Saskatchewan Voice of the Handicapped (a provincial cross-disability organization) and the work it was doing to promote the rights of persons with disabilities. I was sceptical, but agreed to attend a meeting. The relief and empowerment I felt when I connected with like-minded people, who were as outraged and as passionate for change as myself, was a life-changing experience.

Others, more seasoned than I, introduced me to the world of politics. I learned how to lobby, marshal convincing arguments, and rally others to the cause. When we succeeded in securing comprehensive inclusion of disability rights in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, I became a committed disability rights activist.

Initially, I was hesitant to become involved with people with different types of disabilities. I didn't really consider myself to be a person with a disability; I was capable and independent, and eventually I would prove this to those around me. If I am honest, I think I was worried about the stigma of association. But, the more I ventured out into the "real” world, the more I realized that my perceptions were misguided and based on false bravado. Moreover, my work in the women's movement had taught me that discrimination was real and that collective action was an effective way to overcome oppression. And so eventually I came to realize that disability was more political than personal.

Back in the 70s, the idea of disability rights was just beginning to take shape. There were very few disability-focused organizations that promoted a human rights discourse. Most organizations were in the business of providing services for persons with disabilities, promoting activities that were recreational or social in nature, or raising funds to support disability charities.

But the rise of the American civil rights movement, and the demand for equality by soldiers disabled by the Vietnam war, provided inspiration for Canadian activists. It motivated persons with disabilities to demand rights rather than charity, and to begin laying down the foundation for a Canadian disability rights movement.

Fortunately for me, the rise of the disability rights movement, and my political consciousness raising about disability, more or less occurred around the same time. So joining the Voice of the Handicapped to push for protection of our human rights was a logical choice for me. Moreover, as I indicated earlier, it was the only political forum I knew of at the time that was concerned about eliminating disability-based discrimination and achieving equality. I was hooked and I threw my heart and sole into the movement.

The cross-disability movement brings together people with a variety of different disabilities. The rationale underpinning cross-disability is the shared experience of exclusion and discrimination, and the collective desire for social change. It also promotes standards and solutions that take into account a range of needs, not just those of a particular group. For example, the concept of accessibility no longer means just access for persons who use wheelchairs, but also includes audible and tactile cues for blind persons and visual cues for deaf and hard of hearing persons. The cross-disability concept has therefore helped to create a dynamic, comprehensive and inclusive approach to disability rights.

What is less certain is how well the cross-disability movement addresses the unique and specific issues that arise from having a particular disability, such as being blind or partially sighted. Arguably, the cross-disability movement does not have the time, resources or expertise to fully analyze various issues and their unique impact on particular disability groups. Thus, specific disability issues may not receive the attention or profile required to bring about timely and meaningful change.

I am therefore very supportive of a partnership approach to disability rights. This is the approach promoted by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), the national Canadian cross-disability organization. Originally, the CCD National Council was made up exclusively of provincial/territorial cross-disability organizations. However, over time, the CCD came to recognize the necessity and value of working with single-disability or single-issue national organizations. Thus, the current CCD Council is made up of both cross-disability organizations and national organizations that promote issues relevant to a specific disability (such as the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians), specific topic (like education), or specific target group (such as women with disabilities).

I believe that Canada has an impressive history of persons with disabilities collaborating and working together for change. The cross-disability movement gave us our voice and a forum for organizing and developing a disability rights analysis. But I also believe that single focus disability rights organizations have their place in the quest for equality. Their expertise and experience provide the substance and depth required to achieve equality that is inclusive and transformative for all Canadians with disabilities.

The Language of Oppression

Editor's Note: The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians supports the view that the real barriers to equality and full inclusion of persons with disabilities are attitudinal and environmental, not the disabilities themselves. It also adheres to the human-rights approach to disability-related issues. Monika Penner is a trauma therapist with a keen interest in anti-oppressive activism. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

Language used to describe disability has shifted over time, reflecting changes in attitudes towards People with Disabilities. The lenses through which we view disability have certainly broadened, but even in 2012, we are inundated with stigmatizing, condescending and inaccurate language. This article will explore the connections between language and ableist perceptions, and how commonly used words continue to misrepresent and oppress People with Disabilities.

The medical model is the most historically rooted way that many people continue to view disability today. As scientists and physicians studied the human body, so developed the perception of disability as an "illness" or "problem" that needed "treatment". Previous to the medical model was the superstitious or religious view of disability, under which countless Persons with Disabilities were killed and tortured as “witches" or "devils". Unfortunately, the medical model has also subjected People with Disabilities to pain and even death through experimentation and barbaric "treatments". Most recently, the medical model forced unwanted abortions and sterilizations on persons deemed "unfit", which included vast numbers of persons with perceived cognitive and psychiatric disabilities.

Language rooted in the medical model stresses compliance, passivity and dependence of Persons with Disabilities, as well as the notion that disabilities are undesirable. Persons with Disabilities are considered "patients" who require "experts" or "professionals" to "treat" their "condition". They are expected to be passive recipients of services who "suffer" from blindness, paraplegia, and/or psychiatric disabilities. Terms like "quality of life" are commonly used, erroneously suggesting that people innately experience their disability as limiting, or emotionally or physically painful.

And while People with Disabilities do, and should be permitted to, make their own decisions, especially in health-care services related to their disability (e.g. assisted living devices and training, medication, or psychological and physical therapies), the lens of the medical model continues to stress power imbalances between professionals and the Person with a Disability (who is truly their best expert), as well as the notion that disability is something that should be "treated" versus something that exists as one of many complex features of individuals.

Tied closely to the medical model of disability is the charitable model, which is founded on providing services to Persons with Disabilities "in their best interests". Again, the professional, and not the Person with a Disability, holds the power. And, again, the Person with a Disability is a "recipient" of service, often having to depend on charities to receive what should be their intrinsic right.

On the website "If I Can't Dance Is It Still My Revolution" (, A.J. Withers describes how euphemisms for disability are used within the charitable model. Politically correct words such as "challenged" and "differently-abled" function to both conceal oppression of Persons with Disabilities and do not in fact change the realities of their lives. Withers writes that using euphemisms:

"doesn't build ramps, or housing; it doesn't provide interpreters or personal support workers; it doesn't bring equality or autonomy; and, it doesn't abolish segregation or discrimination. The attempts by well-meaning liberals to establish "politically correct" terms to define disability are just that, attempts to dictate how things change for our benefit. In this case, nothing changes but the label. The entire charity approach is designed to ensure that no real change ever occurs. It is about people doing good for others, it is not about change, it is not about liberation, it is about the agents of charity--the do-gooders feeling better about themselves and the world they live in."

The descriptions of Persons with Disabilities as "courageous" are also seen in the charitable model. These references are prevalent in today's media, and allude not to a significant accomplishment, but rather something achieved "in spite" of a person having a disability. They are problematic because they view disability as something to be "overcome", and that disability must be so incredibly terrible that if People with Disabilities can do anything beyond eek out a meagre existence, they must be commended. Disability activists call these depictions "super-crip" stories.

The language of "vulnerability" also comes from the charitable model of disability. At its very basic level, the idea that persons are innately "vulnerable" brings out the notion that they need to be "protected". However, terrible atrocities have been committed against Persons with Disabilities in the name of "protection", including segregation, confinement, forced "treatment", sterilization and euthanasia.

In addition, the word "vulnerable" suggests that there is something inherent within the person that makes them susceptible to violence and oppression, versus that Persons with Disabilities are made vulnerable through societal barriers and oppression. For instance, the terms "at risk" and "vulnerable" have been used to identify persons experiencing higher rates of sexual abuse/assault. What is concealed by this language is that Persons with Disabilities experience higher rates of sexualized violence due to oppression, causing compliance, dependence and social isolation--factors sexual offenders use to abuse their victims.

Similarly, the term "marginalization" has become increasingly used by well-meaning people to identify groups that experience oppression, such as Persons with Disabilities, Aboriginals, sexual minorities and racialized communities. When used as an adjective, however, as in "marginalized populations", this term may suggest that there is something intrinsic within oppressed persons that causes their experiences of marginalization.

For instance, People with Disabilities experience atrocious levels of unemployment, underemployment and educational disadvantage because educational and employment systems actively position disability to the margins. Braille, audio books, American Sign Language interpreters, accessible language and other requirements of Persons with Disabilities are rarely positioned as central within these systems; rather, Persons with Disabilities require "accommodations" because their needs are an add-on to mainstream services.

The medical and charity models of disability are still incredibly prevalent in today's society, even as people have tried to remove overtly derogatory terms from their conversation. However, Disability Rights activists have developed their own frameworks for understanding and challenging ableist oppression. The social model of disability was developed in opposition to the condescending and pathologizing medical and charitable models, and for the first time separated impairment from disability, arguing that social inequalities such as attitudinal barriers and unequal access cause limitations, not disabilities themselves.

The most recently defined disability paradigm is the radical model, which likewise acknowledges the role of oppression in creating limitations. However, the radical model also advocates against trying to become less disabled, noting that disability is one of many features an individual may have. As Withers writes: "To us, disability is not a point of individual or social tragedy, but a natural and necessary part of human diversity. The tragedy of disability is not our minds and bodies but oppression, exclusion and marginalization."

And so continues the evolution of language, with activists leading the way.

Kids Learn By Example to Meet the Unexpected

Use Child's Curiosity to Open Talk About Those Living with Differences

Anyone visibly different knows about the stares--and the occasional comments--they attract when out in the community. For Phil Crowson, it's when he rides the bus and kids spot his guide dog, Faith. "They're always asking their parents 'What's the dog for?'" says the 61-year-old intake and referral officer at Victoria's CNIB.

Artist Mark Heine's 15-year-old daughter Charlotte has cerebral palsy. Someone always looks a little too long when she's out in her wheelchair. Heine finds the youngsters are "pretty much the most blatant."

That's to be expected if the child hasn't been exposed to those with differences through family or a classmate, according to Donna McGhie-Richmond of the University of Victoria's education faculty. "Of course, you might stare because you're trying to understand. You can't figure it out," says McGhie-Richmond, a special-education specialist.

Kids being kids are not shy about reacting vocally--possibly to a parent's embarrassment--about what they are seeing.

"There's always going to be situations when the child stops, stares and asks questions," says Linette Baker, program director of Community Living Victoria, which assists those with developmental disabilities.

That's understandable, according to Michael Lax, vice-president of the B.C. Association of People Who Stutter. For children, there's the uncertainty, particularly when encountering those such as himself without any noticeable physical differences. They don't readily understand what's happening and why, says the Victoria chiropractor.

Kids are not being rude but curious, McGhie-Richmond says. Crowson agrees their questions are sparked by curiosity. "They're just not used to seeing dogs on a bus," he says.

Use the child's curiosity as an opportunity to talk about those living with differences, Baker says. She has stepped in to help a floundering parent answer a child's questions about her clients.

Some parents hesitate to ask directly, as they worry about invading the individual's privacy, Baker says. If they do ask questions, they are more likely directed at the individual's companion. Baker's care workers know always to include the client in any conversation in public.

"Quite often kids with special needs get talked around," Heine says. If they ask "what's wrong or why the wheelchair," parents should encourage them to ask those such as Charlotte. She is quite capable of answering questions, he says.

If Charlotte sees kids staring, she'll say "hi." Often this isn't a conversation-starter. "When she says 'hi,' they get scared and turn away," Heine says. Those who do respond usually do so only with prodding from a parent.

Lax thinks parents should defer any explanation until later. "I think it's hard to say something to the child in front of the person stuttering," he says.

McGhie-Richmond suggests parents quietly acknowledge the child's curiosity with something such as, "I see you looking at that person. What are you thinking?"

"I'd encourage them to talk," she says.

Over the last 20 years, society has become more inclusive, McGhie-Richmond says. Crowson agrees, finding youngsters are much more aware than when he was young.

Crowson knows his guide dog is an ice-breaker when out in the community. Perhaps too much of one, as kids are always asking to pat the dog when it's on the job. He's not always as stringent as some are about keeping kids away from their guide dogs. It depends on the situation, he says.

Parents can help broaden a child's perception by the way they respond to those with differences. Something as simple as offering assistance at a street corner shows the child what's acceptable. Small kids learn by example, Crowson says.


Tips for Parents When a Child Encounters Those with Differences:

- Most often your child is curious and not intentionally rude. If the latter, nip it in the bud by saying, "We don't talk to people like that."

- Use your child's reaction, whether vocal or staring, as an opportunity to talk about physical differences. Read the situation to determine if the talk should start immediately or be deferred until later.

- If the subject of your child's curiosity speaks, encourage your child to respond. Your child initially may be wary around someone with an obvious difference.

- Don't talk around or over the individual. Speak directly to the person, if possible. Encourage your child to ask any questions directly if the individual seems amenable.

- Set an example for your child by offering, for example, to assist those with challenges to cross the street.

- Explain that guide dogs are not pets. Your child must always first ask if it's OK to pat the dog. Often it isn't.

Reprinted from the Times Colonist, Victoria, July 31, 2010.

Introducing Mike Yale

Editor's Note: Editor’s Note: Since this article, AEBC members Mike Yale and his partner Marcia have moved back to Huntsville, Ontario.

Mike Yale has dedicated his life to making things better for marginalized people. "I'm very political," he says. "If I have a defect, it's that I take things too seriously. I probably don't laugh as much as I ought."

Born in Hollywood, California, Yale was blinded in an explosion at age five. When he returned home after a year and 30 surgeries, the doctor told Yale's mother to encourage independence. "He said to let me make mistakes, even if I got hurt, and she did," he says. "My mother was a phenomenal woman."

In one of the first integrated school programs for blind children, Yale learned side by side with sighted classmates, excelling as a public speaker and member of the debating society. He also played classical piano before audiences of up to 5,000 people. In his teen years, his interest shifted from Beethoven to rock 'n’ roll, and today he has a 3,000-record collection to attest to his continuing love of music.

Yale spent the early 1960s at Berkley, majoring in journalism with minors in political science, history and comparative literature. He also became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements--and found true friendship. "The hippies were the first group who accepted me for who I was despite my blindness and the scars on my face," he says. "I consider myself a hippy to this day."

After college, Yale travelled in Russia and Europe, then decided to leave the United States permanently to protest against the Vietnam War. He moved to Toronto and began studying law at Osgoode Hall. Although he decided not to write the bar exam, Yale says he's used those studies in many ways.

Over the next 20 years, Yale had many different jobs ranging from dairy and pig farmer to radio show host to investigator for provincial and federal human rights commissions. He also wrote a book called No Dogs Allowed about his European travels. The sequel, Golden Reflections, was recently accepted by a small Toronto publisher.

In 1986, Yale and his then-partner bought the Huntsville Pet Shop and ran it for about three years. Ever since, work has been sporadic and typically required a commute to Toronto, like his five years at the provincial information and privacy commission.

"It's tough to get work," he says, noting that the unemployment rate among blind people is 75 percent.

Yale has been very involved in this community. He was Chair of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, served on the library board, and participated in the Visually Impaired Peer Support Group.

"Blindness is a total pain in the butt, but it's not that bad," he says. "Life doesn't end. There's always a way to accommodate your disability."

Since his ex-wife, Doreen, returned to England a year ago, Yale has been living alone with his guide dog, Narella. However, that changed earlier this week when he moved to Toronto to be with the new love of his life. "Marcia brings me such joy," he says.

There's another reason for Yale's move: It will make it easier to continue his work as Co-Chair of the Ontario Disability Support Program Action Coalition. "We are trying to get McGuinty's government to live up to the promise he made to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy," he says.

Yale explains that the provincial disability pension is less than $1,000 a month. "Nobody can live on that," he says. "Even if they raised it to $1,460 a month, it would only put recipients at the poverty line. There's so much wealth in this country, there's got to be a way to make sure everyone has enough to live reasonably."

After 22 years, Yale will miss Huntsville. "I know everyone here and have a whole network of friends," he says.

And he has a message for those staying behind: "Protect the lovely, quaint character of this town. Don't turn it into just another non-descript place on the highway, and don't let the politicians decide everything. Take an interest, get involved and protect what you've got."

Reprinted from the Huntsville Forester, August 27, 2008:

The Cynics and The Choices We Make

Editor's Note: Dave Greenfield is a poet and activist in Saskatoon, SK. As an activist in a variety of issue areas, he has often stood outside the power structures and offered his criticisms. As a participant in history, he has an interest in various historical anti-establishment movements, of which the Cynics are one.

Dave GreenfieldToday, if you were to call someone cynical, you would probably mean that they are bitterly sceptical about everything, to the point of not believing in anything. Today, cynicism tends to mean the opposite of idealism. The original use of the term, however, in ancient Greece and Rome, was very different and in some ways almost the opposite of its current use.

In ancient Greece, as in most societies, there were pecking orders. There were haves and have-nots, those who were successful in the wealth and power structures and those who were not. Philosophers, whose chosen task it was to think about the universe and ponder on ethical, social and cosmic truth, were generally either part of the elites, or received the patronage of members of the elite. Not surprisingly, what most philosophers said was generally pleasing to the elite.

The Cynics were a school of philosophy, which attempted to say goodbye to all that. They rejected having a patron and being part of the power structure, and instead made it their goal to live simply and self-sufficiently, perceiving that living simply and outside of the power structures gave them the moral ground on which to stand and be critical of the various power games they observed in their society. The Cynics, in ancient Greece, and later in Rome, often lived on the street or in very primitive shelters. Some begged to survive, while others grew their own food, living, as it were, in a permanent state of protest.

The Cynics' relationship to the power elites can be symbolized in a story that is told about an encounter that is said to have occurred between Alexander the Great and the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes was relaxing and enjoying the sunshine one day, when Alexander the Great came up to him and asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Diogenes replied, "Perhaps you could step back a bit. You're blocking the sunlight.” The Cynics wanted nothing from the power structures and saw them as an impediment rather than as a positive vehicle.

The Cynics were probably the longest-lived anti-establishment movement, lasting from about 350 BC to around 400 AD. Unfortunately, they left relatively few writings, and much of what we know about them is what others, often their critics, had to say.

Our own society, in many respects, is not much different from the world of ancient Greece and Rome. We have our various state, corporate and charitable elites, and those who say and do what is pleasing to the elites are rewarded, while those who criticize are marginalized and left to fend for themselves. In the Canadian blind community, those who say nice things about service providers like the CNIB are rewarded by the power structure, while those who offer valid criticisms and resistance are marginalized. The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians finds its voice marginalized precisely because we strive to be independent of the structures in order to monitor and offer valid criticisms. We differ from the Cynics in that the Cynics chose to be marginalized, believing that that better enabled them to speak truth. We, on the other hand, choose to speak truth and find ourselves exiled to the margins because of it.

There is one lesson the Cynics may teach us, in the story about the encounter between Alexander the Great and Diogenes. Sometimes, when agencies like the CNIB ask, "Is there anything we can do for you?" we must have the strength to say, "Perhaps you could simply step back a bit and stop trying to speak on our behalf. You are blocking our way!"

Inclusion More Than Mere Access

Editor's Note: What follows is adapted from a presentation delivered at the Collections, Connections and Communities Conference, Ottawa, October 2, 2009. <a href="">Full presentation available</a>

For many persons with disabilities, the prospect of visiting a museum, art gallery or heritage property can be rather intimidating. While today, more of these institutions aim to educate and entertain all members of society, too often access is limited for people with disabilities. Organizations need to adopt a more inclusive concept of accessibility--much more than just physical access to premises.

Canada's disabled community is comprised of people with visible and invisible disabilities alike, and accounts for about one in seven people in the country, a figure that is rising as our population ages. As such, true inclusion means understanding and valuing differences within Canada's entire population, and involves access to collections, educational programs, employment and volunteer opportunities, and to information about what's on display and what's happening in your facility.

The ability to gain access to your facility and move around easily inside, providing parking spaces close to the entrance, level door- and walkways, lower countertops, accessible washrooms, and conveniently located benches and elevators will all make your facility more accessible, as will adequate lighting, clear signage, and minimal surface glare.

How do you publicize your programs? Is it only by print flyers inside your facility's entrance? Do you provide brochures in multiple formats? Does your phone line have a recorded message, especially at night? Does your website conform to current W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards? Do its links include alternate tags so blind users will know what they contain? Are online videos and photos accompanied by text descriptions? Is there information on accessibility in all the forms of media you use?

New technologies are increasingly used to enhance the experience of all museum goers. Do you provide audio guides to your exhibits and if so, are all items described, or only some? Are visitors with disabilities able to use your interactive kiosks, or are they operated by inaccessible touch screens? Are you investigating other innovative technologies that can transmit information directly to a visitor's own mobile phone? Through inclusive design practices and compliance with accessibility standards and legislation, we can ensure museum technology affords engaging experiences to a greater number of users.

How are your staff and volunteers recruited? Do you rely solely on word of mouth or do you reach out to various groups in the community to ensure a more representative workforce and pool of volunteers? Do you provide training on diversity issues and have you developed a policy on providing needed accommodations?

Do you offer public lectures? Are they held in fully accessible rooms? Do your lecturers adequately describe the content of slides they use to support their presentations? Do you offer educational programs, where a patron can participate, and would a person with a disability be welcome in an art or sculpture class?

What about your collection? Is information about items on display presented only by notes in tiny print on a display case? Or do you offer replicas, audio guides, tactile drawings, or information sheets in multiple formats, including large print and braille? Are items displayed solely in glass cases, or is it possible to examine any by touch? When you are negotiating for visiting or special exhibitions, is access ever discussed with the artist or the facility providing the exhibition?

Gallery guides are important to the museum or art gallery experience for all visitors. How much verbal description or background information on an object or painting do you, or should you, offer visitors? Of course, tours for blind patrons will inevitably involve more time to provide verbal description of visual images. Individuals who lead such tours often say they gain a deeper appreciation of a piece, and even of the important role they themselves play.

What do your collections say about war, and how it adds significantly to the number of persons with disabilities worldwide? What other items do you have on display that pertains to disabled people's lives and history? At a time when museums are increasingly concerned with researching and presenting "hidden histories," why is disability rarely, if ever, exhibited?

Representation of people with disabilities in displays and exhibitions, when presented, often conforms to prevalent stereotypes found in film, literature, television and charity advertising. These stereotypes include people with disabilities as freaks, passive and dependent recipients of charity, Biblical miracle cures, and heroes who somehow transcend their disabilities. Depictions of people with disabilities in more realistic, everyday life have been practically non-existent.

The social model of disability provides a powerful lens to challenge and counteract such negative representations by highlighting the environmental, attitudinal and social barriers that people with various disabilities face in their struggle for equality, and for basic human rights.

Curators have been afraid of causing offence. How does one present difficult stories surrounding disability history--of asylums, industrial and war injury, holocaust, freak shows, and people's personal experiences of pain, discrimination and marginalization? How can material in collections be presented to help confront and alter outdated and stereotypical attitudes about disability?

I have travelled extensively, both in Canada and abroad, and have visited many museums, art galleries, castles, maritime facilities, nature reserves, pioneer villages and historic sites. I was particularly impressed by how many implements used to build this country could be touched at Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

At the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, I have had special tours, especially during the summertime when its staff is augmented by archaeology and anthropology students, and touched much from its extensive First Nations exhibition. The Royal Tyrrell Museum, meanwhile, in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada's only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of paleontology, houses one of the world's largest displays of dinosaurs. I suggest any visitor start in its Gift Shop, where you can examine dinosaurs in various forms, from stuffed animals to key chains, and gain a better appreciation of what you are about to see as you tour the collection itself.

Further afield, at Nelson Mandela's former house in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, South Africa, I was able to touch much of what was on display, including Tommy "Hit Man" Hearns' World Championship boxing belt, which was a great thrill for me. At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark, whose collection includes artifacts from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, the Ancient Mediterranean and Imperial Rome, I was asked to put on a pair of thin cotton gloves to prevent the oils from my hands from causing any damage to the irreplaceable pieces I was examining. Finally, at the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru, which boasts one of the world's largest collections of pre-Columbian art and pottery, I was able to touch replicas of vessels and take one home, a unique opportunity organized by Traveleyes International, a UK tour company that organizes tours for blind and sighted travellers.

While there are a variety of ways to convey information about items on display, for a blind visitor like me, there is simply no substitute for tactile access to regular collections--no substitute whatsoever! Replicas, raised-line drawings, special tours and other means of gaining access, however, can be somewhat helpful.

Although conservators cite possible damage to pieces as grounds for not offering tactile access, having them on display at all, exposed to light, air and flash photography, can pose a threat. We take these minor risks, however, because while preservation is a priority, these works are on display so we can all appreciate and enjoy them. What's more, the greater number of objects on display that can be touched, the less each individual piece will be handled.

If museums and art galleries in such diverse places as Peru, South Africa and Denmark, as well as the several in Canada mentioned above, can provide tactile access, then surely more museums and art galleries across Canada can make their collections more accessible to people with a variety of disabilities, who wish to learn more about the past and participate in present-day culture. I believe that "access for all" in experiencing the past, through all our senses, is our shared goal. We in the disabled community look forward to working collaboratively with staff in museums, historic houses and art galleries to make this goal a reality in every community across Canada.

Hoping to See Change: Eastend Resident Brenda Cooke Involved with AEBC

Completing the most basic of daily tasks--whether it's crossing the street in safety or placing a pot on a stove burner--can sometimes be a discouraging and disabling challenge for hundreds of thousands of Canadians. But that's exactly the situation faced by citizens across the country who are vision-impaired and struggle to accomplish what many people would consider everyday routine.

Brenda Cooke of Eastend, who has been legally blind since birth, is well acquainted with the struggles associated with limited eyesight through her own experience, as well as the work she does as a volunteer with the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC). For about 10 years now she has been a member of AEBC, a national organization that is working towards promoting rights and opportunities for those who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

Her involvement has included a stint on the group's volunteer board of directors. For the past couple of years, though, she has served as the editor of the organization's magazine, the Canadian Blind Monitor (CBM), which is published annually. Brenda says she accepted the editor duties after stepping down from the national board.

"I wanted to take part in the work that the organization was doing, but I preferred to do something behind the scenes," she said, before laughing at the fact she still found herself sitting on various committees. One of those committees, however, is connected with the operations of the magazine.

"The committee members take a big part in making decisions about the magazine and making sure it is representative of the goals of AEBC and the membership as a whole," said Brenda. "Actually, that's one of the big differences between AEBC and most service agencies and some other consumer advocacy groups. It has a working board and is controlled from the bottom up instead of the top down. All policies are developed by the grassroots membership."

AEBC was founded to increase awareness of rights and responsibilities, so blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted individuals can have equal access to the benefits and opportunities of society. But AEBC isn't interested in generating any sympathy or pity for its members. Instead, its primary objective is to help initiate progressive, meaningful and--above all else--obtainable change within society.

AEBC is comprised of rights holders who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, whose work focuses on improving public attitudes and influencing policies, programs and legislation that affects members of its community. Even in these more modern day "enlightened" times, the group continues to fight an ongoing battle to have their voice heard. There is very little government support for blind rights issues and a lack of awareness among the general public about the everyday challenges faced by vision-impaired citizens.

AEBC is involved in a myriad of issues affecting persons with restricted vision, including access to regular household products, access to safe travel on community streets, access to printed information, access to employment and income, and access to voting. While technological advancement have helped make life easier for a generation of Canadians, Cooke says that some new innovations have also caused problems for those with limited vision.

An increasing range of regular household products, for instance, are now operated by touch panels without buttons that make them difficult if not impossible for blind persons to operate independently. Imagine trying to place a pot on a stove that no longer has raised burners. What about setting a timer on an oven that is fully digitalized? Or try navigating the instruction menu on a DVD movie, or the cable/satellite program guide on the television. Even new hybrid cars pose certain dangers. They aren't as loud as older models, making them more difficult for blind people to detect on community streets--not knowing when it is safe to cross. AEBC is calling on manufacturers to use today's technology to make their products independently usable by the widest possible number of customers.

"Accessibility goes beyond ramps and making bathroom doors wide enough for wheelchair users," said Cooke. "We just want manufacturers to make items that are universally designed for everyone to use," she added. "What we propose is that manufacturers make these products accessible in the first place so there is no added cost to the people attempting to use them."

At the moment, however, it is Canada's blind residents who must adapt to machines, instead of the other way around. Usually, the vision-impaired must cover the added cost of adapting these products to meet their needs. Unfortunately, statistics show that between 60-80 percent of all blind Canadians are living in poverty. "They are the people who have to come up with the extra money to pay for items needed to make products useful to them," said Cooke. "But there is very little assistance for blind people who have to buy those extra items."

Reading material is another concern. While technology makes it easier than ever to produce materials in multiple formats, only about 5% of print materials are produced in these formats--which affects knowledge, education and independence. AEBC calls for increased availability of materials in audio and braille formats, websites to be accessible to the screen readers that blind people use and the use of a text equivalent on all websites wherever a PDF file is included.

Right now, Cooke points out, a blind person cannot walk into a library--funded by the public--and enjoy the same access as that of their fellow sighted citizens. "That is a very serious inequality in our country," she stated. "And, right now it could take up to five years to produce a book in a format that a blind person could access, and most times that material is provided through charity dollars rather than the tax base."

Amazingly, Cooke says that even access to voting is an issue for blind Canadians. The most important act a citizen in any democracy performs is to vote independently and in secret. AEBC wants the same right for blind people by developing alternative methods of voting so that blind Canadians can independently verify how they voted.

There are about 600,000 people in this country who are blind. (Legally blind means a person has 20/200 vision in the better eye with correction.) But the group has a hard time getting the attention of politicians. "We can't even get equal accessibility to voting," she stated. "The 600,000 or 800,000 of us out there don't seem to count."

"And I don't mean that in an emotional way, I mean that in a political way."

Despite the ongoing struggle to be heard, Cooke says she is committed to her work with AEBC. Last year, Cooke organized a small 50/50 raffle, with the proceeds going to help produce the Canadian Blind Monitor in braille format, an expensive procedure. The magazine is currently produced in braille, print (and) on audio CD at no cost to readers and is available on the internet. The winner of the first draw was Doreen Stewart of Eastend, who took home about $360. Cooke is considering another 50/50 draw this year and a possible art auction to raise more funds for the magazine project.

Anyone interested in more information is welcome to call AEBC at 1 800 561 4774 or visit their website at:

Reprinted from The Shaunavon Standard, Saskatchewan, February 2, 2010.

Challenging the System

Editor's Note: Editor’s Note: In November 2010 the court ruled in favour of Ms. Jodhan. In January 2011 the Federal Government filed an appeal. Donna Jodhan is AEBC’s 2nd Vice President. Reprinted from E-Access Bulletin, Issue 131, November 2010:

It's fair to say that Canadian citizen Donna Jodhan knows a thing or two about accessibility. A specialist consultant in the field with more than 16 years' experience, her company has worked with numerous clients, including financial institutions and the University of Toronto. She has obtained Systems Engineering Certification from Microsoft and won various technical awards from IBM.

So when Jodhan--herself legally classed as blind--brought a case against the Canadian Federal Government, stating that the lack of accessibility of its websites for blind and visually impaired Canadian citizens meant that her rights were being breached, she made a formidable opponent.

The problems which led to her action began in 2006, when Jodhan was unable to create a job profile on the Government of Canada's employment website--the point of access for all federal government job opportunities. When trying to complete a section of the form (the “date available” field), she simply received an error message each time. She attempted to contact the site's owners, but the phone number provided was out of service.

Jodhan was forced to seek assistance from a sighted government employee to create a job profile, but was still unable to review any of the information entered, as she was not given any user identification or password.

In addition to the problems with job applications, she was also unable to complete a 2006 online Census form from Statistics Canada, the country's national statistical agency. The form was only fully accessible to blind and visually impaired users who used the most recent version of the JAWS screen-reader--an expensive piece of technology, costing around 1,000 Canadian Dollars at the time. Jodhan was again forced to rely on sighted assistance from a government employee to complete the Census, which she regarded as an invasion of her privacy.

Furthermore, Jodhan found she was unable to access information on Canada's national consumer price index and unemployment rate, again on Statistics Canada's website, as the information was only available in a PDF file, which had not been adapted for screen-readers. Jodhan was informed by government employees that no alternative formats were available.

Jodhan's continued issues with government sites led her to consult a group of lawyers and an international accessibility expert, to find out what her legal position was. "I did this after years of having tried to convince the Canadian Government that their websites were not very accessible," Jodhan told E- Access Bulletin. "It was extremely difficult for blind and sight-impaired Canadians to navigate their websites to obtain relevant information, and complete forms in order to process requests and fill out job applications."

In 2007, Jodhan's lawyers filed court papers asking the Canadian Government to comply with widely used accessibility standards from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Between 2007-09, settlement negotiations were attempted but did not succeed, "because we did not feel that the Canadian Government was serious enough about our concerns" says Jodhan.

As a result, cross examinations of witnesses, accessibility experts and Jodhan herself took place in 2009, and in September of this year Jodhan and her lawyers attended Federal Court to present their case. "My lawyers argued that under the Canadian Charter of Rights, all Canadians have to be treated equally and that inaccessible governmental websites to blind and sight-impaired Canadians was a violation of the Charter. The government argued that they had fulfilled their obligations."

With the case having been heard, the court is currently “resting”--in other words, it has retired to deliberate--and the judge's decision is expected to be handed down within three or four months. Jodhan says she and her lawyers are "cautiously optimistic" about the result.

Whatever the outcome of the case, it has brought considerable publicity to a subject that is often swept under the carpet, with Jodhan's “Charter Challenge” receiving media coverage throughout Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and even India. "This topic needs to receive continuous attention and we believe that this court case is the perfect way to do it," she says.

Canada currently has no specific legal obligations to conform with web accessibility standards, although there are non-binding guidelines in place (Common Look and Feel for the Internet 2.0--CLF: that have requested federal government websites to comply with international “WCAG 1.0” standards since 2000.

Jodhan and her lawyers argue that the CLF guidelines are outdated, and say legislation should be introduced that requires government sites to conform to updated “WCAG 2.0” standards guidelines. "A best effort basis will not solve this problem," she says.

Jodhan believes that the Canadian Government does not see website accessibility and availability of information for blind and visually impaired citizens as a priority. "It is my opinion that the Canadian Government believes that blind and sight-impaired Canadians can get by using sighted assistance," she says.

In terms of private sector websites, these too should be mandated to adhere to strict accessibility standards, says Jodhan, but in any case, the Canadian Government should lead by example. "If they were to take the lead in this area, then others would naturally follow. It has to be a real and committed effort by all stakeholders and rightsholders--legislation, training, and working together."

More information on Jodhan and her work can be found on her blog:


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