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Guest Editorial: Building an Active Canadian Organization

Editor's Note: John Rae has served in various positions on AEBC's Board of Directors over the past 13 years, and has also been active in numerous other disability and broader human rights organizations over the past 37 years. He is currently AEBC’s 1st Vice President.

On May 25, 2012, members of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) will gather in Kelowna, British Columbia, to celebrate our 20th anniversary. Celebrating the accomplishments of organizations and their members is something most community groups do not do often enough, and the AEBC is no exception.

The 20th anniversary of any organization should be cause for celebration. But it is doubly so in the case of the AEBC, when you consider the times and context in which the AEBC has operated.

Over the past 20 years, many, many organizations--some with far, far greater resources than the AEBC has ever enjoyed--have come and gone from the Canadian scene. Also, the AEBC has had to seek its niche in the midst of the CNIB, an omnipresent service provider, whose size, scope, resources and image make it extremely difficult for any other organization to become known and its work respected. Thus, simply being present on the Canadian scene for this length of time, providing blind Canadians with our own, independent voice makes an important statement and is an impressive accomplishment in itself.

From our humble beginnings in Kelowna, designed to bring the work and philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the United States to Canada, the NFB:AE (National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality), as we were known in our early days, went through some fundamental and difficult deliberations at our 1999 Victoria Conference. Our members decided to reorient the organization and the NFB:AE (later renamed the AEBC) emerged from that Conference with much more of a Canadian focus and work plan.

Since our early days, the AEBC has grown and now has Chapters from Halifax to Victoria. Our Chapters represent a presence for the AEBC in these communities, and provide an opportunity for individuals to come together for mutual support, camaraderie and collective action. Chapters have conducted a variety of public awareness and fundraising activities, and held discussions with local officials on such topics as public transportation, audible pedestrian signals, snow removal, useful gadgets for personal independence, and increasing access for guide dog users. Information sharing among members has assisted many to solve problems, live more independently and participate more fully in their own communities.

The AEBC's Legacy
Active membership in the AEBC has provided many people with their first opportunity to participate directly in shaping policies and initiatives, developing public speaking skills, and feeling truly valued. These new skills will enable these individuals to more effectively advocate for themselves and their fellow citizens throughout the rest of their lives. We are, after all, our own best spokespersons. We live with the reality of our particular disability every day. We know best the barriers to full participation and equality that still cry out to be removed. Our needs and aspirations have been amply documented, and it is time they were dealt with more effectively by decision makers at all levels.

Despite the growing presence of democratically organized consumer groups that AEBC Past President Robin East described first as "rights holder organizations," decision makers too often continue to turn to service providers for input on disability issues, and avoid dealing with us directly. We must continue to remind them of a phrase that is commonly used throughout the disability rights movement: "Nothing about us without us." Our expertise and right to speak for ourselves must be respected and enhanced.

Some of the diverse issues we have addressed during our history include:

* The need for improved public attitudes, where blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians will be treated with dignity and respect.
* The need for employers, both public and private, to discharge their legal duty to accommodate employees with disabilities short of undue hardship.
* The need for adequate space for the comfort of a guide dog and its owner on all modes of transportation.
* The need for improved environmental access, including audible pedestrian signals.
* The dangers of the increased presence of the hybrid or quiet automobile on our streets.
* Access to accessible information in multiple formats, including websites, textbooks, correspondence and books of all kinds.
* Advocating for a publicly operated library service.
* Developing more accessible and usable Information and Communication Technology.
* Increasing access to described videos in movies and on television.
* Seeking independent access to Point of Sale devices.
* Increasing access to Canadian currency.
* Making elections fully accessible so we can vote independently and in secret, and then verify our vote.
* Development of Canada's leadership role in negotiating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Our Future Needs Us
Attempting to predict the future is always a perilous pursuit. The disability rights movement has worked hard, and to some extent has succeeded in having our issues dealt with in more of a human rights paradigm rather than the previous charity model; yet, too many of the issues that were outlined in the landmark Obstacles Report back in the International Year of the Disabled Person (1981) are still the same issues we deal with today.

In today's more conservative times, the pendulum seems to be swinging back, and it is critical that we stand firm. We must continue to press our issues and work together to develop new allies, messages, policies, programs, legislation and approaches, as the ones we have used to date have failed to achieve the International Year's stated goal of "full participation and equality."

As we continue the fight to remove old barriers, we must also continue to devote some of our attention to maintaining the hard-won gains we have struggled so hard to achieve, and prevent the introduction of new barriers.

The research has been conducted. The recommendations are in. When will our issues be adequately addressed, particularly given the fact that the population is aging and that the rate of vision loss is expected to increase?

In the years ahead, will we see increased government and business commitment and concrete action, or will we remain relegated to the margins of Canadian society? Are we prepared to redouble our efforts to ensure a brighter future for ourselves and the younger Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted who are following in our footsteps?

Editorial: A Career as an Activist

Hello, my name is Brenda Cooke. I am an activist.

If you think that sounds a bit like a self-introduction in a 12-step program, you would be correct. Maybe there should be such a program for recovering activists. Quite often, once a person witnesses or experiences injustice, there’s no going back. Before you know it, you are extremely passionate and perhaps even addicted to promoting change. I recently realized that I have been an activist for 30 years, and the time has flown by!

As with most young people, I was taught to earn a living. Because being a musician was not seen as a viable occupation, I was strongly urged to have a backup plan. I went to university and earned my degree to become a schoolteacher, but three decades later, instead of earning a “respectable” living, I am an activist passionate about social and economic justice. So much for practicalities--my career as an activist is just as unviable as being a singer!

Over the years, I have had to adapt my economic aspirations to living well below the poverty line. That has not been a walk in the park. Despite the hardships, I am proud of my work and perseverance. Like other lines of work, activism has its positives and negatives.

Some of the positives in my being a fulltime activist are that: I am connected to a network of people who have similar values and goals; my work might eventually make society more equitable for some disadvantaged people; my lifestyle makes a light footprint on the earth due to a lack of disposable income for me to buy “stuff”; I can quit my work and suffer few social or economic repercussions; I am able to set my own work hours and I can work in my pyjamas with my cat on my lap.

No one employs me for my work. In a society where identity is primarily acquired through what we “do”, activists and their work receive little recognition or legitimacy--not even the highly regarded paycheck.

When people used to ask me, “What do you do?” I would reply, “I am an activist.” Their eyes glazed over and not knowing what to say next, they would cautiously smile and nod, and that would be the end of it. In recent years, I have begun trying to put people more at ease and gently pull them into conversation, if I have any desire to talk about my work or socially connect with others.

On occasion, the people asking me about my work would get defensive and attempt to make me feel guilty for being what they see as an ungrateful sh-t disturber. They are pretty sure that I have it all wrong. It would seem that they know more about the issues facing blind people and how to be an activist in the disability field. This is why blind people are one of the most oppressed groups in Canada--people thinking they know more, taking control over the affairs of our lives and speaking for us. There is definitely room for contribution from others, but if progress is to be made, it should be a supportive role only.

So how do I keep going amidst this lack of support and validation? As a vision impaired person living in poverty, I get a certain amount of validation from my fellow disability and poverty activists, but not so much, because most are living the struggle and have little energy for the movement, never mind for nurturing themselves or others.

In order to obtain support and encouragement, I have reached out to activists in other fields, who may not live or understand the issues of blindness and poverty, but who are savvy enough to know that they should take my word for how I experience things. Activists from other disciplines have similar experiences in their work. I enjoy the opportunity to listen and contribute to discussion outside of the blindness and anti-poverty movements--it’s sometimes a breath of fresh air, even though it is still about struggle.

Recently, I had the privilege of attending “Balm for the Spirit”, an ecumenical retreat for social justice activists held at Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. It was gratifying to know that someone recognizes that activists need to be rejuvenated every so often just like other workers. Attendees were encouraged to give voice to our struggles, and the negative talk in our heads and from others. We explored what purpose that talk serves, how to overcome struggles, what works and what doesn’t, as well as to remember to recognize and celebrate successes.

The retreat was also an opportunity to quiet our minds and pay attention to the rhythm of our bodies, the beauty of nature, living in the present, and that our role in the grand scheme of creation is only a speck in time. It is important to make the best use of our energy in that brief time, including having a life outside of activism.

I came home from the retreat more aware of the pros and cons of being an activist and being able to put things into perspective enough to carry on. I look forward to other opportunities to understand more about the role of activism, and to meeting fellow activists in a relaxed environment. I am convinced that activists from all disciplines can learn a great deal from each other.

Due to the work of social justice activists in our society, people who are black can ride at the front of the bus, women are allowed to vote, above ground nuclear testing has been banned, Canadians have access to public healthcare, most people with disabilities live in their communities instead of in institutions and much more.

Next time you meet someone who says s/he is an activist--as long as they are not promoting hate and harm--I hope you will venture outside your comfort zone, shake their hand, and have a respectful dialogue with them. Even if you cannot relate to their work, maybe thank them for helping to make the world a better place.

In this issue of the Canadian Blind Monitor, you can read articles about activists and other people who are passionate about some aspect of life, including family, work, the arts, politics, recreation etc. Most of the stories serve to remind that when barriers are removed, people who are blind want and expect the same things as most people--the opportunity to contribute to their communities and to live “normal” lives.

Editorial: The Disability Industry, Alive and Well

Our vision for volume 30 of the Canadian Blind Monitor was to review what has taken place for people with vision limitations, and for those with disabilities in general, over the past three decades, from around 1981 (International Year of Disabled Persons) to 2010, when Canada ratified the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Since I was a little dubious about just how much progress has been made, I procrastinated as long as I could before finally sitting down to write this article. I wanted it to be positive and encouraging, but was afraid it might not be. As it turned out, I was feeling pretty good about this editorial by the time it was finished.

In 1982, the UN declared December 3rd to be International Day of People with Disabilities. Since the late nineties, themes have highlighted specific disability issues. Examples include: Arts, Culture and Independent Living (1998); Making Information Technologies Work for All (2000); and Action in Development (2005). The theme this year is Making the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Disability-Inclusive: Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities and Their Communities Around the World.

According to the UN's "Enable" website (http://www.un.org/disabilities/) the Day's purpose is to "...promote an understanding of disability issues, the rights of persons with disabilities, and gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of the political, social, economic and cultural life of their communities. The Day provides an opportunity to mobilize action to achieve the goal of full and equal enjoyment of human rights and participation in society by persons with disabilities..."

While some in the disability consumer movement are somewhat unsure, others see Canada's ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on March 11 of this year as a specific outline of what rights we can expect to have realized--more specific than prior human rights legislation. The Convention also contains mechanisms and reporting to hold societies and governments accountable. Considering the benefits for both society and people with disabilities (PWDs), the CRPD should be a win-win endeavour.

It's good to see that disability is still on society's radar, but I have to wonder if December 3rd has become the same as all of those other special days of the year--once the day is over, we go back to "business as usual". I also can't help but wonder how much attention the religious and commercial sectors of society pay to disability just prior to Christmas and other faith-based celebrations, not to mention the distractions that season entails.

Since 1981, a generation has grown up exposed to a more progressive value system concerning disability, and yet most people in the disability rights movement would agree that we are a long way from a time when disability is considered to be just a reality of life and PWDs are an integral part of our society, where they enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as those without disabilities.

Canada is, in my estimation, 20 years behind our neighbour to the south, especially in the area of blindness. For example, our American cousins have managed to establish democratically structured consumer-driven rehabilitation services, such as Blind Inc. in Minnesota. Not the case in Canada. Some centres in the U.S. also employ persons who are blind to teach orientation and mobility--not permitted in Canada. This is one instance where Canada's sparse population and conservative nature are not positive characteristics; there aren't enough blind consumers to warrant several alternative community-based training centres, and Canadians are typically quite accepting of the status quo.

How much more time is needed, or will there always be a booming disability industry? If so, I look forward to the day when 90 percent of people who benefit from it are PWDs--through the services they receive to improve their lives, and through the careers and money made by being the ones to determine and deliver those services. I also look forward to the day when the majority of those being consulted by mainstream decision makers about disability issues represent consumer groups and are democratically elected by members, the majority of whom are PWDs. People with disabilities, however, should not be ghetto-ized or pushed into only working in the disability field, as that would hinder attempts of PWDs to integrate into mainstream society.

My experience is that the general public still thinks of disability and accessibility as being about wheelchairs. One reason for this is high-profile personalities who use wheelchairs, as well as what they talk (and don't talk) about. I look forward to the day when a person who is blind is afforded the same level of support and profile. Meanwhile, those of us with seeing limitations are way at the back of public consciousness, and we continue to "enjoy" the public’s lack of knowledge about and comfort with, those with vision loss, and unemployment and poverty rates of at least 60%. Wait a minute! The UN did appoint Stevie Wonder (a blind musician) as the Ambassador of Peace. Unfortunately, as far as I know, Stevie doesn't use his profile to specifically improve things for his brothers and sisters who are blind.

In this editorial, I was hoping to report positive changes in the area of disability from over the last 30 years, as well as relevant statistics, but I discovered that comparative numbers are next to non-existent, and that the UN has only this year initiated a guideline for CRPD-signing countries to gather and report statistics in a consistent manner. It has taken 29 years to create a standardized method of showing improvement, or lack thereof, in the lives of PWDs. At this rate, persons employed and in leadership on the journey toward equality will be assured of "a job" for many years to come.

What has taken place in the blindness consumer movement, and specifically in AEBC, over the last 30 years?

In 1981, blind Canadians did not have a strong progressive voice in advocating and educating Canadian society about the achievements and challenges associated with vision impairment. The national consumer group that did exist focused on social/recreational activities, philosophically and financially aligned itself with the only service provider in the country, and appeared not to speak against things that did not suit the service provider or that might imply changes to the way that service provider did business.

There had been small groups in various areas of Canada, but due to inexperience, burnout and lack of resources, they soon folded. An Ontario group had gone so far as to design an alternative service model, but to this day that model has not been tried, due to a struggling and reticent consumer movement and the preference of government and Canadian citizens--when they do happen to think about blindness--to believe that one service provider can take care of all blind Canadians' needs. What happened to democracy and choice for blind people?

In the early nineties, the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE) was founded and later became the AEBC, when the majority of members recognized that a national consumer group in Canada should have a Canadian approach to advocacy rather than the American style it had been using. Presently, Canada has about five national blindness consumer groups that have fairly different philosophies and purposes. Just recently, however, AEBC initiated discussions on establishing a mechanism by which some groups can work together on areas of mutual concern.

In the meantime, AEBC, in a quiet and steady manner, has also been doing advocacy and public education on several blindness issues such as: accessible voting, websites and household products; assistive devices; and the danger of hybrid cars. One positive change presently taking place is working toward library services and materials for print-disabled Canadians being paid for and administered through tax dollars--like mainstream public library services--rather than through charity. We probably have the recession to thank for this turn-about in that charity dollars are less plentiful.

I am very proud of being an AEBC activist and of my vision-impaired colleagues who volunteer hundreds of hours per month "to continue to fight the good fight", as AEBC Second Vice President, Donna Jodhan, says. We all just have to keep our irons in the fire, learn from our mistakes and be patient with each other. The alternative is possibly losing what we have gained, sitting on the street corner with a tin cup or selling pencils, sitting at home in isolation "out of sight and out of mind", and remaining in a life of poverty without hope. Don't wait another 30 years. I invite you and other progressive thinkers to join and support us now as we strive for the just society in which we want to live.

Best Wishes,

Brenda Cooke

Editorial: Measuring Well-Being

I asked some individuals to tell me how they determine their well-being. Most said they measure it by the state of their physical, mental and emotional health--with varying determinants for each.

The "experts" use at least eight components--all with a number of determinants--to measure the well-being of a person, a community, a country, and the world.

The definition of well-being adopted by the Institute of Wellbeing (www.ciw.ca) is: "The presence of the highest possible quality of life in its full breadth of expression, focused on but not necessarily exclusive to: good living standards, robust health, a sustainable environment, vital communities, an educated populace, balanced time use, high levels of civic participation, and access to and participation in dynamic arts, culture & recreation."

The Institute claims that it's common to rate well-being by linking it to the Gross Domestic Product (The value of goods and services produced). It further maintains that the GDP was never intended for that purpose, because the GDP doesn't take into account things that have a dollar value but may or may not be good for the well-being of society--like cigarettes and fossil fuels that cause cancer and pollute the environment, and things like volunteerism and unpaid housework that are not given value under GDP but have value when looking at well-being.

Presently, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) measures well-being of Canadians and Canadian society according to: financial security, learning, work, housing, family life, social participation, leisure, health, security and environment. As I was reading material on the HRSDC website (http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca), I noticed that determinants of well-being were frequently linked to work and the economy. I was also struck by other writings:

People with disabilities are among four groups at higher risk of being low income (not being able to meet basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and savings). Savings!

"Renters and those with less than $20,000 per year were much more likely not to be able to find adequate suitable and affordable housing."

The write-up outlines how important learning is to well-being. Most people would agree that learning usually requires access to information, and yet a very small percentage of written material is accessible to people with low or no vision. It states, "Participation in education and training can ... open the door to new opportunities that can improve one's standard of living." That should be of interest to the many Canadians with seeing limitations who have a good education and can't secure adequate and meaningful employment, not to mention the ones who have given up and removed themselves from the labour force or report that they have retired before age 65.

Most would agree that social participation improves their own and the community's well-being, and yet persons who are blind face financial, accessibility and attitudinal barriers to joining in community activities. "Measures of factors that influence social participation include social networks, sense of belonging and level of trust." I believe social networks and a sense of belonging are covered by my above comments about barriers, but the level of trust that some in the disabled community feel is seriously shaken every time there's a news story about euthanasia and the Robert Latimers in our society.

The HRSDC site further states, "Security is a fundamental component of well-being that involves safety and protection from harm. It also involves individual and community perceptions of safety, which can be just as important to well-being as the experience of harm or threats of harm." From my point of view, security is more than safety in the streets and homes being vandalized. Safety and protection from harm for some of us goes back to the issue of trust mentioned above. The "experts" don't seem to measure that kind of safety.

While facts about income and housing are no surprise, and despite acknowledgment of these facts, there doesn't seem to be much will to remedy things. Is Canadian society in denial? Is it to someone's benefit that some people remain poor and have inadequate housing, as well as the other inequities mentioned in the above paragraphs? Wouldn't there be benefits for Canadian society to reap as a result of eliminating these inequities? Is it too much bother and uncomfortable to have people with disabilities integrated into mainstream society?

As a person with a disability, some of the ways by which I measure my well-being are:

  • Being considered equal to my peers until otherwise proven.
  • Having power over how I spend money that I receive to take care of my day-to-day life.
  • Knowing that I can ask for assistance and not give up my power and the choices about how that assistance is granted.
  • Contributing to decisions made about the services available to me.
  • Being afforded opportunity to participate in my community equal to that of my peers.
  • Knowing that the people I elect to government will be as concerned about my welfare as they are the welfare of my peers.
  • Being allowed to evaluate my quality of life by the same measurements as my peers, rather than having to invent different standards in order to console myself.
  • Trusting that I can enjoy with dignity the same rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship as my peers.

I wonder what the Institute of Well-being and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada would do with these measurements of well-being?

Despite the seemingly accepted conditions in Canada, Blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians are for the most part survivors. You'll notice that there are some writings within these pages that portray various achievements while striving for and maintaining well-being. I invite and encourage you to read on and see for yourself.

Best Wishes.

Editorial: Mere Integration Is Not Enough!

Picture:

John Rae and Marcia Cummings marching with other in Ottawa, to end exclusion.

In the early days of the disability rights movement, Canadians with disabilities sought integration. We wanted the opportunity to work and to escape the shackles of poverty. We wanted to go to school alongside our non-disabled peers, and to ride the same buses. We wanted to go to the movies and sit anywhere we chose and to participate in local fitness and recreational programs. We wanted to be able to use new products and emerging technologies. We wanted to live safely in our own communities and have our own families. And we wanted our human rights protected by Human Rights Codes.

In the old days, we sought "integration"--being in the same places as our non-disabled peers. It was a good starting point. It opened some doors. But too often it failed to move our position in Canadian society forward, either far enough or fast enough, and often resulted in mere tokenism.

In today's "mainstream" classrooms, do blind students have access to current adaptive technology and the training required to use it effectively? Are they instructed in braille and orientation and mobility skills so they can learn and play alongside their sighted peers? Do they receive the supports they need to succeed in school or are some just "dumped" into classes without the resources necessary for optimal learning? Every student, disabled or not, must be provided with the tools relevant to their particular education and development, to stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees "mobility rights" to every Canadian, but being able to move from one province or territory to another isn't enough if needed disability-related services and supports don't follow you. If you happen to live in Ontario, for instance, you can qualify for its Assistive Devices Program, which pays up to 75% of the cost of many items, including computers with adaptive software. If an Ontarian moves to Manitoba, British Columbia or several other provinces and territories, access to this kind of support is lost, because many other jurisdictions still do not offer similar programs. This type of support must become universally available throughout Canada.

Technological advances were supposed to be the great equalizer and make it easier for persons with disabilities to secure and maintain employment. To some extent they have, but these advances have also made it easier for workplaces to phase out positions that used to provide employment for many.

Over the past three decades, our rate of employment has improved only slightly. At a time when a growing number of occupational fields are experiencing a shortage of skilled labour and many persons with disabilities remain unemployed or underemployed, why isn't government implementing a National Economic Strategy to bridge this gap by addressing both the chronic levels of poverty and unemployment that continue to plague so many Canadians with disabilities, including we who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted?

Too often the release of new versions of adaptive technology, designed to provide blind persons with access to mainstream computer programs, lags considerably behind the release of commercially available software. This produces new barriers.

Regular household products and appliances, furthermore, have traditionally been usable to the majority of the population but today, despite increased talk of "Universal Design", we are taking a step backwards, with a growing range of items operable only via digital displays or visual menus. Consumers with vision loss cannot use these products independently. In 2008, why are such barriers still being created? This represents yet another violation of our human rights. Products must be designed with everyone in mind.

Today's Canadians are becoming more environmentally conscious, leading to the ever-increasing popularity of the quiet, hybrid vehicle. While they may be friendlier to the environment--something the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians firmly applauds--quiet, hybrid cars pose a danger to pedestrians--not just those who are blind--who may not hear the approach of these stealthy automobiles. Before someone is maimed or killed on our streets, we call on manufacturers to add some feature or device to these vehicles to emit a sound loud enough for pedestrians to hear them.

The ongoing imperative that old barriers must be removed and new ones prevented is one of many reasons why the AEBC was pleased to participate in meetings that developed the National Action Plan, which focuses on Building an Inclusive and Accessible Canada for all, released at last November's End Exclusion event in Ottawa (see the text of this Action Plan elsewhere in these pages and visit the End Exclusion website at www.endexclusion.ca). It is now up to all of us to familiarize ourselves with this National Action Plan, spread the word about it and bring its content directly to our locally elected officials.

The idea of "integration" remains laudable, but we must look far beyond merely being alongside our non-disabled counterparts. We want real inclusion and the removal of barriers so that we can realize our right to participate fully in all aspects of regular community life. In short, we want to realize the promise of the International Year of the Disabled Person 1981, which called for "full participation and equality."

Editorial: Misconceptions Hurt People's Lives!

Today, even after decades of extensive public education work, outdated and stereotypical notions about blindness and the capabilities of persons who are blind still abound. These misconceptions remain pervasive and hard to dispel. For some reason, progress is painfully slow, even when facts are presented that contradict these myths.?

Prevailing erroneous beliefs prevent our full participation in all aspects of Canadian society--they hurt people's lives. Why are they still so ingrained???

Part of the answer can be found in the media and literature where persons who are blind are too often portrayed as "super," "amazing," or virtually helpless, and very little in between, but these depictions do not adequately or accurately reflect our reality, and only serve to reinforce false notions.??

Family, friends and even people who are, or become, blind themselves frequently hold these same views about blindness. However, we are neither heroic nor tragic figures. We are people who simply cannot see fully and who have learned, and continue to learn, how to function without sight-nothing more and nothing less.??

In the 21st century, many sighted individuals still cannot conceive how persons who are blind do things, but we do! The evidence is all around us.??

We go to school and gain post-secondary degrees; we work in an ever growing range of jobs, though our level of unemployment remains a national disgrace; we travel on buses, trains and airplanes; we cook enjoyable meals for ourselves and friends; we go to the theatre and movies; we enjoy sex; we marry and raise children; and we vote.??

We may do some things a bit differently--reading and writing using large print or braille; travelling safely and independently with a white cane or guide dog; cooking a meal and determining food readiness by texture, smell, sound or taste; surfing the internet using screen magnification or screen reading software--but the important point is that most of us want to be seen as ordinary individuals, pursuing the same range of life experiences as our sighted counterparts do.??

We assumed that our increased visibility in our communities would make a real difference in the ways we are viewed and treated, and it has helped some. But showing by example is seemingly still not enough.?

Our lives would be enhanced by increased common courtesy. We wish the public would ask if we need help in reaching our destination instead of dragging us in a direction we may or may not wish to go. We would like to be addressed directly, as we can speak and make decisions for ourselves, rather than have someone speak to our companion instead of to us. And those with guide dogs would appreciate the public asking permission to pet or talk to the animals when they are in harness, as distracting a dog while it is working can be dangerous for both the guide dog and the handler alike.??

Do we really respect and embrace diverse groups, including people who are blind, within Canadian society, as we profess to do???

According to Helen Henderson's article, "Diversity Ideal Excludes Disabled," (Toronto Star, November 17, 2007) there's a growing disconnect between the terms "diversity" and "inclusion." She says, "Diversity should include all people who look and think and communicate and move in ways that distinguish them from the majority, but these days the term 'diversity' is used almost exclusively to refer to skin colour and ethnicity."??

This is one reason why the disabled community has begun using the terms "inclusion" or inclusive communities."??

People with disabilities must be active participants in constructing accessible communities, building a truly inclusive education system, and drafting government or private-sector policies and programs that actually respond to our needs. Henderson adds, "Given the right tools, kids with disabilities can thrive. Given the right supports, adults with disabilities can reach our full potential."??

But all this takes planning and real commitment! It also requires an "awareness" that investing in the necessary participation and inclusiveness pays off, both for persons with disabilities and for society as a whole.??

The phrase "Nothing about us without us" reflects our frustration over the slowness of progress, and that so many life-affecting decisions are made without our meaningful involvement. We know best what we need, as we live disability every day. We are our own best spokespersons.??

We know how marginalization hurts! We know what the increasing wealth gap is doing to us. We know that unemployment and poverty add to health care costs. And we want our governments at all levels to commit to a true poverty reduction strategy that will set targets and timetables and include us in developing the needed programs to make such a policy reality.??

We want to see the achievement of the elusive theme of the International Year of the Disabled Persons 1981, "full participation and equality," and see it achieved in our lifetimes, and we expect to play a key role in attaining that goal.??

Organizations like the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians exist to encourage individuals to dream, to try out new ideas, and to provide a vehicle for collective action aimed at change. We are here to shatter stereotypes about blindness and to show others (including those who are blind themselves sometimes) not only what is possible, but also what barriers and challenges we face, and solutions to meet these needs. We're on the way to making lasting change. Will you join us???

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."--Margaret Mead?

Editorial: Learning to Get Up and Go...It's Your Life to Lead

Whenever I meet a blind person for the first time who has spunk, drive and determination, I usually wonder what has happened in that person's life. Why does that person have these traits--that "get up and go" approach to life--while so many others do not...?

Most of the time, the individual cannot point to one single cause or defining moment in their life that made it happen! Of course, as individuals, we are as different from each other as the members of any other group in our society, and this fact should come as no surprise to anyone.

Perhaps a "get up and face the world" approach stems from a supportive family, good role models or mentors, an effective rehab program, or simply gaining opportunities and positive experiences that others have never had.

Expectations from one's family or friends can play an important part. Too often we tend to see ourselves as other see us. If others have higher expectations of us, and assumptions of what we can become, these may help propel us to achieve.

While gaining the alternative skills of blindness, including good mobility skills, are imperative for emotional stability, adjustment and independence, our society must become more accessible and accepting if these newly acquired skills are to be used to their maximum benefit.

For instance, it's important to learn braille, and this skill can be extremely helpful in one's personal life such as in making grocery lists, labelling personal items and recreational reading, but this skill cannot be of as much use to a blind person as it might otherwise be if government reports, school textbooks and leisure reading are not readily available in braille. Knowing how to use a white cane is crucial, but again, its use is limited if the blind traveller meets with public transit drivers who will not call out stops or encounters sidewalks or construction sites that are littered with so many obstacles as to make independent travel with a cane difficult or even unsafe. Computer and adaptive technology skills are only of maximum use, furthermore, if people can afford the equipment, gain necessary training on the hardware/software, and have the opportunity to utilize these skills in education or employment settings.

An individual can learn alternative skills, but unless the "system" or society allows for the exercise of these skills to their maximum, the blind person's options, opportunities and independence will still remain needlessly limited. Which leads to another point--once you've acquired all the blindness skills you can (assuming there's someone available to train you in a timely and cost-effective manner) and you venture into the big, wide world, your confidence, energy and sense of achievement can often be dashed by routinely encountering unaware employers; inaccessible bank machines, public transit, newspapers and other published materials, websites etc.; not to mention unfriendly, condescending, babying, or just plain rude or ignorant attitudes.

And once you encounter these confidence-dashing obstacles time after time, it can be exhausting filing informal or formal complaints, a process which itself can drain confidence. It takes a certain determination and resilience to keep at it and maintain the pressure until you get results, and even then the results may not be what you want, or have the right to expect.

This is why organizations like the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians exist, and why we work hard to effect positive changes in the areas of attitudes and public policy, to achieve direct impact on areas that affect our everyday lives--advocating for increased access to orientation and mobility training, convincing bus and streetcar drivers to call out stops, lobbying for greater availability of printed materials in multiple formats and for websites to be made truly usable, and seeking to change public attitudes--so all persons who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted can feel accepted and comfortable participating in regular community life. Through our efforts, and network of members who have varying degrees of experience with vision loss, too, we hope that more citizens who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted will have the opportunity to develop, or discover, that spunk and determination that has propelled so many others forward.

Editorial: Building An Inclusive and Accessible Canada

"There are no insurmountable obstacles to prevent Canada from taking a World Leadership Role in providing disabled persons with the practical means for greater independence."--Obstacles Report, 1981

In the early 1980's, a conscious decision was made in Canada to divide group and individual advocacy. Thus, the Disability Rights Movement, led by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), focuses on changing legislation and policies, while the Independent Living Movement, coordinated nationally by the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centers (CAILC), focuses on consumer-directed service provision.

Initially, many consumer-directed services were established partly as a direct response to traditional service providers of the rehabilitation industry, where persons with disabilities generally have little or no say over the services offered, or the ways in which they were provided.

Today, there is a network of over 25 Independent Living Centers from coast to coast in Canada that offers a variety of services to Canadians with various disabilities, including individuals who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted.

Both movements assert strongly that environmental, communication and attitudinal barriers--and not the disability itself--are the major causes of the exclusion and marginalization from regular community life that is the reality for so many Canadians who have any disability.

To live independently with dignity and to be able to participate fully in all aspects of regular community life, we need the provision of a range of disability supports including coverage of the costs of needed assistive devices; full access to the built environment; availability of reliable public transportation; construction of housing that all can use, regardless of age or physical condition; availability of mobility training; publication of information in formats that all can read; and most of all, we need improved public attitudes and urgent and immediate relief from the chronic level of poverty that remains the reality for so many Canadians who live with a disability in this affluent country.

It's amazing how so many simple, cost-effective solutions for access benefit everyone. Elevators and curb cuts help people with strollers and carts. Television captions allow people to watch TV without disturbing anyone else. Website content that is designed for blindness or other disabilities is cleaner and easier to use.

On November 2, 2006, CCD and the Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL) convened leaders of the disability community in Ottawa to celebrate the achievements in advancing the status of Canadians with disabilities over the past 25 years, and to provide a forum to share current thinking on two key social policy issues: the idea of a Canadians with Disabilities Act, and Exploring the Issues of Poverty and Disability. "A Declaration to Create an Inclusive and Accessible Canada" was formally released (found elsewhere in this issue).

Since publication of the 1981 Obstacles Report, numerous other reports have been released. In most areas, the research is in; the case for inclusion has been made; and it's time for governments at all levels, employers and the community to truly accept persons with disabilities as a growing reality of each community.

For our part, persons with disabilities are one of the most adaptable groups in our society. We want to participate side by side with everyone else, to earn a decent income, to participate in community life, and to raise a family.

It's time that governments at all levels showed the leadership that is so desperately required, and provided us with the tools we need to make our dreams come true!

Editorial: The Elusive Search For Equality

Since the emergence of Canada's disability rights movement in the 70s, much progress has been achieved in the area of legal rights, and this equitable legal framework has been applied in numerous cases, including some that have been decided by the Supreme Court of Canada. At the same time, however, our movement has made far less progress in the areas of economic and social rights, and as a whole Canadians with disabilities remain one of the poorest and most unemployed groups in Canadian society.

This reality was reinforced when CNIB's National Needs Study was released last November. The 352 consumers who participated paint a grim picture of continuing unemployment, isolation and poverty, areas of life, which have shown little improvement since the last, study some 30 long years ago. Today, in an era of neo-conservatism, much of our work still involves trying to remove old barriers and to maintain the gains that have been hard won.

Achieving comprehensive human rights protection at the federal, provincial and territorial levels was a hard struggle, and Ontario is now considering implementing a BC-style system of "direct access", where complainants would take their cases directly to the human rights tribunal. While most would argue the Ontario Human Rights Commission could use improvements, after years of chronic under-funding it should come as no surprise that its critics are seeking an overhaul in the system.

However, despite assurances, Ontario's Bill 107 does not guarantee complainants promised legal representation before the Tribunal, and at this time the proposed new system is likely to make it tougher, and not easier, for complainants to seek needed redress from discrimination.

Human rights work throughout Canada needs increased funding and real government commitment!

At the federal level, on May 19, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the Via Rail case, and justices reserved their judgment. This case reminds us of how ineffective Canada's system of voluntary codes of practice is, and how important it is to implement a mandatory approach.

During the last federal election, the Conservatives, NDP and Green Parties made various mentions of enacting some kind of National Disabilities Act. This concept remains a controversial issue within Canada's disability rights movement. Some groups see it as a possible step forward given progress made under the Americans With Disabilities Act; some feel we must work with its proponents to help make it as effective as possible; and others fear it will fail to achieve what we really need--a focus on reducing poverty, increasing employment, and funding for needed disability supports. These are issues, which will require provincial and territorial support to finally achieve implementation.

On the international scene, Canada is playing a leading role in the development of the proposed UN International Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (ICRPD). While this will likely be of greatest assistance to the millions of persons with disabilities who live in the under-developed world, it is also important to disabled Canadians. It must be strong and enforceable, so we will maintain the gains we have made here in Canada, and if effective, a strong Convention can be used to bring added pressure for new gains at home. Canada now needs to show its commitment by developing a policy within the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) that applies a "disability lens" to all of its funding support worldwide.

Canada's electoral system remains inaccessible to many citizens who wish to participate. This includes some polls still being located in inaccessible locations, candidates meetings without amplification systems for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, and continuing difficulties to secure party platforms and campaign literature in formats electors who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted can read. In addition, political parties have done far too little to reach out to the disabled community as workers at election time, staff, or potential candidates, and despite CCD's (Council of Canadians with Disabilities) "Election Challenges" during federal elections, our issues still receive only scant attention.

In an article in the Toronto Star, "Legislature Needs More Women, Party Leaders All Agree" (June 15, 2006), Robert Benzie described an unusual event in the Ontario Legislature. Debate was interrupted for 15 minutes while all three party leaders gave their commitments to nominate more women candidates in the next provincial election.

While it is easy to support greatly increased representation of women in all areas of politics, when will parties give similar attention to other chronically under-represented groups like racial minorities, First Nations Peoples and persons with disabilities?

The AEBC believes that greater equality for Canadians with disabilities would come if more persons with disabilities were directly involved in all sectors--working in the media, shopping in barrier-free stores, and encouraged to participate fully in all aspects of the political process.

Editorial: Promoting Equal Participation Throughout The World

Persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted have much in common with one another, regardless of where they live. We are all fighting for greater acceptance and recognition, for improved living conditions, and for better opportunities to participate in all aspects of regular community life, both in Canada and around the world.

This international issue of the Canadian Blind Monitor presents a range of snapshots that describe the condition of persons who are blind around the world, as well as some of their activities. It is not intended to be exhaustive, but simply to give readers a better idea of what it is like to live as blind persons in various countries and cultures.

The proposed United Nations (UN) Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities is progressing faster than most previous conventions, and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) are participating far more than ever before. Their continued involvement is crucial, as this Convention must be both forward-looking in its philosophical outlook and effective and tangible in improving the life experiences of all persons with disabilities around the world.

As expected, Canada has played a prominent role in deliberations and its delegation has consulted regularly with Canada's disability community. Although the toughest part is still ahead--the negotiations on final wording, ratification by state parties of the UN, and implementation by each signatory--Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted expect to see the adoption of a strong Convention, with clearly defined enforcement and monitoring mechanisms. This is the only way this Convention will help the millions of disabled persons around the world to achieve our rightful place in the social and economic fabric of each country.

And it is time that Canada itself, at all levels, "walked the talk" and showed the same level of commitment in helping to improve our living conditions here at home. Only then can Canadians with disabilities truly achieve the goals we are helping others to attain around the world.

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