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Victoria Author Calls for Replacement of Charity-based System

Vancouver, British Columbia--The author of a book just released says an 80 percent unemployment rate among blind Canadians is an unnecessary violation of human rights. In his book The Politics of Blindness, Victoria resident Graeme McCreath, who is blind himself, calls for a complete overhaul of services for blind Canadians, stating the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) is an unsuitable vehicle to serve the best interests of blind Canadians.

McCreath, a physiotherapist and blind rights advocate, argues that the majority of working aged blind Canadians must be given the opportunity to participate in the workforce alongside their fellow citizens. The Politics of Blindness offers a whole different approach from the traditional custodial view of blindness and calls for more workplace training opportunities.

“I wrote this book to help change what it means to be a blind person in Canada,” says Graeme McCreath. “For too long, blind people have been subjected to inequality and misrepresentation. This book tells the Canadian public the stark reality about the status of blind people in this country.”

In his book, McCreath recommends that the Canadian government dismantle blind charities in favour of setting up skills-based training facilities, government incentive programs to encourage businesses to hire blind workers and a new universal federal living allowance based solely on the characteristics of blindness. This would end the current system, which penalizes people who want to utilize their intelligence and creativity while engaging in meaningful work.

“I concentrated on identifying past and present mistakes in the treatment of disadvantaged blind Canadians, and I feel that my constructive solutions offer a way to radically improve the lives of blind citizens,” says McCreath.

The Politics of Blindness is an evidence-based account of the history, present day situation and future possibilities of blind peoples’ experience.

Visit: http://www.thepoliticsofblindness.com

Reprinted courtesy of Peak Communicators Ltd., February 7, 2011.

Our Rights, Our Future: A Rights-Holder Perspective

Editor's Note: The following are notes for the President's Report delivered by Robin at the opening of AEBC's 2010 Conference and Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Montreal, Quebec.

I would like to welcome all of you to our Conference and AGM in Montreal. I am sure you will enjoy your visit here. I hope you meet some old friends and get acquainted with some new folks from across the country. Please join me in thanking the organizing committee--Anthony Tibbs, Marc Workman, Natalie Martiniello, Heather Rupert, Rosie Arcuri, Ezra Chitayat, Paulo Monteagudo--and the rest of the Montreal Chapter for working hundreds of hours to make this weekend a success.

I would also like to thank the 2009-10 Board of Directors for their commitment of valuable time and hard work to the AEBC. Each National Board member devotes many hours each week to promote the goals and objectives of our organization. Denise Sanders is leaving the Board after serving four terms, two each as Treasurer and Director Without Portfolio. She plans to stay involved on the Communications Working Group and will continue to participate with the Kelowna Chapter.

Welcome to all the new members who have joined AEBC during the past year.

To all the Chapters, I thank Executive members for their commitment to the work of AEBC. Also, I would like to thank the Affiliate for all its hard work in British Columbia. Further thanks go out to our National Committees, including scholarship, finance/fundraising, human resources, membership and policy development, and their many working groups.

I am pleased to report that, for the 2009-10 academic year, AEBC awarded three scholarships and two bursaries: The AEBC Rick Oakes Scholarship for the Arts to Mr. Allan Angus; The AEBC National Achievement Scholarship to Mr. Anthony Tibbs; The Alan H. Neville Memorial Scholarship to Ms. Helen McFadyen; The Reverend Leslie Ball Bursary for the Performing Arts to Mr. Koceïla Louali; and The Reverend Leslie Ball Bursary for Vocational Training and Trades to Ms. Stephanie Berry. Congratulations to the winners. We wish them all the best in their studies and future plans.

AEBC has been very active during the past year. Discussions have taken place over the past several months between representatives of consumer organizations of blind Canadians, CNIB, the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. These discussions have been aimed at drafting recommendations on how a new network hub responsible for coordinating access to library services for print disabled Canadians should be designed and operated. Final recommendations were submitted to Library and Archives Canada (LAC), which is drafting a proposal to be sent to Cabinet. There will be future opportunities for AEBC and individual members to have further input into this process.

AEBC’s National Board of Directors has approved these recommendations with one exception: we have a membership resolution in place stating that any entity like the one being proposed be government run and operated. This resolution prevents the AEBC from endorsing that particular recommendation; however, the Board supports the remaining recommendations.

AEBC has also been meeting with other national rights-holder organizations and CNIB to attempt to form a national coalition that will work collaboratively on common issues. The main purpose of these meetings was to build on some of the momentum established over the last several months as these and other disability groups worked on the library issue.

Everyone seemed to agree that the working relationship was positive and productive, but if it is to continue operating as anything more than an ad hoc coalition, we needed to determine and clearly articulate the structure, roles and operations of the coalition and its various member organizations. In May, the groups met for two days in Toronto, and developed terms of reference for the Coalition. Each participating organization is to discuss the outcome of these meetings, and indicate its participation in the coalition. It is expected the groups will not meet again until the fall of 2010, and in the meantime work is to begin on access to PIN-and-card and point-of-sale devices.

A resolution will be introduced to you, the members, at this Conference to endorse AEBC's participation in this coalition.

Over the past year, the AEBC National Board has been engaged in a comprehensive review of our activities. Our goal has been to determine those areas where we are most effective, and those in which our performance or effectiveness could be improved. Discussion of this review will take place at this Conference.

We also need to work on our communications strategy. The present redesign of the national website will go a long way toward addressing this concern, by collecting information on each “issue” (elections, quiet cars, education, etc.) into a central location; however, our internal communications (among Chapters, members and the National Board) also needs an overhaul. This Conference will give you the opportunity, as members, to participate in determining how AEBC will go about communicating our future activities to you. The final plan will need "buy-in" from all levels of the organization--Chapters, committees and the National Board--to be successful.

Several years ago, Donna Jodhan, our 2nd Vice President, launched a Charter case in which she is challenging the Canadian government over inaccessible websites and unequal access to information. Donna, with her lawyers and supporters, including AEBC, has been fighting to force the federal government to make its websites and information accessible and usable. Unfortunately, to date, the Canadian government has ignored all requests to settle this ongoing action. Donna's case, on behalf of all Blind Canadians, will be heard in federal court on September 21-23, 2010. The AEBC fully supports this landmark access case, and we urge members of our community to come out and show their support. (Editor’s Note: Please see “Challenging the System” elsewhere in these pages for further details and an update on the case.)

AEBC continues to submit briefs and make presentations on issues of concern. More and more, we are being recognized by all levels of government as the real voice of Canadians with significant vision impairment.

Our activities over the past year (2009-10) have included: meeting with representatives from the Office of Disability Issues re a national ID card; hosting Michel Grenier, Director of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) at our November Board meeting; making a presentation to the review of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA); a presentation on poverty to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development (HRSD); presenting Webzine on the AODA and the Accessibility Standards development process for Citizens With Disabilities-Ontario (CWDO); a presentation to the Standing Committee on Social Policy for Bill 152, an act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario; meeting with HRSD Canada Special Advisor to Minister to discuss funding, hybrid cars, electronic voting, library issues etc.; participating in Canada Transportation Agency Advisory Committee meetings; Speaking on advocacy and facilitating a workshop at the annual Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) Action Coalition Conference, entitled Leading the Way: Developing a Poverty Reduction Strategy for People with Disabilities; speaking on a panel at Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Taking Action on Poverty, Poor Health and Bad Jobs, sponsored by the Toronto Social Planning Council; and attending the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly on the introduction of the Blind Voters Rights Bill.

Briefs and position papers we have submitted include: Electoral Accessibility: A Key to Equality, to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly of Ontario; Status of the AODA; Copyright Consultation; National Economic Strategy, to the Standing Committee on Finance; Review of the Municipal Elections Act, to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing; Bill 152, an act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario, to the Standing Committee on Social Policy; and Information and Communication Accessibility Standard (ICAS), to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services.

More details on our activities can be found by visiting our website: http://www.blindcanadians.ca (Editor’s Note: Also see “Headlines & Highlights” in these pages for updated information).

Finally, some AEBC members believe our organization would be more successful if we concentrated our efforts on fewer issues. This is an understandable view but potentially problematic, due to the vast number of other barriers blind Canadians continue to face daily. We, as a national organization and the voice of the blind, cannot ignore these issues. However, I believe that becoming more focused on a few issues can be achieved, as long as we still recognize there are many issues related to blindness that need to be addressed, albeit at a lower priority.

Over the past few months, the AEBC Board has been discussing the idea of trying to find three to five "issues" that we, as an organization, can prioritize so that our actions are focused and more effective. A large list of issues that matter to blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted members was drawn up primarily from the brainstorming session at the face-to-face Board meeting that took place in Toronto. We started out with a list of more than 20 items, which we then proceeded to merge and eliminate, combine and rewrite. We also recently conducted a poll among the membership to ascertain which issues you consider the most important. The results will help guide the discussions at this year's Conference.

The outcome of these discussions, in many ways, will be a difficult task for each of you to consider. The issues are all very important, and it will be hard to choose a few that deserve to have a higher priority than others. However, we need to face the question of whether we can achieve more by becoming focused.

An AEBC member is a rights-holder who inspires empowerment and addresses our rights for the future.

Each member of this organization needs to advocate and be part of the common voice of the blind. We, as a community, need to work together, speak out, and take action. We must work in our local Chapters, through our National Committee's, and as a national voice to ensure our rights are entrenched. Our advocacy must become focused, and yet we must continue to address the wide range of barriers we face.

Our rights and our future are in your hands.

Competing Models of Disability Must Continue to Evolve

Editor's Note: John Rae is AEBC’s 1st Vice President. This article is based on his presentation "From Invisibility to Rights Holders: Competing Paradigms of Disability," at Ryerson University, October 2009.

In his 1990 article, "The Individual and Social Models of Disability," Mike Oliver, an academic in the Disability Studies field, observes: "There is a danger that in discussing issues related to disability, we will end up with more models than Lucy Clayton [a modelling agency]. This is dangerous in that if we are not careful, we will spend all of our time considering what we mean by the medical model or the social model, or perhaps the psychological or, more recently, the administrative or charity models of disability. These semantic discussions will obscure the real issues in disability, which are about oppression, discrimination, inequality and poverty."

It is my view, however, that many of these paradigms themselves are a significant source of the current discrimination, marginalization and oppression that is still the life experience of far too many persons with disabilities (PWDs). Today, the primary debate in the field of disability revolves around the fundamental differences between the medical and social models of disability--between viewing the disability as the primary cause of our problems, and seeing policies, attitudes and barriers in the built environment as the real impediments to our full participation and equality. However, these are only two of many ways in which disability has been described over the centuries. As new paradigms emerge, they vie for predominance and sometimes supplant previous paradigms, but the old ways of describing disability continue to compete for the attention of the public and of PWDs ourselves.

Persons with disabilities have been present from time in memorial. In ancient times, they were often ostracized from their communities and left to fend for themselves in the wilds. In medieval and renaissance periods, they were often ridiculed, as the Catholic Church interpreted them as rejects, works of the devil, and punishments for parental mistakes. This led to being excluded from society.

Remember the story in the Gospel of John, Chapter 9, about the man born blind? As the disciples walked along with Jesus, they passed by a blind man (begging, of course) and asked, "Who has sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?" In some cultures, PWDs are still seen as punishment for past sins.

Following Canada’s Confederation in 1867, the first residential schools for the blind were established in Nova Scotia and Ontario. While education for blind students was undoubtedly forward thinking at that time, these schools were established under the provinces’ respective Penitentiaries and Asylums Acts. In the early 1900s, the "hide us away syndrome" became even more prevalent, with the creation of various large institutions, usually in small towns, where many PWDs were housed, “out of sight and out of mind" from the rest of society.

In 1918, the CNIB was established, and later other charitable organizations were founded, to form the rehabilitation industry that is too often imbued with a philosophy based on the Charity Ethic. Training of medical professionals, furthermore, focuses on curing or fixing the sick, though most of us are no more ill than our non-disabled counterparts, and those of us with a permanent disability will never be "cured" or "fixed." Both the charity and medical ethics have some similarities to the Professional Ethic, where decisions about "what's best" for us are controlled by others, with or without our input.

In the 1970s, persons with disabilities, seeing the successes of the Civil Rights and Women's movements, began to establish our own organizations. The Consumer Movement, or the Disability Rights Movement, started partly as a reaction against the charity industry and partly to provide a vehicle for self-organization and self-expression, both fundamental rights in any democracy. This process gave us as citizens the opportunity to begin forging our own destiny. For many of us, the Disability Rights Movement was a source of empowerment, giving us our first chance to participate directly in developing policies and strategies that affect our daily lives. One of the lasting benefits of our Movement is the opportunity it has given many of us to develop skills that are so useful throughout our lives.

The Disability Rights Movement invested a great deal of time and effort to secure coverage under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms and under federal, provincial and territorial Human Rights Codes. We succeeded in gaining an equitable legal framework, but even today we are far closer to achieving the Charter's guarantee of being "equal before and under the law" than to enjoying the anticipated measure of substantive equality of the "equal benefit of the law," which we are still far away from attaining.

Today, various paradigms continue to compete for prominence. Robin East, AEBC's President, has recently developed the newest way of approaching disability--the Rights Holder approach. Based on the idea of "nothing about us without us," this paradigm posits that we who have disabilities must no longer be lumped with all other so-called stakeholders, but must be given a pre-eminent role in determining the policies and legislation that affect our lives. Currently, we as Rights Holders are forced to fight hard to maintain the fundamental idea that our concerns should be viewed as issues of rights and not charity, issues that belong in the news and not the Life section of our newspapers.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is a new and important international instrument recognizing the appropriateness of the social model of disability. Now, it is up to all of us to learn what the first human rights Convention of the 21st century means, and to learn how to use it, and other Conventions, to advance our equality, both domestically and internationally.

Canada's Social Policy - Positive Changes and Persistent Challenges

Editor's Note: Michael Prince is the Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and is a board member with the BC Association of Community Living.

For persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, what in Canadian social programs has changed over the past 20 years that positively affects their quality of life and status of citizenship? And, just as importantly, what has not changed?

The specifics of reform no doubt vary by provincial and federal jurisdiction. In a political system of federalism, it is more useful to think of a multiplicity of policy records. Ideally, then, to answer the question of the Canadian record of progress, we would need a series of case studies that cast light on results spanning an array of government jurisdictions, communities, services and instruments of public policy. Moreover, the timeframe to assess changes in approaching disability issues, and the expectations for major changes, likely vary among interests within the Canadian disability community. Here, I can offer only a selective overview assessment.

Positive developments over the last few decades in advancing access and inclusion for Canadians with disabilities include:

  • New tax benefits recognizing additional needs and costs of persons living with prolonged or severe disabilities, and their families. Examples include the Child Disability Benefit, Disability Supports Deduction, and the Registered Disability Savings Plan.

  • Public education and social awareness campaigns by governments, employers and broadcasters that contributed, along with other factors, to a shift in discourse from a personal tragedy to a public participation viewpoint.

  • Changes to federal, provincial, and some municipal election laws and procedures, including outreach measures to improve the accessibility of voting for citizens with disabilities. From a survey of almost 200 associations representing people with disabilities about the 2000 federal election, 89 percent reported a positive impression of Election Canada's role, 75 percent were satisfied with services to Canadians with disabilities, and 72 percent were aware of these access services.

  • Technological advances in communication that include captioning of all national programming by Canadian television stations and some local programming, TTY (teletypewriter) access through telephones, video relay services and, most recently, wireless pagers and messaging services.

  • Legal developments regarding disability and political victories, such as the right to sign-language interpreters in health-care services; Québec legislation in 2004 to further secure handicapped persons their rights to achieving social, school and workplace integration; and passage in 2005 of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

  • A concerted effort by Statistics Canada since the 1980s to conduct surveys on Canadians with disabilities in order to identify their lived experiences, the barriers they face, and trends over time. Other federal departments and think tanks also have greatly assisted in the development, interpretation and dissemination of much disability information.

  • Adoption by the United Nations General Assembly, in 2006, of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Canadian government in 2007 signed the Convention and fully ratified on March 11, 2010. The Convention covers civil, political, cultural, economic and social rights--a multidimensional conception of citizenship--supported by a monitoring body to encourage the compliance of states to their obligations.

Hence, there have been many achievements in Canadian disability policy and practice in recent decades, but they have been uneven and incomplete.

There have also been setbacks. For example, in the mid 1990s, the federal government withdrew from cost sharing with the provinces the provision of core social services and social assistance across the country. In the late 1990s, the federal and most provincial governments approved reductions to CPP (Canada Pension Plan) Disability benefits. Federal expenditures on employment services for persons with disabilities remain modest and, more significantly, stagnant in real terms over the last decade. As grounds of discrimination, disability is by far the most common type of complaint brought to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Serious gaps persist in access to affordable, quality disability-related supports for a considerable number of Canadians with disabilities. The default is informal family care and charitable services where possible, and where not, social isolation and unmet basic needs with everyday activities.

The general picture in Canada on employment for persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted continues to be one of relatively high rates of unemployment and underemployment, with barriers to training and placement services, along with inadequate supports for employment preparation and accommodations in workplaces.

Large numbers of people with disabilities are not receiving the essential services they require because of cost, lack of availability and inaccessible environments. Entry to some supports are still tied to receipt of income benefits, most notably social assistance, which adds a barrier to gaining access to needed services.

As I point out in my recent book Absent Citizens: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2009), individuals and their families bear a disproportionate share of the costs, work and responsibilities associated with addressing the everyday needs of living with disabilities. As a consequence, they experience undue hardship and are restricted from full and active participation in economic, educational and social life.

Due to inadequate supports, attitudinal barriers, and insufficient employment opportunities, plus provincial government efforts at moving "able bodied" people off welfare, people with disabilities now represent between 40 to 70 percent of those on income assistance, the so-called "social safety net." This program of last resort has become the program of first resort for thousands of people with disabilities across the country--a program distinguished for minimal rights, complex rules, and the sting of stigma.

Most social policies in Canada still regard disability as specific impairments, diseases and disorders; programs are categorical rather than a continuum of services, with sharp distinctions and abrupt changes when a person experiences a life transition. Living with a disability in Canada remains a strong predictor of welfare dependence and poverty for individuals, families, and many of the agencies struggling to assist them. A critical need therefore exists for enhanced income security, personal supports and public services.

For younger Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, a key social policy goal must be accessible school-based supports, and school-to-work transitions to employment preparation and placements.

For the current generation of older Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, important social policy issues concern ensuring more adequate and dignified provision of financial support at the federal and provincial levels of government as well as encouraging social participation and inclusion through such local and municipal activities as adult education, community services, recreation and peer support.

For all Canadians, the necessity exists to raise awareness on an ongoing basis about the fact that people who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted are still among the most vulnerable citizens in our society.

Photo: Michael J. Prince

My First Secret Ballot

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XLV, No. 4, November 2006: www.acb.org

It is March 21, 2006, the day of the primary election, and there is anticipation in the air as I get ready to go vote. I will be voting by secret ballot for the first time in my life and I have been voting since 1980.

I went downstairs to wait for the bus shortly before 9:30. I did not want to be late as I had no idea how long it would take. Finally, around 9:35, the bus arrived and I was on my way to a new experience.

I arrived at the polling place after being let out of the bus at the entrance where people were going in to vote. I walked down the hall to where I heard voices and was eventually met by an election judge. He asked me if I wanted to use paper or vote electronically. I told him that I wanted to vote electronically.

I got in line to check in and waited behind at least one other person with a disability. I got to the table and met Mary, who checked me in and helped me get started.

She was required to ask me which ballot I wanted since Illinois is a closed primary state (meaning you have to declare which party you are taking a ballot for). I told her that I wanted a Republican ballot. She made a card for me, then we went over to the machine.

The first card did not work; it came up "ballot cancelled." I had requested audio only, but this did not seem to work. I did hear a comment about having to call the Election Commission about the problem.

Mary made another card, which worked. I heard the directions and was told that my ballot was displayed on the screen. I wasn't happy with this, but did not fight the matter due to the problems with the card in the first place. I would later find out that there was a bug in the software involving the message displayed on the screen.

Mary did what she was required to do; she was prepared and well trained. She showed me where the keypad was and I was on my way.

I went through each race and made my choices, using the six key to move forward and the five key to make my selection. I rarely had to use the four key to move back. When I was done, I was able to get an audio summary of my ballot and went through to make sure it was right. It was right the first time and I submitted it and the machine printed it.

At that point, I was done voting. I checked out and got a little sticker that said "I Voted." This sticker didn't last long; but the memory of my first secret ballot will last a lifetime.

I went back to the door where I had come in so that I could wait for my ride. While waiting, I got to see some other people come in, as well as students pass to the next period. Since our polling place is in a school, I must say what a herd of elephants on the latter activity!

What I love most about today is the fact that no one knows how I voted. I was explaining this to a colleague at work, who was happy for me. Mary, the election judge, commented afterward that Ray (my husband) and I had done a lot of work to make sure this happened; I told her that there were a lot of others involved at the national level. She thought it was neat that we could now vote via secret ballot just like everyone else.

Due to a moderate hearing loss, speech and volume are important issues for me. These issues include the quality of the reading, as well as the volume of the voice. The person who read the ballot did an excellent job; I had no problems understanding what was being read. I could understand it as each name was pronounced clearly and distinctly. It helps to have a local person read the ballot.

Volume was the other issue. I was able to turn up the volume easily when I needed to do so. I did not have to do anything with the rate of the speech. They also had over-the-ear headphones there.

After I voted, I listened for the returns to come in and, along with my husband, tracked the local returns online. It was nice to know that my vote truly counted. I knew that my vote was among the numbers being read on the screen. My vote affected the total. This was neat!

The first step has been taken and there is no turning back now. I eagerly await the general elections on Nov. 7.

Lotos Works to Improve Access to Recent Parliamentary Elections in Azerbaijan For Azeri Citizens With Disabilities

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Disability World, Issue no. 27, December 2005-January 2006: www.disabilityworld.org

It is estimated that there are at least 250,000 persons with disabilities of voting age in Azerbaijan, a small, oil-rich former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea. Like other developing countries, people with disabilities in Azerbaijan comprise at least ten percent of the population, yet remain largely invisible to the decision- and policy-makers who design and implement government programs.

In early 2005, LOTOS, a coalition of disability organizations located in Baku, the capital, began exploring strategies with the World Institute on Disability to make the November Parliamentary elections more accessible to Azeri voters with disabilities. The Azeri disability community and the Central Election Commission (CEC) had already advanced electoral access in the 2003 election, when the CEC worked with the Azerbaijan Society of the Blind to develop and test a ballot guide enabling blind voters to cast an independent ballot. The CEC also implemented a "mobile voting" program, authorized by Azeri election law, which enables homebound voters to participate in elections.

As a result of LOTOS and WID discussions, International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) Senior Advisor for Human Rights, Jerome Mindes, traveled to Baku in July 2005 with financial support of World Learning/Azerbaijan and the USAID mission. Mr. Mindes met with leaders of disability and civil society organizations, the leadership of the Central Election Commission, representatives of USAID, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and international democracy NGOs to assess the capacity of the electoral environment. His report provided specific recommendations for making electoral and political processes in Azerbaijan more accessible to citizens with disabilities, and found that the Azeri Election Law presents no insurmountable barriers to the full participation in elections by citizens with disabilities. The climate for at least modest advances in electoral access and participation of Azeri's with disabilities for the November 2005 elections was positive and possible.

However, LOTOS did their own informal research and discovered that, in addition to addressing physical access to elections and ballots, the reality of engaging disabled Azeri voters in the election process was more complicated. LOTOS found that disabled Azeri's, especially women, were ashamed to leave their houses, and many physically disabled people could not leave their houses to vote even if the polling places were accessible. Furthermore, many Azeri's with disabilities did not have access to information about the candidates and felt that candidates don't ever address disability issues that matter to them, so they asked why they should go to all the trouble of voting anyway. The inaccessibility of most polling places may perhaps be Azerbaijan's smallest problem in engaging its disabled citizens in the democratic process.

In order to address the multitude of barriers facing Azeri voters with disabilities, LOTOS and WID proposed an ambitious project to increase the participation of individuals with disabilities in the November 2005 parliament elections through a voter education/voter registration drive in three pilot regions, and an election observation effort by citizens with disabilities and to strengthen the capacity of all of the disability organizations of LOTOS to participate fully in the electoral process by adapting an approach to citizen participation in elections that has been tested in over a dozen nations.

LOTOS would train the Central Election Commission, their regional staff and the poll workers at the polling sites to understand how to implement accessible elections for persons with disabilities and how to facilitate disabled people voting, including disability etiquette and the basic right of disabled people to vote. They would train disability leaders and members of all disability groups to understand their rights and procedures for the elections, and train journalists and public media staff (radio and TV) to promote public awareness and support for people with disabilities to participate in the elections.

LOTOS would also build ramps at key polling sites and would work with the national media to hold a candidates forum.

Unfortunately, in the few months available to prepare for and complete this work before the parliamentary elections, USAID was unable to provide additional financial assistance to fully implement the training activities and build access to the polling stations. However, LOTOS conducted two training sessions on disability awareness and disability etiquette for the polling station workers and workers of CEC, built ramps into two secondary schools in Baku that were polling stations, informed people with mobility disabilities living in the district about the two accessible polling places, and recommended scenarios for public service announcements to IFES and the CEC.

The CEC also took some steps to accommodate people with visual impairments by printing the ballots in Braille but, unfortunately, although recommendations were made, the election process remained largely inaccessible to Azerbaijan's deaf citizens, who were educated in schools using the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and could not read the election ballots that now use the Latin alphabet!

Looking towards the presidential elections in 2007, LOTOS hopes there will be ample time to implement the activities originally proposed for the 2005 elections. LOTOS plans to enlist the support of international funders and civil society NGOs, so that Azeri's with disabilities become engaged in the political process and may fully participate in all future elections.

Party Politics Exclude The Disabled Political Party Websites Discriminate Against People With Disabilities

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from www.w3a.co.nz (New Zealand) and is dated August 26, 2005.

A recent survey by W 3 A Limited of the accessibility of the big 6 political party home pages has revealed that all of them fail to provide even the basic facilities to make it easier for people with disabilities to access their sites.

Bruce Aylward, CEO of W 3 A Limited, comments: "Coming up to the elections, one would expect the parties to shout their policies from the rooftops. Their websites are ideal vehicles from which to inform everybody of their policies and promises for a brighter future.

"Unfortunately, it seems that one sector of our community has been forgotten again."

The sector that Mr. Aylward refers to is the community of people with disabilities. They cannot always access a website in the same way that an able-bodied person might, and have special needs that must be considered when building a website.

An international standard has been around since 1999, which describes the things that a web designer can do to make it easier for people with disabilities to access a site. It is called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG.

Mr. Aylward again: "The WCAG defined three levels of accessibility: levels A, AA and AAA. Yet all 5 of the party websites that we have surveyed did not even meet the minimum requirements.

"This is particularly despairing in the light of the Labour Government's commitment to make ALL government sites accessible by January 2006, as well as the fact that they are breaching the Human Rights Act."

The survey was done against all the level A checkpoints of the WCAG on the entry page for each of the following parties: Labour, Greens, National, New Zealand First, Maori Party and ACT New Zealand.

Below is a summary of the problems that were identified.

  • Images are missing ALT attributes: Blind internet surfers cannot see the images on a site and rely on a technology called screen readers to read out any text on the site in a computer voice. If a site uses images with ALT attributes, then the screen reader can read out the text in the ALT attribute in the place of the image. This is especially important when images are used for links, for example, on the Labour party's entry page.

Labour, Greens, National, New Zealand First and the Maori Party are all missing ALT attributes for at least some of their images.

In fact, this is what the page looks like if you disable all images.

Picture with Article: Graphic of what the website looks like without images.

  • ALT attributes missing from input elements: Input elements are the areas on a web form where a user can input, for example, their name or select items from a list. On the screen, it is easy to see which label relates to a particular field and, thus, what information to enter into that field. But if you cannot see the label, then you need some other way to identify the purpose of the field, AKA the ALT attribute on the input field.

Labour, Greens, National, New Zealand First and ACT New Zealand all failed to provide the ALT attributes on their input fields.

  • Most of the parties also had audio and video clips of their various speeches. In some cases, transcripts of those clips are provided. Unfortunately, most of the speeches still remain totally inaccessible to people with severe hearing impairments, as no transcripts or subscripts for videos are provided.

  • When a blind surfer uses a screen reader on a website, they have to listen through the menu for every page before they get to the content. Things can be made a bit easier by providing a "Skip to Content" link before the menu. That way, the surfer can decide when to listen to the menu and when to go directly to the content.

Most of the sites did not provide such a link. ACT New Zealand did provide a "Skip Navigation" link, but it did not work.

  • The Maori party used frames to implement their sites but did not provide titles for each of the frames, making it difficult for a blind surfer to find their way around and to understand what each of the frames are for.

  • Some surfers may disable JavaScript on their browsers. For example, people who are susceptible to epileptic seizures may disable JavaScript to prevent animations, which could trigger their seizures.

The Greens, National, New Zealand First and the Maori Party all have functionality on their sites, which does not work at all if JavaScript is disabled and they have no other mechanisms to access the same information.

Even though the Labour party provides a text-only version of their site, there is no way to access that version from the entry page.

Mr. Aylward concludes: "The political parties should be setting an example for the rest of the country and not exclude anybody, particularly as they are supposed to represent the entire population, not just the able bodied sections of the community."

About W 3 A Limited

W 3 A Limited is an independent website audit company based in Wellington, NZ. Services offered include a range of audits to ensure that company websites and intranets comply with the NZ Human Rights Act, as well as training courses in how to develop accessible websites. The company aims to promote the issue of website accessibility, as well as helping website designers to design more accessible websites.

Politics and Public Policy: Who Has Access to The Political System?

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XLIII, No. 2, September-October 2004: www.acb.org

Did you ever wonder what you would be up against if you ran for public office?

While running for a city council seat in Ann Arbor, Mich., this past fall, I learned just who has access to our political system. The implications of what I learned may be important to the civil rights struggle of people with disabilities.

I first became interested in politics and public policy during a course in college regarding this subject matter. I was quite intrigued with the decision-making power that a select few have over all of us. I was equally fascinated with the ways in which special-interest groups could change the minds of these decision-makers, and vowed that one day I would run for political office.

That day finally came early this past summer when I learned that one of my council representatives was stepping down. Although it was too late for me to declare a party affiliation, I decided to take a shot as an independent.

I felt confident that I was competent and could possibly win. After all, I have consistently used my master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan, and I was included in "Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges" in 1991 for my accomplishments. I had also remained active in my community civically.

Then there was my charisma, which I thought no one could resist!

The first thing that anyone must do when wishing to run for public office is to get the signatures of registered voters on nominating petitions. I needed 108 from my ward, which was two percent of the number of voters who voted from my ward in the last general election. Our city clerk advised me to get 30 percent over this amount just in case some of the signatures were invalid.

How would I gather these signatures, you ask? None of the businesses in my ward would allow me to canvass outside of their establishments, so it became apparent to me that I would have to walk door-to-door.

The variances in lot size and home styles in Ann Arbor posed a real challenge for me because I am totally blind. I carried the petitions myself with the help of a few very dedicated sighted friends who were not registered in my ward and therefore could not circulate the petitions themselves. Each evening, for a total of 18 hours in mid-July, we made our way walking through my ward as we encountered large barking dogs and out-of-order doorbells.

In early August I visited my city clerk to turn in 145 signatures along with notarized legal documents validating my true identity. Paperwork was also required by our county to record how my campaign committee would be organized. I signed a waiver stating I would keep my campaign spending under $1,000 so that I could avoid the need to file various financial documents later.

The next day the city clerk called to say my signatures were valid and that my name would appear on the November 4th ballot. I must admit that this alone made me feel pretty triumphant! Not even a minute had passed when the phone rang again with a call from a reporter from the Ann Arbor News with some brief questions about my candidacy. Yes, my campaign was off and running!

But now I had to figure out how to get my name out in front of approximately 16,000 registered voters, realizing that only 25 percent of them would vote in an off-year election.

Everything required for good name-dropping coverage is expensive. Copies of my beautiful red, white and blue flyer with my picture on it were $1, and I could only afford to send them to my petition signers. Black-and-white versions of this flyer were only nine cents apiece, but I could only afford to have about 1,000 printed of those as well.

Campaign yard signs would be $2.68, but only if I bought 150 of them without the brackets to put them in the ground. The post office told me that a bulk-mailing permit was $300, which would save me 13 cents for each piece of mail. People hand-carried my flyers to about 1,000 homes.

I originally intended to put copies of my flyers at my church and other community spots located in my ward, but these agencies did not want me to do this. Thus, there were some missed opportunities as I worked diligently to overcome the price of getting my name before the voters.

In mid-October all of the candidates were invited to videotape a three-and-a-half-minute speech on our public access cable station for numerous replays until the election on November 4. I found out later that many of the other candidates used notes, cue cards and graphics. I did not learn how to read braille until I was an adult, so I decided it was best to just memorize my speech, and it went pretty well.

Unfortunately, this was not the case when I was invited to attend the local live telecast of the League of Women Voters Candidates' Forum.

Sighted candidates could see a lighted timer when they were almost out of time, but I had requested to be given a 15-second warning verbally. Prior to the event I was contacted by the program's planner who thought it might be better to have a friend sit next to me and tap me when my time was almost up, but I thought that this would look very awkward, so I opted to have them ring a bell at the 15-second mark.

They would ask us these long three-sentence questions and give us just a minute to answer. The other candidates, who frantically took notes until it was their turn to speak, were able to use their notes to help them answer the questions concisely.

At one point, I heard the bell ring and completely lost my train of thought. It seemed like minutes of silence passed as I tried to recover the lost words. Since I am usually a very articulate speaker, I left there unhappy about my performance.

Reporters know how to cash in on the drama of life, and the Ann Arbor City Council race story was no exception! Early the next morning after the Candidates' Forum, I was contacted by the Ann Arbor News reporter again. He could tell there was a problem by the sound of my voice, and asked me about it.

I started to explain to him the socio-economic and disability barriers that I was trying to conquer in order to win the race. I spoke about how my father was a window cleaner, but how well he had raised three blind children and another with dyslexia who all turned out to be pretty successful. I expressed my surprise at how affluent the other candidates were, including my two opponents. Their fathers were doctors and lawyers.

I told him that I had the intellect and analytical skills to be a councilperson, but that given the odds it seemed so out of reach. And then it happened! I began to cry as I discussed my disappointment. Sympathetically, he told me that the Ann Arbor News would put my picture in the paper the following week and discuss this inequity. Although I asked him not to do so, he could not resist saying in the article that I had cried during our interview.

It was in that story that I learned that my strongest opponent, who was a Democrat, had spent $8,000 on his campaign compared to my $600. And just to show how fickle the media is, they endorsed him two days after this story ran!

I was losing hope when election day finally rolled around. I went bowling that afternoon, making light of the day's importance to others while pondering the entire experience.

I wondered to myself how a person using a wheelchair could even go door-to-door to gather the required signatures? If I had been affiliated with a party, would things have gone differently?

Nevertheless, I am not the daughter of a doctor or lawyer. I haven't been groomed my entire life to appeal to the masses! Yet, aren't I worthy enough to have a shot at politics too?

The results came in and I was not the winner. My Democratic party opponent who spent the $8,000 received the honour of being my ward's next councilperson. He is a 29-year-old labour attorney. I did receive 443 or 12.4 percent of the votes, which some say is a good first start!

As people with disabilities, we need to understand that gaining equal access to the process of becoming elected is just as important as equal access to voting itself. And, while we all weren't born to be politicians, our equity depends upon those who are! Some of us need to count ourselves among them! I will run again!

Becoming An Involved Citizen

Editor's Note: Joe Foster has worked in private business (Montreal, Quebec), spent two years in Africa as a volunteer with the Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), two years with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Malaysia, followed by a career with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which included diplomatic assignments in the Caribbean and Asia. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Most of us try to make some plans as to what we will do when we retire. Some of us have very clear ideas as to how we will spend our time, including travelling extensively, doing part-time work, volunteering--or just taking a well-earned rest!

For me, I had planned to get involved with an NGO (non-governmental organization), preferably working abroad. Who knows? I just might even do a bit of travelling to exotic places as part of the work. One is never too old to dream!

That is not what happened! Only a few weeks after leaving my office for the last time, I bumped into a friend who knew I was looking for a new challenge. He suggested I get involved in politics. What?! Me, politics?! Well, I've always voted, but that has been the extent of it!

He suggested I look at it as one of my options, as he knew I would want to continue to be challenged intellectually. "At least give the guy a call and look at their website," he said.

Well, to make a long story short, I did look at the website and was impressed by the ten key values. I called the contact in Toronto and I followed up by sending him my CV. A short while later, I agreed to begin drafting policy documents as a member of what was called the "Living Platform".

I was intrigued by the concept of this open and grassroots approach and decided I had little to lose. While the Green Party of Canada (GPC) had been around for over two decades, it has had the image of being a one-issue party, focused on the environment. Although a healthy environment remains a pivotal theme throughout its set of policies, it is a full-fledged federal party addressing all key subjects and has run, during both of the last two elections, a full slate of candidates in all 308 ridings.

I chose, for my first effort, the preparation of a policy document on disability issues that, when finalized, was rated as one of the top half a dozen planks by the Green Party's membership across Canada. It became part of the 2004 platform and was subsequently added to the Conservative platform in 2006.

My willingness to work, combined with the "price is right" position, meant that the workload has continued to expand. I chaired one of the discussion groups and became the GPC Critic for Democracy and Good Government. Subsequently, I also took on the portfolio for Persons with Disabilities.

I had no idea how much time and effort many people--both volunteers and candidates--dedicate to politics. As you become more knowledgeable, it is natural to become passionate about the need for change. Many devote countless hours behind the scenes researching their portfolios, talking to lobby groups, drafting documents, preparing press releases, critiquing other policy proposals, campaigning, etc. Living in Ottawa I am aware that a serious politician works very hard.

What is the impact of being vision-impaired and trying to keep up with the gang? Just like work; one works just a little bit harder. Reading plus or minus a hundred emails a day, some with lengthy attachments, is no small job. After ten hours, your head begins to spin listening to a synthesized voice. Politely guiding your colleagues to be a bit more sensitive to particular requirements when under the pressure of an election is always challenging. While the GPC website has been rated the most accessible of all the parties, as any blind user knows, accessibility on a website is a relative thing!

Is it rewarding? Yes. Understanding the breadth, depth and complexity of government is both humbling and exhilarating. Having travelled a fair bit, I am fully aware how fortunate we Canadians are and how much we take for granted. To make a contribution, by promoting greater democracy and accountability, is a way to say thanks.

If disabled people wish to be heard and understood, then we must participate in all areas of life. Whether you choose the path I have taken or a different one, we still need to challenge those who make decisions for the "common good" at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Being a citizen is not only a right, it also carries responsibilities to protect and make democracy work.

http://www.greenparty.ca/shadowcabinet.html~&MMN_position=47:45.html (opens in a new window)

Disability Planks

Does your favourite political party have any planks on disability issues in its platform? Probably.

But do you know what they are? Probably not, and that's the problem!

Before each election, community groups challenge parties to develop planks on issues they feel are important to their particular group, and the disabled community is no exception. For years, the Council of Canadians With Disabilities, of which the AEBC is a member, has mounted "election challenges" where lists of issues are developed, political parties are asked to provide their policies, and then...

Our issues are rarely discussed on the hustings, and I cannot recall even one question during a federal party leaders' television debate, and we must ask "why?" After all, the disabled community comprises almost 15% of Canada's prospective electors, so wouldn't you think political parties would be anxious to seek our votes? ... Apparently not, and again, we must ask "why?"

We do care about the future of our province and country, and we do have views on various political issues--not just disability issues. And most "big ticket" issues have a disability component.

As parents, we should be interested in the future of our education system, and as persons with disabilities we should be concerned that students with disabilities have access to the needed support to enable them to compete equally in the classroom.

Similarly, we are concerned about our health-care system, but are issues such as coverage for eye tests or preventative services, like chiropractic services or physiotherapy, even discussed?

As travellers, we should be concerned about Canada's transportation system, but is the issue of accessibility discussed?

And as citizens, when issues of unemployment are considered, are the barriers that continue to leave so many of us on the sidelines even considered?

Have you ever received any campaign literature in a format you can read independently? I have, but not often!

Are party websites fully accessible? Are candidates meetings held in fully accessible locations?

During the next election, get involved and challenge all candidates in your riding or city to confront some of the aspects of issues that are of direct concern to persons with disabilities.

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