by John Rae
(Editor’s Note: John Rae is a board member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, a national organization of Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.)
The most significant issues facing blind people in western industrialized countries are remarkably similar. These include the lack of employment opportunities, the need for equal access to information, accessible and affordable technology, audio-described movies and television, accessible onboard entertainment systems and flight attendant call buttons, orientation and mobility training; equal access into all establishments and cabs for guide dog users, access to point-of-sale devices, supports throughout the education system, fighting poverty, the elusive search for greater involvement in decisions that affect our daily lives and the imperative to resist society’s austerity agenda. Blind people in your northern neighbor, Canada, face these same priority issues.
But each country also has differences, and faces its own unique challenges. Canada is no exception.
Canada is the second largest nation on earth, has two official languages, English and French, and has a very small population for its size, only around 37 million individuals. The number of smaller centers poses particular challenges in organizing independent consumer organizations like the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), which I have been involved in for many years.
Blind Canadians are faced by a large, monopolistic service-providing charitable agency, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Founded by war-blinded individuals in 1918, this organization has achieved an almost “sacred cow” image to a point where many citizens assume CNIB takes care of the blind and believe that making a donation to CNIB is all that is needed.
CNIB was initially run mainly by war-blinded individuals, and while today, its board does include some blind people, it is largely run by philanthropic sighted people. CNIB is often consulted by government on public policy issues. It offers input, but it does so without direct involvement from the bulk of blind Canadians, the individuals who are directly affected by its programs and work.
So what’s currently happening in Canada?
Human Rights: Canada has an extensive network of equality rights legislation. Canada was the first country to include physical and mental disability in its national constitution. Canada also covers disability in all of its provincial and territorial human rights laws. Every year, we see similar statistics reported; disability comprises the largest proportion of complaints received by every human rights body. This tells me that Canadians with disabilities are aware that we have rights, and are prepared to try to enforce these rights, but it also tells me that discrimination against all disabled Canadians remains far too pervasive.
Legislation: After extensive consultations, Parliament has just passed the so-called Accessible Canada Act, which is designed to make organizations under federal jurisdiction accessible by the year 2040. Many organizations worked hard to strengthen the bill before it passed.
Health Care: One of the areas that defines us as Canadians is our health care system. When I fractured my ankle, I had surgery, and spent time in the hospital and a rehabilitation center, all the costs for my care were covered by Canada’s Medicare system. Today, work is underway in support of a comprehensive Pharmacare program that would cover the costs of prescription drugs, as currently many individuals living in poverty often have to choose between paying for needed medications or paying for food and shelter.
Transportation: Until now, Canada’s airlines, trains, inter-city buses and ferries have been regulated under a number of Voluntary Codes of Practice. These are being combined and expanded and are to be consolidated into a Regulation. It is expected to expand access in the areas of check-in kiosks, onboard entertainment systems and flight attendant call buttons, provide relief areas for dog and service animals both inside and outside of security areas at airports, and require websites to become more usable.
Employment: In 2015, Statistics Canada reported the employment rate for disabled Canadians was 49%, compared to 79% for the general population. Unemployed respondents overwhelmingly said they were out of work as a direct result of their disability. Many jobs that blind people sought when I was growing up have been rendered obsolete by technology, which makes breaking into the job market even tougher for young blind individuals. At the 2nd National Employment Conference, held in Ottawa last December, the first draft of a National Employment Strategy was released. Through much of 2019, its authors are consulting with organizations and individuals across Canada, and a second version will be released in advance of this year’s conference, at which it is hoped participants will endorse its content.
Housing: Canada has recently unveiled a National Housing Strategy under which a percentage of new units must be built using universal design principles. With an aging population, the disability community believes all new units should be fully accessible.
Elections: In October 2019, Canadians went to the polls for their next federal election. While some improvements in making Canada’s electoral system more accessible will be in place, blind voters will again be discriminated against. We will not be able to independently verify how we cast our vote, as Canada’s federal elections do not offer electronic, online or telephone voting options, though many provinces and municipalities do so.
Procurement: Governments and large corporations can influence the market in a positive manner if they include accessibility as important criteria that must be met before they will purchase IT products and other equipment from any supplier.
Library Services: Blind Canadians receive much of their library services through two specialized programs, the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS) and the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA), and increasingly access materials in various alternate formats from services like Bookshare and our local public libraries. We are seeking greater availability of books directly from publishers, and now that both the United States and Canada have ratified the Marrakesh Treaty, blind Canadians are looking forward to being able to access some of the materials that have only been available to blind Americans.
Immigration: While Canada has ratified both the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD) and its Optional Protocol, Section 38(1)(c) of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) states that “A foreign national is inadmissible on health grounds if their health condition might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services.” While the threshold for determining what constitutes excessive demands has recently been raised, organizations continue to advocate for the complete removal of this provision.
Braille: Although it is now easier to produce books in braille than ever before in human history, ironically, less and less is being produced. In Canada, many of us also consider braille to be a blind person’s true route to literacy, and wish it were taught to more students in regular primary and secondary schools.
Attitudes: While much effort has been invested to improve public attitudes, blindness is still considered the most feared of all conditions an individual may acquire. New programs are desperately needed to help dispel these pervasive negative attitudes.
The greatest missing link is the failure of governments and businesses to involve persons with disabilities in their decision-making processes. Despite the fact that Statistics Canada recently reported the incidence of disability now exceeds 20%, people with disabilities are not well represented in important positions where critical, life-impacting decisions are made. We are not well represented in the corporate boardrooms where decisions about what new technology will be built are discussed and determined, and our absence often results in new technology being rolled out and needed accessibility features only added later. We are not sufficiently present in media rooms where decisions are made about which stories will be covered and what slant will be applied. We rarely encounter anyone teaching in our primary or secondary schools who shares our life experiences, and some of us wonder why. We are not adequately represented in ministers’ offices, the premier’s office or for that matter the Prime Minister’s Office, and that’s where the real decisions affecting the futures of all of us are really made.
Significantly expanding the number of people with disabilities, including blind individuals and our organizations, into places where these critical decisions are made would not only help reduce our chronic level of unemployment and poverty, it would provide governments and businesses with a source of badly needed in-house expertise on disability, and this should help prevent the development of new barriers.
For years, people with all disabilities and our organizations have advanced the compelling business case for inclusion; we have learned our rights and argued strongly for implementation of the legal duty to accommodate; and we have also articulated the moral imperative of diversifying organizations by including more individuals with disabilities in the mainstream of society, yet so many of us remain on the sidelines burdened by outdated attitudes and a wide range of barriers that still need to be removed and new barriers prevented. It’s time for action, and part of this action must include involving more people with disabilities, as we are the real experts on disability, and more of us must be directly involved in the development and implementation of new policies and programs to make a brighter day a reality for Canadians with various disabilities.
Failure to act will amount to callously consigning the next generation of persons with disabilities to the scrap heap of history. This would be a tragedy! It is time for action.
I believe blind people in both the United States and Canada would benefit from increased cross-border discussions and partnerships.