Breaking the Mold: From Clienthood to Citizenship

by Mary Ellen Gabias, President

“It ain’t easy to break out of a mold, but, if you do your work, people will ultimately see what you’re capable of. Too often, people find it easier to make assumptions and stick with what they believe. They put you in a place, and it makes their job easier.” Christopher Meloni, television actor

We in the Canadian Federation of the Blind work to break the mold that binds and constrains our opportunities. We understand the ways old patterns harm us. We have examined our past and recognize that we have sometimes failed to challenge people when they make assumptions and stick with what they believe. If we don’t speak out with courage, unflinching honesty, and compassion, we will not be able to chart a better future.

What forces have molded the climate in which blind Canadians find themselves? How have governments, the public, and the monopoly elephant in the room called CNIB contributed to the current situation? Above all, what responsibilities do we, the blind people of Canada, bear; and what can we do to break the mold that does us harm?

Much as we dislike it, the history of blindness in Canada is bound up with the history of charity. In its most profound sense, charity is a loving and personal means of sharing time and resources. One individual has a need; another individual with personal knowledge of that need does whatever can be done to alleviate it.

In the small self-contained communities of the past, person-to-person, heart-to-heart charity worked well. The giver and the recipient were accountable to one another. The increasing size and complexity of society during the reign of Queen Victoria resulted in the depersonalization and corporatization of charity. Just as the industrial revolution caused immense increases in the efficiency of the processes of manufacturing, the development of corporate charities brought economy of scale to the processes of generosity. By giving money, donors could provide service far beyond their personal presence. Specialized staff could be hired to spend full-time on charitable endeavors. Effort could be laser focused; the same charitable individual no longer needed to be concerned with poverty, the aged, disability, orphanages, and disaster relief.

Despite its obvious advantages, corporate charity broke the bond of mutual accountability. In the corporate model a charitable individual donates to an organization based on its emotional appeal and its reputation. Rarely does the giver experience the charitable corporation’s actions firsthand; the funds are given, and the professional staff is entrusted with achieving the hoped-for results. Career charity workers frequently came to think of their corporate employer’s aims as indistinguishable from, or far worse, more important than the needs of those receiving charitable service. Recipients too were often tainted by the charity process. Rather than viewing themselves as temporary beneficiaries of assistance to meet a pressing need, they came to think of themselves as permanent clients. They stopped wanting a hand up; they didn’t even content themselves with a hand out; they wanted their hands held for life.

In 1918 Colonel Baker brought corporate charity for the blind to Canada. In 1918 blind people were scattered, isolated, bereft of hope. In 1918 a strong, centralized organization focused desperately-needed national attention on blindness. In 1918 bylaws requiring the titular head of the charity for the blind to be a blind person seemed to guarantee that the organization would remain true to its mandate to serve the blind. Less than a decade ago it took one vote of the sighted people who actually call the shots to show how flimsy that protection really was. In 1918 charity existed to be the face of the invisible and the voice of those who could not speak for themselves. The phrase, “nothing about us without us,” had not even been conceived. Yes, Colonel Baker brought about changes that moved blind people forward in 1918, but it isn’t 1918 anymore.

In his book The Politics of Blindness, Graeme McCreath explained the history of blindness policy since the 1918 founding of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). Any attempt to telescope his carefully researched and written arguments into one short synopsis would do a grave disservice to his work. Needless to say, he discussed charity to parity in blindness policy. He showed how our issues are part of a broader context.

Madame Justice Louise Arbour, former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has eloquently articulated that broader social and political context. In an interview with Paul Kennedy on the CBC Radio program Ideas, she described the shift in thinking concerning charities over the past century. She talked at length about the differences between the charity paradigm and the paradigm of defining social and economic justice as a human right.

. Describing circumstances in many underdeveloped countries, she quotes the leaders of those countries: “We want the right to food, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to development.” She contrasts those aims with the emphasis on political and civil rights in more developed countries. “. . . certainly human rights theory says there are no such divisions. Human rights are by definition universal and indivisible. You cannot segregate them. …When I come here (to Canada) and I go to a lot of other western countries, I have to try to persuade them to abandon their reluctance to recognize social and economic rights as rights. I need to urge them to get out of their charitable disposition and to acknowledge that this is a matter of human dignity, and it should be grounded in legally binding obligations.”

The CFB agrees with Mme. Arbour. We are pressing government to recognize that we too have a right to food (a standard of support for those without employment that meets basic nutritional and housing needs), education (for blind children, but also for adults who become blind or who haven’t received the education they needed when they were children), and development (the chance to gain skills and attitudes leading to employment and full participation as equals in the economic and social life of Canada). We too are asking that our country “get out of its charitable disposition.” Put another way, blind Canadians are no longer willing to lead third-world lives in a first-world country.

CFB values the legitimate role charities can play in innovation and service provision. It can also be legitimate for government to contract with private entities, whether charity or for-profit, when doing so serves the public interest, provided that the funding public retains genuine control. Any arrangements need careful, ongoing scrutiny to prevent the public purse from being raided by unaccountable entities such as CNIB who have cloaked themselves in the mantle of philanthropy. Governments across Canada have not held CNIB to account because it has been perceived as in charge of the blind people it purports to serve. In effect, government has believed CNIB is serving blind people effectively because CNIB has said so. Unless we want 2018, the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of CNIB, to be a national year of mourning for opportunities lost and lives of blind people wasted, we must put aside the charity paradigm of 1918 and replace it with a rights-based service model.

Socrates said: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” For far too long blind Canadians have focused their efforts on criticizing CNIB or attempting to gain influence within CNIB in the hope of reforming it. We open ourselves up to conflict, frustration, and bitterness when we try to apply twenty-first-century participatory democracy standards to what is at heart a Victorian enterprise. CNIB is controlled by a self-perpetuating governing body. It is not a participatory democracy, has never claimed to be one, and has no interest in becoming one. It is long past time for us to accept that reality.

For far too long blind people have behaved as if we are CNIB’s customers. Unhappy customers ask for improvements and expect to get them. We must face the fact that CNIB’s real customers are the giving public. The product the public buys is the sense of well-being that comes from being told they’ve helped to meet the needs of the blind. So long as the public feels good by donating to CNIB, the corporation will have satisfied its customer base. Nothing will change unless the public learns that money is being sucked into an administrative black hole; we aren’t getting what they’re paying for.

If we are not CNIB’s real customers, where do blind people stand in relation to the charity? CNIB needs blindness, but it doesn’t have to deal with blind people on our terms. It needs for us to appear needy enough to justify its ongoing requests for charitable dollars. It needs for us to appear reasonably content, or at least not to be too vocal about our discontent. Above all, it needs to retain its perceived position as arbiter and articulator of our neediness.

CNIB will work tirelessly to serve us, provided that serving us also serves its corporate agenda. All one must do is recall the history of the Bowen Island Lodge to know what to expect when CNIB’s corporate interests conflict with the expressed desires of blind people. Compare Bowen Island camps during the last few years CNIB ran them with the upbeat work of the blind people who have created the Bowen Camp Society for the Visually Impaired to understand how much better off we could be if CNIB’s monopoly came to an end.

James Allen wisely said: “A man has to learn that he cannot command things but that he can command himself; that he cannot coerce the wills of others but that he can mold and master his own will.” Blind Canadians would be wise to take Mr. Allen’s advice, and stop attempting to mold CNIB into something it was never intended to be. When it comes to CNIB, we know our place. We are not citizens of CNIB; CNIB is not the “country of the blind.” If we choose to deal with CNIB, we are clients, always and forever clients. To the extent that CNIB offers services we value, we should avail ourselves of those services and do so with appreciation and without hesitation. But we should never forget that we are only clients.

Though the appearance of client-agency interaction is different from interactions of the Victorian era, the underlying assumptions are the same. If it serves the corporate agenda to listen to clients, CNIB will listen. If it doesn’t, they cannot expect to be heard. Pretending otherwise sets everyone up for fruitless dialogues reminiscent of Charles Dickens. Blind Canadians must stop playing Oliver Twist to CNIB’s Mr. Bumble. If we do “want some more,” and we most decidedly do, we do not want more from CNIB. We assert that CNIB’s structure is no longer suitable. It is right and fair that we express sincere gratitude for the evolutionary role CNIB has played in our history. We harm only ourselves if we feel rancor at the corporation because it remains what it has always been. We value what we have learned from our past; but right here, right now, in 2014 we declare that it is time to move on.

Developments in the area of library services over the past five years demonstrate once again that there is no hope that the charity and rights-based models can coexist harmoniously. CNIB’s actions towards libraries clearly demonstrate that the charity corporation will not hesitate to pursue its quest for funding and control, even when that effort is in direct opposition to the blind community’s clearly expressed desire for integration and full inclusion.

In the ongoing struggle over library services, CFB has always aimed to promote a publicly run, publicly funded, and publicly accountable service. Our advocacy has put us in direct confrontation with CNIB. The struggle is a sad but unavoidable byproduct of our determination to promote a new idea that threatens old patterns. No matter how clearly we remain focused on what we hope to create, we run the risk of being disparaged as haters who want only to destroy.

Rollo May said: “Freedom is man’s capacity to take a hand in his own development. It is our capacity to mold ourselves.” We intend to mold our future by engaging government, the public, and blind Canadians in conversations aimed at fostering human-rights-based approaches to rehabilitation and public services. All blind Canadians as individuals are by right a part of the discussion. CNIB as a corporate entity carries so much baggage and wields so much illegitimate financial and political power that any discussion including CNIB is effectively over before it begins, no matter how much consultation or how many advisory boards are part of the window dressing. The discussion required is a discussion between blind Canadians and our public servants. We will not let public officials off the hook by allowing them to insert the charity paradigm represented by CNIB between blind citizens and their elected governments.

Sighted Canadians don’t ever have to doubt that they have the right to become literate and to move freely on the streets and sidewalks of their country. Our schools and our highways are paid for with public money. We defy anyone to explain to us the moral justification for failing to fund our equivalent services publicly—training in Braille, the use of the long white cane, and other confidence and blindness skills. How dare governments in this country declare that we do not have a right to acquire the skills we need, that the prospect of government funding our training is an optional “nice thing to do,” but only when public coffers are full!

The people who run our governments are not cruel. They are conforming to the role they have been molded to occupy. Without consciously intending to do so, blind Canadians have helped create that mold. It is our responsibility to break it. We have always had articulate and fearless advocates among us. To the enduring shame of our community, those advocates have far too often stood alone. Our numbers are tiny in comparison with other interest groups. We have behaved as if tiny were synonymous with insignificant and have assumed that nobody would listen because we could not muster thousands to march for our cause. Government processes are complex and confusing. We have felt intimidated and left the work to people we believed were more expert.

Legislators are called on to deal with hundreds of issues. We have not wanted to appear too demanding. Secretly fearing that our deepest desires for full economic and social equality might be impossible dreams, we have sought small concessions instead. Legislators have told us that they find differing points of view among blind people confusing and that they’d be glad to help us when we can all agree. We have allowed ourselves to be bullied into settling on compromise positions that aren’t what we truly believe for fear that publicly expressing honest disagreements will leave us with nothing. We have not had the courage to ask the legislators who insist that we must all agree why they don’t expect the Catholic Women’s League and the National Action Council on the Status of Women to agree on reproductive issues. What about the Sierra Club and the Gateway Pipeline promoters? Since when have blind people been the only Canadian group that is not allowed to speak with a multiplicity of voices?

To our legislators we say, “We have more faith in your capabilities than you seem to have. You were elected because the people in your district believed you are capable of discernment. We are your constituents, and we expect you to exercise that discernment and evaluate the matters we bring to your attention. We will do what we can to ensure that our arguments are clear, reasoned, factual, and complete. You’re being paid to be perceptive; if you take the time really to think about what we have to say, we trust your capacity to make wise decisions. When you decide instead to give us the you-must-all-agree speech, please realize that we aren’t buying that baloney.”

To ourselves and to all blind Canadians we say: “We are all very, very tired of being patronized by those who still believe that our only authentic faces and voices are the face and voice of charity. Sometimes the task we have undertaken feels too formidable and the results of our efforts too minimal. At one time or another, every one of us has wondered whether the results justify our effort. We do not have the power to mold others; but we can educate and inspire new patterns of belief. We do have the power to mold ourselves through our courage to dream, our capacity to care, and our determination never, ever to quit. Whether we win on the policy issues quickly or with painful slowness, we stand tall as equals in the civil life of Canada. As we work to break the mold that has restricted us to the role of passive charity recipients, we gain personal strength and freedom. That’s a new mold we can grow into with joy.