The Power of Individual Engagement and Collective Action

A speech presented by Mary Ellen Gabias, CFB President at the CFB “Vote of Confidence” Convention on May 6, 2017, Harbour Towers, Victoria, B.C.,

Welcome all of you to the convention of the Canadian Federation of the Blind. This is the 25th anniversary of Federationism in Canada, as well as the 150th anniversary of our country. We deserve to give ourselves a round of applause because it really is a milestone year for us. And with all the energy in this group, it’s going to be a milestone future for us as well.

I’ll begin by acknowledging that we are on the historical territory of the Coast Salish people. For us, that’s more than a socially expected statement. It’s our acknowledgement of another group of Canadians who are fighting for their human rights and their dignity. It’s also a reminder to our fellow citizens that the blind of this country, too, are people whose problems stem from a history of widespread misconceptions and whose human rights have too often been violated.

On this historic occasion, it’s right that we should take a few moments to celebrate the power of individual engagement and collective action.

We’re all here because approximately 100 years ago a blind farm boy in Alberta did something really stupid. Jacobus tenBroek was playing archery with a friend and decided he would go behind the target and play peek-a-boo. Usually his friends weren’t very good shots. That day one of them was! Dr. tenBroek immediately lost the sight in one eye. Through a process called sympathetic ophthalmia, something that wouldn’t happen today, he also lost the sight of his other eye. Interesting that another huge benefactor of blind people, Louis Braille, also became blind because of sympathetic ophthalmia.

Dr. tenBroek’s family discovered that the prairies of Alberta were a pretty barren landscape for a blind youngster, so they went to California, to the hills around Berkley, in hopes of better opportunity. They found it. Dr. tenBroek graduated from the California School for the Blind and ultimately became a very distinguished professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he had received his law degree.

Twenty-five years ago this year, another Canadian, Paul Gabias, returned to Canada from the United States, determined to bring Dr. tenBroek’s legacy to Canada. So, in a way, 25 years ago, Dr. tenBroek’s spirit came home. What is that spirit? What do we believe? Why are we here today?

We’ve repeated it many times and many ways in our agenda: It is respectable to be blind. Well, you say, “Who would doubt it? Everybody knows that. This is an enlightened society. We believe in tolerance and inclusion. Of course, it’s respectable to be blind.”

I contend that there are three areas in which we must work as a Federation to make that simple statement a reality in fact and not just a long hoped for dream. We need to deal with what we believe about ourselves. We need to deal with society’s attitudes about us. And we need to deal with the whole set of institutional assumptions about blindness that have been part of Canadian civic life from about the time Dr. tenBroek met his blinding accident.

If you look at the language we use about blindness, you can see some of society’s problems.

A simple story tells the tale. Thursday, I was with the Kelowna Lioness, a community group I belong to. We were raising money for the Heart and Stroke Foundation and we rode something called “the big bike”. It’s a large monstrosity of a bike with about 28 seats. People get on and pedal madly for a couple blocks, everyone waves flags and makes noise, cheering on the cause and ourselves. I climbed on the bike with no more difficulty than somebody who’s got a few extra pounds and a couple years on them would have. I peddled along with my colleagues and then I got off.

The man who was working the crowd as a volunteer asked me two things: “Can you find your way?” and “How long have you been blind?” Interestingly enough, he later came to me and apologized for calling me “blind” instead of “visually impaired”. But it didn’t occur to him to apologize for or to question his notion that I might not be able to walk from the bike to a nearby crosswalk to go on my way.

We are in a society that is hesitant to use the word “blind” to describe our physical condition, but is not at all hesitant to use the word blind to describe the concept of being oblivious to the obvious. Blindness, in people’s minds, means not knowing what’s going on, and sometimes, being willfully unaware of what’s going on. The term “blind drunk” or “he’s blind to the reality” are commonly used. Both of these phrases mean that the truth is right there staring a person in the face and yet the person chooses not to believe it.

So people find 23 euphanisms to deal with our physical loss of sight, but don’t even think twice about using the word blind to mean unawareness and incapable of coping with the world as it is. That is, at heart, the societal attitude that we need to change.

The Canadian ideal is peace, order and good government, and the Canadian Federation of the Blind believes in that too. We want to disturb the peace of complacency, create a new order of thinking about blindness, govern ourselves through our own organizations, and insist that the provincial and federal governments we help elect treat us with dignity and respect.

Respect must be earned. I believe that we have earned it and that we will continue to earn it. Knowing to our deepest core that we have earned the respect of our neighbors is the battle that we must fight within ourselves. How many of us, though we may say it is respectable to be blind and that we’re capable, have copped out and gone for the easy route when it was offered to us? I know I have sometimes. I work at not doing that, but it’s very tempting. How many of us have sold ourselves short and said “blind people can’t do that” only to discover very shortly thereafter that there are some blind people who are doing precisely what we thought was impossible. We need to work to improve our belief in ourselves, to change the way society thinks about us, and to change public policy, so that it reflects our view of ourselves. That is the underlying purpose of all of the work that the Canadian Federation of the Blind has been doing for the last 25 years.

I believe we are the only organization of blind people in Canada that works as hard at all three of those things as we do. That is not to disparage any other organization, because many groups do good work. The three-pronged approach of understanding ourselves, understanding and educating our society, and reforming or reshaping programs that are supposed to serve us, is an integrating approach that the Federation takes seriously. We do not expect more of our society than we expect of ourselves, and, without criticizing one another, we seek to raise all boats on the tide of our own rising expectations.

One of the things that we do to help raise expectations is meetings like this convention, where blind people talk about things that we are doing. I guarantee you that, unless you are a far more enlightened human being than I am, you’ll walk away with something new. I always do. This is a place where we can feel safe to admit our struggles, be proud to cheer about what we’ve learned from our setbacks, celebrate our victories, and renew our determination to make the changes in ourselves, in our society and in public attitudes and public policy that will make a difference.

Let me tell you some of the things the Federation has done over the past years. I recognize that I will leave out a lot. Sometimes, when we look at the enormity of the task ahead, we forget or minimize what we’ve accomplished.

Braille is Beautiful

The Federation has, from its beginning, advocated the use of Braille and explained its value. We’ve been on public radio programs. We’ve taken this story to schools. We talk about Braille. We use Braille. We had an entire convention and an entire magazine focused on the value of Braille–not because we are criticizing people who don’t use Braille, not at all, but because we want that opportunity to be there for those who want it. We don’t want our unique form of literacy to disappear.

Cane Travel–Walking Proud

Proud? White cane? That’s a new concept for a lot of us. For many of us, the cane has been a symbol of dependency, of admitting blindness, something that we didn’t want to claim. The Federation is changing that. We talk about our canes almost as if they’re friends. Some of us name our canes. The cane for us is a symbol of independence, it’s a symbol of freedom. It’s a tool we carry and use with vigor and with pride. The Canadian Federation of the Blind gives canes to blind people as needed and as funds permit. Giving one another access to good canes and help in learning how to use them is something we are very proud to do. Thank you to Thrifty Foods for helping us with that project.


Later today you will be hearing about the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind. Our former President and current Secretary, Elizabeth Lalonde, learned about good training for blind people as part of this Federation and was determined to bring that model of training to Canada. And she is doing that!


Jacobus tenBroek founded the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the United States. That organization has vigor, power, success, people–and it was that philosophy that was the basis of the founding of this organization. We are a uniquely Canadian voice, but we are proud to network and share experiences, to take and give encouragement to our brothers and sisters below the 49th parallel. The Federation in Canada has worked to help expose many people to our philosophy by helping them attend the National Federation of the Blind conventions. How many in this room have had that experience? How many in this room have found that experience helpful? It’s an important thing that we do and it’s something that we will continue.

The Right to Read

The Federation has been involved since the beginning of the development of the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS). We are trying to make our library service truly public. We are citizens of this country. We live here. We work here. Those of us who are employed pay taxes here, and if we don’t, our families and friends do. We have a right to publicly funded and publicly accountable library services. It is the Canadian Federation of the Blind that played an instrumental role in helping NNELS find connections to build their collection and acquire the philosophy of inclusion in mainstream library service that guides it today. We have a long way to go to make our library service what we want and there is resistance. But the Federation is one of two organizations of the blind that has done the most to lead the way in helping public libraries give tangible expression to the belief that our libraries ought to be part of the public system. Vision Impaired Resource Network (VIRN) from Manitoba has also contributed significantly to the library integration movement.

Guide Dogs

The B.C. guide dog legislation that has recently become law includes some good things and some really horrible things. It was the CFB that put together a coalition of guide dog users that has attempted to lobby the government to prevent some of the more draconian results of certification and to strengthen enforcement of provisions against discrimination.

Graeme McCreath has been both tireless and courageous in his stance against taxi discrimination. He continues to do this work at great personal cost, both in time, money, and emotional commitment. We’ll be hearing about our efforts and ways in which you can support what we’re doing later today.


Employment has been a core goal of the Federation since its beginning. We have worked on it, not just as an organization, but as individuals. One of our members helped a blind high school student get his first work experience. That individual is now employed. We have assisted with letters of recommendation and support. We still have work to do on that score.

It is still considered acceptable by the B.C. government to use the possession of a driver’s license as a job requirement for social work. Does that make sense? No. Requiring a driver’s license for any job that does not include operation of a motor vehicle as a major portion of the duties is flat out discriminatory! Yes, a social worker needs to be able to get around to be effective, but is being behind the wheel of a car the only way to get somewhere? We’re here to tell you we all got here today and none of us who are blind drove a vehicle. Self-driving cars are coming soon, and that is exciting, but we need to modernize employment qualifications right now to remove the antequated and discriminatory driver’s license barrier.

The most persistent and powerful barriers to employment are not found in our laws, but in ourselves. Sometimes when you hear people describe what happenned when they became blind, the statement goes like this: “I lost my sight so, of course, I couldn’t work.” That attitude needs to change. It needs to change in our own hearts and souls, and it needs to change in society.

It is incredibly sad that, when we hear about the completely unacceptable, totally intolerable unemployment rate among people living on native reserves, the reaction of most blind people is “I wish my people had it that good.” Eighty or ninety percent unemployment simply cannot be allowed to be sustained. We’ve worked on that from the beginning and we’ll continue to strive for employment and economic freedom for the blind.

Blind Canadian magazine

You’ll hear later from Doris Belusic about the Blind Canadian. It’s a publication that is leading Canadians to think about blindness in more constructive ways. We will continue our efforts to get the Blind Canadian into the hands and into the thought processes of more and more Canadians.


You’ll hear about our iPhone project. I’ll let Oriano Belusic tell that important story for you later today. But you should know now that dozens of blind people who would otherwise not have access to the power of the iPhone are now using that technology, thanks to the partnership between the CFB and Lions Clubs on Vancouver Island and elsewhere.

Quietly, without fanfare, Larry Scharschmidt, one of our members, has been instrumental in helping blind people learn how to become amateur ham radio operators. Although it’s not officially a CFB project, make no mistake, that kind of skill building, horizon broadening activity is the CFB spirit in action.

We frequently are asked to evaluate or endorse new technologies. Doug Lawlor has taken on that task. He spends a great deal of time carefully reading information, evaluating what he’s read, and working with technology developers to gently but firmly tell them, “No, a specially-designed bathroom for the blind is not what we need,” or “Yes, that new software might actually be helpful.”

Website access

We regularly work with website developers on accessibility. For example, a local site in Victoria came to us for information about how to make their site user-friendly for blind people. Recently, a Kelowna news site that is the chief source of news for most people in my city, had a website that was great to use, then they upgraded it and it became not great. With our firm but courteous insistence, they’ve now redone it again. It is once again accessible. They have committed that they will not break accessibility in the future.

Services to the Elderly
Sometimes people work privately. Because they share what they do, their advocacy has longterm value to all of us. I don’t want to embarrass you, Maria, but the work you have done is so important to others! Maria Kovac’s father needed longterm care at home. As part of their protocol, health authorities keep an ongoing chart for all caregivers, in handwritten print, in a folder on the care recipient’s refrigerator. Maria said to them, “This doesn’t work for me. I need to be involved in my father’s care. I can’t look at that handwritten chart.” She got her health authority to recognize that they must make sure the information that was handwritten in that care plan on the refrigerator also got provided to her in a way that she could use. A template that she developed is a value and meaning to blind people all across the country.


We’ve put a lot of time and energy into sending people to NFB conventions. If you haven’t gone, talk to people who have been to an NFB convention, ask them what it means to them. This convention, too, is the result of commitment to Federation principles. We raise funds to help as many people as possible attend gatherings like this. Coming together is one of the most valuable uses for the money we work so hard to raise.

Physical Accessibility

Maple Ridge, B.C. was trying to figure out what to do about bicycles on sidewalks. Have any of you ever had a chunk taken out of your leg by a bicycle wheel? Have any of you ever had a dangerous close encounter with a motorized scooter? We have advocated with the city of Maple Ridge for street and sidewalk designs that are respectful of bicyclists and pedestrians. They are listening.

Public Education
Based on her experiences here and at the NFB convention, Nancy Gill decided she wanted to do something for blind and vision impaired people living in her city. With our help, she successfully applied for funding. Enlisting the aid of family, friends, and local volunteers, she invited anybody who had anything to do with blindness to a community celebration and information fair. About 70 people were there. The Canadian Federation of the Blind was prominently there helping Nancy put the event together.

Donna Hudon keeps up with happenings in her home town of Nanaimo, B.C. She regularly follows the community Facebook page. It was only natural that she would comment on taxi discrimination experienced by a guide dog user in town. That led to a brisk exchange that educated a lot of people, not just about guide dogs, but about the capabilities of blind people and the common misconceptions about blindness. Although Donna did this work to further public education, I’m happy to report that her advocacy for others was instrumental in a potential new employment opportunity for her.

BC Transit

In Victoria, traditionally, blind people had to announce to drivers where we wanted to get off the bus and count on drivers to remember our request. Like five-year-olds, we had to say, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

Thanks to our members who’ve filed human rights complaints, BC Transit officially agreed that we have a right to effective quality information about where the bus is going, its schedule, and the location of the bus at all times along its route. Although we had our doubts that it would work, we cooperated with BC Transit in its initial effort to make the drivers verbally call out all stops. We were right. It didn’t work. We complained. BC Transit made a second effort: putting in Trekker Breezes so that at least the streets were announced. Again, we chose to cooperate and give feedback.

Even though we understood that the Trekker Breeze was not the best available solution, we recognized two essential truths. Firstly, we had won the right to information, but we had not won the right to dictate the way in which BC Transit provides it. Secondly, successful advocacy is often the progressive realization of a worthy goal. It is rarely total initial victory.

As we thought might be the case, drivers turn off the Trekker Breezes thereby depriving us of the very information we filed the initial human rights case to secure. No solution is ideal if drivers have the capacity to turn it off. BC Transit told us when they installed the Trekker Breeze system that drivers would not be able to silence it. Drivers are able to do so, and most of them do silence it at every opportunity.

We have informed BC Transit and the BC Ombudsperson that the spirit of the settlement we made is being violated. We are definitely on their radar in a more powerful way than we have ever been before, largely due to the willingness of people in this room to monitor and report lack of compliance.

BC Transit tells us there will be a state-of-the-art audible annoucement system within 16 months. Now, they’ve told us that before and have not kept their commitments. One thing is very different from the days of previously broken promises. They have learned about the Canadian Federation of the Blind. We might loose a battle, but we don’t loose the war, because it isn’t over until we’ve won.

Bus Passes

Why should people receiving a public benefit have to go to a private charity corporation to get it? In Victoria, through the advocacy of CFB, if you want a pass that proves that you’re blind and permits you to ride the bus free, you can get it from BC Transit the way anybody else gets a bus pass from BC Transit. We haven’t succeedded to implement a transit pass distributed by the transit authorities in the rest of the province, but we will, because we won’t quit until we do.

Rally for Change and Choice

Fifty blind people and our friends stood on the steps of the B.C. Legislature demanding that people who become blind or who need blindness skills training receive it in a dignified way at public expense. We must have a choice of the kind of training we receive and where we get it. That is still an ongoing effort, but again, we will not quit! We have spoken to the federal government, and the new Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities “gets it”. She understands the importance of publicly funded and publicly accountable rehabilitation. What she will be able to do, since rehabilitation training is a provincial responsibility, has yet to be determined. It’s our job to continue to advocate for what is a basic human right.

Public speaking, Service clubs

And, we do speak out! We have done many presentations to government. We’ve attended two public hearings and submitted written recommendations on proposed new federal disability legislation. We’ve worked hard to educate provincial legislators and regulators on problems with B.C.’s guide dog legislation and we will continue to do that.

Many of our members have joined service clubs and are spreading our message that way. Others have spoken to church, governmental, or civic groups. Our public speaking project depends on all of you to make it grow.


Our general listserv is a place for us to share information, to encourage one another, to discuss issues that are important, that matter to us in our personal lives. When you see requests on the listserv for information, suggestions and ideas, please continue to be as generous as you have always been.

Our blind entrepreneurs listserv is for people who want a place to discuss aspects of entrepreneurism related to blindness. That’s an under-used list, but it is one that is important to some.


I guarantee you that in the next year we are going to work hard to make our website strong with a voice that impacts people. We already receive three to five letters a week from blind people who need help. Sometimes it’s a family whose child is becoming blind. Sometimes it’s somebody who wants information for a school project. Sometimes it’s the child of a 90 year old who can’t see to dial the phone and wonders how to get a voice-dialing telephone.

All issues of the Blind Canadian magazine can be read on our website, as well as BlindSide, our e-newletter.

Who is CFB? CFB is all of us. Whatever we do as individuals to help blind people. We share with one another, we build on the experiences of one another. CFB is not a large corporation, we don’t have an enormous budget. Most of the money we have, we raise ourselves through hard work, through small fundraisers and through personal donations. We don’t have paid staff. The work we do is done by you, by me, by everybody in this room. That’s made us tough, it’s made us strong, and it’s taught us to love one another and support one another in a way that nothing else can. At times, the lack of funding is an enormous frustration. But overall, the contributions of people–volunteers who do this work because we’re committed to one another–is beyond price. We’re determined to make change, and we want to chart our own course. I salute all of you because all of you have played a part in the list I’ve just given you. And all of you can probably think of other things that we have done that didn’t make it into this report.

You matter. You’re making a difference. Let’s make the next 25 years louder and prouder than the past have been.