Ending the Business of Blind Charity

This piece originally appeared in Volume 11 of The Blind Canadian, July 2016.

by Sam Margolis

As it presently stands, Canada’s 42,000 blind citizens of working age are viewed by the vast majority of government officials as charity cases and not capable, contributing members of society. Nine out of ten blind Canadians are not gainfully employed. With no income and forced to live off of benefits, many live in poverty, unable to fulfill their potential, unable to lead a full and dignified life.

The situation for Canada’s blind, however, need not be so dire. It can be turned around, as Graeme McCreath, a blind physiotherapist in Victoria, argues in his book, The Politics of Blindness, if an attitudinal shift from “charity to parity” were made at all levels of government. In other words, remove the demeaning stigma of inferiority that charity creates and instead bring the blind within the mainstream of public services.

McCreath asserts that blind Canadians can only become fully respected members of society when the charity label is lifted. Government must also recognize that, though blindness can present challenges to young people seeking to gain skills for life and employment, blindness should be viewed more as an inconvenience rather than a disability which excludes a person from the same possibilities that other members of society enjoy.

As evidenced by examples of the blind in Canada and elsewhere who have had successful careers as lawyers, professors, businesspeople, community leaders and other professions, these skills are not out of reach. Given the opportunity, blind people can contribute as much to society as their sighted counterparts.

Moreover, Ottawa violates its Charter of Rights and Freedoms by establishing and permanently accepting the charity status of blind Canadians. According to the Charter, written in 1982: “Discrimination is defined as a distinction, intentional or not, which is based on grounds related to the personal characteristics of the individual or group concerned and that has the effect of imposing disadvantages or burdens not imposed on others or withholding advantages or benefits to others.”

Often implicit in charity is the perception that those on the receiving end are incapable or dependent; the charity status becomes a barrier for blind Canadians in leading a normal productive and successful life. Supporting barriers, which prevent blind citizens from accessing optimum opportunities for leading a normal life, is discriminatory.

The government’s perception that the blind fall into the realm of charity exacerbates the general lack of awareness amongst the public regarding the true capabilities of the blind and this has had very negative consequences for too many blind Canadians.

The CNIB: More Corporate Than Charity

Instead of guaranteeing blind individuals the same opportunities for a prosperous and fulfilling life as it does for sighted people, the Canadian government chooses to defer the fate of the blind to charity, one controlled by a private, top-heavy, self-serving organization: CNIB. This organization appears more focused on its survival as a business than serving the people it was charged with helping. While tens of thousands of blind Canadians struggle to subsist, CNIB operates like a holding company, handling tens of millions of dollars in real estate and special accounts. In Ontario alone, at least 22 CNIB executives earn over $100,000 per year.

The unacceptable situation for blind Canadians has changed very little since CNIB was formed in 1918. Yet, despite its dismal record, CNIB still persuades Canadians that it is best able to take care of all matters concerning the blind. While CNIB sells properties, young working age blind adults lack much-needed training, preventing them from participating in the social and economic life that most Canadians take for granted.

During the past decade in British Columba, CNIB has sold off many of its desirable properties. Most notably, its Vancouver and Victoria buildings, the Bowen Island Lodge, and several other donated properties in the province. The sale of this combined real estate totalled just under $15 million. The properties were originally funded by well-meaning supporters, who saw the need and wished to make a difference, intending to benefit the blind.

The need is visible and clear to everyone. CNIB’s real estate deals are kept quiet; but at the same time, their fundraisers ask people to donate. CNIB’s original capital campaigns stressed the overwhelming needs to expand its services and acquire properties to meet the growing demands of the increasing numbers of blind clients in local communities. But the Institute in B.C. now only leases back as little as one-third of the space in these buildings, though still maintaining that they serve their clients. Either the original needs stories were misleading, or CNIB places less importance on serving the people on whose backs they raised the funds.

A report in the March 27, 2013 issue of the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper led with the lines: “‘The CNIB’s Victoria office is not on the auction block. Despite rumours, the CNIB is not actively engaged in an exercise to sell off its assets,’ said John Mulka, the CNIB’s executive director for B.C. and the Yukon.”

Shortly after that report was published, commercial real estate firm Avison Young was advertising the property. Less than a year later, on February 4, 2014, the CNIB Victoria building was sold for $2,350,000. Yet years earlier, CNIB stressed the need to spend donated dollars to expand the building.

Indeed, as millions of tax-free dollars in capital gains leave the community, the charity manufactures an artificially desperate situation, one that will be used to ask the generous public for even more of their hard-earned money. It should be pointed out that very few blind clients, if any, knew or had any say in these purely business decisions.

Placing the care for the blind under the auspices of a charitable group, however, allows negative misconceptions to flourish regarding the blind’s capabilities. The lives led today by the vast majority of blind people in Canada should appall Canadians. It does not need to be this way.