Clients, Not Customers: Charity, Politics, And The CNIB

Author’s note: The following contains frank and potentially controversial material from several sources. To protect their privacy and the privacy of those they have worked with, no names are given. They have not explicitly asked for this, but I wish to shield everyone from unnecessary backlash.

I began this post as an attempt to dispel misconceptions surrounding CNIB, RNIB, and similar organizations. Things took a turn, though, when I received a flood of responses documenting issues people had with the CNIB, in particular. The sheer volume of feedback I received convinced me that I needed to write a post about it. Someone needs to speak up, because at present, blind people have no voice in Canada outside the CNIB, and there’s nothing democratic about that.

If you’re Canadian, you probably believe that the CNIB is the go-to when it comes to virtually anything blindness-related. Some go so far as to believe that blind people spend the bulk of our time there (we do not) and that we could not possibly get on without them (which many of us could). People even believe, as K told me, that the CNIB finds jobs for us (which they certainly do not) and that they essentially look after us in every way (which they definitely don’t). It’s true that they provide many essential services, especially for people who are newly-blind or who are born without sight and need some support. I still require O and M (orientation and mobility) instruction from time to time, and I do love their massive library of braille and talking books. Still, I wouldn’t say that the CNIB is in an ideal state. I also wouldn’t say that the structure and operations of the organization are serving the community as well as they could be.

Let me first say that I do appreciate the CNIB very much. They’ve done a lot for me, personally, and they’ve also done a lot for blind people across Canada. While I worked for them, I met wonderful people. I was treated with dignity and kindness. I was given challenging, rewarding work. I had a great time. But there were darker parts—parts I can’t talk about here for confidentiality reasons. However, other members of the blind community remain unfettered, and they wanted me to tell their side of the story. So, here goes.

I mentioned that the very structure of the CNIB is problematic. As K pointed out, the CNIB’s charitable status forces them to solicit funding in whatever ways they can. This means pulling relentlessly on heartstrings, even if it misleads people; even if it makes blind people seem helpless; even if it portrays us as dependent and in need of hand-holding and coddling. The CNIB puts out astonishingly condescending ads like this one (shoutout to the actors—they’re both great people). Check out this one from the RNIB, which obtains funding by convincing the sighted population that blind people’s lives are dark, gloomy, and hopeless without the RNIB’s intervention. I mean…come on! They even have sad cellos! Who on earth couldn’t give money to an organization that uses sad cellos?
The CNIB, like many charities, is always in a somewhat precarious position, so there is a chronic lack of staff, an inability to pay the staff they do have (including benefits), and ongoing doubt as to where they’ll be next year. I even recall the CNIB making threats about discontinuing their library services if they did not receive more funding. The CNIB has a loud voice all right … but who is speaking?

The CNIB is lobbying, and lobbying hard. I’ve written about their attempts to persuade governments to fund rehabilitation services just as they do for all other disabled people. If you get into a car accident and are paralyzed, you will be given rehabilitation and physiotherapy until you gain as much independence as possible. You are, in theory, supported through the entire process. If you get into an accident and are blinded? They send you home and, if you’re lucky, they point you towards the CNIB. It’s a sad state of affairs, and the CNIB is trying to change that. That’s noble, in itself, but again, we run into the issue of advocacy: the CNIB is not the mouthpiece of the blind; it is the mouthpiece of itself. R goes so far as to state that politics and lobbying are more important to the CNIB than actually helping its own clients.

This brings me to another of K’s excellent points: we are not customers or members of the CNIB, but clients. This puts us in the position of receiving services and being spoken for. We do not advocate; they advocate for us. We do not educate; they educate for us. While there are many blind people employed by CNIB, the organization is not democratically structured so that the general blind community can have a say. We can scream as loud as we please, but at the end of the day, the public will listen to the CNIB before they’ll listen to us. The CNIB has name-recognition and a century of service on its side; who are we to disagree with them? To call them out? To claim that they may not be the perfect solution after all?

Oh, right: we’re charity cases. Every service we receive is given to us for free. It puts us in a disempowering position. Because we don’t pay for what we receive (and most of us couldn’t afford it even if we did want to pay), we are not given a voice. Many would consider me ungrateful if, after receiving a free service, I complained about its quality. Even if I have good ideas, they’re not particularly welcome, and most of the clients I’ve spoken to feel the same sense of futility. We can’t complain, because it’s free. We can’t progress, because it’s charity. We’re stuck. Well and truly stuck. And the front line staff? Those generally dedicated people who take on massive caseloads to help us? They are overworked and underpaid. They are spread too thin or left with little to do. They get to deal with all the discontent, and get none of the reward. In many ways, being a front line staff member at CNIB appears to be a thankless job.

If you’re in a position, like R was, where you receive horrible service from a particular branch of CNIB, you are out of options unless you move. She had difficulty becoming a client, because forms either failed to be sent/received, or mysteriously disappeared altogether. Once she became a client, she had to fight to receive services at all. She left dozens of phone calls. She went up the chain to try to get someone to listen to her. When she did receive service, she claims it was perfunctory and next to useless. When she tried to advocate for herself, she was dismissed. When she tried to take control of her own situation, she was told there was only one right way to do things, and she’d have to suck it up if she wanted help. R had difficulty with an O and M instructor—with whom many other clients had issues—because that instructor seemed to have an agenda of sorts. R knew her own vision and health best, but this instructor seemed to think they knew better than R did. Eventually, R gave up completely and stopped asking the CNIB for help. These days, she teaches herself how to use assistive technology. She relies on help from other blind people which, thankfully, has been forthcoming. While her experiences are certainly unusual, they are not unique. I have heard these stories over and over, and I’ve even had a taste of them myself. While my experiences with the CNIB have been mostly positive, I have occasionally encountered staff members who played favourites, for example. One client had no trouble getting service for something trivial, while another client could not get vital service for love or money. One has to wonder why this is so widespread. Why is it so prevalent and pervasive? And what on earth do we do about it, when we have no say in how the organization is run?

L brings up the unfortunate reputation the CNIB has gained over the years. She says, “I would take a job with the CNIB if I had to, but it is definitely a last resort. I don’t want my name associated with them.” This is partly because sighted people assume that if CNIB employs a blind person, it must be busywork or pity work. Far from it. Blind employees work just as hard as sighted ones, and several hold executive positions. Yet I, too, feel a little squirmy when I tell people where I’ve worked. I just know they’re judging me, and I know it isn’t merited.

So, what’s our grand solution? One would hope that, with such an outpouring of emotion, the blind community would have come up with something. We find ourselves stumped, though. Perhaps we should have a system more like America’s, where governments pay for rehab services, and consumer organizations like the NFB and ACB act as legitimate mouthpieces for blind people. Canada does have one advocacy organization by blind people for blind people, but it’s very low-profile. Many of us had never even heard of it!

The point is, there is no grand solution. The CNIB has so much going for it, but it also has massive issues that could not be fixed without significant restructuring. It relies on public funding, which is capricious and just a little too scarce at times. We do need them, as things stand anyway, but they seem to have forgotten us. Many of us are lucky: adult blind people with solid independent living skills don’t need the CNIB very often, if at all. We are not living lives of darkness and suffering. Yes, there are profound struggles, but there is plenty of light there, too. The question is, can it be better?

We will see what the coming years bring with them. Perhaps governments really will commit to funding rehab services for us, though with substantial cuts to health care, that doesn’t seem likely. Until then, we’ll just have to carry on and hope things get better. It’s bleak, and dismal, and woefully inadequate, but there it is. Still, the blind community is robust, innovative, and spirited. We’ll figure it out. The only question is, when?


My Eyes Are Broken…But I’m Not

I can’t count the times people have discussed a cure for blindness as though it were a life-saving miracle. They treat it like the one thing in the world that would fix me—make me into a normal, functional, and ultimately happy human being. If I dare to question this idea, I’m immediately dismissed because “…well, if you knew what it was like, you’d change your mind, trust me.”. The problem with this argument is that it only represents one perspective: to a sighted person, seeing is the most essential thing in the world, and they are incapable of imagining life without it. Therefore, sighted people assume that my life must be a dark, terrifying, lonely place full of uncertainty and suffering. Gregg, who has been totally blind from birth, observes that, for many sighted people, losing their sight is almost akin to losing their life—a kind of death, so to speak. They rely upon it to the extent that going without it seems horrifying beyond words.


And yet, people lose their sight all the time, and most of them go on to live full, happy lives. Certainly it’s difficult at first; the adjustments that must be made are impossible to quantify. Still, they make it work, and many of them find their existences fulfilling enough, even without their sight.


Imagine, then, how a person who has never seen must feel. Having never relied upon sight for any aspect of their daily living, a world without it is perfectly natural and, for some at least, even desirable. To return to Gregg’s perspective for a moment:


I define the world by the things I can hear, taste, smell and touch, and in almost thirty-one years I’ve learned that there are many details found in these four senses that people with good vision often miss or ignore. I wouldn’t ever want to give that up for purely aesthetic reasons…


I can say that, in my own experience, there are many subtle details sighted people never appreciate, because sight is such a dominant, all-consuming sense. It is, as I like to refer to it, the greediest sense humans possess. I notice, for instance, the smell of fresh ice at a hockey game, while everyone else is busy exclaiming over the sport. I love the smooth feel of a loonie in my hand (it’s my favourite coin) while most people only notice the inscriptions on it. I can hear my surroundings with such precision that I hardly need more than echoes and a few landmarks to get around. While none of these things diminish the value of sight, they do mean that life in darkness isn’t so colourless as you might assume.


When I try to explain this to the average sighted person, they can hardly contain themselves, so exasperated and incredulous are they: “Butt…what about sunsets! Or the faces of the ones you love! Or…like…photographs! Wouldn’t you love to see all those things? Aren’t you curious? Don’t you care?”. The short answer is, sort of. To quote my good friend Alicia, also blind from birth, “I’m certainly curious about colours, and sunsets, and cats, and what people look like…” but she goes on to say that “I don’t live in hope, or even think about a cure all that much.”. This holds true for me, as well. There is no denying that it would be very, very cool to be able to see all those wonderful things I’ve been vicariously appreciating all my life, but I don’t find myself with a passionate desire to lay eyes on them, either. It feels like a perk more than a necessity, and I certainly don’t live my every waking moment hoping for a cure. Particularly for those who have been blind from birth, it’s pretty tough to miss what you’ve never had.


Now, one cannot have a nuanced discussion about cures for blindness without conceding that being sighted makes life considerably easier. If ever I become frustrated with my lack of sight, it is because of practical problems, like wishing I could drive myself somewhere instead of calling a cab or trying to figure out bus routes (or worse, bumming a ride). When I drop my keys and spend five minutes groping for them, I dearly wish I could just look down and find them instantly. The employment perks don’t hurt, either; as I’ve said in previous posts, the blind are chronically unemployed, and even when we do find jobs, we have to work extra hard to prove that we’re worthy of them. All that being said, civilization has evolved to the point where we can live reasonably independent lives, and most of the things we can’t do by default can be accomplished with the help of technology. It’s not as though we live in a wasteland with no connection to the outside world, and no meaningful place in it. It can be argued (and often is) that someone who willingly refuses a cure because they’re happy with their lot is a drain on resources. Why should the public help such a person when they have chosen this life for themselves?


This argument leads me to the crux of the matter: a cure is not a perfect solution. It’s comforting to think of it as a Hollywood-style magic moment where the patient opens their eyes, looks around, and becomes overwhelmed with the beauty and wonder of the world at large. This might be difficult for a sighted person to imagine, but humour me: try to picture (pardon the pun) what it would be like to suddenly gain an entirely new sense halfway through your life. All the feedback your brain is receiving is new to you, and you have no idea how to process it. If you’ve ever watched those viral videos in which deaf people are given cochlear implants, you’ll notice that the moment they begin to hear, they burst into tears. These tears aren’t necessarily those of joy; they are, more likely, brought on by being intensely overwhelmed. It is not as though a newly sighted person could look at the nurse beside them and think ‘okay, that’s a human dressed in scrubs’. They would have no concept of colour, shape, visual context, or even light and shadow; it’s all so new, and totally foreign. As CrazyMusician and Gregg have both mentioned to me, the rehabilitation process for a newly-sighted individual could take months or even years. They would essentially have to relearn how to do every little task that they have previously done without the use of their eyes. Even if the rehabilitation went smoothly, the mental and physical exhaustion brought on by processing so much information would be potentially debilitating, at least initially. This isn’t even taking into account the invasive and risky procedures a cure for blindness would require. Fiddling with detached retinas and faulty optic nerves is no mean feat. Since few have actually undergone such procedures, it’s impossible to say how successful a cure would really be. If you’re curious about what it’s like for someone with partial vision to be given enhanced vision, even for a short time, read this excellent post by Leona Emberson. While she enjoyed her experience with her electronically enhanced eyes, she went back to her regular vision rather gladly. For those who’ve lost their sight later in life, a cure makes a lot of sense. For people like me, though, it’s risky at best.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why sighted people push so hard for a cure, and seem so baffled when I tell them I’m not actively hoping for one. However, until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes, you can’t understand what my life is like, and cannot, therefore, make judgments about what would make mine better for me. Only I can make such judgments, and I’ve already made them. I remain open-minded, of course, and should a relatively low-risk cure come along one day, I may go for it. The point is that I don’t have to; I don’t have to submit to being “normalized” just for the sake of it. As Chris Swank so eloquently puts it, “I’m not broken, even if society thinks I am.”. There’s a great deal of difference between broken eyes and broken people.