The League to Fight Neurelitism: Resource Library


Positioning Statement: Canadian federation of the Blind, Spring 1999

We are writing to express are disgust and outrage about the recent CNIB fundraising broadcast which aired on BC TV several times over the passed few months. This program demeans blind people. It depicts negative stereotypes and reinforces fear of blindness. It has damaged our fight for equality and has taken us back years in our struggle to raise public awareness about the positive achievements of blind people. We are mortified that CNIB is promoting such a disregard for human dignity. This is exploitation in its truest sense. By using negative stereotypes of helplessness to raise money, CNIB is oppressing blind people and seriously damaging the status of the blind. That CNIB would produce such a broadcast shows that their custodial and oppression of blind Canadians remains as strong now as it ever was. In 1967, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek compared the status of blind people in various parts of the world in relation to the agencies for the blind. He said: "In Canada the story is perhaps the saddest and sorriest of all. In that northern clime an agency colossus bestrides the world of the blind from coast to coast, making free use of company-union tactics wherever any independent sentiment dares to express itself." (Dr. tenBroek.)

Among the many difficulties we have with this program, one is the stark parallel made between blind people in Canada and poor and starving people in developing countries. CNIB emphasizes this theme by asking viewers to become CNIB partners and pledge $18 a month. They plead with viewers to make a blind person their friend and promise to send donors a photograph of a “grateful” blind recipient along with the recipient’s name in Braille.

The CNIB TV broadcast reinforces an image of blind people as “other” and “cherity cases.” The narrator neglects to verbalize the phone number which throughout the program, he says appears on the screen. This omission demonstrates that CNIB is a poor role-model of accessibility for blind people and, more profoundly, demonstrates that CNIB does not feel blind people are an acceptable audience or potential contributors. Though we would not give money to support this destructive agency, we find it interesting that CNIB does not want to give us or any blind people the choice. Other signs of this paternalism include: the reference to blind people as “them” and “their” rather than “we” and “our” and the absence of a blind narrator.

A torrent of negative myths and images bombard viewers throughout the program. People speak in ominous tones about their own or their children’s blindness. These morbid stories, accompanied by equally morbid background music, create a feeling of dread in the audience. Blindness is depicted as dark, as in “love will shine through the darkness,” and a tragedy, as in “a devastating tragedy that struck twice”. This negative language continues to wind its way throughout the narrative. Words and phrases such as: “frightening view of the world;” the most frightening experience of their lives;” “their cries for help;” “the heartache of having a blind child;” ”I cried myself to sleep;” “nightmare;” “our dreams were smashed;“ helpless, deep and crippling sense of depression;” “vulnerable and afraid;” “only a mother can understand what it feels like when you sense there is something wrong;” “lost in a world where they are always dependent on others;” and ”blindness is a terrible thing.” These kinds of words and statements go on and on; they stimulate fear and pity in those who watch and warp people’s understanding of blindness.

The increasing population of blind people in Canada is depicted in terrifying language such as, “blindness is growing at an alarming rate,” “the growing vision crisis in Canada” and “there is a crisis looming.” These words turn blindness and blind people into an epidemic, a contagion that must be contained.

These negative images combine with inaccurate and false information about blindness to create a misleading and disturbing message. Blind people, especially blind children, are portrayed as very different from their sighted counterparts. They are depicted as needing elaborate and specialized attention, without which they would be lost. For example, one sighted mother says” it’s never easy to learn to be the parent of a blind child.” The narrator goes on to say, “How does a child born blind ever learn about the world around him?” These remarks turn blind children into freaks who couldn’t possibly learn and take in information in any “normal” way. The camera shows a blind child taking his first steps, and the narrator talks about the difficulty of this process. However, nobody ever mentions that all children, including sighted children must learn skills such as walking. Blind children do not need more attention than sighted children in learning the skills of life. CNIB’s talking bear, Spinoza, who reads books to blind kids, appears to be an invention made especially for blind children. But does anyone stop to think that sighted children would get the same pleasure out of such a bear. Parents must read to their young sighted children just as much as they must read to their young blind children. When sighted children begin to read for themselves, blind children, if taught Braille, will also be able to read independently. The film illustrates the plight of a blind child inside the classroom. “In the classroom, the reality of Preston’s blindness is felt the strongest.” Braille is made out to be terribly difficult to learn, a chore which must take a blind child out of the classroom for hours at a time. This is untrue; Braille, if begun early and taught regularly, is no more difficult to learn than print is for a sighted child. There is no significant or profound difference between blind and sighted children. In fact, the only difference that exists is the one that “experts” such as CNIB pretend exists.

In the TV broadcast, CNIB portrays itself as actively involved in the lives of blind children. While in the past few years, CNIB has eliminated child and family counselors. They have threatened to cancel CNIB camp, one of the services highlighted in the TV broadcast.

There are very few positive references in this TV broadcast. The three uplifting references we managed to find are the boy at camp who water skies, the camp counselor who says “never say I can’t do it” and the little girl at camp who says she is proud to be blind. These positive messages are so buried in negativity that only someone actively searching would notice them. CNIB deliberately creates a depressing and tragic image of blindness to raise money for the agency, an agency that purports to improve the lives of blind people.

The CNIB TV broadcast focuses on the need for “experts,” “specialists”. Blind people are shown to be helpless, desperate, barely human creatures who could not possibly make it on their own. CNIB is trumpeted as a refuge and a savior of blind people. Throughout the program, we are told that CNIB is the only place where people like us can go for “help”. This paternalistic attitude on the part of CNIB turns blind people into objects, inferior beings, less intelligent and certainly less competent than those who work at CNIB. This agency model of rehabilitation is reminiscent of the way early European colonists treated the First Nations people. First nations people were silenced, demeaned and stripped of their dignity and pride as a people. Though it might be hard for many to understand the comparison, blind people are experiencing a similar kind of oppression. Many blind people believe they deserve such treatment; in fact, many blind people are grateful for it. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go before the years of second-class citizenship begin to fade and blind people start to stand up for their rights.

The CNIB approaches blindness with a medical model mentality. Instead of focusing on the social oppression of blind people, the real problem of blindness, they focus on blindness as a disease that should be cured. CNIB contributes to the discrimination of blind people by masking the real issues, such as ignorance and discrimination against blind people in society.

As usual, in the popular dialogue about blindness, sight becomes the most important, the most sought-after state. As in the statement “ if you have perfect vision, be thankful for it.” If one can’t have sight, then one should long for it. If one has some remaining sight, then one must do everything possible to use it, even if it means squinting, straining and suffering from headaches. People who are totally blind are depicted as less fortunate than people with “low vision, as in the statement “”he might have a tiny bit of vision which could change his whole life.” These are examples of sightism, a belief that sight is by nature superior to blindness.

In one part of the program, the narrator says, “We would like to take the blind out of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.” The intent of this statement is clear; CNIB wants to show they will help everyone, even people with a considerable amount of “useable” vision. However, by saying they want to take the blind out of CNIB, they undermine their declared commitment to “helping” blind people. An interesting contradiction. The more important issue, though, is the underlying message. By wanting to take the blind out of CNIB, they are taking away a part of who we are as people; to a person who is proud to be blind, this is one of the worst insults. What would people say if someone suggested taking the word women out of the Status of Women action Group or the word “black” out of Black History Month.

This obsession with sight is evident in other parts of the program. For example, in the part about CNIB camp, we are constantly reminded the children can’t see. “Though they can’t see the fire, they can feel its rays. “Neither knows what the other really looks like.” Just when the children are actually shown taking part in happy, healthy activity, CNIB feels it necessary to remind viewers about what the children lack. The children are active, intelligent and fun loving, but don’t forget, they are “sadly deprived” of their sight.

Blindness isn’t sad. The true sadness is that CNIB would send such a negative and destructive message out to millions of people. They turned back the clock and made our fight towards equality more difficult. We spend every day of our lives explaining to sighted people that we are happy just the way we are. CNIB, the agency that is supposed to “help” blind people, only makes our lives difficult. We are proud to be blind. We like who we are, and we don’t want to change any part of ourselves, including our blindness. Despite what CNIB says, many of us live rich full and productive lives. We want your respect, your understanding, your friendship, but we do not want your pity. CNIB created this program to raise funds, so they can continue to oppress blind people. We are saying to you that no money in the world is worth our dignity.