Clients Unleash Litany of Complaints About CNIB

Say charity operates more like corporation 

By: Mary Agnes Welch
Winnipeg Free Press, Mar. 30, 2010

NOW that CNIB workers are back on the job, a group of blind Winnipeggers says the recent labour dispute points to deeper troubles at the charity.

A half-dozen longtime clients of the CNIB’s Winnipeg office told the Free Press the charity operates more like a corporation, with hefty executive salaries,
a swanky new downtown Toronto headquarters and little accountability.

They say services have been eroded in Manitoba over the last decade, leaving long waiting lists, cancelled support programs and fewer social workers, occupational therapists and experts to help with mobility skills.

“We don’t need another vice-president attending black-tie parties,” said Lois Collingridge, a volunteer and client. “We need more front-line workers.”

The clients said Manitobans deserve to know where their donations go and how much stays in the province. Client Dave Murray said he wants a forensic audit of the charity’s books.

Added Eric MacKinder, president of the Winnipeg chapter of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians: “People say, don’t bite the hand that feeds you,
but we’re not being fed.”

CNIB staffers returned to work Monday after a two-week strike that shut down the Portage Avenue office and left the visually impaired in limbo.

Delcy-Ann Selymes, the CNIB’s executive director in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, says she’s heard the criticisms before and many are rooted in a simple lack of funds.

Critics note donations and revenue rose to $75 million in 2009 from $59 million in 2005.

However, Selymes said donations and government support declined dramatically during the recession and CNIB often runs multimillion-dollar deficits.

She said the CNIB has tried to leave front-line services intact and maintain its core rehabilitation programs, which visually impaired people can’t get
anywhere else.

“We have protected service staff and sacrificed managers,” she said. “We no longer have a director in the Brandon office and we have not replaced some managers when they leave.”

She noted the salaries of senior staff are in line with those of other national charities, according to a recent study.

Recently, CNIB decided to close its store in Winnipeg, which sells white canes, glasses, talking clocks and other equipment. After an outcry, the store
reopened in a smaller space and clients were offered catalogues from which they could order — assuming they could see the catalogues.

Clients say the store sells equipment at inflated prices — a cane priced at $36 online sold for $85 in the store until a client raised a fuss several years
ago — but Selymes said the store doesn’t even break even.

About eight years ago, the CNIB closed a satellite office in Thompson, even though diabetes-related blindness is common in the North. A program where volunteers made weekly house calls to help blind people pay bills and run errands was done away with three years ago because the CNIB could no longer afford a co-ordinator.

Selymes said the CNIB had to make a choice between cutting the support program or cutting core rehabilitation services, although the CNIB is now trying
to restart the home visits.

Clients say that for years, there was a one-year waiting list for orientation and mobility training, where an expert helps people use their canes and navigate new routes so they know where crosswalks, bus stops and danger points are.

“That’s not something that just anyone can help you with,” said Janet Hunt, who recently needed an orientation through the construction at Health Sciences Centre. “I can’t just ask my husband — it takes special skills.”

Another staffer was recently hired, but the wait is still six months. Two mobility experts cover the province.

“If we had more dollars to put in that area, we certainly would,” Selymes said. 

Reproduced from