CNIB off Base in Bid for Government Cash

By Dave Obee
Times ColonistJanuary 20, 2010

The CNIB — once known as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind — wants the B.C. government to hand over $624,000 because of what it calls inequities in library funding for Canadians.

It’s hard to say no to the CNIB, because the charity has a wonderful reputation. But let’s hope that the provincial government does its homework on this request.

The facts do not support the CNIB’s argument.

The CNIB said yesterday that it can no longer sustain the “$10 million annual operating cost” of running its library of braille and audio materials without help from the federal and provincial governments. (The CNIB’s annual report puts the cost at $8 million. Still a lot of money, but not $10 million.)

“Whereas regular public libraries are funded by taxpayers, accessible library services for blind and partially sighted Canadians to date have received no such support,” the CNIB said as it launched its campaign. “Canada is the only G-8 country that does not publicly fund any library services for people with vision loss.”

These statements are simply not true.

Public libraries provide service to everyone, including those who are blind or partially sighted. Plenty of resources are available for the exclusive use of the blind and many more — including electronic databases — are accessible to blind patrons as well as sighted ones. An estimated 250,000 large-print books are on our library shelves.

We should not be marginalizing blind people by requiring them to obtain their books through a charity. I’m not alone in thinking this.

“Under the Charter of Rights, people with disabilities have the right to equal access to public resources and facilities; obviously it follows that, since sighted citizens receive books from publicly funded libraries, blind citizens should receive this same public service,” Elizabeth Lalonde, president of the Canadian Federation of the Blind, said in a letter to Library and Archives Canada last fall.

The CNIB is a big business, with 1,100 paid employees getting help from 10,000 volunteers. It has $50 million worth of land and buildings, including a lodge on Bowen Island that offers, its website says, “a beautiful and scenic view of mountains and water.” The charity’s investment portfolio suffered last year, with a net unrealized loss on its investments of $6.5 million.

The charity has some financial problems — its operating loss in 2009 was $4 million, down from $12 million the year before — so it’s not surprising that it is looking for money.

Bear in mind that the CNIB received $20 million in government funds last year, including $1 million from British Columbia, along with $43 million in public support. It also pulled in $11 million through fees for its services and the sale of consumer products.

How does it make that kind of money?

Graeme McCreath, a physiotherapist in Saanich, has been protesting the conduct of the CNIB for years. Back in 2004 he fired off a letter complaining that the CNIB was charging the Greater Victoria Public Library $9.50 per audio tape. Given that some large books might need a dozen tapes, the cost of a talking book could be more than $100.

At the time, you could buy blank cassettes in bulk for less than 50 cents. Even considering the cost of duplication and distribution, that’s a markup in the neighbourhood of 1,000 per cent.

McCreath challenges the notion that the CNIB has been providing library services without government help. To digitize its audio library, he says, the CNIB obtained $33 million from a variety of sources — including $6 million from the federal government.

“Blind Canadians wish, wherever possible, to be treated on the same terms as their peers and not always singled out as charitable recipients who must be segregated from the mainstream,” says McCreath, who has been blind since he was eight.

British Columbia has dozens of public libraries. They serve the blind and visually impaired, and have been doing that for years. And yes, they are publicly funded.

But beyond that, this province has scores of small charities that do great work in their communities. They do not have $50 million in buildings and land or 1,100 employees or investment funds able to absorb a paper loss of $6.5 million. They would never be mistaken for the CNIB.

The provincial government cut off funding to these small groups without a second thought.

Just a few things for the government to consider as it ponders the latest demand from the CNIB.

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