Hoping to See Change

Eastend resident Brenda Cooke involved with Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians 

PAUL MACNEIL
The Shaunavon Standard – February 2, 2010 

Completing the most basic of daily tasks – whether it’s crossing the street in safety or placing a pot on a stove burner – can sometimes be a discouraging
and disabling challenge for hundreds of thousands of Canadians.  

But that’s exactly the situation faced by citizens across the country who are vision-impaired and struggle to accomplish what many people would consider everyday routine.  

Brenda Cooke of Eastend, who has been legally blind since birth, is well acquainted with the struggles associated with limited eyesight through her own experience, as well as the work she does as a volunteer with the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC).  

For about 10 years now she has been a member of AEBC, a national organization that is working towards promoting rights and opportunities for those who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.  

Her involvement has included a stint on the group’s volunteer board of directors.  

For the past couple of years, though, she has served as the editor of the organization’s magazine, the Canadian Blind Monitor (CBM), which is published twice annually.  

Brenda says she accepted the editor duties after stepping down from the national board.  

“I wanted to take part in the work that the organization was doing, but I preferred to do something behind the scenes,” she said, before laughing at the fact she still found herself sitting on various committees. One of those committees, however, is connected with the operations of the magazine. “ 

The committee members take a big part in making decisions about the magazine and making sure it is representative of the goals of AEBC and the membership as a whole,” said Brenda. “Actually, that’s one of the big differences between AEBC and most service agencies and some other consumer advocacy groups.
It has a working board and is controlled from the bottom up instead of the top down. All policies are developed by the grassroots membership.”  

AEBC was founded to increase awareness of rights and responsibilities, so blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted individuals can have equal access to the benefits and opportunities of society.  

But AEBC isn’t interested in generating any sympathy or pity for its members. Instead, its primary objective is to help initiate progressive, meaningful and – above all else – obtainable change within society.  

AEBC is comprised of rights holders who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, whose work focuses on improving public attitudes and influencing policies, programs and legislation that affects members of its community.  

Even in these more modern day “enlightened” times, the group continues to fight an ongoing battle to have their voice heard.  

There is very little government support for blind rights issues and a lack of awareness among the general public about the everyday challenges faced by vision-impaired citizens.  

AEBC is involved in a myriad of issues affecting persons with restricted vision, including access to regular household products, access to safe travel on community streets, access to printed information, access to employment and income, and access to voting.  

While technological advancement have helped make life easier for a generation of Canadians, Cooke says that some new innovations have also caused problems for those with limited vision.  

An increasing range of regular household products, for instance, are now operated by touch panels without buttons that make them difficult if not impossible for blind persons to operate independently.  

Imagine trying to place a pot on a stove that no longer has raised burners.  

What about setting a timer on an oven that is fully digitalized. Or try navigating the instruction menu on a DVD movie, or the cable/satellite program guide on the television.  

Even new hybrid cars pose certain dangers. They aren’t as loud as older models, making them more difficult for blind people to detect on community streets – not knowing when it is safe to cross.  

AEBC is calling on manufacturers to use today’s technology to make their products independently usable by the widest possible number of customers.  

“Accessibility goes beyond ramps and making bathroom doors wide enough for wheelchair users,” said Cooke.  

“We just want manufacturers to make items that are universally designed for everyone to use,” she added. “What we propose is that manufacturers make these products accessible in the first place so there is no added cost to the people attempting to use them.”  

At the moment, however, it is Canada’s blind residents who must adapt to machines, instead of the other way around.  

Usually, the vision-impaired must cover the added cost of adapting these products to meet their needs. Unfortunately, statistics show that between 60-80
per cent of all blind Canadians are living in poverty.  

“They are the people who have to come up with the extra money to pay for items needed to make products useful to them,” said Cooke. “But there is very little assistance for blind people who have to buy those extra items.”  

Reading material is another concern.  

While technology makes it easier than ever to produce materials in multiple formats, only about 5% of print materials are produced in these formats – which affects knowledge, education, and independence.  

AEBC calls for increased availability of materials in audio and Braille formats, websites to be accessible to the screen readers that blind people use and
the use of a text equivalent on all websites wherever a PDF file is included.  

Right now, Cooke points out, a blind person cannot walk into a library – funded by the public – and enjoy the same access as that of their fellow sighted
citizens.  

“That is a very serious inequality in our country,” she stated. “And, right now it could take up to five years to produce a book in a format that a blind
person could access and most times that material is provided through charity dollars rather than the tax base.”  

Amazingly, Cooke says that even access to voting is an issue for blind Canadians.  

The most important act a citizen in any democracy performs is to vote independently and in secret.  

AEBC wants the same right for blind people by developing alternative methods of voting so that blind Canadians can independently verify how they voted.
 
There are about 600,000 people in this country who are blind. (Legally blind means a person has 20/200 vision in the better eye with correction.)  

But the group has a hard time getting the attention of politicians.  

“We can’t even get equal accessibility to voting,” she stated. “The 600,000 or 800,000 of us out there don’t seem to count.”  

“And I don’t mean that in an emotional way, I mean that in an political way.”  

Despite the ongoing struggle to be heard, Cooke says she is committed to her work with AEBC.  

Last year, Cooke organized a small 50/50 raffle, with the proceeds going to help produce the Canadian Blind Monitor in braille format, an expensive procedure.
 
The magazine is currently produced in braille, print, on audio-CD at no cost to readers and is available on the internet.  

The winner of the first draw was Doreen Stewart of Eastend, who took home about $360.  

Cooke is considering another 50/50 draw this year and a possible art auction to raise more funds for the magazine project.  

Anyone interested in more information is welcome to call AEBC at 1 800 561 4774 or visit their website at www.blindcanadians.ca 

Reproduced from http://www.theshaunavonstandard.com/index.php/news/local-news/61-hoping-to-see-change