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Rights for blind Ontarians – we have come a long way

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By James W. Sanders, C.M.

I have voted in every federal, provincial and municipal election since becoming eligible in 1965. At that time ironically, I and every other blind person was legally ineligible to sit as a juror. The Human Rights Code in Ontario was in its infancy. I am sure that advocates of the day spent the majority of their resources simply informing individuals, groups and organizations of their rights under the Code. We have all come a long way.

We usually appreciate the size and scope of progress only by looking through a rear viewing lens. This is certainly the case for those of us who are blind.

Approximately 80% of the information we absorb comes through our eyes. The challenge for blind persons therefore is to find viable options by using our other senses, primarily our ears and fingers. Without an alternate form of information access, a page of print, the floor number on an elevator, the label on a tin of soup or a street sign remain silent and out of reach.

Thanks to technology today, solutions to these everyday tasks are simple and inexpensive. However, the majority of such routine transactions that blind persons now take for granted have been made possible only through litigation using the human rights system. Happily, materials in Braille, audio, large print and other electronic forms that blind persons can read independently are now routinely provided by all levels of government and private sector businesses. We enjoy a high degree of equality and increased independence thanks to the rulings from human rights complaints lodged by individual blind persons.

Moving about one’s community continues to pose challenges for blind persons, particularly people who lose their eyesight later in life. Without support from bus operators, for example, we often do not know whether we are on the right bus and are getting off at the right stop. Thanks to recent Human Rights Tribunal decisions and the work of individual advocates and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, many transit services across Ontario are now providing this information on a routine basis.

Litigation has preceded any systemic change, such as being provided with accessible information, and has opened the doors to education, employment and full participation within our communities by those of us who are blind.

The initial anger, hostility and resentment created by each human rights challenge is soon replaced by enthusiastic support. I know first-hand that the legacy of the visionaries who were involved in enacting Ontario’s human rights legislation, and of the individuals who have used it wisely, is the enhanced life options for everyone, blind or sighted.

James W. Sanders C.M. is Past President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), Chair of the CNIB Accessibility Standards Advisory Council of Ontario, and Honorary Executive Director of the Sir Arthur Pearson Association of War Blinded (SAPA).