It took two major events to spur the creation of Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). The First World War and the Halifax explosion of 1917 both left a large number of people with sudden vision loss. At the time there was little support for blind Canadians and Colonel Edwin Baker, who lost his sight in Ypres in 1915, returned to Canada and became the pioneer behind CNIB. Veteran rehabilitation experiences in Europe armed him with a new modern approach for helping the blind and a realization of how important those resources were in Canada.
“They had been treated at a hospital in London, England and they brought a revolutionary philosophy back to Canada. There were seven Canadian men, five of whom were blind, who founded CNIB in 1918 to meet the demand for support of blind Canadians,” says Karen Love, CNIB’s executive director for Alberta and Northwest Territories.
Under Colonel Baker’s guidance as managing director for 42 years, CNIB broke down barriers for blind Canadians. The organization’s employment programs were among the first for the blind across North America and employment rates rose significantly for visually-impaired Canadians for the first time ever. As CNIB grew and spread across the country it became the largest private not-for-profit charitable organization of its kind in the world. It endeavoured to change attitudes and increase opportunities for blind Canadians, and those efforts are still at the forefront of CNIB’s mandate.
“Today’s philosophy is changing what it is to be blind,” Love says. “We really feel that whether you have full vision or vision loss you should have access to the same opportunities.”
CNIB has worked hard to make that goal a reality. It implements a more inclusive, integrative model to promote greater independence, quality of life and career success regardless of the client’s level of vision loss. Whether the client is blind or partially sighted, a senior or a child, CNIB is an invaluable resource for every visually-impaired Canadian.
Historically, all services were paid for through fundraising, private donations, community foundations and government grants. CNIB presented a compelling case that vision loss should be viewed the same as any other rehabilitation therapy and should be included within the continuum of health care.
“If you were in an accident and lost the use of your legs and needed occupational therapy you’d get that through health care. If I lost my sight and needed rehabilitation therapy, I had to come to a charity,” Love says.
After four years of advocating to government, CNIB was successful and introduced the Vision Loss Rehabilitation (VLR) branch of services. Now the organization divides its services into two areas: the health care-supported VLR and the charitable foundation programs.
VLR provides clients with an assessment and training on daily living skills to enhance their safety, mobility and independence. CNIB programs help clients master independent living skills like pouring coffee, preparing meals and using appliances as well as techniques for labelling medications, identifying money and organizing household items to allow them to thrive at home. Outside the home, orientation and mobility services aid clients with finding their way independently and in a safe manner.
“Whether you have a white cane or a guide dog, we’ll teach you how to navigate your area,” she says.
This includes everything from finding and crossing at intersections to riding public transportation. CNIB also provides volunteer-sighted guides to assist clients in familiarizing themselves with their surroundings so that clients stay safe.
As the vast majority of CNIB clients are partially sighted, VLR specialists also help clients better use the sight they have. CNIB introduces clients to products and assistive technology including CCTV, which magnifies materials on a screen making them easier to read. This allows visually-impaired clients to look at photographs, read books and see the fine print on statements so they are able to pay their own bills and do their banking.
“It all goes back to making sure you’re helping clients be as independent as possible,” says Love.
Today’s technology, from talking watches and alarm clocks to portable magnifiers, makes it easier for clients to stay engaged in their community and CNIB helps clients access and operate this technology. Clients learn to use tablets or smartphones and the innovative apps available for them to have documents read aloud, organize calendars and even find their way with a mapping program that uses sidewalks not roadways for directions.
IPads are also helping visually-impaired students feel more included at school. Rather than being relegated to the back of the classroom to use a CCTV machine, students can use an app that allows them to take a picture of the class material at their desks and have it read back to them.
“They can use their app so they’re not being treated differently. It’s about inclusion, equality and independence,” she says.
CNIB works extensively with young people to give them the tools and confidence to excel in school and beyond. Staff transitions children into the school system and continues to support them throughout their schooling. Clients help each other as well with the buddy system pairing an older child with a youngster to help them overcome challenges and share positive experiences. The goal is to empower kids and make them leaders advocating for themselves with support from CNIB and their families so they are prepared to take on the world as adults.
“We hear from parents that when their kids were born with severe vision loss that they’re never going to have the same opportunities that other kids are going to have, and we just want to prove them wrong. They’ll have the same opportunities but they have to do things in a different way,” says Love.
CNIB helps employers, families and the community better understand those different ways of doing things. Advocates go into the community and educate groups about vision loss, eye safety and the services available to vision-impaired people and their families. CNIB also trains people to understand what kind of help clients may need, like being guided, and the proper ways to provide it.
CNIB provides incredible resources but clients value supporting each other through client-led peer support groups too. There is a group for every stage of life, where clients can share challenges and find solutions to issues they all face.
Support from sighted supporters is key too, and CNIB does its best to facilitate clients in their desire to continue with activities they enjoyed before vision loss. Vision Mates pairs sighted volunteers with CNIB clients to meet up and do whatever activity they have in common, whether that’s shopping, yoga, swimming or learning an instrument. These relationships ensure the clients are getting out in the community and it’s great for friendship, independence and engagement.
“We see some really strong relationships coming out of that. Some people have vision mates for years,” Love says.
CNIB strives to keep clients engaged at work as well as with career and employment programs. Whether clients are struggling to find work or to stay in their jobs once their vision changes, CNIB offers training to expand work skills as well as help identify solutions that can help visually-impaired employees better do their jobs. This can be as simple as moving their desk out of the glare of lights to make it easier to see or getting a program that reads documents aloud. With a high percentage of people with vision loss being unemployed or underemployed, CNIB aims to show that its clients are equally capable of doing the job.
Equality and independence are priorities for CNIB, and branches across the country have been advocating for access to materials and opportunities that will keep clients independent, fulfilled and involved in society. With Alberta offices in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat and Red Deer, CNIB Alberta/NWT is able to provide assistance and resources to more than 16,000 clients across the province. The staff of 46 in Alberta, seven of whom are visually impaired, along with 264 volunteers work tirelessly to ensure clients have everything they need to succeed and flourish.
As CNIB celebrates its 100-year milestone, Love and her team proudly look back at what the organization has accomplished but their eyes are fixed firmly on the future and all there is still left to do. The plan is to continue boosting engagement in the workplace, harnessing the power of technology, and advocating for clients’ rights and supporting their daily needs.
“We couldn’t do what we do without our clients so we want to be able to celebrate our 100 years but also celebrate the strides the clients have made in their lives by supporting us,” she says.
It has been an incredible 100 years of progress and empowerment for visually-impaired Canadians at CNIB. Colonel Baker would definitely be proud.