Walking around London I come across many diverse people collecting for a multiplicity of charities. On occasions I will donate to organisations and, for a brief moment feel that warm glow which comes with departing with one’s money for a good cause. However I feel distinctly uncomfortable when I hear the words “help the blind” accompanied by the sound of a collection tin being shaken with vigour. As a registered blind person I balk at being portrayed as a charity case, someone who is incapable of living independently save via the charity of others.
In his book “The Politics of Blindness” Graeme McCreath (himself blind) argues that the Canadian government should abolish charitable organisations for the blind and replace them with comprehensive government funded assistance. In McCreath’s view blindness charities tend to portray visually impaired individuals as helpless victims who must be assisted by charities thereby hindering the progress of blind Canadians.
McCreath is originally from the United Kingdom but has lived and worked in Canada for a considerable part of his life. His book deals mainly with the situation faced by blind Canadians and a number of his criticisms are aimed at the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB), however some of his arguments could be seen as having relevance to the situation faced by blind residents here in the UK. For example around 75 per cent of blind Canadians do not work while the figure for the UK is roughly the same at 30 per cent of (employed) visually impaired people of working age. As pointed out at the beginning of this post I experience discomfort when I hear “help the blind” accompanied by the shaking of a collection tin, however is it realistic to expect the government to take over the role of the charitable sector lock, stock and barrel. Given the demands on national budgets and irrespective of which political party happens to be in office I can not see all assistance being channelled via the government. There is undoubtedly a compelling case for the government to redouble it’s efforts as regards helping blind and other disabled people into employment by for example ensuring that Access to Work (the scheme which provides government-funded technology and assistance to employers, for use by their disabled employees thereby encouraging organisations to employ blind and other people with disabilities) is widely publicised. Again the government could (and should) work with disabled people and advertisers to portray positive images of blind individuals rather than allowing the picture of blind people as passive recipients of charity to persist.
As regards charities, organisations such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) should abandon the practice of telling their collectors (if indeed they do so) to shout “help the blind”. Rather charities such as the RNIB need to work with visually impaired people to portray us as people who have many and varied abilities but who do, at the same time face particular issues which require to be addressed (I.E. I hope that people will donate to organisations such as the RNIB knowing by that by so doing they are enhancing the independence of visually impaired people rather than paying for blind individuals to live in institutions or be catered for in day centres by kind volunteers. I am not knocking day centres or the work of the many dedicated volunteers who do tremendous work. I am, however pointing out that many blind people want much more than to spend their days in day centres, they want in short to work and to live the same lives as their non-disabled friends and neighbours.
We need to ensure that charities work with blind people to portray positive images, however it seems moonshine to expect the government to take over the role of the charitable sector in it’s entirety. Indeed the government can learn valuable lessons from the best aspects of the way in which charitable organisations conduct their operations.
For Graeme McCreath’s book please visit http://thepoliticsofblindness.com/
of the Blind (RNIB)