Blind World Magazine

CNIB yields to critics on television spots.

December 04, 2005.
Toronto Star - Canada.

Would these television ads help people understand what it means to have low vision? Would they expand public knowledge of services provided by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind?

You be the judge.

Scenario One: "A kid makes jokes in front of a man wearing a cane and dark glasses. The blind man (sic) then mimics the kid's gestures." Superimposed on the screen are the words: "Just a reminder, not everyone who uses the CNIB is blind."

Scenario Two: "As a woman with a guide dog walks past a construction site, a construction worker removes his shirt. The woman takes notice." Same words superimposed on the screen.

Those scenarios went out last month as part of a casting call for proposed TV spots promoting the CNIB. They prompted a flurry of protests to me, perhaps summed up best by Judy Prociuk, who wrote, in part:

"These commercials are...making fun of the blind, implying that blind people can really see and are just pretending."

Added Joyce Mainland: "I can envision people having viewed the (commercial) attempting to make faces at my daughter to determine whether she can actually `see' them....It is one thing for the blind to laugh at themselves but to have others laugh at them is another thing altogether."

I have to agree. Disabled cartoonist John Callahan can play with such images. But how they demonstrate the services offered by the CNIB is a mystery to me. Clearly, even the ad's scriptwriter doesn't grasp the concept of low vision because he or she describes the character mimicking the kid as "blind."

In the context of mainstream television, I'm afraid these ads will simply act as fuel for that segment of the population wedded to the misapprehension that if people with disabilities just tried a little harder, society would be better off.

Underlying this type of thinking is the mistaken idea that people who use wheelchairs can walk well enough not to need most ramps and, by extension, people who use white canes can see well enough that they don't really need subway stops called out.

If "these people," these "special interest groups," got the lead out, so the wrong-headed thinking goes, the world wouldn't have to listen to them constantly whining about automatic door openers, Braille menus and other things that merely add to the costs shouldered by long-suffering, able-bodied taxpayers.

Needless to say, this debate is not what the CNIB had in mind.

"We can't afford to have that message going out inadvertently," says president Jim Sanders. "If that's the impression being left, we won't go forward."

So, what do you think? Sanders is inviting readers of this column to contact him with ideas, but he emphasizes that the description in the casting call does not do justice to the project.

"Because most of the tone of the piece is conveyed non-verbally, the this brief summary do not capture it," he wrote in a response to those who contacted CNIB.

The point of the ad campaign is to alert people with low vision and their families to the fact that CNIB offers services that may improve or even save lives, Sanders says.

As someone born with glaucoma, he grew up trying to hide from his peers that his eyesight was failing rapidly. "It took me 35 years to admit I could benefit from help," he says. "If I had to do it over again, I would pick up a white cane sooner."

That could have alerted cyclists and others to the fact that he had low vision and might not be able to jump out of the way if he didn't hear them in time. CNIB can offer anyone with low vision access to technology, audio books and other support services, Sanders says.

That may be true, but it's not what comes across to me in the proposed ads. Several critics also found the use of a guide dog in one scenario misleading because CNIB has nothing to do with raising, training or offering service dogs.

That point is well taken. Sanders says a white cane would be used in both commercials. "The main characters in both scenarios (who have some usable vision, as most CNIB clients do) are meant to command respect," he wrote to critics. "The woman is clearly a business executive on her way to work, providing a message about employment."

But Mainland still queries the message. "In reality, if she's walking past a construction site, she will be too focused on her travel to even take notice of (the construction worker)."

Underlying much of the criticism is resentment that CNIB would be advertising to attract clients when some services and staff are being cut.

"That's complex," says Sanders. "We're not reducing staff as a result of our budget. We're doing it because we have to change with the times and improve our productivity.

"Audio cassettes are giving way to digital technology and that, too, will change. We can't afford $8 million to supply new machines, so we've said: `If you can afford to spend $400, buy a new machine; if you can't, we'll put you on a waiting list for what we have."

There is one issue on which Sanders definitely agrees with the critics who contacted me: people who are losing or have lost vision should not have to depend on charity. They should be entitled to fully covered rehabilitation services just like someone who has lost a leg or an arm.

Let Sanders know what you think at 416-486-2500, ext. 7588 or

Write: Helen Henderson, Life Section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto, Ont. M5E 1E6. Email: Please include a phone number.

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