Blind World Magazine

CNIB chief rose to top in spite of his blindness.

Toronto Town Crier, Canada.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006.

By Paul Hutchings.

JIM SANDERS worked his way up the CNIB ladder, starting out partime when he was 15.

Jim Sanders is an inspiration not just to blind persons but to anyone who has a dream. After decades of hard work, Sanders achieved his dream of becoming the CEO of the Canadian Institute for the Blind (CNIB).

Sanders started his career at the CNIB at age 15, working part-time. At that time he still had partial vision, as he did not fully lose his eyesight until he was in his 30s.

By age 24, he had been working there full-time for two years when CNIB director Ross Purse called him into his office for an interview. At one point in the conversation, Purse asked Sanders about his career goals, to which the young man immediately responded: "I want to be the CEO of the CNIB some day."

Sanders' message is that blindness is not a life-ending experience. Totally blind for more than 20 years, Sanders was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2005 for his work with CNIB.

Born with severe glaucoma, Sanders was expected to be blind by age six or seven. Starting with a weekend job at a CNIB smoke shop in a Thunder Bay hospital at the age of 15, the 58-year-old has been working with the CNIB ever since. Things have come a long way for blind persons in Canada, but there is still some ground to cover in dealing with what he called "attitudinal barriers," he told the Town Crier in 2005.

Despite the proven ability of the visually impaired to be highly productive, most don't get past the personnel department when applying for a job without some kind of intervention from a third party, such as the CNIB, to act on their behalf.

At his Bayview Ave. office, Sanders is surrounded by technology that helps him work. Seven years ago he could only handle about five percent of the paperwork that came across his desk, with the other 95 percent having to be read to him or transcribed into braille. Today, using specialized computer software, he can handle about 95 percent of the paperwork. Unfortunately, most of the visually impaired do not have access to this technology, which has to change, he said.

Sometimes change only comes about after a fight, said Sanders, pointing to the case 15 years ago of a Manitoba woman who had to turn to the courts to get a tax form in braille. Similarly it took court cases to make banking machines and statements from utility companies accessible.

Sanders warned that in the next 15 years the number of people considered blind will triple because vision deteriorates with age. He said businesses and government had better be able to meet the challenge. Those who catch on fast will have to make very few changes when that time comes.

"My prediction is that the buying power of the baby boomers, who will be facing vision loss within the next 15 years, will drive changes in society. Hopefully we'll be ready for those changes."

Sanders, who was born in Thunder Bay in 1947, has worked across the country and in virtually every aspect of the CNIB for the last 44 years. It seems fitting that he is at the helm of an organization that helped him even as a child.

"Initially, my condition was devastating to my parents," recalled Sanders.

But the mood in the Sanders household improved markedly a few weeks after his birth, after a visit from the local CNIB representative, Norm Gilby, who assured the young couple that there would be help for them and their newborn son. That intervention was very comforting to Sanders' parents, and years later, his mother confided that she knew things would be fine after Gilby's visit.

"She said to me, 'Here was a blind man who looked normal, sounded normal, wore a shirt and tie and held down a nine-to-five job.'"

This gave her hope for her son as well. Little could she foresee that one day her son would be a role model for countless blind people.

End of article.

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