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I Have a Dream: Transforming Learning and Access to Information

Issued May 2002

Jim Sanders

President and Chief Executive Officer
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind
The World Blind Union
North America/Caribbean Region

Address to the 2002 National Conference of Librarians:
*Our Digital World: A Leap to the Future*
National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress

April 29, 2002

Richmond, Virginia

I'm not here to talk about my life, but one memory may serve to illustrate how far we've come in achieving the dream of improved access to information. I vividly recall the morning in September 1970 when the effects of the glaucoma I had been born with finally took the rest of my reading eyesight, and I could no longer read the morning newspaper, which had been my much-loved daily practice. Little did I dare to dream that some 30 years later, I would once again have the newspaper delivered each morning to my home, thanks to a new CNIB electronic newspaper service specifically designed so that its users could read again and keep up with the world.

Digital media today have the potential to close the information gap between readers who are blind and readers who are sighted in much the same way that the invention of the Gutenberg press narrowed the information gap between those who created information and those who received it. Fulfilling this potential is my dream.

When monks no longer controlled information, scholarship thrived, creativity expanded, and scientific study began to inform the human condition, empowering the citizenry and highlighting the importance of access to information . Last year in Washington at the IFLA conference, a presentation focused on how literacy and access to library services in developing countries had transformed the lives of blind people whose only fate up till then had been a life of poverty.

I have been working for the advancement and improvement of the social and economic conditions of people who are blind over the past 35 years and have seen my own organization The Canadian National Institute for the Blind grow and flourish through some challenging times. I am blind as a result of congenital glaucoma and know only too well what those I am committed to serve face daily.

In my duties as president of the CNIB, many of the challenges I face fall within the scope of your profession. We look to you for your understanding and your solutions. We understand our own needs but we need your hearts, minds, and hands to help make our lives better; we cannot do it alone. My dream is that the world will work together to provide full access to information for people who are blind or visually impaired. That one day I will be able to pick up and read what my neighbour reads, as one of our clients has put it. I will not only be able to do this at home, but anywhere I may be around the world. I will, through a virtual library for the blind, blur the boundaries of many countries and many sources of content, denying the constraints of geography and other differences, and be able to read a book produced somewhere else, selected from a virtual catalogue and downloaded from anywhere. I want this dream fulfilled for every blind person in the world today.

In my dream, we will be able to do this because librarians will strive for a common technology and common standards for producing, distributing, and accessing information. They will have carried forward that banner and understood that people who are blind, wherever we live, are part of the global economy and part of the information age and should not be disenfranchised by either globalization or technology.

The ultimate achievement by librarians for the blind is the use of new digital technology to achieve integration with mainstream libraries. When the Kurzweill Reader was first introduced to Canada in the 1970s, it was the size of a dishwasher and cost $50,000. Today this device is commonly used and affordable; it costs less than $2,000, reads any type of print, and is used to read information everywhere from supermarket check-outs to law offices.

Good libraries do not work alone; only by ensuring that we are working together, seeking mainstream solutions, will we be able to provide an affordable service for the blind that is comparable to that provided to the sighted. I urge you to advocate in your library associations, with your governments, with those who create information for us or develop the technologies we need to read books to ensure that your readers who are blind are part of those mainstream solutions.

Realizing that single dream would transform so many lives. The CNIB has a credible record abroad for the work it does internationally to enable the fruits of learning and give confidence and independence to people who are blind in many countries, the poorest of the poor discarded by the very societies that they should be able to look to for protection and help. As president of the World Blind Union for the North America/Caribbean Region, I see firsthand the limited access to information faced by blind people living in developing countries children who share one slate and stylus among a class of 30 and use banana leaves to transcribe braille because they have no paper. Ninety-five per cent of children who are blind in developing countries do not attend school, and poor families often make terrible choices between children who are disabled and those who are not. Yet we know that talent comes from anywhere, and ability is not limited by blindness, for our history is replete with blind men and women who have led outstanding lives once given the opportunity. The Library of Congress Bibliography of the Blind and the World Blind Union's publication on successful blind women simply support the notion that where opportunity is provided, talent surfaces, regardless of blindness. Leadership fosters hopefulness.

The most recent manifestation of this is our commitments to a conference to be held in Jamaica this May in cooperation with so many agencies the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), the FORCE Foundation, the Association of Caribbean University and Research Institution Libraries (ACURIL), and the Library of Congress. Organized by CNIB vice president, Rosemary Kavanagh, in her capacity as chair of the Section of Libraries for the Blind of IFLA, this major initiative will bring together, for the first time, leaders in education and librarianship from the three major languages of the Caribbean and Latin America: French, Spanish, and English, to deliberate on how learning opportunities can be extended to people in these regions of the Caribbean who are blind.

The CNIB is also committed to working with the IFLA, the DAISY Consortium, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), and the initiatives in North America lead by Kurt Cylke and his team here at NLS whose solidity and commitment to careful planning and analysis are much respected. These initiatives are important, because learning, information, and education that are accessible, open, and available have enabled people who are blind to be part of the workforce, strive for independence, and be the best they can be despite their disabilities. No one agency or institution will have all the answers, but together we will have a better one and together we will eliminate the "Tower of Babel" an expression I use to describe the many systems or service configurations that, while they aid access, also create barriers.

In preparing my presentation, I wavered between entitling it "I Had a Dream" or "I Have a Dream," since, in many ways, my dream has been fulfilled. I live in a prosperous country and I have the job I want. Since more than 80% of the world's people who are blind live in developing countries, I selected the more hopeful title because dreams have been the wellspring for the significant events that have changed the world. Christopher Columbus had a dream, Alexander Graham Bell had a dream, Helen Keller had a dream, Nelson Mandela had a dream, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had a dream, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln had a dream. Yet dreams too are affected by reality, and every one of those dreamers had to struggle to achieve his dream.

The fact is that the part of the world that I am fortunate to live in is privileged and wealthy, which ensured that, despite my blindness, my dreams could prosper. But there are 160 million people in the world who are blind for whom the dream is distant and unreal and life consists of grinding poverty and little hope. It cannot be that we gather here today without reflecting on how what we do can change some, if not all, of that. The events of September 11 came crashing into our world with the harsh reminder that we cannot go about our business in a cocoon. In any case, cocoons have never been the source of dreams. What new dreams will you have or inspire when this conference is over? What cocoons will you have shed, and what new wisdom will you leave to light the days that follow? I leave you with the thought that you have the power to make this digital age one that transforms access to information for people who are blind in the way that the Gutenberg press did for those who are sighted; this must be your dream and our unwavering goal as we experience the events of the next few days.

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Posted on 2010-11-12