On May 26 and 27, 2022, CNIB participated in the Government of Canada’s first annual Canadian Congress on Disability Inclusion (CCDI) in advance of nationwide celebrations for National Accessibility Awareness Week. The virtual, two-day event was opened by the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, Carla Qualtrough, who spoke about the realities and experiences of persons with disabilities today, and the work ahead to realize disability inclusion in Canada. Angela Bonfanti, Acting President and CEO of CNIB, participated in a virtual panel discussion on Inclusive Services in Rural and Remote Communities.
Angela’s remarks as part of the panel are as follows:
Angela: Good afternoon, everyone – Thank you for having me as part of this panel discussion on Inclusive services in Rural and Remote Communities. My name is Angela Bonfanti, and I’m the Acting President and CEO of CNIB, as well as Chief Operating Officer. It’s great to be with you today.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge the land on which CNIB operates in Toronto. For thousands of years, it has been the traditional land of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to live and work on this land.
I’m looking forward to the discussion that we’re going to have and hope to come away with some new and innovative solutions to reaching our rural and remote participants.
Moderator: Angela, CNIB and other disability organizations have been working to move the marker on accessible, inclusive and available programs and services in rural and remote areas across Canada. What are some of the roadblocks and challenges when it comes to the availability of inclusive and accessible services in rural and remote areas? What promising practices are you seeing that could be replicated in other rural and remote communities?
Angela: As an organization with a mandate to remove barriers for Canadians who are blind or partially sighted, CNIB must adapt to meet the evolving needs of the community we serve.
The pandemic has challenged CNIB to re-imagine it’s physical presence in communities across Canada without significantly increasing our financial capacity due to constrained finances.
I’ll preface my comments by saying that CNIB does not have it all figured out – as an organization, we’ve been having these conversations for as long as we’ve been around, and recently we’ve taken baby steps towards innovative service delivery in rural and remote communities.
However, the reality is that some of the rural and remote communities across this country are still struggling with access to fundamental human rights – access to clean drinking water, primary care services, mental health supports – when you’re in a situation where you’ve been living under a years’ long boil water advisory, coming to CNIB’s virtual yoga club might not be your priority.
We need to start the conversation in these communities by asking what they need from us – we can guess, but we really need to give rural and remote community members an opportunity to shape how CNIB engages in their communities.
We’re in the process of developing our next strategic plan, so have had the opportunity to connect with thousands of participants from coast to coast to coast recently. What we’re hearing is that transportation to and from CNIB Community Hubs remains an issue for our participants. This is true for almost any small municipality across the country where participants don’t have access to public transit, para transpo, or even ride sharing applications. We know that taxis can be cost prohibitive, if they’re available at all.
Another barrier in remote parts of the country is connectivity – while our virtual programing has allowed us to connect with more participants than ever before, we recognize that not everyone has the connectivity they need to participate fully in our online spaces either.
One of the other major challenges in rural and remote parts of the country is population density – CNIB simply doesn’t have a population base in some parts of the country that make it viable for us to have physical presence in every location.
With these barriers in mind, CNIB recognizes that there is no one-size-fits all solution for the community we serve. The virtual programs that mitigate transportation barriers might work well for some participants – while those without connectivity might rely on access to our in-person programming to remain connected.
We’ve made a few strides in rural service delivery lately, with our mobile hub offering a pilot program across Ontario to serve many communities where we don’t have a physical location. We’re also offering a tech@home model for our SmartLife centres, which allows participants to try technology in their own home before they commit to purchasing.
While CNIB doesn’t have it all figured out, and we’re still working to mitigate the barriers to inclusion faced by the people we serve in rural and remote communities, our teams across the country are always working to identify and deliver programs and services in innovative ways so we can serve people without necessarily having a physical presence in every region of the country. It starts with getting every community across this country in a position where residents basic needs are met, so they’re able to start having the conversations with organizations like CNIB about what they might need and want from us.
Moderator: We think about technology as a solution, but the digital divide has also been highlighted as an additional barrier that marginalizes certain groups. How can technology be leveraged to enable accessible and inclusive service delivery in remote and rural areas?
Angela: In March 2020, CNIB, like most of the world, pivoted to remote programming for participants. While the move to online programming was easy for some, others struggled either because they didn’t have the skills they needed to participate, or because they didn’t have the devices and digital infrastructure needed to participate.
Technology is no longer just for entertainment – it’s now critical to how we connect everything in the digital world. This is especially true for people with sight loss – technology makes it possible to do all kinds of things that may have seemed impossible before – it has the capacity to be a great equalizer instead of a source of division. But only when it’s accessible, available, and affordable.
During the consultations for our strategic plan that I mentioned earlier, we’ve been hearing from participants that technology is how people with sight loss see the world. But some of the most life-changing smartphone applications our community relies on for safety or wayfinding, for example, require significant data to run. This is extremely costly, and largely cost prohibitive, especially in an age where many folks are simply worried about the rising cost of food and housing.
Closing the digital divide is reliant on making 5G accessible – and affordable - to all communities all across the country and worldwide; this is not only the responsibility of traditional telecom companies, but also requires the continued leadership and investment of the government.