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How has one of Canada's oldest charities become more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic?

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By John M. Rafferty

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many charities struggled, while others were forced to close their doors. So, how did CNIB – a 103-year-old charity – become more relevant to Canadians with sight loss? 

It wasn't easy. There was no playbook. CNIB was venturing into unknown territory, but we kept focused on our mission and that guided our way. As an organization with a mandate to remove barriers for Canadians impacted by blindness, we knew the need for our programs would be at an all-time high during this unprecedented time of isolation.

In March 2020, we suspended our drop-in services and in-person programs, and we asked our employees to work from home. Long before the pandemic hit, CNIB had adopted a culture of flexibility, so our team members were well positioned to work remotely, if need be.

From there, we started calling more than 10,000 Canadians with sight loss to check in and ask how CNIB could help. Those conversations led to the creation of hundreds of virtual programs – delivered online and over the phone – for thousands of Canadians. Whether it was career support, tech training, youth groups, book clubs, coffee chats, or essential grocery/prescription shopping, we leveraged every opportunity to ensure our participants stayed connected and felt supported.

Since then, Canadians with sight loss have participated in nearly 1,000 virtual programs from the comfort and safety of their own homes. By transitioning our programs to a virtual environment – free of geographical boundaries – CNIB is reaching new people, more people, and offering more support than ever before. And most of our virtual programs are here to stay – an astounding 91 per cent of participants have told us they want these programs to continue after the pandemic.

During the check-in calls, we heard about the challenges that our participants have been facing, including the impracticality of physical distancing for some Canadians with sight loss. Many individuals – especially those living alone – rely on a sighted guide (a person who guides someone with sight loss) for essential services. Whether it's going to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the doctor’s office or the bank, it is impossible to be a sighted guide while physical distancing. As a result, people with sight loss have been discriminated against, refused entry to businesses and cut off from doing essential errands in a way that works for them. To help address the issue, we have been working with the Retail Council of Canada and grocery store chains to raise awareness, and we’ve asked Canadians to be patient and show some empathy. We’ve also asked Canadians to physically distance from guide dog teams because guide dogs don't understand physical distancing – they were never trained to follow arrows on the floor or stand on circles at the check-out.

Also, travel restrictions, including border closures, have resulted in an increased demand for CNIB Guide Dogs. A pandemic that has reduced access to guide dogs wasn't something we planned for, but we are committed to addressing this challenge head-on. To help us raise, train and match more guide dogs in Canada, visit:

We know the pandemic will be with us well into 2021, and we will continue to adapt to meet the evolving needs of Canadians impacted by blindness.

John M. Rafferty is President and CEO of CNIB.

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