Áine Kelly-Costello, Focus Editor

Blindness service providers talk about blindness in public a lot. Whether it’s to market their services to those who may benefit from them, or to fundraise given that they’re habitually forced to operate under a charity model, every public message they send by definition frames blindness or blind people in one way or another. These messages can reach a broad audience, from people who may not know a single blind person, to people currently losing their vision. This makes it particularly important that they portray us, as blind community, in accurate, empowering and dignified ways.

I don’t think an inventory of Blind Low Vision NZ’s public-facing communications exists anywhere–and I certainly don’t have access to one so can’t accurately comment on a trend. But I have noticed a number of communications over the past couple years which concern me about a lack of guidance or oversight from blind people ourselves. Here are a few examples.

Last year, a fundraising email seeking $1,000-dollar donations shared a story about a member who felt much safer and more independent with a guide dog. At the same time, the email managed to portray cane travel as inherently riskier, by providing no context around her story. It described her using her cane and falling down stairs “alarmingly often”, losing her independence and it being “too dangerous” to continue her regular volunteer activities and travelling to see family. It’s likely that a guide dog is indeed the better mobility aid for this member, but canes are an equally valid and – when used correctly – safe, option. That’s a message our blindness service provider shouldn’t be undermining.

Here are a couple of BLVNZ Facebook ads that left me uncomfortable.

“Imagine if you lost your sight,” one offers. “For a child, their sight is how they learn about so much of the world around them. Without specialist support, they may never learn essential skills like dressing themselves or brushing their teeth. Some children with vision loss may even be too afraid to go outside. Give help to children with vision loss.”

And another one:

“Little five-year-old Saoirse has an incurable eye condition. Without specialist support, children like her won’t just lose their sight – they’ll lose their confidence and independence, too. Will you help?”

It’s accurate, I think, to recognise that societal expectations of blind kids are low enough that some parents may genuinely land up depriving blind kids of basic skills and autonomy. But these ads are playing into pity. They suggest that you imagine yourself or perhaps your child being deprived with BLVNZ the only option to save them. They could instead have sent a positive message about the full and happy lives blind kids can lead with the right support. Also, “children with vision loss” isn’t a widely used term among our community; we tend to use blind, low vision or vision impaired. Many (not all) kids have not lost vision but never had any more of it than they currently do to begin with.

Speaking of pity, two (sighted, but disabled) friends in different cities independently shared, unprompted, that they’d in recent months had BLVNZ fundraising volunteers door-knock them and portray blind folks with pity and in need of the benevolent support of kind donors and BLVNZ. It’s on the fundraising teams to ensure volunteers are able to tell a different story, about how funding guide dog training, Braille transcription, tech support and the rest, gives blind people the tools, access and skills we need to thrive.

In another example, BLVNZ recently ran an ad campaign designed to attract the attention of older people starting to lose their sight.

Its main video ad shows some blurry text, presumably trying to mimic the difficulty of seeing text clearly as one’s vision starts to go, and the voiceover is done with a synthesised voice. It starts off promisingly. “We’re Blind Low Vision NZ. It’s our mission to provide tools for people to live a full and happy life.” Then, it has a go at humour: “even if that life means seeing unsubtle ads like this one. We need to be as clear as possible, because, well, it’s fairly obvious. We’re even using an automated voice that blind and low vision people can use to really ram home the point.”

Even if whatever it is that’s meant to be ‘obvious” and whatever the point to be rammed home is visually apparent, the framing strikes me as an awkward beating around the bush, rather than a friendly call-out to people who might be reluctant to admit to themselves that a bit of assistance adapting to their vision loss would come in useful. The ad finishes by directing people to BLVNZ’s website, not without a final stab at humour. “It’s very, very easy to read,” the automated voice proclaims. “Ha ha ha.”

What is so funny about a blindness service provider doing the minimum of providing a legible website is a mystery, from which I can only interpret discomfort or unease about being reliant on accessibility measures on the part of the ad writers. Finally, this campaign’s slogan is “See a way”. One of the associated Facebook ads entreats the benevolent reader to “Help those people with difficulties to see a way.” I commented on that patronising reference to people with low vision, but got no reply, and continued to see the ad pop up in the following days.

Blind Citizens NZ’s National President Jonathan Godfrey says that the “damage done by such crass language in these examples undermines so much of the good work done in providing services. We keep being told that one of the greatest barriers we face is the attitude towards blind people.” To that end, Blind Citizens NZ’s strategic plan states that “We will always portray blind people in a positive light.”

RNZFB Board response

I sought comment from Chair of the RNZFB Board Clive Lansink who states: “BLVNZ is always conscious of the need to portray blindness and blind, deafblind and low vision people positively in the media[…] this extends to our everyday communications with the public, social media communications and job vacancy advertisements.

“From time to time, directors may become aware that a given advertisement or activity has caused some upset, and we always take such instances seriously. It is important that we all learn from such instances.

“There are no Board level policies that directly focus on how BLVNZ should communicate about blind people. However, having delegated to the Chief Executive full responsibility for running BLVNZ in a way that meets international best practice, one of the Board’s most important functions is to monitor the organisation’s activities on behalf of clients and other stakeholders and draw the Chief Executive’s attention to any concerns. We fully appreciate that not only do our staff have to raise a lot of funds from the public to pay for services the government won’t pay for, but they also have to raise awareness and understanding of blindness issues and attract the attention of people in the community who might not be aware that they could benefit from our services. Furthermore, they must do this in a way that does not undermine the organisation’s mission. From time to time there may be publicity events that miss the mark and don’t meet the expectations of directors, and in such cases we would certainly discuss our concerns with the Chief Executive.”

On Blind Citizens NZ’s BlindDiscuss email list, Mr Lansink provided an example of the Board doing so at the start of the year when a vacancy advertisement referred to blind people as “vulnerable”. Mr Lansink would “encourage clients and other stakeholders to make their feelings known if they are concerned or upset by something in our publicity.”

We can do better

For all the diversity we have in the blind community, I think that if we were in charge of setting guidance and direction over BLVNZ’s public communications, the tone would not veer off course in these ways. The Board’s current approach of only raising issues if they happen to have their attention drawn to them leaves a lot to chance.

Designing communications that speak to the tools and skills service providers can offer without wandering into saviour, pity or belittling territory does require nuance and effort. But given that many in the wider public may set some store by how the country’s largest blindness service provider portrays the lives of those it serves, I’d argue this is effort well spent.