Jonathan Godfrey National President

Over the years, I’ve tried to write columns that inform readers and give you a chance to see how I think. I wouldn’t describe myself as a natural writer by any means. 

Sure, I can string a few sentences together, but I have to have a plan and many of my columns are a struggle for me to develop that plan. I often need to let events in life guide me, motivate me, and occasionally irritate me. I’ve frequently started with an idea and burned out before I am happy to let anyone else see what I wrote, which leads to having to start again with a blank page. 

I did seriously think to ask ChatGPT to write my column for me. I’ve seen how this interactive artificial intelligence (AI) tool has been used to do all sorts of things from writing book reviews to answering student assignments. Later in this edition you’ll read an article from Jonathan Mosen about its benefits and drawbacks in the world of describing images. I confess that I spent a whole day, a rainy day as it happens, seeing how well my students might be able to cheat on an exam question I was writing if they used Chat GPT. I’ve also managed to develop a small computer program to do an investigation of my digital music collection, in a programming language I don’t know. What I did discover is that while AI can be used to substitute for students who want to cheat, it can also be used to construct solutions to problems. Given my students will want to be solving problems in their future careers, perhaps they should be encouraged to use this new tool. I’m already looking to see if this new interactive way of working with computers is going to improve my efficiency and effectiveness at work. It seems to me that anyone who learns how to get the best out of the latest tools is putting themselves in a strong position to have a productive future.

During discussions with our international visitors at the World Blind Union Executive Committee meeting that Blind Citizens NZ hosted from 29 May to 2 June, I had some fascinating conversations with people. While I haven’t yet managed to process all the things I learned from others, I did take away that some of the challenges faced by blind people around the world are the same as those we face here: 

  • access to information in a civil emergency; 
  • concerns over the future of Braille; 
  • making sure disabled people understand their rights; 
  • making sure disabled people enjoy those rights; 
  • worrying about how a pair of blind people can go out without a sighted assistant. 

OK, I proved the last one by demonstration. By taking a visiting blind person on a walk to a local restaurant and guiding some others to a supermarket. It’s clear that the range of issues faced by blind people in other countries includes all the challenges we have here and then some. We do work well as a Disabled People’s Organisation and do so with our Government. That doesn’t happen by chance, and it certainly does not happen everywhere. I believe we are fortunate in Aotearoa New Zealand to be able to stand up for ourselves as individuals and as a community without fear.

A recent Employment Relations court case was also of interest to me. For a very long time, and I mean decades, Blind Citizens NZ has called on Blind Low Vision NZ (BLVNZ) to hold itself up as the exemplar employer of blind people. An exemplar doesn’t meet the bare minimum expectation, they are the leaders. A former BLVNZ member of staff took the organisation to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) and won. This staff member identifies as blind, and quite clearly the ERA’s findings show BLVNZ did not even meet its legal obligations. I find this disappointing because the ERA’s decision shows that BLVNZ was not an exemplar employer.

A NZ Herald article suggested that an appeal was to be forthcoming. Blind Citizens NZ raised this matter with the RNZFB Board, stating the need for BLVNZ to be seen as an exemplar employer. The RNZFB Board have now directed that appeal be withdrawn. Whether our letter was important in determining that outcome isn’t clear, but we were there to be counted. 

As an organisation, Blind Citizens NZ have stood up and been counted like this numerous times over our proud history, even if the affected individual has never been, is not now, or might never become one of our members. Why? Because the principle must be upheld. Our current and future members may want to gain employment. Being able to show all employers how to do the right things for and with their blind employees is crucial. 

How did we get to the point of being able to call on the RNZFB Board to act? The Blind Citizens NZ position on being an exemplar employer has been established from discussions over many years, covering concerns such as the ability of blind staff to use the computer software with confidence. The last time the topic came up at one of our AGM and Conferences was in 2017. At the time, only a small minority of members were working at what was then the Blind Foundation. But most importantly, everyone present at branch and network meetings had a chance to discuss the topic before it got to the AGM and Conference. I’m not aware of any group of blind people who think the RNZFB should not be an exemplar employer of blind people, but they are quite entitled to air their views as anyone who does. There is of course an unknown number of blind people who are not aware that such discussions are taking place.

This brings me to the latest Blind Citizens NZ discussion I was part of – a Special Meeting of Members which agreed to let blind people who have not paid a subscription in the last five financial years (1 July 2018 to 30 June 2023), to be treated as if they had paid a subscription between 1 July 2023 and 30 June 2025. Anyone taking advantage of this opportunity won’t get to vote in elections or stand for office. They will however, get to see how Blind Citizens NZ supports its members with information, peer support, and providing a space for members to share their aspirations and lived experiences. Our motto of “blind people speaking for ourselves” relies on actually letting blind people speak for themselves. I’ll argue that the motto should not apply only to those people who have paid a subscription. No matter the issue, if we are to claim any of our positions are held by a wider group and possibly almost all of the blindness community, then we must create the opportunity for the widest range of views to be heard.