This week sees the NCBI’s (National Council for the Blind of Ireland) media “Clear Our Paths” campaign, and you may be wondering what VVI’s approach is to this issue and what differences, if any, are there between VVI and NCBI on it. Indeed, so dominant has the NCBI been in the advocacy space regarding visual impairment in Ireland, people might even be wondering why VVI should need to exist in the first place.
Unlike the NCBI, which is a disability service-provider, or “organisation for people with disabilities”, Voice of Vision Impairment is a ‘Disabled Persons Organisation’ (DPO), or “organisation of people with disabilities”, as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), which Ireland ratified in 2018.
This means that VVI is necessarily rooted in the CRPD, and that our core mission is the defence of and advocacy for Human Rights (of visually impaired people in our case), and that a clear majority of our members must be visually impaired. Note the difference between “members” and “service-users”. It also means that we must be led, directed, and solely run by visually impaired people.
According to the UN Committee on the CRPD, DPOs are the only representative organisations when it comes to anything to do with disability, and their opinions and views are to be prioritised in consultations regarding disability by the State, and ultimately by non-statutory bodies as well.
Legal Opininion Commissioned by VVI regarding DPOs (2021)
This exclusive representative role and prioritisation of DPOs is logical when one makes other comparisons: imagine Women’s Rights organisations being led by men, for example, or trades unions being led by employers, or Consumer Rights groups being led by retailers. This would clearly be unacceptable, and even scandalous, because of clear conflicts of interests. For the same reason, the disability industry, according to the CRPD, is not in a position to represent disabled people. This representative role, for obvious reasons, belongs to disabled people, themselves, through their DPOs.
While VVI depend on the lived experiences of our members to determine our detailed policies on issues, our general approach to issues, as a DPO, is necessarily determined by the CRPD, including adherence to the social model of disability (as opposed to the medical or charity model). The following is a brief explanation of how this works in practice, using the issue of clutter-free footways as an example.
Background to Clear Footway Campaigns.
“Make Way Day” began as a social media based campaign organised by the Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI) in September, 2017, and has become an annual event ever since. While the NCBI is a member of the DFI, it took a leaf from the DFI’s book, and began the annual “Clear Footpaths Campaign” as it was, back in November, 2017. Both media campaigns now appear to be a calendar fixture.
Charity PR versus DPO Rights.
Some might argue that at least these organisations are doing something about the issue, and something is better than nothing. However, there is no evidence that such campaigns have any lasting effects in terms of public behaviour; but it is very likely that they do have the longer-term effect of increasing brand-recognition of the DFI and NCBI, respectively, in the public’s mind. This explains the significant resources devoted to such major PR campaigns.
For example, the NCBI’s profile across the media over a full week, gives itself branding that advertising couldn’t buy, increases public donations, increases custom in its charity shops, and most importantly, increases its branding with decision-makers when it comes to State funding and the embedding of their consultative status in significant policy areas.
The bins and dog-poo are just as likely to be a problem a day after the campaign, but the publicity is literally priceless. The “Clear Our Paths” campaign has the advantage of having the tried-and-tested branding technique of storytelling built into it in the simplest and most naturally understood way, and uses blind people themselves as an alibi in this branding masterclass.
Part of the branding is the perception that the NCBI is populated by members, and that it is a ‘representative’, or even, ‘the‘ representative organisation for visually impaired people in Ireland. For example, when John Cooke, the interviewer on RTÉ’ Radio 1’s Drivetime, on August 15th, asks June Tinsley, Head of Communications at NCBI, “Has it been more challenging for your members and the people you represent…?”, she makes no effort to correct either trope (a stance which directly or indirectly undermines DPOs, and is thus in contempt of the CRPD (cf. General Comment 7, para. 51).
How the DPO Approach is Different.
VVI, as a DPO, is in its infancy, and Ireland has not yet acknowledged the superpowers bestowed on DPOs by the CRPD, as laid out by the UN Committee in General Comment 7. These powers include the reversal of projects (plans or policies, etc.), that have not been disability-proofed by DPOs (General Comment 7, para. 66).
These rights are only obtainable through DPOs – not disability service-providers – and in order to see them come to fruition, we must first ensure that the DPO space is not shut down through suffocation of the space by service-providers, and we must campaign for the full recognition of DPO rights – since the traditional vested interests in Ireland are more dedicated to a consolidation of the status quo than in any meaningful change.
And yet, as fledgling as we are, VVI is outperforming key disability service providers in terms of campaigning on accessible public spaces, as well as other areas. For example, one local authority (Dublin City Council), and one public transport provider (Irish Rail), have begun to put the obligation to prioritise the views and opinions of DPOs into practice, and are finding VVI’s website to be a useful resource as a baseline in Universal Design, as they closely consult with and actively involve us in their consultation processes.
With regard to clutter-freefootways etc., DPOs, being rooted in the social model of disability and in the principles of the CRPD, necessarily holds that safe travel in, and full access to, one’s own community is a Human Right that can only be realised by the adoption of Universal Design in planning and policies by public authorities. VVI’s solutions to most of the issues referred to in the DFI and NCBI campaigns can be found in our Manual of Accessible Planning for Pedestrians (MAPP), for example, in Section 13.
VVI MAPP – Parking of vehicles
Policies, such as our MAPP, are constantly under review in order to remain relevant, and as such, we depend on the individual experiences of our members and pooled expertise of our decision-making core (i.e., our representatives) to make sure they are kept up-to-date.
So, excellent PR campaigns by service-providers will come and go, but if you are visually impaired (that is blind or partially sighted), come and join VVI and add to our strength. As a member, we will build your experiences on this or any other issue into our policy so that your individual difficulties can lead to permanent change for all.
Dr. Robert Sinnott,
Co-ordinator, Voice of Vision Impairment