"The Only Reason We Are Here"
by Sara Bennett
Brampton, Ontario, Canada

Consumers first, pursuit of excellence, openness to change--these are three values underpinning CNIB's evolving work to enhance the independence of Canadians with vision loss. Founded in 1918, CNIB is a nonprofit, nationwide and community-based organization with over 50 local offices, 1,100 full-time staff and some 10,000 volunteers. It is Canada's primary provider of vision rehabilitation services and vision health information, with one new person coming to CNIB every 10 minutes.

Says Jim Sanders, president and CEO of CNIB, "We currently have over 100,000 people registered as CNIB clients across Canada, but we assist many more people than that as we provide information and support to families, friends, eye care professionals and anyone interested in vision health."

CNIB is therefore taking steps to ensure efficiency and accessibility, such as in its library service, head office operations and even its identity, in order to provide the best service it can to Canadians. It is estimated that three million Canadians have a print disability and that less than 5 percent of published materials are available in alternative formats. Coupled with the fact that the average CNIB Library user "checks out" 60 books per year, compared with one or two borrowed annually from a public library by a sighted reader, it is not hard to see why the CNIB Library is the largest producer of alternative format materials in Canada. It provides books, textbooks, children's literature, government publications and corporate materials in various formats, including braille, print/braille, audio and tactile graphics, not to mention its collection of descriptive videos and the second largest collection of braille music in the world. CNIB distributes close to two million alternative-format items yearly.

So when the 30-year-old technology for producing four-track cassettes started to become obsolete and expensive to repair, CNIB launched a $33 million digital library project in 1998 with the support of the high-tech and financial sectors to convert its collection from analog to digital files, which are easier and less expensive to use.

Digitization is the way of the future, says Sanders. "As a member of the international DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) consortium, a group of 40 nonprofit libraries for people with vision loss, the CNIB library is part of a team working to create world standards for the next generation of digital audio books."

DAISY books contained on one CD are replacing books on multiple cassettes, and superior sound quality is replacing the static and hiss of tapes. The DAISY book players allow readers to adjust reading pace without affecting pitch, and to navigate a book by chapter, paragraph etc. rather than haphazardly rewinding and fast-forwarding cassettes. Publications and resources are also delivered through the Internet by the library. From books that can be read online or downloaded, to newspapers and magazines that can be accessed the same day they are published; from the CNIB Library's catalog and other reference materials, to the Children's Discovery Portal where kids can enjoy digital books, accessible games, the world's first accessible and moderated chat room for children with vision loss and more, CNIB Library users have one access point for a wide variety of information and entertainment. According to CNIB's Web site, "The entire digital library project is scheduled for completion in 2007. By this time, the Library's collection will double to 120,000 titles." It is one of the world's largest libraries of its kind.

CNIB's head office in Toronto, Ontario, has also undergone a transformation, in part precipitated by the increasing age and maintenance costs of the 1956 building. "Renovations to The CNIB Centre took about two years to complete. It cost $25 million to build the new centre, which brings together all of CNIB's national, Ontario and Toronto offices. The centralization of all CNIB offices has led to significant cost savings and sharing of resources. CNIB sold off some of its land on the same site to pay for the new building," Sanders explains.

The five-story, 140,000-square foot CNIB Centre that opened in 2004 is a model of universal design. Its central hallway is wide enough for several people to use white canes, guide dogs, wheelchairs or scooters. Natural and diffused lighting is used throughout to reduce glare and maximize vision. Color-contrasting floor tiles vary in texture and identify important areas like stairs and elevators, and mark where the floor and walls meet. In addition, talking elevators speak floor numbers and whether they are going up or down, and 20 talking signs tell visitors carrying FM receivers the location they are approaching in the building. The first of their kind in Canada, furthermore, office signs are displayed in high-contrast large print, tactile lettering and braille alike, on an angle to facilitate easier reading.

In the cafeteria, a black tactile path guides visitors through the lineup and to the dining area, and the facility's open design means even aroma can be used as a wayfinding tool! The Fragrant Garden, located just outside the CNIB Centre and which was designed with people with vision loss in mind, contains trees, shrubs and flowers selected specifically for their scent, texture, and sound they make in the wind. Finally, as visitors leave the Centre, textured stones at the edge of the parking lot let them know they are coming to the road.

CNIB has not only streamlined and increased the accessibility of its library and head office, it has also become known simply as CNIB, a more inclusive name to reflect the fact that 90 percent of its clients have some degree of vision. "It's important for Canadians to understand that CNIB plays a significant role in the entire spectrum of activities related to vision and vision health," says Sanders. "We serve everyone with vision loss, from children to working-age adults and seniors. We are also committed to research and public education directed toward the vision health of all Canadians. CNIB is not changing what it does--we are simply throwing open the doors and reacquainting Canadians with this modern and dynamic organization. We need to revitalize our image and our focus to ensure that our services reach everyone who needs them."

As head of CNIB, Sanders constantly asks himself, "Is what I am doing going to improve the lives of Canadians with vision loss?" He says emphatically, "That's the only reason we're here."

For more information, contact CNIB at 800-563-2642 or  www.cnib.ca .

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