Between March of 2017 and 2018, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) celebrated their 100th anniversary as a global leader in advocacy and professional development for people who are blind or partially sighted. To last a century as an organization is no small feat, but to do so while providing advocacy, professional training, one of the world’s largest libraries of alternate format materials as well as tailor-made linguistic and technological innovations for blind or partially-sighted Canadians deserves our full attention.
The story of CNIB is one of humble beginnings, of a wounded soldier and his friends who turned tragedy into hope and of a library that not only preserved literacy but advanced it through the development of writing systems and technology-assisted reading.
The Library (Source: CNIB photo archives)
Born in Collins Bay, Ontario, Edwin Albert Baker grew up with full vision and went on to study engineering at Queen’s University. As an industrious graduate, Baker enlisted as an army engineer to assist Canadian forces on the Western Front just as the calamitous First World War began picking up steam. In the French town of Ypres, flanked by sporadic gunfire in packed, muddy trenches in one of the most violent theatres of the war, a German shell exploded in his midst, and a sniper’s bullet subsequently blinded him. “A German star-shell lit up the desolate landscape,” he said. “I remember wondering if there was any possible chance of the enemy being able to see us. I think the last thing I saw was that bright, floating star shell for, as I watched, a bullet smashed through the bridge of my nose and left me to the mercy of the darkness and my friends.”
After getting wounded, Baker began his recovery at St. Dunstan’s Hostel in England. For someone as motivated as him, the prospects were dire; at the time, people who were blind or partially-sighted were considered unfit for work and were rarely considered in any professional capacity. Fortunately, Baker’s caretakers understood that conventional methods of rehabilitation wouldn’t suffice given the amount of wounded coming from the Western Front. Soon enough, Baker took to typing and regular office duties, and eventually, he mustered the courage to try rowing and even fencing. The experience proved transformative for Baker, and in 1916, the 24-year old returned to Toronto, poised to improve opportunities for visually-impaired persons around the world.
Workshops, such as a basket-weaving course pictured above, were an important first step for reintegrating people who are blind or partially-sighted back into the workplace. (Source: CNIB Photo Archive)
The First World War was, by any stretch of the imagination, a calamity for all parties involved. With millions dead and many more wounded, sick or traumatized, rehabilitative medical services became necessary for communities to treat and heal the working-aged men who suffered on the battlefield. Part of this imperative included treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, known then as “shell shock,” for countless soldiers who returned home. For Baker, who once thought he had lost the ability to make an honest living, helping those in a similar situation as him regain their pride and livelihood was not just an act of charity but an act of necessity.
CNIB owes much of its success to Baker’s entrepreneurialism as well as the efforts of local advocates that lay the foundation for the institute. Since 1906, the Free Library for the Blind had possessed a collection of embossed literature and had already been offering library services from various locations in Toronto. But given the size of its collection and the number of war veterans returning with full or partial visual impairment, the post-war era provided an opportunity to Baker and the Library to institutionalize its support of people who are blind.
During the First World War, they participated in fundraising efforts, including further assistance for those blinded during the 1917 Halifax Explosion that killed over 2,000 people and left hundreds with eye injuries. Baker, working in tandem with librarian Sherman Swift, knew something needed to be done to extend their services beyond the library. “A desire is now apparent,” said Swift, “to create an organization of a truly national character, whose duty it shall be to co-ordinate effort, to prevent overlapping, to conserve energy, to make possible the free exchange of ideas, to secure necessary legislation, and to collect money for the assistance of the cause in all parts of the Dominion.”
With its foundation, CNIB became one of the world’s first accredited organizations for improving the lives of people impacted by blindness, and for decades, the Free Library, renamed the Canadian National Library for the Blind, technically remained Canada’s only national library of materials for people with vision loss.
“A desire is now apparent to create an organization of a truly national character, whose duty it shall be to co-ordinate effort, to prevent overlapping, to conserve energy, to make possible the free exchange of ideas, to secure necessary legislation, and to collect money for the assistance of the cause in all parts of the Dominion.”
Sherman Swift, CNIB co-founder
For CNIB, the story could have ended there. But Baker, Swift and the rest of CNIB continued to improve both the collection of reading materials and general access to a variety of media. For example, as radio became one of the primary forms of communication during the 1920s, CNIB pushed the government to provide a free radio license, batteries and equipment to Canadians who are blind. Similarly, they increased the production of Canadian books, along with a selection of embossed readings in multiple languages.
In 1949, Baker took his work a step further and founded the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, an international, multi-agency group that brought many advocacy groups for people who are blind under the same umbrella. Today, they are still based in Toronto and are called the World Blind Union.
The Readophone was one of the inventions rejected by CNIB’s technical panel. A sort of vinyl-based audiobook, Edwin A. Baker refused the company’s wishes to adopt the technology (Readophone Foundation, Facts About the Readophone; Literature in Sound, 1935. CNIB Papers (LAC) MG28 l233, Vol. 22, file 2)
What is perhaps most surprising, however, is that CNIB worked for decades to develop and iterate machines, hardware and software to best service people who are blind or partially-sighted. Long before technology companies like Google and Apple developed mobile and desktop applications for assisted reading, CNIB rigorously tested audio players and typing machines. Some of them, like the Octophone and the Readophone, proved to be catastrophic blunders, but phonographs and audio tape players provided many decades of reading opportunities.
On the other hand, CNIB also tested more successful, cutting-edge equipment like the IBM Braille Embossing Machine, which allowed for the mass-production of Braille books using plates. And in 1976, famous inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil introduced the reading machine, a device that could scan and read books aloud. For his efforts, Kurzweil received the CNIB’s Winston Gordon Award, “recognizing his achievements in significant technological advances benefitting people with vision loss,” according to the CNIB website. The foundation’s ability to introduce and implement innovative technology is nothing short of remarkable, and with each step, has refuted the notion that visual impairment is a disability.
In 2016, they joined with Canadian public libraries to create the Centre for Equitable Library Access in providing improved access to information across Canada, and today, CNIB continues to advocate for literacy through collaboration and innovation.
Photography and historical background provided by:
That All May Read
A special online exhibit celebrating CNIB’s unwavering support for literacy, reading, and access to information. The exhibit helps mark the 100th anniversary of CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) in 2018.
Veterans with a Vision: Canada’s War Blinded in Peace and War
By Serge Marc Durflinger
464 pages. UBC Press.