CNIB and an example of discrimination

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind recently appointed a sighted Chief Executive Officer. Some have been critical of this appointment; claiming that a sighted person could never truly appreciate the circumstances and challenges of a sight-impaired person. At its core, their argument is that unless someone has walked in the shoes of a sight-impaired person, they can’t really do the job.
If the CNIB had refused to hire the sighted CEO because they were not sight impaired, there would have been no violation of human rights.
While human rights codes across the country do prohibit discrimination on the basis of a disability, they don’t prohibit discrimination on the basis of not having a disability.
In fact, human rights legislation allows philanthropic organizations such as the CNIB who serve the interests of a particular disabled group to give preference in their hiring to members of that group.
So it’s not illegal to refuse to hire the CEO and arguments that he should not have been hired are not contrary to human rights legislation. But is it fair? Let’s put the shoe on the other foot and see how it fits. Imagine that a paint company refused to hire a sight-impaired individual as their CEO. They would argue, no doubt, that since their entire image is that of colour and visual pleasure, a sight-impaired CEO could not possibly do the job.
But the CEO of a paint company is not hired to spend time in the lab choosing a new colour line or designing store displays. They are hired to lead and inspire others who do the hands on work. Their sightedness has nothing to do with their day-to-day responsibilities. To assume thoughtlessly that they can’t do the job is to put a negative stereotype on them based on a physical characteristic. It’s unfair.
What is most troubling about the argument made by those who are upset at the hiring of a sighted CEO for the CNIB is that it underestimates the ability of human beings to empathize with those who have a different life experience than their own.
Isn’t the core of all discrimination arbitrary distinctions based on difference? You are different from me so you cannot possibly understand me and my interests. Perhaps the truth is that I am different from you and I cannot bring myself to believe that you could possibly understand my difference.
If I am the one with the disability then I want you to understand and accept that I am capable of doing and understanding almost anything you can do. But if you are without disability I do not accept that you can understand and do almost anything I can do.
The incredible capacity of human beings to empathize with the life experience of another, even though they have not walked in their shoes, is at the core of almost every good thing that happens in our society.
I know intelligent and compassionate people who cringe when they come across negative stereotypes of women based on their gender who routinely and unthinkingly put negative stereotypes on men because of their gender; men are prone to be controlling and aggressive, male culture is at the root of all wars, men are not as intuitive or sensitive as women. Sighted people can never understand the plight of the sight-impaired.
If you are thinking that my analogy to the paint company CEO is flawed, you are, in part, correct. It is true that the CEO of the CNIB is not just the head of a corporation but the voice and face of a cause in a way that the head of a private corporation is not. It is true that the CEO of the CNIB, because of their high-profile position, can be an inspiration and a model of what sight-impaired people can do and achieve if they too are sight impaired. But at least consider the possibility that there is a seed of truth in what I am saying.
I would agree that in a perfect world the ideal candidate for the job would have all the requisite skills and have walked the walk of the sight impaired. But to argue that that one physical characteristic, being sighted, is an absolute deal breaker is, I think, misguided. It is a barrier based on difference.  Have we not had enough of those? We need to move past it and remember that human beings are capable of incredible empathy.
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, May 11, 2009.
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809