Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)

Written by Jessica Watkin

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) devoted its first year of conception, 1918, engaging both the public and also the small blind community made up of mostly veterans in post-War Toronto. The organization was providing rehabilitation services for blind and partially sighted people around Ontario at this time, while specifically focusing on supporting Toronto’s blind community with living and working opportunities.  This period in Toronto explored the needs of blinded soldiers and others, and was attended to by a staff who took into consideration the varying conditions, and developed programs and staff positions for support which ultimately stands today as a primary infrastructure for an organization that still develops and support blinds people in Canada.

 The Bulletin, which began in October 1918 acted as a public notice for changes within the organization, its staff and board, and the programs that they were beginning to develop.  These materials were discovered after a trip to the CNIB archives where the experience was beyond visual and became a tactile experience.  Whereas many elements of the archive were braille documents, writers, and propaganda from the ast 100 years. The Bulletin exsts in the National Archive in Ottawa, Ontario, and was shared from the generous Jane Beaumnt, CNIB’s current Archivist, upon preparations for the upcoming Centennial Celebration for the Organization. Beaumont and her team are creating a “living history” exhibit based on these documents and many like them to celebrate the conception of the organization, its growth, and pointing to the future. 


An example of this would be in the November 1, 1918 issue pictured here The Bulletin editors chose to showcase an exhibit in which blind people show “what they can do” at a local event called “Carnival of Nations”.  Real blind people performing real blind activities in a curated setting, possibly a small hint of freak show, but more prominently the CNIB gravitates towards advocacy in showing a successful blind person doing those “normal” things. These performances act as the first recorded instance of shared experience between the private and public lives of blind Canadians and the public in Toronto, but also suggests a context and relationship between the two as well.  The need to “prove” their competence while also showcasing their exoticisized private lives creates an idea of what the CNIB believed the public thought of blind people, but also possibly hints at what needed to happen in order for their experiences to be understood and supported.  The organization has developed over the last 100 years but continues to showcase blind skills today in various ways.


Shown here in the May 1, 1919 issue of The Bulletin the editors announce the inclusion of blind persons with a sensory experience of the Royal Ontario Museum. The Museum offered guided and tactile tours of museum exhibits, which is a formal tour but more prominently the visceral interaction with artifacts acts as a performance of history, an experience not based on vision to introduce blind people to the historical artifacts that are primarily visual. This piece from The Bulletin explores the advocacy within the community that CNIB had been doing, but also how integrating performative qualities such as a tour guide vividly describing artifacts, blind patrons interacting with the exhibits, enlivens a museum experience that is otherwise passive.  The tactile tours at the Royal Ontario Museum have developed over the past 100 years but remain a key role in blind culture and inclusion in Toronto today, although blind patrons can request a tour at any time now and are not restricted to any particular day.  These explorations of exhibits have been integrated into the patron experience, normalizing both found performance of history but also inclusion of blind people in Toronto’s popular culture.