The following is a transcript of prepared comments to the National Association of Guide Dog Users Bill of Rights. The full text of the Guide Dog Users’ Bill of Rights is contained below. These comments were delivered by Julie Unwinn, Chief Operating Officer of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation Inc., to the membership of NAGDU on July 3, 2013. They are a precise transcription and have not been modified or edited.
“Thank you very much! Fidelco has read the Bill of Rights and there are some points that we agree on to some of the concepts, but not to all of them. . Fidelco believes it is a free market of choice for the consumer and that competition is the best option for guide dog consumers, especially where services are not charged to a consumer. And we believe the options concerning training methods, follow-up services, and things of that nature are best for all participating parties to decide on together. We also agree that bona fide accredited providers will develop their own appropriate policies based upon their business model and operations. We believe that broader acceptance by a group of guide dog consumers is very important when it comes to a Bill of Rights. We recognize the NFB and NAGDU for its efforts on behalf of all its members, and we think it’s very important to encourage the NFB and NAGDU to seek ideas and input from other similar organizations across the country, including federal and state agencies because the more input that is received the better the final documents will come out. . So, that’s Fidelco’s viewpoint on the Bill of Rights.”
After reading this prepared statement by Fidelco’s Chief Operating Officer, I hope you can appreciate what a challenge it was to write this commentary. Perhaps your first response was the same as mine when I heard it on July 3. “What did she just say?” This response was a combination of disbelief and confusion. The disbelief was in the fact that all guide dog training programs were afforded three months to prepare their comments and this is what Fidelco had to say! I was also in disbelief that such archaic views still exist in the field of work with the blind! My confusion was founded in the fact that I heard a lot of words but it did not seem to say anything. Therefore, my first impression was writing a commentary on this statement will be a very challenging task.
From my first contact with Fidelco advocating for a consumer from whom they unjustly and deceptively removed a guide dog because she repeatedly asked for follow-up training and was ignored while refusing to offer any explanation nor accountability – some of the very things this Bill of Rights addresses – (see “Fidelco Guide Dogs: Dreams of Independent Travel Become Nightmares of Sorrow”, The Braille Monitor, April 2011), I found them to be very dismissive of the National Association of Guide Dog Users and extremely uncooperative. Eliot Russman refused to discuss the issue with me, citing privacy concerns despite the fact that the consumer had signed a valid release authorizing fidelco to do so. Mr. Russman’s cavalier attitude toward us was illustrated in his belief that Fidelco had the right to act without accountability. These comments by Ms. Unwinn are further evidence of Fidelco’s belief that consumers have no input concerning the services they provide, “especially where services are not charged to a consumer”.
Fidelco seems to ignore the fact that the blind are their primary stakeholders and the funds they receive from their donors are, essentially, meant for us. They are merely the channel through which their donors support the provision of a tool for independence. The money Fidelco’s donors give them are meant to benefit the blind, not abuse them. As such, we have a say in their policies and practices.
Some may assert using the word “abuse” is a bit harsh; I disagree. As one reads our Guide Dog Users’ Bill of Rights, one wonders what is so offensive about this document that Fidelco might take issue. Every provision of the Bill of Rights protects blind consumers from paternalism, custodialism, and arbitrary unjust treatment. Yet, in so many words and saying nothing at all, Fidelco dismisses a document that demands dignified, equitable treatment of their blind consumers. In their offensively presumptuous language, Fidelco takes a paternalistic posture, ignoring the collective voice of the largest organization of the blind in the United States.
Though Fidelco asserts that “the options concerning training methods, follow-up services, and things of that nature are best for all participating parties to decide on together”, Fidelco’s behavior is incongruent with this assertion. We are aware that Fidelco makes surprise visits to consumers, calling them to advise them they are minutes away from their homes, demanding access to the guide dog and not affording any options. Does Fidelco inform their consumers about these intrusive visits prior to the beginning of training or do they wait until the consumer becomes attached to their new guide dog and enjoying the mobility it is affording them? Do they tell their consumers at all or is it as much a surprise as the visit itself? And what would happen should a consumer refuse to grant Fidelco such an unannounced visit? They would likely invoke what Eliot Russman insolently referred to as “paragraph D, as in ‘dog’”, which states, “Fidelco may repossess the dog in the event I do not comply with this agreement, in the event I do not provide proper and humane care for the dog as determined by Fidelco in its sole judgment, or for any other reason as determined by Fidelco in its sole and absolute discretion.”. Even the language of this clause illustrates Fidelco’s arrogance, asserting their “sole and absolute discretion” is sufficient to deny us our property rights! And they have the audacity to call this “ownership”? This is the very sort of systematic oppression, maltreatment, and exploitation from which the Bill of Rights is meant to protect us! Is it any wonder Fidelco rejects this document?
Fidelco is also so pretentious as to believe that the members of the NFB would accept that status as a “bona fide accredited provider” translates to quality services that respect the dignity of the blind. We found it to be untrue as it pertained to the National accrediting Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired (NAC) and I am not convinced the International Guide Dog Federation has any more value than NAC! As for their “appropriate policies based upon their business model and operations”, I would dispute the use of the adjective “appropriate”, as they reflect an attitude of paternalism and contempt toward the blind, further explaining Fidelco’s dismissive attitude toward a Bill of Rights that empowers consumers!
It would be interesting to know exactly what Fidelco means when they state they believe “that broader acceptance by a group of guide dog consumers is very important when it comes to a Bill of Rights”. Since they never commented on any of its provisions, which elements contained within this document do they believe this broader base of consumers would reject? Perhaps Fidelco’s objection is the fundamental idea that blind consumers have any rights at all. Fidelco seems to hold the archaic notion that the blind are powerless second-class citizens who can only live productive lives because of their goodness and charity, that we should be grateful for the service we receive, especially since we do not pay for it, that their judgment and discretion is sole and absolute, and mistakenly believe the blind hold this notion, as well! Their perception is so clouded by their arrogant, condescending paternalism they believe if we were “to seek ideas and input from other similar organizations across the country”, there would be blind people who would reject the notion that blind consumers should be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness!
Their final statement seems to sum up their basic philosophy: Rather than crafting our own Bill of Rights, we should leave the decisions about how we the blind should be treated to the federal and state agencies. Again, this further illustrates how oblivious Fidelco is to the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind and the disability rights movement, as a whole. Fidelco spoke a lot of words while saying absolutely nothing of substance about the Guide Dog Users’ Bill of rights; however, they communicate loudly and clearly their organizational philosophy and attitude toward their blind consumers.