New Chief Executive at Blind and Low Vision NZ yet another sighted person with no lived experience of living a disabled life!

Yesterday, the Board of BLVNZ announced the appointment of a new CE. Heres what disability activist and advocate Jonathan Mosen had to say about this:

Today, the Royal new Zealand Foundation of the Blinds Board has announced the next Chief Executive of Blind Low Vision NZ, who I congratulate and wish every success in the role. However, as someone with a personal and professional interest in the employment of disabled people, I am deeply disappointed that given all the blind, low vision and DeafBlind people with leadership experience both at home and abroad, yet another disability service provider has not seen fit to walk its own talk and appoint one of us.

For the remainder of this post, my references to blind people also encompass those who are low vision and DeafBlind.

When you are fortunate to reach a stage in your career where you occupy senior roles as I have, there is a tendency to play the game and not rock the boat. Not doing so leaves you at risk of gaining a reputation for being a troublemaker. But some issues are too important. After careful reflection, I realise that I would far rather be thought of by some as a troublemaker than have to live with myself as someone who has sold out and forgotten where they have come from. Until the day I die, I will still be a blind person and will still be affected by the quality of blindness services in New Zealand. I am a member of the incorporated society and have a right to express a view about decisions that affect me.

When the previous Government appointed a nondisabled person to set up our Ministry, I was one of the founders of Disability Leadership Now, which spoke out against the decision and I believe ensured that a disabled person would be appointed to the permanent role. There is a time to stay silent, and a time to speak out. For me, it is time for the latter.

I have been a champion all my life of the fundamental human right of disabled people to determine our own destiny. Any progress we have made has been hard-fought-for. That is why I was one of several people who spent many years consulting and drafting to come up with the current RNZFB governance model with self-determination at its heart, which was ground-breaking for its time.

Determining our own destiny also means directing the services we receive, and what those services are. Sadly, the principles of the RNZFBs Constitution have not been allowed to cascade to its operational arm. Blind people are now less involved in the organisations operation than at any time in its history. When I was a senior manager there in the 1990s, there were several capable blind leaders at the senior management table, most of whom were global leaders. Now, there is a grand total of 0.

Is that because there are suddenly no blind people capable of serving at senior leadership level, or might the organisation be an unattractive place for many such people to work?

Several blind people have felt compelled to leave the organisation for the good of their mental health and as a matter of integrity. The Board itself have acknowledge the hurt many blind people have experienced.

Particularly for those of us of working age, people who are aware of the services available to blind people in countries with which we like to compare ourselves know that there has been a serious erosion of quality here. Many skilled professionals have left feeling despondent. There is more of an occupational therapy focus in service delivery than a blindness focus. They are different disciplines. Assistive technology provision is under-resourced. In my opinion, one key reason for this is that no one around that Executive Leadership Table lives life as a blind person and does not completely understand what life is like for us. That is not to say they arent making a valuable contribution, but the voice of lived experience it essential around that table.

We hear a lot about the paternalism of the old Blind Institute and the control they had over the lives of blind people. Blind people had to organise and agitate in order to change that behaviour. But what is interesting is that only two blind people have led the organisation at an operational level, and both of them were appointed in the first half-century of the organisations existence.

The last blind person to hold the role then called Director was appointed in 1923. One would hope that a modern, progressive disability organisation that truly lived its constitutional values would be keen to break that 100 year drought.

While blindness cannot be the only qualification taken into account when considering who to appoint to the Blind Low Vision NZ CEO role, in my opinion it should be a highly sought attribute. Of course senior leadership experience is essential, but being a member of the blind community is significant because a CEOs role is fundamentally about overseeing the organisations culture, values, strategic focus and viability. External relationships are also a key responsibility of the CEO, so turning up as a blind person makes a bold statement. After all, if Blind Low Vision NZ will not appoint a capable blind person to their most senior role, why should anyone else?

It is vital to employ subject matter experts in finance, fundraising and other disciplines. The RNZFB has a complex asset base and it must be safeguarded for future generations. But a blind person should be directing those professionals, consistent with the RNZFBs constitutional objects which include principles of self-determination.

A blind person at the helm wouldnt be able to switch off blindness at the end of their work day, and they would know that they must live with the consequences of the decisions they make long after their term as CEO is over. I believe that there is a blind culture. It is forged out of common experiences of past institutionalisation for some. In the present it is forged from getting about in the world without sight, numerous accessibility barriers, frequently being underestimated and infantilised, knowing we have so much to give, but for various reasons being denied the opportunity to give it. A blind CEO would simply get all that.

It is time to start asking tough questions not just of the Board of this organisation, but of many others and of Government. Why is the disability sector in New Zealand different from most other minorities and those experiencing disadvantage. Most Mori service providers are, rightly, run by Mori. I have seen CEO roles for entities providing services to the LGBTQ community where being a member of that community was highly desirable. Most leaders of organisations providing services specifically to women are run by women. Yet we constantly see disabled people being passed over for leadership roles in our own sector, with few to no reprisals for the organisations concerned.

I hope that this issue is something the new Minister for Disability Issues will consider. Nothing talks in these increasingly corporate organisations like the bottom line. So when it is procuring services, I urge the Government to take into account which organisations are disability-led. Some points should be awarded for leadership at the governance level, more should be awarded for leadership at the operational level. The Government has the potential to help influence disability leadership through the many dollars it allocates.

Those of us who are members of the society should certainly keep this decision in mind when voting for directors. We put them there, they are accountable to us. This is the right we fought for all those years ago.

Meanwhile, the successful applicant had every right to apply for the role. Let us support her and play a constructive part in her education.

Jonathan Mosen MNZM

Check out Jonathans podcast, Living Blindfully, all about living your best life with blindness and low vision