Discriminating Against the Non-Blind

Discrimination takes many forms, many of them hurtful and insidious. But discrimination is not always bad: in the broadest sense of the term, it just means to tell different things apart. But of course usually when we use the term, we’re referring to illegitimate discrimination, aimed at persons, based on irrelevant characteristics. For most purposes, discriminating based on race, sex, sexual orientation or physical characteristics is wrong. But even there, there are exceptions. Being able to see, for example, is a genuine necessity (what lawyers call a bona fide job requirement) if you’re a pilot. Could being unable to see ever be a bona fide job requirement. That’s a question recently faced by the Canadian charitable foundation known as CNIB (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind).

Here’s the story, from the Toronto Star: Debate stirs over hiring of sighted CNIB head

When John Rafferty looks out the window of his modest third-floor corner office at CNIB’s Bayview Ave. headquarters, he can see the trees of a wooded ravine.

This is why an advocacy group calls his hiring “a step backward.”

This is why he speaks of “my unique challenges” and “taking time to understand” and being “extra careful.” This is why the leader of another charity says a genial man with a sterling resumé who left a lucrative private-sector job to occupy this corner office would, “in a perfect world,” be somewhere else.

This is John Rafferty’s burden. He can see. Rafferty’s predecessor, Jim Sanders, was blind. So was his predecessor, so was his predecessor, and so was every top executive in the 91-year history of CNIB, formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Rafferty, 43, is its first “sighted” president and CEO.

Summarizing briefly: there’s debate within the blind community (and in particular among various charities that work on behalf of the visually impaired) about whether being visually impaired is a bona fide job requirement to head up an organization like CNIB.

It’s interesting (and perhaps good) to see that there’s a healthy debate over this issue within the community. On one hand, everyone wants CNIB to do well, and doing well means having the very best leadership possible. If Rafferty is as good as CNIB’s hiring committee thinks he is, he could do a lot of good for the organization and the people it serves. Then again, it’s very difficult to measure (especially from the outside) the symbolic value of an organization having a leader who shares a crucial characteristic with the people it serves.

(p.s., Note the interesting similarities & dissimilarities between the story above and the one in this blog posting from January: “Smokers Need Not Apply”, about a job posting by an anti-smoking organization.)

3 comments so far

  1. Kyle on

    Reminds me of the issues Gallaudet had naming a president in 2006.

  2. […] blogged on unusual forms of employee discrimination before. See Discriminating Against the Non-Blind and “Smokers Need Not […]

  3. […] the symbolic significance of the job in question has to at least be considered. (A very similar controversy arose a couple of years ago, when the Canadian National Institute for the Blind hired its first […]


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