Community response to COVID: How the CNIB adapted to serve

Community Response to COVID-19

McConnell’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund was created to provide short-term support for community organizations facing increased demands, and to help them respond to new opportunities during the first few months of the pandemic. The fund was designed to respond to the immediate and unprecedented need to support community organizations as they were facing new challenges that were timely and urgent and that could positively affect the organization’s ability to meet community needs. 
This short-term funding program ended in June 2020.  Over the course of 2021, stories emerged about how organizations responded to the crisis as part of this program.  
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) received COVID-19 emergency funding to help transition community-based, in-person programs to virtual activities and evaluated the social impact of its virtual programs for participants with sight loss.
As 2021 comes to a close, Angela Bonfanti, CNIB Senior Vice-President, shares their experience in adapting and using technology to meet community needs. 

We are here because of the community that we serve, so let the community tell us.Angela Bonfanti, Senior Vice-President (CNIB)

Growth with technological shift

The CNIB is 103, and it’s never been more relevant.

Before the pandemic, the essence of the organization was more of a hub for seniors experiencing sight loss. Its participants were mainly 65 years and older and would engage in in-person programs during working hours. 

Unlike many organizations, the CNIB has experienced incredible growth during the pandemic.

“It has been quite the experience, and it continues to evolve,” says Angela Bonfanti. “Before the pandemic, we were operating in geographical silos. Our services were primarily in person, except our nationwide French programming where we had telephone conferencing.”

During the pandemic, CNIB discovered that the necessary technological shift successfully catered to younger demographics.

People experiencing sight loss, before the pandemic, were already vulnerable to some of the highest levels of isolation. Imagine what happened when isolation was mandated?

“Many people with sight loss were at high risk because they rely on a sighted guide – a person who offers their elbow to help someone navigate an unfamiliar space – in a world where in-person contact was discouraged. When isolation is mandated, how do we respond when our mandate is to remove the isolation?” asks Bonfanti.

Access to technology 

One of CNIB’s programs is to send refurbished iPhones to their community, and this program is helping children as well as seniors to break free from isolation.

“The pandemic forced us to be connected,” explains Bonfanti. “Having access to technology and connectivity is a question of human rights.”

Having a phone and access to the internet during the pandemic means having access to food, medicine and deliveries. Something that the majority takes for granted, but the cost of owning a phone, as well as the accessibility and age barrier for using it, can create exclusion. CNIB responded to that need.

CNIB brought digital projects to the forefront that had been on the back burner for a while, and like never before, CNIB engaged with the community they serve. Bonfanti explains this propelled daily dialogues: “We are here because of the community that we serve, so let the community tell us.” 

EDIA and Intersectionality 

CNIB is connecting with other organizations to build partnerships and pathways for intersectionality.

“The relevance of intersectionality for people with sight loss became more apparent for CNIB as the Black Lives Matter movement arose,” says Bonfanti.

The organization is on an Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility (EDIA) journey.

In 2016, many CNIB community locations started displaying pride flags in June.“This had a profound impact,” remarks Bonfanti. “We need to be a beacon of EDIA and break through the stigmas. Pride flags sent the message that a person can be gay and blind. Identity cannot be reduced to only one part of a person’s life.”

Over the last year, CNIB developed antiracism and anti-bias training at all levels of the organization and for its board members. 

“We needed to be part of the discussion, and not step away from it because we are here only to support people with sight loss related realities. Sight loss is the most indiscriminate condition you can imagine. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, how old you are, the colour of your skin or your history, sight loss does not discriminate,” says Bonfanti.

Their strategy is to plan touchpoints throughout the year to allow for a continuous conversation. “It is not one and done. We are on a path of antiracism and anti-bias. We haven’t figured it all out, and no one has.”

Bonfanti’s message applies to all organizations aspiring to integrate EDIA in their approach.

“As an equity-seeking organization, there is no other way. We have a responsibility in this, and this is just the beginning.”

While the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund is now closed, the McConnell Foundation currently provides funding in three focus areas: Communities, Reconciliation and Climate.