Malta Society of the Blind
Early in 1956, soon after the Education Department had introduced special educational facilities for the handicapped, plans were being laid down for the provision of special classes for blind children.
In November 1956, Mr. John Wilson, a blind person himself, Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind, came to Malta and had discussions with the Education Department officials regarding a wider application of rehabilitation and re-education methods applicable to all the blind persons in Malta and Gozo. At that time however, the time was not yet ripe for the formation of a National Society for blind persons.
It happened that during the World Congress of the World Council for the Blind, which was held in Rome in the summer of 1958, the Malta delegate, Mr. Joseph Burlo’, held further discussions with Mr. Wilson and an agreement was reached that a Society for the Blind would be set up in Malta in the near future.
In the meantime the Education Department had sent teachers to undergo special courses abroad to gain knowledge in working with blind persons. A Centre for the Blind was opened in Santa Venera. In addition, classes for blind children were set up at the Pieta’ Government School.
With the encouragement of the Director of Education, Mr. Burlo’ invited Mr. John Wilson back to Malta with the purpose of helping him in the setting up of the Society for the Blind. This visit was further facilitated by the kind offer of Sir Alexander and Lady Bingly who offered to provide accommodation for Mr. Wilson at the Admiralty House as their guest.
Mr. Wilson came to Malta in March 1961, and during his stay here had discussions with many organizations and Government departments who had an interest in the welfare of blind persons.
Mr. Wilson was greatly encouraged to see that the time was ripe for the setting up of a National Body, and encouraged by H.E. the Governor, Sir Guy Grantham and by His Grace the Metropolitan Archbishop, he submitted suggestions for the setting up of the Society for the Blind.
After Mr. Wilson’s departure, the Governor convened a meeting of the representatives of the three Government departments concerned, that is the Education department, the department for Emigration, Labour and Social Welfare, and the department for Medical and Health. Also invited were the representatives of various national bodies.
This meeting was held at the Palace on the 18th of September 1961. Chev. J.P. Vassallo, Director of Education gave the background to the scope of the meeting and moved that the Malta Society for the Blind be formally constituted. The Malta Society of the Blind was born.
A working committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Wallace Gulia was then appointed to draft the statute of the new Society. The statute was submitted in December at another meeting chaired by H.E. the Governor. It was approved unanimously by all the representatives present.
At subsequent meetings, three individual members were elected to the Committee in accordance with the statute.
The Malta Society of the Blind Committee was composed as follows:
Chairman: Dr. Wallace Gulia
Vice Chairman: Chevalier George J. Ransley
Hon. Treasurer: Mr. Norman Hill
Hon. Secretary: Mr. Joseph Burlo
Mr. George Agius (GWU)
Mr. J.D.R. Bethell (Malta Confederation of Employers)
Dr. F.J. Damato (Medical & Health dept)
The Malta Society of the Blind set up various sub-committees in order to expand its activities; the Society being always the “Parent Body” with its representatives sitting on the board of each sub-committee.
The first one that was set up in September 1965 was the “Wireless for the Blind Fund” (WBF). An appeal for funds was made during the 1964 Christmas time by the then British Forces Broadcasting Service in Malta (B.F.B.S.). The funds which were donated to the Malta Society of the Blind (MSB) were used to set up the WBF with the late Mr. Joe Fenech Conti as chairman and Mr. Edward Abela, then Secretary of the Society, as Secretary of the Fund. The latter was succeeded in 1966 by the late Mr. Richard Cannataci as Secretary and Treasurer. Mr. Edward Abela was in the 80’s Chairman of the Fund.
Under the patronage of the MSB, the “Talking Books” sub-committee was later set up. Mr. J. Burlo’ was Chairman of it and Mr. Joseph Poulter as Secretary. They set up a library of Maltese reading cassettes. They did all the recordings at Xandir Malta. They also subsidized the repair of the blind persons’ cassette machines. Mr. Burlo’ was later succeeded by the late Mr. Joe Fenech Conti. The latter was later helped by his son Joseph who later became Vice-President of the WBF.
Together they further expanded the “Talking Books” scope by recording music on cassettes for release for borrowing by blind/visually impaired persons. The “Talking Books” sub-committee was also successful and today we are encouraging the supply of audio books and audio music to blind/visually impaired persons through a cultural organizer at the National Library in Floriana.
Another sub-committee was the “Parents Group” which was chaired by Mrs. Miriam Bonnici and with Mr. Michael King as Secretary. The main attention was on giving advice and on doing home visits to parents of blind/visually impaired children. Dr. Philip Muscat, then Minister of Education was very generous in giving his permission for this sub-committee to use school premises for meetings.
Then there was the “Gozo Group” sub-committee which in the 80’s was chaired by Miss Doris Cini. Rev. Fr. Emanuel Curmi was the coordinator for organizing of outings and home visits.
The Parent Body of these sub-committees has always been The Malta Society of the Blind. In due course, these sub-committees were allowed to become semi autonomous mainly because of their expansive role.
In the new millennium, the Malta Society of the Blind found it necessary to dissolve all its sub-committees and is in the process of retrieving all their reports, correspondence and other documents associated with their activities together with all their assets as declared in their last “Statement of Income and Expenditure” with the intention of re-activating/creating sub-committees as deemed necessary.
In the 1980’s, the MSB was officially represented on the General Council of the Handicapped, on the Ministry of Labour, Culture and Welfare Disablement Resettlement Advisory Committee, and on the Committee of the International Year of Disabled Persons. The MSB also worked closely with the St. Francis Guild for the Blind and used to subsidise all transport expenses for the Guild’s quarterly religious/recreational functions for the blind.
The Malta Society of the Blind is also one of three organisations supporting visually impaired persons in Malta and Gozo who are founding partners of the Malta Guide Dogs Foundation (MGDF).
The Foundation, a registered NGO that offers a range of free services to visually impaired persons, was established in 2006, when seven directors were elected to the Board. Three of them came from the following bodies:
- The Malta Society of the Blind(MSB);
- Torball Society of the Blind; and
- The Gozo Aid for the Visually Impaired (GAVI).
The other officers are the Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer and PRO.
The success of the Foundation owes much to the effort and attention to detail of the founder chairman, Ronald Colombo. Sadly, he passed away on February 6, 2011. His shoes were filled by the person who was among the first to receive a guide dog through the Foundation, Joseph Stafrace, who in turn in 2018 was elected the Foundation’s Chairman for a four-year term. In between those periods the Chairman was Leone Sciberras.
As at 2018, there were 12 guide dogs in active service in Malta and Gozo. A Guide Dog and Mobility Instructor (GDMI), who was trained in Australia to international standards, used to train a number of dogs. At the moment Guide Dogs are bought ready and trained from abroad. There is also an Orientation & Mobility (OM) specialist who provides services to the Foundation’s clients.
It is a group of volunteers, including guide dog users and visually impaired persons. It is highly active in organising activities, responding to requests from schools and private/public entities for talks on guide dogs and the blind, and taking part in various institutional fund-raising initiatives, like l-Istrina and the President’s Run.
The MSB is a registered NGO with the Commissioner VO and has a registration number of VO/0191. The Society’s logo and Statute are also registered.
The present committee is composed of seven officers; the majority of them being blind or visually impaired persons.
The Malta Society of the Blind is a member of the Malta Federation of Organisations Persons with Disability (MFOPD) which is the Malta representative of the European Disability Forum, the European Network for Independent Living, Inclusion Europe and Inclusion International. It represents the disability sector in the major government boards and entities on behalf of the disabled sector within civil society.
MFOPD in turn represents the MSB on the committee of the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD).
We at MSB are a very active Society. The number of communications for advice, assistance or rehabilitation received weekly is overwhelming. Sometimes it is a matter of referring the caller to other entities, but mostly the call requires more intense evaluation and then follow up with advice and/or subsequent home visits.
We also assist the blind/ visually impaired persons in getting necessary gadgets such as white canes, talking watches, calculators, tablets or scales, paper money identifiers, etc. We also help blind/visually impaired persons in getting a job done at home such as finding a painter/builder/ a/c repairer, etc. We also sometimes organize outings for the members in general or for those attending the Spero Day Centre. We are so glad of this service which at the end of the day generally ends up in a loving hug or handshake.