The Braille Monitor August/September, 2003
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The 2003 Convention Roundup
by Barbara Pierce
Ask people what they think of when they hear the word "Kentucky," and, when they get past horses, bluegrass, the Kentucky Derby, and bourbon, they often begin humming a few bars of "My Old Kentucky Home." That's what it felt like when we returned this year to the Galt House for the sixty-third convention of the National Federation of the Blind, June 28 through July 4. Our host affiliate was as warm and welcoming as last year, even if the weather, for the first part of the convention at least, was several degrees cooler than it was last year. The Belle of Louisville still plies her way up and down the Ohio River, paddle wheel and calliope driven by steam engines.
Often people assume that a convention that brings a couple of thousand blind people to town must be profoundly different from other conventions. The NFB convention is certainly a lengthy event, and the percentage of attendees who actually take part in general sessions and the organization's additional gatherings is undoubtedly much higher than the average for national meetings. But it's clear that in lots of ways we are a cross section of the convention-attending public as well as every other part of the public. For example, one conventioneer reported stepping onto an elevator in the small hours of Friday morning, following the banquet. He was a bit startled to discover a small sofa in the cage with him. When he reached the lobby, he commented to the desk clerk on duty about the rearrangement of the furniture. The clerk responded that the Future Farmers of America and a martial arts group who had both been recent hotel guests had moved the furniture into the elevators while they were guests, but he was a bit surprised that NFB visitors would come up with the same idea. He wasn't annoyed, just bemused.
In addition, someone in city government apparently concluded that a convention of blind people was likely to require something extraordinary in traffic signage. Partway through the week, signs suddenly appeared outside the hotel announcing, "Visually Handicapped Pedestrians." By the next day the signs had disappeared. Energetic Federationists had decided that they were not needed, and certainly no accidents occurred after they were removed. But city officials were apparently convinced that motorists would not notice blind pedestrians using long canes and guide dogs outside the hotel, so back they came with new signs, this time anchored in cement. The new signs could not be conveniently removed, so this time individual letters began disappearing. The convention ended before all the letters could depart, but the message delivered by conventioneers was clear.
At last year's convention President Maurer unveiled Whozit for the first time. This year Whozit was everywhere: on literature, on the banquet mugs, even on wonderful new Braille slates made of steel and aluminum. And Whozit items were for sale everywhere: neckties, shirts, tote bags, banners, bears, and jewelry. A whole array of Whozit pins, charms, and earrings was for sale at the NFB store in sterling or gold, with and without Whozit in all of his enameled colors.
President Maurer sits cross-legged on the floor with blind children gathered around him.
In short, Federation conventioneers felt at home in Louisville and at the Galt House. Much was familiar, but as usual very much was new and stimulating. Each year it seems that the pre-convention days become more and more filled with activity. People used to come early to enjoy a few days of quiet before the rush of registration and the opening of the exhibit hall. This year more than a thousand people were on hand by the time pre-convention events began on Saturday, June 28.
Family activities this year filled Saturday completely. After National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) registration, President Maurer sat down with the children and talked with them about blindness and learning to get things done as a blind person. When the kids went off to the Braille carnival, the adults settled down to some straight talk about "Transition to Independence," as blind youngsters move from stage to stage on their way to adulthood. At noon participants were invited to attend casual lunch gatherings by state or region to do networking. These lunches were a great success and jump-started a lot of helpful contacts.
Mylene Richardson of North Carolina shows off her balloon hat, her face painting, and her white cane.
This year during the afternoon the adults did not move from workshop to workshop as they have in the past. They stayed together and listened to a riveting group of speakers talk about effective strategies for stimulating blind children at various stages of their development. The older kids and teens, on the other hand, had to choose among a number of interesting and useful workshops: Note Taking with an Electronic Notetaker; a babysitting clinic; I Want to Be a Writer; Fun with Braille; Impact!—Asteroids, Craters, and the Extinction of the Dinosaurs; and A Journey through Space. Noreen Grice and Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, the science education specialist and astronomer who developed the Braille book, Touch the Universe, published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, came to Louisville to work with blind youngsters and their families on science and math.
While families were busy and NFB Camp was open to provide fun and friends for kids when they were not enjoying the Braille carnival with their Braille Buddies, a huge array of other workshops kept things lively around the hotel. Nearly twenty technology gatherings of various sorts took place Saturday. In addition, the NFB-sponsored job seminar provided inspiration and tips for those looking for employment. Writers enjoyed an open session for short-story and poetry reading. Those organizing affiliate special events gathered to pool their experience and expertise, and folks committed to spreading the Braille Is Beautiful curriculum gathered to exchange ideas and strategies for getting this wonderful resource used more broadly. That evening an astronomy workshop, aimed originally at teens interested in astronomy, also attracted a number of blind adults interested in the subject. It is clear that the new relationship forged with NASA and professionals in astronomy resonates strongly with NFB members eager for exposure to science of all kinds.
Peter Myers of Kentucky working hard on his model of a planet.
A number of other divisions and committees conducted meetings during Saturday afternoon and evening. In addition to Karaoke Night Saturday evening sponsored by BLIND, Inc., we held the first ever Rookie Roundup for first-time convention attendees, to let folks know what would happen during the week and where to get help when they needed advice. These first-time conventioneers were also given special ribbons to wear on their badges in order to help them get acquainted. The Kentucky affiliate hosted Welcome to Kentucky with DJ Ed Driskell, playing hits from the fifties to the present. Something would have been wrong with anyone who did not feel welcome after that introduction to the Bluegrass State.
When Sunday morning dawned, everyone hit the floor running. The Sensory Safari was open all day to introduce interested conventioneers to realistic mounts of wild animals from around the world. Convention registration was its usual efficient, rapid experience for those who passed through the lines. Almost 2,000 people registered during the first day, and no one had to stand in line for long.
Ricardo Garcia (New York) and Alicia Jones (Kentucky) meet a lizard during the NFB Camp visit to the Louisville Zoo.
Of course the exhibit hall was waiting to lure people into spending time and money on what is new and most interesting in technology for blind people. This year thirty-seven Federation exhibitors staffed booths as did fifty-three organizations from beyond our ranks. Along with the usual aids, appliances, and literature, the NFB store carried some new items: a fine Braille watch with Whozit pictured on both the men's and women's versions and costing $75; new aluminum and steel slates sporting Whozit and costing $8 and $15 respectively; and the Whozit jewelry. The newest Kernel Book, The Car, the Sled, and the Butch Wax, was also for sale.
Sunday afternoon the Resolutions Committee considered twenty resolutions, eighteen of which went on to be debated on the convention floor Friday afternoon. The texts of the resolutions that were passed appear elsewhere in this issue.
Federationists enjoy themselves on the dance floor.
The National Association of Blind Lawyers conducted another mock trial this year in the courtroom of the Honorable Charles S. Brown. This time it was the trial that might have taken place in the Judy Miller case in the 1970's. As it happened, the case was settled before it got to court, but that small detail did not stop the plaintiffs, the defendants, and their legal counsels from laying out the issue in outrageously comic terms.
Sunday evening and Monday afternoon and evening some twenty-five divisions and committees conducted meetings, seminars, and workshops. Here are some highlights. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Braille Readers Are Leaders contest, the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children hosted a reception and the first annual Braille book flea market. The generous support of the United Parcel Service Foundation and a number of UPS volunteers made this event truly memorable. See Sandy Halverson's brief report in the Convention Miniatures for more details.
The Braille Readers Are Leaders reception was a fine opportunity for youngsters to deepen friendships. Here Lauren Thomson and Victoria Miceli (both of Iowa) are obviously having fun together.
Division and affiliate Web masters gathered on Monday evening to pool their experience and brainstorm ideas. Gary Wunder coordinated this discussion and prepared a report, which appears in the Monitor Miniatures. Cajun Moon Rising was the title of this year's original play by Jerry Whittle. It was performed by students and friends of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and the proceeds were donated to support children's programming at the Louisiana Center.
Promptly at 9:00 a.m. Monday morning, the annual public meeting of the NFB board of directors was gaveled to order with every member of the board present except Steve Benson, who was ill and facing surgery. President Maurer began by reviewing the six board-of-director seats up for election this year. Noel Nightingale, president of the NFB of Washington, then sought the floor. She said:
Good morning, Dr. Maurer, fellow board members, and fellow Federationists. Once again we are at a wonderful convention of our organization, and it is a pleasure to be here. My name is up again this year, and I am letting you know that, if my name is put into nomination, I will not accept that nomination. This organization means everything to me and has allowed me to achieve great things in my life, both professionally and personally.
I recall that, when I was pregnant with my daughter Leila, I was out on a boat with some friends on Lake Washington--some very good friends, who had known me a long time. One of them said to me that he didn't think it was right that I was pregnant because my daughter might be blind and it wasn't right that I would pass that along to somebody. Another friend called me on the phone one day when I was pregnant and was questioning whether I could be a mother, whether I could do simple things like change diapers. But at that point I had been a Federationist for some time, and I knew that their questioning was not right, that even if my daughter Leila or now my son Cosmo gets retinitis pigmentosa later, they will live full lives. So those friends did not deter me. I give the credit for my response to the Federation, to my brothers and sisters who have modeled the way for me and have shared their experiences.
I have also achieved a great deal professionally. I have a law degree, and I practiced environmental law for five and a half years. I then became a rehabilitation administrator at the Department for the Blind in Washington. I have now taken on a new position with the federal government. I am finding that, between the demands that will undoubtedly come in my new position and the demands of motherhood, I cannot devote the kind of time that I would want to devote to the organization, and therefore I do not feel it would be right to accept the nomination. Thank you.
Michael Cleveland and the Blue Hollow Band play bluegrass music at opening convention ceremonies.
President Maurer then made a number of announcements and drew the name of the winner of the 2003 Kernel Book writing contest. Michael Freeman of Washington State had his name chosen from a pool of 101. The 2004 contest began on June 1, 2003. All Kernel Book story submissions arriving at the National Center by May 31, 2004, will be entered in that contest. President Maurer then introduced Cathy Jackson, president of the host affiliate, and Kicki Nordström, president of the World Blind Union, to speak briefly.
He then called on the presidents of affiliates that have received bequests during the past year to be recognized and make announcements of their gifts to the national treasury. By long-standing policy, affiliates and chapters give half of the funds raised by professional fundraisers and half of the bequests they receive to the national organization. Making gifts this year were California, Colorado (Denver Chapter), Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Dakota, and Utah. This agenda item closed with a reminder from NFB Second Vice President Peggy Elliott that affiliates and chapters who receive bequests will make life easier for everyone if they see that Peggy gets a copy of the will as early in the process as possible.
Bruce Gardner, chairman of the Affiliate Action Committee, then reminded everyone to make sure that canes and dogs are not lying in the aisles, to be sure that wheelchairs and carts do not protrude--special marshals will be available to remove chairs from rows to make space for this equipment--to turn off phones and beepers during sessions, and to leave the ballroom before carrying on conversations.
Diane McGeorge, perennial distributor of door prizes, holds a bouquet of roses provided as door prizes by the NFB of Utah. Each rose was created from five $5 bills.
Peggy Elliott, who chairs the Scholarship Committee, next introduced the thirty scholarship winners for 2003. A full report of this year's scholarship program appears elsewhere in this issue. With Steve Benson unavailable to make this year's presentation of the Blind Educator of the Year Award, Sheila Koenig, president of the National Organization of Blind Educators and a member of the selection committee, presented a plaque and check to Dr. Norman Gardner. The details of the presentation appear elsewhere in this issue.
The board meeting concluded with reports from several committees. Tom Stevens, chairman of the Associates Committee, announced the top recruiters for 2003. The top recruiter by number of associates was Dotty Neely of North Carolina with 200, followed by Art Schreiber of New Mexico with 191, Dr. J. Webster Smith of Ohio with 124, and Tom Stevens of Missouri with 101. We had 231 recruiters, so we have plenty of room for additional volunteers. Our top fundraiser in the associate program was President Marc Maurer with $2,212. Second place went to Dotty Neely with $2,040, and third place went to last year's top money recruiter, Patricia Maurer, with $1,943. With that report the board meeting adjourned, and delegates scattered to an agenda full of meetings and other activities through the remainder of the day.
The opening session of the convention began at 9:30 sharp Tuesday morning. Cathy Jackson set a festive tone by introducing Michael Cleveland and the Blue Hollow Band, a fine bluegrass band who played several up-beat songs about Kentucky. She then introduced four state legislators, each of whom briefly welcomed the convention to Louisville.
The remainder of the morning session was devoted to the roll call of states. Along with providing necessary information about official delegates and members of the Nominating Committee, affiliates took the opportunity to provide interesting pieces of information. Connecticut announced that, two weeks before, the legislature had passed a bill preserving the separate agency serving the blind. President Maurer pointed out that the only reason the bill had passed was the work of the NFB of Connecticut. Everyone else had given up on protecting the state agency, but the NFB got the job done. Colorado, Louisiana, and Minnesota announced that all of the staff and students from their rehabilitation centers were attending the convention. Over half of the students at the Iowa adult training center were present, and the staff and rehabilitation students at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) were at the convention as well as the president of BISM and the chairman of the board of trustees. Sharon Maneki also announced that our own Kris Cox is now a member of the Ehrlich administration because she has been appointed to head the Governor's Office for Persons with Disabilities.
Massachusetts announced that Steven Rothstein, the new president of Perkins, would be present at the convention Thursday and at the banquet that evening. All of the leadership of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind were in the Nebraska delegation, which was also hosting a blind member of the Turkish legislature. The governor of New Mexico has just appointed Art Schreiber as chairman of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. New York reported that in January the governor decided to fold the Commission for the Blind into a larger agency. The NFB of New York contacted every member of the legislature to protest. They said that they had never seen such a response, and the governor backed down, for the present at least. Puerto Rico reported that they now have a Braille literacy law, the Pennsylvania affiliate established both student and guide dog divisions during the past year, and Rhode Island formed a parents division. By the time the roll call was complete, seven states had announced that the heads of their state agencies serving blind people were present for part or all of the convention.
Gary Wunder displays the new NFB flag.
Following the roll call, the officers took down the NFB flag that has been on our convention platform for many years and displayed for the first time the new NFB flag, which is a full-color Whozit on a field of white. Like the flags of countries, this flag does not include the name of the organization for which it stands. Our job will be to make it generally recognized across the United States and around the world.
Before the noon recess President Maurer played a sample of the new NFB public service announcements, which are available to chapters and affiliates in VHS format to show to TV stations. If required, beta format versions will be supplied to stations that need it. We should notify the national office when stations agree to air these PSAs.
As usual the afternoon session began with the presidential report, which appears in full elsewhere in this issue. It is always inspiring to review the highlights of the past year and listen to a summary of our activities.
"The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Organized Blind Look to the Future" was the title of remarks delivered by A.V. Diaz, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Space Flight Center. He described NASA research that may have implications for blind people in the future and urged the NFB to continue to spread the word that NASA is eager for blind people to train as scientists and work in the space program.
Raúl M. Grijalva, a member of Congress from the seventh congressional district of Arizona, then addressed the delegates on "Working with the Blind: A Voice in Congress." Mr. Grijalva expressed his support for all of the legislative efforts the NFB advocates in Congress, and he urged us to continue working together to ensure that tomorrow's blind citizens have a better life than we do today.
The next agenda item was "Information Accessible to the Blind: Programs of America Online" presented by Jules Polonetsky, AOL vice president of integrity assurance. He reported on recent advances in making America Online easily and widely useable by blind people. He assured the audience that AOL programmers really are beginning to understand what needs to be done, and AOL is committed to doing it.
Dr. Joanne Wilson, commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, was the next speaker. Her title was "Promoting Harmony in the Field of Work with the Blind: Federal Policies That Enhance Opportunity." The full text of this address appears elsewhere in this issue.
Jim Omvig next came to the podium to conduct two pieces of business. The first was to have Professor Ron Ferguson of Louisiana Tech University introduce the twelve men and women who have completed the requirements for National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) from the National Blindness Professional Certification Board. Following that recognition, Mr. Omvig presented the 2003 Fredric K. Schroeder Award to Doug Boone. A complete report of this award presentation appears elsewhere in this issue.
Joe Blackstone, chief executive officer of Blackstone Consulting, Inc., was the final speaker of the afternoon. He was introduced by Kevan Worley, president of the National Association of Blind Merchants. His title was "Partnerships for Progress in the Randolph-Sheppard Program." Mr. Blackstone described what vendors should look for when seeking partnerships in order to acquire military locations and other large facilities.
Alice Lockwood accompanies Jeannie Romeo on the piano.
That evening the Kentucky affiliate hosted the Bluegrass Ball, featuring Romeo and Lockwood, a country singing duo. Alice Lockwood is a member of the NFB of New York. The National Association of Blind Musicians sponsored its annual showcase of talent in which twenty performers took part, and the tenBroek Fund sponsored a very successful auction. This was only the tip of the iceberg of Tuesday evening activities, but at 9:00 a.m. the Wednesday session came to order.
Before beginning the 2003 election, President Maurer paid tribute to the United Parcel Service Foundation, which has supported many of our programs through the years and which this year has contributed $50,000 to enhance the Braille Readers Are Leaders program. More than a hundred UPS volunteers were present during the convention to assist conventioneers.
The hold-over board positions this year are held by Marc Maurer, president; Joyce Scanlan, first vice president; Peggy Elliott, second vice president; Gary Wunder, secretary; Charlie Brown, treasurer; and board members Pam Allen (Louisiana), Steve Benson (Illinois), Sam Gleese (Mississippi), Diane McGeorge (Colorado), Carla McQuillan (Oregon), and Carlos Serván (Nebraska). The sitting board members who were re-elected were Ron Brown (Indiana), Donald Capps (South Carolina), Priscilla Ferris (Massachusetts), Cathy Jackson (Kentucky), and Joe Ruffalo (New Jersey). To fill the seat most recently held by Noel Nightingale, the convention unanimously elected Anil Lewis, president of the NFB of Georgia. After a victory yell, Anil responded to his election by saying:
This is awesome! I want to let everyone know that your confidence and faith in me have not been misplaced. I will own up to it, but I will say, as I always have--as the president of the Atlanta chapter I was only successful and able to fulfill the mission of the Federation due to the loving, caring people who were around me and supported me. As the affiliate president of the state of Georgia, here again, I have only been able to be successful because I have had confident, loving, self-sacrificing individuals that have helped me. Now as a national board member I have an expectation of each one of you to be just as caring, committed, and supportive. If you will do that, I will make sure that I will be just as successful on the national level. I pledge to participate actively in the effort of the National Federation of the Blind to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind; to support the policies and programs of the Federation; and to abide by its constitution. Thank you very much.
Following the election, Carl Augusto, president of the American Foundation for the Blind, made a report about what's new at the Foundation. He discussed a number of programs dealing with Braille, employment, and quality of life for blind people. The audience was enthusiastic about these items. Giving credit to Mr. Augusto for having gone on record as believing that the time had come for the National Accreditation Council to close its doors, James Gashel then asked why, when the AFB has endorsed the concept of working to resolve existing differences among agencies and consumer organizations in the blindness field, Mr. Augusto had recently signed a paper advocating that sleepshades not be required, dog guides be allowed in cane-centered programs, and Academy accreditation be the only recognized credential for blindness professionals. The NFB was not consulted before this document was circulated, and Mr. Gashel urged Mr. Augusto to remove his name from the document until discussions have been held. Mr. Augusto agreed to discussions on these matters but refused to withdraw his name from the document in the meantime.
The next speaker was Dr. Pearl Van Zandt, director of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and president of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind. Her title was "National Trends in Rehabilitation for the Blind." She outlined recent advances in the field, pointed to several issues of deep concern and urged the field to work together to preserve and increase effective rehabilitation programs for blind Americans.
National Industries for the Blind President and CEO Jim Gibbons followed this presentation with an encouraging report on what is happening at NIB. He told the audience that NIB is prepared to work with the organized blind to develop language to amend Section 14 C of the Fair Labor Standards Act to say that blindness shall no longer be reason enough to pay a worker sub-minimum wages. Delegates cheered this announcement and were delighted to learn about new NIB initiatives to develop managerial leadership among blind people associated with NIB. It's clear that Mr. Gibbons is committed to improving the opportunities of blind people in the industrial programs associated with it.
"Protecting the Rights of Blind Workers" was the title of an address by Cari M. Dominguez, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Ms. Dominguez was returning to our platform, having addressed us at the 1991 convention. She made clear her commitment to educate employers about the abilities of blind workers and ensure that blind people have a fair chance to get and succeed in jobs across the country. She invited affiliates to ask EEOC spokespeople to address state conventions during the coming year.
The next agenda item was our annual report from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Frank Kurt Cylke, NLS director, and John Bryant, head of the Production Control Section, made the presentation. Mr. Cylke has attended every NFB convention since 1975. He introduced John Bryant, who described a pilot project to provide audio magazine articles from three publications to a group of volunteers who will download them from the Web. The pilot should begin this fall.
Also this fall NLS book producers will begin providing digital books. For now these will be duplicated on cassette tape, but, when the conversion to the digital system takes place in 2008, these titles will also be available in the new format.
The final program item for the morning was "Voting Rights for the Blind: Implementation of the Help America Vote Act." Three speakers addressed the topic. The first was Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center in Houston, Texas. He urged delegates to get involved locally in the effort to make this program succeed. He pointed out that by January of 2006 at least one voting machine in every voting place is to be accessible to blind voters, but this will not eliminate assisted voting if that is what the voter wishes to do.
Following Mr. Lewis, Mike Freeman, legislative chairman and first vice president of the NFB of Washington, and Anil Lewis, president of the NFB of Georgia, described their affiliates' successful efforts to pass state legislation to ensure accessible voting. They urged delegates to work on state legislation and regulations, and Anil assured everyone that, based on his experience last November, independent voting is an extraordinary experience.
Wednesday afternoon and evening were filled with tours, seminars, workshops, meetings, openhouses, and Monte Carlo Night, sponsored each year by the National Association of Blind Students. One of the most exciting events was a meeting of the Job Exchange Committee, during which Federationists swapped information about jobs and networked with others and employers. The two meetings of this committee were very well attended and quite helpful.
The NOPBC workshops were also well attended. The drop-in-anytime workshop to help parents work on cane travel with their blind children is always popular. This year we added two sessions each of "Braille for the Partially Sighted: Methods & Techniques," presented by Dr. Stuart Wittenstein, and "It Takes More Than a Good IEP: Creative Ways to Improve Your Child's Educational Services."
Kicki Nordström, laughing, holds an electronic notetaker while Kua Cheng Hock examines it.
The next morning the Thursday convention session began promptly at nine o'clock. "The Federation in the World" was the title of a panel that included Kicki Nordström of Sweden, president of the World Blind Union; James Sanders, president and CEO of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and president of our region of the World Blind Union; Enrique Sans of Spain, secretary general of the World Blind Union, but representing the Organización Nacional de Ciegos de España (ONCE); and Kua Cheng Hock, president of the Independent Society of the Blind of Singapore.
The remainder of the morning was devoted to reports from technology producers. These were on Web-surfing by phone by Dr. Emdad Khan, founder, president, and CEO of InternetSpeech; digital books, by Dave Schleppenbach, CEO of gh, LLC; a cell phone organizer for the blind, by Eric Weldink, president and CEO of Alva B.V.; Microbook readers, by David Freedman, founder of MicroBook International, Inc., and Larry Maggart, president of Microbook, USA; and Pac Mate, a PDA for the blind, by Lee Hamilton, president and CEO of Freedom Scientific.
Dr. Robert Pasternack
The afternoon session began with a presentation by Dr. Robert Pasternack, assistant secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, United States Department of Education. His title was "Educational and Rehabilitative Opportunities for Blind Children and Adults: New Legislation, New Initiatives." He began by articulating the Bush administration's position that hiring disabled people makes good business sense. He went on to say that efforts must be made to ensure that disabled people need not begin to receive Supplemental Security Income by making sure that they have the skills and education that will make them employable. Disabled people must also have transportation in order to work, and the Bush administration is determined to work on solving this problem. The Bush administration's New Freedom Initiative also urges continued commitment to developing good access technology for disabled people.
Assistant Secretary Pasternack concluded his prepared remarks by saying that, while we may disagree about how to make sure that federal policy protects the right of blind children to have access to their textbooks in a timely way, we do not disagree about their right to the educational materials. A number of people had questions for Dr. Pasternack, but he interrupted the first questioner to say that he had not intended to denigrate Braille but to urge universal design for learning that would enable blind students to learn alongside their sighted classmates, using the same methods. He reiterated that he never intended to be understood as saying that new technology replaces others but only that research is necessary.
President Maurer then commented that, having heard from two sources that Dr. Pasternack had publicly said Braille was becoming obsolete, he was glad to hear that Dr. Pasternack did not think so and hoped he would stop saying it. Dr. Pasternack then tried to interrupt President Maurer, who refused to be over-ridden and clearly pointed out that it would be polite to listen to an entire question or comment before beginning to answer.
This angered the assistant secretary, and not much more of substance took place during this item. The discussion closed with courtesy and resumed calm on both sides.
After the convention, however, Dr. Maurer felt compelled to write the following letter to the secretary of education:
July 25, 2003
The Honorable Roderick
R. Paige, Secretary
United States Department of Education
Dear Secretary Paige:
As president of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) I represent the largest organized constituency of blind people in America. Your presentation at our 2002 national convention was a high point of that event and acknowledged the importance of maintaining constructive relations between the NFB and the Department of Education. Therefore we invited Bob Pasternack to be the department's principal representative at the 2003 NFB convention, and he accepted.
Programs of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services are vital to blind children and their parents as well as to blind adults. Our members are directly affected by these programs and by Dr. Pasternack's leadership of them.
With this background I am writing to inform you that Dr. Pasternack's conduct at our convention did not show respect for our organization or for our members who interacted with him. For example, he made a particular show of arrogance at two points during his presentation, saying with peculiar emphasis that he, Bob Pasternack, "had the microphone." His having the microphone was not at issue, and no one was attempting to interrupt him. I was chairing the meeting, and I would not have allowed any discourtesy to occur. Therefore his comments were merely gratuitous, indicating an attempt to assert control over a meeting to which he had been invited as a guest speaker. The inappropriateness was not lost on the audience.
But this was not all. The most extreme attempt to dominate the meeting occurred when Dr. Pasternack interrupted a speaker from the audience and me. He would not yield the floor until I used the gavel to insist on order. The speaker from the audience was concerned about remarks made by Dr. Pasternack at Auburn University, in which he appeared to de-emphasize the usefulness of Braille. The speaker was restrained and respectful, but Dr. Pasternack was not. His rudeness in seizing the floor gave added emphasis to the speaker's point and overshadowed Dr. Pasternack's defense. This is one of the reasons why he has acquired a reputation for being anti-blind and anti-Braille. Nothing in his conduct helped to change this impression among the more than 2,000 people in the audience who observed his behavior.
This is just one example of an overall demeanor indicating an attitude of arrogance and haughtiness toward our particular constituency group. While we may not always agree with public officials, we never express our disagreements by showing disrespect. Clearly the same cannot be said of Dr. Pasternack.
This is truly unfortunate, since, with the appointment by President Bush of Joanne Wilson as Commissioner of Rehabilitation, serving under Dr. Pasternack, there is every reason for members of the NFB to respond with genuine warmth to leaders of the Bush administration.
Speaking of Commissioner Wilson, Dr. Pasternack only acknowledged her presence at the meeting after first recognizing a member of her staff. Some members of the audience wondered if it is significant that the staff member is sighted and Joanne Wilson is blind. Also, in a further appearance of belittling the blind, Dr. Pasternack recognized Commissioner Wilson with the sarcastic comment, "I'm still waiting for that dinner invitation." Aside from being unprofessional, this was an apparent and inappropriate display of internal rivalry, which has no place before a public audience.
Secretary Paige, with the appointment of Bob Pasternack and Joanne Wilson to leadership positions in the Department of Education, members of the NFB had every reason to respond with warmth and support to initiatives of the Bush administration. However, with the performance of Dr. Pasternack over the past year and the particular manner of his appearance at our recent national convention, that feeling of strong support is being eroded. If matters are permitted to continue as they are, the largest organized constituency of blind people in the United States will begin to feel suspicion and mistrust. Bear in mind that Dr. Pasternack's display of arrogance occurred before an audience of more than 2,000 people, who come from every state in the nation and who have friends and fellow voters in their communities back home. Speaking as both an employer and a person who leads a political constituency, I would not permit anyone under my direction to behave as Dr. Pasternack did and continue to hold a leadership position. Given the importance of Dr. Pasternack's appointment as the Bush administration's principal public leader of disability programs, please consider the seriousness of what I am saying.
Very truly yours,
Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
The next agenda item was titled "Certification of Rehabilitation Professionals in Blindness." Jim Omvig, president of the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, was the first speaker. He reviewed the painfully discriminatory history of the certification bodies in the field of travel training and the advent of the National Blindness Professional Certification Board.
Following Jim, Sharon Micrut, president of the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Educational Professionals, described the recent changes that the Academy has approved in its certification. After her remarks she commented that she personally encouraged people to gather the facts and then choose the certification they most trusted.
Dr. Fred Schroeder then addressed the convention. His remarks are reprinted in full elsewhere in this issue.
Three Federationists then told the convention about their lives and work. "Techniques in Science for the Blind and Innovative Research in Chemistry" was the title of a presentation by Cary Supalo, a graduate student in chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. Connie Connolly, a member of the board of directors of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, next spoke on "Seven Decades Plus and the Spirit Is Still High." Finally Judy Rasmussen, executive director of Services for the Visually Impaired in Silver Spring, Maryland, described "To Russia with Cane: The Blind Missionary." All three presentations were enthusiastic, inspiring, and amusing.
"Blindness: Problem or Paradox" was the title of an exciting presentation by Ron Gardner, director of the Louisiana Tech University Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness. After debunking the notion that blindness is a problem in and of itself, Ron described the two masters programs, one to train teachers of the blind and the other to train orientation and mobility instructors, now offered by Louisiana Tech University.
The final agenda item of the afternoon was "High Standards for Books: A Narrator's Story," presented by Roy Avers, one of the finest of the American Printing House for the Blind's book and periodical narrators. He spoke entertainingly and informatively about his work and the high NLS standards of the program.
When the gavel to recess fell, the ballroom emptied immediately, and delegates rushed to their rooms to prepare for the banquet. The ballroom doors opened again at seven, and Fred Schroeder did his usual masterly job as the evening's MC. During the meal he gave away door prizes, orchestrated division drawings, encouraged the singing of NFB songs, and at the close of the meal introduced President Maurer to deliver the 2003 banquet address titled "The Rest of Reality." The full text of this address appears elsewhere in this issue.
Dr. Raymond Kurzweil then came to the podium to recall his long relationship with the NFB, evoke our shared memory of Kenneth Jernigan, and look into the future.
Scholarship awards were next presented. A full report of that presentation and the entire 2003 scholarship program appears elsewhere in this issue.
At Fred Schroeder's invitation Ramona Walhof then came forward to make the 2003 presentation of the Jacobus tenBroek Award to Betty and Bruce Woodward of Connecticut. A report of this ceremony appears elsewhere in this issue.
Attending the banquet was the chairman of the policy advisory board for the National Federation of the Blind Research and Training Institute, Jack Busher. Mr. Busher spoke briefly about the marvelous opportunity we have with the Institute to bring about new levels of freedom for blind people, and he commented on how fitting it was that we were gathered on the eve of our nation's Independence Day.
The evening ended with high spirits and renewed dedication to all that the Federation stands for. The banquet worked its usual magic, providing inspiration, fun, laughter, and friendship--everything in short but adequate air conditioning.
By Friday morning the ballroom was cool again and ready for our annual business meeting. In addition to the financial report, the Washington report, and the honor roll call of states and divisions, Sharon Maneki, who chairs the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Selection Committee, presented this year's award to Dr. Sheila Amato. The report appears elsewhere in this issue.
Two of Dr. Amato's students in her high school Braille class attended the entire convention, helping wherever they could and taking full advantage of the event. They were indeed immensely helpful in many activities and gave every indication of having enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
The afternoon session was devoted to debate and voting on this year's resolutions. That report also appears elsewhere in this issue.
The gavel fell, adjourning the 2003 convention at 5:00 p.m., and delegates scattered to every corner of the United States and thirteen other countries. As always, individual blind adults had discovered promise for the future where they had known only discouragement. A number of families with blind children had found hope for the first time. And we who are old hands at weathering the excitement of a convention discovered that our batteries had again been recharged. Indeed we do have miles to go and many promises to keep before we gather for the 2004 convention. We are already engaged in the work that needs to be done and making the plans that will bring new hope to this and the generations who follow us, for we know full well that the blind of the nation are counting on us.