Marc Maurer, President of the NFB(19761 bytes)
Marc Maurer

An Open Letter to Monitor Readers

by Marc Maurer

 

As many of you know, during the final months of his life Dr. Jernigan devoted much of his creative energy and imagination to planning an exciting new facility to be built on our property at 1800 Johnson Street, which he named the National Research and Training Institute for the Blind. A little more than twenty years ago, when we first began renovating the turn-of-the-century factory building that we intended to transform into the National Center for the Blind and the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind, many of us found it hard to imagine that we could ever use all the space available in the block-long building. We told each other that rent income from the unused areas would help us meet day-to-day operating expenses.

Through these past two decades our dreams have expanded to keep pace with our growing strength and experience as an organization. The Materials Center and all the publications, literature, and equipment it stores and ships; the International Braille and Technology Center; NEWSLINEŽ for the Blind; bedrooms for visiting groups; and the expanding staff to meet the demands of a growing organization: all these have been added and require significant space to operate.

Now the unimaginable has come to pass. We have just about run out of space for the programs we are already conducting. More to the point, our dreams of finding ways to use our experience and expertise to improve programs and increase opportunity for all blind people demand expanded space if we are to carry out the training and research that must be done.

Dr. Jernigan saw all this coming; that is why he conceived the plan to erect a new building. We have dedicated ourselves to bringing his dream and our own to fruition. We have embarked on an ambitious capital campaign to raise eighteen million dollars during the next two years. Never before have we taken on a program as demanding as this one, but we have now begun discussing our plans and hopes with foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals as we make contacts with organizations and people that might be interested in helping us make our dreams reality.

Federationists have never been content to ask others to do all the work for us. We may not have millions ourselves, but we have always taken pride in doing whatever we can to bring our dreams to fruition. The entire Board of Directors have now made five-year personal pledges toward our campaign goal, and many other Federation leaders and rank-and-file members have begun planning their gifts.

The time has come for all Federation members and friends to learn more about our plans in order to determine what they can do to help. Perhaps you have friends or family members who would be interested in making a gift. Perhaps you have contacts that we should know about. I hope that each of you will plan to make a significant gift, and I know many of you will. What is significant? That depends on your personal resources and responsibilities. The Research and Training Institute will allow us to affect the lives of blind people in ways we have never before dared to attempt. A gift, no matter what its size, generous enough to cause strain on your personal budget will honor both Dr. Jernigan's memory and you.

I ask each of you to take some time to reflect on whom you know and what you might do to assist in this ambitious campaign. You can contact Vince Connelly, who is working on this project, if you have ideas or information. Call (410) 659-9314 and ask for Mr. Connelly. I hope you will use the pledge form printed at the end of the following article to make your personal gift and send it to NRTI Project, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.

So that you have a complete picture of opportunities, here is a brief description of gift possibilities:

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Contributors may choose to have their gifts recognized through dedication to one of the Institute's Initiatives or through naming opportunities associated with specific floors, wings, rooms, facilities, equipment, or furnishings of the National Research and Training Institute. Please contact the NFB Capital Campaign Office for more information on specific naming opportunities.

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The Wall of Honor:

A permanent wall display listing individual donors above the $5,000 level will further recognize contributors.

All contributors, including those below $5,000, will be listed in the appropriate gift level on the Campaign Honor Roll to be announced and published during the campaign victory celebrations.

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Gift Amount Title

$1,000,000+ Jernigan Circle, Master Builder

$ 500,000+ President's Circle, Program Builder

$ 250,000+ Director's Circle, Opportunity

Builder

$ 100,000+ Leader's Circle, Independence

Builder

$ 50,000+ Patrons

$ 25,000+ Partners

$ 10,000+ Benefactors

$ 5,000+ Fellows

$ 4,999- Friends

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What follows is the text of a document that briefly describes the initiatives and programs we expect to undertake as the result of this capital campaign. I hope that the plans will kindle your imagination and fuel your dreams. Join us in making the future our own.

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The Campaign to Change

What It Means to Be Blind

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Vision for the Future

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The spirit and passionate dedication of the over 50,000 members of the NFB are directed toward building a future for the blind in this country that includes opportunity for education, employment, and full participation in our society. Our message is one of hope and personal responsibility. We are determined to demonstrate that blind people can achieve and prosper if trained using a philosophy of blindness that emphasizes capacity and mutual support. We envision a new approach to helping blind people--an approach which transcends ancient images of darkness, ignorance, and isolation. We foresee a revolution in services for the blind which views blindness as a characteristic to be dealt with through the acquisition of pragmatic skills and self- acceptance. We are a people with abilities and dreams, a people of hope and tenacity, too long held down by our own and others' misconceptions and fears. We are working toward a time when all of us can achieve to our capacity and contribute fully to our society.

The next chapter of blind people's struggle for full integration into all aspects of our society will include the nation's first research and training institute inspired and operated by the organized blind. We have long known who we are; now it is time to demonstrate and implement model programs and services that will forever change what it means to be blind.

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The National Research and Training Institute for the Blind

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A new five-story, 170,000-square-foot building will be attached to the present national headquarters of the NFB, located in Baltimore, Maryland. The new facility will include a research library, technology training labs, classrooms, a distance learning center, an adaptive technology development center, and office and flexible meeting space. We have begun an eighteen-million-dollar capital campaign. Funds are being solicited from members and individual supporters of the NFB, corporations, foundations, and governmental sources. The goal is to raise the needed funds by summer 2001 and to complete the project in the summer of 2003.

At least 50 percent of this country's 1.1 million blind citizens will be directly affected by the programs, research, and technology developed during the first ten years of the Institute's operation:

*Through the use of newly developed distance learning technologies and training methods, we will work toward providing an opportunity for all of the 57,000 blind children in this country to learn Braille and other needed skills.

*The 788,000 blind seniors today, and the projected 1.6 million by 2015 and 2.4 million by 2030, will have access to improved services and resources stimulated by the senior initiatives of the Institute.

*Partnerships between private-sector employers and the NFB will result in lowering the 74 percent unemployment rate among working-age blind people in this country.

*Nonvisual speech and Braille technology will be developed, making it possible for the blind to access an ever-increasing number of services and resources delivered by computer technology.

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Major Initiatives

The following initiatives will provide the structure for the programs, projects, and services of the National Research and Training Institute for the Blind.

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Technology Access and Training Initiative

Technology is a critical element in both education and employment opportunities today and will be even more so in the future, for the blind just as for the general public. Advances in speech, Braille, and large-print access technology lead some to assume that the blind now have or soon will have access to nearly all of what technology has to offer.

Unfortunately, due to the widespread obsession with visual design in technology, the shortage of good technology training, the cost of equipment, and the rapid advancements of technology applications, blind people now face the dismaying prospect of being left out if nonvisual access is not continually updated and improved. This means that advances in software and hardware must include design that allows nonvisual access.

The Institute will be the center of technological advancement for the blind. Along with development and promotion of adaptive technology, training will be provided to ensure that the blind move smoothly with their sighted peers into the emerging technological age and do not become casualties of what Bill Gates has called the digital divide.

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Blind Children's Initiative

The 57,000 legally blind children in this country face unique educational and daily-living challenges. Today the majority of blind children have other disabilities, are educated in public schools rather than residential schools for the blind, and have other individualized needs.

Blind children are often discouraged from using alternative reading and travel methods because uninformed parents and teachers believe that as far as possible their children should avoid being labeled as blind. For too long these useful tools of independence have been associated with the negative stereotype of the hopeless, isolated blind. Unfortunately this has resulted in less than 10 percent of blind children being able to read Braille and many not being able to travel independently.

Because the NFB knows that alternative skills are basic to self-esteem among the blind and to successful employment (today 85 percent of blind people who use Braille are employed), we have already directed significant resources toward changing this alarming trend. By establishing a national Braille literacy campaign, promoting early mobility training for young blind children, and contributing to development of adaptive technology, the NFB has led the way in innovation and change. However, because many school districts are hiring only general special education teachers rather than specially trained teachers of the blind, families face a growing shortage of qualified educators and services for their blind children.

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Braille Literacy Initiative

In 1968 40 percent of blind children in this country read Braille, 45 percent read large print, and only 9 percent read neither. However, today less than 10 percent of legally blind children read Braille, and more than 40 percent read neither Braille nor large print. This problem reflects a dangerous trend: the functional illiteracy of tens of thousands of blind children.

In the 1970's blind children began to be mainstreamed into regular classrooms. Most school systems did not know how to teach children Braille, so they tried to teach the children using any method available. For blind children this meant listening and memorizing; they never learned to read and write. For those with some sight, it meant the use of magnifiers. Imagine trying to learn how to read when you can see only one letter at a time. The result has been predictable: many blind children have fallen behind in school and as adults are now significantly limited.

For too long Braille has been associated with total blindness and many of the misconceptions associated with this disability. Parents of blind children are easily convinced that, if their child has some residual vision (even if that vision is minimal, unstable, or likely to deteriorate), reading print will somehow mean their child is not really blind. It takes people who are positive about Braille and familiar with the real benefits of this alternative technique to convince reluctant parents. Also much work is necessary to upgrade the Braille skills of teachers of the blind and to improve Braille-production and Braille-teaching technology.

The National Research and Training Institute will be the center of a growing Braille Literacy Initiative that will ensure that the progress led by the NFB continues and that Braille is recognized to be a communications tool as essential to the blind as American Sign Language is to the deaf.

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Research Initiative

Despite the tremendous outlay of public and private funds throughout most of the decades of this century, the objective situation of the blind as a group remains intractably bleak: 74 percent unemployment, functional illiteracy for tens of thousands of blind children, and exclusion from the mainstream of society. These facts make it starkly clear that the techniques and systems used to serve the blind in the United States are in dire need of overhaul.

The unsolved problems demand innovative solutions. Effective training programs that will teach the professors who will teach the teachers and other professionals who will teach the blind must be developed so that the age-old cycle of dependency and despair can be broken. The Research Initiative of the National Research and Training Institute will focus on identifying and solving the root causes of these endemic problems.

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Blind Seniors Initiative

Less money is spent and fewer services are available to those over fifty-five losing vision than to younger blind people. Yet far more people lose vision after retirement age than before. New approaches must be developed and taught to state and local staff members in rehabilitation, older blind, and older Americans programs and in centers for independent living. The National Research and Training Institute will bring together knowledgeable professionals who will design materials and develop training programs to assist state and local agencies in helping blind and visually impaired seniors remain independent and continue to participate in the activities they hope for in their retirement years. Blindness can happen to anyone. Without training and opportunity it can be devastating. In short, seniors have huge needs. The Blind Seniors Initiative of the National Research and Training Institute will focus on finding ways to meet them.

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Employment Initiative

Work is one of the fundamental ways in which individuals express their talents, make a contribution, and take responsibility for themselves. For too long many blind people have been told by their families, teachers, and even rehabilitation counselors that the world of competitive employment is most likely out of reach for them.

Since its founding in 1940, the NFB has been committed to the principle that otherwise-able blind people should be expected to work and should be given every opportunity to achieve. This means that the blind must believe in themselves and employers must learn that qualified blind people make productive, loyal employees.

With an unemployment rate of 74 percent, many working-age blind people are not enjoying the challenges and responsibilities of competitive employment. Although hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in job preparation programs around the country, this staggering number has not changed in recent years. The employment initiative of the National Research and Training Institute will provide focus, resources, and direction for a comprehensive evaluation of contemporary methods for helping the blind. From such an evaluation will come the necessary knowledge to develop, demonstrate, and replicate innovative training programs to replace existing efforts which have failed to bring the blind into the workforce.

The new National Research and Training Institute will be the center of research, demonstrations, and job-development partnerships with private industry. These partnerships in combination with successful employment preparation programs will create national momentum toward the full employment of the blind.

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