The Braille Monitor                                                                                       February 2003

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All Feet on the Street:
NAC-Tracking in the 21st Century

by Carla McQuillan

Federationists protesting NAC marched on two picket lines outside the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Tampa.
Federationists protesting NAC marched on two picket lines outside the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Tampa.

From the Editor: Carla McQuillan is a member of the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind and president of the NFB of Oregon. She was also one of the organizers of the December 13 and 14 demonstration in opposition to the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired (NAC). Well over a decade has elapsed since the NFB's last picket outside a NAC meeting. Many Federationists, particularly those who have joined the organization during the intervening years, have expressed real regret at having missed participating in what came to be known as the highlight of the fall social season. For this reason, when word began spreading in November that once more, perhaps for the final time, the call was going out for Federationists to put a hold on their holiday preparations and head for Tampa, Florida, in the middle of December, an almost palpable shiver of anticipation rippled across the country. Reservations began pouring in until almost three hundred people had made arrangements to rally in Tampa to deliver the message to the blindness field that, important as quality, categorical services are, reviving NAC is not the way to ensure them. Here is Carla McQuillan's account of the events outside the NAC meeting room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel December 13 and 14:

I became a member of the Federation late in 1988, and, though I have heard many stories about and songs written for NAC-tracking, I never actually had the opportunity to attend any of the protests myself. That changed this past December in Tampa, Florida. Festivities began with a general strategy session Thursday evening led by Jim Gashel and Diane McGeorge. From the start spirits and energy were high. Members throughout the room could be heard calling out the letters that spelled their home states and generally displaying pride in the Federation. This fairly rowdy gang was quickly organized into three teams of protesters--each led by prominent members of the Federation. In the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, the teams were identified as red, green, and white. Marshals were assigned to organize the lines of marchers, direct traffic, and maintain order.

Jim announced that 8:30 to 10:30 Friday morning would be, in his words, "all feet on the street," meaning that all three teams would march together to welcome the summit participants and make sure they recognized that blind people do not approve of their attempt to revive NAC. From 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., teams would take turns in two‑hour shifts, culminating in the final all-feet-on-the-street effort in honor of NAC's cocktail hour and reception. After some discussion of plans and settling of details, the assembled crowd was serenaded by the NAC Choir, with its most recent hit, "Hark! The Last Few NACsters Sing," written by Peggy Elliott (sung to the tune of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing").

Hark! The last few NACsters sing,

Ease to agencies we bring.

All you have to do is pay

Enormous sums without delay.

We won't listen to your clients.

We'll just brand them as defiant.

Evidence of wrongs and crimes

We'll overlook for bucks and dimes.

Hark! The blind have this to say,

NAC, be gone as of today!

Following the strategy meeting, various task groups met to finish sign construction, make plastic ponchos against the forecast of rain, organize marchers, etc. The marshals were scheduled to meet at 8:15 a.m. Friday to study the streets around the hotel and plan specific marching routes. The light rain that had been falling Thursday evening became a storm during the night. The rain was falling hard and steadily when the marshals met Friday morning, causing Jim Gashel and Diane McGeorge to consider alternatives to marching on the sidewalk, in order to avoid exposure to the severe weather. We finally decided that the teams would gather at each of the three hotel entrances, which all had large overhangs.

Peggy Elliott and I were the leaders of what we dubbed the "Green Machine." We were assigned the main hotel entrance. After shuffling nearly eighty people into cramped quarters on either side of the entrance to avoid blocking the passage of other guests, we noticed that the wind and rain had eased up a bit. Not having heard whether the hotel would permit us to remain at the entrances (an idea that I was confident would not go over well with the hotel management), I decided to test the crowd's resolve. "How many of you would be interested in getting a little wet by marching out on the street as originally planned?" I asked. The cheers that greeted this suggestion from Green Machine members were deafening. My heart swelled with pride in our great Federation. These people had traveled from thirty-eight states across the country to make their protest heard, and no amount of water and wind was going to discourage them.

I rallied the team and set off ahead of them west across the hotel unloading zone towards the grassy knoll between the parking lot and the sidewalk that paralleled Westshore Drive in front of the hotel. As I crested the hill and began my descent toward our post, I suddenly became aware that the sidewalk had been covered by a three‑inch pool of water. A local resident later told me that Tampa rarely has rainstorms of this magnitude, and the city's storm-sewer system had been unable to rise to the challenge.

Picketers display their signs and serenade Tampa's morning rush-hour traffic.
Picketers display their signs and serenade Tampa's morning rush-hour traffic.

 I made a quick retreat, rejoined my team, and directed the troops south, across the hotel parking lot, toward Cypress, the street running perpendicular to Westshore Drive. As I approached the corner of Cypress and Westshore Drive, I noticed that the lake extended approximately twenty feet from the corner up Cypress, after which the sidewalk re‑emerged with only occasional puddles. This left a marching zone of approximately forty feet, bordered on the west by water and on the east by a hotel driveway.

We waded through a few inches of water toward higher ground. The Green Machine then began its elliptical march up and down Cypress, raising signs and chanting such slogans as "NAC, go back; your standards don't mean jack!" Just as we were getting into a fine protest mode, we were joined by members of the red and white teams, who had been directed to join us on the streets. Eighty people marching on a forty‑foot stretch of sidewalk must limit their strides. As more and more of our colleagues joined us, the marching necessarily slowed to a crawl.

For a time, caught between the lake and a driveway, we stopped our march and lined up members four and five deep from sidewalk to curb, facing Cypress, and singing "Hark! The Last Few NACsters Sing." It may not have been as interesting as blind people marching, but the media were about, and we thought it would be more dignified than stumbling over each other as we attempted to navigate our tiny island of dry land. Sometime around ten a.m., the water subsided, and we were able to march to the end of Cypress. We were also able to set up another line on Westshore Drive, making two complete ellipses of marching, sign-waving protesters.

 We had duplicated a number of copies of an informational flyer to hand out to the general public but quickly noticed that there was virtually no foot traffic in the area. Once the rain and wind had died down a bit, we sent Federationists out to all four corners of Cypress and Westshore Drive to hand flyers through the windows of cars stopped at traffic lights. Over the course of the day, our leafleters developed a technique that proved extremely effective. They would wait at the corner, and, when cars stopped at the traffic lights, they walked down the line of cars, facing the drivers and waving the flyers at the windows. The car windows would roll down, and flyers would be tossed in. In this way they worked their way up the street. The busy intersection allowed three to five minutes to work in each cycle of lights. In this way we were able to distribute about twenty-five hundred leaflets explaining our position and calling upon members of the community to help put a stop to NAC accreditation in Florida.

Santa and Mrs. Claus joined our protest against NAC.
Santa and Mrs. Claus joined our protest against NAC.

To top off the mood and the season, Kevan and Brigitte Worley came out in full Santa and Mrs. Claus garb with NAC signs and white cane in hand, waving and ho-ho-ho‑ing at the passersby. Every now and then a car or truck horn sounded as the vehicle drove past, and answering cheers welled up among the marchers. The recognition and support from observers definitely helped to revitalize the marchers and energize the chanting. Occasionally cars even honked in rhythm with our chants. This was particularly popular among the crowd. As the day wore on, the crowd became more creative with its chants and songs: "NAC, NAC, what a snack! Chew 'em up and spit 'em back!" and "I don't know, but I've been told, NAC is smellin' mighty old."

 At 10:30 a.m. the red team was scheduled to stay on the line, while white and green took a break. Many of our members, however, stayed at work and marched far beyond their required time. Around eleven a.m. Federation leaders got word that the NACsters intended to break for lunch a little early, since many of them had not been able to get breakfast that morning due to the number of Federationists occupying the restaurant. Not wanting these poor, isolated folks to eat alone, many of us gathered at the hotel restaurant between 11:00 and 11:30 a.m. to greet them as they came in for lunch. Of course it never occurred to us that this friendly gesture would slow down their service and prevent them from reconvening on time.

Every marcher wore a cheerful buttom saying "All I want for Christmas is no more NAC!"  Here two Federationists can be seen wearing their buttons.
Every marcher wore a cheerful button saying, "All I want for Christmas is no more NAC!" Here two Federationists  can be seen wearing their buttons.

At 12:30 p.m. the Green Machine came on duty, followed at 2:30 p.m. by the white team. Then at 4:30 p.m. it was all feet on the street again. A committee was established to collect signs from one team and hand them out to the next. Aside from several of the signs meeting an untimely death due to saturation and other abuse from the gusty weather, these transitions occurred with amazing efficiency. Throughout the day I ran back and forth, checking with the marshals positioned at the end and center of each ellipse, trying to give breaks to those who needed them and maintaining the integrity of the lines. As was the case with our protest in Portland in October, I was impressed with the stamina, dedication, and lung capacity of our members. Those who attended should be proud, and those who didn't should plan to participate in any such events occurring in the future.

NAC-tracking is exhausting work that demands constant attention to what you are doing, creativity and timing to switch chants at the right moment, and unflagging determination. Many on the lines had made real sacrifices to be there because we had never been a part of such NAC-tracking demonstrations in the seventies and eighties. I must say, however, that the old hands definitely demonstrated the value of experience and the determination that has fueled our resistance to all that NAC stands for in the way of condescension toward real blind consumers and the arrogance of a system that gives lip service to high standards but is never serious about enforcing them.

After snarling traffic for a while, the Tampa police prepare to leave the marchers in peace.
After snarling traffic for a while, the Tampa police prepare to leave the marchers in peace.

Shortly after 4:30 p.m. we counted approximately 250 NFB members marching up Westshore Drive, around the corner to Cypress, and back again. It was then that we received a visit from Tampa's finest. In fact not one, two, three, or even four police cars came by‑‑there were five law enforcement vehicles and several other officers who ostensibly came to ensure that we did not disrupt traffic during rush hour on Friday evening. They attempted to achieve this goal by randomly parking their cars in the middle of the street. Two cars parked in the middle of the left turn lane on Cypress, with doors left open and officers milling about in a rather leisurely way.

If I were suspicious by nature, I might have suspected that someone attending the NAC meeting had notified the local authorities and suggested that we were causing trouble‑‑but I'm not suspicious. The officers remained in the vicinity for about a half hour, monitoring our activities and telling our leafleters to stay out of the streets. After some time had passed with no significant disturbance, the officers reentered their vehicles and drove into the sunset one by one. We were left to continue our protest unfettered. The loudest cheer of the day went to a black and white that drove by that evening, blaring its horn in support of our cause.

Friday evening we met to discuss the day's events and look at the schedule for Saturday. Dr. Harold Snider and Dick Davis, who observed the NAC meeting, gave a report of the events. (For details, see the article by Peggy Elliott elsewhere in this issue.) Harold has recorded the NAC meetings graced by our picketers for many years. Dick Davis, as a sighted member, was assigned to assist him by identifying meeting participants when necessary, making visual observations, and taking written notes while Harold monitored the equipment.

While giving their report of the summit, they brought the house down with one statement and confirmed our conviction that NAC members are still mired in the old medical model of blind people as patients who require care and protection by the trained professionals. Harold and Dick told us that during the introductions Dick had been identified as "Dr. Snider's attendant." The Tampa paper published a story Saturday morning quoting NAC president Steve Obremski to the effect that allowing blind people to take a significant part in the standard-setting process would be like inviting hospital patients to set the rules for hospital care. Setting aside the fact that contemporary hospital management makes a point of seeking out patient and family participation in developing hospital practice, Obremski's quote and Dick Davis's identification as an attendant spoke more compellingly about NAC attitudes than any amount of protestation about NAC's wanting a consumer representative from the NFB at the table for their discussions.

Jim Gashel addresses the Friday evening meeting.  In front of him is the NAC headstone propped in front of the podium, and the NAC casket leaning against the table.
Jim Gashel addresses the Friday evening meeting. In front of him is the NAC headstone propped in front of the podium, and the NAC casket leaning against the table.

The highlight of our evening session was a rehearsal funeral for NAC. Pallbearers carried in a cardboard casket for NAC. Brother Ray McGeorge read the inscription on the cardboard headstone, Brother Kevan Worley conducted and narrated the event, and Sister Peggy Elliott delivered a brief but memorable eulogy for NAC. The NAC Memorial Choir offered a stirring rendition of the funeral dirge sung with the following words repeated mournfully: "NAC be gone; you have hurt the blind too long!" The members assembled joined in solemn reflection and harmony. A rehearsal of the NAC Memorial Choir and an evening of celebration and fellowship followed the meeting.

 The next morning NAC met to conduct its annual meeting. "All feet on the street" was the order of the day from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. This time the chants were interspersed with the NAC funeral dirge. The chants were even more creative: "From their head down to their toes, NAC's begun to decompose." We also had the opportunity to hear reports of the articles that appeared in several local papers. The Green Machine was scheduled to march until 12:30 p.m., at which time the other two teams came back for a grand finale. At one p.m. we packed up our signs and our bags and headed home.

 So, after years of hearing anecdotes and stories from NAC-trackers, I can finally count myself among those who have fought the tyranny of a system that has worked to preserve the status quo and has looked the other way when agencies destroyed the lives of the blind people they were charged with helping. In future years I will be among the old-timers who regale the youngsters with my own tales of the NAC wars, for it is possible that we heard the death rattle of NAC in December of 2002. I pray we do not see its like again.

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