The Braille Monitor                                                                                       May 2003

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What Happened in Tampa? Observations on Informational Picketing
by C. Edwin Vaughan, Ph.D.

Ed Vaughan
Ed Vaughan

From the Editor: Ed Vaughan is Professor Emeritus of the University of Missouri, and Dean of the Russel Center for International Management and Professor of Sociology at Menlo College in Atherton, California. He attended the informational picket outside the meeting of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired in December of 2002. A large part of the February 2003 issue of the Braille Monitor was devoted to reports of both the meeting and the informational picket. Dr. Vaughan brings a sociologist's perspective to what took place. This is what he says:

For the past thirty-five years I have worked as a sociologist--two years at the University of Minnesota, thirty-one years at the University of Missouri, and most recently two years at Menlo College in Atherton, California. About twenty years ago I became interested in the National Federation of the Blind as a social movement. After attending an annual convention, I became a member and have been as active as my time has permitted.

As a sociologist I have been interested in the social and cultural arrangements created for blind people in the United States and several other countries (see Social and Cultural Perspectives on Blindness, Charles C. Thomas, 1998). Several of my research projects and the resulting publications have focused on the organizational sources of the social conflict which has developed between the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and some agencies and special organizations which have provided educational and rehabilitation services to blind people.

I attended the informational picketing sponsored by the NFB at the December 13 and 14, 2002, summit meeting sponsored by the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired (NAC) at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Tampa, Florida. About thirty-five people actually attended this nationwide meeting.

It was not the first time I had participated in such a gathering. In the 1980's and '90's I was present as a participant-observer on three occasions when the NFB arranged informational picketing to correspond with NAC board meetings. I do not claim to be objective. I do not think anyone is in matters involving intense differences over values and social arrangements affecting the lives of individuals. However, I can assert that I bring a consistent sociological perspective to the issues I have observed. I have also observed other kinds of picketing, including picketing for human rights issues, civil rights legislation, and antiwar demonstrations.

I have no basis upon which to comment on Mr. Steven Obremski's personal experiences or psychological condition when he traveled in the elevators of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. He describes his frightening experience in his letter to Marc Maurer, published in the February 2003 edition of the Braille Monitor. I would like to address and comment with considerable conviction on the profound differences between my observations and his characterization of some aspects of the informational picketing.

In his letter Mr. Obremski, past president of NAC, refers to the "criminal behavior" which he observed in Tampa on the part of NFB members. He wrote, "This behavior is criminal in nature and has no place in the interactions between NAC and NFB. I cannot help but hold you responsible for this because you have created an atmosphere of mindless hatred that encourages people to act in an antisocial way" (Braille Monitor, February, 2003, p.94).

I have never observed "mindless" or "antisocial" behavior at any of the organizational pickets I have attended, including the recent one in Tampa. In fact, my observations are just the opposite. These NFB pickets have been very well organized by leaders who possess both exceptional ability and impeccable integrity. These leaders include James Gashel, Peggy Elliott, Diane McGeorge, Carla McQuillan, and others. These leaders have studied NAC throughout its organizational history and probably know much more about NAC than does Mr. Obremski or the new officers or board members. Over the course of the past twenty-five years or so NFB leaders have updated developments concerning NAC with more than thirty articles published in the Braille Monitor. My own most comprehensive article about the history of NAC is "Why Accreditation Failed Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Impaired," published in the January/March 1997 issue of the Journal of Rehabilitation.

Members of the blindness community in general, professionals in the field, and the volunteer informational picketers have been continually updated about the unfolding history of NAC through publications and public presentations. New Federation members are educated about the importance of the issues involved in the Federation's opposition to NAC. My personal observations have led me to conclude that the informational picketing reflects a consistent, well-articulated critique of NAC. Based on my own experience, clarity of purpose has always been present in the informational picketing.

Good humor and conviviality, not hatred or antisocial behavior, are what I have observed. Evidence of the good humor was reflected in the comments of the Santa Claus who appeared in the midst of the first informational briefing held in Tampa on the evening of December 13. The songs and characterizations of NAC were quite funny--at least to Federationists who know a great deal about NAC. I certainly acknowledge that some NAC leaders feel threatened by the humor and solidarity of the NFB participants, particularly when they expressed the level of anxiety demonstrated by Mr. Obremski in his own description of his elevator incident in the Crowne Plaza.

Mr. Obremski also observed that he learned from others attending the so-called summit that some NFB members said they attended only because they had been "told to" or because the NFB had paid their expenses. First, I would like to address the allegation that NFB members had their expenses paid by the NFB. As my bank statements and credit cards attest, I paid my own way from California to Tampa. None of my expenses--hotels, food, taxis, airfare, etc.--were picked up by my employer or the NFB. It was money out of my own pocket. Gary Wunder, president of the NFB of Missouri, told me that the Missouri affiliate contributed $400 to each of four volunteers who attended the Tampa informational picket. Such funds were raised through the many projects of the local chapters of state affiliates. As for the attendees, they were selected from a larger pool of applicants who would have liked to participate. I can also assure Mr. Obremski that the $400 covered only a portion of the actual expenses of these relatively young NFB members, none of whom is earning comfortable salaries (such as those paid to NAC or other agencies at the so-called summit). I wonder if Mr. Obremski would care to tell Monitor readers how many of the agency personnel and other professionals who attended the summit paid their own expenses? I would wager that all of them, despite their relatively comfortable salaries, had their complete expenses paid by their agencies or by NAC.

Now let's look at another of Mr. Obremski's mischaracterizations: that Federationists attended the meetings because they were "told to do so." In all of my years associated with the NFB, I have never encountered mindless people who, like sheep, do simply as they are told. I have encountered a great many concerned people who share a common purpose--enthusiastic support for the social movement of which they are a part. To characterize them as did Mr. Obremski--himself reflecting mindless hatred and mindless obedience--is uninformed and ludicrous.

Many sociologists have observed that social movements always have a well-defined enemy. The regressive tendencies and regressive agencies in the field of blindness, which are frequently accredited by NAC, could not have provided the NFB with a more attractive enemy over the past thirty years. It is a measure of the organizational strength of the NFB that it has the ability consistently to organize these informational pickets. NAC is not the only organization that has been exposed to NFB picketing. Individual sheltered workshops and even some state-funded agencies have been picketed over a variety of specific issues. I also know from conversations with Mr. James Gashel and others that the NFB very much regretted the expense, time, and effort required to conduct this latest informational picket. The leadership had hoped that NAC would continue to be dormant and then expire.

I must also comment on the December 16 letter of Mr. Don Wells to Marc Maurer, published in the February 2003 Braille Monitor. He referred to the picketers as "inane" and characterized the event as a "circus" (Braille Monitor, February 2003, p.97). Mr. Wells is the consultant who was employed by NAC to facilitate its summit meeting in Tampa. Based on the comments in his letter and the taped transcripts, I can only describe Mr. Wells as a very small act in a backwoods carnival. Mr. Wells said that he read some of the history of NAC before he came to the summit yet called himself an outsider. He based his comments about the NFB on observing the picketers and talking to a few Federationists. If I were to characterize Mr. Wells in the way he did Federationists, I would have to say that he appears to be an archetypal hired hand--a person who uses his position or credentials to obtain extra money. Such hired hands say and do what their employers expect. If the word "inane" means empty, void, and silly, perhaps we should apply it to him.

Finally, concerning the question of who knows what about NAC, based on the transcript of the summit meeting, many NAC supporters know little about its history. In 1984 NAC reached its high point in the number of agencies accredited--106. Since then this number has steadily declined. On February 21, 1991, National Industries for the Blind officially announced that its funding of NAC would cease in June of 1991, and the American Foundation for the Blind made the same decision shortly thereafter. On April 7, 1991, the NAC board met to consider its financial crisis. The board then voted, twelve to one, to disband NAC. The board then realized that a vote of the entire NAC membership was required before the organization could be dissolved. Subsequently, on May 5, 1991, with ten members present and ninety-one proxy votes, NAC voted, fifty-three to forty-eight, to continue its accreditation efforts. These events are described in Kathleen Megivern's 1991 report to the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation for the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). In 1991 she was the executive director of AER.

Following these events, the president and vice president of NAC resigned, and NAC has continued to decline steadily ever since. It currently accredits forty-five agencies (Peggy Elliott, "NAC in Isolation," Braille Monitor, February 2003, p.65). [In fact, during the membership meeting on December 14, this number was revised downward to forty-two.] NAC has only two staff members.

If the development of a broadly supported and effective accreditation program for agencies serving the blind depends on NAC, the prospects appear bleak. Why do a small, beleaguered group of agency professionals continue to struggle to support this organization when it is clearly not providing leadership? In his 1994 Annual Report to NAC, then president Richard Welsh mentioned that "there is less blood flowing through the arteries and veins" of NAC (The Standard Bearer," No. 56, 1994). He then observed that NAC belongs to its "volunteers." He wrote: "As long as enough volunteers and agencies see a value in the process, it will continue to exist and to be of service to schools, agencies, and programs that serve the people with visual impairments." By every measurable standard--budget, number of employees, and number of accredited agencies--NAC has continued to decline. Why does it not step aside and permit an accrediting process to emerge that might be of use to all concerned? Why does it persist?

Some few beleaguered administrators and professionals involved with NAC apparently continue to believe that its particular name and organization are indispensable. In addition, two individuals receive fairly good salaries. Accrediting teams get to visit other places and to list these visits as professional contributions. Board members get to make occasional trips to warm places such as Tampa. They can trumpet their exalted positions to their relatively uninformed boards of directors or supervisors.

We can hope that leaders like Carl Augusto will continue to speak out about the appropriate place of NAC in the blindness field. Many people will applaud the leadership when it finally disbands and permits its remaining resources to be used as seed money for a fresh new approach to providing legitimacy to agencies and schools serving blind people.

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