Braille Monitor                                                                                 March 2006


The 2006 Washington Seminar

by Barbara Pierce

Each winter, when the national convention seems very far away, comes the Washington Seminar. Though it is shorter than a convention and fewer people attend, these several days in our nation’s capital are every bit as busy as a convention. This year we were still trying to adjust to the new schedule, which certainly results in more meetings with actual members of Congress.

A few Federationists arrived on Friday, January 27. These included Diane McGeorge, who for twenty-three years now has had primary responsibility for dealing with the hotel and scheduling NFB activities during the seminar. This year her chief battle was with the telephone company. Though promising every day to have the phones functional “by the end of the day,” they were not in fact operable until Wednesday. Since we didn’t actually need them until Tuesday, Diane did not tear out more than half her hair in the process of resolving the problem.

Students began arriving Saturday for the daylong midwinter conference of the National Association of Blind Students Sunday.

Meanwhile, the midwinter O and M/rehabilitation conference Sunday afternoon gave those working in the field or interested in doing so a chance to discuss important issues. As always the students were energetic and spent the day honing their skills and networking.
Monday could hardly have been more filled with activities. About seventy-five people boarded buses early in the morning for tours of the National Center and the Jernigan Institute. They returned in plenty of time for the great gathering-in meeting at five.

The National Organization of the Senior Blind sponsored a morning workshop on Medicare Part D coverage. Attendees learned a good deal and took home lots of information on cassette and in Braille.

The National Association of Blind Lawyers conducted a luncheon meeting for which attorneys could receive continuing legal education credits. The speaker was Cari Dominguez, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who spoke about blindness issues and EEOC cases of interest to the blind.

The National Association of Blind Merchants also conducted a workshop on Monday afternoon, and those attending their first Washington Seminar were encouraged to spend the afternoon learning about the issues for this year and polishing their presentation techniques in a special seminar. But all meetings drew to a close in plenty of time for everyone to get to the Columbia Room for the five o’clock briefing.

President Maurer announced that thirty-five state presidents were present, as were representatives from forty-seven affiliates. More than five hundred people crowded into the Columbia Room for the meeting. He made several announcements, including issuing an invitation for people to try out a mobility device built into the handle of the long cane and warns of overhanging obstacles. It can also be used to indicate when to move forward in a line.

Betsy Zaborowski spoke briefly about new programs at the NFB Jernigan Institute. She announced that everyone is invited to the April 7 celebration at the National Center. Joanne Wilson talked about plans and programming in her area of responsibility, affiliate action. Kevan Worley briefly discussed the Imagination Fund and urged everyone to become an Imaginator.

(left to right) Jesse Hartle, James Gashel, Marc Maurer, James McCarthy, and Diane McGeorge stand behind the head table.
(left to right) Jesse Hartle, James Gashel, Marc Maurer, James McCarthy, and Diane McGeorge stand behind the head table.

Jim Gashel, Jim McCarthy, and Jesse Hartle divided the job of presenting the three issues that members would be talking about on the Hill for the next three days. The full texts of the legislative memorandum and the three fact sheets follow this article. Briefly the topics were legislation to enable postsecondary students to receive useable electronic copies of textbooks on time, expansion of business opportunities for blind entrepreneurs, and creation of a commemorative coin in 2009 to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille.

Just as 7:00 was approaching, President Maurer announced that like leaders of Congress when a deadline is looming, he was going to stop the clock for a very special agenda item. Jim Gashel then introduced Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut. He has been a very good friend to blind people. He explained that he cares about the work of the National Federation of the Blind because of his sister Caroline, who is president of the Hartford Chapter of the NFB of Connecticut. We had already been told that Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was prepared to introduce our Braille coin bill in the Senate. Now Chris Dodd told the crowd that he was happy to be the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill.

Senator Dodd addresses Federationists.
Senator Dodd addresses Federationists.

When the clock started again just before the seven p.m. adjournment, the crowd dispersed in high good humor and with great enthusiasm for the coming work. By the time we left Washington three days later, 283 members of the House of Representatives were cosponsors of H.R. 2872, the Braille coin bill. We had discussed the other two issues in virtually every office in Congress, and our ideas and concerns were positively received. Before this issue went to press, 303 House members, more than the necessary 290, had agreed to cosponsor our bill, and S. 2321 had been introduced in the Senate with 22 original cosponsors.

For more than thirty years Federationists have been traveling to Capitol Hill to talk about both the abilities and problems of blind people. We have gradually refined our methods and our presentation. We now provide the Senate and House offices with impressive folders of material, often personalized with additional affiliate information. This year we wore large buttons with Whozit conspicuously in the center. This made us all readily identifiable as members of the same organization. Even the Capitol Police remember us now from previous years. When we step into a building, someone calmly says to us, “The belt is over here.” We pass through the security point and go about our business. On the Hill we are just another example of democracy at work. We are welcomed in the offices and listened to with respect. Demonstrating this point is the fact that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois sent Federationist Brian Johnson tickets to the State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening. In short, we are recognized and respected in the halls of Congress.

By now we have long since made our meeting reports, and they have been duly entered in the computer. The long, painstaking job of follow-up has begun. Jim McCarthy and his staff do the work of cultivating supporters day in and day out, and they will keep us informed as matters unfold. When they do so we must be conscientious about notifying our contacts in the various offices. The legislative work of 2006 is well begun, but it has just begun. Here are the legislative memorandum and fact sheets laying out this year’s issues.