Braille Monitor                                                                                 April 2006

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The Local, State, and National Organization: Three Parts of a Whole

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Fred Schroeder addresses affiliate presidents.
Fred Schroeder addresses affiliate presidents in the large conference room at the National Center for the Blind.

From the Editor: Fred Schroeder's credentials for addressing the subject of the underlying unity of the elements of the National Federation of the Blind are recognized by all who know him. He has been a member and leader of the Federation since he was a college student. He has been president of two state affiliates: New Mexico and Virginia. He presided over the transformation of a state rehabilitation program from an undistinguished bureaucracy condemning blind citizens to inactivity and despair to a force for effective rehabilitation and hope. He also served for seven years as commissioner of the United States Rehabilitation Services Administration, implementing important reforms to the entire rehabilitation system. In July of 2005 he returned to the board of the National Federation of the Blind. Fred delivered the following stirring remarks at the seminar for state presidents on February 18, 2006. This is what he said:

I have been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for many years. I am not quite sure when I moved from being a new member to being one of the old-timers. I have always felt that I was one of the young people in the Federation, still with much to learn. Given that I joined in 1974 and since it's now 2006, I suppose I no longer have a claim to being one of the new people in the organization. Yet it is gratifying to look around this room and see how many new and dynamic leaders we have in our organization. It gives me great encouragement and hope for the future.
As many of you know, I grew up in New Mexico. I lived for several years in California and later Nebraska, but in 1980 I moved back to New Mexico and began getting active in our state affiliate. At that time blind people in the state had very limited opportunities to obtain the training and encouragement they needed to live active, productive lives, yet we were Federationists and knew that things could be better. In 1986, after years of effort, we were successful in creating a separate agency for the blind, the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, and I was hired as its first director.

One day in the late 1980’s I was sitting at my desk, and I received a telephone call from a young blind woman living in Tucumcari, a woman I did not know. She used a guide dog, and she called to say that she had gone to a local restaurant which refused to admit her with her dog. She insisted on calling the police, and when the police came, she told them about the White Cane Law that guaranteed her right to take her dog into a restaurant. Unfortunately the local police were not aware of the White Cane Law either and refused to require the restaurant owner to admit her, so she was turned away. She called the Commission for the Blind asking for help, and of course we did help. We contacted the restaurant and the Tucumcari police, and we were able to resolve the issue. But I remember thinking to myself, "Here it is, the late 1980's, and a young woman in Tucumcari, New Mexico, has the legal right to take a guide dog into a restaurant. But why does she have that legal right? Whether she knew about the National Federation of the Blind or not, her right to take her guide dog into a local restaurant was a result of the efforts of the Federation, and even the intervention of the state agency, the Commission for the Blind, was also directly linked to the work of the Federation.

In 1967 New Mexico was the first state in the nation to pass the Model White Cane Law in its entirety. Because Pauline Gomez and other Federationists in New Mexico had worked with the legislature twenty years earlier, this young blind woman in Tucumcari, New Mexico, had the right to go into a restaurant and take her dog.

But where did the Model White Cane Law come from? The idea did not originate with blind people in New Mexico; it had been conceived a year earlier. It started as an article that our president, Dr. tenBroek, wrote and published in the California Law Review in April 1966. The title of the article was "The Right to Live in the World: The Disabled in the Law of Torts." In that article he talked about fundamental principles of civil rights for blind people, a concept that was not generally established in law at that time. In Dr. tenBroek’s words, " Nothing could be more essential to personality, social existence, economic opportunity—in short, to individual well-being and integration into the life of the community—than...public approval, and the legal right to be abroad in the land."

At that time a smattering of state laws provided some level of legal protection for blind people around the country, but no systematic guarantee of rights existed for blind people generally. Dr. tenBroek’s article included the draft of a model White Cane Law that would grant to blind people many of the protections we take for granted today. At our 1966 national convention we voted to seek the adoption of the Model White Cane Law in all of the fifty states. As a result leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico went home and worked to have the Model White Cane Law passed by the state legislature so that twenty years later a young blind woman in Tucumcari who knew nothing about the National Federation of the Blind would have the right to go into a restaurant of her choosing and to take her guide dog in with her.

But the Model White Cane Law did much more than guarantee blind people access to restaurants with their guide dogs. At that time—some of you are too young to know this—it was not uncommon for blind people traveling alone to be told by a bus company or an airline that they wouldn't be allowed to travel unless they were accompanied by a sighted person—and it was perfectly legal for the bus company or airline to do so. It was also not uncommon for blind people to be turned away from a hotel on the basis that they might unknowingly start a fire or have some other kind of accident that would endanger themselves or others, and the hotel had a legal right to do so. Recognizing that blind people needed the guarantee of basic civil rights, Dr. tenBroek drafted the Model White Cane Law, and brought it to the national convention. As a national movement we made its adoption in the states a priority, a unified effort of our Federation.

The Model White Cane Law demonstrates how the national, state, and local bodies of our organization work together, each with its role, each with its job to do—separate and yet parts of a cohesive whole. It demonstrates our unity, and it shows something else. It shows how our philosophy binds us together. What gives us direction, what makes us strong and unified, is our shared belief in our fundamental normalcy; and, as Mrs. Jernigan pointed out to us, the truth of our equality has evolved past belief, past hope, into knowledge. We know that as blind people we can in fact live normal, productive lives and that blindness is nothing more than one of our many characteristics; it is not the overarching, all-defining characteristic of who we are. The truth of our normalcy, our equality, is the foundation of what we believe and drives our actions; it organizes us and gives us unity and focus.

There is a concept in open systems theory called "negative entropy," entropy being defined in the physical sciences as the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity. When applied to social systems, entropy is defined as the inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society. In plain language entropy means death or dying. That said, what then is negative entropy? By definition it means that, in order to survive, an open system must arrest entropy—a universal law of nature—by incorporating acquisitions equal to or greater than its exports. That is, negative entropy means to be alive, but, more than alive, it means to grow or expand or develop. So in open systems theory why use the term negative entropy? Why not simply say expanding, growing, or developing? Why be so convoluted? Why not talk about death as contrasted with growth rather than entropy with negative entropy? The reason is that, according to open systems theory, social organizations drift toward death. If not resisted, if not actively combated, systems lose vitality and die. Applying this concept to our movement, if we are not expanding, if we are not growing, if we are not continuously taking on new challenges, then we will inevitably drift toward death. It is not enough to continue doing what we have done in the past. We must constantly challenge ourselves and push forward, staving off entropy through the process of negative entropy. Our success can be seen through our history, in the lives and examples of many of our members.

We have a legacy of pioneers in our movement, and their spirit guides our efforts today and lays the course for the future. In February 2006, a man in Santa Fe, New Mexico, named Albert Gonzales died. He was ninety-three years old. In the 1940's in New Mexico, Albert was the first blind person to earn an undergraduate degree from New Mexico State University. He went on to be the first blind person to graduate from the Georgetown University School of Law. He returned to New Mexico and became the first blind person to be elected judge in the state and the first blind person to serve in the New Mexico legislature. He was a very successful man who practiced law for sixty years, although he slowed down a little as he reached his nineties. Albert Gonzalez was a pioneer, yet today the National Federation of the Blind has an entire division of practicing lawyers.

At about the same time as Albert Gonzales began practicing law, a woman in New Mexico named Pauline Gomez became the first blind person in the state to graduate from the University of New Mexico. Pauline wanted to be a teacher, but in the 1940's, if a blind person wanted to teach, it was presumed that he or she could teach only other blind people. Employment was limited to educating children at the residential school for the blind or training blind adults through the state rehabilitation agency. But Pauline did not want to teach at the school for the blind at the other end of the state and away from family and friends. With the help of her family, she opened a private kindergarten, Los Niños, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I do not know if it was the first private school owned and operated by a blind person in the nation, but if not, it certainly was one of the very first. Pauline ran her school for many, many years and was a true pioneer. Yet today, through the work of the National Federation of the Blind, we have an entire division devoted to blind teachers.
What do the experiences of Albert Gonzales and Pauline Gomez teach us as affiliate presidents? How can we learn from their lives, and what do we do from here? Of course there is no one answer. We must start with our fundamental beliefs, beliefs that have now matured into knowledge, and apply them to the present situation facing blind people in our individual states. In other words we must determine what needs to be done, and then we must find a way to make change, to make a difference.

Some of us have the good fortune to live in states that have had strong, active affiliates for many years. That means we have an established infrastructure, making it easier to share the work, mentor new members, and train up and coming leaders. In other states our affiliates have been smaller, more isolated, and less active. Still we must begin at the beginning, start where we are and move forward from there. Many years ago, when I moved back to New Mexico, I attended a local chapter meeting in Albuquerque. That was in September of 1980. At the meeting people were invited to sign up for handicapped day at the state fair. It was the practice to recognize special groups with free admission on a designated day. On handicapped day blind people and others with disabilities could enter the fair without paying (along with their attendants) and would receive a free cheeseburger, Coke, and french fries from the Hardees hamburger restaurant for lunch. Our chapter meeting was spent signing people up for handicapped day at the fair.

I was discouraged. In that room only one blind person was employed. Many of the people in the room were in their forties or fifties, had gone to the school for the blind, yet had never worked in their adult lives. That was the condition for blind people in 1980 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. What was the need? Where and how were we to begin? Of course we had a pressing need to change the rehabilitation system, to help blind people obtain the training necessary to find work and become self-supporting; but the immediate need, the more urgent and important need, was to instill hope—the belief that we could work, could participate, could live normal, active lives.

Making such changes is not automatic and not easy. When I became blind, I believed I was destined to be helpless, dependent, and isolated. I think that is a common assumption among people as they lose sight. Most of us did not have blind role models to encourage us while growing up, the role models we find in the National Federation of the Blind. When I was a teenager losing sight and my mother and others tried to encourage me by telling me of blind people who were doing miraculous things, I was not encouraged; I was angry.

I was angry because their dramatic achievements were so at odds with my own experience of blindness. I did not feel remarkable and knew I could never do remarkable things. I concluded that the stories of extraordinary blind people must be lies: they must simply be untrue, or, if the reports were true, it must be that they had had a lot of help behind the scenes. If the stories were lies, I could not understand why anyone would want to give false hope to others—I was not encouraged—and if they were true, that meant that I must be even more inferior than I already believed because I knew in my heart that I could never be remarkable or achieve exceptional things. To be average was beyond my ability, and to be remarkable was absolutely beyond wishing, beyond yearning, beyond hope.
In 1980 what we had in our affiliate were ordinary blind people who had grown up believing that they could not participate, that they could not earn a living, and that they could not be in charge of their own lives. To begin turning this around, we had to start learning what we could do through collective action. We decided that we needed a blind person on the board of regents of the school for the blind. The school was NAC (National Accreditation Council for the Blind)-accredited and unresponsive to our views. They fought our efforts to have a blind person appointed and were successful. The school had a lot of contacts, a lot of credibility, and a lot of political support.

We failed in our efforts to get a blind person appointed, but we did not give up. We next went to the legislature asking for a bill to be introduced that would require the board of regents to include a blind person. We learned much along the way; we found that you can get just about any bill you want introduced—any bill. If you go to a local legislator and say, "You know, I think Groundhog Day is very important and is really overlooked and underappreciated," the legislator will most likely thump you on the back and say, "I share your concern, and, by golly, I will be glad to put in a bill for you making this state give Groundhog Day the respect it deserves." As I say, it is easy to get a bill introduced.

It does not mean that you can get any bill you want passed. That is a very different matter. We found a bill sponsor, and sure enough she put in a bill calling for a blind person to serve on the board of regents. She introduced our bill, but she neglected to tell us when the first hearing was scheduled. With no one there to speak for the bill and school officials quietly working behind the scenes to have it killed, the bill was tabled. Tabling a bill is a common way of killing a bill without killing it. Generally someone asks a question or offers some other reason why the committee cannot act on the bill at that time, so it is tabled for later action, but it never gets scheduled. In fact it never sees the light of day and dies.

We lost, but we did not lose all. We scared the school for the blind; we showed them we had energy and commitment, even if we lacked sophistication. They got busy and found a blind person who would be in their camp—not rock the boat, not push for meaningful change—and they got the governor to appoint him to the board. Then they could say to the legislature that there was no reason to amend state law because they already had a blind person on the board of regents. So we lost. We failed in our attempt to change the governance of the school. We should have been depressed, sad, demoralized; but of course we were not. We felt the injustice of what had happened, and it made us more resolved.

We lost in our attempt to change state law, but the experience helped to show us that blind people could take charge of our own lives, that we had power and could make a difference. Is having a blind person appointed to the board of regents of your state’s school for the blind the most pressing need in your state? I have no way to know. I do not even know if it was the most pressing need in New Mexico at that time, but it was a need that was in front of us, and it energized us and gave us focus.

We battled with the school for years, trying to get the board to drop the school’s NAC accreditation, and by so doing we strengthened the affiliate. Blind people began seeing that there was a reason for being part of the organization beyond social activities, beyond signing up for a handicapped-day activity. Yet of course we never demeaned handicapped day at the fair or the people who enjoyed it and looked forward to it. We never put it down or suggested that people who liked going were in any way deficient. We never said that it was something that hurt blind people—our public image and our self-image. Yet, as our members became more active—growing in self-respect—signing up people for handicapped day at the fair went by the way, replaced by other issues, other priorities.

In 1994 I moved from New Mexico to northern Virginia. As I prepared to move, I thought back to my first chapter meeting fourteen years earlier. Perhaps fifteen people were in attendance that day, and only one had a job. At my last chapter meeting in 1994 about seventy people were present, and everyone in the room was either working or in college—everyone! These were the same blind people who had been living in the state in 1980, people who had never worked, never believed they could work, never been encouraged to work; yet they were now working because of the National Federation of the Blind. Of course to go to college, to go to work, takes resources. We had to make changes in the rehabilitation agency system, creating a separate commission for the blind. But beyond the structure, what we really did was take our philosophy, our belief in the ability of blind people, and combined it with the resources of a state agency.

The commission for the blind provided training. It gave people the chance to learn how to travel with a white cane, to learn to read and write Braille, and to master needed technology. The commission sent people to college and helped them find jobs, but at its core the commission integrated what we believed about the abilities of blind people into its services. This is good rehabilitation; it works and the blind of the state are its beneficiaries. We believed in people. We shared the National Federation of the Blind with everyone we could find, and the commission for the blind was our ally, encouraging people and promoting high expectations, and it is still happening today.
It is happening in New Mexico, and it is happening in Iowa. It is no surprise that today the New Mexico Commission for the Blind and the Iowa Department for the Blind battle back and forth each year to see which agency will have the highest wages for its clients at closure. It is no coincidence that New Mexico (which by the way has the highest wages in the nation this year) and Iowa consistently rank at the top in real earnings for the people they serve. And that is not just when comparing them to other agencies serving the blind; that is compared to all rehabilitation agencies across the nation. Why do New Mexico and Iowa always rank at the top? Is it because New Mexico and Iowa are wealthy states with superior job opportunities? This year New Mexico is the only state in the country that places clients in jobs paying more than the state average. This is from a state that, when I was there, ranked forty-third in the nation in per capita income.

So why does the New Mexico Commission for the Blind do so well? Because of the National Federation of the Blind and integrating our philosophy into its programs. Most states are afraid to join with us openly, fearing criticism for taking sides, but the ones that do are invariably the high-performing ones. Not because they side with us against others, but because they know that the essence of good rehabilitation is high expectations, helping people learn to believe in themselves and learn that they do not have to be powerless but can be in charge of their own lives and achieve their goals and that the agency will stand with them.

We created the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. It was not easy, but we knew that it was important. We first tried in the 1970’s and were not successful. In 1985 we went back to the legislature and tried again, and again we lost, but we got closer than we ever had before. Our bill had passed the senate and had made its way through the relevant house committees. On the last day of the legislature, our bill was up for final passage in the house. Unfortunately the house and senate were battling over issues unrelated to us. As a result both the house and the senate decided not to take action on any of the remaining bills. Each side was holding the other’s bills hostage, but we did not know that. We just wanted our bill to pass. We had worked hard, and it had made its way through the senate and had been passed out by all of the house committees. All it needed was final passage. On the last day of the session, the session adjourned, and our bill died. We had lost.

On the way out I ran into the director of the state rehabilitation agency, and he was smirking. He had fought the effort to separate blind services from his agency, and he had won. A month later, when I wrote inviting him to speak to our state convention, he wrote back and said that he was too busy preparing for a special session (that had not been called) to come. In other words he felt that he did not have to be responsive to the blind of the state and wanted to make sure we knew it. We were down but not out. I called a new member, Arthur Schreiber, who had just lost his sight and who at the time was the general manager of the largest radio station in New Mexico, one of the largest in the entire Southwest. Radio may not buy ink by the barrel like newspapers, but Arthur had the loudest voice in the state, so politicians listened when he talked. I called Arthur and told him that the director of the rehabilitation agency would not come to our convention and meet with us. Arthur called the speaker of the house and asked him to meet us for lunch. We drove to Santa Fe in his company car, a Mercedes, and had lunch with the speaker of the house. The speaker had not supported our bill during the session, but when we told him of the treatment we had received from the director of the agency following our defeat—writing to say that he was too busy to meet with his constituents—the speaker began to understand just how unresponsive the agency was and why we wanted a change.

The speaker of the house offered to call the director and tell him to go to our convention and meet with us. I should have let him make the call, but I was stunned; it was the day before our convention, and I was not expecting the speaker to offer to take such immediate action. I wasn't used to being around Arthur and getting that kind of response, so I told the speaker that calling the director was not necessary. That was a mistake. It would have shown the director that we were not going away and that we had some significant clout of our own, but I did not take the chance when it was offered. Even so, the speaker of the house became our ally and helped us the following year.

Other things happened to help win us additional supporters. On the last day of the session we were sitting in the first row of the gallery, looking down on the house floor. We wanted to be visible. We had our canes propped against our shoulders, where they could be seen. Our senate sponsor was in the room, talking with other legislators. Another legislator came up to him and said, "I think I'll get on the microphone and ask everybody who supports the commission for the blind bill to stand up and take one step forward." This legislator must have thought asking blind people to take a step forward from the front row of the balcony was a great joke, but our bill sponsor did not think it was funny. From that moment it became personal and the next year he worked even harder for us.

We had no high-priced lobbyists. We had only ourselves and our dreams. We had people who believed that they could take charge of their own lives, people who wanted to be employed and to have the chance to be productive. The next year, 1986, we went back to the legislature, and this time we were successful in passing the bill to create the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. We made a difference. We reshaped services for the blind in the state. We created the opportunity for blind people to get the training and services they needed to go to work, but the most important thing was that it showed us, the blind of the state, that we could take charge of our own lives, that we did not need to live in dependency and poverty, that by standing together we could forge our own destiny.

One of our members who testified at a legislative hearing was a woman who worked in the sheltered workshop. During her testimony she held up her most recent paycheck. For two weeks of work she had earned only $5.27. Her story was powerful. It made a difference to the members of the legislature present in the room that day, but it also made a difference to her. Working in a sheltered workshop making $5.27 for two weeks work does not instill confidence; it does not help you believe that you are in charge of your own life; it does not encourage you to feel like a normal, capable, productive individual. But when she spoke to the legislature and talked of the injustice she and other blind people faced, her testimony helped us pass our bill, and it gave her strength to stand up for herself and others.

What we must do as affiliate presidents is to look at conditions in our states and see what needs to be done. Perhaps you live in a state with a strong affiliate. If so, you have an advantage, a head start. But whether your affiliate is mature or fledgling, the same need exists. We must focus our members on working to improve our collective lot, our collective opportunity. This will change your state, and in the process it will change us: it will give us new strength and confidence.

This morning Mrs. Jernigan spoke about how Dr. Jernigan felt when he walked into the convention hall—the uplift of spirit and the sense of excitement and hope. I share the same feeling. The convention is powerful. We receive a wealth of information, but it is being in a room with three thousand of my brothers and sisters, being where people believe that blindness does not mean inferiority, does not mean helplessness, that makes the difference in my life. It is rejuvenating, and I believe it is something that every blind person needs.
When we try to recruit new members, what can we do to bring them in and make them a part of our movement? First we must be respectful of where they are—whether confident and accomplished or fearful and isolated. Next we must channel their interests and encourage them to be involved. We must put them to work to show them that through our collective labor we can be in charge of our own lives, our own destinies.

In Virginia we recently started a new parents division. We have not had one for some time and needed to get it going again. Last fall we held a seminar for parents of blind children. We will hold a second one this spring in another part of the state. Next month we will have a membership drive in Charlottesville. If we are able to recruit new members, capture their interest, capture their imagination and commitment, we will be stronger as an affiliate; and they will be stronger as individuals. We are not selling snake oil. This is serious work. We are offering people something that they personally and urgently need. So where should we concentrate our energy? The national level? Absolutely. The affiliate level? Absolutely. The local level? Absolutely. At all levels of our organization, local, state, and national. If we have strong chapters, we will have a strong affiliate. And if we have strong affiliates, we will have a strong and dynamic national organization.

As in open systems theory we have the choice to live or die, to grow and expand or to fade away, to stave off entropy through negative entropy or to give up. If we are not growing, we are dying. We must continuously look for ways to find blind people, to focus their energy and ability, their time, their money, and their imagination in support of an overarching, fundamental belief in our basic equality. When I joined the Federation, I found blind people whom I could admire, blind people who were living active, productive lives, blind people doing interesting things and doing them without fear and without reservation. When Dr. Maurer takes the gavel and conducts our convention, he is a living testament to what we believe: that we can be in charge of our own destiny through our collective work. He gives us confidence and perspective, and by extension, through his personal dignity he gives us dignity. Before finding the Federation, I could not have believed that I could live a dignified life, full of challenges and rewards.

This is who and what we are. We work hard to expand opportunities for blind people. We may work to have a blind person appointed to the board of regents of the state’s school for the blind, we may work to restructure rehabilitation services, we may work to start or rebuild a parents division, we may work on outreach to blind people who need us and who do not know about us, but whatever the activity, the bedrock of what we do is to help blind people develop a belief in our basic equality and over time help that belief mature into knowledge. We must teach through action. What we say about blindness is true. As we do more and touch the lives of more people, we are made stronger as an organization, and our members are made stronger as individuals. This is our mission. This is our responsibility and challenge. Alone we have only ourselves; together we have the power to change our lives. Alone we are vulnerable to entropy—to the death of spirit; together our future is bright. This is the National Federation of the Blind—the promise of real equality—equality not just as hope or even belief, but as certainty, as knowledge.

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