Braille Monitor                                                             March 2007

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Washington Seminar 2007

by Daniel B. Frye

As the sun set over Washington on the first day of February, the 2007 Washington Seminar had already come to another successful close. Due to the quirks of the 2007 calendar, this year’s Washington Seminar happened earlier than normal, running from Sunday, January 28, to Thursday, February 1. Larger than ever, this year’s annual legislative pilgrimage to our nation’s capital saw more than five hundred Federationists come to the Holiday Inn, the NFB’s traditional home-away-from-home in Washington, to attend division meetings and greet the members of the new 110th Congress.

In the Mercury Room Seville Allen of Virginia takes appointment times down in Braille from Shawn Jacobson of Maryland. Beside Shawn, waiting his turn, is Gary Ray of North Carolina, followed by Corinne Vieville and Bill Haley of Oregon.

During the day Sandy Halverson runs the Washington Seminar headquarters in the Mercury Room, and Judy Sanders organizes it during the evenings. Here Sandy talks on two telephones simultaneously--all part of the job.This year’s midwinter gathering featured a blend of the old and new. The Mercury Room continued to serve as the efficient nerve center for our legislative operations, but for the first time Federationists were invited to submit their Hill appointments for the Washington Seminar electronically before leaving their homes. Peanut butter pie was available in Smithson’s Restaurant for those who wanted to partake of this treat that has become an expected staple at Washington Seminars, but the once formal banquet that has customarily capped off the day-long student seminar was transformed this year into a sit-down, dress-down casual social, where fried chicken and mashed potatoes were served to dinner guests. NFB First Vice President Fred Schroeder addressed the students, encouraging them to take advantage of all that the Federation has to offer.

New leadership seminars for parents of blind children and winners from the scholarship class of 2006 were held in conjunction with this year’s Washington Seminar. Twenty-one national scholarship winners assembled at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore on the Saturday before the Washington Seminar to learn more about the NFB, to sharpen their advocacy and public speaking skills, to gain further insight into the legislative process, and generally to strengthen their bond with one another and our organization. Similarly, thirty parents of blind children from across the United States who were part of our inaugural Parent Leadership Program at the 2006 NFB national convention in Dallas, Texas, came to Washington to further their commitment to working in their affiliates to strengthen parent involvement with the organized blind movement. Both parents and students then joined their affiliate delegations for several days of hard work conveying our legislative priorities to members of Congress.

Monday brought a series of seminars for early-arriving Federationists. The National Association of Blind Lawyers hosted a continuing legal education session and plated luncheon featuring the newly appointed commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Christine Griffin. Ms. Griffin spoke to the audience about further integrating disabled attorneys into the broader workforce and reviewed new case law related to employment discrimination against disabled people. The National Association of Blind Merchants held its annual seminar for interested Business Enterprise Program operators.

The legislative issue seminar divided into small groups to practice making their presentations to senators played by Federationists.New Washington seminarians and others flocked to the Columbia Room for a hands-on legislative workshop jointly sponsored by the departments of Governmental Affairs and Affiliate Action from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. James McCarthy, NFB director of governmental affairs, offered the assembled crowd a thorough explanation of our three principal legislative priorities for 2007. The full text of the NFB legislative agenda for 2007 appears elsewhere in this issue. Federation member Stacy Cervenka, a legislative correspondent in the office of Senator Sam Brownback, presented her top eight suggestions for protocol when visiting congressional offices. Finally seminar attendees participated in group role-playing exercises with twelve NFB senators, who peppered each delegation with behavior ranging from tough questioning to condescending indifference. This exercise was met with enthusiasm and good humor. Those in attendance found the afternoon session immensely valuable.

The Columbia Room filled early with eager Federationists. The overflow crowd was able to take part in the briefing in the comfort of the Discovery Room.President Maurer called the great gathering-in meeting to order promptly at 5:00 p.m. on Monday afternoon. The Columbia Room, our traditional meeting location, was lined wall-to-wall with exuberantly cheering Federationists, and for the first time ever we piped sound into the Discovery Room to accommodate our first-ever full-to-capacity overflow space, located down the hall. The two-hour agenda was full of important announcements. Executive Director for Strategic Initiatives James Gashel announced the newest release of software for the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader, which now features a currency identifier. Betsy Zaborowski, executive director of the Jernigan Institute, provided further information about the March for Independence and the Youth Slam, two exciting NFB-sponsored activities that will occur this coming summer. Carl Smith of Utah won one thousand dollars in the drawing of all those who had raised at least one hundred dollars for the March for Independence by the first of the year. Dr. Maurer announced that consideration would be given to fundamental schedule changes for future conventions during this year’s national convention in Atlanta; he also invited members to suggest potential agenda items as he formulates our program for this summer.

The highlight of the evening came when Representative Rush Holt, Democrat from New Jersey’s Twelfth Congressional District, addressed the membership. After some cultivating by our able governmental affairs staff, Representative Holt has become a supporter of our desire to insure that blind Americans continue to enjoy independent and secret access to the ballot. Efforts to guarantee that ballots be secure and auditable could potentially jeopardize our equal access to voting, but Representative Rush has agreed to champion our concerns during any deliberations on this issue.

After addressing Federationists, Jack Kingston (right) visits with NFB of Georgia President Anil Lewis.Representative Jack Kingston, Republican from Georgia’s First Congressional District, spoke to Federationists who attended the Tuesday evening briefing at the Washington Seminar. A long-time friend of the blind, Representative Kingston reflected on his belief in blind people as evidenced by his commitment to hiring qualified blind staff members to serve him in Congress; his remarks demonstrated a mature and informed perspective on our overall philosophical approach to blindness. Friends of this caliber are hard to come by, and we are glad to have Representative Kingston counted as one among our loyal allies.

As the Washington Seminar drew to its conclusion, all objective measures suggested that our 2007 event was one of our most successful. Federationists from fifty of our fifty-two affiliates personally visited over five hundred Congressional offices, making our work this year the most comprehensive in our history. Preliminary evidence suggests that Federationists visited in person with more members of Congress than in previous years, a testament to the new Tuesday-Thursday schedule adopted several years ago.

Now that the 2007 Washington Seminar is history, the hard work of our legislative campaign begins in earnest. Energized and inspired by the events of the Washington Seminar, Federationists will be ready to meet the legislative challenges ahead.

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