by Daniel B. Frye
Despite America's economic downturn, no sense of national gloom was apparent during the 2009 NFB national convention in Detroit, Michigan. A lift in convention registration figures over those from 2008 defied the trend for gatherings of national scope throughout the United States. Among those attending this convention were sixty-eight people who received convention scholarships from the Jernigan Fund for first-time delegates. The enthusiastic members of our Michigan host affiliate were joined by the excellent staff of the Detroit Marriott® at the Renaissance Center, our convention headquarters hotel, who greeted convention delegates with the warmth and fervor of those eager to benefit from an economic recovery that included the revenue from our convention and a devotion to marketing Detroit as a sparkling convention destination.
“New” was the watchword for the 2009 convention. New was our shortened schedule, which added a palpable sense of energy to the entire convention since no program items or major activities from previous years were omitted and fresh ideas and additional events were on offer. In typical Federation fashion delegates started earlier, ended later, and filled their days with an increased array of choices that have become a hallmark of NFB conventions. New was our creatively designed headquarters hotel because it had been substantially remodeled since our last convention in Detroit in 1994; consistent with the vision of the architect of this circular facility, a new surprise lurked around every twist and turn in the hotel. But Ambassador Committee Chairwoman Angela Wolf, her crew of friendly ambassadors, and scores of UPS volunteers were strategically stationed throughout the convention complex to ensure that these welcome surprises did not cause confusion. New was Detroit itself for many Federationists, boasting a large selection of restaurants and eateries, cultural attractions, and local history. The beautiful, pedestrian-friendly Detroit RiverWalk (part of which could be accessed from just outside the GM Renaissance Center) is a 5.5 mile promenade along the Detroit River running from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle. Throughout the week Federationists sampled ice cream from the concession stands along the RiverWalk and enjoyed strolling along this scenic route between meetings and during the temperate early-July evenings.
Also new at this year's convention was our 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar, which Congress required that the U.S. Mint strike to help the National Federation of the Blind promote Braille literacy across America. In addition to coins being on sale from the Independence Market in our exhibit hall, convention delegates regularly heard about and could buy them at a special table in the Renaissance Ballroom during general sessions. President Maurer presented a Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar to most of our platform convention speakers, and random convention delegates won them as door prizes throughout the week. The 2009 NFB convention was one glorious national celebration of Louis Braille's two hundredth birthday and a tribute to the value of Braille in the lives of blind people in America and around the world.
Even our third annual March for Independence--A Walk for Opportunity--featured new wrinkles this year. On Monday morning, July 6, President and Mrs. Maurer; Mary Ellen Jernigan, chairwoman of convention organization and activities; Kevan Worley, chairman of the Imagination Fund; Fred Wurtzel, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan; local dignitaries; and the thirty boisterous members of the NFB scholarship class of 2009 led over a thousand Federationists and friends on the 5K route, closely trailing the Detroit RiverWalk, to Rivard Plaza, site of our rally just blocks away from the hotel. The proximity of the rally enabled march organizers for the first time to incorporate a mini-march to accommodate those unable to walk the entire route. President Maurer; Dave Bing, mayor of Detroit and former Detroit Pistons basketball star; and other guests addressed the assembly. The lead photo spread in this issue reports further on this year's march and rally.
Twitter, a relatively recent social networking phenomenon, added a new dimension for those interested in interacting with others at convention while offering some unable to be in Detroit an opportunity to follow snippets of activities from individual Twitterers at the convention. Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute and avid Twitterer, organized a tweet-up (an in-person gathering of people attending the same event using Twitter) for Friday evening, July 3, at the Volt, the lobby bar in the Marriott. This event was so successful that it had to be divided into two large circulating gatherings inside the bar. Using a Twitter tag (a uniform identifying phrase associated with a particular event), we were able to determine that users generated at least 299 individual tweets about specific convention matters throughout the week; this measure, though, is quite conservative since its accuracy is dependent on people using the official NFB 2009 Twitter tag.
Again this year we broadcast the general sessions and banquet live on the Internet for the benefit of those unable to join us in Detroit. On the afternoon of July 7, just after the honor roll call of states concluded, President Maurer asked delegates to say hello to Barbara and Brad Loos, long-time leaders from our Nebraska affiliate, who were unable to attend this year's convention because Brad was recovering from his last chemotherapy treatment. Touched by this high-tech collective greeting, Barbara Loos has written a powerful report of her impressions of attending convention over the Internet, which appears elsewhere in this issue. Barbara and Brad's story, along with narratives from several other Federationists, offers a compelling reason to continue covering NFB conventions on the Internet for years to come.
NFB national conventions regularly serve as the premier showcase for assistive technology for the blind. The buzz at this year's convention was GW Micro's BookSense, a new digital book reader and competitor to the Victor Reader Stream. A further description of the BookSense appears elsewhere in this issue. Curtis Chong, president of the NFB in Computer Science and chairman of the NFB Committee on Research and Development, also told us that assistive technology enthusiasts devoted convention time to discussion and experimentation with the iPhone 3GS, Apple's mobile phone that incorporates VoiceOver (Apple's speech software program) into every unit. Apple has developed the first version of an application that makes a touch-screen nonvisually accessible. According to President Chong, when the VoiceOver software is turned on in the iPhone 3GS, "The user interface with the phone completely changes, and all of the built-in applications (and a lot of free applications that can be downloaded from Apple's App Store) can be operated without vision." No verdict can be fairly issued on the effectiveness or efficiency of the iPhone 3GS at this stage, but some convention delegates felt cause for optimism about this mainstream-accessible product. The staff of our International Braille and Technology Center presented seminars on mobile productivity on cell phones, creating DAISY books from a desktop; features of Web 2.0 with screen-access software; and information on lesser-known solutions in screen-access software, while our NFB-NEWSLINE® team offered hands-on instruction about our new newspaper-access initiatives in the new NFB-NEWSLINE suite throughout convention.
For the first time ever, parents of blind children and professionals in blindness education and rehabilitation jointly presented a seminar for parents and professionals. Sponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), the National Association of Blind Rehabilitation Professionals (NABRP), the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University (PDRIB), and the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB), this day-long conference combined presentations and breakout workshops of interest to parents of blind children and blindness education and rehabilitation professionals. This collaboration allowed these distinct constituencies to discuss issues of common interest in face-to-face sessions. While such a collaboration seems like an obvious idea, this was the first time these parent and professional groups have conducted a joint day-long seminar at convention.
After spokespeople from each sponsoring organization greeted "The Future Is Ours and Theirs" participants, NFB President Maurer continued his tradition of inviting the children in the audience to come forward for a conversation about blindness and whatever else was on their minds. Those present for this seminar were then moved by the heartfelt remarks of June Maurer, President Maurer's mother, who told home-spun anecdotes about rearing her son and discussed her decisions about his blindness being informed at that time by nothing other than commonsense, hope, determination, and love.
NFB First Vice President Fredric Schroeder finished the morning's program with a keynote address that resonated with parents and professionals alike. The balance of this first-ever event included an awards luncheon for rehabilitation professionals, numerous workshops, and an evening reception for parents and professionals to review the day's business. The NOPBC, as usual, held other parent-related seminars, workshops, and activities throughout the convention week. Again this year a Youth Track for blind students thirteen and older, organized and executed largely by the Education Department of the NFB Jernigan Institute, complemented NOPBC programming.
Our Affiliate Action Department inaugurated yet another new membership-development program during this year's convention. In consultation with affiliate presidents, the College Leadership Program invited twenty-eight promising postsecondary students to attend the convention in Detroit. These students interacted with mentors and attended several Affiliate Action-sponsored orientation and learning sessions targeted at this community. After returning home, Jacob King, a participant in the program from Ohio, wrote to say:
The convention had so many high points for me. I finally met J.W., Ohio's affiliate president. We are planning to meet here in Ohio soon to discuss ways in which I might become more involved in the state organization. The Washington Seminar sounded interesting, and I would like any information on that when it becomes available. The student seminar and the exhibit hall offered me lots of information on what I will need to succeed in my master’s program. Last, I truly enjoyed the chance to connect with so many blind and vision impaired people. Meeting people who share common experiences with me has been an all-too-rare occurrence in my life. How wonderful it was to talk, room, travel, train, and yes even drink with my fellow Federationists.
The Affiliate Action Department also offered its full range of membership cultivation programs throughout convention. The Parent Leadership Program, managed in collaboration with the NOPBC; the Scholarship Alumni Program; the Back to Basics seminar; the Spanish seminar; and several group-specific sessions attracted participants all week long. The rookie round-up and special orientation session for first-time convention delegates held in the Affiliate Action suite eased everybody into the frenetic activity that is national convention.
New to blindness and the NFB were two service members of the United States Army who recently lost their sight on active duty in Iraq. Master Sergeant Jeffrey Mittman actively participated in convention through the entire week; Captain Ivan Castro joined Federationists early in the convention and remained through the March for Independence rally on Monday morning. Delegates were inspired with patriotic zeal in the knowledge that several American heroes were in our midst, and both soldiers benefited from a crash-course introduction to blindness and the NFB.
In addition to the things that were new during this year's convention, Federationists reestablished their bearings and took comfort in some of our cherished traditions as well. As usual the first convention event was an emergency preparedness seminar for Ham operators on Friday morning. By the second day all facets of convention operations were up and running. Convention registration opened to brisk business just before 9:00 a.m. The 1,996 Federationists who preregistered for the convention were able to drop by the preregistration square, pick up their already assembled packets with name tags and prepurchased banquet tickets, and be on their way. During its annual meeting on Saturday afternoon, July 4, the resolutions committee considered eleven resolutions and recommended “do pass.” A full report on resolutions adopted during the convention appears elsewhere in this issue.
Throughout convention, activities other than formal convention sessions abounded. A record number of Federationists were educated and entertained at the twelfth annual mock trial, where NFB lawyers presented the outlines of a child custody case in which the principal legal question was whether blind people could competently raise children. Vendors from a wide variety of assistive technology companies promoted their products in scheduled workshops. Staff from the NFB Jernigan Institute highlighted Institute programs and initiatives during several informational sessions. A variety of meetings and events focusing on Braille occurred, including the administration of the National Certification in Literary Braille examination, workshops on assessing student need for Braille instruction, the traditional Braille Book Flea Market, the Braille Carnival, and sessions for Federationists to learn about marketing our Louis Braille coin.
Various divisions and committees, including the National Association of Blind Students, celebrating its forty-second birthday as a Federation entity this year, gathered to conduct customary business. National conventions always prove an excellent forum for administering study surveys, evaluations, and focus groups about blindness-related issues outside the formal convention schedule. This year the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) asked Federationists to help evaluate the experimental Nemeth Uniform Braille System (NUBS), a researcher from Texas Tech University conducted studies on effective methods for marketing to blind consumers, and a focus group on accessible currency was held. On Friday night Federationists eager to unwind from the fast-paced preconvention weekend activities were invited to sing at BLIND Incorporated's annual Karaoke Night and to renew old acquaintance, while on Monday Nine, a nine-piece band, played a diverse selection of music at the NFB of Michigan's hospitality dance.
Vickie Trammel and Brian Sumner are obviously enjoying the dance.
The NFB board of directors held its traditional open convention meeting on Sunday morning, July 5. President Maurer called for a moment of silence to recognize Federationists who had died since the 2008 convention. During this last year several well-known members have died, including Dick Edlund, former NFB treasurer; Michael Seay, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Tennessee; and Paul Kay and Harold Snider, past presidents of the National Federation of the Blind of the District of Columbia. This tribute also honored all other Federationists who had died during the previous year. Delegates then joined in reciting the American and Federation pledges of allegiance.
President Maurer then turned to the elections. He announced that the hold-over offices for 2009 were Marc Maurer, president (Maryland); Fredric Schroeder, first vice president, (Virginia); Ron Brown, second vice president (Indiana); Gary Wunder, secretary (Missouri); Pam Allen, treasurer (Louisiana); Amy Buresh (Nebraska); Patti Chang (Illinois); John Fritz (Wisconsin); Carl Jacobsen (New York); and Alpidio Rolón (Puerto Rico). President Maurer announced that Sam Gleese of Mississippi, elected to the national board in 2008, resigned from his position last fall, so it would be necessary to fill the one year remaining in this unexpired term. All other board positions would be up for election.
Fred Wurtzel, president of the Michigan affiliate, welcomed everybody to Detroit. He presented President Maurer and Mrs. Jernigan with gift bags featuring Michigan-made products.
President Maurer reflected that earlier Detroit conventions were in 1994 and 1962. He recognized Donald Capps (now retired), former NFB first vice president and the longest serving member of the organization's board of directors, to share his memories of the 1962 Detroit convention. All present congratulated Dr. Capps who was attending his fifty-fourth consecutive convention.
Mrs. Jernigan, chairwoman of convention organization and activities, briefed the audience on convention logistics. After noting that convention was running smoothly, she advised delegates that more people were registered for convention than there were chairs available in the ballroom, but she characterized this as an encouraging challenge that could be resolved with flexibility and effort.
President Maurer reported that the 2010 and 2012 NFB conventions will again be at the Anatole Hilton in Dallas, Texas. Room rates for the 2010 convention are $62 for singles, twins, and doubles and $68 for triples and quads. Plans have not yet been finalized for the 2011 convention.
Kevan Worley, chairman of the Imagination Fund, briefed the board and audience on logistics for the third annual March for Independence--A Walk for Opportunity. He energized delegates about the 6:45 a.m. plans to commence this year's 5K walk. Considering the Imagination Fund as a whole, Kevan told everyone present that, since its inception five years ago, almost two million dollars had been raised for the NFB. He recognized Joe Ruffalo, national board member and president of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey, as the 2009 Imaginator of the Year, an acknowledgement of someone who demonstrates spirit and devotion by promoting the interests of the NFB through raising Imagination Fund dollars as part of the March for Independence. As Kevan ended his report, President Maurer publicly thanked him for his years of service as chairman of the Imagination Fund, and he announced that he was going to be giving Kevan a new fundraising assignment to work on generating income for the NFB through estates, bequests, and trusts. President Maurer promised that he would soon announce a new Imagination Fund chairman to lead our campaign for next year.
Dr. David Ticchi, chairman of the Blind Educator of the Year Award committee, presented the 2009 Blind Educator of the Year Award to Dr. William Henderson, principal of the newly named William Henderson Inclusive Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts. The full text of this presentation appears elsewhere in this issue.
Joyce Scanlan, chairwoman of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award committee, took the platform to present this year's award to Annee Hartzel, a teacher of the blind in the Yakima Valley Schools in Washington State. The full text of this presentation appears elsewhere in this issue.
Various Federation leaders made important announcements throughout the morning. Sandy Halverson, chairwoman of the SUN committee, updated the board and membership on the status of the Shares Unlimited in NFB Program. NFB First Vice President Fredric Schroeder, in his capacity as chairman of the Braille Readers are Leaders (BRL) Campaign, discussed the fundraising objectives of the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar program and promoted the coin's availability during the convention. Scott LaBarre, chairman of the Preauthorized Check (PAC) Plan committee, gave an update on this revenue-generating program. He challenged affiliates and divisions to enroll new members and urge existing participants to increase their contributions during the convention in pursuit of the coveted Pac Rat and Pac Mule prizes to be awarded at the end of convention. James Gashel, in his role with knfb Reading Technology Inc., promoted the knfb Reader Mobile to convention delegates. Finally, Tami Jones reported on the tenBroek Fund and the fund's elegant elephant sale at this year's convention. She promoted a convention raffle (new this year) for $200 in spending money and a trip for two to stay at the National Center for the Blind for up to three nights.
Wearing his lawyer's hat, Scott LaBarre introduced Isaac J. Lidsky, the nation's first blind law clerk to serve on the United States Supreme Court, working for Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mr. Lidsky attributed his advancement to the halls of the Supreme Court to the hard work and efforts of those blind attorneys who have successfully practiced before him. His has been an interesting career since during his childhood he was an actor, playing the role of Weasel on NBC's Saved by the Bell.
NFB of California President Mary Willows then approached the stage to make a special gift to President Maurer. She presented him with one of NFB founder Dr. Jacobus tenBroek's first canes, which his spouse, Hazel tenBroek, gave to her during the 1970s. President Willows described the cane as thirty-nine inches tall, made of wood, with a crooked handle and a red tip. She explained that about eight inches from the cane tip it is fairly chewed up, a tangible commentary on Dr. tenBroek's vigorous use of it. President Maurer committed to give this piece of tenBroek memorabilia an honored place in the Jacobus tenBroek Memorial Library in the NFB Jernigan Institute.
At this point Anil Lewis, president of the NFB of Georgia, member of the NFB board of directors, and national scholarship committee chairman, asked the members of the 2009 scholarship class to come to the platform, where he introduced them. Their comments appear elsewhere in this issue as part of a full report of our scholarship program. Since no further business was brought to the board, the meeting was adjourned.
The balance of Sunday offered convention attendees a wide range of division and committee meetings, seminars, workshops, receptions, and theater productions. The Jerry Whittle play this year, Sometimes Truth Repels, was performed as usual by the Louisiana Center Players, made up of students and alumni from the Louisiana Center for the Blind. All proceeds from the two performances were used to support the center's summer programs for blind children.
Monday morning's opening of the plenary convention sessions was the culmination of our third annual 5K March for Independence. Invigorated by a pleasant stroll along the Detroit RiverWalk and inspired by the rally speeches, convention delegates assembled in the Renaissance Ballroom for the opening ceremonies of the 2009 convention. Freedom bells, widely circulated to delegates throughout this year's convention, rang as President Maurer gaveled the first general session to order. The Maryland affiliate reclaimed the attendance banner this year, proudly announcing that 237 Marylanders were present and registered in Detroit by the opening session.
Fred Wurtzel, president of the host affiliate, welcomed everyone to Michigan. At Fred's urging, "NFB in the D" became the week's rally cry. After regaling convention delegates with trivia about Michigan's potato chip and cherry industries and acknowledging the role of Michiganders in helping the convention to run smoothly, he introduced Michigan Federationist Mike Powell and his combo to play some classic Motown sounds.
In accordance with recent Federation custom, convention delegates joined in a national celebration of freedom and in a brief ceremony recognized the veterans and active service personnel among our number. Active service personnel from the Huron Valley National Guard were introduced to call the cadence and post the colors. The MC then acknowledged the presence of Robert Crawford of Ohio, one of the last remaining Tuskegee Airmen. Twenty-seven former and active members representing all branches of the military answered the invitation to be recognized at the foot of the stage. Each person was invited to say his or her name, state of residence, and branch of service. All were given a tactile American flag produced by the National Braille Press. The remainder of the morning was devoted to the roll call of states. In addition to announcing the delegate for each affiliate, representatives made a variety of announcements and comments. Here is a sampling of the information that we learned during the morning:
Our North Carolina and Oregon affiliates announced that they had fought and won advocacy victories during the last year; Gary Ray, president of the NFB of North Carolina, explained that his affiliate resisted state legislative attempts to close its residential school for the blind and to eliminate funding for NFB-NEWSLINE. Art Stevenson, president of the NFB of Oregon, reported that the affiliate protected the existence of the Oregon Commission for the Blind and preserved the state-granted priority of blind vendors to operate concessions at state-sponsored community colleges. National Board Member and NFB of New York President Carl Jacobsen reported that the Jewish Guild for the Blind, headquartered in his state, agreed to work with us in producing a video to reflect a constructive view of blindness. Our Ohio affiliate won the prize this year for bringing the largest number of first-time convention delegates to Detroit. J.W. Smith, president of the NFB of Ohio, announced that at least thirty-three new Federationists were part of the Buckeye delegation. While he had the floor, President Smith also told the assembly that students from the Ohio State School for the Blind would be the first-ever blind marching band to appear in the Rose Bowl Parade in January 2010. The NFB of Washington, D.C., reported bringing its largest national convention delegation in the affiliate's history. All of the staff and students from the three NFB adult training centers attended convention. Likewise our affiliate presidents in Maryland and Utah announced that the staff and students from their states’ blindness rehabilitation training facilities were present. Our affiliate presidents in Indiana and Wisconsin reported that their delegations included substantial contingents from their states’ residential schools for the blind. Finally, Elsie Dickerson, president of the NFB of Idaho, shared the news that she had married Larry Dickerson earlier in the spring.
Following the lunch recess, President Maurer delivered the 2009 presidential report, which appears in full elsewhere in this issue. Addressing the topic "Policies to Enhance Employment, Inclusion, Safety, and Productivity," Representative John D. Dingell, Congressman for the 15th Congressional District of Michigan and the longest serving member of the House of Representatives, acknowledged the useful work of the Federation in the areas of peer support, public education, and provision of scholarships, but he said that much more advocacy needs to be undertaken. Citing concerns about high rates of unemployment and limited access to quality healthcare for all Americans, he urged the NFB to redouble its efforts in these priority areas. In closing, this institution of the House and champion of the people said, "We must see that the possibility and opportunity of America is available to all blind individuals."
The Honorable Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, delivered a presentation, "Promoting Pedestrian Safety: A Priority for Manufacturers." In his remarks this former member of Congress said that manufacturers remain committed to all aspects of motor vehicle safety, including those situations in which quiet vehicles and the blind may come into conflict. Specifically Mr. McCurdy told the convention that automobile manufacturers support a collaborative, comprehensive approach to enhancing blind pedestrian safety, and he said that his organization is committed to working with the NFB and other industry players on a federal legislative package that will create a minimum sound standard for cars. Mr. McCurdy explained, however, that the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers values high-quality scientific research, and he said that much remains to investigate in identifying the dominant source of noise automobiles make at slow speeds since multiple sounds are generated and difficult to identify individually. In closing, Mr. McCurdy demonstrated his resolve to work with our community when he said, "Car safety is a shared responsibility among representatives of government, manufacturers, and consumers."
Deviating from the published convention schedule, President Maurer surprised everyone when he introduced Representative John Conyers Jr., chairman of the House judiciary committee and the second longest serving member of the lower chamber of Congress, to greet convention delegates. Judiciary Chairman Conyers welcomed the Federation to Michigan, and he pledged to cosponsor H.R. 734, our quiet cars legislation, immediately upon his return to Washington. Congressman Conyers delighted Federationists with his memories about working with Stevie Wonder for the adoption of a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His genuine, unscripted remarks lent a sweet sense of authenticity to his presentation and to the convention programming for the entire afternoon.
President Maurer delivered "The Journey of Braille: From the Hands of the Creator to Earth Orbit." The full text of his remarks appears elsewhere in this issue. First Vice President Fredric Schroeder spoke on "The Value of a Coin, of a Communication System, and of a Class of Human Beings." The full text of his speech appears elsewhere in this issue.
The Monday afternoon session concluded with a presentation from Brian MacDonald, president of the National Braille Press (NBP). In "Providing the Fundamental Tools: Braille Books," Mr. MacDonald reviewed the eighty-two year history of the organization and said that NBP's focus is to provide books for children and to publish and provide access to information through lifelong learning. Mr. MacDonald went on to say that nobody should dispute that Braille is a critical skill with a strong correlation to employment, that knowledge of the code is a pathway that supports independence, builds self-confidence, and improves one's education. He warned, however, that many factors--particularly new technology--threaten this system of communication. In response to these challenges Mr. MacDonald announced that last October NBP founded the Center for Braille Innovation, a new policy arm of the Press, to concentrate on technologies that will improve Braille and tactile graphic processing while developing truly affordable Braille tools. He said that NBP is not an advocate for blindness issues or the voice of the blind; instead it is the steady tool maker, diligently working to promote Braille for everyone. In closing, he challenged us--the true advocates for blind people--to "help keep Braille alive. Despite changes, we will not let Braille disappear or become irrelevant.... Braille must not become the next Latin; it cannot become a dead language. It must become ubiquitous and integrated into mainstream devices."
Federationists, who had been up since before dawn, scattered to a full array of Monday evening events. An American Foundation for the Blind session, a Bookshare reception, a committee meeting about quiet cars, several parent workshops, recreational events sponsored by our Sports and Recreation Division, and much more provided delegates with plenty to do. For the first time the Performing Arts Division added a guitar seminar to its traditional lineup of convention events. Finally the exhibit hall opened on Monday night for a special evening devoted exclusively to this year's convention sponsors.
Tuesday morning included a mix of internal organizational business and convention programming. The convention first reviewed and adopted the financial report that President Maurer delivered. Following this, President Maurer turned our attention to organizational elections. All six national board incumbents were reelected by acclamation. These board members were Dan Burke (Montana), Parnell Diggs (South Carolina), James Gashel (Colorado), Cathy Jackson (Kentucky), Anil Lewis (Georgia), and Joe Ruffalo (New Jersey).
Michael Freeman, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, was elected to fill the vacancy on the board created by Sam Gleese's resignation. After his election he said in part:
I joined the National Federation of the Blind in 1977. I was young; I was brash; I was idealistic; I was a bit of a skeptic (some would say that I was more than a bit of a skeptic); but I believed in the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. But it was an ideal, a goal, something to be striven for. As the years went by and I did the work of the Federation and became more adept in the skills one needs to change what it means to be blind, I suddenly woke up one morning and realized that the philosophy was not just an ideal; it was a way of life, and I was attempting my best to live it. This is a gift that all of you, from the leaders in the Federation to the rank-and-file members who have held no office, have given to me. It may be a payday loan, but it is a gift nevertheless.
I am deeply honored and humbled by the trust you have shown in me; I will do my utmost to merit that trust. Thank you.
Addressing the topic "Expanding Access to Digital Information for the Blind," Gilles Pepin, chief executive officer of HumanWare, surveyed the developments and general availability of the assistive technology products that his company promotes. He acknowledged that the effectiveness of products like the Victor Reader Stream and the Orator for BlackBerry Smartphones software (available for purchase soon) are attributable to the partnership between HumanWare and the NFB. Broadening his perspective, Mr. Pepin suggested a dual strategy for moving forward in assistive technology; he advocated that consumers continue to pressure mainstream companies to incorporate accessibility features into products and simultaneously that consumers work with assistive technology companies like HumanWare to encourage continued innovation in development of products. In response to audience concerns about HumanWare's record for timely repair of products, he said that, as of June 30, 2009, new centralized operations within the company should allow HumanWare to meet the goal of a two-day turn-around of products, excluding shipping. As always, representatives from HumanWare, a platinum sponsor of the 2009 NFB convention, were warmly received in Detroit.
Tyler Merren, a blind Michigander and member of the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Team in men's goalball, spoke about his experiences with athletics while growing up and about his 2008 Paralympic play in China. He urged us to make a concerted effort to be mobile and to increase our physical activity.
Steven Rothstein, president of the Perkins School for the Blind, addressed the topic "Developments at the First Educational Institution for the Blind in the United States: Perkins." He briefly reviewed the one-hundred-and-eighty-year history of the school and reported that today Perkins remains principally in the business of educating blind people. He announced that Perkins would offer direct service to almost one hundred thousand people this year, including several hundred students enrolled in the school's residential program and many thousands who receive outreach services in public schools throughout New England and in various programs around the world. President Rothstein told convention delegates that Perkins, like the NFB, is committed to promoting access in the disciplines of science and mathematics for blind students. Perkins delivers NLS library services to eligible residents in Massachusetts and six other states as well as helping with the distribution of NFB-NEWSLINE®. In addition to its educational mission, Perkins is involved with promoting products including the new Perkins Brailler and other mainstream assistive technologies. Working closely with the World Blind Union (WBU), Perkins is delivering services in sixty-three countries around the world.
Looking toward the future, President Rothstein declared that Perkins was interested in the "ABCs of advocacy." The school is interested in promoting access to information for blind people. Further, it wants to play a leading role in championing Braille in every respect. Finally, it believes that centers of excellence, which necessarily include residential schools for the blind as part of the educational continuum, must be preserved so that facilities that concentrate on blindness skills (the expanded core curriculum) will continue to exist.
Newly elected WBU President Maryanne Diamond of Australia closed the Tuesday morning session with a presentation, "The Federation in the World from the Perspective of the World Blind Union." She took this first opportunity to introduce herself to this largely American audience of blind consumers with a detailed sketch of her personal and professional background. She examined WBU history, citing organizational principles that guarantee that the WBU is responsive to the interests of blind people. Finally she discussed her objectives for her term as the WBU's seventh president. Under the Diamond administration the WBU aspires to create a community in which blind people are empowered to participate equally, It is recognized as the authentic voice of blind people at the international level, member organizations deliver their programs effectively, and the organization is an informational resource about blindness.
Delegates returned on Tuesday afternoon for another plenary session, reflecting the change in format this year. John Paré, NFB executive director of strategic initiatives, summarized the work of his department. He briefed delegates on the achievements or current status of managing the portrayal of blindness in the media, advocacy on the Kindle 2 issue, work on the Randolph-Sheppard program, promotion of the Federation's legislative agenda, assistance of the NLS with its congressional funding, and representation of blind people facing Social Security appeals. Jesse Hartle, NFB government programs specialist, joined Mr. Paré in emphasizing the importance of grassroots efforts as the Federation walks legislation, like our quiet cars bill, through Congress.
The next portion of the afternoon session was the honor roll call of states, in which affiliates and divisions announced their financial support for the White Cane, tenBroek, and other organizational funds. Finally, delegates considered the eleven resolutions forwarded to the floor of the Convention for action. The Convention adopted all eleven resolutions. The full texts of all resolutions passed by the Convention appear elsewhere in this issue.
Tuesday evening saw Federationists attending receptions for the Randolph-Sheppard vending program or the Council of U.S. Guide Dog Schools; exploring adult rehabilitation training at the Colorado Center for the Blind Night; learning about Social Security benefits at our annual information seminar; enjoying the annual showcase of talent; playing games at Monte Carlo Night, sponsored by the National Association of Blind Students; or taking advantage of other items on the convention schedule. No matter what individual delegates chose to do with their time, most were back in their seats on Wednesday morning for the final full day of convention.
The first item on Wednesday morning was "The Near-Perfect Audio Book." Frank Kurt Cylke, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress, updated everyone on the progress of the National Library Service's digital transition. Mr. Cylke reported that the new NLS digital machines are in production in Japan and that they will be produced at a rate of approximately twenty thousand a month. As has become his custom over the last several years, he yielded the balance of his time to a colleague working with him at the Washington headquarters of NLS. Mary Beth Wise, quality assurance specialist, delivered an informative and humorous account of how a book is painstakingly transformed from print to audio.
Dr. Edward Bell, director of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, addressed the topic "The Demand, The Crisis, The Solution in Education for the Blind." He told the assembly that two immediate factors influencing the outcome of educational opportunities for blind students are within our control: operating effective teacher preparation programs and advocating for national standards and benchmarks in Braille knowledge and other blindness skills. Dr. Bell urged interested candidates to consider enrolling in one of the three graduate-level programs offered at Louisiana Tech University to join the effort to direct educational opportunities for blind students throughout the country.
Speaking to the topic "The Theory and the Practice: Education for the Blind in the Public School," Dr. Denise Robinson, teacher and coordinator of programming for blind and visually impaired students in the Yakima Valley Schools, outlined her strategic approach for progressive instruction. She prescribes instruction in Braille where appropriate (even in instances in which the student can also use some large print); provision of blindness skills training classes for paraprofessionals; early introduction to blindness training and school for students; timely provision of accessible educational materials; and immersion of late-joining students in blindness skills instruction that incorporates their academic curriculum. According to Dr. Robinson, her objectives are simply to address the unemployment and literacy crises for blind students and change what it means to be blind.
Displaying a commonsense perspective on blindness education, Carol Castellano, president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, used incisive wit and wisdom to illustrate the colossal damage inflicted on blind youth when educators fear that training these students in the specialized skills of blindness will “make that child blind.”
Shifting the focus to teaching Braille to blind adults, Jerry Whittle, teacher-counselor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, moderated a compelling panel during which five well-known Federationists described their struggles and successes with learning Braille as adults. While their individual stories varied, their consistent message was that learning Braille under Jerry's firm but loving tutelage transformed and liberated them as blind people. This diverse panel (ranging from college-age students to an accomplished senior citizen) raised their collective voices to plead with professionals and newly blind people alike about the importance of learning Braille. Together this panel refuted the prevailing stereotype that, if learned later in life, Braille cannot be put to meaningful use in the lives of blind adults.
Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute, next delivered remarks titled "From the Center of History: Five Years into the Future of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute." The full text of his address is printed elsewhere in this issue.
The morning session ended with a presentation from Scott White, NFB director of sponsored technology, in which he detailed for convention delegates the four new initiatives that our NFB-NEWSLINE team has developed to give people even greater access to the hundreds of newspapers and television listings on the system. Further information about these initiatives can be found at <http://www.nfbnewslineonline.org>.
Daniel Goldstein, longtime attorney and friend to the NFB, began the final afternoon plenary session with remarks titled, "Shaping the Standard for the Legal Community: The Necessity for Access to Information for All." He lamented that, "The accumulated wisdom, the variety of our philosophical, scientific, religious, and political heritage has been a closed book to blind people." He continued, "There is no reason, in sense or decency, that digital developments could not benefit our community, but it hasn't turned out that way yet." Despite this bleak assessment of our history, Mr. Goldstein spoke positively about our prospects for access in the future. "I predict that you will soon find yourselves to be the first, but not the last, generation to have the same access to our great collective heritage as is afforded to everyone else. A great barrier is poised to topple." Having energized and encouraged convention delegates, Mr. Goldstein led them in the chant, "same book, same time, same price."
"Negotiating Accessible Electronic Books: A Massive Undertaking, A Smashing Success" was the topic of Jack Bernard, chair, counsel for disability concerns and assistant general counsel for the University of Michigan. Mr. Bernard reported on the preliminary terms of a settlement with Google that may result in millions of electronic books being made accessible to blind people all over the world. Federationists enthusiastically received this news.
Rob Sinclair, director of accessibility with the Microsoft Corporation, spoke on the topic, "The Commitment of Microsoft to Accessible Technology." He explained that Microsoft's mission is to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their potential. According to him his job is to make sure that Microsoft achieves this lofty goal without respect to age or ability. He told the audience that Microsoft is working toward accessibility through its operating systems, in its products, and by collaboration with stakeholders. In closing, Mr. Sinclair said that his key message was that Microsoft is making new investments in accessibility and that the company is proud of this effort.
In keeping with annual tradition, Ray Kurzweil, president and chief executive officer of knfb Reading Technology Inc., delivered an address titled, "Transcending the Barriers of Yesterday, Anticipating the Romance of the Human Experience with the Technology of Tomorrow." He told attendees, "If you ever wonder why you are who you are, it is because we create ourselves." This topic is explored further in his new book, How the Mind Works and How to Build One. As always, everyone appreciated Mr. Kurzweil's abstract thoughts and reflections on the future.
Patti Chang, president of the NFB of Illinois and member of the NFB board of directors, talked to her Federation family about her experience representing the City of Chicago as senior corporation counsel. In addition to offering logistical details about how she functions as a blind attorney, Patti concentrated her reflections on the social significance attached to the fact that one of our own--a blind person--has been given a position of discretion and authority to oversee the health, safety, and welfare of a large segment of the sighted community. Using engaging anecdotes to great effect, she made it clear that today blind people are rewriting an old expression: more often than not we are taking two steps forward and only one step back.
Gary Wunder, NFB secretary, president of the NFB of Missouri, and chairman of the Bolotin Award committee, next presented the 2009 Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards to several deserving winners. A full report of this presentation appears elsewhere in this issue.
Ronald Medford, acting deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), was this year's last program speaker. He reported on NHTSA's efforts to work with all interested parties to address the quiet cars issue. Supportive and understanding of our organizational concerns, his comments left us optimistic that a workable resolution to this problem would in time be identified and implemented.
Our Wednesday evening banquet, truly the culminating highlight of this year's convention, was gaveled to order by Master of Ceremonies and NFB First Vice President Fred Schroeder. A state-of-the-art sound system accommodated the more than three hundred Federationists whose banquet tables were set up in the foyer to the Renaissance Ballroom; the banquet was one of our largest in history. Instead of the traditional commemorative convention mug, each place setting included two milk chocolate replicas of the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar for delegates either to sample or to save. Sprinkled among the anticipated national division drawings, convention sponsor prizes, scholarships, award presentations, and banquet address were valuable door prizes that animated an already spirited crowd. PAC Chairman Scott LaBarre announced that Nevada was the affiliate that had increased most on the program 200 percent during convention, and he awarded the PAC Mule to the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and the PAC Rat to Maryland, the division and affiliate that had the most individual activity with the program during convention.
Following introductions of the head table, First Vice President Schroeder turned the podium over to President Maurer to deliver his annual banquet address, "The Value of Decision." President Maurer evoked the most fundamental tenets of our organizational philosophy; one of this year's powerful messages (the idea that blind people are not defective sighted people) deeply appealed to many at the banquet. The full text of his address appears elsewhere in this issue.
Barbara and John Cheadle, longtime Federation leaders, jointly received the Jacobus tenBroek Award, the highest honor given to members of the Federation. A full report of this award appears elsewhere in this issue.
Anil Lewis, NFB scholarship chairman, next announced the thirty scholarships awarded by the Federation. A sense of familial support and joy was evident in the banquet hall as thousands of Federationists rooted for Anil, a recent graduate of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, while he read in Braille the text of each award with increased fluency and self-confidence. Matthias Niska of Minnesota received the Kenneth Jernigan scholarship for twelve thousand dollars. A full report of the scholarship awards appears elsewhere in this issue.
Christopher Joyce of Michigan won the grand door prize that preceded adjournment of the banquet. NFB of Michigan President Fred Wurtzel explained to everyone that the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund donated this year's grand prize in the amount of $1,809 in honor of the two hundredth birthday of Louis Braille.
As the banquet drew to a close, Federationists, now full both physically and emotionally, prepared to leave Detroit to carry forward the message and mission of the Federation. The climactic end to convention at the banquet's adjournment sent everyone home with more momentum than ever before. Shouted farewells and promises to keep in touch were heard as the delegates streamed out of the banquet hall and off to parties or to their rooms to pack for the journey home. The 2009 NFB convention will go down in our history as one that featured much that was new but also reaffirmed our long-held hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the lives of blind people everywhere.