Braille Monitor                                                    August/September 2009

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From the Center of History:
Five Years into the Future of the NFB Jernigan Institute

by Mark A. Riccobono

Mark RiccobonoAristotle once said of history, "If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development."

Ten years ago we conceived a vision. Five years ago we launched a mission. Today we are implementing a revolution--the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Our understanding and perspective are influenced by where we have been, where we are, and our vision for where we are going. But from the center of history it can be difficult to grasp the significance of our most recent progress and to predict the future impact of that progress.

In the last part of the eighteenth century, Valintin Hauy pioneered a program of education and a system of raised print for the blind in Paris--creating opportunities where none had previously existed. In 1801, when Hauy resigned from directing his school, he could not know that the most significant invention in literacy for the blind--the Braille code--would be built on the foundation he had established. Nevertheless Hauy must have realized that his passion, his vision for a meaningful program of education, and his higher expectations would serve as the catalyst for innovative educational programs for the blind. In the United States the earliest educational opportunities for the blind were built on Hauy's residential school model.  Yet Hauy himself never saw his model reach the U.S. because the first three residential schools in America were developed in the decade after his death.

Similarly, the young Louis Braille began working on a new approach to tactile reading after being introduced to a night-writing code. Braille reportedly worked on his code during every free moment, and in 1829 he first published his code in a thirty-two page volume.  Braille had vision, commitment, and the support of his blind friends, who were enthusiastic adopters of his innovation for reading and writing. It is hard to imagine, even knowing Braille's commitment and vision, that from the center of history in 1829 Braille could have believed his new code to be more than a small step toward true literacy for the blind. Could Braille have imagined that on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth the world would celebrate his genius and simultaneously lament the lack of Braille education provided to the blind? Today we understand that Braille did more than take a step--he built a staircase to literacy that has survived the test of time.

As with Hauy in the eighteenth century and Braille in the nineteenth, I imagine that Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and first president of the National Federation of the Blind, had difficulty fully realizing the impact of his actions in the middle of the twentieth century. Standing at the center of the organizing of the National Federation of the Blind, what did Dr. tenBroek believe would be the future outcomes of his leadership? How far did he believe the Federation would advance the purpose written in that first constitution—“to promote the economic and social welfare of the blind?” Could he have known that the purpose of the Federation would stand fundamentally unaltered into the twenty-first century, but that the expectations, activity, and reach of the organization would be vastly more complex in structure? We know the genius and vision of tenBroek from our perspective today. We have built an entire research library around his personal and professional papers, which illuminate just how strongly he believed in where the Federation was going and where we were taking society. Yet, despite his leadership and faith in us, Dr. tenBroek would have had trouble projecting where we are today and how quickly we have gotten to this moment, where we again stand in the center of history.

This brings us to the twenty-first century, when we resolved to build something from the ground up that had never before existed--a research and training institute constituted and directed by the blind themselves. Many in this room had the opportunity to dream with Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, a dynamic teacher and the second great president of the Federation, more than a decade before the Institute about what it might be and where it might allow us to go. Many in this room stepped out of their comfort zone and asked friends, family, and business associates to give significant sums of money to something that at the time was a dream. Through our capital campaign we raised $20 million--our largest fundraising initiative ever. And on January 30, 2004, many in this room were in attendance when Dr. Marc Maurer, our current visionary president, cut the ribbon to open the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute.

Today all of us are here in the center of history, and we can reflect on whether or not the world is different five years into the future of the NFB Jernigan Institute. If we find evidence that it is different, that will tell us something significant about the future.

First, let's consider a few words from Dr. Maurer's banquet speech at the 1996 NFB convention--incidentally my first:
If a society (or organization) is to mature, it must balance two competing interests. It must welcome diversity and experimentation and at the same time maintain stability and order. Experimentation and diversification diminish stability, but they are essential for growth. However, if stability is lost, there will be no structure in which to experiment. Both the instability of experimentation and the stability of order are required.

These words, although spoken almost a decade before the opening of the Jernigan Institute, articulate the fundamental reason for establishing a research and training institute.  Beginning in the 1990s, the National Federation of the Blind has been in the leadership position in the field of blindness. We set the pace and the priorities.  The Jernigan Institute was our next great experiment. If the Institute was not what we said it would be--an entity driven by the blind and different from any that had ever existed--the experiment would have failed or the instability would have weakened the Federation. A glance around the country finds the fifty-two affiliates of the Federation alive and well, and woven into the effort in all parts of the country are products of the work of our Institute. Federation affiliates are implementing model programs grown first at the Institute. Local chapters are using the programs of the Institute as new outreach tools to build opportunities for the blind in their communities. And a dynamic corps of energetic leaders is emerging throughout the Federation from among the young blind people who have been affected by efforts like the NFB Youth Slam.

While the experimentation continues, our experience over the past five years gives us absolute confidence in the maturity of our organization. To say it another way, the stability of order is in evidence as the Jernigan Institute has been, is today, and will always be directed by the blind. The NFB Jernigan Institute does not hand down programs and projects to the blind.  The blind direct the activity of the Institute to advance their dreams and, to the extent the experimentation of the Institute operates within the order of the organized blind movement, we realize progress.

Second, over the past five years we have cemented a fundamental shift that has been under way since Dr. Jernigan first set out to experiment with the idea of putting our unique philosophy into a program of rehabilitation. That is, we are now completely immersed in the idea that research and training are not things done to us that we hope others will alter. We now do the research and training in order that we may be the change we want to see.  This is more than simply a shift in our thinking. It is a shift in our actions. 

We now lead research. We do the research that is of interest to us--the research that advances our dreams and that draws on our collective experience. We do not do research to prove that we are right--although our research frequently validates what we have said based solely on our experience. We have begun asking questions in our programs that put our own assumptions to the test. Over these five years we have investigated the efficacy of blind mentors working closely with the next generation.  We have examined the voting habits of the blind and the impact of having a secret ballot. We have explored the literacy experiences of the young blind people we work with to further illuminate the gaps in the education system. And we have built relationships with researchers to help them understand the questions that are of interest to us. Furthermore, we have developed new insights into why research is done so poorly.  For example, institutional review boards serve the function of approving academic research and ensuring that people are not harmed in the course of the research. These boards frequently decide that research being conducted with the blind is research on a “vulnerable” population. If we had no other reason to be involved in research, counteracting the misconception that the blind are inherently vulnerable subjects requiring special protection would be reason enough.

From the center of history we can recognize that we do not do all of the research and training, but we are doing more of it than ever before. How much of it we will do in the future is one of those questions that we cannot fully understand from our perspective today. However, we will never again look upon ourselves as standing outside of the realm of research and training.  Our collective expectation is that we lead the quest to understand the real problems of blindness and that, if no one wants to work in partnership with us, we will do it ourselves. In fact, today an increasing number of organizations, agencies, and universities genuinely want to partner with us because they recognize the powerful impact of our collective voice. Partners we want, and friendships we cultivate, but let there be no doubt, we are on the move, and we are no longer prepared to wait for others to dream up the research and training programs of the future. To those who genuinely desire partnership we say, come with us if you will, but be aware that these are our dreams and we are in the center of turning them into reality.

Third, for decades we have provided leadership in access technology for the blind. Our participation in the design process of many technologies and our objective evaluation of others have helped advance accessibility. When we opened the Institute, we set our sights on a new horizon--building an innovative technology from the ground up that provides a new level of independence. The requirements were simple: increased independence, portability, simplicity, and integration with mainstream technology. The technology was complex--requiring the genius of Dr. Ray Kurzweil. Today we have the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader Mobile--a technology that has advanced our expectations for our own independence. With the knfb Reader blind people are tackling printed information independently in new ways. We are managing restaurant menus, meeting materials, contracts, personal documents, and hundreds of other printed transactions that previously required us to rely on a sighted assistant--frequently a stranger--and to wait until that assistant was available.

As we expand our leadership in technology development, we are building considerable influence in the accessibility of general consumer electronics. We have established a consumer electronics initiative in order to work closely with the industry to promote products that are vision free--that is, they do not require vision to be operated effectively. This initiative, like our efforts to stimulate the development of technology and gain access to key Internet sites, changes our expectations and transforms the thinking of the product designers, resulting in improved products for everybody.
Furthermore, we are building significant relationships with the brightest engineers and some of the most prestigious university engineering programs. At the grand opening of our Institute we began to stimulate our own imagination by presenting the technological challenge of building a car that the blind can drive. From the center of history there is still uncertainty, even among the blind, about the importance of this visionary project and misunderstanding about our goal. Yet we have progressed from talking about the idea of a car to planning and building. We have held meetings with some of the top experts in automobile technologies, and we have talked with the top engineering programs about taking on the blind driver challenge. And we have begun to win the perceptual understanding of many of these leading experts. What we want is not a car that drives a blind person around. We want a car that has enough innovative technology to convey real time information about the driving conditions to the blind so that we, people who possess capacity, an ability to think and react, and a spirit of adventure in addition to having the characteristic of blindness, can interpret these data and maneuver a car safely. From the center of history I speculate that, because of the NFB and its investment in a research and training institute, the next great mission that will cause tremendous strides in technology is not how to get someone somewhere, as with NASA’s mission to Mars, but rather how to get us to get ourselves somewhere. As we drive the path of technological innovation with the end goal of driving a car, we will establish powerful technologies that will again heighten our independence and raise our collective expectations for our own future.

Fourth and final on my list is the development of our own program of education. When we started five years ago, we began with the development of a science program from the ground up. We started with the vision that blind students can, should, and would participate more actively in science, technology, engineering, and math, if we endeavored to build the programs to teach them. From that beginning we have built programs we had not anticipated. We have initiated a yearly program of education at our Jernigan Institute in Baltimore as well as spin-off education programs modeled on our work at the Institute, across dozens of NFB affiliates. At every step we have pushed the experiment further, our largest and most dynamic effort being the NFB Youth Slam--where nearly two hundred blind students came together to learn from blind mentors. The NFB Youth Slam changed expectations in many ways. It showed teachers how they could more effectively engage these students in the inquiry of science. It showed the university leadership, whose initial reaction was to wonder where they would get so many wheelchairs, that the blind possess, not only the ability to navigate a university campus, but also the spirit and capacity to tackle challenging scientific work. It sparked in the next generation of blind innovators the spirit of the Federation--empowering each other to reach for new horizons. And it changed us--the mentors who have carried the torch of freedom forward from that place in history, where the blind before us had passed it. It changed our expectations of the role we play in education. It gave us a renewed confidence that, if educators will not teach our children, we will teach them ourselves. So this summer we are beginning a program of Braille education to provide the gift of literacy first handed down by Louis Braille to a new generation, whose future will largely be determined by the role we play in their education. And we will again have the NFB Youth Slam--where we will venture onto a new university campus, expand the curriculum, celebrate our achievements at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, and again raise our expectations when the next generation proclaims its desire for education just outside the doors of Congress.

From the center of history we can anticipate that our educational effort will grow and that it will take on dimensions we cannot anticipate today. Will we begin our own school as a model to the nation? Will we build new teacher training programs that put our spirit and imagination into the educational system? Will we send a corps of our educators across the country to improve local educational efforts or build new ones? Many speculations can arise at the center of history.  With certainty we know that we are better prepared than ever before to educate ourselves, and the limit to our capacity to educate is how far our imagination stretches and how deep our commitment lies.

Since the beginning of time the blind have been shut out of the halls of power. When we have sought entry and consideration for our perspective, we have been dismissed. Therefore we, the organized blind, have built our own halls, and we now invite those in positions of authority to come learn from and work with us. We know today that the stability of the Federation and the experiment of our Jernigan Institute are in balance. When we look back from a new point in history five, ten, or fifteen years from now or when the next generation looks back upon us, we can be certain that the full extent of our work today will be more clearly understood. But from this point we see progress and new opportunities supported by an unwavering commitment and vision for our future. In closing I call on each of you to be part of the continuing experiment. We need your hopes, your dreams, your education, and your active participation to continue building our Institute into the future we want to have for ourselves.

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