From the Editor: Though brief profiles of the members of the current board of directors can be found on our Website at any time, we periodically revise and reprint here a compilation we have used for years. It includes profiles of Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and members of the current NFB board. A number of changes to the board have occurred since we last published this piece in January 2007, so here it is:
The National Federation of the Blind has become by far the most significant force in the affairs of the blind today, and its actions have had an impact on many other groups and programs. The Federation's president, Marc Maurer, radiates confidence and persuasiveness. He says, "If I can find twenty people who care about a thing, then we can get it done. And if there are two hundred, two thousand, or twenty thousand, that's even better."
The National Federation of the Blind is a civil rights movement with all that the term implies. President Maurer says, "You can't expect to obtain freedom by having somebody else hand it to you. You have to do the job yourself. The French could not have won the American Revolution for us. That would merely have shifted the governing authority from one colonial power to another. So too we the blind are the only ones who can win freedom for the blind, which is both frightening and reassuring. If we don't get out and do what we must, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have control of the essential elements."
Although many organizations and agencies for the blind exist in the United States today, there is only one National Federation of the Blind. This organization was established in 1940 when the blind of seven states‑‑California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin‑‑sent delegates to its first convention at Wilkes‑Barre, Pennsylvania. Since that time progress has been rapid and steady. The Federation is recognized by blind men and women throughout the entire country as their primary means of joint expression; and today‑‑with active affiliates in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico‑‑it is the primary voice of the nation's blind.
To explain this spectacular growth, three questions must be asked and answered: (1) What are the conditions in the general environment of the blind which have impelled them to organize? (2) What are the purpose, belief, and philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind? (3) Who are its leaders, and what are their qualifications to understand and solve the problems of blindness? Even a brief answer to these questions is instructive.
When the Federation came into being in 1940, the outlook for the blind was anything but bright. The nation's welfare system was so discouraging to individual initiative that those forced to accept public assistance had little hope of ever achieving self‑support again, and those who sought competitive employment in regular industry or the professions found most of the doors barred against them. The universal goodwill expressed toward the blind was not the wholesome goodwill of respect felt toward equals; it was the misguided goodwill of pity felt toward inferiors. In effect the system said to the blind, "Sit on the sidelines of life. This game is not for you. If you have creative talents, we are sorry, but we cannot use them." The Federation came into being to combat these expressions of discrimination and to promote new ways of thought concerning blindness. Although great progress has been made toward the achievement of these goals, much still remains to be done.
The Federation believes that blind people are essentially normal and that blindness in itself is not a mental or psychological handicap. It can be reduced to the level of a mere physical nuisance. Legal, economic, and social discrimination based upon the false assumption that the blind are somehow different from the sighted must be abolished, and equal opportunity must be made available to blind people. Because of their personal experience with blindness, the blind themselves are best qualified to lead the way in solving their own problems, but the general public should be invited to participate in finding solutions. Upon these fundamentals the National Federation of the Blind predicates its philosophy.
As for the leadership of the organization, all of the officers and members of the board of directors are blind, and all give generously of their time and resources in promoting the work of the Federation. The board consists of seventeen elected members, five of whom are the constitutional officers of the organization. These members of the board of directors represent a wide cross-section of the blind population of the United States. Their backgrounds are different, and their experiences vary widely; but they are drawn together by the common bond of having met blindness individually and successfully in their own lives and by their united desire to see other blind people have the opportunity to do likewise. A profile of the leadership of the organization shows why it is so effective and demonstrates the progress made by blind people during the past seventy years--for in the story of the lives of these leaders can be found the greatest testimonial to the soundness of the Federation's philosophy. The cumulative record of their individual achievements is an overwhelming proof, leading to an inescapable conclusion.
The moving force in the founding of the National Federation of the Blind, and its spiritual and intellectual father, was Jacobus tenBroek. Born in 1911, young tenBroek (the son of a prairie homesteader in Canada) lost the sight of one eye as the result of a bow‑and‑arrow accident at the age of seven. His remaining eyesight deteriorated until at the age of fourteen he was totally blind. Shortly afterward he and his family traveled to Berkeley so that he could attend the California School for the Blind. Within three years he was an active part of the local organization of the blind.
By 1934 he had joined Dr. Newel Perry and others to form the California Council of the Blind, which later became the National Federation of the Blind of California. This organization was a prototype for the nationwide federation that tenBroek would form six years later.
The same year the Federation was founded (1940), Jacobus tenBroek received his doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of California, completed a year as Brandeis Research Fellow at Harvard Law School, and was appointed to the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School.
Two years later he began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, becoming a full professor in 1953, chairman of the department of speech in 1955, and professor of political science in 1963. During this period Professor tenBroek published several books and more than fifty articles and monographs in the fields of welfare, government, and law--establishing a reputation as one of the nation's foremost scholars on matters of constitutional law. One of his books, Prejudice, War, and the Constitution, won the Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Political Science Association in 1955 as the best book of the year on government and democracy. Other books are California's Dual System of Family Law (1964), Hope Deferred: Public Welfare and the Blind (1959), The Antislavery Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment (1951)--revised and republished in 1965 as Equal Under Law, and The Law of the Poor (edited in 1966).
In the course of his academic career Professor tenBroek was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto and was twice the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1947 he earned the degree of S.J.D. from Harvard Law School. In addition he was awarded honorary degrees by two institutions of higher learning.
Dr. tenBroek's lifelong companion was his devoted wife Hazel. Together they raised three children and worked inseparably on research, writing, and academic and Federation projects. Until her declining health prevented travel, Mrs. tenBroek continued as an active member of the organized blind movement. She died October 7, 2005.
In 1950 Dr. tenBroek was made a member of the California State Board of Social Welfare by Governor Earl Warren. Later reappointed to the board three times, he was elected its chairman in 1960 and served in that capacity until 1963.
The brilliance of Jacobus tenBroek's career led some skeptics to suggest that his achievements were beyond the reach of what they called the "ordinary blind person." What tenBroek recognized in himself was not that he was exceptional, but that he was normal--that his blindness had nothing to do with whether he could be a successful husband and father, do scholarly research, write a book, make a speech, guide students engaged in social action, or otherwise lead a productive life.
Jacobus tenBroek died of cancer at the age of fifty‑six in 1968. His successor, Kenneth Jernigan, in a memorial address, said truly of him: "The relationship of this man to the organized blind movement, which he brought into being in the United States and around the world, was such that it would be equally accurate to say that the man was the embodiment of the movement or that the movement was the expression of the man.
"For tens of thousands of blind Americans over more than a quarter of a century, he was leader, mentor, spokesman, and philosopher. He gave to the organized blind movement the force of his intellect and the shape of his dreams. He made it the symbol of a cause barely imagined before his coming: the cause of self‑expression, self‑direction, and self‑sufficiency on the part of blind people. Step-by-step, year-by-year, action-by-action, he made that cause succeed."
Kenneth Jernigan was a leader in the National Federation of the Blind for more than forty‑six years. He was president (with one brief interruption) from 1968 until July of 1986. Even after Jernigan ceased to be president of the Federation, he continued as one of its principal leaders until his death on October 12, 1998. He was loved and respected by tens of thousands of members and nonmembers of the Federation, both blind and sighted.
Born in 1926, Kenneth Jernigan grew up on a farm in central Tennessee. He received his elementary and secondary education at the school for the blind in Nashville. After high school Jernigan managed a furniture shop in Beech Grove, Tennessee, making all the furniture and operating the business.
In the fall of 1945 Jernigan matriculated at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. Active in campus affairs from the outset, he was soon elected to office in his class and to important positions in other student organizations. Jernigan graduated with honors in 1948 with a B.S. degree in social science. In 1949 he received a master's degree in English from Peabody College in Nashville, where he subsequently completed additional graduate study. While at Peabody he was a staff writer for the school newspaper, co‑founder of an independent literary magazine, and member of the Writers' Club. In 1949 he received the Captain Charles W. Browne Award, at that time presented annually by the American Foundation for the Blind to the nation's outstanding blind student.
Jernigan then spent four years as a teacher of English at the Tennessee School for the Blind. During this period he became active in the Tennessee Association of the Blind (now the National Federation of the Blind of Tennessee). He was elected to the vice presidency of the organization in 1950 and to the presidency in 1951. In that position he planned the 1952 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind, which was held in Nashville, and he then planned every NFB national convention through 1998.
In 1952 Jernigan was first elected to the NFB board of directors, and in 1953 he was appointed to the faculty of the California Orientation Center for the Blind in Oakland, where he played a major role in developing the best program of its kind then in existence.
From 1958 until 1978 he served as director of the Iowa State Commission for the Blind. In this capacity he was responsible for administering state rehabilitation programs, home teaching, home industries, an orientation and adjustment center, and library services for the blind and physically handicapped. The improvements made in services to the blind of Iowa under the Jernigan administration have never before or since been equaled anywhere in the country.
In 1960 the Federation presented Jernigan with its Newel Perry Award for outstanding accomplishment in services for the blind. In 1968 he was given a special citation by the president of the United States. Harold Russell, the chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, came to Des Moines to present the award. He said: "If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than anywhere else in the nation or in the world. This statement," the citation went on to say, "sums up the story of the Iowa Commission for the Blind during the Jernigan years and more pertinently of its director, Kenneth Jernigan. That narrative is much more than a success story. It is the story of high aspiration magnificently accomplished‑‑of an impossible dream become reality."
Jernigan received too many honors and awards to enumerate individually, including honorary doctorates from four institutions of higher education. He was also asked to serve as a special consultant to or member of numerous boards and advisory bodies. The most notable among these are member of the National Advisory Committee on Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (appointed in 1972 by the secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare); special consultant on services for the blind (appointed in 1975 by the federal commissioner of rehabilitation); advisor on museum programs for blind visitors to the Smithsonian Institution (appointed in 1975); special advisor to the White House Conference on Library and Information Services (appointed in 1977 by President Gerald Ford). In July of 1990 Jernigan received an award for distinguished service from the president of the United States.
To date he has been the only person ever to be invited to deliver keynote addresses to the primary gatherings of the two worldwide blindness organizations in a single year: the fourth quadrennial meeting of the World Blind Union in August 1996 and the annual meeting of the International Council for the Education of the Visually Impaired in spring 1997. In 1998 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, the first-ever International Leadership Award from the American Foundation for the Blind, and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind's Winston Gordon Award for his leadership in establishing NEWSLINE® for the Blind.
Kenneth Jernigan's writings and speeches on blindness are better known and have touched the lives of more blind people than those of any other person writing today. From 1991 until his death he edited the NFB's immensely popular series of paperbacks known as the Kernel Books. On July 23, 1975, he spoke before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and his address was broadcast live throughout the nation on National Public Radio. Through the years he appeared repeatedly on network radio and television interview programs.
In 1978 Jernigan moved to Baltimore to become executive director of the American Brotherhood for the Blind (now the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults) and director of the National Center for the Blind. As president of the National Federation of the Blind at that time, he led the organization through the most impressive period of growth in its history to date. The creation and development of the National Center for the Blind and the NFB's expansion into its position today as the most influential voice and force in the affairs of the blind stand as the culmination of Kenneth Jernigan's lifework and a tribute to his brilliance and commitment to the blind of this nation.
From 1987 to 1997 he played an active role internationally as president of the North America/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union. He traveled widely and spoke frequently before international groups about blindness and the NFB's positive philosophy that changes lives and society.
Jernigan's dynamic wife Mary Ellen remains an active member of the Federation. Although sighted, she works with dedication in the movement and is known and loved by thousands of Federationists throughout the country.
Speaking at a convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Jernigan said of the organization and its philosophy (and also of his own philosophy):
"As we look ahead, the world holds more hope than gloom for us‑‑and, best of all, the future is in our own hands. For the first time in history we can be our own masters and do with our lives what we will; and the sighted (as they learn who we are and what we are) can and will work with us as equals and partners. In other words we are capable of full membership in society, and the sighted are capable of accepting us as such‑‑and, for the most part, they want to.
"We want no Uncle Toms--no sellouts, no apologists, no rationalizers; but we also want no militant hell‑raisers or unbudging radicals. One will hurt our cause as much as the other. We must win true equality in society, but we must not dehumanize ourselves in the process; and we must not forget the graces and amenities, the compassions and courtesies which comprise civilization itself and distinguish people from animals and life from existence.
"Let people call us what they will and say what they please about our motives and our movement. There is only one way for the blind to achieve first‑class citizenship and true equality. It must be done through collective action and concerted effort; and that means the National Federation of the Blind. There is no other way, and those who say otherwise are either uninformed or unwilling to face the facts.
"We are the strongest force in the affairs of the blind today, and we must also recognize the responsibilities of power and the fact that we must build a world that is worth living in when the war is over--and, for that matter, while we are fighting it. In short, we must use both love and a club, and we must have sense enough to know when to do which‑‑long on compassion; short on hatred; and, above all, not using our philosophy as a cop‑out for cowardice or inaction or rationalization. We know who we are and what we must do--and we will never go back. The public is not against us. Our determination proclaims it; our gains confirm it; our humanity demands it."
Born in 1951, Marc Maurer was the second in a family of six children. His blindness was caused by overexposure to oxygen after his premature birth, but he and his parents were determined that this should not prevent him from living a full and normal life.
He began his education at the Iowa Braille and Sight-Saving School, where he became an avid Braille reader. In the fifth grade he returned home to Boone, Iowa, where he attended parochial schools. During high school (having taken all the courses in the curriculum), he simultaneously took classes at the junior college.
Maurer ran three different businesses before finishing high school: a paper route, a lawn care business, and an enterprise producing and marketing maternity garter belts designed by his mother. This last venture was so successful that his younger brother took over the business when Maurer left home.
In the summer of 1969, after graduating from high school, Maurer enrolled as a student at the Orientation and Adjustment Center of the Iowa Commission for the Blind and attended his first convention of the NFB. He was delighted to discover in both places that blind people and what they thought mattered. This was a new phenomenon in his experience, and it changed his life. Kenneth Jernigan was director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind at the time, and Maurer soon grew to admire and respect him. When Maurer expressed an interest in overhauling a car engine, the Commission for the Blind purchased the necessary equipment. Maurer completed that project and actually worked for a time as an automobile mechanic. He believes today that mastering engine repair played an important part in changing his attitudes about blindness.
Maurer graduated cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 1974. As an undergraduate he took an active part in campus life, including election to the Honor Society. Then he enrolled at the University of Indiana School of Law, where he received his Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1977.
Maurer was elected president of the Student Division of the National Federation of the Blind in 1971 and reelected in 1973 and 1975. Also in 1971 at the age of twenty he was elected vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Indiana. He was elected president in 1973 and reelected in 1975.
During law school Maurer worked summers for the office of the secretary of state of Indiana. After graduation he moved to Toledo, Ohio, to accept a position as the director of the Senior Legal Assistance Project operated by ABLE (Advocates for Basic Legal Equality).
In 1978 Maurer moved to Washington, D.C., to become an attorney with the Rates and Routes Division in the office of the general counsel of the Civil Aeronautics Board. Initially he worked on rates cases but soon advanced to dealing with international matters and then to doing research and writing opinions on constitutional issues and board action. He wrote opinions for the chairman and made appearances before the full board to discuss those opinions.
In 1981 he went into private practice in Baltimore, Maryland, where he specialized in civil litigation and property matters. But increasingly he concentrated on representing blind individuals and groups in the courts. He has now become one of the most experienced and knowledgeable attorneys in the country regarding the laws, precedents, and administrative rulings concerning civil rights and discrimination against the blind. He is a member of the Bar in Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, and Maryland and a member of the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Maurer has always been active in civic and political affairs, having run for the state legislature from Baltimore. Through the years he has also served on the board of directors of his apartment complex's tenants association, the board of his community association, and the school board of his children's school. In 1981 Maurer was elected president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers and served in that office until 1985. From 1984 until 1986 he served as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland.
An important companion in Maurer's activities and a leader in her own right is his wife Patricia. The Maurers were married in 1973, and they have two children--David Patrick, born March 10, 1984, and Dianna Marie, born July 12, 1987.
At the 1985 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, Kenneth Jernigan announced that he would not stand for re-election as president of the National Federation of the Blind the following year, and he recommended Marc Maurer as his successor. In Kansas City in 1986 the Convention elected Maurer by resounding acclamation, and he has served as president ever since. From 1997 to 2000 he also served as president of the North America/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union, and he chaired the WBU Committee on the Restoration of the Louis Braille Birthplace in Coupvray, France. In 2004 he became vice president of the World Blind Union North America/Caribbean Region and in 2006 reassumed the presidency.
Maurer was honored with the Maryland Black Caucus's Leadership Award in 1985, the United States Presidential Medal for Leadership in 1990, the 1990 Heritage Award from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and the Baltimore Business Journal's 1999 Innovation Award for Excellence in Workplace Technology. Recent honors include the 2002 VME Robert Dole Award and the Daily Record's 2002 Innovator of the Year award. He joined President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in July of 2001 to celebrate the success of the NFB Everest Expedition and once again when President Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The Daily Record acknowledged President Maurer's contributions again in April 2009 when he was recognized as an Influential Marylander. He received honorary degrees from California's Menlo College in 1998 and the University of Louisville in 1999. More recently he received an honorary doctorate from the University of South Carolina Upstate and the honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Notre Dame. In 1987 he delivered an address at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and in 2000 he was invited to deliver addresses on civil rights at Oxford University and Birmingham University in the United Kingdom. After Kenneth Jernigan’s death he edited the NFB's Kernel Book series of optimistic paperbacks written by blind people about blindness.
As president of the National Federation of the Blind, Maurer is boldly leading the organization into a new test of its resolve, beginning with the visionary expansion of the National Center for the Blind--the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, which was completed in the spring of 2004. The facility, located on the grounds of the National Center, has added more than 170,000 square feet to the NFB's headquarters complex. The Institute, which is the first of its kind, conceived and built by the blind for the blind, is developing innovative education, technologies, products, and services that support independence for the world's blind. One of the early products of the Institute was the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind handheld reading machine and its even smaller successor, the knfbReader Mobile, produced in conjunction with the noted futurist and inventor, Raymond Kurzweil. Maurer's unswerving determination to succeed and his absolute conviction that the organized blind are the best-equipped people to solve the problems facing them have set the tone and are guiding the organization into an exciting new period of growth and accomplishment.
Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder was born in Lima, Peru, in 1957. He and his brother Steve were adopted and moved to the United States when he was nineteen months old. Born with normal vision, Dr. Schroeder became blind at the age of seven after suffering a severe allergic reaction known as Stephens-Johnson's syndrome. The reaction did not immediately take all his sight, but his vision deteriorated gradually over a nine-year period, leaving him totally blind at the age of sixteen.
He attended public school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but received no special education services to teach him to read Braille or learn any alternative techniques that would allow him to function competitively. Although raised in New Mexico, Dr. Schroeder spent much time in San Francisco receiving medical treatment in an effort to save his vision. As a result he was living in California when he became totally blind. For this reason, following graduation from high school, Dr. Schroeder attended the Orientation Center for the Blind in Albany, California. There he found the Federation, and his involvement in the organization has been central to his life and work ever since.
Through the Federation he met blind people from all walks of life who encouraged him, eventually convincing him that he could live a normal, productive life. Dr. Schroeder attended San Francisco State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1977 and a master's degree in special education in 1978. After completing that degree, he went to work teaching cane travel in the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired's orientation center in Lincoln. For the next two years he returned each summer to California to complete postgraduate studies in orientation and mobility in order to become eligible for national certification as a cane travel teacher. This was revolutionary at the time. He was the first blind person ever to be admitted to a university program in orientation and mobility. Although he graduated with distinction, he was denied certification solely on the basis of blindness. Nevertheless, that did not stop him from continuing with his career or education. He earned a Ph.D. in education administration from the University of New Mexico in May 1994.
His professional achievements are impressive. In 1980 he returned to New Mexico to work as a teacher of blind children for the Albuquerque Public Schools. Knowing how important the Federation had been in his own life, he immediately began integrating Federation philosophy into his work. In a year he was running the program for blind children across the district. The results were dramatic and the program so effective that in the early 1980s the district's program for blind children was featured on the Today Show.
While at that time in New Mexico programs for blind children were the finest in the nation, services for blind adults were among the poorest. As president of the New Mexico affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Schroeder was deeply troubled by the lack of employment opportunities for blind people in the state.
In 1986, after a long, bitter legislative fight, the Federation succeeded in establishing the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. Dr. Schroeder was appointed the Commission's first executive director, giving him the opportunity to bring Federation philosophy into the work of the newly founded agency. In a short time the program was transformed, and soon the New Mexico Commission for the Blind stood out as the most progressive and successful rehabilitation agency in the country. Under Dr. Schroeder's leadership blind people in New Mexico were being assisted to go to work in very good jobs—in fact, jobs paying so well that they had higher earnings than blind people anywhere else in the nation.
Dr. Schroeder's accomplishments did not go unnoticed. In 1994 President Bill Clinton appointed Schroeder to serve as the ninth commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) within the U.S. Department of Education. As RSA commissioner he administered a $2.5 billion dollar program providing services to more than one million people with disabilities each year. He focused on high-quality employment--better jobs, jobs with a future, jobs enabling people to achieve a good and equitable standard of living. His crowning achievement as RSA commissioner was ending the shameful practice of placing blind people in sheltered workshops, often at subminimum wages, rather than providing training to enable them to obtain high-quality, integrated employment with better wages and the opportunity for upward mobility. Following his service as RSA commissioner, he joined the faculty of the Interwork Institute at San Diego State University. He now works as a research professor specializing in leadership and public policy in vocational rehabilitation.
His involvement in the National Federation of the Blind continues. On July 5, 2006, Dr. Schroeder was unanimously elected first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind. In addition to his service on the Federation's board of directors, since 2004 he has served as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia and often represents the Federation at national and international meetings and conferences.
Dr. Schroeder is married to Cathy Nusser Schroeder. They have two children, Carrie, born in 1981, and Matthew, born in 1983. Dr. Schroeder is the first to admit that it is the Federation that has made the difference in his life, enabling him to achieve professionally and to live a normal, productive life. In his own words, "We still have much work to do. Far too many blind people still face discrimination, still live in isolation and poverty, still lack access to the encouragement and training they need to live productive, integrated lives. Nevertheless, in spite of all that remains to be done, because of the National Federation of the Blind, opportunities are better for blind people today than at any time in history. The change we have made cannot be turned back, cannot be taken away. We have changed forever what it means to be blind, and we and society are better off as a result."
Ron Brown was born in Gary, Indiana, the first boy of eight children, to Marzette and Myra Brown on May 15, 1956. When he was a senior in high school, he became blind after he was shot on his way home from a basketball game. At the time he knew nothing about blindness and was overwhelmed by the feeling that his entire life had been radically changed in an instant. One of the first painful lessons he learned was that many of his friends could not deal with his blindness and stayed away from him. Luckily he began to make new friends, members of the National Federation of the Blind. They became inspiring role models for Ron, teaching him that it was respectable to be blind and that he could continue to strive for the goals he had set himself.
Armed with this newfound freedom, Ron graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor of science degree in health science. He then went to work at Tradewinds Rehabilitation Center in Indiana, where he met his wife Jean, who was on the staff. Eventually he was offered a job in the Business Enterprise Program. He had always wanted to own his own business, and this gave him the opportunity to do so. He has now been in business for himself for twenty years. More recently Ron returned to school to earn a master's degree in educational psychology with a certification in orientation and mobility from Louisiana Tech University. He now owns a second business, teaching cane travel to blind people in the state of Indiana. Ron has received the Mayor's Lifetime Achievement Award in Rehabilitation and the Margaret Fairbearing Outstanding Service Award for Business and Industry.
As Ron Brown has developed and matured in his personal life, his commitment to and service in the National Federation of the Blind have deepened as well. In the early years he was a chapter president and was then elected to the NFB of Indiana's board of directors. He was first elected president of the affiliate in 1996 and has been reelected every two years since. In 2001 he was elected to serve on the NFB board of directors. He served in this capacity until 2008, when the Convention elected him to serve as second vice president of the organization.
Looking back, Ron says, "Becoming a member of the national board is the fulfillment of a life dream. I have been an advocate for blind people for more than twenty-five years, and with every passing year my commitment to serving the blind of this nation increases. My life indeed changed the night I became blind but with the perspective I now have, I must say that it was for the better."
Gary Wunder was born three months prematurely in 1955, the oldest of four children. His family lived in Kansas City, Missouri, and Wunder remembers that, since he had been blind from birth, he managed to persuade everyone in his family except his father to do precisely what he wanted. It would be many years before Wunder could appreciate his father's instinctive understanding that Gary had to learn to do things for himself.
Wunder tells with amusement the story of his dawning awareness of his blindness. When he was quite young, his home had sliding glass doors separating the living room from the patio. When those doors were closed, he could not hear and therefore did not know what was happening on the other side and assumed that no one else could either. One day he found several soft drink bottles on the patio and broke them. His father then opened the doors and asked if he had broken the bottles. Gary said he had not and that he did not know how they had been broken. His father then astonished him by saying that both his parents had watched him break the bottles and that his mother was now crying because she had thought surely her baby couldn't tell a lie. Gary's response was to say, "Well, she knows better now."
Wunder attended grades one through five at a Kansas City public school. When he was ten, a boy who attended the Missouri School for the Blind persuaded him that he was missing real life by staying at home. At the school his friend told him kids rode trains and buses. They could bowl and swim and didn't have to listen to parents. As a result Wunder did some persuading at home and was on hand for sixth grade and some necessary but painful lessons about that real world.
At the close of seventh grade Wunder returned to public schools, having learned several vitally important lessons: he knew the basics of using a white cane; he recognized that his father's demands on him had sprung from strong love and eagerness for his son to succeed; and he understood that people beyond his own family had worth and deserved his respect. But he had also learned that the school for the blind was not the promised land, and he was delighted once more to be in public schools for eighth grade and high school. He was elected to the National Honor Society his senior year but struggled with the mechanics of getting his work done. Braille was not readily available, and readers were hard to recruit without money to pay them.
Wunder planned to attend the University of Missouri at Kansas City in order to live with his grandmother, but, after a taste of freedom at the orientation center in Columbia, Missouri, the summer before college, he decided to enroll at the university's Columbia campus, where everyone walked everywhere and where he could contrive as many as three or four dates an evening if he hurried from place to place.
Wunder enjoys recounting the adventure which persuaded him that a blind person should always carry a white cane: "I was having dinner with a young woman who lived near me, so I had not brought my cane, figuring that I wouldn't need it. To my consternation and her distress, my plate of liver and onions slid into my lap. She asked if I wanted her to walk me home so that I could change. I was already so embarrassed that I assured her I would be right back and that I did not need her assistance. The busiest intersection in Columbia lay between me and clean slacks, and after I successfully survived that street crossing, I swore that I would never again be caught without my cane."
Wunder decided to major in political science and philosophy because he felt compelled to avoid the science and math that he loved but feared to take. During his sophomore year he met a professor from Central Missouri State University who suggested that he was ducking the challenge. Together they explored the question of whether or not a blind person could follow schematics and read voltmeters. The answers seemed to be yes, so Wunder transferred to Central Missouri State, where he graduated in 1977 with a degree in electronics technology.
He had done well with the courses, but he did not see how he could run a repair shop with its responsibility for mastering hundreds of schematics for appliances. He could teach electronics, but the professors from whom he had learned the most were those who had firsthand experience. He didn't want to be the theory‑only kind of teacher.
Wunder looked for interim jobs after graduation while he tried to decide what to do, and he discovered the hard way that blind job‑seekers have to be better than the competition in order to be considered at all. He vowed to become so well-trained at doing something that would-be employers could not ignore him. He enrolled in a ten-month course in computer programming offered by the Extension Division of the University of Missouri. No blind person had ever entered the program before, but Wunder completed it successfully and was hired immediately (in the fall of 1978) by the Pathology Department of the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics in Columbia. Years and promotions later Wunder is still successfully working at the hospital and is now a programmer analyst-expert in the Information Services Department.
Wunder first learned about the National Federation of the Blind the summer before his senior year of high school. He says, "In the beginning I thought this talk about discrimination was a pretty good racket. No one did those things to me, and I assumed that all this Federation talk about jobs being denied and parents having children taken away from them was an effective way of raising funds. I didn't realize that my father's name and reputation in my hometown were protecting me from the worst of real life. So far I had gotten what I wanted, including a motorcycle to ride on our farm and my own horse. It was some time before I recognized that these talented and committed blind people whom I was getting to know in the Federation were trying to teach me about the world that I was going to inherit. They frightened me a little, but more and more I wanted to be like them."
In late 1973, several months after Wunder started college in Columbia, a Federation organizing team arrived to establish a new chapter, and he took an active part in the preparations. Wunder was elected president, and when he transferred to Central Missouri State two years later, he organized a chapter in Warrensburg. In 1977 Wunder was elected first vice president of the NFB of Missouri, and in 1979 he became president. Except for one two-year term he has continued in that post ever since. Wunder was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind in 1985 and in 2002 was elected secretary of the organization. In 2008 he was the recipient of the Jacobus tenBroek Award, the highest honor that the NFB bestows on any of its members, for his years of dedication and service to the Federation.
Looking back over the years of his involvement with and commitment to the Federation, Wunder says: "Despite all I learned from my parents about honor, responsibility, and the necessity to be competent, what I could never get from them was a sense of where blind people fit in a world composed mostly of sighted people. Friends and loved ones had always told me how wonderful I was (wonderful for a blind person, that is), but until I came to know members of the National Federation of the Blind, no one had the experience or knowledge to say how I could expect to measure up alongside the sighted. The NFB was the first place where I didn't get a round of applause for performing the routine activities of life. If I wanted my Federation colleagues' recognition and admiration, I had to merit them.
“It sounds contradictory, but, while I was learning that I wouldn't be applauded for insignificant accomplishments, I was also learning that I didn't have to possess special compensatory senses or talents to make my way in the world. When you believe that your only opportunity for success lies in being a musician but you know that your only musical talent is in listening and then you suddenly find that you are capable of doing the average job in the average place of business, your sense of freedom, hope, and possibility knows no bounds."
Gary now lives with his wife Debbie in their Columbia, Missouri, home, where Debbie serves as the corresponding secretary of the affiliate.
Pamela Dubel Allen was born in 1970 and grew up in Lancaster, New York. She became blind when she was approximately two years old as a result of retinal blastoma, a type of cancer. Although her parents were shocked by her loss of sight, they fortunately realized that she was still the same child except that she could no longer see. Through love and high expectations, they instilled in Pam a sense of pride and confidence in her ability to succeed. Growing up as the youngest of six children also helped her learn to be independent. Since she was the youngest, nobody, especially the brother a year older than she, let her get away with anything. Her loving family taught her never to let her blindness be a barrier to achieving her goals and dreams. Pamela attended a private Catholic school, where she was the only blind student. Her itinerant teacher provided a sound foundation in Braille, which helped her excel academically. Her parents expected her to do her best and to engage in activities that would make her a well-rounded person. She participated in horseback riding, skiing, and cheerleading during elementary school. During high school her interests shifted to performing in chorus, doing community service, and having fun with her friends.
While growing up, Pamela had limited contact with other blind people her age. In general she had no desire to associate with them. She understood that every high school senior experiences some trepidation about the transition to adulthood and independence. However, as high school graduation approached, she began to grapple with questions that her sighted peers couldn't answer. She planned to attend college, and she hoped that she would eventually find a job, but she secretly wondered if she would truly be able to obtain employment. After all, she had had difficulty finding part-time work during high school. She had also never lived on her own, and she wondered how successful she would be at that.
Although she entered college with some apprehension, she was determined to achieve her best. Her small liberal arts college provided an exciting environment in which to learn and grow. She participated in many activities and held leadership positions in a variety of organizations, but those unanswered questions continued to nag at her. If people were amazed that she could accomplish the most insignificant tasks, would they ever treat her as an equal? She realized that she had to meet other blind people with more experience than she who could serve as role models.
Her search exposed her to a number of groups and organizations of and for the blind. However, not until she attended a student seminar hosted by the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio did she begin to find the answers for which she had been searching. Although she didn't realize it at the time, the seminar marked the beginning of a new chapter of her life. At the seminar she met Barbara Pierce, then president of the NFB of Ohio, who told her about the Louisiana Center for the Blind. More than that, Barbara spoke with Joanne Wilson, the center’s director, and arranged for Pamela to complete an internship the following May. As soon as that was completed, Joanne invited her to work as a counselor in the children's summer program that year.
The National Federation of the Blind embodied the philosophy and attitudes that her family had emphasized while she was growing up. Pamela began reading the Braille Monitor and other Federation literature and was empowered by their ideas. She knew she had found a group of people who did not let blindness limit their ability to compete equally in society. She began to understand the power of collective action.
Pam was a 1991 National Federation of the Blind scholarship winner when she was a senior at Denison University, where she majored in psychology and minored in women's studies. She served as vice president of the Ohio Association of Blind Students and a board member of the National Association of Blind Students, and throughout college she worked summers for Joanne Wilson at the Louisiana Center for the Blind with the Children's Program. During these summers she witnessed the value of mentoring youth and the power of instilling a positive philosophy about blindness in children and their parents.
After graduation from college Pamela decided to become a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She recognized that she still needed to gain some confidence in her skills and in her ability to be a successful blind person.
Today Pamela Allen is the director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind after having been the director of youth services there for eight years. In that position she worked with blind infants and toddlers and their parents and also supervised the training of classroom aides to teach Braille throughout Louisiana. She coordinated summer camps and developed programs for blind children and teenagers.
People often ask her what makes the Louisiana Center for the Blind such a special place. She responds, "What sets our alumni apart from those of other kinds of rehabilitation facilities? The answer is that, by attending our center and the other centers conducted by Federationists, students are exposed to the National Federation of the Blind and its philosophy. The NFB is more than an organization; it is a loving family. Regardless of where you are, you can find members of the NFB who can give you support and encouragement when you need it. The NFB also provides a constant supply of role models who challenge you to set goals for yourself. We are a diverse community, all working together toward a common goal."
Allen recalls that she used to believe that she did not need other blind people. She thought that being independent meant succeeding without the help of others. Her involvement in the National Federation of the Blind has taught her that this is not true. She has learned that she needs reinforcement from her blind colleagues and friends.
Pamela lives in Ruston, Louisiana, with her husband Roland Allen, a Federation leader in his own right and an orientation and mobility instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She is currently the president of the NFB of Louisiana and secretary of the National Association of Blind Rehabilitation Professionals. In July of 2002 she was elected to the National Federation of the Blind board of directors. Four years later, in 2006, she was elected to serve as treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind. After becoming executive director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, Pamela helped with the development of the graduate programs for blindness professionals and now serves on the advisory board of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. Allen is also involved in a variety of community and professional organizations, including serving as a board member of the local Chamber of Commerce and as a gubernatorial appointee to the Louisiana Rehabilitation Council. She says, "Being elected to the national board has allowed me to give back and to spread the message of our movement. I have been mentored by many, and I am honored to serve."
Today Amy Rut Buresh says, “My blindness is simply another of my characteristics, like my auburn hair.” She didn’t always feel that way. Amy Rut was born prematurely June 4, 1974, in Fairbury, Nebraska, and has been blind since then from retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). When she was five, her family moved from their farm to Nebraska City so that she could attend the Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped (NSVH). Her parents made the difficult decision to relocate to a new community far away from family, friends, and all they knew so that Amy could continue to live at home during her school years rather than in a dormitory. Young Amy received a solid education and had a normal family life, complete with two pesky little brothers, family campouts, picnics, dress-up, and backyard sports. Amy has said her family’s sacrifice was crucial to her peace of mind in her formative years, and she has always been grateful her parents made the choice they did.
While a student at NSVH, Amy received training in many blindness skills, the most critical of which was Braille, which helped her to excel academically. She participated in countless musicals, the track team, cheerleading, and speech competition. In her freshman year Amy began taking classes at the public school in Nebraska City. Although she was active in extracurricular activities, including service as president of her school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, she found it hard to make friends. She recalls that throughout her public school years she sat through many lonely lunches. With an outgoing personality she easily made acquaintances, but no one invited her to parties or asked her to go to the movies.
Amy took piano lessons from kindergarten through her sophomore year, and voice lessons from her freshman to her senior year. She still sings at churches, banquets, and karaoke as often as she can. She taught summer enrichment courses on the basics of Braille to school children in her hometown. Through the Nebraska Human Resources Department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, she also participated in a Big-Sister-style program, in which she was paired with a blind elementary school student whom she continued to mentor well after the program’s conclusion.
Growing up, Amy had few positive blind role models and limited contact with her blind peers. During her teenage years she first participated in youth programs sponsored by the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (NCBVI), where she gained many valuable skills and met her future husband.
For several summers Amy worked as a volunteer counselor at the Summer Kids Independence Program (SKIP) Camp, a program for children ages five to twelve, sponsored by NCBVI. She wanted to share with other blind youth the things she had learned during her high school journey: which plans had worked for her, and which hadn’t. She believed then and believes more absolutely today that mentoring is important in improving one’s attitude toward blindness and a great way to learn how to handle being different in our society.
Whether at home or at school, participating in music, academics, or athletics, Amy was successfully working and competing with her sighted peers. She was even named second runner-up in the 1990 Nebraska City Miss Applejack Pageant. Yet in addition she had to face another, deeply personal aspect of life. As a senior in high school she began wrestling with life questions that neither her family and teachers nor her sighted peers could answer. Could she really be successful as an independent blind adult? Would she ever marry and have a family? What about employment? Could she get a job and do it well?
Following graduation, Amy began conquering her fears and seeking answers to these nagging questions by attending the Orientation Training Center of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Lincoln. There she was first introduced to the underpinning philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind and, equally important, to kind and inspirational Federationists.
Armed with newfound confidence and skills, Amy enrolled in Peru State College, graduating with a BS in psychology, sociology, and criminal justice. Throughout her time on campus she was active as a peer mentor, in student senate, and in residence hall government. She also soloed and toured with the concert choir. She helped found and held several offices in the Association for Challenged and Enabled Students (ACES), a group dedicated to breaking down stereotypes and removing discrimination against those with disabilities. ACES sought to educate the nondisabled public about the challenges people with disabilities face. During her years at Peru State College Amy began working with women and children who experience domestic violence, a field to which she still devotes time when she can. She served as a volunteer counselor for a nonprofit in Southeast Nebraska and other agencies. She has worked tirelessly as an advocate, role model, and leader for both women and the blind. She attributes her success with blind people to her discovery of and involvement in the National Federation of the Blind.
In 1993 the NFB of Nebraska established a scholarship program, and Amy won that first scholarship. With this award she faced a turning point in the evolution of her personal philosophy and in her affiliation with the National Federation of the Blind. Growing up, she had been warned that the NFB was an organization of militants whom she should avoid. Thanks to the scholarship program, she attended her first state convention in the fall of 1993, discovered the warmth of the members of the NFB and the important work we are doing, and hasn't looked back since.
In fact, the very next year, in October of 1994, Amy and a handful of other concerned blind Nebraska students were granted the charter for the Nebraska Association of Blind Students within the Nebraska affiliate. She was elected president of the student division, an office she held for two years.
Since those early days in the Federation, Amy has held a number of chapter and affiliate positions in Nebraska. In 2003 she was elected to serve as affiliate president, and in the summer of 2006 she was elected by the Convention to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind.
Amy and her husband Shane (a leader and dedicated Federationist in his own right) live in Lincoln with their son Noah (born May 2, 2006). She is employed as a rehabilitation counselor with the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Dan Burke says about himself, “I was born a poor-sighted child, but I was in my mid-thirties before I admitted to myself that the visual techniques I employed at work and at home were less functional than those of friends who had no vision.” By that time in his life he had been a single father for six years, completed a master's degree, worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, and served on the board of the Montana Association for Rehabilitation.
Dissatisfied with the limitations presented by his lack of alternative blindness skills, he began to seek out colleagues who were blind to find out how they used alternative techniques such as the white cane and Braille. One of those colleagues was a member of the National Federation of the Blind.
Although he'd heard of the NFB, Burke had not been willing to adopt its ideas. He was now ready to test its version of the truth about blindness—that he did not have to accept a life of diminished achievement. With effective skills and healthy attitudes he could gain and enjoy the personal and professional opportunities made possible by his innate talents. Soon he was carrying a long white cane, taking part in a Braille self-study group with other Federationists, and referring to himself as "blind," rather than "visually impaired" or "legally blind." He found his life was being transformed for the better.
Burke was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1957, the first of four children--three of whom would be diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive condition leading to blindness. Burke’s parents did all they could to help their children live normal, active lives. Because of their efforts he grew up with a love of the natural environment of Colorado and competent in outdoor activities such as fishing, backpacking, and camping. On the other hand, because his family did not know about the NFB's philosophy or the achievements of its thousands of blind members, for them blindness was a looming tragedy in the future of the family. Without access to better counsel, they accepted the assumption that the more their children could see, the better off they would be. They dreaded the future. Thus Burke grew up believing that even poor strategies that relied on his remaining vision were superior to blindness and nonvisual skills. He remembers always being assigned to the front row in school so that he could see the blackboard; indeed he continued to accept front-row seating when reading the board was no longer possible.
When he was sixteen, Burke was denied a driver's license because of poor vision, and his parents appealed for a restricted license in the belief that a normal life for Dan would require a driver’s license to approximate the experience of his friends. The restricted license was denied, and he was secretly relieved. His grades were below his potential in high school, but he was admitted to the University of Northern Colorado. Just before his graduation from high school, his mother learned of a teacher of blind students in the district, and with her advice Burke took the ACT, using a reader for the first time. He also learned about recorded textbooks. Using readers and listening to recorded texts were the only alternative skills he took with him to college, where he struggled with shame and embarrassment despite excelling in many courses. Throughout college and for some years afterward, he cast about for career options that he considered realistic for a blind person. But without a proper understanding of blindness skills and knowing no successful blind people, he received and acted upon consistent advice to ignore his dreams and to lower his personal expectations.
In 1982 Burke moved from Colorado to Montana, but as his vision progressively worsened, his frustrations and disappointments grew. Eventually he completed a graduate degree in rehabilitation counseling at the University of Montana at Billings and went to work again. After moving to Missoula in 1992 with his seven-year-old son Sean, he was faced with new responsibilities as a single parent. "I couldn't tell my son he couldn't participate in soccer or Cub Scouts because his father was blind," he recalls. "I couldn't continue to let my world shrink--and his as well." Thus began Burke’s quest for blind role models and better techniques for dealing with vision loss.
In 1997 Burke headed for New Orleans to attend his first NFB convention. Of that experience he says: "I had eliminated so many careers for myself because I didn't think a blind person could succeed in them; suddenly at this convention I found blind people who had been doing those jobs--many of them since long before I had decided they couldn't be done by a blind person." That's when Burke began to understand the power of the NFB and its philosophy. He went home and became active in his local chapter and state affiliate. He attended Washington Seminars and lobbied for Braille literacy and changes in the Rehabilitation Act. He became involved in the reimplementation of the blind vendors program in Montana. In 2001 he helped draft and pass a purchasing requirement for state government to buy technology that was accessible by nonvisual means, and in 2005 he worked on the passage of Braille literacy legislation in Montana as well as other key legislation affecting the blind of the state.
Although his parents hadn't known the truth about blindness, they had taught him not to accept the status quo, to approach problems creatively, to get involved, and to give back to his community. With his discovery of the truth about blindness through the National Federation of the Blind, his growth as an individual now sure of his ability to handle the normal give and take of life along with his peers was complete. The NFB philosophy added to his parents’ philosophy gave him the confidence to change his life as well as the techniques with which to do it. Since finding the NFB and its positive philosophy of blindness, he has devoted much of his time and effort to the organization. He was elected to his affiliate's board of directors in 2002 and to the office of affiliate first vice president in 2003. At the 2005 Montana convention he was elected affiliate president. Then, on July 5, 2006, he was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind.
Burke lives in Missoula, Montana, where he continues to enjoy the outdoors and other hobbies. He is the assistant director of disability services at the University of Montana and serves on the board of Montana Business Enterprises, Inc. He also serves on the board of VSA Arts Montana and the Montana Vocational Rehabilitation Council.
"I may have been born a poor-sighted child," Burke reflects, "but embracing my blindness, accepting NFB philosophy, and learning from my friends in the Federation have made my life immeasurably rich."
Patti Gregory-Chang was born in May of 1963. She never had vision in her right eye and has been blind since the age of twelve, when the sight in her left eye began failing as a result of microthalmia. For Patti, however, her blindness is no more interesting or important than any of her other characteristics, such as being a woman or an attorney.
Growing up in Harbor Springs, Michigan, Patti lived a normal life, learning early that blindness was not a tragedy. “We lived in town. My younger brother Gerry and I hung out. I did winter sports and worked a little in the summer. My parents (Eve Lauer and Donald Gregory) did a good job of treating me like anyone else. They had high expectations,” she said. After graduating from Harbor Springs High School in 1981, Patti planned to attend school with hopes of becoming a teacher of the vision impaired. After earning her teaching certificate at Michigan State University, she discovered a passion for law and enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School.
Patti graduated from law school in 1988 and has worked in the City of Chicago Law Department ever since. She began her tenure there in the Traffic Division and then worked her way up to assistant corporation counsel. In this position she prosecuted housing court matters in the Circuit Court of Cook County and handled collection matters for the Building and Land Use Litigation Division of the City of Chicago Law Department.
In 1998 Patti became senior assistant corporation counsel for the City of Chicago Law Department. In this role she prosecutes cases, supervises attorneys prosecuting cases, coordinates law clerks and externs, and serves on various committees and task forces. She belongs to several professional associations and is an officer in the Administrative Law Section Council of the Illinois State Bar Association.
Patti first joined the National Federation of the Blind in 1981 in Michigan. She moved to Illinois in 1985 and has been increasingly active ever since. She served as Chicago Chapter president and as first vice president of the Illinois affiliate before becoming president in 2006. She was elected to the National Federation of the Blind board of directors in 2008. “The NFB is huge. When I found the NFB, I realized that its philosophy was the same as the one I had fortunately grown up with–blind people are able to live full and productive lives just like any sighted person. We want the same chances to succeed as everyone else. With the right techniques, blindness can be reduced to an inconvenience rather than being a tragedy.”
The NFB’s monthly magazine, the Braille Monitor, has published several articles by Patti on a variety of blindness topics. She is also a frequent contributor to the Illinois State Bar Association Administrative Law Section newsletter. Patti and her husband Francisco Chang have raised two children. Francisco is an RN with several national certifications. They were married in 1984. “I love to brag about my kids, John, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and Julia, who attends Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago. They both excel academically and care about people. They are really special,” she said.
Patti and Francisco work to strike a balance among the priorities in their lives: work, family, philanthropy, and play. Francisco has tricitizenship because he is of Chinese descent and was raised in Belize. As a result of her husband’s experiences, Patti administered practice exams and review sessions for permanent residents trying to obtain U.S. citizenship at the Pui Tak Center in Chicago from 2002 to 2006.
“When we find time in our busy schedules, one of our favorite things to do is travel,” Patti said. “We have traveled extensively in Central America, and most recently we visited Mexico.” Wherever the Changs go, they illustrate the NFB’s core belief that blind people are normal people who cannot see, and their lives and contributions can be as rich and valuable as those of anyone else.
Parnell Diggs was part of the initial generation of Braille-reading students to enter first grade in the public schools of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was 1975, and the president of the United States had just signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the landmark legislation guaranteeing all disabled children the right to a “free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment.”
Diggs had been born blind because of detached retinas, and two things were absolutely certain. First, public school officials in Charlotte at the time did not want to admit him to a classroom with sighted children, and second, they had no choice but to do so if the school system was to qualify for public funding. Further complicating the matter was the fact that Bill and Nancy Diggs simply refused to accept the limitations for their son that society ordinarily placed on blind children.
Young Diggs did not disappoint. He unequivocally demonstrated that he could acquire the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic alongside his sighted peers. But he always looked forward to the end of the school day. In the yards, woods, and streets of his childhood, he climbed trees, rode bikes, shot BB guns, and played quarterback on the neighborhood Pop Warner football team after his family relocated to Columbia, South Carolina.
He taught his younger brother Holland how to play first base, how to step out of the batter’s box until he was ready for the pitch, and how to wrestle. Holland was sighted, and he taught Parnelli--his family called him Parnelli--the things in life most of us take for granted: how to dance, shrug his shoulders, and give the thumbs-up sign. They remained close until Holland’s untimely death in 2005 at the age of thirty-three.
In high school Diggs participated on the varsity wrestling team and made the South Carolina Honors All-State Chorus, and, while his friends were earning spending cash bagging groceries, he was earning good money singing and playing the guitar in Columbia area restaurants.
In 1989 Diggs met Kenneth Jernigan and Donald Capps, two leaders who had dedicated their lives to helping their blind brothers and sisters. Jernigan and Capps shared a message of promise and achievement for the blind and talked about how the blind could accomplish more through collective action. Diggs quickly embraced their reasoning and passion. Before long he recognized that the full integration of blind people into society would be his life’s work; and though he was busy double-majoring in political science and religious studies, working, and maintaining a social calendar, it seemed to him that the best way to help himself as a blind person was to become a member of the National Federation of the Blind.
In 1991 Diggs was invited to participate in an NFB leadership seminar, where he received intensive instruction from NFB President Marc Maurer. Diggs was strongly influenced by Maurer’s leadership style and has put much of what he learned during that seminar into practice in carrying out his own leadership responsibilities since that time. It was also in 1991 that Diggs attended his first National Federation of the Blind convention during the week of July 4. Before arriving in New Orleans that summer, he had read Dr. Floyd Matson’s eleven-hundred-page history of the first fifty years of the National Federation of the Blind, Walking Alone and Marching Together, in its entirety and any other related materials he could find.
Diggs was learning that other blind people thought as he did: that blind people could exceed society’s expectations. But the key to full integration was acceptance by society to the places where sighted people lived and worked. In short, he came to know that complete social acceptance of the blind lies at the intersection of training and opportunity.
By the summer of 1992 Diggs had completed his first year of law school and was working as a law clerk at the South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, the state agency responsible for handling criminal appeals and post conviction relief applications for indigent defendants. There he acquired the skills of legal research and oral argument and learned to interact with clients in the facilities of the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Walking into the Edisto Unit of the Broad River Correctional Institution was perhaps the most memorable experience for Diggs during his time at Appellate Defense.
This was where they housed death row inmates in the early nineties, recalls Diggs. “There is nothing like walking through five or six sets of heavy metal electronic doors, each set slamming behind you as you move deeper into the facility, and never more than one set is open at a time. It created the feeling that any attempt to escape would be futile.”
Diggs accepted a position as a law clerk in a private firm in 1993 and continued to hold this position after he was hired as a page in the South Carolina Senate. At one point in 1994 Diggs, a newlywed, was juggling his final semester of law school with two part-time jobs. He had married Kimberly Dawn Gossett (his high school sweetheart) on May 22, 1993. In 1995 the couple relocated to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when he accepted a full-time position with the South Carolina Commission for the Blind, where he had responsibility for administering rehabilitation programs for the agency in a four-county area. In 1997, at the age of twenty-eight, he opened a private law practice in Myrtle Beach, where he remains in practice today.
Diggs was first elected to the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina board of directors in 1992, and he has been reelected every two years since. He was appointed by Governor Jim Hodges to the governing board of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind in 1999 and again in 2002 and was twice confirmed by the state senate. This appointment made him the only person ever to have been a client, an employee, and a member of the governing board of the South Carolina Commission for the Blind.
In 2000 Donald Capps announced that he would not seek reelection as president of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina and recommended that Diggs be elected in his stead. He was elected unanimously and has held the presidency ever since. In 2007 the nation’s blind community elected him unanimously to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind. In 2010 NFB President Maurer appointed Diggs to serve as national chairman of the NFB Imagination Fund, where he inaugurated the Race for Independence, a campaign to make mainstream technology, including a vehicle, fully accessible to blind people.
As a private practitioner Diggs has argued before the United States Court of Appeals in the 4th and 8th Circuits and has represented some three hundred clients in federal administrative proceedings. While he is no longer playing requests in local restaurants, music continues to be an important part of his life. He sings first tenor in the Carolina Master Chorale in Myrtle Beach and serves on the organization’s board of directors. Diggs sang the role of Remendado in the Carolina Master Chorale’s production of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen in June of 2006.
The Diggses have one son, Jordan, born on January 12, 2000. As he pondered his son’s future, Diggs made the following observation: “Jordan will be told that he is less fortunate than other children because his dad is blind—but, thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, he won’t believe it. Blindness is not a tragedy. With proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance. I am determined that this is the message of blindness that my son will hear most.”
Michael Freeman was born more than two months prematurely on October 30, 1948, in Vancouver, Washington. He spent his early childhood just across the Columbia River in Portland, Oregon, beginning his education in the Portland public schools. Later he attended the Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB) in Vancouver and ultimately graduated from the city's Columbia River High School, where he was a member of the National Honor Society.
In the fall of 1966 Mike matriculated at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, receiving commendation by vote of the faculty for outstanding academic achievement at the end of his freshman year. He graduated from Reed with a BA in physics. He briefly ventured away from the Pacific Northwest to earn his MS in physics from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
For over thirty years Michael has been a computer systems programmer at the Bonneville Power Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Energy. He provides mainstream information technology support to a large and technically diverse staff. While he believes that his blindness definitely kept him from finding employment as a physicist, he good-naturedly admits that in the middle 1970s scientists were a dime a dozen and that many of his colleagues also found careers in complex computer systems programming. He says, "I've had fun here. I've found my work at the BPA to be a rewarding and intellectually stimulating experience."
Michael's talents are reflected as much by his personal interests and accomplishments as they are in his professional achievements. He speaks fluent German, and he is able to converse competently in French and Spanish. He plays several musical instruments, most notably piano. Michael recalls the honor of playing George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra in 1971 at twenty-three. An amateur radio operator since 1962, he now holds an amateur extra class license. He is a voracious reader, particularly interested in military and political history, foreign affairs, economics, fire science, the natural sciences, music, and medicine.
"I became aware of the National Federation of the Blind shortly after graduating from high school when I began applying for college scholarships. I received an NFB Howard Brown Rickard Scholarship in the late 1960s. Bennett Prows, a longtime Federationist, introduced me to the writings of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the NFB's founder. Dr. tenBroek's erudite style and message that blindness need not be a tragedy and could be reduced to a physical nuisance--a message of common sense and hope--expressed my thinking exactly. Being a skeptic, it took me several years to join the NFB, but it was the best decision I have ever made."
Michael returned to Vancouver in 1978 and helped establish the Clark County chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington in early 1983. He began serving as first vice president of the Washington affiliate in 1984, becoming its president for a term in 1996. He has served as affiliate president continuously since 2003. In 2005 he became diabetic. In 2008 he was elected president of the Diabetes Action Network, the NFB division for diabetics.
Michael's work as an activist in the Federation is most evident in his success as the Washington State affiliate's legislative chair for the last thirty years. He has led campaigns to pass strong Braille literacy legislation (1996); first-in-the-nation consumer guide dog protections (1988); and progressive reforms strengthening the Washington State School for the Blind, making it a stand-alone agency of state government (1985). In the same year that the affiliate realized the WSSB victory, Michael also orchestrated early landmark nondiscrimination legislation making it unlawful to deem a parent or guardian of a minor neglectful or abusive solely by virtue of his or her blindness. He is the proud father of Shanthi Anne Freeman, his adopted multiply-disabled daughter from India; she was born in November 1989.
"The NFB has offered me the chance to do my part to educate society that it is respectable to be blind, to make life better for the blind, and to promote the integration of the blind into society. I am grateful for the opportunity that the NFB has given me to pay the debt I owe to those who have made possible the civil rights and the chance to succeed that I enjoy. In working for the goals of the NFB, I have helped myself too, for I have proved to myself that it is respectable to be blind."
John Fritz was born in September of 1966. He was raised on a family dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin. He is the oldest of five children. He was lucky enough to have parents who made him learn the value of hard work early on. “We were a farm family, and I was the oldest son. I was expected to help with the chores and work outside with my dad.” He was born legally blind but had some sight. This diminished to light perception by the age of three. He believed at an early age that sight was not a requirement to be successful.
John attended the Wisconsin School for the Blind from kindergarten through the seventh grade, primarily because the public school didn’t believe a blind child could be served in his hometown. In seventh grade he was able to persuade the school counselor to allow him to transfer back to his local public school. He remembers this being a very difficult adjustment. Having lived at the school for the blind for seven years and been away from his siblings, he found it hard to return and take his place again. They had to get to know each other again. “I realized how much I was missing out on at home,” he said.
John graduated from Fennimore High School with honors in 1985. Before and after school he was responsible for milking cows and helping with general farm work. He earned his letter in wrestling and played trumpet in pep band, marching band, and concert band. His most significant accomplishments came in Future Farmers of America (FFA). He was involved with an extemporaneous speaking competition, the Creed Speaking Contest; dairy judging; and parliamentary procedure. He placed fourth in the nation in computers in agriculture and achieved the American Farmer Degree. He also served as president of his FFA chapter for two years.
John attended the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, where he graduated with honors in 1989 with a major in animal science, emphasizing dairy management, nutrition, and reproduction. He also earned a minor in computer science. While in college he participated in the academic decathlon in agriculture and in seven academic clubs and organizations.
In these years John got his first dose of the low expectations many professionals have for blind students. When he told his Department for Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) counselor that he wanted to be a veterinarian, his counselor informed him that, if he pursued that career, DVR wouldn’t fund him. The counselor announced that a blind person wouldn’t be able to be a veterinarian. So John told the DVR counselor to leave. That day he learned quickly that, if he wanted to pursue his goals, he needed to find a way to pay for college himself. He found part-time jobs, work-study assignments, and scholarships to pay his way.
“The most significant event of my life occurred the summer of my sophomore year when I won a National Federation of the Blind scholarship in Phoenix, Arizona,” John said. This was his first exposure to the NFB. He was relieved to find peers doing similar things and blind people with the same philosophy. He realized during that convention that he had finally found the biggest and most reliable source of information any blind college student could ever have--other blind people. While attending college, he continued to work on the farm on weekends. College provided him the opportunity to advocate for himself and become a self-sufficient person.
John started working on the family dairy farm right after graduating from college. By this time he had decided that the dairy farm was the immediate need, and veterinary school would have to wait. He was responsible for the day-to-day operations and management of the farm, where he milked sixty-five registered Brown Swiss cows. In 1991 he started working part-time for a local computer store as a computer technician. His main responsibility was repairing computers. The next year he became store manager, where his responsibilities included the day-to-day operation of the store, sales, and service. He left the farm and moved to town. He continued at this job for six years. In 1995 he married Heather Ross. They met during the 1992 NFB convention in Charlotte, but started dating after running into each other again during the Dallas convention in 1993. In 1997 he accepted a job with the Louisiana Center for the Blind as the computer instructor. He describes it as a very rewarding experience because it provided the opportunity for him to absorb fully and live the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind each day. While in Louisiana John and Heather Fritz started their family. Lindsey was born in 1998, Christina was born in 1999, Mark was sponsored from Korea in 2001, and Andrew was born in 2002.
In 2003 John made the difficult decision to leave his job and friends at the center and return home to Wisconsin with Heather's parents, who had just retired to Wisconsin from California, to begin his own vending business with the Business Enterprise program. This is what he continues to do today. In 2005 the Fritzes adopted their daughter Katie from China at the age of six. In 2006 John and Heather built their dream home for their growing family, on fifteen acres in Kendall, Wisconsin. He also built a warehouse for his business, J&H Vending, Inc.
John says that he was honored to be elected president of the NFB of Wisconsin in 2006. He has enjoyed working with the affiliate, divisions, and the blind of Wisconsin. In 2008 he was elected to the National Federation of the Blind board of directors. He remains busy with the state affiliate, along with being a member of Lions Club, the local Ham Radio Club, and various other clubs and organizations. He also finally gets to spend some time watching his children grow--all five of them. Child number six, Jacob Fritz, adopted from India and born in May 2005, took his place among his new family in the summer of 2009.
Reflecting on his life and work, John says, “The National Federation of the Blind doesn’t prescribe what a blind person should do or even what he or she can do. It merely invites every blind person to dream and work to achieve those dreams. Its members blaze trails for one another and cheer each other along the way.”
Jim Gashel was born in 1946 and grew up in Iowa. After his early introduction to the National Federation of the Blind as Kenneth Jernigan’s student at the Iowa Commission for the Blind during the 1960s, he has been devoted to serving the blind community in various capacities. A 1969 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa with work toward a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Iowa, Jim started his career teaching speech and English for one year in Pipestone, Minnesota. He then accepted a position as assistant director at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in Des Moines. With that move he found his calling working with the blind and finding ways of solving the problems that face them as individuals and as a minority.
On January 1, 1974, Jim joined the staff of the National Federation of the Blind as chief of the Washington office, where he became one of the best known advocates for the blind of the United States, combining his commitment to blind people with his interest in the political process. As the Federation's scope and influence evolved, so did his roles and responsibilities. In his professional career of almost thirty-four years with the Federation, he held the positions of director of governmental affairs and executive director for strategic initiatives. Jim's Federation work led to significant changes in virtually every law directly affecting blind Americans: the Social Security Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Randolph-Sheppard Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Copyright Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Help America Vote Act. In addition to championing these causes, Jim has won the love and respect of the thousands of blind men and women across America who have directly benefited from his informed and effective personal advocacy. No matter what his position, through his drive and devotion to Federationism, Jim has earned the informal title of the organization's nonlawyer lawyer.
With his first wife Arlene, Jim is the father of three adult children and the grandfather of six. His daughter Andrea Beasley has four children, and his son Eric and his daughter Valerie each have one child.
During Jim’s service at the NFB, he received the Commissioner's Award for Outstanding Leadership in Rehabilitation Services to the Disabled, the highest honor presented by the commissioner of the United States Rehabilitation Services Administration. He is also a recipient of the secretary of labor's Outstanding American Award. In 2001 Jim and his second wife, Betsy Zaborowski, jointly received the NFB’s highest honor, the Jacobus tenBroek Award, honoring them for their achievements through decades of leadership in work with the blind.
Jim joined K-NFB Reading Technology, Inc., as vice president for business development in April 2007. In his final position with the Federation--executive director for strategic initiatives--he led the public introduction and launch of the Kurzweil—National Federation of the Blind Reader, the world’s first truly portable text-to-speech reading device for the blind. As part of this effort he raised and administered the funds necessary to support pre-release beta testing, product announcement, and public promotional efforts to bring the product to market in 2006. Jim's employment with K-NFB Reading Technology, Inc., has brought him full circle in his career since, after first meeting Ray Kurzweil in April 1975, he also organized and raised the funds necessary to test and launch the original Kurzweil Reading Machine, released in 1977 as the world’s first text-to-speech reading system for the blind.
Jim was elected to the NFB's national board of directors in 2008 to fill an unexpired term and was reelected in 2009. He brings to the board both expertise and contacts in the blindness field and an abiding commitment to the work of the NFB. In accepting his 2001 Jacobus tenBroek Award, Jim offered comments that remain relevant today and reflect his approach to our mission. "All I would ask is that all of you remember that it's all of our responsibilities to go out and work for the movement. We can't all go out and climb a mountain like Erik [Weihenmayer] did, and we can't all do the wonderful things that every one of you do all the time, or raise five or six million dollars like Betsy did, but we can all work for this movement. We all have a place in it." Jim’s place is absolutely unique.
Mary Catherine Brothers (Cathy) was born on October 25, 1949, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Charles and Catherine Brothers. She is the third of nine children, four girls and five boys.
Cathy was born with congenital cataracts. In 1949 few resources were available to parents of blind children. The National Federation of the Blind was only nine years old, and the Kentucky affiliate was only two years old. The Brothers family had not heard of either. Her parents had never known any other blind people and couldn't imagine what the future might hold for their daughter. However, they decided that a commonsense approach was their best avenue. Luckily for Cathy, they never considered any approach to raising their blind daughter other than the methods they were using to raise their two older boys.
After several eye surgeries Cathy gained some usable vision in her right eye. At age five she was enrolled in a Roman Catholic school. Her parents chose this educational setting since the school offered a sight-saving class, where she would have access to large-print books and other materials that would make classroom work easier. Then in the fall of 1960 Cathy was enrolled at the Kentucky School for the Blind, where she remained until graduating from high school in 1967. Her parents and teachers decided that it would be more beneficial for her to attend school where she would have access to all of her textbooks in large print and, perhaps more important, where she could learn Braille.
This was Cathy's first exposure to totally blind peers and adults. Although she had been around other vision-impaired students at her elementary school, the majority of them could see considerably better than she. She and her parents soon learned that blindness was simply a physical condition, certainly not one that would keep her from achieving whatever goals she set for herself. During these seven years while attending the Kentucky School for the Blind, she began to learn not to be ashamed of her blindness. She learned to advocate for herself and others. Being student council president during her junior and senior years launched her political career.
During the summer of 1967 Cathy attended the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. An ill-advised rehabilitation counselor thought this training would be the crowning touch to prepare her for college in the fall. That summer school Lighthouse class of 1967 was comprised of very bright, outgoing, normal young adults, who turned the tables on the Lighthouse staff and teachers. As Cathy remembers the experience, the adults were the ones to get the education when the students refused to be bound by the low expectations and negative attitudes of the staff. At this point in her life she still had not heard about the National Federation of the Blind but was already preaching and practicing NFB philosophy.
Upon graduation from high school Cathy attended Spalding University, formerly Catherine Spalding College in Louisville, Kentucky. She majored in psychology; minored in sociology; and took an active part in academic, student government, and social organizations. The blindness skills and attitudes she had learned at the Kentucky School for the Blind and even the negative attitudes she had been exposed to at the Lighthouse the summer before college were beginning to pay dividends. Cathy was growing into an adult with increasingly resolute convictions and positive attitudes.
In 1972 Cathy met Betty Niceley, the longtime leader of the Kentucky affiliate and for many years a member of the NFB board of directors. The rest is history. This friendship began her formal Federation education. Although Cathy was slow to join the Federation, Betty never gave up on recruiting her. In 1975 Cathy became a member of the Louisville Association of the Blind, the former name of the local NFB chapter. Through the years Cathy eventually served as secretary, vice president, and president of the National Federation of the Blind of Greater Louisville. She was also treasurer of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille of Kentucky. In the Kentucky affiliate she has served as board member, treasurer, first vice president, and now president. At the 2002 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind held in Louisville, she was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind.
Cathy has held a variety of jobs through the years. During college she was employed at the Kentucky Industries for the Blind (now LC Industries for the Blind) to do seasonal contract work. For a short time after college Cathy worked for the state of Kentucky as a social worker in the Food Stamp Office. After staying home to raise her daughter, Cathy has worked successively as the program coordinator for the National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky Braille Service Center, a clerical support staff member in a law office, and the Braille clerk for the Jefferson County school system. Cathy will retire from the Jefferson County School System at the end of the 2009-2010 school year. But her favorite job of all was stay-at-home mom to her daughter Dana Nicole. She volunteered as a classroom aide, did substitute teaching, and worked as a secretary in the principal's office. She served as president of the school Parent Teacher Association, secretary of the athletic club, and member of the parish council. In addition she coached both the peewee basketball team and the cheerleading squad. At this stage of her life, Cathy is content to spend as much time as possible with her granddaughters, Hana and Haley.
Cathy has received a number of awards for academic and athletic achievement, but the two awards she cherishes most are the Susan B. Rarick and Harold L. Reagan awards presented to her by the NFB of Kentucky. Cathy comments that her roots and commitment to the NFB go deep and that the past twenty-seven years are just the beginning.
Carl Jacobsen was born on December 22, 1946, and raised in Brooklyn, New York, where his father had immigrated from Norway and his mother from Scotland. When he was fifteen, he lost his sight over a four-month period due to Lieber’s syndrome. Although it would be some time before he found the NFB, Carl says he employed Federation philosophy in his approach to his blindness from the day he learned his diagnosis.
He transferred from Brooklyn Tech to Erasmus Hall High School because that's where the resource room was located. At Erasmus he met two adults who would have a positive influence on his life: his resource teacher, Sam Ellis, and his orientation and mobility instructor, Ed Townes. Carl tells the story of how this instructor, now a member of Congress, gave him a dry cleaning claim ticket and some cash and told him to pick up his suit. When Carl asked where the dry cleaner was located, Townes responded that, since he was such a wise guy, he could figure it out for himself. While at Erasmus, Carl also met Sally Rupp, one of the volunteer readers in the resource room, whom he would later marry. After graduation from high school Carl attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, for two years while Sally attended nursing school in Brooklyn. They decided the separation was too stressful, however, so Carl left school to marry Sally.
Soon he and Sally began their family with son Bradley and daughter Christine, born during their first five years of marriage. Later, in 1991, they adopted their son Andrew from Korea. While the older children were growing up, Carl returned to school and finished his bachelor's degree at Hunter College in New York City, majoring in history, political science, and comparative religion. He also pursued graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary for three years but decided not to seek ordination.
Carl attended his first NFB national convention in 1989 and has missed only one since, the year his wife Sally was critically ill. In the fall of 1989 he was elected second vice president of the New York affiliate. In 1991 he was elected president of the New York City Chapter, an office he held until 2005. Later that year he was elected first vice president of the state affiliate and subsequently elected affiliate president in 1997, a position he continues to hold. Carl also served on the board of directors of the National Association of Blind Merchants until July of 2006.
Throughout his life Carl has pursued various careers, including factory management and business enterprise management. He says his favorite work is teaching. Though he has never taught school, in addition to training entrants into the Randolph-Sheppard Program, he works with blind children and teens on cane travel and other blindness skills as well as on attitudes about blindness. He also gives presentations to parents and educators of blind children on the truth about blindness the Federation way. Throughout the 1970s and 80s Carl was instrumental in establishing several programs for preschool children through local churches.
Carl was elected to the NFB board of directors in 2004. His daughter Christine presented him with twin grandchildren, Jason and Caitlin. His wife Sally died in February 2002. Consistent with his and Sally's passion for education, in her memory Carl endowed an NFB scholarship, awarded between 2002 and 2007. On May 20, 2006, Carl married Dr. Mindy Fliegelman, a former cantor. Together they continue to work for the independence of blind people in New York and across the country.
When reflecting on the Federation, Carl says, "If I can pass on only a fraction of what others have done for me, I will be giving an immeasurable gift to the next generation of blind people. Of all the work I have done over many years, my work with the Federation has been by far the most rewarding."
Anil Lewis was born in 1964 in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the third of four children. Both his older brother and older sister became legally blind at an early age from retinitis pigmentosa. Lewis was originally labeled educably mentally retarded but eventually became the first member of his family to attend a four-year college. He has excelled academically, received many awards, participated as a leader in many extracurricular activities, and received several college scholarships. Although he was finally diagnosed at age nine with retinitis pigmentosa, his vision was fairly unaffected until age twenty-five.
As a sighted man he fairly easily found respectable employment with wages high above the minimum wage. Then in 1989, while pursuing his bachelor’s of business administration in computer information systems at Georgia State University (GSU), he became blind from retinitis pigmentosa. "All of a sudden doors that had been open to me slammed shut." At that point, although he had always considered himself socially aware, he became personally acquainted with actual social injustice and discrimination. "I am ashamed that only personal experience brought this awakening and decision to take action. But I am proud that I did take action and remain committed today to making a difference in the lives of others."
Lewis received blindness skills training while completing his course requirements for his degree at GSU. He quickly learned the alternative skills of blindness, including Braille, activities of daily living, assistive technology, and use of the white cane. He capitalized on them to graduate from Georgia State in 1993. "It was a struggle to regain the life that blindness had appeared to take from me. Almost everyone who had once respected me now pitied me, but I was determined not to be redefined by my blindness." Armed with these new skills and this new determination, he quickly became committed to ensuring that others in similar situations could get appropriate training and unlimited opportunities.
Lewis got a job as a Braille and assistive technology instructor. Within a year he was given the greater responsibility of job development/placement specialist, helping clients develop employment skills and get jobs. "I had had no experience helping anyone other than myself get a job. I certainly did not have expertise in job placement for blind people." During this time he first became aware of the National Federation of the Blind. A friend referred him to the NFB when he had questions about Social Security work incentives and needed information about tools and strategies to help blind people obtain employment.
As a result he attended his first NFB convention in Chicago, Illinois, in 1995 and became aware of the empowering philosophy and tremendous resource of the National Federation of the Blind. The technical assistance materials produced by the NFB’s Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB) program and the NFB’s Social Security and technical assistance information provided resources enabling him to motivate, educate, and encourage other blind people to achieve successful gainful employment. "My success as a job placement specialist was a direct result of my ability to infuse NFB philosophy into the clients I worked with."
Lewis went on to develop and manage a job placement program for people with disabilities as the manager of the Disability Employment Initiative with Randstad Staffing, one of the largest employment staffing companies in the world, during the Atlanta Olympic and Paralympic Games in 1996. From then until early 2006 he was employed by the law offices of Martin and Jones as the Georgia Client Assistance Program (CAP) counselor/advocate, representing people with disabilities every day. He is currently a disability consultant working with companies in Georgia.
He became president of the Atlanta Metropolitan Chapter of the NFB of Georgia in 2000 and was elected president of the NFB of Georgia in 2002. In that year he also received the Kenneth Jernigan Memorial Scholarship, the NFB’s most prestigious award presented to a blind student, which he used to obtain his master’s degree in public administration with emphasis in policy analysis and program evaluation from GSU in 2003. That year he was also elected as a member of the National Federation of the Blind board of directors. He received an Outstanding Alumnus award from GSU and was also a 2003 GSU Torch Bearer of Peace Award recipient. In 2006 Lewis was named alumnus of the year by Leadership Dekalb, a community leadership development organization in Dekalb County, Georgia.
Lewis has dedicated his leadership skills to the development and growth of disability rights organizations that promote independence and improved quality of life. He was appointed by the governor as a board member and served as president of the Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC) of Georgia, an organization promoting independent living for those with severe disabilities. He serves as chairman of the board of directors of the Disability Law and Policy Center (DLPC) of Georgia, which uses a variety of methods to influence and enforce disability policy. All of these organizations recognize that people with disabilities are integral, necessary members of society and reflect the world’s normal diversity. Further, each works to ensure that the policies and programs developed for people with disabilities are created and implemented by people with disabilities. By helping to develop and strengthen such institutions to serve as a cornerstone in protecting the rights of people with disabilities, he hopes to secure the commitment and support of others. He also hopes to reduce the barriers disabled people face by encouraging the implementation of public policy securing the rights and promoting the responsible participation of people with disabilities as productive citizens.
Lewis volunteers as a teacher and mentor for blind kids, working with promising blind students who, because of limited resources and lack of trained professionals to teach them, are inappropriately encouraged to pursue special education diplomas. He wants blind students to set higher goals for themselves and to receive the training and tools they need to acquire the skills to reach their full potential.
Speaking of his personal life, Anil Lewis says that his proudest accomplishment is his bright, ambitious son Amari, born in 1997. Balancing his many civic responsibilities with his personal life as a father is undoubtedly his greatest challenge. His greatest success, he thinks, has been overcoming the temptation to subside into becoming an unmotivated, self-pitying person with a disability. He thinks his greatest contribution so far has been to encourage other people with disabilities to believe in themselves and to understand that they can make a difference.
Lewis says that lack of awareness of individuals with traits outside society’s accepted norms promotes extreme ignorance, which in turn results in unjustified fear, negative stereotypes, and discrimination. In an effort to combat that ignorance, he aggressively recruits, refers, and supports other like-minded people to become active in the National Federation of the Blind and other organizations in the disability rights movement. He hopes to promote social change by fostering the active participation of more people with disabilities in every facet of society, thereby replacing ignorance with understanding, fear with awareness, and negative stereotypes with mutual understanding. In the process he believes that we will eliminate discrimination.
"With a working knowledge of most disability law and policy and extended experience in advocating for the rights of others, I am committed to improving the quality of life for all people with disabilities by working to remove the barriers of ignorance while creating equal opportunities for all. My personal mission is simple: I want to make a difference in the lives of others."
The needs of the blind of Puerto Rico are legion. With the support of the membership of the National Federation of the Blind of Puerto Rico, this board member has made it his personal mission to lead his affiliate to work for improved and modernized opportunities for education, employment, and daily life for all blind people in this somewhat isolated part of the United States. Now on the national board, he is expanding his work to include improved opportunities for all blind people nationwide.
Alpidio Rolón, the only child of Marcela García and Alpidio Rolón, was born on June 20, 1949, in New York City. Seven years later his family moved back to Puerto Rico, where he has lived since 1956. He volunteered for service in the Army in July 1969, completed basic and advanced infantry training, then was sent to Vietnam in January of 1970. A rifle-propelled grenade that blew up in front of him blinded him on April 7, 1970. Three weeks later young Rolón was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he learned basic orientation and mobility skills and was treated for perforated eardrums caused by the exploding grenade. He later spent six months at the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center of the Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Chicago. There he learned the blindness skills that would permit him to live independently.
Rolón graduated magna cum laude from the University of Puerto Rico in 1976, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts with a Hispanic Studies major. Continuing his interest in Hispanic studies at the master’s level, he completed both courses and comprehensive test requirements. At the University of Puerto Rico be began advocating for the rights of blind people. Although he had belonged to other blind consumer organizations, he says that it wasn’t until 1991—when he became part of the NFB of Puerto Rico organizing committee—that he began to believe that he could really do something worthwhile to help the blind, that joining the National Federation of the Blind was like coming home. Rolón was first elected as treasurer of the NFB of Puerto Rico in 1992 and has served as its president since 1996. He was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind in July of 2006.
Rolón has combined his love of Spanish and his commitment to the National Federation of the Blind by translating NFB materials into Spanish. He was first motivated to do so when he heard Dr. Kenneth Jernigan’s speech "On the Nature of Independence" at the NFB national convention in 1993, in Dallas, Texas. He has since translated other speeches and Braille Monitor articles, served as a real-time translator of banquet speeches at national conventions, and edited inspirational personal stories of the kind that appear in the NFB Kernel Books, written by members of the National Federation of the Blind of Puerto Rico.
Alpidio Rolón is the president of the Society of Friends of the Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of Puerto Rico. In that capacity he has guided the Society into producing Braille and recorded books in Spanish for blind children in Puerto Rico. To further his goal of improving educational opportunities for blind children, he serves as secretary of the Special Education Advisory Panel for the Puerto Rico Department of Education.
Born July 6, 1949, in Montclair and raised in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Joseph Ruffalo, Jr., had already graduated from Bloomfield High School, attended Montclair State College, and served America in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star, before he learned in 1976 that retinitis pigmentosa would slowly claim his vision. For six years he continued his work as a manager in a Thom McAn shoe store, but by 1983 he began looking for guidance about how to achieve greater proficiency and control over his life as a blind adult.
The staff at the Joseph Kohn Rehabilitation Center (JKRC), then located in Newark, told him he should not learn to use a cane, read Braille, or master any adaptive devices because he still had enough vision to do without them. Though eager to obtain the necessary skills, at the time Joe believed he had no recourse but to adhere to the advice of the only professionals he knew. Not until 1986 did he learn to use a cane, and he accomplished that by teaching himself. Today Joe uses and embraces a wide array of nonvisual techniques to function successfully in his life. While at JKRC, Joe discovered a talent for baking, which led to a successful nine-year career as the owner of a pastry business.
In 1988 Joe tentatively attended his first NFB chapter meeting in Newark. He reports that after ten minutes he knew that his life was about to change dramatically. Realizing that the NFB was a place of fraternity and empowerment, empathy and accomplishment, Joe says, “I saw blind people doing things I wanted to do. They were holding jobs, volunteering, and achieving in every pursuit.” This was the beginning of Joe's own growth and achievement. In 1990 he became second vice president of the New Jersey affiliate; two years later he was first vice president; and by 1993 he was president of the NFB of New Jersey, a position he maintains to this day. “It is a tremendous honor and responsibility to promote positive attitudes about blindness and the abilities of blind people,” Joe comments.
But Joe's community involvement has not been limited to the National Federation of the Blind. He has been a leader in the Lions Club for over twenty years, serving as president for three. He has also held positions as zone/regent chair and serves on the District 16-E cabinet. In the Knights of Columbus Joe has held the positions of guard, warden, and deputy grand knight, and while in the Cub Scouts of America he has been both a den leader and cubmaster. As past president of the Special Education Parent and Professional Organization and past chairman of the board of trustees of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, he has further worked to assure the full integration of people with disabilities into society. Many are unaware that Joe has had a distinguished athletic career through the New Jersey division of the United States Association of Blind Athletes, having achieved particular success in power lifting. In total Joe has won twenty-two medals in different sports at the state, national, and international levels.
Joe attended the Therapeutic Massage Center to obtain certification in massage therapy and from 1998 to 2000 provided massage for staff, patients, and visitors at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, before moving his practice to a private office. He has served as a consultant to the Somerset School of Massage, making recommendations to staff and students and answering questions about training methods for blind students.
Joe also works to smooth others' transitions from dependence to independence as a leader in two programs sponsored by the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He is employed by a community service organization in New Jersey as a program specialist in the Senior Community Independent Living Services (SCILS) program, which identifies people over age fifty-five in Essex county who have experienced vision loss, with the goal of teaching independence skills so that these seniors can remain active in the community and independent in their homes. As state program director and northern region coordinator of the Leadership, Education, Advocacy, and Determination (LEAD) program, administered in partnership with Heightened Independence and Progress, Joe provides mentoring activities for blind teenagers and their families.
Joe’s many contributions to the community were recognized in November 2000 when he was honored with the Partnership for Progress Award at the New Jersey Commission's Believe and Achieve ninetieth Anniversary celebration. In July 2001 his leadership in the blindness community was again acknowledged when he was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind. In October of 2002 the State of New Jersey honored Joe by presenting him with the New Jersey Vietnam Service Medal. In 2007 Joe's life experience and volunteering efforts were profiled in a book entitled Noble Paths by James Davy, a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services. In 2009 Joe was honored by the New Jersey Governor, the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the New Jersey State Talking Book and Braille Center with a plaque recognizing his involvement in the blindness community during a pre-game ceremony at a Trenton Thunder baseball game. Finally, Joe was recognized as the 2009 NFB Imaginator of the Year, an award that acknowledges his devotion to fundraising and promotion of Federation programs at the national and state levels.
Joe has always been encouraged and supported by his wife Judy and his two sons, Joseph and James. In his spare time Joe likes sports of all kinds, especially baseball and basketball and enjoys hosting Thru Our Eyes, an Internet radio program (www.thruoureyes.org) that highlights blindness issues, discusses technology, and promotes positive attitudes about blindness.
Joe’s life and work express his commitment to the blind and their struggle for equality in society. His achievements stand as an example for others, like those of the Federationists who deeply impressed him at his first chapter meeting. He achieves and grows, facing every challenge with energy, enthusiasm, and common sense. In so doing, he exemplifies his belief that “one of the most important things for members of the blind community to do is to teach the public that blindness is only a characteristic. With the proper training, skills, attitude, and techniques, blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance.”