Braille Monitor                                                 April 2011

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Students, Leadership, and Perspective

by Marc Maurer

Marc MaurerFrom the Editor: Over the years I've seen many pieces of legislation introduced and passed at the instigation of the National Federation of the Blind. Our annual message to the Congress almost always has something about programs of the Social Security Administration. This is not surprising since for some blind people Social Security benefits represent the bulk of their income and for others the way they move from education to employment.

In this article President Maurer explains how we have arrived at the positions we've adopted about Social Security and explains the decision-making process used in making Federation policy. Here is what he says:

In the spring of 2010 I met with a group of students at our headquarters in Baltimore. I had wondered about whether we should conduct a student leadership seminar. The president of the student division thought we should. In the planning, I learned that the president thought that she should lead it. With this in mind I wondered what my participation in the seminar would be. After discussing it with her, we came to the conclusion that I should come to talk about the policies of the Federation, the method for these policies to be adopted, the implementation of such policies, and the position of students within the structure of the Federation.

Shortly after I joined the meeting, I discovered that what the students wanted to discuss was the Federation’s policy supporting disability insurance programs for the blind. They did not like this policy. They thought that supporting disability insurance payments to the blind was equivalent to demanding payments without earning them—asking for money for nothing. They thought that the position of the Federation about the nature of blindness was being compromised by our policy to support disability insurance payments. How can the Federation simultaneously argue that with proper training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance while at the same time demanding Social Security payments based solely on the disability of blindness?

The students and I discussed both the substance of the policy about disability insurance and the way the Federation came to adopt the policy. The substantive part of the argument goes something like this. Although blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance with proper training and opportunity, most of the time proper training is hard to get, and opportunity is denied to all of us at least part of the time. Blindness is a disadvantage in employment, in education, in certain types of entertainment, and in other circumstances. The unemployment rate for the blind is estimated at greater than 70 percent. The graduation rate for blind people from high schools is estimated at 45 percent. In any activity in the community blind people find themselves discouraged from participation. A realistic view of blindness is that it is a substantial economic disadvantage.

An individual, a group of people, or a society may obtain insurance against disadvantages. Disability insurance is a program to provide recompense for the economic disadvantage of blindness and of other physical disabilities. A society is not obliged to have such insurance, but it may come to believe that having such insurance is beneficial. The effort of the National Federation of the Blind to persuade Congress to obtain this insurance on behalf of blind people is an effort to identify blindness as an economic disadvantage and to mitigate this disadvantage through payments provided to those who possess this characteristic.

A further philosophical reason for favoring disability insurance has sometimes been offered. Classes of those in society who are regarded as inferior to others can change the perception of inferiority by creating the environment which offers to those who are thought to be inferior advantages not readily available to others. Most folks do not want to be among the blind. However, if the advantages are good enough, some people will want to change groups. The fact of blindness does not create inferiority. However, the social perception of blindness quite often does. So creating advantages for the group perceived as inferior helps to change this perception.

The students were not happy with this argument. They responded by saying that other groups also have disadvantages. Why should the blind be singled out? Why should there not be a comprehensive program to meet such disadvantages as exist?

The National Federation of the Blind represents blind people. It does not represent other groups. It has background and experience about blindness, and it is the largest organization of the blind in the nation. It espouses a positive philosophy about blindness. Hence it is the best organization to represent the blind that can be found. The members of the National Federation of the Blind have come together in Convention to establish the policy of supporting disability insurance. The Federation does not oppose policies sought by others to gain advantages they believe are useful. However, the Federation is not an appropriate representative for any group other than the blind. Therefore we seek adoption of legislation designed to serve the best interests of the blind.

I pointed out to the students that one of the obligations of the president of the National Federation of the Blind is to carry into effect policies adopted by the Convention. Support for disability insurance is one of our policies. If the students want this policy to change, they must persuade the Convention to alter it. We do this by presenting proposed resolutions to the resolutions committee. Resolutions are policy statements of the Federation. If the resolutions committee, a group of dozens of Federation leaders from throughout the United States, believes that these proposed statements of policy should be adopted, it votes to send them to the convention floor. If the committee decides not to pass a resolution, it may still come to the Convention for consideration if the delegates from five state affiliates bring it jointly to the convention floor. The Convention, acting as the supreme authority of the organization, decides upon statements of policy. The president is expected to administer the organization to give effect to these statements of policy.

Subsequent to my meeting with the students, I was looking through past issues of the Braille Monitor. I found an article by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founding president of the Federation, entitled “Special Legislation vs. Equality—A False Dilemma,” which appeared in November, 1960. In Dr. tenBroek’s article he indicates that some have claimed a “dilemma” in the field of blindness. “That ‘dilemma,’ it soon appears, consists largely of the well-worn charge that the blind cannot in justice claim that they are `normal’ while pressing for special programs ‘on the basis that blindness somehow automatically makes a person subnormal.’ …If the pertinent `conditions’ imposed by blindness—social, economic, psychological, and so on—are not `identical’ to those of other disabled groups, then the principle…is simply irrelevant.”

These are some of the words of Dr. tenBroek published in 1960, more than half a century ago, in support of the policy of the National Federation of the Blind to seek payments to the blind through the national Social Security system. That blindness carries with it economic and social disadvantage was then a part of the basis for this policy. This element of the understanding of blindness remains as real today as it was half a century ago.

I reflect that the fundamental discussion of the nature of blindness and the proper approach of policy in the Federation required by this fundamental comprehension remain as vital today as they have been throughout the history of our movement. In 1969 I participated in a training program for blind people directed by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was then serving as the president of the Federation. I met the idea that blind people are normal human beings who cannot see. I demanded to know why normal human beings should receive payments based upon blindness alone. I said that welfare is intended to mitigate the disadvantage of poverty, that preventing starvation is a salutary goal of a society, but that payments to normal human beings who cannot see are not in accordance with this salutary goal.

Dr. Jernigan responded by telling me that insurance and welfare payments are not the same. Welfare payments meet basic living expenses that would otherwise not be met—prevent starvation. Insurance is meant to compensate a person for a loss which has been encountered.

However, I argued, those who are already blind cannot buy insurance against becoming what they already are. Besides, if blind people are normal, the loss is only incidental to their lives.

Dr. Jernigan replied to these arguments by telling me that insurance purchased by an individual is intended to protect against losses that may happen in the future. However, insurance purchased by a group may also incorporate protection against conditions possessed by members of the group that pre-date the purchase of the insurance. For example, Congress could decide to adopt a law providing crop insurance for farmers against drought. This insurance might well be payable to a farmer experiencing loss from drought that had occurred before the law was adopted. Beyond all of this, Dr. Jernigan pointed out that a loss of vision may not strip a human being of the normality of that human being while, at the same time, imposing severe economic disadvantages. He cited the dramatically high unemployment rate for the blind as evidence of this economic disadvantage. Consequently it is reasonable for a society to decide to purchase disability insurance to protect against the economic and social disadvantages of blindness. When we had reached this stage of the argument, I found myself unable to discover further challenges to offer. Dr. Jernigan suggested that I go where my mind led me.

In the spring of 2010 I urged the students to remember that we adopt policy in the Federation by submitting resolutions to the resolutions committee. Some of the students thought about writing a resolution for the 2010 convention. Eventually they decided not to try to craft a policy which would alter our position supporting disability insurance. Therefore the policy of the Federation has remained. However, those who feel that this policy is in error still have the opportunity to prepare and submit resolutions for the 2011 convention. Sharon Maneki chairs the committee. Our policies require that those who wish to submit resolutions must send them to the chairperson of the resolutions committee or to the president no later than June 20, 2011.

What blindness is and what it is not are very important fundamental topics of discussion for Federationists. What policies should be adopted to implement programs that arise from the fundamental understanding of blindness is no less important. The resolutions committee is the place to raise these questions because this leads to a discussion on the convention floor. Throughout the history of the Federation, the Convention has remained the supreme authority of the organization. The Convention may decide on any policy which it believes should be adopted. I look forward to the discussion that will happen at the Convention.

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