by Gary Wunder
Orlando, Florida, is a busy city. Quality facilities like the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel always find people on the move with the sounds of tapping shoes, swishing dresses, and excited chatter. Add to these sounds in early July tapping canes, clicking claws, and the jingle of guide dog harnesses, and it is clear you are at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind. This movement of and by the blind, both physical and organizational, was spirited and intentional: it was the movement of blind people who had come to the Southeast to tackle the business of changing what it means to be blind. The 2011 convention brought people from every state in the union and sixteen foreign countries to witness history being made. Nearly three thousand of us came to look back at the past, rejoice in the present, and plan for the future of blind people in the United States and the world. It had been thirty-two years since the National Federation of the Blind convened in Florida. Federation veterans came with their memories of 1979; those with less tenure came with great expectations of the memories they would make in 2011.
Activities began on Sunday morning, July 3, when parents, rehabilitation professionals, technology enthusiasts, job seekers, and artists gathered to begin their work. President Maurer addressed the rehab professionals and emphasized how crucial their work is in making the dream of full participation real in the lives of blind people. He visited with the children and tried to convince a young girl named Jessica that her unsuccessful struggles to read print probably meant that she should be concentrating on Braille. "Sighted people should use the techniques of the sighted, and blind people should use the techniques of the blind," he argued. The exchange was spirited, and it was evident just how much this little girl had been taught that the only path to praise would come through what she could see. A young man named Drake wanted to know how a blind man could invent a time machine. The president seemed a bit surprised by the question so early in the morning but opined that, if a time machine could be made, he was certain that a blind person would be as likely to come up with it as a sighted person. Lindsey asked what he had done in his time as president, and for a moment he was uncharacteristically silent as he considered how to address the many challenges that have characterized his presidency in a way this little girl and the rest of his young audience could understand.
For a very long time our parents have been innovators in providing quality fun and education to diverse groups: the little folks who are interested in having a good time; the older children who aren't quite teens but who demand more than care; and of course the teens, who are always on the verge of being bored, a fate they consider almost worse than death. Then there are the parents who are interested in programs to cover everything from how to stimulate their toddlers to how to handle the transition to college. All of this planning has to take place knowing that most of the people coming will be taking vacation time from work and school to attend and will want some of the benefits of a vacation, even as they come to learn about blindness.
Activities covered by the NOPBC under this year's title "When I Grow Up ... A Conference for the Families and Teachers of Blind/Visually Impaired Children" included the right to literacy for young blind/visually impaired children; technology and the IEP; IDEA is over--but life for your adult child with additional disabilities is just beginning; get a life--a social life, that is; age-appropriate expectations; behavior--who's in control here anyway?; preparing for college; issues in standardized testing; an independent life--equipping your child with skills; and out and about--independent mobility for your child. And after all of the work NOPBC Family Hospitality Night enabled parents and kids to get to know each other and catch up with old friends. Meanwhile, teens and preteens enjoyed youth track sessions in which playing modified board games gave them a chance to discuss issues of blindness. They even had a chance to discuss such matters as resolution writing, the frustration of subminimum wages, and the ways in which the Blind Driver Challenge™ has altered expectations of what is possible for blind people to accomplish. So moving and insightful were the comments of NOPBC President Laura Weber, when she convened the Sunday morning session, that they will appear in a future issue of the Braille Monitor.
Fred Schroeder, the first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind and a former commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, provided the keynote address for the tenth annual meeting of the rehabilitation professionals. His topic was structured discovery. Dr. Schroeder stressed that structured discovery is not just another technique used in the rehabilitation process but the very philosophy that guides it. Traditional rehabilitation has too often taught the blind set tasks and routes in much the way a computer is programmed for a specific function. The assurance that a blindness professional can be consulted, if ever the blind person decides to tackle something new, is constantly stressed. Structured discovery teaches the blind how to explore the world using their own God-given talents. Its foundation is the belief that blind people can investigate and problem-solve just as sighted people are expected to do and that nothing less is acceptable in a world that requires flexible and adaptable human beings.
The Jernigan Institute hosted sessions on the accessible iPhone, how to take advantage of the popular Android operating system, how to get the most from eBooks, and how to create accessible Websites.
For those who stopped by, one of the most interesting and unusual Sunday activities was the art exhibit and experience hosted by artist Ann Cunningham and art enthusiast Debbie Kent Stein. Visitors could try their hand at sculpture or examine artworks created or adapted for tactile exploration. Concepts like style, perspective, and composition began to make sense under one’s fingers. The entire experience was engrossing and revelatory.
Beginning on Sunday and continuing throughout the convention, Federationists could visit the blind driver test track, a simulator providing the tactile experience of the blind-drivable vehicle debuted at the Daytona Speedway. A car equipped with nonvisual interfaces was at the convention to give rides to some of those who had raised substantial contributions for the Imagination Fund. Our blind drivers also chauffeured the owner of the Rosen properties, Mr. Harris Rosen, and the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Strickland, through the course of barrels and cones that had been randomly positioned in one of the parking lots. "I liked the ride, but it was so cool when the blind driver cracked his window and turned on the radio," said Pat Munson, a longtime Federationist and teacher in the public schools of California.
Knowing that being a responsible part of a community requires giving back, Federationists met on Sunday afternoon to explore opening the doors to community service by the organized blind. The response to this call was everything we had hoped for, and the planners are actively working on forming a division dedicated to getting blind people involved in volunteer service.
The events continued nonstop into Sunday evening. Some of the items covered were learning about new technology and how blind telephone operators, receptionists, customer service representatives, Braille transcribers, proofreaders, and other office workers solve problems and challenges in the office setting; a meeting of the Living History Group dedicated to capturing oral history; and the showcase of technology, featuring vendors in the exhibit hall.
Monday morning began with registration, and again this year the process of preregistering made the experience faster for everyone. When the exhibit hall opened at 9:00 a.m., those companies that had made financial contributions to sponsor the NFB convention were the exclusive exhibitors for the first few hours. Companies lending their name and financial support to us were Title Sponsor: eBay Inc.; Platinum Sponsor: HumanWare, and UPS; Gold Sponsor: Oracle, Market Development Group, Inc., Ingram Content Group, and VitalSource Technologies; Silver Sponsor: Freedom Scientific; Bronze Sponsor: IBM, National Industries for the Blind, and Research in Motion; White Cane Sponsor: GW Micro, Inc., Toyota, HIMS, Sendero Group, LLC, Learning Ally (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic), LevelStar, Independence Science, Chris Park Design, En-Vision America, and Perkins Products. This sponsor-only event lasted for two hours, then other exhibitors, including NFB affiliates and divisions, were open for business. Throughout the day sessions were presented demonstrating NFB-NEWSLINE® and the recently enhanced accessibility of the eBay system. People wishing to become certified as literary Braille transcribers could take the Library of Congress test developed and administered by the National Blindness Professional Certification Board. If something a bit more physical was of interest, the Sports and Recreation Division offered a self-defense class.
As experienced conventioneers know, registration day is also resolutions day, and in the early afternoon the committee met to consider eighteen proposed resolutions that would help to define and articulate the policies of the National Federation of the Blind and influence our direction in the coming year. Many resolutions for 2011 address the imperative that devices, from household gadgets to products used in the workplace, be made so they are usable by the blind, and, if they are not, they not be purchased by public institutions and responsible private entities.
At 9 a.m. sharp on Tuesday morning, July 5, the gavel fell, and the board of directors began its preconvention meeting. Many regard this as the first general session of the convention, but, unlike general sessions, no microphones were in the audience because the meeting is solely board deliberation and discussion.
President Maurer began by acknowledging prominent Federation leaders who have died in the last year. Those mentioned were Wayne Davis, Andy Virden, and Larry Streeter. The president asked that we rise in memory of all of our worthy comrades who have been taken, and the assembled crowd reverently observed a moment of silence.
Board members whose positions were not up for election in 2011 were all the officers and at-large members Amy Buresh, Patti Chang, Mike Freeman, John Fritz, Carl Jacobsen, and Alpidio Rolon. Positions to be filled were those held by Dan Burke, Parnell Diggs, Cathy Jackson, Mika Pyyhkala, and Joe Ruffalo. Dan Burke called for the floor to announce that he would not stand for reelection due to personal and professional changes in his life. He explained that dealing with these will not allow him to devote the time necessary to maintain the workload of a board member, but he has been honored to have served for the past five years, and he plans to remain an active and committed member of the movement. President Maurer commended Dan for serving with honor and distinction, said it was a pleasure to have served with him, and expressed his full trust that Dan would indeed continue to be a worker in the Federation, regardless of his position.
Dan Hicks welcomed the assembly to Florida with an introduction he would use throughout the convention. When he said "knock, knock," he received the expected "who’s there?" His response was "orange," and the expected "orange who?" was asked in unison by well over two thousand voices. His answer: "Orange you glad you’re in Florida." The reason for his introduction soon became clear when he announced that the Florida affiliate was selling T-shirts with these very words. Dan went on to suggest that, since it had been thirty-two years since we met in Florida, it might be well if we all lowered our expectations. This was quite a contrast to the usual speeches about getting prepared for the biggest and the best convention ever, and the crowd was stunned into silence until Dan explained that what he meant was that we should lower our expectations for a restful time and a good night's sleep. "Rest and sleep is what you do when you are at home or at work,” he said, "but this is Florida and a convention of the National Federation of the Blind." The crowd cheered with relief, recognizing that the host affiliate was planning one fine convention.
With registration having been open for just under a day, President Maurer announced that 2,767 people had registered, with fifty-four from fifteen foreign countries. By the end of the convention that total would climb to 2,970, with sixteen foreign countries represented. Some who registered did so for the first time; for others registration is an annual event. 2011 marks the fiftieth national convention for Jan Gawith. For Betty Capps this was the fifty-fifth, and for Dr. Donald Capps it was his fifty-sixth. "I would have been there with him but I had to miss one because I was pregnant," said Betty. "We've been to a lot of conventions, don't you think?"
Parnell Diggs, the chairman of the Imagination Fund committee, addressed the assembled to talk about the purpose of the fund and to give members some important facts about the 2011 Race for Independence. Thirty-eight Federationists raised $1,000 or more in the 2011 contest, and to make the top ten required donations of at least $2,000. The Imaginator who brought in the most money was John Paré, raising $11,240. The Imaginator with the greatest number of donations was Denise Avant of Chicago with sixty-five. Denise was presented the Imaginator of the Year Award, and in her brief remarks she said, "My goal when I started was just to double any contribution I had gotten in the past, so I thought I would raise around $600. But, as I began to ask and ask and ask, people just gave me money. So all of a sudden I found myself at a thousand dollars. Then I found myself at thirteen hundred, so I just kept going and going and going." At the time of the presentation, Denise had $1,907 and counting.
At the close of Parnell's presentation, President Maurer noted that Parnell was the person who had contacted people at the Daytona Speedway about having a blind driver featured on their track. Parnell was shocked when they said yes, and we were shocked when he brought us the news.
Future conventions will find us in Dallas for 2012 and in Orlando for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Conventions in Orlando will occur on the Rosen properties, a series of five-star hotels, and, by the time 2017 rolls around, we should all have had a chance to experience many of the sights and sounds of Orlando.
A group wishing to create the National Organization of Professionals in Blindness Education has asked the national board to approve its constitution. The president finds it in all ways to be proper, but, unlike most divisions in the Federation, this constitution contains no provision requiring that its president, vice president, and a majority of its members be blind. Given the desire to attract anyone working in the field of education, the board was asked to suspend this usual policy, and the board accepted the new division.
Chairman Cathy Jackson presented the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award and a check for $1,000 to Dr. Dean O. Stenehjem, the superintendent of the Washington School for the Blind. Chairman Jackson's presentation and Dr. Stenehjem's remarks appear elsewhere in this issue.
Much of the Federation's work is done through committees appointed by the president. Members were asked to indicate their desire to serve by sending their names and the committees on which they would like to serve to the information desk. Alternatively, the president will gladly accept offers of service by electronic or postal mail.
Sandy Halverson, chairman of the Shares Unlimited in the National Federation of the Blind (SUN) Fund updated the board on the committee's efforts to increase its ability to help the Federation. The SUN Fund is a program established to ensure that, should we ever have problems in funding as we did in the late 1970s, we will have a savings account to see us through. Currently the fund has just under 1.5 million dollars, and each year affiliates, divisions, and members try to increase this total to ensure the financial well-being of the NFB.
The Pre-Authorized Contribution (PAC) Plan allows members to make predictable monthly contributions to support Federation programs. Coming into the convention, members were contributing $384,000 annually. The goal of Chairman Scott LaBarre and his committee was to increase contributions to well over $400,000 by the end of the convention. As the work of the Federation was demonstrated again and again through the reports of its officers, leaders, and members, Federationists went to the PAC table in a steady stream, allowing us to finish the convention with an annualized total of well over $409,000.
Since access to information and the ability to read is a fundamental human right, one of the projects of the National Federation of the Blind has been to enter the international arena to press for a worldwide agreement allowing copyrighted materials to be put into formats that blind people can read and to see that these accessible materials are shared worldwide. An exemption in the copyright law permits this in the United States, but blind people in many other countries have no such access. Further, current law forbids the cross-border sharing of books in specialized formats for the blind. A book Brailled and available in Canada may not be shared with a blind person in the United States, and a book created in the United States may not be shared with a blind person in France. If the United States endorses and signs the proposed treaty, our own law would be strengthened by recognizing the enhanced importance of electronic books, which were far less prevalent in 1996 when amendments to the United States copyright law were passed. Members may be called on in the near future to write to Congress and the president to support this treaty and to oppose international recommendations or "soft laws" which simply encourage rather than mandate information in specialized formats for the blind.
Because convention sessions are conducted in English and a number of Federationists and foreign visitors are more proficient in Spanish, the Federation provides real-time Spanish translation during the convention. Special receivers are loaned for the duration of the convention. Similar equipment is provided for attendees who have trouble hearing convention presentations.
Dr. David Ticchi presented the Blind Educator of the Year Award to Angela Wolf of Texas. More about Dr. Ticchi’s presentation and Angela's remarks can be found elsewhere in this issue.
Patti Chang, who was chairing the scholarship committee for the first time, next introduced the 2011 scholarship class to the convention. The remarks of each student and a full report of the committee’s work appear elsewhere in this issue. The board then approved a similar scholarship program for 2012.
President Maurer acknowledged states that have made significant financial contributions in the past year. The Colorado affiliate and the Colorado Center for the Blind have jointly presented more than one million dollars to the national body. The Nevada affiliate was recognized for contributing more than $390,000 and the Kansas affiliate for its contribution of $150,000.
To bring the most talented, dedicated, and energetic teachers of blind students to our movement, the National Federation of the Blind created the Teacher of Tomorrow program. Twelve members of the 2011 cohort introduced themselves to the convention and then treated us to their top ten list of things they have learned through their association with the National Federation of the Blind. Their top ten list was: “10) Given me an opportunity to change my unknown beliefs about blindness; 9) Taught me how to use a chainsaw blindfolded; 8) Given me a chance to meet so many people willing to help me with my journey to become an even better teacher; 7) Provided me a chance to see the power of advocacy at the Washington Seminar—DC was awesome, but leave your high heels at home; 6) Witnessed barriers falling down and possibilities being created through collaboration at the Daytona Speedway; 5) Meeting and watching blind O&M instructors; 4) Connected me with wonderful NFB leaders in my state; 3) Affirmed the belief that Braille literacy leads to success; 2) Taught me to say blind kids and knowing that it is not only okay but important to say the word “blind”; 1) The eyes of the National Federation of the Blind see us as the wonderful teachers we are and the exemplary teachers we can become. We know the organization is going to stand behind us as we work to change what it means to be blind and as we work to spread a positive philosophy about blindness."
The board meeting concluded with a brief demonstration of the BookSense from the HIMS Corporation. This DAISY, audio, and text player, which includes a clock and a radio, is the first in the industry to feature a speech-recognition feature, meaning it can be controlled by voice. "Play music," "play NFB-NEWSLINE," and "play radio" were a few of the commands the system can recognize. The HIMS company has given a BookSense to each affiliate, and President Maurer expressed appreciation for the company's support of the National Federation of the Blind.
Tuesday afternoon was filled with meetings of committees and divisions. No fewer than thirty-eight separate events vied for the attention of members, with some groups holding concurrent sessions, making the choice of what to attend even more difficult. Whether you wanted to talk about the law, religion, social service agencies, computers, buying books, getting or providing a good education, being a blind performer or a blind business owner, these and many other options beckoned for your attention. Reports of some of these meetings will appear in this and future issues of the Braille Monitor.
When the gavel fell on Wednesday morning and official sessions began, the crowd roared its approval. After the invocation Fred Schroeder called for the floor and reminded the delegates and members from every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico that this organization has had three long-term presidents: Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and Dr. Maurer. President Maurer was elected in 1986 and is therefore in his twenty-fifth year of service. Fred presented the president with a sterling silver gavel, which rang out in the convention hall as Dr. Maurer thanked his Federation family for their confidence, the opportunity to serve, and the chance to change the lives of blind people for the better.
Dan Hicks, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida, began his welcome to Florida by introducing, all the way from the Magic Kingdom, the mayor of Main Street USA, who welcomed the convention to Orlando this way: (sound clip 1) "Hello fellow dignitaries. It's good to be here today, and thank you Mr. Hicks. I'm so happy to be here with you today. I'm Christopher George Weaver, the mayor of Main Street USA at Walt Disney World and the Magic Kingdom. I am joined up here on the dais--is that what you call it?"
"Well I call it a platform, Mayor," was the response from the first Lady of Main Street USA, Ms. Hildegard Olivia Harding. After a bit of welcome and levity, the manager of Disney's Worldwide Accessibility, Bob Minnick, was introduced. He thanked Dwight Sayer and other members of the Florida affiliate for helping Disney tackle accessibility and specifically the audio-description service they offer blind visitors.
The convention was next treated to a medley of Disney tunes performed by the Main Street Volunteer Marching Band. The selections being familiar Disney classics, the hall was filled with song, and every delegation gave a special cheer as the band passed by.
Dwight Sayer, president of the National Association of Blind Veterans, was introduced to lead us in the celebration of our country's 235th birthday. The MacDill Air Force Base Honor Guard posted our colors, and they were joined by the Honor Guard from American Legion Post 286 from High Castle, Florida. As our veterans made their way to the stage, the convention rose to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. All of the fifty veterans on stage introduced themselves to the convention with names, the branch of the service in which they had served, their ranks, and the states in which they now live. The National Association of Blind Veterans Distinguished Service Award was presented in memoriam to First Sergeant James Lee Worley. Jim retired with twenty-four years of service to the United States Army. He served overseas in Korea, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan, with two tours in Vietnam. He was decorated with many commendations, including the National Defense Service Medal with gold leaf cluster, the Army Commendation Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and the Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster. Jim provided the seed money used to form the National Association of Blind Veterans, and he will be missed by us all. Jim's award was accepted on behalf of his family by Kevan Worley, who said (sound clip 2) "I am humbled to stand here, and I know Dad would have been surprised, shocked, and profoundly honored. He loved the United States of America, his family, Vietnam veterans, and the National Federation of the Blind. God bless you all, God bless the United States of America, and God bless the National Federation of the Blind."
President Maurer addressed the convention on the subject of pending legislation that would occupy a prominent place on our agenda. The legislation is the Workforce Investment Act and within it the reauthorization of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. This act has been amended many times, and it is where landmark reforms have come to be the law of the land. Antidiscrimination against disabled people in programs receiving federal financial assistance was written into this act in 1973. Later amendments expanded this law to apply to the federal government. Nonvisual access in the procurement of technology also became federal law as part of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa has introduced language that sanctions the payment of subminimum wages to the blind and others with disabilities. The proposal is found in Title Five, Section 511, just eight sections from the antidiscrimination language so boldly affirming the rights of blind Americans. Section 511 references Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938. It reflects the perceptions held more than seventy years ago about the capabilities of blind people to engage in gainful and productive work. There is no place in the language of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act for such outmoded thinking, and a petition was circulated throughout the convention demanding that Section 511 be removed from the reauthorization of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act and that Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act be repealed, and the practice of paying subminimum wages to the disabled along with it.
The roll call of states found all fifty states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia represented. Those answering the roll took the opportunity to celebrate significant events in their states and in their delegations. Georgia announced that it had fourteen first-time attendees at the convention. Seventy-five first-time attendees were assisted to the convention through the money raised for the Jernigan Fund. More than sixty staff and students came from Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, including the director, the chairman of the board, and another member of the board of directors. Missouri will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, New Jersey its thirty-fifth. New York has been looking for stable funding for NFB-NEWSLINE®, and this year the legislature unanimously passed a bill granting it.
Given that employment is and has always been a primary focus of the National Federation of the Blind, efforts are ongoing to create greater opportunities in government service, business, and self-employment. One of our initiatives has focused on eBay, and the senior product manager for accessibility, Jonas Klink, came to the podium to discuss advances in the accessibility of the eBay system. Mr. Klink said: "It is our true pleasure for eBay to be here this year, not only as the title sponsor, but also as the continued partner with the National Federation of the Blind as well as a friend of this community.... Over the past year I have personally been very excited with the progress we have made by combining forces to make a difference for a community where technology should not be an obstacle; it should and must be an enabler to overcome and overpower obstacles." Given the high unemployment rate of the blind and eBay's fifteen-year history of job creation by helping entrepreneurs grow and start their own businesses, Mr. Klink said it was fitting that eBay and the National Federation of the Blind connect and asked, "Why be dependent on others who will not take advantage of your skills, when you can create a job for yourself?" Last year eBay tackled accessibility for the buyer. This year it has worked to make its system accessible for the seller. More about the partnership between eBay and the National Federation of the Blind will be found later in this article.
The Presidential Report began the afternoon session and was everything we have come to expect in an annual review of the challenges facing the Federation and our progress in meeting them. President Maurer's report is reprinted in full elsewhere in this issue.
"Getting an Education for Blind Children and Adults: How to Survive with Proper Expectations and Accessibility" was the title of a panel moderated by Anil Lewis, director of strategic communications for the National Federation of the Blind. He was joined by the honorable Alexa Posny, assistant secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the United States Department of Education and by Gaeir Dietrich, the director of the High Tech Center Training Unit for the California Community Colleges. She is also the chair of the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities, which has been convened by the United States Department of Education. Presentations made by this panel will appear in the October issue.
Harris Rosen is the owner of the Rosen properties used in 2011 and the facilities that will host our conventions in 2013 through 2017. He addressed the convention on the topic "The American Spirit in Action: Creating Opportunity, Responsibility, and Faith." His is the story of immigrant parents who came here with nothing but the dream of something better, passed that dream to their son, and saw it realized through his initiative, his willingness to take risks, and his commitment to the hard work of making a dream come true. His remarks are available at <http://www.nfb.org/nfb/national_convention_highlights.asp>.
After Mr. Rosen's presentation President Maurer prepared to introduce Mark Riccobono, the first blind man to drive a vehicle independently, before tens of thousands of spectators. Before introducing Mark, President Maurer asked Mr. Rosen whether he might like to take a ride with a blind driver. He said he would, so, when Mark came to the platform, he began by apologizing to those with whom he was to have dinner by saying that he had some driving to do and would have to find his keys. The title of his presentation was "The First Blind Driver on the Daytona Speedway: A Program Initiated by the National Federation of the Blind.” His remarks tell the story of what it felt like to be the center of attention at the Daytona Speedway, how it felt to carry the hopes and dreams of so many in his mile-and-a-half journey and how he came to understand that, though he was the driver, it was all of us driving with him who were breaking new ground for blind people. His remarks appear elsewhere in this issue.
Mark was followed by Dr. Dennis Hong, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech. Dr. Hong acknowledged that, for all we are doing to develop a car a blind person can drive, we have valid questions to answer, criticisms to address, and future work to accomplish for our project to have meaning in the lives of the average blind person. Dr. Hong's remarks will appear in a coming issue.
President Maurer told the convention that we will soon begin conducting blind driver training so we may learn more about how best to teach blind people to use the interfaces we've developed and to increase the number of people who can advise us on what we must do to make the interface more responsive to the needs of a blind driver. The first class is likely to take place in Baltimore in the spring of 2012. The course will include time on the blind driver simulator as well as driving time in the Blind Driver Challenge™ vehicle. Applicants must be blind, must be members of the Federation, and must be willing to take the risks involved in testing experimental technology. The fee for the class will be $500, and applicants are free to raise it or pay it out of pocket. Applicants must be endorsed by a Federation leader in their state, must complete an online application by the end of November, and must write a short essay explaining why they believe they should be admitted to the program.
Convention adjournment did not signal the end of convention activities for the day. The Deaf-Blind Division, the committee on research and development, and the Krafters Division met well into the night. Sessions for those wanting to learn more about eBay were held, and those interested in learning how to use new features of the NFB-NEWSLINE® service were invited to an open house. If the nineteen activities listed in the convention agenda weren't to your liking, the Florida affiliate hosted an indoor beach party.
Morning came early, as so many convention mornings do, when President Maurer gaveled the convention to order and the chairman of our resolutions committee read Resolution 2011-18 opposing the inclusion of Section 511 in the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act and asking Congress to repeal Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which currently allows payment of less than the minimum wage to blind workers. The committee moved its adoption, and the convention adopted the resolution unanimously. The texts of all resolutions passed at the 2011 convention can be found elsewhere in this issue.
President Maurer reviewed the Federation's financial statement, discussed procedures used in authorizing the spending of Federation funds, and outlined the checks and balances to ensure that the donations we receive are used to provide maximum benefit to the blind.
In the elections that followed, the Convention elected Sam Gleese to fill the position vacated by Dan Burke. On being elected by acclamation, Sam thanked the Federation for the trust shown in him, thanked Dr. Maurer for his leadership, and expressed gratitude for the leaders who have come before. Sam said, "Today I pledge to you, my Federation family, my total support and resources to accomplish what we need to accomplish on behalf of all blind people. Thank you again for your vote."
Parnell Diggs, Ever Lee Hairston, Cathy Jackson, Mika Pyyhkala, and Joe Ruffalo were all returned to the board with the enthusiastic support of the Convention, and each pledged to continue to give generously of their time, talent, and resources in recognition of the trust placed in them by the blind of America.
Mary Ellen Gabias, director of online entrepreneurship for the National Federation of the Blind, moderated a panel discussion which began with an address entitled “Developing Entrepreneurial Opportunities Online Through eBay.” In her address, which focused on the concept of intelligent entrepreneurship, she said: "In 1995 a group of people in California connected the idea of training, goods, and services with the power of the Internet and created a company that now has ninety-five million registered users. If you think of intelligent entrepreneurship and apply it to the National Federation of the Blind, you think of sixteen people from seven states who gathered in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1940. They combined blindness with concepts that most of the world thought were unconnected--concepts like ability, creativity, promise, hope, and great accomplishment. And what has been the result?--This organization, the National Federation of the Blind. So it is not surprising, and in fact it's very fitting, that the world's largest marketplace and the world's largest organization of blind people should combine to make changes in the employment status of blind people."
Mary Ellen was joined by several successful entrepreneurs who have learned to use eBay with their access technology and are now engaged in successfully marketing products and services on eBay. A recording of this presentation can be found at <http://www.nfb.org/nfb/national_convention_highlights.asp>.
As the world's information technology gets ever smaller and more powerful, products and services are moving away from desktop and laptop machines and toward handheld pocket-sized devices. As the hardware changes, so too do the software and the operating systems that are used to run it. Android is the operating system that is experiencing the fastest growth in popularity in the world. It is free and can be modified by anyone with the ideas and the ingenuity to improve it. With more and more cellular telephones and other smart devices moving to this platform, it is essential that blind people have devices that can take advantage of its flexibility, popularity, and low cost.
One company that is bringing a product to market using this operating system is LevelStar. Marc Mulcahy, the president and chief engineer of the company, addressed the convention and demonstrated a prototype of the Orion Eighteen. He said that this device, expected to be available in the fourth quarter of 2011, will serve as a Braille notetaker, calendar, calculator, eBook reader, and telephone and will perform a host of other functions that portable data assistants do for the sighted. It will have a high-quality camera that will allow it to be used to read printed documents. It will provide access to the Internet using traditional wireless systems when available and cellular internet connections when they are not. He said that too often blind people must choose between blindness-specific software with limited functionality and off-the-shelf software that may be accessible but not very efficient or usable. The hope is that, by using an operating system that can be modified to maximize our experience, the blind will no longer have to settle for compromises in our use of state-of-the-art portable devices. Mr. Mulcahy's remarks and a demonstration of the company's product are available at <http://www.nfb.org/nfb/national_convention_highlights.asp>.
"Quiet Cars, Pedestrian Safety, and Protection for the Environment: A Panel Discussion" was the next item to come before the convention. John G. Paré Jr., executive director for strategic initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind, was the moderator. He began with some history of the issue of cars too quiet to hear; described our resolutions, presentations, and legislative battles; and told the assembled how the bill became law when signed by President Obama in December of 2010. The task now is to write regulations defining acceptable sounds that will be used to indicate the presence of nearly silent vehicles, and addressing this issue along with Mr. Paré were David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Douglas B. Moore, vehicle performance owner, General Motors Corporation; and Kevin Ro, national manager, technical and regulatory affairs, Toyota Motor North America. Doug Moore and Kevan Ro both related the experience they had in Baltimore when traveling under sleepshades to understand travel better using hearing. Mr. Ro, in commenting about his experience and about our demand that something be done, said: "That's the kind of advocacy group you have here that really tries to listen and to teach us, and I want you to know you are probably the best group of advocates I've ever dealt with in my nineteen years in the field." The remarks made by the presenters will be printed in an upcoming issue, and the audio featuring sounds currently being developed and tested by the auto manufacturers will be made available in the recorded edition.
Thursday afternoon began with a report on our legislative efforts. After an eleven-year delay, the reforms that have been proposed legislatively to the Social Security Disability Insurance program have resulted in a pilot program to see whether changes to eliminate the earnings cliff and replace it with a two-for-one reduction will result in the employment of more blind people, which will in turn increase the revenue flowing into the Social Security Trust Fund.
Our Technology Bill of Rights faces real challenges from members of Congress who believe that we need fewer regulations and are opposed to adding more. Rather than pursuing legislation to mandate the accessibility of all consumer products, the Federation will pursue the more limited goal of mandating access to all home appliances. We will introduce a Home Appliances Accessibility Act, which will call on the Access Board to develop nonvisual standards for home appliances that require interaction with a digital display or touch-screen interface. The Act will give the Federal Trade Commission enforcement powers to hold companies accountable. The U.S. Access Board approached us and said they wanted to work with us on this initiative, and, after speaking with Democrats and Republicans, we believe that the Home Appliances Accessibility Act has a real chance of passing.
For years Congress has been concerned about the number of presidential appointees who must be confirmed by the Senate. They have repeatedly tried to exempt the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration from this requirement, and the National Federation of the Blind has consistently argued that the RSA commissioner is so important that the position deserves the same scrutiny as other crucial governmental positions. This year, when Senate Bill 679, the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act, was introduced, it contained a provision eliminating the need for Senate confirmation of the commissioner. When this bill went to the House and was passed on June 29, the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration was not included in it.
“Equal Access to Technology and Programs in the United States” was the title of the presentation given by David M. Capozzi, the executive director of the United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. As one would infer from the title, this presentation spoke forcefully to the issue of access and the role of the federal government in ensuring it exists. The remarks of Mr. Capozzi will be reprinted in an upcoming issue.
The convention next discussed the Braille Monitor and the need to discontinue producing the magazine on cassette. President Maurer entertained suggestions about how we might make the magazine available to those who now rely on the cassette version. A brief notice about the migration to other formats and media is found in the Monitor Miniatures of this issue.
Sharon Maneki came to the platform to preside over the passage of sixteen resolutions. Eighteen were presented, but one had been passed earlier in the convention, and one was rejected by the membership. A complete report from the chairman and the resolutions adopted by the Convention appear elsewhere in this issue.
The afternoon session ended with some interesting trivia. When last the Federation was in Florida, the number of people registered was 1,507. Our room cost in 1979 was $11 per night. The source for this information was Mrs. Jernigan, who has been attending and helping run conventions since 1966.
Shortly after adjournment of the Thursday evening session, members could visit the exhibit hall; attend a workshop sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind on accessible cell phones; participate in a seminar to train advocates to participate in the creation and modification of Individualized Education Plans for blind students; learn about the Social Security, SSI, and Medicare programs, what to report, and how to appeal adverse rulings; review products from Pearson to make math instruction more accessible for people using personal computers; listen to and participate in a session by representatives of Oracle on the impact of Oracle products on the workplace; and, if all of this was just too serious after a long day, there was always the Showcase of Talent, where one could enjoy a little music, or the student division’s Monte Carlo Night to play cards.
Dr. Fredric Schroeder began the Friday morning session with a moving presentation entitled "No More Subminimum Wages: The Time Is Now!” The question those who provide specialized employment for the blind should be asking is not whether a blind worker can do a given job, but as service providers they should be asking what job this person, with individual strengths and abilities, can do. Dr. Schroeder was joined by Damashe Thomas, a worker at Georgia Industries for the Blind; Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary, Office of Disability Employment Policy, United States Department of Labor; Dr. Janet Szlyk, president and executive director, the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired; Jim Kesteloot, member, Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled; and Jacqueline Berrien, chair, United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. All of these presentations are so timely and informative that they will be found in their entirety elsewhere in this issue.
"A Blind Chief Executive of One of the Largest States in America" brought the crowd to its feet as Governor David A. Paterson talked about the America that was and the America that can be if only we continue to be the kind of advocates blind people need in becoming first-class citizens of this great nation. Governor Paterson has recently joined the New York City chapter of the Federation and is working collaboratively with us to promote access and independence for the blind. A copy of his moving remarks can be found at <http://www.nfb.org/nfb/national_convention_highlights.asp>.
"Building Accessible Tools for Knowledge: A Commitment by a Computer Giant" was delivered by Dr. Alan Eustace, senior vice president, knowledge, from Google. Google is the most popular search engine in the world and is generally credited with being quite accessible to the blind. Google Books offers access in numbers never available to the blind, but other offerings by the company are quite inaccessible, and the threat of their widespread adoption can deal a serious blow to our timely and effective access to information.
Google offers to colleges and universities a suite of applications that handle everything from email to word processing. They work well if you can see; they offer almost nothing if you cannot. President Maurer and Federation members who know technology met with Dr. Eustace and his team. Here is how Dr. Eustace characterized that meeting and the relationship that has come from it. "Dr. Maurer gave us a pretty clear picture of where we stood in terms of accessibility.... You know that friend of yours who, when you have just finished dinner and there's a big piece of spinach hanging between your teeth and somebody walks up to you and takes you aside and says, Alan, you've got a problem. That friend was Dr. Maurer in that meeting. Specifically he was talking about our apps products and the fact that these products are getting deployed widely in businesses and schools--and there are issues. Not only did he say there were issues; he actually demonstrated the issues in front of me. Then he sent me videos of the issues. You can't say he is not thorough.... We did not try to explain ourselves at that meeting. We did not try to come up with excuses for what was wrong. What we did is assemble that group of people and say, `Hey, what went wrong?' And what was interesting to me was that it was not an impossible technical problem that was holding us back.... It was because we had a thousand little problems and it turned into a complex people problem and a logistics problem, but it was not an impossible technical problem.... At the end of this session we kicked off what we call a back-to-school program, and we'd like to make sure that our apps products are accessible by the time that school starts."
At the end of his remarks Dr. Eustace said, "I want to say right now that we won't get everything right. We have a ship and iterate mentality; we try to fix things as they come up. But what I can say with complete confidence is that we will become a very strong partner of the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you very much for inviting me; thank you for inspiring me to build better products that are accessible for more people." President Maurer followed up by saying, "Two things, Alan: (they use first names there a lot): One is, we're delighted to have you as a partner; that is to say, we wish to be a partner of yours too, and, as we find and think of things that would be helpful to make your products more saleable to more people, which is to say usable by the whole world instead of just this limited sighted group you've got, we'll tell you about it because we want you to sell everything everywhere." He went on to say that we want the interface that will let sighted people operate the autonomous vehicle Google is developing to be accessible to the blind. Dr. Eustace agreed we would work to make it so.
Dr. Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress, came to speak about "Library Services to the Blind of the Nation and Access to Digital Material from the Library of Congress." She began by taking note of and commending Frank Kurt Cylke on his thirty-eight years as the director of the program for the blind and physically handicapped and spoke admiringly of his leadership through two major audio technology revolutions: from the Talking Book disc to the Talking Book cassette and then to the Digital Talking Book.
Dr. Marcum promises several changes in the coming year. Plans are to upgrade the BARD (Braille Reading and Audio Download) site in order to improve its speed, its searchability, and its performance. WebBraille will be incorporated into the site. This will mean that patrons can go to one place for materials available through NLS instead of having two sites with two different user identification codes and passwords. The Library will move magazines from cassettes to digital cartridges, and books and magazines will be uploaded daily rather than weekly. NLS also hopes to develop apps for use with iPhones and devices that use the Android operating system.
In 2010 NLS produced sixty Spanish titles and in 2011 will produce seventy-five. A number of other books will also be made available in other languages. Making more locally produced content available is a priority since many regional libraries have content available that could be of benefit to readers nationally. In addition to the Braille music scores featured by NLS, five-hundred audio files are expected to be added to BARD. Additional audio magazines and instructional materials for music will follow. NLS has written a job description for the director's position at NLS and hopes to hire a new director soon.
The final general session of the convention began Friday afternoon with an exciting report by Dan Goldstein, a principal in the law firm of Brown, Goldstein and Levy. His topic was “Equal Access to Information: the Urgency and the Law.” Two years ago he stood before the convention and made a promise. He said that, because of the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind, we would have something we have never had in our history: same books, same time, at the same price. We have made substantial progress toward meeting that goal. Mr. Goldstein's remarks will appear in full in a future issue.
"The Accessible Campus in California: An Example for the Nation," presented by Peter M. Siegel, chief information officer and vice provost, information and educational technology, was introduced by President Maurer with these remarks: "This is a very important item. We go to the college campuses, and they say we're with you in spirit; the trouble is it can't be done. Impossibility is always a great argument. If they're wrong about that, the argument goes away immediately, and we have something to discuss. The reason we have invited this gentleman is that he has worked to make sure that the campuses in California are accessible one-hundred percent of the time. Here is Peter Siegel."
Mr. Siegel began by saying it was a pleasure to be addressing a convention of the National Federation of the Blind, especially since the founder of the NFB was both a student and a professor at the University of California. He believes we must take issue with the idea that vision is the best way to learn. We must reject the idea that certain fields are visual. Given the profound role of information technology and the substantive remarks presented, this presentation will appear in a future issue of the Braille Monitor.
For too long the enforcement of civil rights for the blind has been hampered, either because no law existed to confirm the right, or little to no enforcement was done to affirm it once a law was on the books. The Obama Administration has significantly increased the enforcement of civil rights laws, especially for people with disabilities. It was in this context that the item "Civil Rights for Disabled Americans," was next on the agenda, and its presenter was Samuel Bagenstos, principal deputy assistant attorney general, in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. Mr. Bagenstos said that, as a young attorney interested in civil rights, he knew little about how the law might apply to people with disabilities. Central in his learning were the writings of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. From 2002 to 2007 the Civil Rights Division lost two-thirds of its attorneys, and of these most were senior litigators. The result was that civil rights enforcement dropped dramatically and particularly was this so for people with disabilities. The commitment of Mr. Bagenstos, the attorney general, and the Obama administration is to get back into the race for civil rights enforcement, especially where it applies to access to technology. Mr. Bagenstos’ remarks will appear in a future issue of the Monitor.
A longtime friend of the National Federation of the Blind, Ray Kurzweil, president and chief executive officer, K-NFB Reading Technology, addressed the convention on the topic "Transcendent Ideas, the Man to Make Them Current, and a Partnership Expanding Access for All." He came to talk about the progress of technology and a new book he is writing on the brain and described how the plasticity of this most fantastic organ will adapt to use the senses it has. Our protests notwithstanding, our brains may indeed be different as they adapt to accommodate our individual circumstances. This is why a person reading Braille from a young age will cultivate more extensive and faster pathways in the brain than a person who learns Braille later in life and probably explains the differences in reading speed we observe.
How we read is much the same as it was thirty-five years ago when Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind began our collaboration, but how we get the material to read has changed significantly. Today Amazon sells more electronic books than print, so there is less emphasis on converting shapes to letters and words and more emphasis on converting electronic formats into materials usable by the blind.
Ray Kurzweil's latest contribution to making books available involves a collaboration between Baker and Taylor and K-NFB Reading Technology. The software that allows these books to be read can run on a desktop, laptop, personal data assistant, tablet, or cellular phone. Blio, this magic software intended to run on any hardware and any operating system, is free. So are some three million of the books it makes accessible, but the project's success will be in selling books that people want to read, no matter the device they use. Blio may be the beginning of the transition from blind people as book borrowers to blind people as book consumers as we join the public in buying commercial books.
Jim Gashel, vice president of business development at K-NFB Reading Technology, demonstrated Blio using a laptop PC under Windows and on an iPhone. He searched for books, downloaded one to his library, and did some reading, which featured going through the table of contents, finding the chapter he wanted to read, and going directly to it, at which time the narration commenced. Whether one prefers the responsiveness of a computerized voice or the more lifelike voices on the market, Blio supports both and can easily alternate between them.
"A Partnership for Access: Comments from the Major Distributor of Books in the United States" was presented by Robert Nelson, president of the digital group at Baker and Taylor. Mr. Taylor said he was proud of the relationship between Baker and Taylor and K-NFB Reading Technology and that the largest distributor of books sees this as a way to make a major part of their business digital. Agreements to preload Blio have been made with Dell, HP, Toshiba, and LG. The company has also reached an agreement with T-Mobile so that content can be downloaded from any area served by this wireless provider. By the end of the year Blio will be preloaded on twenty-five million devices, and it can easily be installed on pre-existing devices through the company's Website.
In addition to selling books directly, Baker and Taylor is partnering with libraries so that patrons can download library materials without ever having to go to the facility. Agreements are also in the works with colleges and universities so that the books they use can be made available to students without regard to the device they choose to use to read their books.
In an exciting change of pace, Ron Brown, the second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind, came to talk with the convention about one of the passions of his life. His topic was "Baseball, Hall of Fame, Blindness." Just as some people have their dream job, this is Ron's favorite pastime. Until he found baseball, something was missing. That something was sports, a way to be competitive, not just with his mind, but with his body. He wanted exercise and competition, and baseball was the sport that tied these together.
In 1964 an electrical engineer created the first beeping ball. Today the ball is sixteen inches in circumference, a little larger than a softball, with a pin inside. As familiar as this device is to the people who love baseball for the blind, it is less familiar to the security screeners at our nation's airports. When Ron found himself delayed at the checkpoint on his way to convention, he overheard two Transportation Security Administration employees discussing an object in his luggage. "It looks like a baseball," one said. "But it has a pin in it and some metal," the other said with obvious concern. Ron decided he had better intervene. "This is a beeping baseball for the blind, used to play organized sports. Would you like me to show you how it works and pull the pin?"
"No, no, no, don't pull the pin," was the nervous reply.
Ron has played baseball for twenty-five years, and in 1990 he was interviewed by Joe Garagiola on the Today Show. Although he has had a long and illustrious career, the mind is willing but the body feels different. He will retire from the sport, having been on eight all-star teams and having one world series trophy under his belt. This summer the World Series of Blind Baseball will be held in Indianapolis, and Ron has it on good authority that he will be inducted into the hall of fame. “I'm passionate about four things in life: God, my biological family, my Federation family, and baseball; but I have to say that, when baseball season rolls around, the order changes a bit."
In honoring a pioneering blind doctor, Jacob Bolotin, the National Federation of the Blind once again presented the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards. James Gashel, the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind, chaired the committee and made the presentations. His remarks and the responses of the recipients appear elsewhere in this issue.
The banquet of the National Federation of the Blind, chaired by our first vice president, Fred Schroeder, began with an invocation by our longtime leader, Donald Capps. The meal and fellowship were supplemented by door prizes, drawings, and an announcement that we had increased our annual PAC pledge from $384,000 to $409,541.88. At the close of registration all of the top ten states had over one hundred in attendance, with 2,970 people having registered.
We soon moved to the highlight of the evening, the banquet address presented by our president, Dr. Marc Maurer. This was the twenty-third time our national president had come to remind us of our origins, to review life for blind people today, and to help us dream of what it will be like in the future if we keep the commitments we have made to the blind of the nation and the world. In broad outline he spoke of risking to really change the public's perception of us, no longer to let the image society has of us and we have of ourselves be determined by others, and to act boldly to tell people the real story of what it means to be blind. President Maurer's speech appears elsewhere in this issue.
John Paré came to the stage to present a much-deserved award to Congressman Cliff Stearns for his part in helping to pass the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. John's remarks and those of Congressman Stearns appear elsewhere in this issue.
The national board of directors decided to expand the awards given by the Federation by creating the Kenneth Jernigan Award. It is to be given to a person who possesses at least one of the characteristics that made Kenneth Jernigan the teacher, leader, and administrator we deeply admire. The first recipient of this award was Frank Kurt Cylke. The presentation of this award is found elsewhere in this issue.
Ray Kurzweil came to the stage to say that one of the reasons he joins us every year is that our message is so similar to what he was taught by his family: "If you can define a problem, you can solve it; if you can define a challenge, you can overcome it."
Patti Chang came to the dais to present scholarships to thirty of the best and brightest blind students in America. The list of scholarships presented and the remarks of tenBroek Fellow Kyle Shachmut, the Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship winner, are found elsewhere in this issue.
Ramona Walhof is the chairman of the Jacobus tenBroek Award committee. She came to the platform to bestow the highest honor this organization can award to a Federationist. The recipients this year were Fred and Cathy Schroeder. Ramona's presentation and the remarks made in accepting the award appear elsewhere in this issue.
The final door prize given at the convention was provided by the Florida Affiliate in the amount of $2,011. It was won by Margo Gray, and, with President Maurer's lowering of his sterling silver gavel, the 2011 convention was adjourned.
Every year a theme dominates our convention. Sometimes it is clear and often repeated; sometimes it is evident only by analyzing the consistency in the remarks of the presenters and the hallway discussions of members. This year our theme was access and a full day's work for a full day's pay. If we demand quality training and insist on equal opportunity, access to information cannot be negotiable. If we believe that blind people, given the proper training and opportunity, can be as productive as people with sight, what we demand of Congress and the public cannot be negotiable. The blind deserve to be fully productive and participating citizens, and America, in her time of significant economic need, deserves no less than the best from her most willing patriots. This was the message of the 2011 convention, and, having affirmed for our leaders their belief in us and given them their marching orders, this will be the direction of every program of the National Federation of the Blind in the year ahead.