Braille Monitor February 1986
by Kenneth Jernigan
Last fall representatives of the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind held a day-long get-together. An account of the meeting was carried in the December, 1985, Braille Forum, the ACB's monthly magazine. Here is the complete text of that report:
On September 30, 19 85, representatives of the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind met to explore the possibility of improving relations between our two organizations. This was an informal meeting at which ideas were exchanged and views freely expressed. No action was taken, and no formal recommendations emerged from the discussion. It was agreed, however, that the two national presidents, Grant Mack and Kenneth Jernigan, would confer in the near future regarding the possibility of scheduling additional talks.
The September 30 meeting was held at Stouffer's Concourse Hotel in Arlington, Virginia. Those participating--four officers and /or board members from each organization--included Kenneth Jernigan, Diane McGeorge, Donald Capps, and Marc Maurer from NFB; Grant Mack, Otis Stephens, Durward McDaniel, and LeRoy Saunders from ACB. The discussion continued from approximately 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., with a working lunch. Although we disagreed on a number of points, we identified several commonly held concerns. The tone of the meeting was cordial throughout. Highlights of our discussion are briefly summarized in the following paragraphs.
NFB representatives began by suggesting that the two organizations consider holding a joint national convention within the next three or four years. They expressed the view that such a convention might advance the ultimate goal of merger. ACB representatives stated the opinion that although a joint convention might be feasible at some point in the future, the political and psychological basis for such a meeting does not exist at this time in either organization. We discussed the joint convention suggestion at some length, but reached no agreement on this question.
ACB representatives maintained that before the two organizations could realistically consider such a convention, it would be necessary for us to work together successfully on major issues of common concern to blind persons in the United States. We noted that both organizations strongly support such objectives as improving library services, producing and disseminating more Braille material, reducing the cost of communications technology, and broadening employment opportunities for blind persons. We emphasized that ACB and NFB should first try to develop a basis of cooperation in advancing one or more of these or related objectives before proposing a joint convention.
After extensive discussion, to which all participants contributed, the two groups tentatively agreed that reform of the rehabilitation system as it affects blind persons throughout the country is a critically important goal that we might profitably pursue. We reached consensus on the opinion that such a goal might well provide the needed basis for cooperative action in the future.
At this writing (November 15, 1985), no final decision has been made on the scheduling of further meetings. Clearly, it would be of great benefit to blind persons in this country if a genuine basis of cooperation could be developed between our two major national organizations. Serious differences continue to divide us, but we share a number of broad concerns. Exploring ways of working together to achieve commonly held objectives could strengthen us significantly. At a time when important gains of the past may be in jeopardy, the effort is well worth making.
Remember that this is what the Forum said happened, not necessarily the way it did happen. In fact, there are serious problems of omission and incorrect reporting. Let us begin at the beginning.
In the spring of 1985 Bill Gallagher, Executive Director of the American Foundation for the Blind, suggested to me that we call a meeting of the heads of certain national groups in the field of work with the blind. I told him that the NFB and the AFB had tried such meetings a few years back with questionable success, and I then wondered aloud just what purpose might be served. He said that he thought (considering the problems which programs for the blind are having these days) that it would be worthwhile for six or seven of us to get together alone and explore whether we had grounds for common action. I said that the National Federation of the Blind would have no interest in such a meeting unless it considered basics as opposed to tactics and peripheral matters. He agreed. By basics I meant this: What are the real differences which divide us, which keep us from working together on anything at all of real substance? It is simply not true to say that we are all working for the same thing and that, therefore, we should all get together. There are fundamental questions of integrity, motives, and basic objectives.
We agreed that if we called such a meeting, the two of us would call it jointly. The question then arose as to who should be included. In addition to the NFB and the AFB we thought we would ask AER (the Association of Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired), ACB (the American Council of the Blind), NCSAB (the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind), and NCPAB (the National Council of Private Agencies for the Blind). There was no difficulty in deciding who should represent the NFB and the AFB. After all, Mr. Gallagher and I were the ones calling the meeting. Also, there was no difficulty in deciding that Rick Welch, the Superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind, should represent AER since he was and is its President; or that Jerry Mundy, the head of Clovernook Home and School for the Blind, should represent NCPAB since he is the head of that organization.
But ACB and NCSAB were something else. I contended that Grant Mack (since he is their President) should be the only one we would ask to represent ACB. Bill Gallagher obviously felt somewhat uncomfortable with this, suggesting that Mack might not be the best spokesman for that organization. To which I said: "They elected him President--didn't they?" We agreed that he would be invited.
Mr. Gallagher found equal trouble with Chuck Young, head of the Oregon Commission for the Blind and President-Elect of NCSAB. He thought that perhaps Don Wedewer of Florida might be a more representative spokesman. The same give and take occurred, with the same conclusion. We decided to invite Young.
Let me make it clear that Bill Gallagher was in no way critical of or condescending toward either Grant Mack or Chuck Young. He made no disparaging remarks or innuendoes about either of them. He indicated that he was only considering the best overall balance of personalities and perspectives for the proposed meeting.
It was agreed that Mr. Gallagher would talk to the prospective invitees to determine their feelings. I must confess that I looked forward with some interest to the reaction of ACB since I suspected that the real leaders of that organization would be uncomfortable with the thought of Grant Mack's being in a room alone with others as their only spokesman and representative. Sure enough! I got a call some time in August from Otis Stephens, the First Vice President of ACB. He began something to this effect:
"Grant Mack has apparently received some kind of call from Bill Gallagher about some sort of meeting that the ACB, the NFB, the Foundation, and others might be planning to hold. Do you know anything about it?"
I emphasize that these are not his exact words but only a close paraphrase. I responded as follows--again, not a direct quote but a paraphrase.
"Why yes, Otis, I know all about it. Bill and I are jointly planning and calling the meeting."
Stephens then said that he felt that perhaps three or four of ACB's leaders might be included, and I demurred. He then said that he felt that perhaps the time had come for the NFB and the ACB to meet alone and that the Foundation should not be included at all.
At this stage I asked him what he thought the ACB and the NFB had to talk about. He said that we might work on those things on which we agreed: promotion of the use of Braille, new technology, et cetera. I said that during the Second World War it seemed to me that it would have been totally inappropriate for England and Germany to have held a conference to discuss desalting the North Sea. I went on to to this effect:
"Otis, there is only one thing which the ACB and the NFB can meaningfully discuss--the possibility of the merger of the two organizations." To say that he was shocked would be an understatement. To say that he does not know the meaning of the word irony would be presumptuous. Be that as it may, I went on to say (again a paraphrase):
"As a preliminary step, we might consider holding a simultaneous convention. We could meet at the same hotel during the same dates. Everything would be completely open. ACB could have a registration area, and those who wanted to sign up for the ACB meetings could do so. We would observe but not interfere. We would have a registration area, and the same situation would apply. We would hold a meeting in the morning, and any ACB member could come, not interfering but observing. ACB would hold a meeting in the afternoon, and any Federationist could come and observe but not interfere. The next day would be reversed. ACB would meet in the morning. We would meet in the afternoon. We would hold a banquet and conduct it to suit ourselves. ACB would pick another evening and do likewise. All could attend; none could interfere.
"And what," I said, "would be the purpose of it all? ACB says that we do not have as many people attending our convention as we claim. We say we do. We say that ACB has scant attendance and inflated claims of how many they have present. They say our statements aren't true. We say that ACB is dominated by the agencies and has no substance to its program. They say otherwise. ACB says that we are not democratic. We say we are. Who is right?
"Otis, I have a feeling that if such a simultaneous convention were held, many of our problems would be solved; for then the blind of the nation would know (not just by ones and twos but by the thousands) what each organization is really like. They would observe firsthand. It would not depend on what you or I would write or claim but on what anybody who cared to come would observe and know. The rank and file of the two organizations would mingle in the meetings and the corridors, and I have a feeling that most of our difficulties would be solved. One organization or the other would stand so discredited and lose so many members that it would cease to be much of a factor. Perhaps this would be a way of bringing about the unity which everybody talks about."
This was the substance of our conversation, and surely I do not need to spell out what I was trying to tell him. Did I seriously believe that the ACB would dare agree to a simultaneous convention? Of course not. They could not afford to. Then, one may ask, why did I make the suggestion? As I have said, surely I do not need to spell it out. As I have also said, it would be presumptuous to suggest that Otis Stephens and the other ACB leaders do not know the meaning of the word irony.
We agreed that if ACB wished to pursue the matter, it would get back to me. Stephens did. He asked that we hold a meeting, and you have read the Forum's account of what they say occurred. It wasn't exactly like that.
For openers, there were five NFB representatives present, not four. Betty Capps was there, and she is a thoroughly knowledgeable and fully competent Federationist. And Marc Maurer is neither a Federation officer nor a board member. We did not "tentatively agree that reform of the rehabilitation system as it affects blind persons throughout the country is a critically important goal that we might profitably pursue." We did not reach a "consensus on the opinion that such a goal might well provide the needed basis for cooperative action in the future."
I had told Otis Stephens, going in, that the only thing we of the Federation were prepared to discuss was whether we could hold a simultaneous convention and that, in the opinion of the Federation, it would not be in the best interest of the blind for us to deal with peripheral issues. It is true that the question of reform of the rehabilitation system was mentioned (and, as the Lord in His knows, reform is certainly needed), but the Federation representatives made it clear that we felt that it would not be constructive to meet with ACB to deal with it. However, we said that we thought it was a different matter to meet with the American Foundation for the Blind to discuss the topic.
After all, the American Foundation for the Blind does not hold itself out as an independent consumer organization. It represents itself to be what it is, an agency. Yes, it does attempt to dominate the field--and no, we are not happy about it; but it is possible to negotiate with people who are your opponents (or with whom you disagree) if they come honestly presenting themselves as what they are.
I believe all of this seemed like hairsplitting to the ACB representatives, which perhaps underlines the difference between us and points up the problem. Also, it brought forth a rather bitter attack by the ACB representatives (particularly, Durward McDaniel) on the American Foundation for the Blind and Bill Gallagher.
In fact, their attack upon the Foundation and upon Bill Gallagher shed light on why they wanted the meeting in the first place. Durward McDaniel said (and these may be his exact words), "The meeting you and Bill Gallagher have been talking about is not going to be held." When I told him that I thought it might and asked him why he believed it wouldn't, he said: "Because it isn't needed." Then, there were remarks about how little influence Bill Gallagher and the American Foundation for the Blind has in the ACB, and it was the closest the ACB representatives came to losing their cool and letting their bitterness come to the surface. McDaniel said that, in a very real sense, Bill Gallagher had been responsible for calling the meeting we were then holding. He said that Grant Mack had called him and Otis Stephens after Gallagher's call to Mack and that the three of them had thought they should try to forestall the meeting Bill Gallagher and I were planning. McDaniel said that the three of them felt that Otis Stephens might be the best one to call me to try to get the job done.
Of course, it didn't work. The Federation representatives told the ACB team that we might very well go forward with the meeting which Bill Gallagher and I had discussed. This is what actually happened in the meeting reported in the Braille Forum, and I leave it to Monitor readers to determine for themselves the truth or falsity of the matter.
Before we got together, the ACB representatives were most insistent that, as they put it, neither side try to exploit the situation or make statements about what had occurred at the meeting. Yet, before three days had passed, I had reports from at least a dozen states of inflammatory and misleading statements made by ACB leaders. There were comments that we were "urging" that there be a merger and there was talk that there would be dissension in Federation ranks concerning our upcoming presidential election. Even so, we behaved with restraint; and only now, after the item in the Forum, have we printed this article to set the record straight. Perhaps one should have expected the ACB to behave as it did.
After the meeting, I felt it incumbent upon me to tell Bill Gallagher what had been said about him and the Foundation. I very often do not agree with Gallagher, but both he and the Foundation deserve better from ACB than they got.
So what comes out of all of this flood of details, this maze of minutia and nit-picking? Maybe nothing. Maybe much. At the time of this writing (January 10, 1986) the meeting that Bill Gallagher and I have been discussing is set for January 23 at the Holiday Inn Capitol in Washington, D.C. Will it occur? I don't know. Do we have enough in common with the American Foundation for the Blind and its satellites to find sufficient common ground to work together on anything? Again, I don't know--but I am willing to explore it.
It is much more doubtful whether we can ever find anything which merits meaningful discussion with the American Council of the Blind. They would not dare hold a simultaneous convention with us. You know it; I know it; and they know it. The reason why they would not is also the reason why we probably do not have anything to discuss with them. Will these two organizations ever come together in a working relationship or merger? Probably not--but if there is any hope of it, all of the personalities of the civil war generation (and probably the generation after that) will have to pass from the scene. Time, of course, will remedy that--but we are not simply dealing with personalities. That is a myth. The two groups have diverged philosophically--to the point that now our basic objectives are different. For one thing, the agencies have such control in the ACB that, as we see it, that organization no longer speaks (if, indeed, it ever did) with any independence. But as I have already said twice before, it would be presumptuous to suggest that the ACB leaders do not understand the meaning of irony. Let it rest at that.
With respect to the American Foundation for the Blind and some of its more reactionary cohorts, I think the situation is different. As I have already said, they do not (at least, for the most part) hold themselves out to be consumer organizations. They frankly state that they are agencies, with a program and an interest to represent. Sometimes their objectives mesh with ours; sometimes not. We should never be so rigid that we foreclose the possibility of joint action or cooperative effort to better the lives of the blind. What our opponents sometimes seem to forget (and what I hope we will always remember) is this: It is possible to battle against an individual's ideas without trying to hurt that individual personally or smear his or her character. It is possible to have deep philosophical differences without letting them degenerate into personal hatred. We must see our situation in perspective and take the long view, and we must do it with genuine good will and lack of bitterness. What our opponents say is less important than what we truly are, but we must not be unmindful of the opinions of others or the desirability of compromise when it can be done in the best interest of the blind and without violating principle.