Braille Monitor                                                                                July 1986

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A Glimpse of America

by David Mann

(David Mann and his wife Kate attended the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in 1985 in Louisville. At that time Mr. Mann was President of the National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom. In the January March, 1986, issue of Viewpoint (the publication of the NFB of the U.K.) he gives his impressions of our convention. If it is not overdone, it can be instructive to learn how others see us. Here is what Mr. Mann says.)

Towering twenty-five stories over the Ohio River and overlooking Indiana on the further shore, the Gait House Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, was the venue for the 1985 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind of the U.S.A., which my wife Kate and I were fortunate enough to be able to attend as the Federation's guests. Over 2,000 people registered for the convention, a record which led to the irrefutable claim at the convention banquet that this was "the largest gathering of blind people in the whole history of the world."

Below the hotel, the "Belle of Louisville," one of the last working, steam-driven paddle boats lay at her moorings between pleasure trips, and regaled us twice daily with music from her calliope, a steam-driven organ played with verve and adorable, tuneless charm as the boat got up steam. Beyond the lobby stretched the wide streets and sidewalks of a modern American city, where heat and humidity made air conditioning seem as essential as water.

Louisville is the home of the American Printing House for the Blind. It is the largest city (though not the capital) of the state whose famous son, Colonel Sanders, is revered by fried chicken lovers the world over. "Colonel," by the way, is an honorary title aawarded in Kentucky in much the same way as we might give someone the freedom of a city. The name of one street, Mohammed Ali Boulevard, recalled one of Louisville's own famous sons.

Delegates had come from every state in the Union, from the isles of Hawaii and the frozen expanses of Alaska, from the deep South and the Midwest. Ohio and Maryland vied for the honor of having the highest number of members attending, and the regular announcement of latest registration figures was just one of the methods used to raise enthusiasm and strengthen morale. The songs were another: Glory, Glory Federation; The Rehab Song; The Library Song; and The Airline Song. On a more material level, there was a constant stream of door prizes, anything from a bottle of bourbon (inevitably, in Kentucky) to a thousand dollars, given to the person whose name was drawn at random by a computer--but only if they were in the room at the time!

The banquet was undoubtedly the high spot of the morale boosting side of proceedings with, as its climax, a long, stirring, philosophical address from the Federation's President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. To an Englishman, claimed Dr. Jernigan, freedom means the right to have his home as his castle; to the American, it means the right to look the other guy in the eye and tell him to go to hell; to the blind, freedom means being liberated from the penalizing and discriminatory attitudes and actions of others, including those blind people who have been conditioned by the seeing world into accepting a second-class status.

Throughout the convention, indeed, parallels were often drawn between the fight for civil rights by black people in the sixties and blind people's current struggles. The blind will not achieve their rightful place in society solely by improving legislation here and services there, although the NFB of the U.S.A. certainly works on these material issues; they will only do so when they can stand with their heads held high and their white canes firmly held before them, and tell the world that they know who they are and where they are going. The NFB of the U.S.A. is "changing what it means to be blind."

Of course, the convention also debates and determines policy on a wide range of issues. In many cases, the organization sees eye to eye with the National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom. It seeks better employment opportunities, opposes discrimination in jobs and services, campaigns for the promotion of Braille, calls for the integrated education of visually handicapped children, and deplores the state of rehabilitation services (what we would more frequently call social services). The Louisiana affiliate of the NFB of the U.S.A. has, in fact, recently signed an agreement with the state government to take over as the agency for rehabilitation in that state.

The NFB of the U.S.A. turns more readily to litigation than does its British counterpart, but that comparison would be true of the two countries in general. There is a network of human rights legislation which can be used if employers, insurers or airlines, for example, are thought to be operating in a discriminatory way. The issue of discrimination in insurance is of greater significance in a country without a national health service or a comprehensive national insurance system, but it is an issue which could become increasingly important in the United Kingdom as the government continues to dismantle these institutions. There has been a long series of clashes with airlines, in a country where domestic air travel is as popular as, and often more essential than, rail travel in the United Kingdom. First, there were battles against maximum limits imposed by airlines on the number of disabled passengers that could be carried on any one flight, then arguments about the stowing of dogs and canes, and now protests and even arrests over the seating of blind passengers next to emergency exits. All these issues hinge around the presumed risk posed by a blind passenger in an emergency, and it is an issue we cannot afford to dismiss as the government ponders regulations which would quite unjustifiably banish blind people from cinemas.

Modifications to the environment are seen in a rather different light by the NFB of the U.S.A. than they are by most people in the U.K. We tend to feel that anything in the way of textured surfaces, audible signals, or color contrasts is to be encouraged since they increase the ease and independence with which visually handicapped people can travel around. The NFB of the U.S.A. fears that the provision of such facilities simply "for the blind" will lead to the inference that blind people cannot move around where such facilities have not been provided. Whether or not one ultimately accepts this point of view, it is far from being the stubborn extremism that it is sometimes alleged to be. The Americans would also argue, not without reason, that the best and surest answer to problems of mobility is good travel training, either with a dog guide or a long white cane. The cane, indeed, has become for some not only a mobility aid but also a symbol of independence, almost a political statement, to be carried prominently at all times. Even those with a reasonable amount of residual vision carry a cane, declaring almost with pride that they are blind and rejecting mealy-mouthed terms such as "visually handicapped."

The NFB of the U.S.A. annual convention does not only hold internal discussions. During several of its sessions a panel of outside speakers addressed the delegates and then answered questions, in what often amounts to a confrontation led by the President in the chair. One morning it was representatives of various Braille publishing houses. Another day it was airlines spokesmen and Federal Aviation officials. One notable absentee from any rostrum was the American Foundation for the Blind, the closest equivalent to our Royal National Institute for the Blind. There is no love lost between the Federation and many of the major national and local agencies for the blind. We repeatedly needed to make the point that the U.K. Federation's relatively cordial relationship with the RNIB was not because we were in the Institute's hand but because the organized blind were increasing their influence over the Institute. The recalcitrant attitude of many of our local voluntary societies for the blind, not to mention the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, would strike more of a chord with the American situation.

One of the most lasting memories for me will be the talk given by Mary Main, author of the book "Evita," on which the famous musical was based. Miss Main, now in her eighties, is of Anglo-Argentinian origin, and spent the first forty years of her life in Argentina before moving to the U.S.A. Her delightfully refined voice would have been more suited to Kensington than Kentucky as she gave her testimony--and I use the word deliberately--on how she had come to terms with failing sight and how the Federation had helped her overcome her embarrassment and her initial wish to deny the existence of her handicap.

I had the honor of addressing the convention on the work of our U.K. Federation, and Kate and I also took an active part in the seminars on dog guides and on conference organization, as well as talking to the Cultural Exchange and International Program Committee about the lot of the blind in the U.K. No one could fail to be impressed by the number and range of specialist groups within the Federation which met in the days immediately prior to the formal convention sessions. There were divisions for most categories of workers and for students; committees on human rights, women's issues, parents' concerns, the elderly blind, diabetics; training sessions in the deaf-blind manual and cane travel, and several more.

The Federation is active throughout the country and throughout the year. It employs a full-time Director of Governmental Affiars, whose job it is to keep Congress up to the mark in matters concerned with the blind. It runs a National Center in Baltimore, from which a computerized job vacancy program is maintained and a wide range of basic aids sold at prices below those charged by the agencies. It also sponsors its own technological research program, one of whose collaborators is the well known Tim Cranmer.

Kate and I were both made most welcome by everyone we met in the Federation. They "just loved our accent" and were eager to know what our impressions were. We should like to thank everyone concerned, particularly Dr. Jernigan, the Federation's President, first for making our trip possible and then for making it so stimulating and enjoyable.