The Braille Monitor                                                                                               April 1997

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The 1997 Washington Seminar

by Barbara Pierce

By now everyone in the National Federation of the Blind knows that the first week of February means one thing in our organizational calendar: the Washington Seminar. Activities actually began Friday evening, January 31, with the student division party at the Capitol Holiday Inn.

But the daylong Mid-Winter Conference of the National Association of Blind Students that took place the following day was only one of the preliminary programs that weekend. So many groups had scheduled meetings at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore that virtually every one of the fifty-two beds at the Center was occupied. The Comprehensive Braille Training Advisory Committee, the NFB Research and Development Committee, the International Braille Research Center Board of Trustees, and its Research Fellows were all working in Baltimore. Meanwhile at the Capitol Holiday Inn in Washington, the student conference was capped by a banquet for nearly 200 who enjoyed an address by Dr. Jernigan.

Sunday morning the loaders had to turn people away from the busses taking Federationists to tour the National Center. Well over a hundred found seats, and some at least of the two dozen others were able to make the trip and tour later in the week.

During the afternoon a number of seminars and meetings took place at the hotel. These included parents, Associate recruiters, merchants, lawyers, and those interested in the American Communications Network business opportunity.

By 5:00 p.m. the Columbia Room on the hotel's lower level didn't even have standing room left for those gathering for the briefing. Luckily the public address system speakers used the day before to allow the registration team to hear the student seminar were still available to broadcast the briefing to the large group who could not get into the room at all. Estimates put the size of the crowd at over 500. Forty-eight states and Puerto Rico were represented, and all but three members of the NFB Board of Directors were on hand. President Maurer and Dr. Jernigan updated the group on recent activities at the National Center and on issues of importance to all of us. Then Jim Gashel, Director of Governmental Affairs, briefed the crowd on what we would be discussing with members of the 105th Congress during the next several days.

We had three issues this year. The first was to urge both houses of Congress to introduce legislation that would reestablish linkage between the stipends paid to blind Social Security Disability Insurance recipients and those of working retirees under the age of seventy. Though we didn't know it at the time, Barbara Kennelly would soon introduce H.R. 612 in the House of Representatives, and Senator John McCain would introduce a similar bill as S. 375 in the Senate. At this writing (in early March) H.R. 612 had sixty- two cosponsors, and S. 375 had eleven. We still have a good bit of work to do in the months ahead.

The second issue was the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which has already been introduced in the House with very strong Braille literacy provisions. Our message was that these provisions as they now stand must be part of the final legislation passed this year.

The third concern we took to the Hill was the need for continued efforts to strengthen the Rehabilitation Act when it comes up for reauthorization later this year. We must do everything we can to insure that the specialized rehabilitation services that are an integral part of getting disabled citizens back into the workforce must not be turned over to one-stop-shopping job centers serving everyone needing employment services.

As usual Sandy Halverson and her staff of volunteers did wonderful work in the Mercury Room managing the schedule of meetings and taking reports on them after they took place. The job is huge and is carried out entirely in Braille. The importance of having the records completely accessible to Braille readers was demonstrated this year when the computer system went down, leaving the crew to prepare reports for Mr. Gashel by hand. The team was equal to the challenge, but it was amazing to see just how far the Mercury operation has evolved in recent years as the computer has become more and more central in producing Braille reports.

By late in the week, the appointments had been kept, the reports made, and the peanut butter pie in the hotel dining room eaten; and Federationists headed home to do the all-important follow-up work with Congressional staff members. We left knowing that we had made a good start on this year's legislative agenda, but only a start. Now the real work begins. There is certainly enough to go around.