Future Reflections September- December 1983, Vol. 2 No. 5

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CONVENTION REPORT

Parents of blind children are becoming more aware of the difference between agencies who attempt to speak "for" the blind, and the National Federation of the Blind, which is the blind speaking for themselves. These parents are attending meetings of the NFB at local and state levels, and finding a wealth of information and wisdom about blindness. Some of these parents go on to attend the National Federation of the Blind's annual national convention.

Ellen Norton of Vermont is such a parent. She has a blind son who is nearly two-years-old, and she attended the NFB-sponsored Parent's Seminar on the Saturday preceding the convention, then stayed for the convention -- including committee and division meetings and the banquet Thursday evening. Paraphrased below -- using her own words whenever possible -- are comments about her reaction to her very first NFB National Convention.

I was really impressed! I saw a lot of competent blind people. I definitely came away knowing what kind of a person I wanted my son to be. I was really glad to see blind people who were employed, such as blind lawyers, businessmen and others. It helped to know that my son doesn't have to stay at home, always dependent upon me.

I have always been bothered by the "blindisms" I have seen in some blind adults, but at convention I learned that it was the lack of the right training and attitude -- not lack of eyesight -- that creates that problem. I now know what I can do to help my son develop acceptable social manners.

It was a real help, too, to meet other parents and talk with them. The biggest thing I remember was a little blind girl, she was maybe five or six, with her first cane. She was so excited and happy.

There was a lot of good information, too. The only problem was that there was too much going on at the same time, and I couldn't go to all the meetings I wanted to. But it was very good, and I'm glad I went.

That completes Ellen's observations, and she was correct. The national convention of the NFB is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. Thousands of blind people from across the nation gather together to plan their future, to set priorities and goals, to share experiences, and to reaffirm the necessity for the blind to speak for themselves.

A review of just the agenda demonstrates the level of the activities and concerns of the National Federation of the Blind. We had speakers addressing issues related to conditions for the blind in workshops for the blind; civil rights and affirmative action for the blind; discrimination; technology and its impact on the blind; rehabilitation agencies for the blind in transition; library services for the blind, and many, many other topics. Some guest speakers, such as William Bradford Reynolds, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice; and Ellen Shong, Director of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, soon learned they were there to be informed as well as to inform. We asked them penetrating questions, presented real cases and problems to them, and gave examples which demonstrated some of the failings in the "system".

Workshops for the Blind was a major topic. We in the NFB have worked long and hard for many years to improve conditions for the blind workers in workshops. Many workers still labor for less than minimum wages and others receive no benefits, no job security and no hope of advancement. The self-respect and basic human dignity of all blind people -- not just the blind workshop worker -- is jeopardized as long as those conditions are allowed to exist. The NFB has promoted the right of blind workers to organize (as a means of improving their own conditions) and the reform of the Wagner-O'Day Act. (The WagnerO'Day Act allows workshops for the blind and severely handicapped to sell products to the government without competition from private companies. The workshops can do this as long as they meet certain requirements. The NFB proposes that we change those requirements so as to promote better wages, and to encourage the advancement of blind workers upwards into supervisory and administrative positions. The Wagner-O'Day Act currently requires that 75% of the direct labor hours be performed by the blind or severely handicapped workers. We also support other changes that would make the program more efficient as well as save money.) As guest speakers addressing this topic, we had several union representatives, and we also had Don A. Zimmerman of the National Labor Relations Board; Clyde Cook, Chairman for the Purchase from the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped; and Ralph Sanders, President of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (a private workshop for the blind).

Discrimination against the blind was the theme of several presentations. Bill Joyce, who built his own communications company in Illinois, gave a moving talk about his struggle to regain financial independence after his blindness. Bill is also nearly deaf. Fred Schroeder, Coordinator of Low Incidence Programs in the Albuquerque Public School system, was also on the agenda with the topic of, "Discrimination Against the Blind as Mobility Instructors: The Certification Racket." In his situation, discrimination came not from the public sector (which we can at least say are simply ignorant) but from the "professionals" (those whom we might expect should "know better").

Fred Schroeder, a very competent, knowledgeable, and skilled young blind man was denied certification as a mobility instructor on the basis of his blindness. The orientation and mobility profession continues to insist that blind people cannot safely and efficiently teach cane travel (O&M). Fred (who had successfully taught cane travel before seeking certification) and many other successful blind travel instructors have already proved them wrong. It now remains for the National Federation of the Blind and determined men and women -- like Fred -- to break down those barriers that have been erected by the "professionals" themselves.

The other topics on the agenda varied from, "The Blind and the Right to Freedom of Travel," by Martin J. Darity, from the U.S. Department of Commerce; to, "I work as a Pharmacist," by Tony Burda, a registered pharmacist and poison information specialist. Tony is also a blind member of the NFB.

We also warmly welcomed such distinguished guest speakers as Ramona Walhof, Director of the Idaho Commission for the Blind; Frank Kurt Cylke, Director of the National library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and Hellen O'Rourke from the National Council of Better Business Bureaus.

Mark Maurer, Attorney-at-law and chairman of the NFB Blind Lawyers Division, gave a most informative presentation about the law and the organized blind movement. We also heard from Jim Hudson, President of the NFB of Arkansas concerning the activities in Arkansas to improve the agency for the blind in that state. Guy Carbeneau, president of Triformations System, and Charles Cook of Community Computing, Inc. of Maryland, gave us an update on information about technology and its relationship and application to the needs of the blind. Gail Krowe, a blind disk jockey, talked about his work and the adaptations and alternative techniques he employs to remain competitive as a disk jockey. We also heard from Gerald Kass, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Braille Institute. The NFB and the Jewish Braille Institute have enjoyed a longtime, friendly and productive relationship. So, it was with particular pleasure that we greeted Gerald Kass. His speech this year (entitled, "And the Winner is...") was as entertaining, refreshing and insightful as we have come to expect his speeches to be.

Of course, we cannot forget the Presidential Report by President Dr. Jernigan, and the Washington Report by James Gashel, NFB Director of Governmental Affairs. These reports sum up the activities, goals and accomplishments of the NFB in the past year. They are, to borrow a medical term, a measure of our "vital signs". And we are very "vital" indeed! The progress we have made in accomplishing our goals indicate just how healthy and vigorous our movement is. Dr. Jernigan summed it up best in his banquet speech Thursday evening. In a speech entitled, "Blindness: The Other Half of Inertia," he told of the discrimination and the put-downs experienced by blind people across the country. He also told of the progress being made by the blind. He ended the speech with these words.

"Yes, we still experience discrimination, denial and lack of opportunity; but the tide is running the other way. It can be seen in our victories in the sheltered shops, in our radio and television spots which blanket the nation, and in the jobs which blind people are getting and holding. There can be seen the hope, the determination, and the zest for the future which the blind people now are feeling. It can be seen in the mood and the joy of this convention.

"We have learned the truth of the other half of inertia: things in motion tend to remain in motion -- and it is as hard to stop something which is moving as it is to start something which is not. WE are moving! We are going with a mighty sweep, straight for equality and first-class status -- and no force on earth can slow us down or turn us back or change our direction. My brothers and my sisters, the future is ours. Come! March with me in the quickening pace, and we will make it all come true!"

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