Future Reflections Winter 1994, Vol. 13 No. 1


Report on the 1993 National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind Dallas, Texas
by Jude Lincicome

[PICTURE] Jeremy (center) and Jude (right) share a relaxed moment with a new friend between workshop sessions.
[PICTURE] Little did Jeremy (center, seated on the floor) know how exciting this hay ride at the dude ranch was going to be!

Editor's Note: Jude Lincicome, a parent from Maryland, received a scholarship from the Parents of Blind Children Division of the NFB of Maryland (POBC/MD) for herself and her son, Jeremy, to attend the 1993 NFB Convention. Jude later gave a fascinating report about their convention experiences to the annual meeting of the POBC/MD. That report (which was published in Horizons, the Maryland Parent Division newsletter) became the basis for the following article. Here is Jude's "Reflections from Home":

Jeremy and I arrived in Texas on Friday afternoon, July 2, feeling a little bit of apprehension and a lot of excitement. The Hyatt Regency DFW was quite comfortable, and we found our room easily. We stayed in the West Tower. NFB Camp and the swimming pool were also in the West Tower. Across a quarter-mile corridor was the East Tower where the majority of convention activities were held.  

While parents were attending sessions, children went to NFB Camp, which was directed by Mary Willows, a blind educator. The week was abundant with activities in the hotel and about the Dallas area. The children had a great time not only sharing adventures but making new friends with true peers-other blind children and/or siblings of blind children. For one week they were just like everybody else.

Our busy week began early Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. with the Parents of Blind Children all-day seminar for parents and teachers, "Meeting the Needs of the Blind Youngster." How reassuring to hear speaker after speaker reinforce the importance-no, the necessity-for early Braille and cane travel instruction. It was during this seminar that I realized that I was not demanding enough independence in cane walking for Jeremy. For those who do not know us, Jeremy is five years old and attends the Maryland School for the Blind. How about that!  Me, the one most folks who know me say demands too much from her children, guilty of not expecting enough. Just for this, the whole trip seemed worthwhile.

The morning included recognition of the Braille Readers Are Leaders contestants, discussion of the role of parents, blind role models, and alternative techniques. There was also an excellent panel on the needs of deaf-blind children. Dr. Abraham Nemeth, inventor of the Nemeth Braille code for mathematics, spoke of his upbringing and education as a blind child in an earlier era. Both the progress we have made and, sadly, the regression since his days as a youth were most enlightening.

For the afternoon we broke into specialty groups. The choices included: Current Trends and Legislation in Special Education; Deaf-Blind Children; Integrating Braille at Home and in the Classroom; Alternative Techniques for Junior High, Middle, and High School Students; IEP Workshop; Blind Multiply Handicapped Children; Cane Travel; and Personal Independence and Daily Living Skills. Since I write a column for parents of the multiply handicapped blind child for the POBC of Maryland newsletter, I attended the group led by Colleen Roth, who chairs the POBC Network for the Blind Multiply Handicapped Child.

While I was busy learning all I could about how to be my son's best advocate and how to more effectively meet his needs, Jeremy spent the day at a Dude Ranch with his friends from NFB Camp. His favorite story about the trip is about the hayride and what happened on the way to the petting zoo. "...The wheel came off and we tipped." What an exciting start of NFB Camp!  For me the most impressive part of the ranch trip was that all the children participating were given canes (if they did not already have one), no matter what level of vision they had. What a great message to everyone about the importance of using a cane. Since this trip, Jeremy uses his cane everywhere he goes; a habit I've tried for a year to instill in him. Saturday evening we went to a pizza party with high-steppin' fiddle music. We made new friends at the party, then went for a swim before bedtime.

Sunday was less structured, giving us time to go into town for a whataburger and shop for a few forgotten items. Then it was on to the convention exhibit hall to shop again-this time for information, ideas, trinkets, gifts for friends and family, and a tee shirt in Braille. This was my first of many trips around the exhibit hall, and I dare say I probably still missed a few things to see. Registration was quick and easy with one stop to register and purchase tickets for trips and the banquet. Lines were only a couple deep despite the fact that over 2,500 persons registered during the week. Sunday afternoon Jeremy and I took our turn working the POBC table in the exhibit hall. Toys we thought would be attractive for kids were a hit with the adults. Our print/Braille tee shirts with the cartoon Pluggers character Zacharoo (a blind kangaroo) and the words "Braille is Finger-food for the Blind," were liked by young and not-so-young. We sold out of several items the first couple of days.

Monday morning was spent again at the exhibit hall and the Sensory Safari, a hands-on exhibit of stuffed animals sponsored by the Safari Club International. Jeremy had a rare and wonderful opportunity to touch and explore, in detail, huge elephant tusks, tiny squirrel feet, hippo teeth, wolf fur, mountain lion claws, monkey tails, and bird feathers, just to name a few. Each animal had a knowledgeable guide to answer any question. Some animals had tape recordings of their special call or sound. How many of us can say they have plunged their whole hand into the mane of a buffalo or felt the tongue and back teeth of a hyena?

Monday afternoon was our Parents of Blind Children Annual Meeting. Speakers again reinforced the necessity of Braille and cane independence for blind children, giving example after example of kids successful at learning Braille or cane walking. We vicariously experienced each child's triumph and were all  encouraged by these examples to renew our own resolve to have our child be the best that he or she can be.

Ruby Ryles, who is currently working on her Ph.D. in the education of blind children, gave an enlightening presentation of her research which documents the positive link between Braille literacy and employment of the blind.  Officers and board members were elected and state POBC reports were given. Networking-exchanging names and addresses-was also a highlight of the meeting.

A swim in the pool after dinner was about all the activity Jeremy and I could handle as by now we were both feeling the effects of early to rise, late to bed. Reluctantly we missed the "Yah Sure Can Do Carnival" sponsored by the NFB of Minnesota affiliate and  BLIND, Incorporated (the NFB of Minnesota orientation and training center for the blind).

Tuesday morning the magnitude of the convention became evident. Eight halls were joined to form a huge room to accommodate some 2,500 registrants from not only our 50 states, Puerto Rico, and D.C. but from many other countries,-such as Thailand, Japan, Canada, and Saudi Arabia-as well. People of every variety, size, color, shape, ethnicity, and station who carried canes or used dogs (and some who used wheelchairs, too) were coming together in one place for a common cause. It was truly an awesome sight!

As I sat watching the people in the room, it occurred to me that something seemed to be missing-something that perhaps had not happened-yet. Then it came to me. We had been here for four days now, here in a strange place with people we've never seen before, doing things we've never done before, among people who like my son are blind. How strange that my level of stress and anxiety was so low. There were a few people who during the first days seemed to carry a lot of emotional baggage. But they, too, seemed to have been able to leave it behind and join the spirit of our single purpose-learning about blindness and how to be the best that we can be. And whatever each of us is, is okay. As if this realization was not exciting enough, the roll call of the states brought my awareness back to the convention hall.

As each state represented was called forward, conventioneers responded with a resounding cheer. Our tiny state was third in numbers attending. Not bad!  Albeit, it does seem most fitting that the state of Maryland, under our President, Sharon Maneki, should assume a role of leadership since we are the home of the National Center for the Blind, headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind. If only we can sustain that enthusiasm when we get home!  Just think what we can accomplish.

The afternoon session was highlighted by the Presidential Report by Marc Maurer. The scope and power of the National Federation of the Blind seems to touch us at all levels of our lives. I hope you will read his report in the Braille Monitor. No less inspiring was an address by the Honorable Sam Johnson, Member of Congress, Third District, Texas: "Blindness:  Meeting the Challenge Through Self-Organization and a Fighting SpiritþLessons From One Who Knows!"  Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, President Emeritus of the National Federation of the Blind, both amused and instructed us with his presentation of "The Nature of Independence." Dr. Jernigan gave a very personal, sensitive, and instructive answer to a group of letters he received from blind students at a training center for the blind concerned about what they perceived to be a rift between Dr. Jernigan's choice of using sighted-guide techniques over independent cane walking at convention, and the position of the National Federation of the Blind concerning the importance of independent cane travel. Again, I hope you will read this also. [Editor's note: This speech is reprinted in this issue on page 44.]

Tuck Tinsley, III, Ed.D., President of the American Printing House for the Blind, Louisville, Kentucky, gave us a good look at what we can expect from the American Printing House in his talk "Tomorrow's News Today." Some of the joint projects now taking place between the National Federation of the Blind and the American Printing House for the Blind will help prepare the future generation to meet the challenge of competitive employment in the age of computers and technology.

As my head was reeling with possibilities for my son, I hurried to pick him up from NFB Camp to go to the Texas Barbecue Under the Stars. To think I had to travel all the way to Texas to meet the President of my NFB Baltimore County Chapter. That night Ken Canterbury met my son Jeremy. This was Ken's first real experience with a blind child. I have asked Ken to be my son's big brother. Role models are important for children, and I am glad to find a blind man for my son to look up to. Just think, several times I almost gave up on coming to the barbecue. Food, friends, fun, dancing, and music were abundant. We had a great time. I'm so grateful we went.

Wednesday morning came all too soon, beginning with election of NFB Board Members. Greetings from the Congress of the United States were then delivered to the convention by the Honorable Greg Laughlin, Congress member from the fourteenth district, Texas. His remarks were a firm reminder of the responsibility the National Federation of the Blind has to lead the nation's blind and to advocate for them and the high regard held for the National Federation of the Blind by those who govern this great nation.

Turning to other serious matters, the remainder of the morning was spent in a discussion of issues around "Fair Labor Standards þ Fact or Fiction for Blind Workers in the Sheltered Workshop."  James Gashel was moderator of a panel which included: Joe D. Cordova, Assistant Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind and Administrator of the Industries Division; Richard J. Edlund, Member of the Kansas House of Representatives; Fred Puente, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of  Blind Industries and Services of Maryland; Donald Ellisburg, labor lawyer and consultant; William Gross, Assistant Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the Employment Standards Administration in the U.S. Department of Labor; and Austin Murphy, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor Standards, Occupational Health and Safety of the Committee on Education and Labor in the House of Representatives.

General consensus was that there is a serious double standard in the wage earnings of blind and sighted employees in workshops for the blind. Ironically, the majority of the monies allocated to a workshop go to the salaries of the sighted administrators and supervisors, and what is left is paid to the blind employees. The legislation, which was originally designed with the intention of increasing employment possibilities for the blind by allowing employers to pay sub-minimum wages, is now responsible for unfairly keeping blind employees in sub-minimum-wage-paying jobs. However, studies show that productivity is higher when wages are at or above minimum-wage standards. This was a very sobering panel. Reality shock has certainly made me concerned, even frightened for my son's future. I'm really glad I insisted on a strong Braille component for Jeremy's IEP this year! His opportunities in the future will be better with good Braille skills and cane independence.

Wednesday afternoon and evening was left open for Federationists to relax, enjoy local sights, or do whatever they wished. Our afternoon was spent riding the train to the airport and exploring the shops. This was Jeremy's choice, and I'm so proud that he is telling me what he wants to do. During our afternoon he wanted to go about with his cane "all by myself." Before, when we were in the mall or the airport and even when he had his cane, he has always wanted to touch either myself or his brother's wheelchair. So this was a real gain.

Most of Thursday morning's general session was devoted to issues of education. Those speaking included Frank Kurt Cylke, Director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress, and Ramona Walhof, Secretary of the National Federation of the Blind. Mr. Cylke's presentation was entitled, "Twenty Years of Service and Twenty Years to Come." Ramona Walhof's inspiring speech was called, "Braille: A Renaissance."

Next was a panel discussion called "Mainstreaming, Schools for the Blind, and Full Inclusion: What Shall the Future of Education for Blind Children Be?" Panel members were: Fred Schroeder, Executive Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind and formerly Director of Low-Incidence Programs in the Albuquerque Schools; Dr. Phil Hatlen, Superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired; Dr. Michael Bina, Superintendent of the Indiana School for the Blind and President of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER); and Dr. Ralph Bartley, Superintendent of the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. The morning ended with a presentation by Patricia Stenger, Senior Vice President of the American Diabetes Association; the title was "Diabetes: A Leading Cause of Blindness in the United States."

Issues of modernizing the Social Security and SSI systems were addressed by Louis Enoff, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, first thing during the afternoon session. Excellence in the workplace was demonstrated by the next panel of speakers: Richard Realmuto, teacher of technology, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, New York; Kathy Kannenberg, teacher of mathematics in Raleigh, North Carolina; Michael Gosse, Ph.D., Electrical Engineer at Atlantic Aerospace Electronics Corporation in Greenbelt, Maryland; and Alan R. Downing, a high-performance engine builder. Under the topic, "Diversified Tasks: The Blind in the Workplace," each spoke of their success as blind professionals in a diverse cross section of employment.

Finally the Honorable Jim Ramstad, Member of Congress, Third District of Minnesota spoke about pending legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Business Development Act, and what it could mean to the blind for self-employment opportunities. Reports from Dr. Kenneth Jernigan as representative of the World Blind Union of North America/Caribbean Region were deferred to Friday because of time.

Thursday night's banquet was a most phenomenal success due to an incredible banquet address presented by President Marc Maurer. A look at the past and people's perceptions of blindness were presented in a hilarious walk through the writings of several scholars of the day. It was clear that President Maurer enjoyed presenting his address as much as we enjoyed hearing it.

Neither Jeremy nor I had the energy left for the Colorado Hoe-down following the banquet. The spirit was ready, the flesh weak. Jeremy had stayed busy at NFB Camp with trips to the park, puppet shows, and fun in the Oyngo-Boyngo, a marvelous net-enclosed trampoline. And Friday would bring with it a field trip to the Science Center and lunch at McDonald's.

Friday's general session was devoted to the business of running a big organization. Reports, finances, resolutions, and a report from our NFB Director of Governmental Affairs, James Gashel, filled both morning and afternoon sessions.

I made a last trip to the exhibit hall to make sure nothing was overlooked, then went to the NFB Camp to collect my son for the last time. The tears in the eyes of his caretakers were a sure sign of the loving care my son received while at Camp. After exchanging addresses and promising to write, we left for one more ride on the airport train, dinner, then bed.

My only disappointment from the entire week was that we had not won any of the hundreds of door prizes, ranging from chips to $1000 in a leather briefcase. My secret wish was to take home a box of Armadillo Droppings, the caramel and pecan confections that had been taste-tested in general session by President Maurer himself.

Saturday's return trip was spent enjoying the quiet and remembering the past week with friends. How richly blessed we are by the vision, wisdom, information, friendships, networking with other families, and the reassurances we received at the Federation Convention that after all is said and done, blindness need not be a crippling handicap. And with Braille literacy and competence in cane walking, blindness may be reduced to nothing more than a nuisance. I returned home with a renewed hope for my son and his future, and a resolve to make certain he has the Braille and cane skills he must have. I, too, am learning Braille.

In closing I would like to share a funny anecdote from our final train ride to the airport on Saturday. I sat across from a father with his young daughter. The man sat staring at me for quite a while before he spoke. I answered his questions about where we had been and where we were going. Then he asked "What do you use that for?" looking at my purse with his eyes. "What do you mean?" I asked, "That's my purse."

"Then what do you keep in that?" he asked, again pointing with his eyes, but now at Jeremy's book-bag with noticeable Braille on the flap. Confused by his odd questions, I said, "It's my son's book-bag."

"You see well" replied the man, seeming pleased with his test of my vision. I was simultaneously amused by his `beat-around-the-bush' way of determining my visual acuity, and offended by his obvious thought that because I was also carrying a cane (Jeremy's small cane that we replaced at convention) that he needed to determine by trickery whether I was really blind or merely pretending by also carrying a cane. For a brief moment, I felt like I could have been proud to be blind like Jeremy. And then I wondered if it was that I would be proud to be blind or proud to be associated with the blind; for I had just spent eight days in the company of the blind learning about blindness, and I had been privy to some measure of their courage, determination, and caring for one another. And I do feel proud to have been at the convention-the National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind.