Perspective from the President: Training Centers, Washington Seminar, and More

Mark Riccobono stands in front of a mosaic of the National Federation of the Blind logo and tagline live the life you want.

Perspective from the President: Training Centers, Washington Seminar, and More

By Mark Riccobono

Greetings, Fellow Federationists,

January 4 was World Braille Day, which commemorates the birth of Louis Braille in 1809. This was a special World Braille Day because he invented his code when he was fifteen. The 215th anniversary of his birth is a special year for promoting and celebrating Braille.

Braille also represents the power of alternative techniques, which Federation members know so well. While not every blind person reads Braille, it is a clear example of the fact that alternative techniques are not inferior techniques. And Braille makes a difference in so many ways. As all of you know, it's not simply about reading. It has value in so many areas of life, whether it's music, drawing, labeling… We use Braille in so many ways, and while it symbolizes the capacity of blind people, it means even more than that.

Here at our national office, Braille occupies valuable space: in our library, in our conference room, and in our hearts. I encourage you to check out Braille.Day, which we launched just last year, although it feels like longer ago. When you check out, you can help us celebrate the system that has led to so many blind people’s success. At, you can look at a special list we put together just for this occasion, that gives a sampling of the thousands of ways that people can use Braille.

Thirty years ago, we made a strategic decision to affiliate ourselves with training programs that exemplify the philosophy, spirit, and policies of the National Federation of the Blind. Our affiliated training centers in Louisiana, Colorado, and Minnesota are very similar to our state affiliates. They affiliate with the national organization through an agreement, and they're run by independent boards. The responsibility for running the programs at our training centers belongs to those independent boards, and they're responsible for raising money and managing the staff and programs. The Federation supports their work through our national infrastructure, but we don't financially support the training center programs. We're not responsible at the national level for supporting the fundraising and program expenses of our affiliates either.

Our national board has only approved three training centers as meeting the standards of the National Federation of the Blind and exemplifying our work and what we do. There's nothing that prohibits us from having more training centers affiliated with us, but it's hard to put together and sustain quality programs that meet the very high standards that blind people in the Federation set.

In December, I sat with the board of our training center in Minnesota: BLIND, Incorporated. As that board worked through some pretty difficult decisions, they set forth a direction for their training center that includes this statement: “BLIND, Inc. regrets to announce that we will temporarily suspend all of our programs and services as of January 1, 2024."

All of the members of the board took this action with very heavy hearts. I sat with them as they deliberated extensively, and they decided to suspend operations in order to make future plans to reimagine and reconstitute the center in a responsible, bigger and better way. This was the best available alternative they had.

I agree with and support their decision, even though it is difficult, painful, and disruptive to the students, staff, and supporters (including myself). I've continued working closely with the board, and I believe that they are doing all that they can to make this transition as easy as possible. I commend the board at BLIND, Inc. for doing what they can, even as they're suspending programs, to help make sure that the future continues to be bright in the state of Minnesota. Their decision comes after a series of compounding events that left them without adequate resources to operate a center in the way that we want a center to be run.

One factor in their evaluation was the fact that BLIND, Inc. is operated in the Pillsbury mansion, which is on the national historical registry. Maintaining that building comes with certain obligations to preserve the building’s historic nature. This currently amounts to millions of dollars in renovations to utilize and maintain the building, while running a structured discovery program. The board at BLIND, Inc. had many factors to consider, this being just one of them.

I believe that we will find ways to reimagine and build an even stronger training program in the state of Minnesota. I'm looking forward to meeting with members of the Federation in Minnesota to see what their hopes and dreams are for the future. I think our community is strong enough to work through this and to reimagine what the future should be.

This is a great opportunity for us to reimagine what Federation-influenced training can be like going forward, and to reimagine the future we want, and then to help build it through a new BLIND, Inc. program. Many in our Minnesota affiliate are dedicated to that, and I know many of you across the country have already reached out to BLIND, Inc. offering that kind of support. Having limited time, money, and talent to put into all the things that we want is a challenge that we face as an organization. This is a strategic opportunity for us to refocus and imagine and then build what we want training to be in the future. If you are interested in helping with the BLIND, Inc. effort, especially with reimagining the training and thinking about putting together some new resources, I encourage you to reach out to the board of directors at BLIND, Inc. The best way to do that would be to send an email to Ryan Strunk, the chairman of the board, at [email protected].

And here is some better news. In 2015, the Federation supported blind individuals in Ohio, who were being paid subminimum wages in a sheltered workshop under a 14(c) certificate. We helped them file a petition with the Department of Labor to review the subminimum wage payments they were receiving. After a weeklong hearing in early 2016, an administrative law judge found that the clients that we've been working with are not disabled for the work they perform and awarded back-pay and liquidated damages. This was a historic finding by the Department of Labor.

The sheltered workshop appealed to the Department of Labor's administrative review board and eventually filed a federal lawsuit seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. The district court upheld the administrative findings and entered judgment in the client's favor, a total charge of $87,025.64 to cover the back pay for these employees.

Although we expect the workshop to appeal this decision to the sixth circuit court, this is truly a major victory that upholds the first-of-its-kind finding by the Department of Labor. This also sets a very important tone and warning bell for sheltered employment and those using 14(c) certificates that we're watching and that abuse of these certificates will not be permitted under the law.

Congratulations to the Federation on this victory. Many people would give up on a case that goes on for almost ten years, but we don't give up. Congratulations to all of us, and certainly to our legal team. Many people have been involved in that over the last decade. It's not over as I indicate, but it is a really great victory for us to start 2024.

We’re also leading up to our Washington Seminar, and the fact sheets for our three legislative priorities are on our webpage. The fact sheets are available in Word, HTML, audio, and BRF formats. We strongly encourage you to review the fact sheets so that you're prepared to meet with members of Congress. Definitely also review the fact sheets if you're planning to participate in any of the training sessions leading up to Washington Seminar so that you can ask any questions you may have. You can access the fact sheets and other relevant information on our Washington seminar page.

We are very excited about Washington Seminar, and apparently you are too. All of our room block at the Holiday Inn is gone. In fact, the whole hotel is sold out on the night of the 29th, which will be our Great Gathering-In. If you have not yet secured your rooming arrangements and are planning to attend, we want to help. You can contact Lindsey Walsh in our Governmental Affairs department, and she'll help you identify some nearby hotel options for at comparable costs. Email her at [email protected]. If you don't have a room, I hope you work to get one nearby because this could be a record-breaking Washington Seminar.

To access the full Presidential Release, visit our Presidential Release page.