First-timer's Guide to the National Federation of the Blind Convention
This guide is intended to give the first-time convention attendee some important information about national conventions of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). It is available in Braille, in large print, and on our Web site at www.nfb.org. Detailed information about specific conventions may be found in the Braille Monitor, on our NFB Web site, or in specific convention agendas. First-time conventioneers should also plan to attend the Rookie Round-up, usually held on day one of the convention, also referred to as set-up day. This gathering is specifically for first-time convention attendees.
FROM THE PRESIDENT
"I am extremely pleased to welcome you to your very first national convention of the NFB. This information will help you better understand the unique role the national convention plays in the life of our Federation.
Your presence at convention is important! By your presence, you are a part of the largest gathering of blind people held anywhere in the world. The Federation needs your ideas and your voice, and you need the strength and knowledge that comes from common association and collective action. I hope you come to feel the power and unity of purpose this convention brings to those blind persons who choose to attend."
SOME BRIEF ORGANIZATIONAL HISTORY
The NFB was established in 1940. Representatives from seven states gathered in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for the founding convention. Those seven states were: California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
The founder and first President of the NFB was Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. Dr. tenBroek had been mentored in his youth and taught about the importance of self-organization of the blind by Dr. Newel Perry of the California School for the Blind. In the early part of the twentieth century, Dr. Perry himself had organized the alumni of the California School for the Blind in order to— as he put it— "escape defeatism and to achieve normal membership in society."
Dr. tenBroek spent most of his working life in Berkeley teaching at the University of California. However, in his early career, during a short teaching stint at the University of Chicago School of Law, he founded the NFB.
Today, the NFB has fifty-two state affiliates: one in each of the fifty states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
WHAT IS MEANT BY THE PHRASE "FEDERATION PHILOSOPHY"?
You will hear people discussing what they call "Federation Philosophy." What they are referring to is the Federation's positive belief system about blindness. Members of the Federation realized the simple truth many years ago that blind people are simply normal people who cannot see—we are not defective sighted people. Blind people are as different as sighted people are; that is, we are a cross-section of the broader society and, therefore, are not all alike as some assume. Given proper training and opportunity, the average blind person can compete in all facets of society on an equal basis with the average sighted person. Blindness is a physical characteristic, and the limitations resulting from this normal characteristic can be overcome using alternative (nonvisual) techniques to do without sight what an individual would do with sight if he or she had it. It is respectable to be blind, and, given proper training, blindness may be reduced to the level of a nuisance or inconvenience.
The real problem of blindness is not the loss of vision itself, but is wrapped up in all of the public misunderstandings, misconceptions, and superstitions about it. Because of these incorrect attitudes with their resulting stereotypes, the blind have organized for the same reasons other minorities have—to make positive social change through collective action.
WHAT IS THE FUNCTION OF THE NATIONAL CONVENTION?
The national convention is held once each year in a location chosen by the President based upon successful negotiations for needed space. At this convention, national officers and board members are elected by the general membership, decisions concerning the organization are made, and policies are set for the following year or years.
To quote briefly from the NFB Constitution (last revised in 1986):
"The Convention is the supreme authority of the Federation. It is the legislature of the Federation. As such, it has final authority with respect to all issues of policy. Its decisions shall be made after opportunity has been afforded for full and fair discussion. Delegates and members in attendance may participate in all convention discussions as a matter of right. Any member of the Federation may make or second motions, propose nominations, and serve on committees; and is eligible for election to office except that only blind members may be elected to the National Board."
The national convention also has some very practical benefits for attendees. Those who are new to blindness as well as parents and teachers of blind children can meet and learn from successful role models and have their expectations raised. Friendships can be made and renewed, the latest adaptive technology for the blind may be reviewed, tours of interesting places may be taken, and hope for the future may be kindled. The convention is, in a sense, a large family gathering, and has been described by one observer as being analogous to an annual meeting of the Scottish clans.
HOW BIG IS THE CONVENTION?
NFB national conventions have experienced enormous growth through the years. There were sixteen representatives from the seven founding states at the 1940 meeting. Just two years later—at a 1942 Des Moines, Iowa, meeting—one hundred fifty representatives from fifteen state affiliates were on hand. The convention first recorded more than one thousand attendees in 1971 in Houston, Texas. Attendance went over the two thousand mark for the first time in 1988 in Chicago. By the convention held in New Orleans in 1997, registration topped more than three thousand for the first time. Currently, between two thousand eight hundred and three thousand three hundred attendees will be present.
What Can I Expect at a National Convention?
The NFB national convention packs an unbelievable number of activities into six days. Day one is set-up day, which also includes the parents' seminar, a national orientation and mobility conference, several technology seminars, and other special meetings and events. On day two, registration begins in the morning, and the Resolutions Committee convenes in the afternoon. The agenda also lists other special meetings. On day three, the national board of directors meeting, which is open to all, occurs in the morning and various committees, groups, and divisions gather in the afternoon and evening. Day four brings the opening of the formal convention, with the roll call of states in the morning, and the Presidential Report and other program items in the afternoon. There are more committee and divisional meetings on the evening of day four. On day five, general convention sessions are held in both the morning and the afternoon. Elections are scheduled on this day, as well. Day six is the last day of convention; the morning and afternoon general sessions are followed by the annual evening banquet, a convention highlight.
THE PRESIDENTIAL REPORT
One of the major presentations each year is a report delivered by the national President to the entire convention on the Federation's activities and progress during the previous year. All attendees are urged to be present for this major event which is held on day four.
COMMITTEES, GROUPS, AND DIVISIONS
In addition to the three days of general convention sessions, many smaller groups affiliated with the NFB hold their annual meetings at the time of the national convention. These are groups such as blind students, blind lawyers, parents and teachers of blind children, blind secretaries, blind businessmen and women, blind teachers, blind guide-dog users, blind computer users, blind rehabilitation professionals, blind seniors, and blind diabetics. These meetings are open to all, and the first-time convention attendee should look at the agenda to select those which might be of interest to him or her. Attendees are encouraged to attend more than one division meeting if they have interest in more than one area. Some of these committees or divisions collect dues, and some do not.
For those who have not pre-registered online, registration starts on day two. All attendees are requested to register, and the outstanding hotel group rates are not available to those who do not. In addition, to be eligible for door prizes you must be registered. An official badge is issued to each registrant and should be worn throughout convention week. Banquet tickets for the banquet held on the final night of convention week are available for purchase when you register. Banquet tickets should be purchased as early in the convention as possible and are not available for purchase after the beginning of the morning session on day five.
The convention agenda is available at registration and can also be obtained at a number of other locations at the convention site. Moreover, it can be found on the NFB Web site at www.nfb.org as soon as it is final. The agenda gives general information about the convention, hotel rates, and other hotel information, and it shows the times and locations of the various meetings and general sessions.
THE BANQUET TICKET EXCHANGE
All convention attendees are encouraged to attend the annual banquet on the sixth night of convention week. When the convention and banquets were smaller, attendees simply went to the banquet hall, waited in line to enter, and found a seat once inside. Now, because more than two thousand people will be present, a system for reserved seating has been developed. Purchase your banquet ticket at the time of registration, and your state president (or designee) will collect individual tickets and turn them in for assigned group seating, usually with others from that state affiliate.
STATE DELEGATIONS IN THE GENERAL SESSIONS
During the three days of general convention sessions, the meeting hall will be set up with flags indicating the location of each of the state affiliates. The number of seats per delegation is based upon the registration figures. Generally, attendees sit with their own delegations. In this way, people can be located easily if they are needed, and official voting delegates have the membership at hand if they wish to poll the delegation on voting issues, or if they wish to determine the consensus of their affiliate's representatives.
The general sessions consist of program items, reports, panel discussions, elections, and official votes on policy issues. General convention sessions customarily are chaired by the Federation President. Floor microphones are available for comments and questions from the audience when time permits.
Often, on votes for elections, motions, or for the adoption of resolutions, the President will call for voice votes. In such cases, it is usually clear that a vast majority has voted one way or another. However, if the outcome of a particular vote is not absolutely clear, then the President will ask for a roll call vote. In such cases, only official delegates of the state affiliates may vote.
In order to be as democratic as it can be in its decision-making, the Federation has decided that each state affiliate will have one vote during a roll call vote. At the opening general session, each affiliate names its official voting delegate—and an alternate or alternates in the event that the official delegate is absent at the time of a given vote. Then, when a roll call vote is taken, only the official voting delegates may cast votes. Therefore, a maximum of fifty-two official votes may be cast. The secretary keeps the official tally and announces votes once decisions have been made.
Some have asked why the Federation does not follow the "one person, one vote" rule. The concern with this method is that a very few large state affiliates could control the outcome on every issue. Therefore, the Federation has opted to have the kind of representation allowed in the United States Constitution for the U.S. Senate, wherein each state has equal representation.
The Federation has a national board consisting of President, First Vice-President, Second Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, and twelve additional board members, each of whom serve for terms of two years. The five constitutional officers and six of the twelve board members are elected during national conventions in even-numbered years, and the remaining six board members are elected at conventions during odd-numbered years.
At the roll call of states held on the morning of the first general session, each affiliate announces its appointee to the Nominating Committee. The President then designates one of these nominees to be Chairperson of the Nominating Committee. This committee then develops its slate of candidates during a private meeting, which is closed to the general membership so that free and frank discussions may be held. Note: This is the only closed Federation meeting at the national convention.
The actual elections are then held during a designated general session. The candidate offered for each position by the Nominating Committee is first placed in nomination. The chairperson then calls for other nominations from the floor. In order to be completely open and democratic, the Federation has a long-standing policy of calling for other nominations three times before a motion to close nominations will be accepted by the chairperson. In this way, it can never be alleged that a quick vote has been pushed through without time for other nominations.
It is also long-standing policy that an individual will not stand for election unless he or she has agreed to run. This policy avoids the problem of electing unwilling candidates.
The Federation has an outstanding college scholarship program; it awards thirty national scholarships at each national convention, ranging in value from $3,000 to $12,000. Applications close on March 31 of each year.
As many as five hundred to seven hundred individuals apply for these scholarships annually. Each April, the Scholarship Committee meets in Baltimore, evaluates the applicants, and offers scholarships to the top thirty candidates. These thirty scholars attend the national convention, with assistance from the NFB. They spend each day with designated mentors.
When the students arrive, they know that they are one of the select thirty. It is not decided until a meeting of the Scholarship Committee the night before the banquet who will receive which of the scholarships. The students, of course, are all winners; the only question is who will receive which one. The winner of the top scholarship is offered the opportunity to speak briefly at the banquet.
Previous winners may also apply again for the opportunity to become tenBroek Fellows in which case they receive a second scholarship.
The annual banquet is the highlight of each convention. It is held on final night of the convention.
The banquet features several national award presentations, the scholarship winners, and a major address by the national President. These banquets are recorded, and copies of these recordings are distributed free of charge.
(The banquet ticket exchange to allow for reserved seating has been discussed above.)
There is a major exhibit area at each national convention. This gives convention goers the opportunity to look over all of the latest adaptive technology, to talk with officials from such agencies as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped or the American Printing House for the Blind, and to buy items from exhibitors. Convention attendees are also invited to browse the extensive free literature collection on display as well as to examine and purchase items from the NFB store, known as the Independence Market.
Exhibits are open during various times throughout much of the convention, but they are closed for the general convention sessions, because all conventioneers are encouraged to attend these meetings.
As with other areas of the convention, the growth in the number of exhibitors through the years has been gratifying. In Atlanta in 2004, the number of exhibitors topped one hundred.
Significant door prizes are drawn throughout general convention sessions and at the banquet. To be eligible to win, an attendee must be registered and present at the meeting where the prize is drawn. Each morning session begins on time with a drawing for a $100 bill. This practice encourages attendees to be present and on time. Similar drawings occur periodically throughout general sessions and at the banquet. The grand prize drawn at the banquet is much larger than the others.
Six different types of fundraising will be discussed during the convention. These are:
1. The White Cane Fund: A time will be set aside during the Convention when buckets will be passed through the audience to receive cash donations for the White Cane Fund. Affiliates will also make gifts or pledges to this fund. These dollars go directly to the general treasury of the Federation.
2. The Jacobus tenBroek Fund: Donations will also be made to this fund for the maintenance and upkeep of the National Center for the Blind property. This property houses the operations of the NFB, and other entities.
3. The Kenneth Jernigan Fund: The proceeds from this fund are used to bring a number of attendees to their first national convention. It is named for Dr. Jernigan who planned our conventions for more than forty years and who did so much to make them what they are today.
4. The PAC Plan: This giving opportunity enables individuals to make regular financial contributions to support the programs and activities of the Federation. The PAC Plan has insured a consistent flow of monthly income to fund some of the Federation's work. By signing up for the Pre-Authorized Check (PAC) Plan a donor authorizes the Federation to withdraw funds directly from a checking account. The individual designates how much he/she wants to contribute each month and specifies a day of the month on which the money should be withdrawn from the account. To participate in the PAC Plan, the donor must have a checking account, complete a PAC Plan card, sign and turn over a voided check, and begin with a monthly donation of at least $5.00. Supporters of the Federation contribute between $350,000 and $400,000 each year through this giving opportunity.
5. SUN Shares: Supporters of the Federation are also able to make either monthly or annual donations for SUN Shares (Shares Unlimited in NFB). These funds are being set aside in the event that they are needed to support the Federation during difficult times.
6. The Imagination Fund: In January of 2004, the Federation held the grand opening for its new training and research center in Baltimore. On the day of the grand opening, the NFB board named the new facility the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, named after our long-time president, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. The Institute is now operating programs and services with the goal of continual expansion for years to come.
The Imagination Fund, an annual fundraising effort, has been established to support the work of the Jernigan Institute and affiliate activities throughout the country. Members and friends of the organization are being asked to participate in this annual campaign by making contributions, soliciting gifts from friends and colleagues, and by providing names and addresses of individuals who may be receptive to Imagination Fund mailings. One half of the funds which are raised will be used to operate the Institute, one fourth will be divided equally among state affiliates, and the remaining one fourth will be set aside to fund specific local chapter or state affiliate projects.
NFB resolutions are the official policy statements of the organization, and about fifteen such policy statements are considered each year. Anyone may offer a resolution. The customary method is to submit a proposed resolution to the Chairman of the Resolutions Committee at least two weeks before the convention. The Resolutions Committee—appointed by the President—holds a public meeting on the afternoon of day two of the convention. The resolutions, which have been submitted to the committee chairperson, are then considered one at a time.
After full discussion, the committee votes either to pass or not pass. If the committee passes a particular resolution, then it comes before the full convention in general session for final action. This means that there will be several days in which to debate contentious issues and to try to politic for favorable votes before final convention action is taken.
If a resolution does not pass out of the committee, then this does not mean that it is completely dead. In line with democratic principles, the presenter of the resolution has the option of trying to have the resolution considered by the full convention. If he or she is able to enlist five state affiliates to request that the resolution be heard, then it will be considered by the entire convention on the final meeting day.
Although it is somewhat rare, a resolution may also be brought to the full convention through the national board of directors. A majority of the directors would have to support the resolution in order to bring it to the floor in this manner.
GUIDE DOG RELIEF AREA
In order to accommodate blind guide-dog users at the national convention, arrangements are made each year to construct a special facility where the dogs may be taken to relieve themselves. This special area is refreshed several times each day.
Representatives of the Guide Dog Committee are available to show first-time convention goers where to take their animals and to assist in learning individual clean-up practices. Dog users are expected to use these special facilities rather than to permit their animals to relieve themselves in the streets or on other hotel property.
SERVICES FOR SPANISH SPEAKING INDIVIDUALS OR THE DEAF-BLIND
The entire convention is translated by volunteers for attendees who speak Spanish. Small receivers can be borrowed to listen to the audio transmission.
Small receivers are also available for the hearing impaired to receive direct transmissions from the public address system. For those who may be totally deaf and use the Teletouch machine for interpreting, volunteers are present to translate the convention.
WHO ATTENDS THE CONVENTION?
Attendees may be long-time convention goers, the newly blinded, parents and teachers of blind children, blindness professionals who are interested in becoming more knowledgeable about blindness, adaptive-technology providers, and family members of people who are blind. Most attendees are from the United States, although each year there are foreign visitors from as many as twenty other countries.
A LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE
For many, attendance at that very first convention has become a life-changing experience. Many hear for the very first time that it is respectable to be blind, that carrying a cane is useful and is nothing to be ashamed of, that Braille is a valuable tool after all, and that much progress is being made in adaptive technology. Attendees also learn that they are not alone, that there are others who are facing the same problems they are, and that an active and normal life is possible. Some learn for the first time that there are orientation and adjustment centers where blind people can be sent by their rehabilitation counselors to learn the skills of blindness and the positive attitudes which lead to personal empowerment.
THE PRESIDENT'S WRAP-UP
"I hope this information has been helpful to you and that it has given you a sense of the significant role the national convention plays in the life of the NFB. I also hope your interest has been piqued and that you will continue to be an active member of our movement via your local chapter and state affiliate. Let this convention experience mark the first of many others in your life. We need your voice and your talents. Working together, we can continue to make a difference in the lives of blind people everywhere. We can change what it means to be blind."