Barbara Manuel was raised in the small Alabama town of Citronelle, about thirty miles north of Mobile. She has retinitis pigmentosa but did not know or encounter any blind people growing up, so she simply coped with her vision loss the best she could throughout her education in the local public schools. Her coping mechanisms included copying questions and assignments from close friends rather than trying to read the blackboard. Despite some struggles, she remembers being an average student.
In her early twenties, Barbara took advantage of job training at the E.H. Gentry facility operated by the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega to learn medical clerical work. When work in that field was no longer available, she took her first job in the Randolph-Sheppard vending program, working for another vendor that she met through an RP support group. After six years, a snack-bar location at the Mobile City Garage became available. Ten years later, an opportunity to run a full cafeteria at the University of South Alabama Nursing School arose. Barbara and her employees served breakfast and lunch daily, and she also took advantage of catering opportunities, which she enjoyed immensely. Finally, Barbara obtained her current location at the United States Coast Guard Aviation Center in Mobile. She now manages seventeen employees and runs an operation that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner 365 days a year, as well as maintaining the facility’s seventy-two sleeping quarters. She is proud that she often receives compliments about the food and facilities.
Barbara first learned about the National Federation of the Blind through a contact from her days at E.H. Gentry. That friend convinced her to attend an affiliate convention in Mobile sometime in the mid-1980s, which she says, “Changed everything.” She became the chapter president in Mobile in around 1989 and served in that capacity for eleven years, while also rotating on and off the affiliate board of directors. After stepping down as Mobile chapter president, Barbara remained active and rose to affiliate vice president, which was the position she held when the late Joy Harris stepped down for health reasons in 2017.
Under Barbara’s leadership, the affiliate was successful in getting parental rights legislation enacted in 2019. “I was so proud when we went to the governor’s signing of that initiative,” she says. “When we can pull together, the sky’s the limit.”
Barbara is proud of what she has been able to accomplish with a relatively small but growing team. “Everyone can do something, even if it’s just make a phone call,” she says. At the same time, “I always tell my members that we need each of them, and we need every blind person in Alabama to join and be an active part of our movement.” The affiliate is currently engaged in a long-running battle with the state over accessible absentee voting, which has been a struggle because the secretary of state did an about-face on supporting it, even though military and overseas voters can submit absentee ballots electronically. Because of her work in this area, Barbara has also become a member of The League of Women Voters. She is grateful to Lou Ann Blake and the late Scott LaBarre for their assistance and is determined to keep up the fight.
Barbara also serves on the board of the National Association of Blind Merchants, and in 2022 she was elected to the National Board of Directors. When she is not engaged in Federation activities, she enjoys spending time with her son and daughter-in-law, granddaughter, and two great-granddaughters. She also enjoys traveling with her best friend, whom she has known since they were in the first grade.
Reflecting on the character of our movement, Barbara recently said: “The National Federation of the Blind strives to embrace one common thread that is tightly woven throughout our movement: ‘blindness.’ We are a close-knit family, and it’s our goal to create a place for every blind individual, from every walk of life.”