Belief, Courage, and Wisdom: Centering on the Blind People’s Movement

An Address Delivered by
Mark A. Riccobono, President
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Of the National Federation of the Blind
Houston, Texas
July 6, 2023

As we gather here tonight, I would like us to reflect on the center of our movement. In military strategy, the center is fundamental to the wellbeing of the unit. If you fail to prioritize the center of the formation, the left and right sides can be divided. “The center cannot hold” is a famous line from a W.B. Yeats poem that describes post-World War I Europe in apocalyptic terms. What is centered, matters.

In psychology, to center yourself means that you come back to a place where you find balance. You organize life’s challenges and your responses to them, putting everything in its proper place.

So what lies at the center of work that affects the blind? You and I might say blind people, but as we’ll soon discuss this evening, not everyone would agree.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius is credited as saying, "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name."

Tonight we consider how each of us contributes to centering blind people through the collective power of a movement. We also consider how a persistent complexity collides with our community of blind people, obstructing our focus. Tonight we seek to name that barrier and, in doing so, to continue to fuel the progress centered on the blind of our nation.

We the blind gather with our allies to center our lived experience and celebrate our progress. We come in our thousands to affirm our commitment to direct our own future, to speak and act for ourselves, and to build the community that has made the most significant difference in elevating the blind throughout society: a community founded by blind people, led by blind leaders elected by the blind themselves, and sustained by the authentic ingenuity of blind people—a unified force built on hope, fueled by love, sustained through determination, and motivated by the truth that blindness is not the characteristic that exclusively defines us or our future. With the strength of one collective heartbeat, tonight we invite all of humanity to join our blind-centered people’s movement—we are the National Federation of the Blind.

Let us first center on a shared understanding of what we mean when we say, “blind people.” In the National Federation of the Blind, we have come to understand blindness from a functional perspective. While there is a legal definition of blind that is used as an eligibility metric for government services, we understand that there are practical limitations to that definition. We also know that socially constructed norms have been established over centuries by nonblind people who do not truly know the experience of being blind.

As a result, our community has adopted a functional approach in which we consider individuals blind when they must function in the world with techniques and tools that allow them to efficiently do those things without vision that they might otherwise typically use eyesight to do. From our experience, people who do not yet personally identify as a blind person, but who can or will benefit from those functional skills in the future, are part of the class of people we refer to as blind. Often times someone whose eyesight is changing is reluctant to identify as a blind person, but we know this to be a symptom of the socially constructed misconceptions about blindness. The community of people who are blind is broad and very diverse; we face a common set of barriers within society and benefit from combining the wisdom of our individual lived experiences.

At this banquet last year, we discussed in detail the characteristics of our movement—our vehicle for collective action. We said that, in general, a movement is defined as a group of people who share the same beliefs, ideas, or aims. As the people that make up our movement have shared with each other the wisdom of lived experience, our movement has grown and gathered momentum. The experience in the movement has shaped the people, but the growth in the people also shapes the movement. This is how the diversity of the blind people in the movement makes us stronger.

One of the defining characteristics of our dynamic people’s movement is ingenuity. Consider that many of the principles now so closely associated with the National Federation of the Blind are centered on innovation and locus of control. This might be most evident through Structured Discovery teaching, but more broadly in the progress made by taking responsibility for our own lives and rejecting the obstacles created by the vision-centered approach. Furthermore, ingenuity accurately describes our continuous effort to grow, innovate, and reflect the blind people of our time and circumstances; an ingenuity born from lived experience. Our first principle is we believe in blind people. It is the expression of that shared lived experience that is a sharp contrast to the constructed misunderstanding of blind people throughout society.

If the driving force that elevates us in society has been the blind people’s movement—the National Federation of the Blind—from where does the resistance to our movement come and what might we name it? It comes from a deeply rooted series of misconceptions mythologized over centuries, flawed charitable intentions driven by those misconceptions, and institutions built upon those intentions and misconceptions. Tonight we name it the vision industrial complex.

The term “industrial complex” was first popularized by its use in President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech. In general, the industrial complex is a socioeconomic concept involving the complicated tangling of businesses, governmental, and social systems that creates an economy of its own. Entities within an industrial complex may have been created to advance a social or political goal, but mostly profit when the goal is not reached.

The vision industrial complex can be defined as a network of nonprofit, for-profit, medical, governmental, and quasi-governmental organizations that collectively benefit from perpetuating the vision-centered limitations falsely believed to be inherent to blind, low-vision, and deafblind people.

The roots of this complex are in the medical aspects of blindness; preserving remaining vision is success, while living with blindness is the last resort, at best. The industry has been built on the negative—a loss. The vision-centered industrial complex celebrates the maximization of useable vision while claiming as extraordinary those achievements of individuals who experience total sightlessness. Yes, even centering use of the word blind is rejected throughout much of the vision industrial complex.

Let me pause for just a moment to make a point that cannot be overemphasized. When I speak of the vision industrial complex and the deep systemic problems it perpetuates, I am not commenting on all of the people that are working within that system. To be sure, there are many committed and thoughtful individuals working to dismantle and rebuild it into something meaningful to blind people. The most successful of those individuals stay rooted in the national blind people’s movement and find in it not only strength and determination but supportive, authentic guidance, and insight. These are all elements needed to reform the complex from the inside. But despite the best efforts of these individuals, the industrial complex is built to self-perpetuate, which makes meaningful change difficult at best. As leaders in the National Federation of the Blind, we must continue to support the journey of growth and understanding of our true allies and encourage their dismantling of outdated approaches from within the complex. We also have an obligation to our community to hold these same individuals accountable by raising their expectations and challenging their misconceptions. Our true allies will welcome the insight and accountability. In contrast, those who believe more in the vision industrial complex and its ideology will react to our lived experience as an insult to them personally.

Returning to the vision industrial complex, its roots go back many centuries in society. History tells us that beginning sometime in the late Middle Ages, society began making provisions for the care and protection of the blind in almshouses and other sheltered institutions—benefits often only available to privileged blind individuals from the upper classes. Those protections were based upon misconceptions about the perceived limitations that vision loss brings to the individual—misunderstandings generally classified into the categories of pity, sin, and myth. One important effort in documenting these roots and centering the lived experience of blind people is the Critical Concerns in Blindness series established by the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. Published in 2001, the first book in the series, We Know Who We Are: A History of the Blind in Challenging Educational and Socially Constructed Policies, was authored by Dr. Ronald Ferguson. The book provides a detailed scholarly account of the connection between the classical attitudes about blind people, the establishment of care and protection efforts, and the modern-day vision industrial complex, which had a significant footprint by 1940 when our blind people’s movement was founded.

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek was the founding President of the National Federation of the Blind. He was a brilliant scholar of the United States Constitution and a thoughtful elected representative of the lived experiences found within the blind people’s movement. It was not at all inevitable that the movement would succeed in altering the harmful buildup of the complex. At this time, the vision industrial complex was epitomized by the American Foundation for the Blind. To understand why, we must examine the time before our founding.

In Ferguson’s book we get a detailed accounting from historical records of the professionalization within the vision industrial complex. He tells us of the clash, beginning in the 1800s, between the American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB) and the American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB). The AAIB was the earlier, exclusive domain of the nonblind superintendents of the blind residential schools. On the other hand, the AAWB, established more than forty years later, began as an organization comprised of blind graduates of schools for the blind seeking to speak for themselves, as reflected in their original name, American Blind People's Higher Education and General Improvement Association.

The AAWB was clearly resented by the AAIB in the early part of the last century. One example is found in the writing of Richard French, who was an administrator at the California School for the Blind (at the same time that Dr. tenBroek was a student there). Mr. French noted that AAWB, "at first confined its membership to the blind, and declared war, covert and overt, on the American Association of Instructors of the Blind, then a purely institutional organization." If you are like me, that description from a nonblind leader in the field sounds like a distant echo of comments made today about the blind people’s movement.

In 1905, AAWB opened its membership to anyone interested in work with the blind. The inclusion of nonblind members did not immediately change the character of AAWB, but by 1921 the balance of power had changed. The pivot point was at the 1921 meeting of AAWB where leaders of the AAIB engineered the presentation and passage of a proposal to set in motion the establishment of a central national organization to represent agencies and their interests in the blindness field. This resulted in the creation of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), which stood as the designated representative for all issues impacting people with vision loss until the blind organized on a national basis in 1940. It is also worth noting that the AAIB and AAWB eventually merged in 1984 to become what is still today the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER).

Knowing that the vision industrial complex silenced earlier efforts by the blind, Dr. tenBroek and our early leaders worked tirelessly to set a philosophical and policy direction for the movement that could resist selling out to the limitations inherent in the existing systems of control. It is little known that the American Foundation for the Blind courted Dr. tenBroek to leave his university work and become part of the complex. As early as 1944, Robert Irwin, AFB’s executive director, was corresponding with Dr. tenBroek about potential employment at the Foundation. On September 17, 1945, Dr. tenBroek ultimately turned down employment with the Foundation. In doing so he provided substantive recommendations to the Foundation and stated an important truth by saying, “…I cannot express too strongly my feeling that the Foundation has failed to do an adequate job of liaison and public relations with the blind of the country and the necessity for federal legislative work cannot be overstated. The Foundation has immense potentialities for good, but their realization will be frustrated unless the institution can gain and retain the confidence of the blind generally.”

Imagine what might have happened if Dr. tenBroek had become an employee at the Foundation. Would the buildup of the vision industrial complex have been altered? Would the need to propose federal legislation to protect the right of the blind to organize have been unnecessary? Would a group of petulant blind people not have left the organized blind movement, creating a protective front for the entrenched vision industrial complex? We cannot know what would have happened, but we do know that because the Foundation failed to win the support of the blind, the blind people’s movement continued to rise and, this time, would not be crushed by the buildup of professionalism in the field.

Dr. tenBroek stuck with blind people, and our movement grew. He spoke truth to the problems of the vision industrial complex, and he articulated for the blind of this nation the deep importance of self-determination by the blind. He even sparked the building of blind people’s movements in other countries beginning to forge the worldwide connections between blind people that fuel our global movement today. With this inspiration, our movement began advancing progressive policy ideals that were rooted in the blind lived experience and which, in turn, threatened the core values of the established institutions. This was fortified in the second generation of the blind people’s movement as characterized by the determined chant led by our second dynamic President, Kenneth Jernigan, “we know who we are and we will never go back.” This was a chant not only repeated in ballrooms of blind people but on the streets outside of the boardrooms of nonblind agency leaders. For this generation of our movement, dismantling the harmful impacts of the vision industrial complex took true courage and sacrifice as the agencies found creative ways to personally attack leaders of the movement. Tonight, those of us active in this fourth generation of our movement must recognize that courage is still required as the dismantling is not yet complete.

The American Foundation for the Blind is no longer the national leader in the vision industrial complex, and it struggles to find a place of relevancy in the field. Other entities of the complex are attempting to fill that perceived void—again centering the institutions, not the people. In contrast, throughout the rest of society significant emphasis is on centering the people. People of color lead with their own voices and their authentically chosen representatives. Individuals identifying as LGBT+ are leading their transformation in society and not waiting for someone else to speak for them. Yet the vision industrial complex continues to claim a place of privilege in representing the voice of the blind. Furthermore, the complex hides behind the ideal of advancing consensus-driven progress in the field by marginalizing the significance of viewpoints offered by leaders elected by the blind themselves.

Consider a recent interview conducted by Jonathan Mosen, a blind advocate, technology reviewer, and podcast personality. Jonathan is known for conducting strong interviews with clear and straightforward questions. I have been interviewed by him myself, and I found it much like a meeting of Federation members who expect answers about what is happening in their organization. In episode 216 of his podcast, Jonathan interviewed Mark Richert, president-elect of AER. You will recall from our resolution 2018-02 that we denounced AER’s attempt to revive the outdated accreditation system first established by the American Foundation for the Blind in 1967. We again emphasized the position we have held for more than fifty years, “we do not oppose proper accreditation properly done; we will be happy to participate in and cooperate with any appropriately organized and democratically constituted accrediting activity; and if the time should come that a genuine accreditation system is created along democratic lines and blind people have more than token representation in the governance of the accreditation system and throughout the accreditation process, the National Federation of the Blind pledges its willingness to work with AER and other organizations truly to make services for the blind more relevant and responsive to the needs of the blind than ever before.”

Now branded as the AER Accreditation Council (AERAC), it is operated according to a policy and procedure manual. This document is quite telling as it credits the National Federation of the Blind exclusively as the reason that the previous accreditation system failed to gain wide support. Yet it gives no indication of what AERAC has done to address the concerns of the blind people’s movement. Should we give them a gold star for transparency? The manual does state that three of their twelve council members should represent consumer organizations, but it also makes the weak commitment that “every effort will be made to identify individuals to serve on the Council who are blind…” Is it possible that consumer representatives need not be blind if AERAC cannot, in their own judgement, qualify any suitable blind candidates?

In his interview, Jonathan raises the concern of authentic blind representation in accreditation. He asks:

…Coming back to those first principles, if you’ve got a majority of people on a body that accredits organizations who provide services for blind people, and those people are sighted, then they are essentially gaining secondhand knowledge of blindness in some way by observing us, by studying us. They don’t live blindness every day. They don’t understand intrinsically the struggles that we face. They can empathize, but they don’t live it. Surely, it’s absolutely essential that the majority of those people on that body be people who are qualified, and capable, and have the credentials, but who live the life of blindness every day. Isn’t it just a core principle?

This is a reasonable question to ask a forward-looking incoming elected leader for the association that claims representation of professionals in the vision industrial complex. Mr. Richert, a blind person himself, responds, “Again, it’s not an inevitable conclusion that someone who was blind or visually impaired is going to have a better perspective on the needs, capabilities, rights, etc., of blind and visually impaired people. It’s just not. Let me tell you something. Our community in the United States has reflected that.”

This answer is not in the past. It represents the future at AER and it speaks for itself. If we are centering blind people, we must interpret the comment, “Our community in the United States has reflected that.” as, “Our vision industrial complex in the United States has reflected that.” I agree with Mr. Richert that the legacy of the complex has reflected the exclusion of the blind-centered experience. The reality is that AER also is struggling for a place of relevancy in 2023, and comments like this demonstrate why. The wisdom comes in naming it. I believe the modern-day expression is putting lipstick on a pig.

It is long overdue for professionals in the vision industrial complex to stop marginalizing leaders elected by the blind to represent the blind. Does it matter that we are blind people? Does it matter that we speak and act for ourselves? Does it matter that we want to be represented by blind leaders we elect ourselves? Of course it does—this is 2023, not 1823. Furthermore, do we trust the elected representatives of the vision industrial complex to know who we are and how we live the lives we want? No! Trust has not been built with our community, based on the historical record, and trust will not be built if the vision industrial complex continues to perpetuate outdated viewpoints like “blind perspectives don’t matter.”

The vision industrial complex generates over $1 billion in public financial support on an annual basis, and yet it constantly claims it does not have enough financial resource. Many of these agencies also get exclusive contracts from the federal government under the AbilityOne program, and yet they have resisted policy efforts to require minimum wage payments and integration into competitive work settings. Dozens of research projects are perpetuated yearly to study all of the things that are broken about blind people, why employing us is difficult, and to explain how hard it is to teach us. Yet when we present opportunities to demonstrate the capacity of blind people and to invest in what works, where are those same researchers? The really good news is that while the vision industrial complex is still here, the National Federation of the Blind continues to grow in influence, determination, and solidarity.

During the third generation of the organized blind movement, represented by the leadership of our longest-serving President, Marc Maurer, an increasing number of individuals within the vision industrial complex recognized the importance of centering the organized blind movement. For decades now, many professionals have chosen to collaborate with us and have sought to learn from our lived experience—even at the risk of being marginalized by the leaders of the complex. We have witnessed the growth of training programs centered on the experience of blind people and a growing number of skilled professionals who are blind coming into the field. We have sparked innovations such as programs to inspire education of the blind in science, technology, engineering, art, and math; and we now find an increasing number of allies using the research and resources developed by the organized blind movement as tools for dismantling outdated vision-centered practices.

Consider Dr. Natalie Shaheen, assistant professor of blind education at Illinois State University. She is a blind person whose work is rooted in the shared experience of the movement. To professionals seeking to educate the blind in STEM, she gives this as a first principle, “Embrace nonvisual ways of knowing: Acknowledge that nonvisual ways of knowing are equivalent to visual ways of knowing and actively reject the notion that the ways blind people learn and develop knowledge are objectively inferior to normative sighted methods.” To those blind people who took science, do you feel such an understanding would have enhanced the ability of your instructors to meaningfully engage you in the subject? Yet the president-elect of AER says it’s not an inevitable conclusion that our experience matters. To AER we say, our twenty years of blind-led STEM programs demonstrate that, despite the vision industrial complex, with certainty our lived experience makes all the difference.

In collaboration with outstanding professionals in Maryland and the blind-centered programs at Louisiana Tech University, we have invested in training upcoming teachers of blind students while grounding them in the blind people’s movement. These future professionals are not threatened by the blind; they are secured by the insights of the blind. Some of these highly qualified individuals cannot get hired by the same school districts that begged us to help them find blindness professionals. Where is the vision industrial complex in advocating in these school districts? For that matter, where are the leaders of the complex when blind teachers of blind students are denied jobs because a driver’s license is required? The complex is silent. Might it have anything to do with jeopardizing their funding streams? Fortunately, for these emerging educators, they are part of a blind people’s movement, which will continue to have their back.

Our progress is not only limited to the programs we have built for ourselves. Some of the traditional entities in the vision industrial complex are making an active choice to center the blind. This does not mean they always get it right, but they are building trust through genuine collaboration rather than through a top-down, medical-provider-to-patient mentality. A prime example is the American Printing House for the Blind where the leadership has committed to centering the experience of their blind customers. This is to the credit of Dr. Craig Meador and the leadership team he has built there since 2016. The leadership at APH has actively welcomed us into guiding their work and genuinely appreciates our honest feedback rather than taking it as an attack on their character. They recognize that trust is built through active engagement over time. We recognize that sustained change is rarely fast and never easy. Consider the fact that the American Printing House for the Blind was founded in 1858 and began receiving federal government backing in 1879. In October 2022 they held their 154th annual meeting of trustees and, thanks to the courage of the leadership at APH, this was the first time a currently serving, elected leader of the National Federation of the Blind ever appeared as a partner on their program. May the courageous dismantling of the complex continue.

There are many thousands of other reasons to be optimistic about the continued rise of the blind people’s movement and the dismantling of the complex. They are found in the hearts and minds of the thousands of people gathered together at this moment as well as those blind people we are elected to represent. While we only raise 2 percent of what the vision industrial complex generates in a year, we make up for it in authenticity, creativity, determination, heart, and action. The single greatest factor that has made the difference in our progress is the determination of blind individuals committed to working together to make a better future for all. The heritage of our movement goes back to a small group of less than twenty blind people in 1940. It extends forward to a future legacy where all blind people can live the lives we want as valued and respected members of society, free from the barriers, misconceptions, and problematic structures that were entrenched before we could mobilize. While we imagine that future, we are not there yet. The work continues, and it requires the contributions of each of us—blind people representing all diverse characteristics and backgrounds, committed to working together for our common future: a future that is defined by our hopes and dreams, not by the charity of the vision industrial complex; a future built by us and our nonblind allies who know in their hearts as well as their minds that the value of their contributions are in service of advancing our cause rather than causing our advancement.

Tonight we do not declare war on the vision industrial complex. We declare we are at peace with who we are—holding centered on blind people. We call on leaders in the vision industrial complex to demonstrate their courage by declaring their intention to center blind people through real sustained action rather than patronizing promises. Action that is demonstrated through active partnership with the organized blind movement. One way to bring that declaration to life is by pledging progress toward the aspiration called for in our resolution 2020-05. Those agencies within the vision industrial complex that cannot commit to actively working toward blind leadership at an equitable level should ask themselves why they exist and if their accumulated assets would better serve the community in a place centered on the blind themselves. Our declaration has been clear and consistent since 1940, and our aspiration for our future is equally clear. We are prepared to welcome all who champion our cause even if they are still growing in their own understanding. However, to those who minimize our lived experience, we will go to the future without you if we must, and we will continue to resist being silenced as we have in the past. The future is ours and we, the blind, intend to define that future and achieve all of our dreams.

My Federation family, we are a movement not yet sustained for one century, but a movement that has already positively changed a harmful pattern of misconceptions that had been largely uninterrupted for multiple centuries. Just as our arrival at this point was not a certainty, neither is our future. To ensure that blind people continue to be centered, we must have the courage, determination, and creativity to continue to march together. While there is a minority opinion that blind perspectives do not matter, we know who we are and we will never go back. Inherent in our blind people’s movement is the willingness to grow, evolve, and lead in the society around us. The movement shapes the people, but the people also shape the movement: a blind people’s movement that makes all the difference to us and makes our society better for everyone. This is the commitment we make to each other. This is the love, hope, and determination felt in our movement. This is the bond of faith that fuels our hope for our tomorrows. Let us go together to find the blind who have not yet shared our strength. Let us show that we belong in the world and make it better. Let no foe ever divide us. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.