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The Braille Monitor–March, 2001 Edition


World Blind Union Fifth General Assembly

by Marc Maurer

The World Blind Union is the only worldwide organization dealing with blindness. It came into being in 1984 at a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, which had been established in 1949, and the International Federation of the Blind, which had been formed in 1964, were combined to create the World Blind Union. The International Federation of the Blind was an organization of blind consumers, and the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind was an organization of agencies for the blind. The combining of these entities brought many, many agencies for the blind into the organization of blind consumers, and the combination has been an uneasy alliance. Nevertheless, the National Federation of the Blind has been an active participant in the World Blind Union throughout its history.

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and first President of the National Federation of the Blind, served as the first President of the International Federation of the Blind, and the Federation has had representation in that organization and on the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was our first delegate to the World Blind Union, and he was elected to the Presidency of the North America/Caribbean region in 1987. He continued to serve in that office until I was elected President in 1997.

General assemblies of the World Blind Union occur each four years. The Fifth General Assembly took place November 20 to 24, 2000, in Melbourne, Australia. Prior to the General Assembly there were meetings of the Women's Forum, the Executive Committee, and the Officers. There was a seminar on leadership in programs for the blind, and there were a number of other meetings. Several exhibitors demonstrated products for the blind, and other programs relating to blindness were conducted.

I serve as one of two delegates from the National Federation of the Blind to the World Blind Union. Until recently I have been President of the North America/Caribbean Region of the organization, and I have been an active participant in the politics. Because the National Federation of the Blind has embarked upon a program to create the National training and Research Institute for the Blind, which will seek to offer research opportunities and training priorities to increase the independence of blind people in all parts of the world, I decided not to seek re-election to the Regional Presidency. Development of the international programs would, I felt, demand a great deal of time and effort.

Several members of the National Federation of the Blind participated in the Fifth General Assembly. Mary Ellen Jernigan and I served as delegates. Our senior Board Member, Donald Capps, along with his wife Betty participated to assist in formulating policy. Harold and Linda Snider managed the campaign to seek election for Harold to the office of Secretary General of the World Blind Union. Other National Federation of the Blind participants included Barbara Pierce, Editor of the Braille Monitor; Barbara Walker, Chairman of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind; Ron Gardner, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah; Jan Gardner, wife of Ron Gardner; and Melody Lindsey, Director of the Michigan Center for the Blind. Dr. Fredric Schroeder, Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the United States Department of Education also participated. Patricia Maurer and I decided to take David and Dianna, our two children, with us to Australia. We didn't know when we would again be in the land down under, and the costs for their airfares, accommodations at the hotel, and other expenses seemed manageable. Consequently we took a few extra days to visit a little of Australia.

Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia. It is located on the southern coast. The north of Australia is (we were told) tropical. The middle of the country is very hot and dry, and the coastline is the only area that has been extensively settled. In the south the climate is warm and summery during the months that we would think of as winter and cold, or at least cool, during our summer. Christmas may be celebrated, we were informed, at the beach with a Christmas dinner spread on a table whose legs are in the sand with waves lapping the bare feet of the diners. While we were in Melbourne, the temperature ranged from about the mid-fifties to eighty-five degrees.

The language is English, spoken with a fetching Australian accent—not exactly British, but definitely not North American either. Australians are unfailingly friendly, and they seem completely unimpressed with and amused by other people's pretensions. They are frank, straightforward, and direct. I found the personalities of those I met engaging. In a taxi one day we were traveling along the freeway at a good rate. Another car passed us going much faster. The taxi driver remarked with almost no expression at all that the person driving the other car was in a hurry to fill up a hole in a cemetery.

One evening all of the delegates attending the World Blind Union were invited to the homes of Australian families. I wondered how this could be managed since there were so many of us. However, we learned upon arriving at the home of our host family that its members were not part of the World Blind Union. They were friends of people who worked in the field of blindness, and they had volunteered to entertain. Our hosts had planned for seven or eight guests.

When we arrived, this number had already gathered. Soon another busload of seven or eight more came to swell the numbers. Our hosts never complained; they ordered pizza for the kids (two Maurer children were part of the party, and our hosts had three children of their own) and put extra chairs around the dining table. It was a jolly gathering with much the same spirit that a dinner party might have in the United States. We ate salad, lasagna, and chocolate cake.

Sometimes, when people come to the Maurer household in our country, we entertain them with a barbecued supper. Occasionally we cook hotdogs. Under those circumstances we might sing the Armour hotdog song, which most of our guests don't seem to remember. We had been visiting the tourist sights in Melbourne. One of them is a building where Vegemite was manufactured. Vegemite is a yeast product that was invented in the 1920's during a time when wholesome food was in short supply. We mentioned observing the Vegemite production plant, and our hosts offered us a taste of this concoction along with a rendition of the Vegemite song.

Vegemite may have approximately the same position in Australia that peanut butter has in the United States. It is a yeasty, salty substance to be spread on a slice of bread. We were coaxed through the process. First the bread is to be spread with a small amount of butter or margarine. Then Vegemite is applied very sparingly. My host told me to take an amount on the tip of my knife approximately the size of a button--this would be quite sufficient. When spread thinly over the butter, the Vegemite produced a powerful but tasty flavor.

One of our hosts was a pharmacist, and his wife was the sister of the owner of one of Australia's wineries. She told us that her sister had recently been honored by the Governor General of Australia, who--during the course of the ceremonies--kissed her.

Three of the days we spent in Australia were filled with meetings of the Women's Forum of the World Blind Union. Inequality between the sexes means blind women face much harsher treatment than blind men in many parts of the world. Because this inequality is a reality, a Women's Forum to address the specialized problems faced by blind women has been created.

In the United States we are accustomed to democracy and self-government. Other parts of the world possess different forms of democracy from our own, but, even when the style is different, there are similarities. In the United States we often elect a President as chief executive officer. In other parts of the world the presidency of an organization may be largely ceremonial with a managing director the primary executive officer. Regardless of how they may be denominated, the forms of democracy are followed.

However, in some parts of the world democratic procedures are less well known. The lack of knowledge of democratic processes was evident in the Women's Forum. Approximately thirteen resolutions were created for presentation to the forum with the understanding that any that passed would be recommended for adoption by the General Assembly. There was almost no provision for a resolutions committee to consider the form of resolutions to be presented to the forum. Consequently some of the material presented was almost illiterate, and some of it did not include any recommended action. When a resolution was read during the course of the Forum, if any objections were raised, the person chairing the meeting would say something such as, "Your comment has been noted." Then it would be assumed that the resolution had been passed. Votes were taken only very rarely. One of the resolutions was defeated only after considerable insistence that a vote be taken.

If the purpose of the Women's Forum was to teach women from different parts of the world how to conduct meetings and how to employ the systems of democracy, the Forum was ineffective. Each session was chaired by a different person, and nobody appeared to be in over-all charge of insuring that the meeting had a coherent approach to the problems it had decided to address. If the purpose of the Forum, on the other hand, was to heighten concern about conditions affecting blind women throughout the world, the Forum achieved much. However, a consistent and impressive demonstration of the capacity for self-expression and self-government would have helped a lot.

The meetings of the WBU Officers and the Executive Committee were largely ceremonial except for one substantive matter. The world organization had been divided into seven regions: Europe, the Middle East, Asia, East Asia/South Pacific, Africa, North America/Caribbean, and the Union of Latin American countries--mostly South America. Plans had been made to redefine the regions, and the Executive Committee recommended reorganization to the General Assembly. Instead of seven regions, the Executive Committee recommended six: Europe, North America/Caribbean, the Union of Latin American Countries, Africa, West Asia, and East Asia. This recommendation was adopted.

In the National Federation of the Blind the President plans and coordinates the program of the Convention. In the World Blind Union a program committee is appointed to do this. Political factions within the committee promote different ideas from various parts of the world. Some members believe that prevention of blindness is the most important priority for the Union. Some believe that involvement with other disability groups is the highest priority. Some think that promotion of agencies for the blind is the essential function of the organization. Others believe that creating a powerful force of blind consumers should be uppermost in the planning.

As with the Women's Forum, the chairing for the World Blind Union is shared by people from many parts of the world. This divided chairing and planning mean that there is no unifying central force within the organization. Because the World Blind Union does not have a substantial body of accepted literature and because it has been formed by combining programs for the blind with organizations of the blind, there is very little unifying philosophical foundation within the organization against which to measure the theories of operation and the proposals for programs.

I recommended to the program committee that a segment of the program be devoted to determining what kind of organization the World Blind Union should be. Although many people admired this approach, it did not happen.

Within the world organization I have chaired the committee to support the Louis Braille birthplace, and I have served as a member of the Committee on the Constitution. This committee is charged with the responsibility to accept proposed Constitutional amendments and to present them to the General Assembly. The North America/Caribbean region, of which I was then President, submitted several proposed Constitutional amendments. The Chairman of the Committee on the Constitution took our proposed amendments, combined them with amendments from other parts of the world, rewrote everything, and put it all into a single package. He said that the presentation included twenty-nine Constitutional changes.

Delegates from the North America/Caribbean region felt that he had not included every change we had recommended. Furthermore, we thought that combining our proposed amendments with others (some of which were very controversial) would make it impractical for the changes that we wanted to be adopted to be considered without the political baggage of other proposed revisions. I predicted before the General Assembly occurred that, unless the amendments could be considered separately, none of them would be adopted. This is exactly what happened at the General Assembly. No amendment was passed except the proposal supported by the Executive Committee, which was not handled by the Committee on the Constitution.

Dr. Euclid Herie, President of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, has served as President of the World Blind Union for the last four years. We of the North America/Caribbean region unanimously supported his election to this office, and we are proud of the work he has done as our President. He has supported programs of service to the blind throughout the world; he has worked to give greater self-expression to the blind; and he has recognized that separate identifiable services for the blind are essential to bringing real independence to blind people. He has not always been supported by other leaders of the World Blind Union in these efforts.

For example, a sizable vocal faction within the Union believes the organization should join with other world disability groups to form an organization that represents all disabled people. The argument is frequently heard that the United Nations will not countenance or consider any proposal from an organization that represents only a single disability. Consequently they urge that the World Blind Union become part of a much more comprehensive disability organization. Dr. Herie has strongly opposed losing the identity that a separate organization of the blind permits. His spirit and energy have helped the World Blind Union gain recognition in many countries and in many worldwide programs. However, the constitution of the World Blind Union permits the President to serve for only a single term, and Dr. Herie's came to an end at the Fifth General Assembly in Melbourne.

The Fifth General Assembly, at the unanimous urging of the North America/Caribbean region, recognized the contributions of Dr. Herie. He was elected an honorary life member of the organization, an honor accorded to fewer than a dozen people during the entire history of the Union.

Those elected to world office at this General Assembly are Kicki Nordstrom of Sweden, President; Arne Husveg of Norway, First Vice President; William Rolland of South Africa, Second Vice President; Enrique Sanz of Spain, Secretary General; and Geoff Gibbs of New Zealand, Treasurer. Dr. Herie serves as Immediate Past President, a constitutionally designated officer of the world organization. Harold Snider did not win although he made a very good showing in the election and garnered more support than many thought was possible. Three of the six constitutional officers are Europeans--not surprising when one remembers that 120 votes come from Europe. The United States has ten. A few more than 300 votes were cast in the elections for office, which indicates that Europe controlled about a third of them.

One of the things we discovered in Melbourne was that audible traffic signals had been installed that were unobtrusive and helpful.  The first time we heard them, we weren't certain they had been placed in service to help the blind. Traffic poles made a slight clicking noise which increased in speed when the light changed to permit pedestrians to cross. I wondered to Mrs. Jernigan whether the clicking devices had been installed for the blind. We discovered later that they had been. Our experience in Melbourne was that we would be gathered on a street corner discussing the affairs of the day, and the change in the clicking pole would indicate when the light turned for us to cross the street. The auditory indicator was helpful to the blind, but it also served to inform the sighted, who were sometimes engrossed in conversation and not paying attention to the visual cues. David Blythe, the organizer for the Australia assembly and one of the founders of the blindness movement in Australia, told us sadly that this kind of audible traffic signal is being phased out.

David Blythe was our host in Melbourne. He arranged for the General Assembly to occur at the Melbourne town hall, a magnificent building ideally suited for the assembly. He entertained our party at his own home, and he was always prepared to help. He and his wife Jessie made us as welcome as we have been anywhere in the world. It is a pleasure and an honor to call him a friend.

Recognition of the innate capacity of the blind comes very slowly, but it does come. Participation in the World Blind Union sometimes creates frustration, but more understanding of the blind among organizations of blind people and organizations for the blind throughout the world exists today than ever before in history. We must continue to participate in the world organization. Much of the time our primary role will be to inform others about the kind of work we do in the United States. We must also remain open to learning about the methods others use to address the problems we all face.

It is quite evident that blind people from other parts of the world use Braille as a matter of course. In the United States Braille is on the decline. What can we do to encourage Braille literacy, and what can people from other lands tell us about this that we don't yet appreciate? Today nobody in the National Federation of the Blind holds an office in the World Blind Union. However, we will continue to seek common cause with our blind brothers and sisters around the world. Misunderstanding of blindness is no respecter of national borders. If we are to achieve the freedom we seek, we must have understanding all over the world. The National Federation of the Blind must help to shape that understanding, and we remain committed to doing exactly that.

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