Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2007

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The Advocate, the Strategist, the Diplomat

by James Gashel

Jim GashelFrom the Editor: At the close of the 2007 convention, a long and productive chapter in Federation history came to a close. Most active Federationists today have always counted on the fact that Jim Gashel, NFB director of Governmental Affairs and in recent years executive director for Strategic Initiatives, was hard at work, first in Washington, D. C., and since 1980 or so in Baltimore, educating public officials, helping to craft public policy on matters concerning blind people, and shaping NFB initiatives. He came to work for the NFB on January 1, 1974, and he closed his distinguished working career with us on July 6, 2007. When Jim entered his Washington office for the first time on January 1 of ’74 to look around, the NFB had fewer than ten employees, including those who published the Braille Monitor in California. When he left the staff to become an NFB volunteer in early July, the NFB had a payroll of just about a hundred. We had grown from renting a small office in Berkeley, a suite in the Randolph Hotel in Des Moines, and space in an office building on DuPont Circle in Washington to owning 370,000 square feet of prime real estate at the National Center for the Blind and the NFB Jernigan Institute today.

Making such comparisons is one way of measuring what has happened during these past thirty-three-and-a-half years, but reviewing the highpoints of Jim’s career with the National Federation of the Blind is another. That is what Jim did for us on Thursday afternoon, July 5. Here is what he said to the convention:

Thank you, Dr. Maurer, and thank you fellow Federationists, and welcome to the NFB house. I certainly want to thank you, Dr. Maurer, for the kind comments you just made and your remarks about me in the presidential report. I very much appreciate that. Representing the National Federation of the Blind at the national level for me has been the joy of a lifetime. As you pointed out, over a third of a century. That’s the thing I’ve done most in my life, representing the National Federation of the Blind. And I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

I also want to thank you, my fellow Federationists, not only for the last thirty-three years, but also for the last four months. As you know, on February 28 my wife Betsy Zaborowski was diagnosed with a serious condition. Our lives have changed since that time, and they will be changed for a while to come. We don’t know the full course of that yet, but we will. The strength, the power, and the love that have come to us from all of you is something that we can never repay. I want to thank you for reaching out to us and for all that you have done. We will never forget it. We can never repay it. We promise you our dedication, our energy, and everything we can do for our movement in the future.

Various people have asked me if this is my farewell address. I said, “You don’t know James Gashel.” This is not a farewell address, and I’m not leavin’. Dr. Maurer, I am going off the payroll, but I am not leaving. You can’t take the National Federation of the Blind out of James Gashel.

We’ve been planning a transition for some time. You know, if you’ve worked for an organization as I have for over thirty-three years, you don’t just turn in your keys one day. Part of your responsibility, as Dr. Jernigan taught us, is to plan the transition. Even before 1986 he was talking to some of us about the transition, and then at the 1986 convention he recommended that we elect Marc Maurer as our president. It was probably the greatest decision he ever made. That decision initiated a transition. It meant that Dr. Jernigan would no longer be president of the National Federation of the Blind, although he could have been until he died. But he chose wisely; he taught us that to everything there is a season. And it was his time to step aside from the presidency of the National Federation of the Blind.

In the same manner it is my time to step aside from the leadership in our Governmental Affairs and Strategic Initiatives departments. It doesn’t mean that I’m leaving the National Federation of the Blind. It means that I’m going to do something else on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind. It means that, just as Dr. Maurer has been able to stand on the shoulders of Dr. Jernigan and Dr. Jernigan stood on the shoulders of Dr. tenBroek, John Paré will stand on my shoulders. I know that. I just hope that the shoulders are broad enough. But I’ll tell you one thing: I will stand like a rock for John Paré and for all of you. Together we will help him succeed. Representing the National Federation of the Blind, I’ll just say to John, is a challenge. We have a huge commission. We’re moving a people from second-class status to first-class citizenship. It’s not easy, but I want to tell you something--it’s a lot of fun.

Let’s just review a few points in the history. In 1974, as Kevan Worley pointed out, when I first got to Washington, the first thing I got to work on was the Randolph-Sheppard Act amendments, which passed later on in 1974 and for the first time brought cafeterias in the ambit of the Randolph-Sheppard Act and brought an arbitration process unequaled by any other to protect the rights of people in federal programs. A lot of work had been done on that before I got to Washington, but I was honored to lead the final effort. One thing I know for sure: you provided the power.

In 1977 and many, many years before, we worked on Social Security amendments. Congress was working on legislation to shore up the Social Security system and make it financially sound for the next seventy-five years. I think they pretty much accomplished what they were trying to do, but not quite. I well remember standing in the halls outside of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Joe Wagner of Louisiana, a member of Congress at that time, came up to me and said, “I’ll handle your bill in committee.” This was the bill that was going to eliminate the earnings limit for blind people under Social Security, and Joe said, “I’ll handle your bill in committee.” Unfortunately in the House that fall in the Ways and Means Committee, we came up one vote short, and that bill didn’t pass in the Ways and Means Committee. Later on, in November, in fact on November 4, 1977, as one of his last acts before he died, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota sponsored our amendment to remove the Social Security earnings limit for the blind, and it passed the U. S. Senate.

In December Carl Curtis of Nebraska came to me and said, “We’ll get this through the conference committee. We may not get everything you want, but we’ll get something.” And Bill Archer of Texas stood tall and helped us. When the Social Security amendments of 1977 were signed, we had a statutory earnings limit for the blind, not one that the Social Security Administration could take away by regulation. We moved the earnings limit from what was at that time $200 by Social Security regulation to $1500 today, and it goes up annually by law. I was honored to lead that effort, but you provided the power. I heard someone in another organization remark just a few days before the passage of the 1977 Social Security amendments, “The time has come when you can’t pass any special legislation that is targeted on the blind anymore.” Three days later we did it. I was proud to lead that effort, but you provided the power.

In 1978, when the rehabilitation amendments were passed, we created the Older Blind Program. Before that time it was just a discretionary-grant program; now it’s a formula grant program. Every state has an older blind program. It needs to be bigger, but it exists.

We made that happen, and I was proud to lead that effort, but, make no mistake about it, you provided the power.

In 1978 the FAA said to blind people, you can’t fly with your canes. These are dangerous missiles, they said. Jim Omvig and I were on a plane, and we were arrested because we wouldn’t give up our canes. We were making good trouble. On that day I was proud to be arrested. You provided the power. Not only that, the FAA backed down, and we have our canes, and we keep them with us at our seats.
In 1982 Barbara Kennelly stepped up to the plate from Connecticut. She sponsored a bill, which we now call the Kennelly amendment. It provides spending opportunities for blind people in recreation and safety areas along the interstate highways. I remember, just like it was happening today, sitting in her outer office writing the legislation. It came to pass when the Highway Bill for 1982 was passed. I was proud to lead that effort, but you provided the power.

In 1985 we faced a postal-rate crisis. Ronald Reagan wanted to cut the budget. He thought we should cut Free Matter for the Blind. He also thought we should cut out nonprofit postal rates, which the National Federation of the Blind depends on. When the smoke cleared, Ronald Reagan’s budget had zero, but the Congress passed a billion dollars, and both programs continued. By now you know the phrase: I was honored to lead that effort, but you provided the power.

In 1990 they said they wanted to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was going to require--because it was premised on this philosophy--that the disabled are different, so we would always need accommodations. Well, when the smoke cleared on that law, we have the right to refuse accommodations, and it is an act of discrimination for anybody to deny our right to refuse. I was honored to lead that effort, but you provided the power.

In 1992 the idea surfaced that there should be a blindness commission that would speak for the blind, but we have a blindness commission—they’re right in this room. We said we didn’t want it. A woman on the staff in the House of Representatives said, “I don’t care what you want; we’re going to have a blindness commission.” I said, “Let me tell you something. There are 435 members of the House and a hundred members of the Senate. You aren’t one of them, and I’m not one of them. Start right now and get as many votes as you can for the blindness commission, and I’ll start right now and get as many votes as I can against it, and we’ll see in the end if there is a blindness commission.” There is no blindness commission.

We in the National Federation of the Blind speak for ourselves. In 1992 we said there ought to be choice in rehabilitation, and the staff on the Senate side said, “Over my dead body there’ll be choice.” Well when the bill passed that fall, there were six references to choice in rehabilitation, but mostly it was a matter of philosophy, and Section 102 of the Rehabilitation Act said that the IWRP must include the words of the client which describe the client’s role in choosing the rehabilitation services. We got the word “choice” in, but we didn’t get much beyond that. In 1998 we made the right of choice in rehabilitation part of the law, and, though that staff member hasn’t died yet, he no longer works in the Congress. I was proud to lead that effort, but you provided the power.

In 1995 (this was part of the Gingrich revolution) they said, “We have to change rehabilitation.” Well we agreed they had to change rehabilitation. But they came up with a bill they called “CAREERS.” (I don’t remember what CAREERS stood for anymore, but it stood for something.) I used to get these faxes from a person over at the rehab services administration that said, “This will be the end of rehabilitation as we know it.” I thought, well maybe it should be the end as we know it. If she had just left off the “as we know it.” They wanted to end rehabilitation and have us stand in welfare lines along with others, and we would probably be at the end of the line. The agencies didn’t know what to do. They adopted the philosophy for a while of “go along and get along,” but the National Federation of the Blind adopted the philosophy, “Just say no.” And we did say, “No.” And once we said, “No,” the NCSAB (National Council of State Agencies for the Blind) and the CSAVR (Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation) stood with us. The megacharities involved in rehabilitation such as Goodwill, ARC, Easter Seals, and others, stood against us. But when the House of Representatives considered the CAREERS bill in September of 1995, we succeeded on the House floor in passing an amendment which said very simply, “Nothing in this act shall apply to Title I of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.” End of story. And when the House passed the CAREERS bill, it did not affect the rehabilitation program. We licked the House Education and Workforce Committee on the House floor, and they’ve never forgotten it. When the Workforce Investment Act was signed a few years later, rehabilitation was retained as a separate program. I was honored to lead that effort, but you provided the power.

In 1997 we said that, when you have an IEP for a child in special education, if the child is blind, there should be Braille. Other people said, “You can’t do that.” The IEP is supposed to be a blank slate, and we said, “No, not if you’re blind.” What we are going to have on the IEP is, if you are blind, the default will be to provide Braille, and then the only thing you can possibly do is rule it out. When the IDEA amendments of 1997 were passed, we had a Braille provision that requires “provide,” not silence. That’s the law. Of course we have to get it enforced, but that’s what the National Federation of the Blind is here to do. I was proud to lead that effort, and I know you provided the power.

In 1998 we found on a Friday afternoon that an amendment on a veterans’ healthcare bill was going to go to the House floor on Monday afternoon of the following week under suspension of the rules. That means that it would not be debatable and it would pass the House almost certainly. Ask any lobbyist in Washington, and they’ll tell you that that’s true. “You can’t lay a glove on it” would be the conventional wisdom. Well we set to work. We organized over the weekend to make telephone calls, and we hit the Capitol switchboard as hard as we possibly could as soon as it opened on Monday morning. At noon I was standing in line at the bank to cash a check when the staff director of the Veterans Subcommittee called me and said, “We’re pulling the bill. We’re going to strip out the amendment and send it to the floor without the amendment that would be adverse to the Randolph-Sheppard Act. We had no idea that this would adversely affect you, and we’re not going to do the wrong thing.” We made history that day when a House bill was going to the floor under suspension of the rules and we changed it. It impressed the heck out of me. But that’s the power of the National Federation of the Blind. I was proud to lead the effort, but you made it happen; you provided the power.

In 2000 you may remember that we had trouble electing a president of the United States, and many people say that we didn’t. Enough. Enough. Sorry, Dr. Maurer, for the politics. But a year later, when the Help America Vote Act (because Americans need help voting) was considered, we knew that new technology would be needed to vote, that computers had come on the scene, that the time had come when blind people would be able to cast a secret ballot. By that time we had James McCarthy as director of Governmental Affairs. I sent him over to Washington when the markup for the Help America Vote Act was happening in the House, and I said, “Listen, unless you get a provision in that bill relating to nonvisual access and saying that the blind are going to get accessible technology, just keep heading south.” Well he returned, and when the Help America Vote Act was passed, we had a law that requires every polling place in America to have technology that provides for nonvisual access--not just disability access, but nonvisual access. In 2006 that law was fully implemented in the fall election, and I voted for the first time privately and independently. One of the proudest moments in my life was to be listening on CSPAN when Bob Ney got up on the House floor and, in the midst of thanking the people who worked on the bill, thanked James McCarthy. It’s time to pass it on—I’m glad he didn’t thank James Gashel. I had something to do with it, but it’s time to pass it on.

In 2004 we worked on a law that now provides the mechanisms to have textbooks on time. And the publishers told us, “No.” They told us “No” for many, many years and we said, “Yes,” and we negotiated and worked hard, and we came up with a common bill. When the IDEA amendments of 2004 were signed, we now have a law that requires the publishers to provide accessible texts that can be turned into Braille, and the books should be provided to students on time. We made that happen. I was proud to have a part in leading that effort, but you made it happen. You provided the power.

There are lots of other initiatives. I can think of thousands, or hundreds, at least, of Social Security cases, rehabilitation appeals, Randolph-Sheppard appeals, creation of Jobline (the only accessible technology to help people find jobs twenty-four-seven. The Department of Labor is closing down America’s Job Bank, so Jobline will go away, but new technology will come along. We created NFB-NEWSLINE® during this period. I don’t need to talk to you about the benefits of that. I was proud to have a part in putting some of these programs together, but I have no illusion about this; you provided the power to make it happen and the resources.

Now just a few comments about the future. I’m going to go to work for a different company. On Monday I will be fully engaged as vice president for business development for K–NFB Reading Technology. Now this means that I’m not going to occupy an office down at the National Federation of the Blind. I’m not going to have a telephone extension at the National Federation of the Blind. I’m not going to have an email address at the National Federation of the Blind. I’m not going to get a paycheck from the National Federation of the Blind. But the National Federation of the Blind is in my soul. I’m not really going anywhere. We have a company. It’s called K–NFB Reading Technology. K stands for Kurzweil. That’s Ray. Ray will be here, and he will talk to us. You all know Ray. NFB, well I’m not presumptuous enough to say NFB stands for me, but I can absolutely assure you that I stand up for the NFB. So we have K–NFB Reading Technology, and that company will go forward and flourish and develop the technology of the future. We have one of the greatest futurists in the whole wide world heading that company, Ray Kurzweil. We have a wonderful team to develop the products and bring them to you. We promise that we will do that. We will give you the technology of the future. Our first product is the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader, but there will be many, many more as we go forward.

As for the National Federation of the Blind, I believe the future is really, really bright. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be going to the new position I’m going to. But I believe it is. Another proud moment I had this spring was to watch John Paré and Jesse Hartle and others go to work on the crisis that we’re having with the digital Talking Books program, where the Library of Congress asked for $19.1 million. The House of Representatives Committee said, $7.5 million, and when the smoke cleared, they had to add back another 5 million dollars. That happened. I know it’s not the full amount, but before we get done one day, it will be. I don’t know exactly how, but I know it will be, because we have great leaders who are leading the effort, but you have the power. I know it will happen. I was proud to watch that happen.

We have made history over these last thirty-three years. We truly have made history, but we’ve done more than that; we’ve made the United States of America the best country for blind people to live in anywhere in the world. We’re the envy of all the world, and we’ve done it because we collectively have the power, and together we will continue to build the future. Thank you very much.

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