by Gary Wunder
When the weather is brisk, the snow is flying, and the blind converge on our nation's capital, the signs are unmistakable—it is time for the Washington Seminar. There is always a lot of energy and enthusiasm as people arrive at the hotel, meet old friends, and catch up on all that has happened since the national convention, but the excitement this year was even greater, for everyone knew that something wonderful had happened two days earlier in Florida when a blind man independently drove a car while thousands breathlessly watched from the sidelines.
Activities started the day before our 5:00 p.m. great gathering-in. Some have become tradition while others are new. The National Association of Blind Students, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, and the Teachers of Tomorrow conducted meetings and seminars.
When the gavel fell at five o'clock and President Maurer called the meeting to order, more than five-hundred Federationists filled the Columbia and Discovery rooms at the Holiday Inn Capitol. This year, for the first time ever, representatives from every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico were present to take our concerns to the Hill.
President Maurer began by talking about the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, which was passed and signed by the president late in 2010. Much of what we do is life-changing, but this effort was life-saving. Passage of this act required a massive education effort to change the expectation of Americans so that instead of demanding that a car be manufactured to operate as quietly as it can, we now want cars to be manufactured so they operate as quietly as they safely can, and no quieter.
As John Paré reminded us, at first no one wanted to hear our message: the car companies wouldn't return our calls, and the regulators said they needed data, which meant show us your bruised and maimed. Once we got so many cosponsors that everyone realized this bill, if brought to the floor, had enough votes to pass, many different interests came together to craft not only something they could live with but something they could really get behind. Though it is hard for those who once couldn't get the automobile industry to take our calls to believe, once this group realized something was going to pass, they encouraged us to act before someone was hurt. In a time when people decry the lack of cooperation and civility in our public dialog, the National Federation of the Blind brought together the blind, the auto industry, the regulators, the Congress, and the president, who joined hands to pass a law enhancing the safety of all pedestrians, blind and sighted alike.
To recognize the hard work of the Senate sponsor of this vital act, we presented to Senator John Kerry the Distinguished Legislator Award. That award reads:
National Federation of the Blind
Outstanding Legislative Service Award
Senator John Kerry
For your leadership and championing of the
Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act.
Your hard work and dedication have
made the roads safer for blind Americans.
You champion our movement; you strengthen our hopes;
you share our dreams.
January 31, 2011
Shifting from the blind pedestrian to the blind in the driver's seat, President Maurer talked about the creation of the first-ever blind-drivable vehicle and the demonstration that had been held at the Daytona Speedway the previous Saturday. Parnell Diggs, the person who persuaded officials at Daytona to let us rent the track and conduct our demonstration, was introduced to talk about the Imagination Fund, which is the vehicle through which we are making this and so many of our dreams come true. Anil Lewis, the man who coordinated publicity for the Daytona event and who was the backup driver or, as he said, our insurance, told us that this was the beginning of something historic and that one day we would move from the development of an experimental vehicle to the legislatures of the land demanding our right to drive. The crowd responded enthusiastically with the chant "NFB to the DMV."
Finally Mark Riccobono, the man behind the wheel in Daytona, addressed the gathering and said how wonderful it had been to be a part of making history as he drove for all of us on the road to changing what it means to be blind. More about the Imagination Fund and the Blind Driver Challenge can be found elsewhere in this issue.
A longtime friend and supporter of the National Federation of the Blind, retired Senator Christopher Dodd, spoke about our long and fruitful relationship, beginning with his work to lift the ban on blind people’s becoming foreign service officers in the State Department, helping to make textbooks accessible, helping to promote the teaching of Braille by supporting the striking of the Louie Braille commemorative coin, and supporting the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. The Senator has often been a major sponsor of our effort to eliminate the barriers for blind Social Security recipients who wish to work.
Senator Dodd said that, not only are we changing the lives of blind people, but through our example we are enriching the lives of all Americans through our hard work, perseverance, and absolute determination to change the world for the better.
He ended by noting that his sister Carolyn is a former president of the Hartford chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut and that he will continue to be one of our strongest admirers and supporters.
Jim Gashel, secretary of the National Federation of the Blind, chairman of the Jacob Bolotin award committee, and vice president of K-NFB Reading Technology was introduced. He urged that individuals and organizations doing good work for the blind be nominated for a Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award and reminded us that the deadline for nominations is March 31. He asked that nominations be made online at <www.nfb.org/nfb/bolotin_award.asp>. Although the committee prefers online submissions, applications will be accepted by regular mail and should be sent to the national office.
In his capacity as vice president for business development for K-NFB Reading Technology, Jim announced that Blio is no longer a demonstration program but a product which is now available to all of us. More about Blio can be found elsewhere in this issue.
Kevan Worley took the floor to introduce Senator Michael Bennett, who was just elected to the United States Senate. Senator Bennett was appointed two years ago by the governor of Colorado when Senator Salazar was appointed as secretary of the interior. The senator congratulated us for our seventy years of work and for the strength of our belief in one another even when many were willing to discount our capacities and contributions. "Many come to Washington asking for special consideration, a loophole or a handout, but I can tell you that, when your Colorado affiliate comes to visit me and my staff, they come asking only for a pathway to inclusion and armed with solutions…. As the president told us last week, we must win the race to educate our kids, and I tell you that blind children must be part of our national race to the top. If we are going to prepare 100,000 new teachers, let us prepare at least some of them to be proud advocates for and proud teachers of Braille and the other important skills for the blind. My staff and I will be working with you to craft the kind of legislation that will bring literacy to blind kids all across the country…. We cannot let the United States Senate forget about blind Americans when we take steps to support the creation of more and better jobs; we must consider the blind. My staff and I will work closely with the National Federation of the Blind to make sure we create opportunities for the blind, and this includes promoting entrepreneurship and making sure that small businesses have the resources to create jobs and hire workers. It also means making sure the blind have the type of workforce training opportunities to be competitive in a rapidly changing economy. In addition I will work to make sure we pass a technology bill of rights so that a blind person can go to an airport, walk up to a kiosk, and print a boarding pass just like everybody else.
"Before leaving you I want to publicly acknowledge the leadership of your great president, Marc Maurer. I know that I don't have to tell you of his passion and extraordinary intellect. Without a doubt he is this generation's civil rights leader of the blind. He's a man of unparalleled vitality and great vision, but you may not know how highly regarded Dr. Maurer is beyond your NFB family. You are lucky to have such an eloquent spokesman, who, more than anything, believes.”
While organizationally we do not endorse candidates or parties, Senator Bennett publicly credited NFB members Kevan and Bridget Worley with helping him stay in the Senate, and he regards Kevan as an important advisor, not only on issues of blindness, but on other important challenges facing our country.
John Paré, director of strategic initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind, then introduced Lauren McLarney and Jesse Hartle to outline the issues we would take to Capitol Hill. Lauren reminded us that the change in the composition of the House of Representatives may alter some of the arguments to be confronted in the passage of our legislative agenda, but the fundamental principles at the root of all of our proposals cross party lines and are as basic as individual responsibility, equality of opportunity, and the right to pursue the American dream. Technology the blind can use, educational standards to prepare the blind for competitive work, and opportunities for the blind to start our own businesses and to extend to us the opportunities afforded other minorities make up the proposals presented to the 112th congress. At the end of Jesse Hartle’s remarks he said, "This is our week on Capitol Hill. It is time to move away from political correctness; it is time to move towards political action. Together we will change what it means to be blind."
The third and newest member of our legislative team was then introduced, to the surprise of most of us in the room. He served in the legislature in New York, came to be the minority leader in the New York Senate, became the lieutenant governor of his state, and went on to be its governor. Governor David Paterson began by thanking the president of our New York affiliate, Carl Jacobsen, for recruiting him. He said how grateful he was that he and President Maurer worked out a way to work in the service of this organization, noted how thrilled he was to be working with Lauren McLarney and Jesse Hartle on our legislative issues, and said how proud he was to be a member of the National Federation of the Blind.
Governor Paterson reminded us that Dr. Maurer was not the first to use vehicular travel to highlight civil rights, that Dr. King did so in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, where he spotlighted a woman who refused to sit at the back of the bus. Governor Paterson asked who the first woman was, and the crowd confidently responded with the name of Rosa Parks. We were wrong. At least two women before Rosa Parks were removed from busses and interviewed by Dr. King but were not used in bringing the famous civil rights case because one was an unwed mother and the other punched the policeman who tried to remove her. Both would have distracted from the case, and it was important to bring the right case at the right time so the issue would be clear. So too was it important that we bring together the right technology at the right time to advance our desire that one day blind people enjoy the right to drive.
One other point the governor made in his presentation parallels what former President Jernigan observed in his banquet address in 1979 entitled "That's How It Is at the Top of the Stairs." The governor said that, when he was elected a state senator, people wrote about how great it was. When he became the minority leader of the senate, that was great too. When he became the lieutenant governor, the papers celebrated how wonderful it was that he had reached such high office and noted that since the lieutenant governor doesn't do much of anything, why not have a blind man occupy the office? Then one day he woke up and became governor, and all of a sudden he was the object of ridicule: a blind man occupying a real position of power. Soon he became the poster boy highlighting the absurdity of a blind man trying to govern New York State. When Governor Patterson confidently told an audience that we would completely rebuild on the property referred to as Ground Zero, press accounts suggested that, because he was blind, he must be unaware of activities already underway there and should be taken to the site so he could get close enough to see that building had already started.
His ability to read his important documents received press attention when a staff member who reportedly did much of his reading quit and the press opined the governor would no longer be able to do his job. The governor wryly observed that he had many ways to read his material and that, with 200,000 people working for him, surely he could have asked one of them to do it. All of the negative publicity about this blind governor culminated in repeated skits on Saturday Night Live, and the governor noted that, of all the disabled and blind groups he had addressed in his career, only one (the National Federation of the Blind) came to his defense, and the result was the first-ever apology by Saturday Night Live in its thirty-six-year history, which he received in person when he was invited to appear on the show.
After the great gathering-in, five-hundred Federationists moved to the Discovery Room for a reception to celebrate the success at Daytona. The food and drink were first rate, but they were not the reason for the spirit that filled the room and made us all feel we were part of history in the making.On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday Federationists went to the Capitol with the message that we want to learn, to work, and to use the technology of the day to enjoy all of the benefits available to us as citizens of America. The legislative memorandum and fact sheets we carried appear in full elsewhere in this issue. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings we gathered to make reports about those who were interested in sponsoring our proposals, those who were willing to help as cosponsors, and those who had questions that needed to be addressed before they could tell us where they stood. When Thursday evening came and we boarded airplanes for home, our bodies were tired, but our hearts were full of joy at what we had accomplished. We know the problems facing blind people; we have solutions to address them; and we know how to get the attention of the leaders in our country who can help us move ever closer to first-class citizenship. The future for blind people in this country rests with us, and we left, confident that it couldn't be in more capable hands.