by Steve Prisament
From the Editor: The following article appeared in the Shore News Today on Tuesday, February 14, 2012. Those who know our New Jersey affiliate president understand his commitment to service and growth. Here is how he communicates it to new people who are coming to join the Federation in Absecon, New Jersey:
ABSECON--It’s always nice to keep an eye out for your friends. That’s what the National Federation of the Blind does—and what you could do if you know a blind or visually impaired person who may not be able to read this article.
Help get the word out. A new Southern New Jersey chapter of the National Federation of the Blind will hold its first meeting from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Saturday, March 3 in the John D. Young Memorial Lions Blind Center at Crestview Avenue and Pitney Road. An introductory session was held Saturday, January 21, at the Center with about twenty people attending.
State NFB President Joe Ruffalo spoke about his organization’s attempts to obtain equal footing for the blind and level the playing field. Many accommodations are required by law, he said, but there are still areas that need improvement. Ruffalo said he wasn’t eager to join the Federation—he had a chip on his shoulder and pictured the NFB as a bunch of radical troublemakers. “A friend wanted me to go to a meeting, just to see what it’s all about,” Ruffalo said. “For five months I had excuses and didn’t go.” Ruffalo said he told his wife he was going to attend a meeting just to get his friend off his back. “I am not joining that organization,” he said as he left, embarking on what was to become an all-consuming quest.
He thought they would be “militant radicals,” he said. “I envisioned being greeted by people with weapons.” But that wasn’t the case, Ruffalo said. He was nicely met and directed to go upstairs for the meeting. “Someone asked if I wanted coffee,” he said. “I expected he would bring it, but he said, ‘Coffee’s in the back. Regular is on the right; decaf on the left.’ I started to like these people. The leader was talking to me--challenging members to make a difference, define a situation or question, come up with a solution, and carry it out.” Needless to say, he joined.
The state Federation has grown from two chapters in 1983. The Absecon South Jersey Shore Chapter brings the total to nine. “I offer you my friendship, partnership, relationship, and leadership,” Ruffalo said. “That’s four ships. Columbus only had three.”
Independence, he said, does not mean: “Leave me alone. I’m OK. Get lost.” “Independence means you have several choices,” Ruffalo said. “You make your own decisions.”
He said he tries to make any situation with sighted people a training moment. “One time in a restaurant a man tried to help me,” he said. “He got behind me and started pushing me like a robot. I stopped and I said, ‘Let me show you how to help me.` I held out my arm and asked him to take my elbow and direct me.” Ruffalo said that example was his model for new Federation chapters. “That’s what I want to do for you—softly guide,” he said.
Communication is the key to success for the NFB, he said. “We’re not all officers,” Ruffalo said. “Everyone has talents. I used to be a stutterer, a stammerer—no public speaking for me. But the more I did it, the easier it became. It’s the same for you. I want to encourage you to have confidence, integrity, communication, and independence.”
He said that people before him paved the way to getting laws changed to assist blind people. “We have more independence today,” he said. “And we must pave the way for the next generation. It takes years, and it’s common sense. It makes you want to scratch your head.” There were once laws that required blind people who were marrying to be sterilized, he said.
The group asked several questions including, “Why do we need another organization?” Ruffalo said the various associations have numerous functions. “We have a police department and a fire department; they’re different, but we need both of them,” he said by way of example. It’s the same, he said, with blind groups that encourage education, socialization, and other things. “We work to change laws,” Ruffalo said. “There used to be no children allowed, no federal jobs for blind people. A blind guy is now in the military. He was blinded in the service, but he was not mustered out as he would have been.”
The initial meeting was organized by Kathleen Rawa of Egg Harbor City, who works as a volunteer with the Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation. She also works at the polling places on election days. “My dog, Dorito, is the first working election dog,” Rawa said. “We’re opening doors for the blind.”
Another local leader, Suzanne Woolbert of Egg Harbor Township, elaborated. “We’re changing what it means to be blind,” she said. “We’re breaking down stereotypes. But we still need to be sharing and helping each other in 2012. These are the people who are going places and doing things.”
Rawa said she expects the local chapter to do well. “We’re going to have a domino effect,” she said. “We’re going to be one big organization in New Jersey.” For more information go to <www.nfbnj.org>.