by Mark A. Riccobono
From the Editor: Tuesday afternoon, July 3, Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute, addressed the convention. This is what he said:
In the study of science the concept of degrees of freedom is used to describe the set of variables needed to determine a current or future outcome. In statistics these are any of the unrestricted, independent random variables that constitute a statistic. In physics they are any of the minimum number of coordinates required to specify completely the motion and position of a mechanical system. In chemistry they are any of the independent thermodynamic variables required to describe a system with a given number of phases and components. A system is not adequately described unless all of its degrees of freedom are considered. And it is equally true that a system need not be limited by its current degrees of freedom.
Degrees of freedom might also be used to describe the dynamics of a group, a society, a government, or any other system that has a number of human influences upon its outcomes. We might think of each individual as an independent degree of freedom. The combination of two, five, ten, or one hundred individuals working collectively may provide more degrees of freedom than those individuals acting without coordination. In human systems the degrees of freedom may be changed but, unlike mechanical systems, they are influenced by perceived as well as real limits. If the barriers can be removed or the perceptions adjusted, the degrees of freedom will increase, the outcomes will change, and the future potential of the system will expand.
Prior to the establishment of the National Federation of the Blind, the blind had little influence on their future outcomes. During our organizing Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and first president of the National Federation of the Blind, described the new organization as “creating the machinery which will unify the action and concentrate the energies of the blind.” In forming our organization, we established a system with power, energy, determination, and resources—a system that could influence other systems and thus establish new degrees of freedom for the blind.
Each time a blind person has gained employment in a new field of study, accessed a new resource or public accommodation, or achieved influence through another position of power, the degrees of freedom for all of us were increased. Similarly, every time a new chapter of the Federation was formed, a new affiliate established, or another convention assembled, the variables changed, new potential was realized, and the ability to influence the broader society was enhanced. Out of the collective system of the Federation have come individual blind people with growing self-confidence and an empowered spirit to change the systems that had been established for us without us.
In our effort to increase our degrees of freedom, we undertook plans to build the first research and training institute developed and directed by the blind. The addition of the NFB Jernigan Institute as a variable in our movement has increased our capacity to pursue our hopes and dreams. While we have more degrees of freedom both individually and collectively than ever before, many systems outside our organization have the potential to place limits on our future. We must continue to prevent new limits from emerging while seeking to further expand our horizons.
Through our Institute we have sought to create new opportunities for the blind in science, technology, engineering, and math. We have built a knowledge base of experience and educational resources. We have observed blind youth building payloads and launching rockets, performing chemistry, undertaking engineering projects, investigating biology through dissection, touching unseen objects at the nanoscale, programming applications for work and play, driving experimental vehicles for the blind, and dozens of other previously unexplored educational activities. The first groups of blind students from our programs are now finishing college and emerging as leaders in a variety of fields, and the degrees of freedom have increased exponentially.
This summer we will pioneer our next generation of science education programs—Project Innovation. This program combines our experience during the past decade with the principles of structured discovery and inquiry-based learning. NFB Project Innovation will focus on fostering a sense of innovation and autonomy in young students by allowing them to determine their own course of study. Imagine the change when we empower blind elementary students to direct their own inquiry-based curriculum with support from blind mentors and accessible instructional materials. Imagine the growth when blind high school students take on their own investigations while mentoring the younger students. And imagine the new freedoms that will emerge as these aspiring young people inspire our best educators by exploring scientific questions for which we have not yet catalogued methods for nonvisual investigation.
The impact of a change in our degrees of freedom cannot be fully understood until it can be experienced and directed. Since the opening of our Institute we have discussed the belief that among the blind today one individual will be the first blind astronaut. As a result of our exploring the possibilities with leaders within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), I was invited by Leland Melvin, NASA’s associate administrator for education, to fly with him and other educators on the zero-G airplane.
The zero-G plane is a modified Boeing 727 that simulates weightlessness by flying a series of parabolas and placing the aircraft in free fall for approximately twenty seconds at a time. Initially the aircraft climbs at a forty-five-degree angle. The sensation of weightlessness is achieved by reducing thrust and lowering the nose in order to maintain zero-lift. Weightlessness begins while ascending and lasts all the way up and over the top, until the craft reaches a declined angle of thirty degrees. At that point the plane is pointed downward at high speed, and must begin to pull back into the nose-up attitude to repeat the maneuver. On the way down, at the bottom, and up again, the forces felt are roughly two Gs.
During the pre-flight briefing the instructor discussed the problems associated with weightlessness, including disorientation. In the zero-G airplane, orientation is important because you experience only brief periods of weightlessness—you want your feet pointed toward the floor of the plane as you come out of the fall. Would it be easier or harder for me? How would I stay oriented, and how would I find the floor fast enough to land the right way? Without the experience of the National Federation of the Blind I might have assumed it would be more difficult for me than for my sighted colleagues. However, my experience is that with training, problem solving, and confidence, the blind can compete in areas that we had previously not imagined. My Federation experience gave me comfort, but I was still nervous. It occurred to me that, if I landed on my head, they might never let a blind person on this plane again. And I shared the concern of every person on the flight—would I be able to do this without revisiting breakfast.
White cane in hand, I boarded the plane with my new zero-G buddy, Leland, who has flown on two NASA missions to space, logging many weeks of weightlessness. We entered from the rear of the plane, where it is much like any other 727 but with only thirty-five standard seats. The rest of the cabin was open with the exception of a series of six stations in the center of the floor, where the educators would perform their experiments inside glove boxes. The floor and walls were padded, and an elastic cord ran the length of the plane at about shoulder level on both sides. I collapsed my cane and slipped it into the sleeve of my flight suit. With all the concentration on the pre-flight briefing, it had not occurred to me how loud it would be inside the plane. I had planned to use an audible indicator to stay oriented, but, once we were in the air, it was clear that would not work. The cord would be my orientation point as I learned to manage this new degree of freedom.
As we prepared to go into the first free fall, I was seated on the floor with my back against the wall. My body felt very heavy under the nearly two G-forces. Suddenly the engine noise was reduced and I felt the downward pressure lift. Without effort I was now coming off the floor and feeling for the cord. I managed to stay along the wall and keep my feet in the right direction while trying to get used to the new freedom of movement. “Feet down” was called out to warn all passengers. As we continued to go in and out of weightlessness, I built a knowledge base of experience and expanded my movements. I found my natural reaction was to kick my feet in mid-air. It only took one contact between the top of my head and the ceiling, an unusual experience for a guy who is only five-seven, to change my behavior. I found a good comfort zone of movement and learned the patterns so I could anticipate when to make the right moves.
When you are expanding the horizons, it takes your own initiative and the push of those around you. Leland then said, “On this next one, curl up into a ball. We are going to pick you up and spin you around!” I thought to myself, “Sounds like a great idea, but I wonder how I will tell which way is up when it is time for my feet to be down.” Suddenly I was doing a summersault in mid-air with the support of my new friends at NASA, and with their help I was able to get my feet pointed towards the floor in the nick of time.
One flight does not make a blind astronaut, but it strengthened my conviction that we can create the body of knowledge and experience required to make it a reality. Where is that blind person today? Is she in this audience? Is he studying at a university? Are they wondering about the potential for their future and asking the questions we all considered before we met the National Federation of the Blind? I look forward to the day when the first blind astronaut sends us a transmission from beyond our atmosphere, because I know it will reveal horizons we cannot anticipate until we get the experience and learn how to direct it.
We have also committed ourselves to creating new knowledge by accepting the risks and responsibilities that come with scientific exploration. We were challenged by President Maurer to explore the potential for a blind person to use technology to maneuver a car independently. In the process we have freed our own minds of the historical limitations we had accepted, and we have adopted a more active role in determining our future. In the broader society there is significant debate about the timeline for cars that are piloted completely without human intervention. Some think we can make this a reality by 2022 while others believe it will take ten or more years beyond that point. Most believe that the technology is not the biggest barrier, but rather the legal, regulatory, and cultural shift that will be required. Many believe that the computers need to be completely capable of independently operating the vehicle before the blind can drive. We believe that a new degree of freedom can be established when we participate in building technologies that take advantage of our capacity to think and react. Our experience has taught us that our active engagement in the development of innovative technology will create new knowledge and open up opportunities that society had previously dismissed.
One of the first public visions for cars that drive themselves was presented at the 1939 World’s Fair. At our organizing the next year, we did not have enough degrees of freedom to consider how we might participate in the car of the future. Through our Jernigan Institute we have established the capacity to engage with an industry that has viewed us as only passive passengers, and we are driving the stimulation of the brightest minds to consider how we can become drivers. We recently presented at the Driverless Car Summit—a gathering of industry leaders in advanced automobile technology. Our perspective is influencing the conversation about the cars of the future and how we might be included in the design phase. We will not be content to sit and wait until the driverless car arrives; opportunity will come from helping to build our future today.
As we create knowledge, we also collect it. An important variable in our freedom was our establishment of a research library on blindness—a venue for collecting, preserving, and analyzing our history and progress. We continue to build our library collection and new forums for discourse about the future. We have been building a strong community of experts in the legal profession through our disability law symposium in order to expand on the vision of freedom that Dr. tenBroek first articulated. That the blind might lead the advancement of disability rights was a dream of Dr. tenBroek that was not easily achieved during his life. Our research library allows us to reflect on the vision of past leaders, apply that knowledge in the context of today’s variables, and carry forward the relevant pursuits that we have not yet achieved.
Sometimes we collect knowledge, other times we create it, and often we disseminate it. The National Federation of the Blind is pursuing nothing less than complete accessibility to the technologies being used to share knowledge in public libraries and educational programs. We are opening dialogue with leaders of the top technology companies, the leading publishers, and the most prestigious educational institutions in order to make our vision of equality in education a reality. We are not simply demanding accessibility—through our Jernigan Institute we are sharing best practices and assisting major companies in baking accessibility into their infrastructure. Just one example of this is the historic two-day Inclusive Publishing Forum we held at the Jernigan Institute last month. Our vision of freedom includes unprecedented access to knowledge, and we now have the tools to demand equal access and to assist the companies and organizations that can deliver that degree of freedom.
By examining the shackles that continue to limit our freedom, we find some that existed before 1940. It is no surprise that I am thinking about the persistent unfair, discriminatory, and immoral practice of paying people with disabilities less than the federally established minimum wage. Although we do not yet possess the freedom afforded by equal pay for equal work, that degree of freedom will be ours, and we will no longer allow our future to be one of exploitation.
As long as we are talking about unfair, discriminatory, and immoral, let’s not ignore the Braille literacy rate in this country. Why is the literacy rate so low? Is it that we do not possess the capacity to learn? Is it that Braille is incredibly difficult to master? Is it that the tools do not exist to teach it effectively? No, no, and no! We have been engaged in a comprehensive campaign to educate the public about the Braille literacy crisis in America, and we have a robust array of programs to change the status quo. From our Braille Pals Club to our Braille Readers Are Leaders adult program, we are promoting the benefits of Braille across the lifespan. We have been working with new teachers to ensure that they are prepared to be experts in Braille, and we are teaching it ourselves. This summer our Braille enrichment programs will make a difference in twenty locations in eleven states. Later this year we will launch a new website called Braille 360 with the goals of establishing a forum for blind children to share their love for reading and increasing their Braille and technology skills. This fall we will also convene a Braille symposium to explore the best practices in Braille instruction and to seek solutions to the barriers we face. The National Federation of the Blind leads the way in Braille literacy, but we do not yet possess the degree of freedom we need in this area.
Despite our leadership too many blind children are struggling to get access to the freedom that comes from literacy. We are all now familiar with the recent victory in the three-year battle to get Braille for Hank Miller, and we are painfully aware that for every Hank there are another two dozen or more blind children who are still waiting. How many birthdays need to pass before the gift of literacy can be revealed to these children? We can no longer wait. Along with all of the programs and policy improvements we are pursuing, we need to be more insistent in demanding Braille literacy for blind children. The more hearts and minds we can engage in the Braille literacy crisis, the more potential we have for changing the outcomes and securing more freedom.
We possess more degrees of freedom today than we could have imagined even a decade ago. What are our hopes and dreams for the next five years? How do we want to explore the opportunities ahead? What will be the result of removing the limits that have persisted since the beginning of our organization? Through our Jernigan Institute we have the ability to create, collect, and disseminate knowledge based on our experience with freedom and independence. It may take time to learn what to do with the new freedom that we gain, but we are certain that we will learn to manage it effectively. The variable that is most dynamic, has the most influence on the outcomes, and continues to grow is the National Federation of the Blind. Let us continue to discover new degrees of freedom through our effort to build a future full of opportunity.