by Gary Wunder
I joined the National Federation of the Blind in 1972, but it was not until 1977 that I was able to attend my first national convention. That year we met in New Orleans, and I believe my roommates and I had to save long and hard to pay the ten-dollar-a-day fee for our hotel room.
Those were exciting times for me: making my airplane reservation; thinking how much fun it would be to fly; realizing I had never stayed in a hotel for a week and looking forward to it with great anticipation; planning to meet the president of the National Federation of the Blind, Kenneth Jernigan; and shaking the hand that was attached to that voice who told me there was no shame in being blind and that the blind could be educated, articulate, and, when we needed to be, forceful.
Since 1977 I have missed two national conventions, one to care for an ill loved one, and the other to fill my responsibilities as a project manager when my employer decided to implement a financial accounting package at the beginning of the fiscal year. Missing those two conventions was very difficult for me, and I spent my days at home and at work tracking what would be happening in Baltimore and in Dallas, respectively. I was missing the meeting of the Resolutions Committee; President Maurer was giving the Presidential Report; I was at home watching Thursday evening television, but I should be in the banquet hall listening to the banquet speech. Those experiences have helped me to appreciate national convention in the same way that a person appreciates being pain-free after a migraine or healing from a painful bone break. Still, the repetition of thirty-four years does tend to dim what was exciting and make it routine and even a bit burdensome. "I'm going to make my first airplane reservation" can easily turn into "I have to book another flight." "I'm going to make a reservation at a fancy hotel" can easily become "I'm not sure if my credit card can afford it, but I better book a room before rooms in the main hotel are gone."
This year something special happened to me that once again transformed the mundane and routine into something extraordinary and almost magical. After leaving my grandson at home for the 2012 convention, we promised he could join us in Orlando in 2013. We would fly on an airplane, go to a big hotel, meet lots of influential people, and perhaps set aside a couple of days to do some touring in Orlando. When the spring came round and July became more than a far-off promise, every week or so my grandson would burst into the room and ask, "Are you excited, Grandpa?" Now Grandpa isn't always too quick on the uptake, so the first time this happened I asked, "Excited about what?" His reaction was typical of the eleven-year-old who can't believe that a grandpa can get so old and still be so unaware of the important things in the world. "Our trip to the convention,” he said. Then I got it: it isn't just the going that is wonderful but the thinking, the planning, and the countdown to making the dream reality.
"Are you excited" became the $64,000 question around our house, but if this had been the experience of only one grandpa, grandma, and grandson, I wouldn't have used it to introduce our convention roundup. No, excitement wasn't just in the mind of a little boy named Ethan Perry Sutton and his grandparents; excitement was what I observed everywhere at the 2013 convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando, and excitement is what I have read in the many emails that have come from convention attendees who want to share what they experienced this year.
This was the Federation's second visit to a Rosen property. In 2011 we stayed at the Rosen Shingle Creek, and this year we savored the experience of staying at the Rosen Centre. Often the large facilities we use are a uniquely challenging travel experience for me. Gone are the lower ceilings, close walls, and ninety-degree turns that normally give lots of clues in maintaining good orientation during indoor travel. By contrast, the Rosen Centre was easily learned; we came armed with good written instructions about the layout of the hotel, and within two days most of us were going from point A to point B without the irritating exits and detours we have come to expect.
The weekend of June 29 and 30 found the hotel lobby full of dogs, canes, and happy shouts of "Hello, friend; good to see you. We'll have to get together for a meal." But for all of the longtime convention goers who crowded the lobby and elevators, a really exciting part of this year's convention could be heard in the enthusiasm of those who were attending their first national convention. At check-in time some of them were overwhelmed: "I've never been around so many blind people. How in the world am I going to find my way?" By the time convention got into full swing, it was more common to hear "I've never been around so many blind people. This is really cool. They just pick up their canes and go, and I can do it too."
Although the convention is officially in session for only three days, anyone familiar with our work knows that it begins long before the fall of the gavel on convention opening day. This year activities started on July 1 at 7:30 in the morning with the meeting of the Amateur Radio Division and continued late into the night with the NFB's version of American Idol in the form of karaoke night. In between there were meetings of blind students, blind professionals in rehabilitation, parents of blind children, a meeting of those seeking employment who attended an employment seminar, a job fair, and a training session held by the largest online job service in the world, Monster.com. The Jernigan Institute was busy with technology training sessions, and many of the major vendors selling technology for the blind hosted sessions devoted to training and to advertising the features that would soon be found in their newest incarnations of products. The problem for convention attendees was not "Can I find something of interest to attend?" but "How can I decide what is of most interest to me, and can I find people who attended the seminars I couldn't and get them to tell me what was covered?"
As video presentations become more important in the classroom and as television shows and movies become ever more visual, the need for descriptive video becomes critically important. For this reason the Smith-Kettlewell Video Description Research and Development Center and the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute have partnered to train video describers. On Monday morning participants tested the system and their skill in using it by recording their own descriptions of selected videos from YouTube and other sources. Technology used to communicate with the deaf-blind was demonstrated by the Jernigan Institute. Blind youngsters could attend seminars on everything from learning appropriate social skills to creating and reading raised line drawings. Pearson, one of the largest educational publishers in the world, was present to invite students to test its MyLab products. In this presentation students were encouraged to have a hands-on experience in learning math, English, information technology, and business courses.
Of course, by far the most active division of the National Federation of the Blind on seminar day is the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Readers of the May 2013 issue will remember the fourteen-page agenda filled with activities for parents and children of all ages, and those parents and children were very much in evidence in the halls and meeting rooms of the 2013 convention.
But we know the convention isn't just about young people; our seniors are the fastest-growing segment of the blind population, and part of our job is to introduce them to the growing array of senior services available to them and to show through example the coping strategies that work for us.
One of the most meaningful pieces of legislation passed thus far in this century is the Help America Vote Act. Through technology usable by the blind and sighted, the blind are able to cast a truly secret ballot. Several machines are now used throughout the country, and several more are under development. The Dominion Voting Hospitality Suite gave voters an opportunity to see the ImageCast Evolution Tabulator, a precinct-level optical scan ballot counter, which provides all voters an opportunity to vote privately and independently. The company not only got valuable advertising for its product but learned from the blind themselves exactly what blind people like and do not like in an electronic voting machine.
Monday evening saw meetings of the National Association of Guide Dog Users; the National Association of Blind Office Professionals; the Living History Group, dedicated to recording, preserving, and appreciating the Federation's history; and the Community Service Group, created to demonstrate that blind people not only need help and support from our communities but are active contributors to the places where we live and work. Traditional meetings such as the White Cane and Affiliate Finance Committee, the Rookie Roundup, and the first meeting of the scholarship class of 2013 helped to round out our first day of convention activities. For many this day started early and ended late—a practice that would continue until the adjournment of the banquet on Saturday evening.
Activities began promptly at 9:00 AM on Tuesday morning with convention registration and banquet ticket sales. At one time standing in the registration line provided an opportunity to visit with old friends, make new ones, and speculate about what would be found in the agenda handed out at the end of the registration process. But the days of the registration line are gone. Now registration and banquet ticket sales involve walking up to a table, giving your name, being handed your registration packet, and hearing "I hope you have a wonderful convention" from a member of the cheery registration staff. The Independence Market, formerly the Materials Center, opened promptly at nine, and so too did the exhibit hall, where sponsor-level exhibitors had two hours to demonstrate their products and services.
Our convention sponsors for 2013 were Accessibility Champions: Vanda Pharmaceuticals and Deque Systems Inc.; Title Sponsor: Monster Worldwide; Platinum Sponsors: UPS, HumanWare, Oracle, and Travelocity; Gold Sponsors: Brown, Goldstein, and Levy, LLP; Google; Market Development Group Inc.; Silver Sponsors: AT&T; Freedom Scientific; Pearson Higher Education; Bronze Sponsors: Blackberry; C and P-Chris Park Design; IBM; VitalSource Technologies; White Cane Sponsors: Courseload; En-Vision America; HIMS Inc.; eBay Inc.; Sprint; MegaVoice; SSB Bart Group; and Learning Ally.
At 11:00 AM the convention hall opened to all exhibitors, including NFB affiliates and divisions. Other meetings occurred throughout the day, including the Blind Musicians Group, the Travel and Tourism Division, the National Organization of Professionals in Blindness Education Division, the Kenneth Jernigan Fund Committee, and of course the meeting of the Resolutions Committee, chaired by our most capable Sharon Maneki. In addition to these formal activities, one could attend a goalball workshop; a self-defense workshop; a presentation and training session on "Books, Music, and More," presented by K-NFB Reading Technologies; and a presentation by Vanda Pharmaceuticals Inc. discussing circadian rhythm and sleep-wake disorders with expert Dr. Stephen Lockley, associate professor of medicine, Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, at the Harvard Medical School. The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children held a style show, an opportunity for aspiring young models to take a walk down the runway in their favorite outfits. The Division, in conjunction with the Writers' Division, also sponsored "Writing Your Own Script," a youth-track activity for young people ages eleven to eighteen. Of course there was the much anticipated sixteenth annual mock trial, sponsored by the National Association of Blind Lawyers, and, as we have come to expect, it was a hit.
The evening session began with a meeting for affiliate presidents and treasurers, and, as the night progressed, there were meetings of the Kurzweil 1000 User Group; the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille; the National Association of Blind Students; the Public Employees Division; the NFB Krafters Division business meeting; a presentation by NFB-NEWSLINE® entitled "Taking Mobile to a New Level”; and an innovative presentation by our governmental affairs staff entitled "State and US Capitol Hills and Bills." The National Association of Blind Veterans held its meeting, as did the Library Services Committee, the Blind Parents Group, and the Committee for the Promotion, Evaluation, and Advancement of Technology. The Membership Committee held a seminar entitled "New Generation: Solutions for Growing Our Affiliates and Chapters — Removing Old Barriers." A special Paralympic panel presentation was held in which former and current Paralympic and international blind athletes explained how they persevered to get to the top, and a special gathering of the Spanish Translation Committee was held to discuss how best to share the benefits of the Federation with those who speak Spanish.
Wednesday morning activities began at 9:00 AM with the NFB board of directors meeting, which was open to all. When the gavel fell, a tremendous cheer erupted from the hall, and a roll call of the board found all members present. Sam Gleese was in attendance even though his wife Vanessa had, only the day before, been released from the intensive care unit of a hospital in Mississippi. A moment of silence was observed in memory of those no longer with us. Of the many who had died, those recognized by name included Lev Williams of Tennessee; Hazel Staley of North Carolina; Buck Saunders of West Virginia; Frank Lee of Alabama; Herman Gruber of North Carolina; Robert Hunt of West Virginia; Bob Eschbach of Arizona, who was formerly a resident of Ohio, a national board member, and the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio; and Joe Money of Indiana. The silence in the hall was a testament to the work of these fine men and women and the esteem in which they are held by those who, because of their example, have taken up the task they considered so dear—to carve out a better future for the blind of our nation and the world.
President Maurer took a moment to review information about convention registration. As of the close of business on the prior evening, we had visitors from thirteen other nations in attendance. There were seven from the Bahamas, two from Barbados, eighteen from Canada, one from the Czech Republic, one from India, four from Israel, ten from Kyrgyzstan, one from Nigeria, three from Panama, one from Saudi Arabia, two from Trinidad, one from Trinidad Tobago, and two from the United Kingdom. This means that at the beginning of the board meeting we had fifty-three registrants from other nations, and at the time of this meeting, 2,233 people were registered.
The president reported that the board positions needing to be filled at the convention were currently held by Parnell Diggs of South Carolina, Sam Gleese of Mississippi, Ever Lee Hairston of California, Cathy Jackson of Kentucky, Mika Pyyhkala of Massachusetts, and Joe Ruffalo of New Jersey. Other members of the board who would not stand for election in 2013 were Marc Maurer, president, from Maryland; Fred Schroeder, first vice president, from Virginia; Ron Brown, second vice president, from Indiana; James Gashel, secretary, from Colorado; Pam Allen, treasurer, from Louisiana; and board members Amy Buresh from Nebraska; Patti Chang from Illinois; Mike Freeman from Washington State; John Fritz from Wisconsin; Carl Jacobsen from New York; and Alpidio Rolón from Puerto Rico.
Mika Pyyhkala called for the floor to announce that he would not accept nomination for another term on the board. Mika is widely known for his pioneering work in bringing accessibility to cutting-edge technology, and, though he will continue to be a strong advocate in this and other arenas, he does not wish to continue the added responsibilities that come from being a member of the board. President Maurer thanked Mika for his service and especially his groundbreaking work in the area of helping to make technology accessible. He concluded by saying, "It is a pleasure to have you as a colleague and a friend."
Dan Hicks, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida, was next invited to the podium for welcoming remarks to the board of directors and the convention. Given that Orlando is a magical place, boasting Disney's magical kingdom and the Orlando Magic basketball team, President Hicks began his welcome with a magic trick. His was not a visual trick or an auditory trick; instead, it was a magic trick of the mind, and we were all invited to participate. Here were his magical instructions: Think of a two-digit number. Add together the digits of your two-digit number. Take the resulting number and subtract this number from the number you started with. Take the two-digit number that results and add those two digits together. If you still have a two-digit number, add those digits, coming up with a one-digit number. NFB has three letters, so subtract three from your number. Now pick the letter that corresponds to that number—if your number is one, you would pick the letter a; if it is seven, you would pick the letter g. Now think of a state that begins with that letter. Since NFB has three letters, take the third letter of the state you are thinking of, and then think of a city that starts with that letter. Congratulations, folks: you have now arrived in Orlando, Florida. The success of this trick was affirmed by laughter and applause, and with that Dan urged that we make this the best ever convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
President Maurer announced that a newly organized group of blind people has asked for admission to the National Federation of the Blind and has submitted its constitution for approval. Having reviewed the constitution, he recommended to the board of directors that it admit and charter the National Federation of the Blind of Montana. The board unanimously approved a motion to admit the newly formed group and to charter it at the annual banquet on Saturday evening. The crowd, knowing of our long struggle truly to incorporate the Montana Association for the Blind, cheered enthusiastically when the motion was passed.
Anil Lewis has been appointed to chair our Imagination Fund Committee. He began his presentation by suggesting that, if we were not on the Preauthorized Contribution Plan, we should immediately go back to the table and sign up; if we were already on the plan, we should go back to the table and increase. He then emphasized to the group that the purpose of the Imagination Fund is not to take money from our own pockets, as we do in the Preauthorized Contribution Plan, but to solicit support from friends and neighbors who care about us and therefore care about the things important to us. When we think about the Imagination Fund, we often imagine the things we want to do and why we should raise money to do them. Anil asked us to think about the world without the Federation, what it would be like for blind people, and with that thought uppermost in our minds, to go forth and ask those with whom we have relationships to help us with this important cause. We are building a team of imaginators, people who are not afraid or ashamed to ask for donations to support our noble efforts. Let people see, through our asking and our good works, that we are about ensuring that blind children get to read Braille, that blind adults get remunerative employment opportunities, and that the world is a better place because blind people are in it and fully participating members of it. He encourages everyone to contact him at <[email protected]> or to call him at our national headquarters.
Kevan Worley and Anil Lewis have been asked by President Maurer to reestablish the Blind Industrial Workers of America Division of the National Federation of the Blind. This group will be critical in helping us repeal the laws that permit the payment of subminimum wages to blind people.
Because of our commitment to Braille, the National Federation of the Blind runs a program funded by the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults dedicated to the creation and distribution of Braille books for children. We distribute approximately 2,000 free books each month, and anyone who knows a blind child who could benefit from a new book is encouraged to contact Mrs. Patricia Maurer at the National Center for the Blind.
President Maurer announced that the 2014 convention of the National Federation of the Blind will be in Orlando. This will be true for the 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 conventions as well. We may be in different hotels, and we may vary the dates of the convention, but they will be held on Rosen properties, and we will enjoy the fine facilities they have to offer.
Cathy Jackson was introduced to present the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award. The 2013 winner is a deserving teacher from the state of Georgia, and the award presentation can be found elsewhere in this issue.
Scott LaBarre took the floor to talk with the board and those attending the meeting about the Preauthorized Contribution Program. While for some time now we have had an annual giving rate that was at or above $400,000, we came into the convention with annualized giving of $398,450.16. Although this is above where we were last year at this time, it does not represent the yearly high that we had in December of 2012, and it is clear that we can do much better. Chairman LaBarre suggested that we set ourselves the task of raising our annualized contribution to at least $425,000 by the end of convention.
Sandy Halverson took the floor to talk about the Shares Unlimited in the National Federation of the Blind (SUN) Fund. This is a savings account or a rainy day fund to which we make contributions as a hedge against the day when we may face a substantial financial crisis. If the time comes when we are in desperate need of funds, we will spend the interest from this program. If our circumstances are dire, we will then use the principal. Currently we have over $1 million in the fund, and our hope is to get all of the states to make contributions to ensure that we can weather any financial adversity that comes our way.
Dr. David Ticchi, the chairman of the Blind Educator of the Year Award Committee, was introduced for a presentation. He presented a much-deserved award to a woman from Pennsylvania. His remarks and those of the recipient appear elsewhere in this issue.
By long-standing policy, chapters, state affiliates, and divisions share their good fortune with the national treasury. Anytime a bequest is received, half of that bequest is granted to the national body. President Maurer recognized Julie Deden and Scott LaBarre to make a presentation, and they presented a check in the amount of $750,000 to support the work of our national body. They were followed by Jennifer Dunnam, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. On behalf of her affiliate she presented a check in the amount of $205,000.
Rena Smith, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Nevada, was introduced in recognition of previous contributions her affiliate has made throughout the year. She surprised us with the presentation of yet another check, this one in the amount of $50,000.
President Maurer concluded this part of the presentation by acknowledging a check for slightly under $200,000 from the affiliate in Connecticut. He thanked our state president, Beth Rival, and the audience showed its appreciation with a round of applause.
Joanne Wilson addressed the group to discuss our newly created Vehicle Donation Program. We accept cars, trucks, vans, boats, motorcycles, airplanes, and anything else that has wheels and can be towed. Our job is to make the public familiar with this program so that people will call our donation center when they have a beloved vehicle that can do one more good deed in its metallic life. Public donations can be taken by going to the website <www.carshelpingtheblind.org> or by calling (855) 659-9314. For their donation, donors are given a tax-deductible certificate and a letter of appreciation, and the National Federation of the Blind receives about $500 for each donated vehicle. If each of our states can generate ten vehicle donations in the course of the year, this will make a significant contribution to our effort to find new and creative means of raising money for the organization.
In addition to starting our Vehicle Donation Program, we have also made a commitment to go into the thrift store business. We will begin in the eastern states, and, when these programs are successful, it is our intention to branch out and cover every state in the country. We are working with the organization GreenDrop, and this too can be a significant source of income if we get out the word and let people know that we are looking for clothing, household appliances, and other items of value that they can no longer use.
Patti Chang came to the platform to introduce the scholarship class of 2013. This class represents one of the best we have ever had, and their remarks to the board of directors and the speech of the 2013 Jernigan Scholarship winner are found elsewhere in this issue. So impressed was the board of directors by the presentation of this class and in the success of the scholarship program that it voted unanimously to continue it next year.
For the second year in a row the board meeting adjourned on time, and the assembled prepared for an afternoon filled with division, committee, and group meetings.
Nothing is a greater testament to the diversity of interests and accomplishments of the blind than the division meetings held on board meeting and division day. There are the meetings of the Sports and Recreation Division, the Diabetes Action Network, the National Association of Blind Lawyers, the NFB in Computer Science, the National Association of the Blind in Communities of Faith, the Seniors in Charge program held by the Seniors Division, the Public Relations Committee meeting, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, the Performing Arts Division, the National Association of Blind Educators, the National Association of Blind Merchants, the National Association of Blind Rehabilitation Professionals, the Human Services Division, the Writers' Division, the Piano Technology Group, and the Cerebral Palsy and Blindness gathering. For those who didn't find themselves in a division or committee meeting, there was training to use the NFB-NEWSLINE® service; a session for Inspiring Artists, Beginners to Professionals; and activities sponsored by the Sports and Recreation Division, which included a self-defense workshop and a fundraiser in which challengers could take on officers of the Sports and Recreation Division board in arm wrestling, push-ups, or other challenging activities.
Of course, as important as these activities were, many of the blind children who attended were not particularly interested in the division meetings that occupied the afternoon. They had their hearts set on the Braille Book Fair cosponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille. In this program children can browse through a large number of donated books, choose the ones they want, and then have those books sent to their homes by volunteers who will box and ship them. This is a splendid activity which allows gently used books to find new and loving homes, is a delight to the fingers of young Braille readers, and furthers our goal of increasing literacy through Braille.
As the evening progressed, there was a meeting of blind academics; the National Association of Guide Dog Users; the Science and Engineering Division; the Assistive Technology Trainers; the National Association of Blind Automobile Enthusiasts; the Committee to Empower Underserved Populations; and the Webmasters Group for chapter, affiliate, and division webmasters’ education and collaboration. If these items didn't pique the interest of convention attendees, there was always the Daisy Book of the Holy Bible seminar at which the King James Version of the complete Holy Bible (narrated by Alexander Scourby) was demonstrated to be navigable down to the verse using a Victor Reader Stream or similar Daisy book player. At a party sponsored by Bookshare, members could connect with Bookshare staff, meet other Bookshare members, and learn about the latest news and updates available through the service. Music enthusiasts could attend the Music Tech and You Workshop to learn about composing, recording, and mixing using state-of-the-art technology. Teachers of blind children could learn about the National Reading Media Assessment, a new chapter in the story of literacy for the blind. "Self-Advocacy in Higher Education: Knowing Your Rights and Getting It Done," provided a workshop for current or soon to be college and postgraduate students, where they could learn about their legal rights and how to employ effective strategies for self-advocacy in obtaining accommodations, accessing instructional materials, and requesting accommodations in high-stakes testing.
No convention would be complete without a first run play written by Jerry Whittle and presented by the Louisiana Center for the Blind. This year the play was entitled Golden Moments, and at the end of the play its author and producer was surprised by a special party thrown in honor of his retirement and that of his wife, Merilynn. It is doubtful that one could find two finer Federationists in the country, and this recognition of their service was well deserved.
When the gavel fell on the first official session of the seventy-third convention of the National Federation of the Blind, the crowd answered with a tumultuous roar. President Maurer began by giving us a bit of history. He read from a document which began:
The Florida Federation of the Blind Preconvention Bulletin
June 16, 1960
We have set the stage for a wonderful and big twentieth anniversary convention of the National Federation of the Blind to be held at the Everglades Hotel, Biscayne Blvd., Miami, Florida, July 1 to 4. If you have not made your reservations, please do so now. The rates at the Everglades are as follows: singles, $5.50; doubles, $7.00; triples, $9.50.
This drew an envious cheer from the crowd and paved the way for Dan Hicks to welcome us to Florida. He took the microphone to offer us yet another magic trick, but, in the middle of his convoluted explanation, the stage was filled by a cast of characters who unarguably know more about magic than our esteemed state president. He was joined by Harry Potter, his friends, and a host of dignitaries from the Hogwarts School of Magic, who decided to attend the convention to learn something about the art of fundraising, their school having fallen on financial hard times. In the Harry Potter series, new students attending Hogwarts are assigned to their dormitories by a magical piece of clothing known as a sorting hat. In the Hogwarts ceremony, each new student approaches the hat, which calls out his or her name and place of residence. In the ceremony conducted in Orlando, however, students approached the hat to ask their proper role in the organization, and each was told that it was to assist in fundraising so that the Federation might continue to carry out its noble work. This introduction was nothing if not unique, and its message couldn't have been timelier.
After the magical characters of Hogwarts went off to see other sights in Orlando, the stage was taken by Dwight Sayer, who began the morning's festivities to honor our nation's veterans. This commenced with a presentation of the colors by the Air Force Honor Guard from Patrick Air Force Base. When they reached the stage, the convention joined in the Pledge of Allegiance on the 237th birthday of our nation and then joined Father John Sheehan and Dr. Jessica Ewell as they led us in the singing of the National Anthem.
Those who served our country in the armed forces were invited to introduce themselves with name, rank, branch of service, and state of residence. The first four to introduce themselves were members of the Veterans Initiative Program we created to assist in bringing them to this convention. Thirty-eight veterans introduced themselves, and all were greeted with an enthusiastic round of applause. The ceremony was concluded in song. The medley performed is captured in the audio version of this issue and may be found, along with other audio highlights of the convention, at <https://nfb.org/national-convention-highlights#2013>. President Maurer noted that he had applied to be a member of the United States Armed Forces and was rejected on the basis of blindness. He affirmed our commitment that one day this will change.
Diane McGeorge talked briefly about our Cyber Auction, which will occur on the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday following Thanksgiving. Each affiliate is being asked to make a pledge to the Amazing Online Auction, and it is needed by September 1. This project represents another effort to reach out to the public and to gain the support we need to fund the valuable work we do.
The chairman of the Jernigan Fund Committee, Allen Harris, explained the role of the fund in raising scholarship money and expressed his pride in our being able to help more than sixty Federationists attend the convention this year.
The next item on the morning's agenda was the roll call of states. Because illness prevented Joy Harris, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama, from joining us, Cindy Jones of Alabama answered the roll call, asked that we all join in saying good morning to Joy as she listened to the convention stream, and welcomed for the first time the president of the Alabama school for the deaf and the blind, Dr. John Mascia. Cindy concluded her remarks by chiding President Maurer on Notre Dame's football loss to the Crimson Tide of Alabama. The president emotionally opined that he had enjoyed the Notre Dame season up to that point.
Arizona came to the microphone to announce that it had in its delegation fifty-one first-timers to the national convention. This was the largest number of first-timers recorded in the roll call, but clearly evident in almost every report from the states was an impressive number of newcomers to our annual convention.
When the roll call of states reached Colorado, President Scott LaBarre recognized the Colorado Center for the Blind and said that it would soon be celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, a quarter of a century that has witnessed positive change in the hundreds of students who have passed through the Center's doors.
The president of the National Federation of the Blind of Georgia boasted seventy-three Georgians at the convention, with twenty-two first-time convention attendees, seven sets of parents of blind children, one Braille Challenge winner, one teacher of blind students (an award winner this year), two dogs, one goat, and a chicken. Though the Braille Monitor seldom turns away from the dirty work of investigative journalism, we made no attempt to confirm the nonhuman census provided by the gentleman from Georgia.
President Michael Barber of Iowa explained how much teamwork can do when the affiliate of his state helped secure $150,000 in excess of the governor's budget request to support the programs of the Iowa Department for the Blind.
The president of the National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky, Cathy Jackson, announced that the prize the Kentucky affiliate would give for the Amazing Online Auction would be four grandstand tickets to the Kentucky Derby.
President Larry Posont of Michigan announced the death of Michigan's longest-serving member of the Federation, Dorothy Eagle Scott. She had been a member of the National Federation of the Blind since 1941 and was active until several months before her death.
The convention erupted in cheers when Travis Moses, the president of the newly-formed National Federation of the Blind of Montana, stood at the microphone to deliver his report. The audience was again moved to enthusiastic applause when Carl Jacobsen took the microphone as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of New York. In January of this year he went into the hospital with chest pain and found himself the recipient of double bypass surgery. Not content simply to be a patient, President Jacobsen put on his Federation hat and began talking to the senior vice president of the hospital about how it could improve accessibility for blind people. "He was in his three-piece suit, and I was in one of those gowns that fasten from the back, but here we were, carrying on the business of the Federation," he said. Carl concluded his report by saying that, thanks to the generosity of Cheryl Echevaria, the New York affiliate would be donating a trip with a value of at least $2,000 to our upcoming Cyber Auction.
President James Brown of Tennessee came to the microphone to say that, four days previous, a law was enacted in Tennessee to protect the rights of blind parents against seizure of their children based on blindness. The Tennessee affiliate is also being paid by the Department of Children's Services to train all of their 2,300 workers so that they know blind people are capable of being good parents.
The morning session concluded with President Maurer asking for a shout-out from those who attended their first convention in the decade of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, the first decade of the twenty-first century, and finally, the most enthusiastic roar coming from those attending their very first convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
On Thursday afternoon the session began with the 2013 Presidential Report. In just over one hour and three minutes our president managed to discuss the programs of our Federation, the challenges we have faced, the victories we have won, and the commitment we have to shaping a future that holds greater opportunity for the blind of the nation and the world. He concluded his report with these remarks: "We have programs, financial resources, facilities, influential supporters, and technologies that we have built or caused others to create. But the most important thing we have is each other and the faith that we inspire in ourselves to use our strength for a common purpose and a shared goal. We have promised that we will believe in each other, and we always keep our promises. Our spirit makes us what we are, and our combined energy comes from the spirit that lives in the hearts of each of us. This spirit is unquenchable, and, because it is, our future is assured. This is what you, my friends in the Federation, have told me; this is what I have come to know in the depth of my being from listening to you; and this is my report for 2013." President Maurer's remarks will appear in full immediately following this report.
Traditionally everyone who follows President Maurer's report publicly complains about their place on the agenda, saying that he is a hard if not impossible act to follow. Of course they are correct. The Presidential Report is one of the highlights of the convention. The convention hall is uncharacteristically quiet, except when it erupts in applause for the victories we have achieved or to affirm our resolve to meet the challenges ahead.
This year the speaker who took the stage after President Maurer was our own Dr. Adrienne Asch, director of the Center for Ethics and the Edward and Robert Milstein Professor of Bioethics at Yeshiva University. Her topic was "Reinterpreting and Expanding the Right to Live in the World." She asked the convention to consider what we were prepared to do to see that the prenatal testing that is now being offered will not be used to prevent the birth of people who are blind, what we will do to see that blindness does not figure prominently in the end-of-life care we receive, and how we will make our voices heard as agencies at all levels of government consider how medical care will be apportioned to United States citizens in the event of a pandemic. Though the professor spoke at a time when many take the opportunity to catch their breath, talk with a neighbor, or run some kind of convention errand, her topic and presentation were so engaging that you could've heard a pin drop in that large convention hall. Her remarks appear in full elsewhere in this issue.
A major focus of the Federation has always been and will continue to be employment. As President Maurer observed in his introduction of the next presenter, in order to have equal opportunity for employment, one must find a job. In the twenty-first century most job searches are conducted online, and the day of sending out hundreds of paper résumés has long since passed. Monster.com is the largest online job search company in the world, and to speak with us on the topic of "Equal Access for the Blind to Job Searches on the Internet" was Mark Conway, chief information officer, Monster Worldwide. Mr. Conway said that "Monster pioneered the notion of helping people get more out of work by showing them that there's a better job out there. We started the business of digital recruiting in 1994, and today we're the only online recruitment provider able to service customers on a global basis. Monster has an unparalleled international reach, with a presence in over forty countries in the world. And we enjoy the number one and number two positions in the major markets of the world in which we operate.... At Monster we don't just sell better jobs; we help people live better lives, we inspire people to improve their lives. Because, in the end, the better job is more than that: a better job is a better experience, an experience that leads to better possibilities, better opportunities, better relationships, and better perspectives. We have enhanced our mission through our collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind. Earlier this year in Boston we announced that, working together, Monster.com would be the first job search and recruitment website to provide blind jobseekers with full and equal access to all our products and services. Let me focus on how we got there.
"Over the past year a team at Monster has been working closely with the National Federation of the Blind to enhance our Monster.com website in a way that will provide more opportunities for blind jobseekers to find jobs. Although portions of our site were already accessible, we realized we could do more. Therefore Monster went through the process of redesigning and updating key pages and flows on the site to ensure accessibility to our site for blind seekers.... These changes allowed blind jobseekers not only to find great jobs but to engage with employers, to apply for jobs, and to leverage the full benefit of Monster services." Not only has Monster.com improved its site, but in conjunction with these enhancements Monster has also focused on the education of the blind job seeker and developed an accessibility center for its website. "To continue to enable people to find better jobs, Monster has provided the National Federation of the Blind with a five-year grant of free job postings on Monster to allow the national organization to hire the best talent through Monster.com. In addition we made a donation of $50,000 to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to support programs to promote education and employment of blind persons and other persons with disabilities. We look forward to continuing this critical work with the National Federation of the Blind."
At the end of Mr. Conway's remarks, President Maurer said, "I was distracted during part of your presentation, so I may have missed it. I heard you talk about that gift you gave to Massachusetts, but I didn't hear you say that you gave us $50,000 to be a Title Sponsor for this convention. The idea is that we can build better things together than either of us can do alone, and this is a great thing for us—we love it, and we're glad to have you here."
As we have often noted in these pages, a significant problem for blind people is that we are told to sit down and wait. Some of this we reject, but some of it we take to heart. Like our sighted counterparts, many of us spend too much time sitting and fail to get the exercise critical to good health. To help address this issue, the next item appearing on the afternoon agenda was "The Poetry of Motion, the Grace of Movement, the Delight of Physical Expression: Blindness No Barrier." The panel was moderated by Natalie Shaheen, director of education at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Her remarks and a summary of those made by her fellow panel members will be reprinted later in the fall.
The final item of the afternoon session was entitled "The Newest Digital Book Player with Added Connectivity and Other Revolutionary Technology," and was presented by the chief executive officer of HumanWare, Gilles Pepin. He discussed the newest incarnation of the Victor Reader Stream, which is smaller, lighter, and louder than its predecessor and includes the ability to communicate wirelessly. This means that no longer must one connect the unit to a computer in order to download books, music, and other information of interest. Through an agreement with the National Federation of the Blind, the new Stream will allow information from NFB-NEWSLINE® to be directly downloaded to the player so that the blind person who owns one of these devices can wake and find his or her newspaper ready to read. With the new Stream, readers will have access to 327 national and local newspapers and forty magazines without a computer or telephone. The device will also provide access to books from the National Library Service, Bookshare, and (thanks to the efforts of Curtis Chong in his capacity as the head of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science) the Audible service will be accessible as well. Not content with providing reading material, updates will soon be provided allowing access to stock quotes, weather forecasts, podcasts, Internet radio, and other music services.
Of course HumanWare is not interested in audio only; its strong commitment to Braille is demonstrated by its extensive line of Braille products. As Mr. Pepin says, "As you know, HumanWare is all about Braille and its future. In the last twenty-five years we have been committed to Braille literacy. We've always had a complete line of state-of-the-art products, including our very popular BrailleNote and Brailliant flagship products. We are great believers that Braille is the only path towards literacy for our children. We know that Braille readers are the leaders in this community, but in the recent past Braille has been losing ground. Education budgets have been cut; the number of available teachers of Braille is decreasing; there is often an unfortunate belief that more affordable mainstream solutions based on speech are enough for our children, but they are not. These and other reasons are contributing to the decline in Braille literacy, and we must fight back! . . . At HumanWare we believe our contribution should be focused on three critical elements: we want to make Braille more affordable, more portable, and more connectable to this digital world. . . together with NFB and others, we will increase the use of Braille worldwide, and Braille literacy will prevail."
Mr. Pepin concluded by discussing the soon-to-be-announced Prodigi, a device that will bring the world of closed-circuit television technology into the twenty-first century and give those with low vision a simple, affordable, portable device. This will allow a blind person to hear the contents of a document spoken aloud, view it on the screen, or wirelessly download it for later review.
At the conclusion of the afternoon session, plenty of activities awaited the spirited and energetic crowd. There was an opportunity to record a professionally mixed and edited demo of one's favorite song; an open house sponsored by the Colorado Center for the Blind; a chance to visit the exhibit hall; and a meeting of the Employment Committee to learn about resources to help with career planning, job seeking, and getting that first job. Those interested in homeschooling their children could learn all about it from instructor Heather Field, those wanting to learn about the basics of the Individualized Education Plan could be schooled by Carlton Walker, and parents wanting to know more about the legal process could also benefit from her knowledge as a lawyer and first-class advocate. Those wanting to learn how to work with their state and local boards of elections to eliminate barriers that prevent blind and visually impaired voters from casting private and independent ballots could attend a seminar, and those wanting to know about the contribution of the National Federation of the Blind in researching and developing new technology could attend a meeting sponsored by the Research and Development Committee. Finally, those interested in a little less work and a bit more play could attend the annual Monte Carlo Night sponsored by the National Association of Blind Students.
However people chose to spend the evening, they managed to find their way back the next morning to the grand ballroom for the 9:00 AM fall of the gavel. The morning session began with a financial report delivered by President Maurer. In last year's report he told us that there had been a significant alteration in our income and that changes would have to be made. This year we find that our expenses still exceed our income by some $700,000. We have initiated a number of new fundraising activities, which were discussed earlier in this article, and we continue to look for ways to cut expenses while preserving and expanding our programs. There is reason to believe that our balance sheet for 2013 will be better at the end of the year than it now appears, but it is absolutely essential that we continue to look for ways to fund this movement.
The convention next turned its attention to elections and filling the terms expiring at the end of the convention. The Nominating Committee report recommended Parnell Diggs; Sam Gleese; Ever Lee Hairston; Cathy Jackson; Jeannie Massay, president of the NFB of Oklahoma; and Joe Ruffalo. The Convention accepted the report of the Nominating Committee, President Maurer conducted the election, and each member nominated by the committee was elected.
In introducing the next presentation, President Maurer said: "We now take up an item that we were thinking of doing tomorrow, but we are fortunate to be able to do it today. This is being presented by a teacher of blind students from Hamilton, Mississippi. This is a story worth knowing, a spirit worth feeling; this is a teacher in the movement who believed in blind children—and not only believed in blind children, but she taught the legislature to share her faith. It is my great good fortune to welcome for her presentation Casey Robertson."
Here is how Casey began her remarks: "Good morning, Federation family and friends. I am here this morning, and if you would look at your agenda, you might see that you were supposed to hear about surviving potential disaster. Well I think my story goes right along with that, because, if we do not change the way students in our country are taught, we are headed for disaster." With these attention-getting remarks, Casey went on to deliver a stellar presentation that will appear in a future issue of this magazine.
"Supporting the Blind of America in Congress" was next presented by the Honorable Daniel Webster, United States House of Representatives, from the Tenth Congressional District of Florida. Congressman Webster congratulated us on the work we do, stressed the value of not-for-profit organizations such as ours, and talked about the greatest obstacle he finds in Congress today—finding common ground, developing trust, listening, and uniting to take action. He said one of his first acts after being elected in 2010 was to call three of his fellow Congressman of the opposite party to ask that they sit with him at the State of the Union speech. The first to return his call was Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. Through this encounter he learned about an annual softball game between women in Congress and members of the press. He was asked to coach the congressional team, accepted the challenge, and helped his team to a late-inning five to four victory. After his team's triumph, while walking to catch the Metro for a ride home, he began to think about how special that night was and how the unity among conservatives, moderates, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, men, and women turned out to be more important than their differences. His hope was that he could do something to try to instill this spirit into the United States Congress, and to this end he has established bipartisan dinners, which continue to grow in popularity and have, as their most important dinner activity, sharing experiences, stories, victories, and defeats, in the hope that the result will be relationships based on trust and the creation of an environment where people who share significant differences can still come together for the common good.
At the conclusion of the Congressman's remarks, President Maurer said, "Thank you for that profound message, and I appreciate the profound observations about needing to listen. I have a question for you, however. In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act was adopted. In 1938 it included a provision that said that employers did not have to pay disabled Americans the minimum wage. It still says that. We have caused a bill to be introduced in Congress—this is H.R. 831—and we are looking for people to help us get rid of this legalized discrimination against blind Americans. We'd like to ask you to do it with us."
Congressman Webster said, "Thank you for that question, and another shout out to our Florida friends: they have been in my office, they've explained this to me, and, as a matter of fact, they pointed out to me people I would've never have imagined would be a part of that conspiracy. I was shocked. I support your bill; I think that people should get just compensation for what they do, and I look forward to working with you in an even more substantive way in bringing this to the floor and making it happen."
President Maurer concluded the presentation by saying: "I said to Anil Lewis, when I asked him to go down and work on this in the Congress, to find people in Congress who have courage. I think we have one with us!"
"The Electronic Brailler of Tomorrow Here Today: Distance Learning and Braille Production in One Device" was next presented by David Pillischer, the president of Electronic Brailler LLC, and Peter Sullivan, vice president of software development for Duxbury Systems Inc. For all of the advancement we have seen in reading and writing Braille with notetakers and refreshable Braille displays, relatively little progress has been made in modernizing the traditional Braillewriter, which, by printing on paper, can make possible the reading and writing of multiple lines of Braille and thus enable its use in mathematics and in other arenas where understanding the layout of rows and columns is required. The electronic Brailler which has been produced provides the functionality of the traditional Perkins Braillewriter, along with the state-of-the-art technology to store what is written, to translate and back translate the information entered into it, and to produce Braille so quietly that it can be used in the classroom without interrupting the work of other students. Its ability to use the Internet means that a student can work with a teacher who is not physically present but can provide instruction, review the work, and even send material to be transcribed for the student.
Following these remarks, President Maurer said: "Distance education is vastly needed in this arena because there aren't enough teachers in this area, and the teaching is always interrupted by something. This is a great thing, I look forward to it, and, David, it's been great having you here." Many of Mr. Pillischer's remarks will appear in an upcoming issue.
Our next program item was entitled "Equal Access to Digital Information: Tools that Help in Getting it Done." To make this presentation we welcomed an Accessibility Champion for the 2013 convention and a longtime sponsor, the chief executive officer of Deque Systems, Preety Kumar. This company and its founder are dedicated to access for the blind and have developed an interface called Amaze, which is capable of providing quality access to Facebook for users of screen-reading technology, no matter the screen reader one chooses. For this program the company has won the Computer World Innovation Award, significant recognition by a mainstream newspaper which holds a preeminent position in the world of computing technology. Preety asked for our help in letting the world know that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to technology and that the higher-paying jobs in today's world all revolve around it.
The Friday afternoon session of the convention began promptly at 2 PM, and after a generous door prize President Maurer introduced Robert Repella, chief commercial officer and senior vice president of Vanda Pharmaceuticals Inc. to discuss the topic "Exploring Pharmaceuticals in Partnership with the Blind." For some time now Vanda Pharmaceuticals has been exploring the relationship between the ability to differentiate between light and dark and the sleep patterns of blind people. They have been seeking volunteers to participate in testing to determine whether its new drug, Tasimelteon, is effective in treating sleep disturbances that appear to occur in the blind. Having successfully completed these tests, the manufacturer hopes to receive approval for its drug in six to ten months, and Mr. Repella expressed his appreciation for the help of the National Federation of the Blind in researching the issue, in helping to solicit volunteers, and in publicizing the results of the studies. His hope is that, when we next meet in Orlando, Vanda will be close to announcing something for the market to help with the sleep disturbances that have been observed.
"Ending Legalized Discrimination in Wage Payments for Disabled Americans" was the next item on the agenda, and it was presented by the Honorable Greg Harper, United States House of Representatives from the Third Congressional District of Mississippi. Congressman Harper is the lead sponsor of H.R. 831 in the United States House, and his remarks will appear in full in a later issue. Though what he has to say is impressive in written form, the audio presentation has much to recommend it. These remarks and many other audio highlights can be found at <https://nfb.org/national-convention-highlights#2013>.
When I was a young lad in high school and the fall would bring the convention issue of this magazine, one of the highlights for me was always the presentation made by Jim Gashel, the Washington Report, delivered in his capacity as the head of our Washington Office. This is now known as the Advocacy and Policy Report and is currently presented by four articulate warriors who take our message to Capitol Hill each day. They are John Paré, Anil Lewis, Lauren McLarney, and Jesse Hartle. Their report will appear in the October issue. At the end of their presentation, President Maurer said: "As you can tell, we have a very good and very effective team working to get our legislation adopted. It is especially good and especially effective because we have members in every state prepared to do what is needed to get the work done. We are the most effective nonprofit in the nation because we have the team we do and because we have you!"
The remainder of the afternoon was spent in reading and discussing the resolutions that set the policy of the National Federation of the Blind in this and future years. Twenty-four resolutions were brought to the floor; twenty-three of them were passed. A full report from the chairman of the Resolutions Committee and the texts of the resolutions that passed can be found elsewhere in this issue.
When the gavel fell on the last morning of the 2013 convention, 2,429 Federationists were registered. Although our numbers have sometimes been higher, one would be hard pressed to find a more enthusiastic crowd than the one filling the hall and anxiously waiting for the first presentation of the morning.
"Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL): Changing Educational Expectations for the Blind of America" was moderated by Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. He was joined by Sandy Halverson, president of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille and the lead coordinator of the Virginia BELL Programs; Kayleigh Joyner, a junior at Stephen F. Austin State University; and Raveena Alli, a second grader at Springdale Park Elementary School. These presentations were excellent, no summation could do them justice, and therefore they will appear in their entirety sometime in the fall.
Before the days of digital deployment in the classroom, the biggest challenge for blind people in school was in getting their books on time and insuring that their instructors provided appropriate verbal feedback when drawing on the chalkboard. But now school is a different place, and much of what came from the textbook, the chalkboard, and the lecture is now gotten through what are known as “learning management systems.” They offer tremendous resources for today's students, but, as with other technology, they can present real barriers to blind people when our needs are not taken into consideration in the design and implementation of these systems.
"Accessible Education That Works: a Commitment from Desire2Learn" was presented by Dennis Kavelman, the chief operating officer of this innovative company. The creative force behind Desire2Learn was John Baker, a student at the University of Waterloo, who believed that sitting through lectures and hearing what he was supposed to have read in textbooks was a waste of time. Instead, he envisioned an environment where reading and lectures would be done before class time, allowing time with the professor to be spent in asking questions and going beyond the written and oral material. A hot topic and a current theme in education today is individualized learning, and this is greatly enhanced by software that can watch a student learn, periodically check her understanding, and reinforce those ideas which her answers indicate she does not fully comprehend.
Mr. Kavelman described his company's evolution in developing a product usable by the blind this way: "Our deep commitment and understanding didn't happen overnight. Back in 2006, like many companies in our space, we didn't really appreciate how certain coding decisions had inadvertently created barriers for persons with disabilities. We thought we were doing pretty well because we had added alt text to our images. A local accessibility consultant showed us how nonvisual access users need much more than alt text. She showed us how screen access software works, attempted a number of common tasks in the system, and really struggled in some areas. At the end of the day people had a deeper appreciation for what a good screen-access experience looked like and resolved to do better. Since then we have been working really closely with people with disabilities to refine our software. These interactions have completely changed our approach to designing and delivering products. We don't just think about `Does this have the right markup?' We go much further to ask whether our products are designed to recognize the uniqueness and dignity of our users ...We are proud to have found a partner in the NFB that is deeply committed to these principles ... Desire2Learn is proud to be the only learning management system to have multiple nonvisual accessibility certifications from the NFB. We began working with the Access Technology Team at the NFB Jernigan Institute back in 2010. They have reviewed the nonvisual experience of our learning management system based on common use cases for students and instructors such as taking quizzes, grading, and creating activities within the system. They focus on the user experience, which sets a very rigorous standard." Again, in the words of the company's founder, "Accessibility is an organization-wide mandate and is a critical element in all of our R&D efforts. We are committed to ensuring that we are the industry leader in this very important field."
"Valuing the Talent of Disabled American Workers: Ending Subminimum Wage Payments" was the title of our next presentation delivered by a panel moderated by Anil Lewis, director of advocacy and policy for the National Federation of the Blind; Sheila Leigland, a former worker at Goodwill Industries, who was being paid less than the federal minimum wage; Serena Lowe, senior policy advisor, Office of Disability Employment Policy for the United States Department of Labor; and Allison Wohl, executive director, the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination. Anil asked us to recognize that for many in the world an active, thriving, and productive group of blind people runs contrary to what they believe. The idea that we could travel independently to a new city, organize this convention, formulate policy, and then see to its implementation just isn't something they consider possible. He noted that one of our greatest challenges is to recognize that we sometimes get so lost in our success that we miss the fact that there is still a fight to fight.
Sheila Leigland hails from Montana, where she formerly worked for Goodwill Industries. After taking time off for surgery, she was informed by the management of Goodwill's sheltered workshop that she could return to the facility, but her pay would be reduced to $2.71 an hour, the rate paid to all new disabled employees of Goodwill Industries. When she calculated the cost of her transportation to and from work, she decided it made no economic sense to go back. Sheila made it clear that, while Jim Gibbons, the CEO of Goodwill, may say it is all about informed choice, for her and a large majority of the labor force in the United States, it's about money. Not only is it about money, but it's about dignity: the dignity that is eroded when one enters an environment where she is told she is not productive on the line where clothes are sorted; dignity that is eroded when she is told that, despite her college education, she doesn't qualify to be a telephone receptionist or for any other job that might harness her God-given talents; and dignity that is eroded when the very people who tell her she is not productive are themselves blind and make their living by making public pronouncements suggesting they are worthy of the hundreds of thousands of dollars they receive in compensation, while labeling as unproductive those who provide the direct labor that makes those salaries possible.
Speaking on behalf of the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination (CPSD), Allison Wohl reminded us that "Subminimum wage on its face is a problem because it places a lesser value on the work of citizens with disabilities. There is a clear relationship between disability and poverty. For ten years in a row people with disabilities have experienced the highest levels of poverty in the United States. Three-hundred thousand Americans with disabilities are in sheltered workshops, in segregated workplaces, doing piecework for pennies a day in some cases. Between 500,000 and 600,000 people with disabilities are in nonwork settings, and, because of the many restrictions around receiving SSI and Medicaid, they are not allowed to earn, they are not allowed to save. Yet, the United States government spends about $400 million a year on disability payments with an additional 71 billion from the states. What does that money go to? Forty-one percent of it goes to cash payments, which is otherwise known as welfare or income support. Fifty-five percent goes to Medicaid, and less than 1 percent of those dollars is spent on training, education, and employment. What would happen if we turn that model around and that money and the incentives to providers would be on real work at real wages in competitive environments with nondisabled workers like everybody else? This is what we're here to do....
"I loved the Rock Center piece, and thank you to NFB for working so hard to get that piece aired. What Mr. Gibbons talked about was that it was okay to pay these folks less because it was part of their program, and to me that was one of the most hideous things he said. What he meant was that we should not pay people with disabilities more than subminimum wages because they are on welfare. That is an outdated paradigm, and it needs to change! ...CPSD's long-term goal is not just employment but economic self-sufficiency. We recognize that there will always be some dependence on public support, but we need to move from this model of cyclical dependency to self-sufficiency. Economic self-sufficiency starts with schools placing high expectations on students with disabilities and preparing them for a life of work, not segregated nonwork. We cannot force another generation into poverty, and our loved ones with disabilities will never get out of poverty under this outdated model of dependence. Laws have not kept pace with what we know about Americans with disabilities, and our system must be modernized. Seeing the repeal of 14(c) (which allows organizations to pay their workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage) and a phase-out of sheltered workshops are both obvious and powerful first steps in creating a system of economic self-sufficiency for Americans with disabilities."
Serena Lowe was the next member of the panel to take the microphone. She began by reiterating the position articulated by Anil Lewis earlier in the day when he defined the battle to eliminate subminimum wages as the great civil rights issue of our day for people with disabilities. She went on to say, "No matter who you are or where you're from, work is about some very basic things: it's about dignity, it's about respect, it's about economic stability. You can't have that if you're being paid subminimum wages. Whether or not you believe in the nation's minimum wage, the reality is that we have it, it's law, and it should be for everyone—no exceptions, no ifs, no ands, no buts. Americans with disabilities are no different from Americans without disabilities when it comes to our collective view of the American dream of wanting to pursue work, to generate an income, to earn a livable wage, to be a productive citizen in society, to contribute as taxpayers—these are all important to all of us."
She went on to note that several myths permeate society that are used to justify the payment of subminimum wages for citizens with disabilities. One is that disabled persons cannot be productive, another that employers would not hire them unless they were able to do so at less than the minimum wage. Another myth is that it is more costly for the employer to hire someone with a disability, though fourteen years of research has proven this to be a fallacy. The last myth that continues to dog our progress holds that the debate over sheltered workshop employment revolves around informed choice, the assumption being that people choose to hold jobs, knowing they will be paid below the national minimum wage. In reality there is no informed choice; the choice about what workers in the workshops are paid is being made by the managers of the workshops who benefit from the low wages they pay. Furthermore, as Ms. Lowe reminds us, "Informed choice is not limitless. If you are using public dollars, they should help you to be as economically self-sufficient as possible, not stick you somewhere where you're not being valued, you're not playing to your strengths, and you're being cyclically dependent. That's not what publicly financed supports are about! ... It's very important that I make something clear for you: government is a myriad of contradictions, and the Department of Labor is no exception. Right upstairs, four floors above us, is the Wage and Hour Division, and, as part of their many enforcement roles, they are required to enforce section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The reality is that this is the law. Just because it's the law doesn't make it right. So the Office of Disability Employment Policy says that employment, as we define it, means work paid directly by employers at the greater of minimum or prevailing wages, with commensurate benefits, occurring in a typical work setting where the employee has the opportunity to interact continuously with coworkers, both with and without disabilities, has the opportunity for advancement and mobility, and is engaged preferably full-time. That's integrated employment; that's what we support. We need NFB's help to make sure that the laws reflect that evolution in our psyche as Americans. Without your help, 14(c) still stands; it is still federal law. There's nothing I can do about that, there's nothing Wage and Hour can do about that—it is federal law, and that is why the work you are doing is so critically important."
When the panel concluded, President Maurer addressed those assembled with these remarks: "Last November I went to Montana; I sat down in a room and started talking with my buddies about how to build an affiliate of the Federation. And there were the Leiglands, and they were working for subminimum wages. Now a lot of people who deal with workshops have said, `Yeah, there aren't many blind people being paid subminimum wages; why do you care; it's just a couple of them, just a few.' I don't care if there's only one: one is too many! So I called Anil and I said, `Get hold of these guys. They've got to be on the front lines. They are the example we need.' And he and Jesse and John got hold of NBC, and pretty soon they are in our building taking film, and you know what happened next. I admire John and Jesse and especially the leader of this particular task, Anil Lewis. We're going to get it done."
"Literacy for the Blind without Borders," was the title of the next presentation, and its presenters were Frederic K. Schroeder, research professor, Interwork Institute, San Diego State University Research Foundation, and the first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind; and Scott LaBarre, Esq., LaBarre Law Offices, and president of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. Their efforts to secure the passage of a treaty allowing the cross-border sharing of books energized the crowd, and what they said appears later in this issue.
The morning session ended with a presentation entitled "Creating Opportunity for the Blind of the United Kingdom, Building Partnerships with Like-Minded Blindness Organizations Around the World," and its presenter was Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive officer of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). She began her remarks by saying, "Colleagues from the UK who have been to the convention before me have always come back and described the convention as awesome, and they clearly weren't lying to me. I think this is perhaps the most amazing gathering of blind and sighted people I have ever had the honor to stand in front of." Ms. Alexander explained the role of the RNIB, noting that in America we make more of a distinction than they do in Britain between consumer organizations and service providers. The RNIB is both, but it is slowly moving from service delivery to what it calls campaigning, our word for the concept being “advocacy.” One of the goals of the Institute is to change the perception about blind and partially sighted people so that government and other decision-makers absolutely understand that we have a right to things, rather than being seen simply as the recipients of the good works of others.
In closing, Ms. Alexander said, "It is genuinely an honor to be in this room with all of you, who display such fantastic and significant leadership in your own way. But it is also an honor to be in this room with some of the greatest leaders in the world of blindness. It's invidious to single out individuals, but I simply can't leave this platform without publicly thanking some of your great leaders. I'd like to thank Fred Schroeder; I'd like to thank Scott LaBarre; I'd like to thank George Kerscher; I'd like to thank James Gashel; but most of all I'd like to thank one of the bravest and perhaps most fearsome leaders of all, your own Dr. Marc Maurer."
To kick off the afternoon session, we took up the topic "A Partnership with the Organized Blind Movement: Creating Employment Opportunities in the Department of Veterans Affairs," presented by Jan R. Frye, deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Acquisition and Logistics for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mr. Frye came to know about the employment challenges faced by the blind when he met James Omvig, and, through knowing Jim and learning about our organization, Mr. Frye has concluded that blind people represent a significantly under-used pool of talent for his department and for the federal government. Not being content simply to make the observation, he has decided to do something about this. He says, "I started a three-tier plan. First, I hired blind persons to work on my personal staff. About three weeks ago Meleah Jensen and Evelyn Valdez began their work in the heart of Washington, DC.... And they are here today." One of the things Mr. Frye has learned, much to his surprise and annoyance, is that his office is not totally Section 508 compliant. Some of the equipment that should be accessible is not, and even the new telephone system that has just been installed creates problems he is committed to see his department address.
"The next step in this three-tiered program is to hire blind persons as part of our Warriors to Workforce program. This is a program we set up eighteen months ago—we already had an intern program, but I wanted to be able to bring wounded warriors in and train them to be contracting officers." Mr. Frye went on to say that the piece that is now missing involves recruiting and training blind veterans, and this he hopes to do in six to eight months. "My vision is to start training the blind to become government acquisition professionals in the VA, but I have a broader vision, and that is to take this spark in the VA and light lamps of understanding across the federal government. Blind people are capable, and they must be hired....We will not pigeonhole blind employees in positions defined strictly for blind people. Blind employees will be mainstreamed, and never will they be marginalized!...I'm largely ignorant about the issues blind people face in employment discrimination, but I know they exist. I simply have an idea and a modest plan for action; I aspire to learn quickly; I need your help. I want to take this small spark we're kindling and turn it into a thousand points of understanding across the federal government." Mr. Frye invites anyone who wishes to talk with him about improving the hiring of blind people in the federal government to write to him at<[email protected]>.
The next person to come to the podium was the recently elected president from New Hampshire, Cassandra McKinney. The title of her presentation was "The Blind at Work in an Unusual and Demanding Profession." Cassandra is a funeral director and embalmer, and her remarks will appear in an upcoming issue.
With all of the technology for reading books and all of the publishers seeking to make their materials more accessible, the National Library Service of the Library of Congress is still the source that most blind people turn to to meet a majority of their pleasure reading needs. In 2012 Ms. Roberta Shaffer, the associate librarian for library services, came to tell us about the library's plans for the future. This year her topic was "Access for All: the Library of Congress in the Twenty-First Century." Ms. Shaffer said that the federal government has made many cuts this year, but this has not stopped the Library of Congress from working to meet its essential goals. She said there were three new programs she wanted to discuss. The first is a program to bring readers into the library so that the staff of the National Library Service will have a better pipeline to its consumers. The second initiative is to reach out to other libraries and services to make more materials available for readers. There is a myth that the Library of Congress has everything, but the truth is that a goal of the library must be to achieve greater collaboration so that what they don't have they can help their consumers find. This commitment to collaboration also involves going beyond books, film, and recorded sound. Library services must expand to include social media and big data, and these cannot be excluded simply because they are difficult to catalog and control.
The third initiative of the Library is to digitize more material without falling into the trap of choosing quantity over quality. The Library of Congress still wants to be the gold standard for library service in the nation, and, though it expects to produce much more material through greater digitization, the result will not be a reduction in the quality we have come to expect. The work that the library is doing with publishers has, as its primary goal, bringing books to its readers as contemporaneously as they are brought to other communities.
Making NLS books available on platforms other than those specifically created for the program remains a priority, and the plan is to have software that will run on the iOS platform available before the end of 2013 and on the Android operating system in the winter of 2015.
Ms. Shaffer concluded by asking for our help in advertising the services of the National Library Service because she believes that far more blind and physically disabled people qualify for the service than are using it now.
When the NFB envisioned developing a reading machine we could hold in our hand or place in our pocket, we asked for the help of Ray Kurzweil in developing it and jointly created a company called K-NFB Reading Technologies. This company created the first handheld reading machine, then the first reading machine to work on a cell phone. It then created Blio, a piece of software that would run on many electronic devices and allow for the retrieval and reading of books. K-NFB Reading Technologies has now merged with eMusic to create a new company called Media Arc. The president of the newly-merged company is Peter Chapman, and his topic was "The Cutting Edge: Accessible Technology that Provides Greater Opportunity Than Ever Before in History." Mr. Chapman began by reminding us that K-NFB Reading Technologies is special in that it combines the engineering and technical expertise of Raymond Kurzweil with the strong consumer voice and technical advocacy of the National Federation of the Blind, together making an unprecedented commitment to accessibility. "As part of our mission we are focused on creating products to meet the needs of people who are blind and others with reading disabilities. We also encourage other companies to make their products accessible too. As an example, last year we intervened in a large sale of Amazon Kindles to the government. We did so because the Kindle device does not provide accessibility. Our intervention, combined with the complaints of the NFB, stopped the sale. Actions like these are putting pressure on these large companies to meet their legal and moral obligations to the blind.
"Very soon blind people should have access to digitized collections of eighty-four of the world's finest and most complete academic research libraries. In the future, because of the copyright laws, you might actually need to hire a blind person to do research, because you guys will be the only ones who have access to all this content.... With the partnerships being developed by Media Arc the blind should soon have access to twenty-eight million pieces of digital content: more digital content than Amazon. Every one of these will be totally accessible to blind and sighted people." Media Arc will soon have more movies and television shows than Hulu and Netflix combined. "Our goal in working with the NFB is to make `The Library Song' a thing of the past."
Jim Gashel followed Peter Chapman to the microphone to demonstrate some of the accessibility features found on the Google Nexus 7. This is one of Google's offerings in the handheld tablet market, and Jim was able to demonstrate its ability to read, download books, play news stories, and even listen to music. All of this was done using a touchscreen and was fully accessible.
Following Jim was a man who has been coming to our conventions for almost four decades. His topic was "An Alternative Method of Thought: Adding Power to the Human Mind," and no one will be surprised when I say that the presenter was Ray Kurzweil. In the last year Ray has taken a position as the director of engineering for Google Inc. In this new role he has the ability to do tremendous things to encourage accessibility and can expand on his interest in the human brain by figuring out how to replicate its extreme power and flexibility in the hardware of today's machines.
Ray has been thinking about how the human mind works for more than fifty years. He began by writing a paper at the age of fourteen that was so well received that it won him national recognition and a chance to meet President Lyndon Johnson. The theory he advanced at age fourteen was that the human brain was comprised of a series of pattern recognizers, which gave human beings, and to a lesser extent other mammals, the ability to learn how to learn. The theory he advanced then was based entirely on his observations about how he thought and the behavior he saw in others. The theory he articulates in his latest book is much the same as his original one, but now he has the benefit of science and the ability to watch the brain in action to substantiate his earlier speculation.
As powerful as the brain is, there are a number of things it does not do well. It cannot perform calculations as fast or accurately as a computer; its memory is much less reliable than the memory in a cellular phone or other handheld device. The computer is already being used as a brain extender, letting us tap into information from thousands of databases, while harnessing the power of hundreds of computers to meet our information needs. As we use computers to supplement our minds, it will be important that blind people be involved in the process of ensuring that we have access to the technology that allows this to happen.
As a final thought, Ray noted that "It's true that you are what you eat, but it's even more true that you are what you think, so be careful who you hang out with—I think if you hang out with other Federationists, you'll be doing very well."
For a long time now we have had a solid working relationship with the Association of American Publishers. As far back as 1996 we collaborated on and won the passage of the Chafee Amendment, which allows books and other printed materials to be transcribed into formats blind people can read without first securing the permission of the publisher. Since then there have been a number of equally significant victories, and, through our collaboration with the Association of American Publishers, we have been able to work together in ways that benefit both the publishing industry and the blind. This year Thomas H. Allen, the president and CEO of the Association brought us a presentation entitled "A Collaboration That Enhances Opportunity: the Association of American Publishers and the National Federation of the Blind Change Possibilities for Literacy." Mr. Allen's remarks will appear in a future issue.
The next person to come to the microphone is no stranger to the National Federation of the Blind. She is Eve Hill, and we first came to know her through our work with Brown, Goldstein, and Levy. Ms. Hill is now the deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, United States Department of Justice, and the presentation she made to the convention was "A Commitment to Equality of Opportunity: a Report from the Department of Justice." Her remarks will be reprinted later in the fall.
Our closing item of business for the afternoon was the presentation of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin awards. James Gashel is the chairman of this committee, and this presentation appears elsewhere in this issue.
On Saturday evening the banquet of the National Federation of the Blind was held, with Dr. Fred Schroeder acting as master of ceremonies. After the invocation and the drawing of some generous door prizes, Scott LaBarre was called to the microphone to discuss the Preauthorized Contribution Plan and the progress we made during the week in helping to support our movement. Scott said, "We came into the convention with an annualized pledge of $398,450.16. We're leaving this convention at $431,810.16. This is by far the largest single increase in PAC at the convention ever. Let's hear it for the largest single increase!"
Several drawings were next held by our divisions. Then HumanWare gave away four Victor Reader Streams, the Jernigan Fund conducted its two annual drawings, and Jessica Ewell led the banquet crowd in singing happy birthday to newly reelected board member Joe Ruffalo.
Following an introduction of the head table, Fred Schroeder introduced President Maurer to deliver the banquet speech with these words: "At this time in our banquet we hear from our national president. It is a time of reflection; it is a time of inspiration; it is a time to chart the future of this organization and to lay out the challenges that lie ahead. It is a time we all look forward to because it reminds us of the meaning of the National Federation of the Blind. To present this year's banquet address I present to you the president of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Marc Maurer.”
In his annual address President Maurer discussed the nature of power, whether it is finite or can be expanded by the creativity of the mind and the creation of goods and services heretofore unknown. If it is finite, the blind will have to fight hard to extract our share; if it is expandable, then the possibility exists that, through our own motivation, creativity, and hard work, we can gain some of it and be respected for the people we are rather than being categorized socially and economically by the physical sense we lack. President Maurer's remarks appear in full later in this issue.
Ray Kurzweil came to the podium, and, following on the president's discussion of power and history, he offered three great themes that our country stands for. His remarks will appear in a future issue.
President Maurer returned to the podium and asked that Travis Moses, the president of the newly formed National Federation of the Blind of Montana, join him on the podium. Since the 1970s we have undertaken to have all of our affiliates incorporate the name of the National Federation of the Blind as their own. For several decades the Montana Association for the Blind refused to do this and regarded itself as only marginally involved with the National Federation of the Blind. When it became obvious that the former group would never come to see itself as a united part of the Federation, the National Federation of the Blind of Montana was created and, by presentation of this charter, was officially accepted as our affiliate in Montana.
Patti Chang came to the stage to announce the awards presented to the 2013 class. In addition to a scholarship award, each of the thirty winners received a $1,000 check and plaque from Ray Kurzweil; a Google Nexus 7 tablet which is fully accessible to the blind with the Blio e-book reader from K-NFB Reading Technology Inc.; and a $1,000 cash award from Google.
A full report of the scholarship presentation is found elsewhere in this issue.
The chairman of the Jacobus tenBroek Award Committee came to the stage and introduced the winner for 2013. This presentation appears elsewhere in this issue.
Dr. Schroeder invited Mr. Gashel to the podium for a joint presentation, the first of its kind. Their purpose was to present the first ever Federationists’ Federationist Award, and this presentation is also found elsewhere in this issue.
The president of our host affiliate brought the sorting hat from Hogwarts to the podium, and, to prove that it was magical, he revealed that it held $2,000, which would be our final door prize of the evening. With the winning of that door prize by one happy woman from Michigan, the president took the gavel, asked for one more victorious roar from the assembled, and declared the convention adjourned.
Sometimes a convention is remembered for its sequence and how it falls in the year of an important Federation anniversary. At other times it is remembered for celebrating the passage of significant legislation, the implementation of important regulations, or even our development of some new and important piece of technology. These, however, are not the truly important milestones we use in measuring the progress brought about by the National Federation of the Blind. The real changes we celebrate are the ones we bring about in the hearts and minds of the blind and the sighted. We celebrate when we teach a blind person who believes that a significant obstacle in his life stands between him and the fulfillment of a life goal that there are ways to surmount that obstacle. Sometimes what is needed is the encouragement to remove the obstacle, sometimes the courage to climb over it, and sometimes the wisdom to figure out a way to go around it.
In the movie Lincoln, which debuted in 2012, the president says, "A compass, I learned when I was surveying—it'll point you True North from where you're standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you'll encounter along the way. If, in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp—What's the use of knowing True North?”
Indeed the Federation is a compass, and it points to True Equality for the blind. But, even as it holds out the possibility of and works for true equality of opportunity, it embraces the value of thinking strategically, listens to the goals and aspirations of its members, and helps us figure out both where we are and the journey we must take to get to where we want to be. This was the promise offered to the excited first-timers who entered the doors of the Rosen Centre Hotel, and this is the promise all of us who stood and made our pledge to the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the National Federation of the Blind proudly affirmed.