Braille Monitor                                                August/September 2013

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Themes in History and the National Federation of the Blind

by Raymond Kurzweil

From the Editor: Ray Kurzweil is more than an inventor, more than a scientist, more than the inventor of the first reading machine for the blind. To be sure, he is all of these, but to the National Federation of the Blind he is family, one of us, and he sees the people who make up our movement as more than a market. He understands our struggles, understands and embraces our philosophical underpinnings, and often helps to put them into a broader context—what is happening in the world, where is our place in the big changes occurring in it, to what extent do we drive that change, and how are we likely to benefit from it.

Because he is part of our family, certain benefits and drawbacks come from his position in it. He isn't the president, so he doesn't give the banquet speech; he is a good speaker, however, and his ability to synthesize what the president has said and to add his own insightful remarks means he often follows the president to the podium. Here is what he said after the 2013 banquet speech:

Because Dr. Maurer is more than a hard act to follow—really an impossible act to follow—I've learned to listen carefully to what he has said for my own sake and also in trying to offer thoughts at this time. Dr. Maurer talked about equality, and he framed it in the history of our country. So I'd like to offer some reflections on three great themes that our country stands for.

The first is summed up by the statement, "All men are created equal." Now Thomas Jefferson wrote that in the Declaration of Independence almost two-hundred and fifty years ago. The statement was far from perfect at the time. We notice in the statement itself the reference to "men," and you know that sometimes people today use the word “men” to refer to people, but that was not the case in this document. Women did not have the vote, and they lacked many other rights. Even more salient, many men and women were slaves, hardly equal. Thomas Jefferson had some himself. Treatment and attitude towards the blind and towards people with other disabilities reflected thousands of years of prejudice and were far worse than they are today. But the country was devoted to this ideal; it came to symbolize the nation. Gradually we've moved towards this ideal, and we're still not there. But we had a great civil war which emancipated the slaves. We had the suffrage movement, which gave women the vote. We had the feminist movement, which gave many other rights to women. We had the civil rights movement, which, as I mentioned earlier today, I had a very small part in as a high school kid going to the South to participate in marches that have provided or have attempted to provide, and made great progress in providing, equal rights to African-Americans and to other ethnic groups. We see a movement today to provide equal rights to people regardless of sexual orientation. And there's been a great movement to provide equal rights to those with disabilities—equal access to opportunity, equal access to information. Information is opportunity.

As Lao Tzu said, "Information is power." And the National Federation of the Blind has been in the leadership, not only for those with visual impairment, but for those with other disabilities. Jim Gashel, for example, wrote many key provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The fight for equal rights for those with disabilities has been one of the great battles for achieving equal rights for all Americans. It's not finished—none of these movements are finished. But great progress has been made, and I've been very honored and proud to be part of it for these past forty years.

The second theme is the great frontier. It started as a geographic frontier as the nation moved west, but it quickly became a symbol for pioneering new ideas of all kinds: the light bulb, the airplane, the Internet. And the National Federation of the Blind has been in the forefront of this theme as well by fostering liberty; education; employment; and, as has just been mentioned, technological advancement. Take for example the idea of cars that don't require a sighted driver. Google has been experimenting with this of late, but the National Federation of the Blind thought of it and worked on this and pioneered this many years earlier.

Finally, the third theme is inclusion. This is a nation of immigrants. We understand the world's people because they're all here. That's, I think, the main reason why America is as influential as it is, why our music and our popular culture influence the world the way they do. The theme is that everyone has something to contribute, and the NFB certainly embodies that idea at its very core. It has therefore been a great honor for me to be involved with and a friend of the National Federation of the Blind for these past forty years and to have known and to work with you. It has inspiring leaders, Dr. Jernigan and Dr. Maurer. You are all part of a great movement, a movement that is at the core of these three great themes of the American Dream. Thank you very much.

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