Braille Monitor                                              February 2014

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The National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors at Work

by Gary Wunder

In the January issue we talked about the role of resolutions in policymaking. The convention hears and acts on proposed resolutions, and it does this in its role as the supreme authority of the Federation. Because the national convention is an annual event, the board of directors of the Federation is charged with handling the affairs of the organization between conventions. At least two in-person meetings are held annually. The one most familiar to convention attendees is held on the day before the opening session. The second is the fall meeting, which is held at the NFB Jernigan Institute. This year the board convened over the Thanksgiving weekend, with board members, spouses, and family members arriving on Wednesday to prepare for and celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday prior to the commencement of official business on Friday morning, November 29, 2013. Let's look at the agenda and decisions made at this meeting.

The board began its work promptly at 8 AM by reviewing the minutes of board meetings which had occurred in the past twelve months. This review is key because it sets the stage for talking about our ongoing activities and provides important information that can be used as the board charts the future direction of the programs and activities of the organization.

At the fall meeting the board of directors spends a significant amount of time reviewing the finances of the Federation. It is clear that our financial picture is better than it was last year, but it is equally clear that we must figure out a way to raise more money if we are to meet the many challenges we face. Fundraising through the mail is becoming ever more difficult, and the same is true for telephone solicitations. Although these programs continue to bring in some money, it is clear that we must take seriously the task of finding new and innovative ways to get our message to the public and to invite its support.

To further this goal, we have established a new program with GreenDrop, an organization which collects donated items and makes them available for sale through local thrift stores. Currently we are working with this organization on the East Coast and hope soon to expand our operation to include other parts of the United States.

Another program with much promise is the Vehicle Donation Program that allows donors to give their used vehicles to the National Federation of the Blind. All that is required of us is that we publicize the program and figure out how to advertise it widely to the general public. This we can do using social media and special fliers we can take to places where we do business.

The Preauthorized Contribution Plan (also called the PAC Plan) is unquestionably the most successful fundraising program that we have for accepting contributions from our members. This year marked an all-time high in giving, testifying to the commitment of our membership to achieve the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves and the realization that adequate financing is a key to meeting them. In addition to giving what we can from our own wallets, we must find a way to increase public support, and one of the programs designed to do this is the Imagination Fund. This effort is being chaired by Anil Lewis, and our emphasis will be on increasing the number of Imaginators—members who ask for contributions from family, friends, and those with whom we do business.

Since our effort in the 1960s to create the International Federation of the Blind, now the World Blind Union (WBU), we have had an abiding interest in helping people around the world create the kind of member-run organization we have here in the United States and to help them build the programs this self organization promotes. The World Blind Union General Assembly meets every four years and, like the Olympics, it entertains proposals from countries wishing to host it. One question considered by the board of directors was whether the National Federation of the Blind would be interested in hosting the assembly on behalf of the North America/Caribbean Region in the United States. This meeting would occur in 2016 and would represent significant work, but the potential to show the blind of the world what we have achieved in the United States through our own self-organization convinced the board this was a worthwhile activity to undertake. Therefore, we will begin the work necessary to prepare a bid to host the WBU in Baltimore.

John Paré discussed with the board our ongoing efforts to see that the regulations implementing the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act address the concerns that caused the National Federation of the Blind to press for this legislation. The process is taking longer than we would like, a major sticking point being whether cars which are stopped should make some kind of sound to indicate that they are at a street crossing. The position of the NFB is that this is an absolutely crucial piece of information to have as we decide whether or not to proceed. There is every reason to believe that the final regulations will require the emission of sound anytime a vehicle is in use.

The board discussed the upcoming seventy-fifth anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind. Fred Schroeder is coordinating the activities that will celebrate this momentous anniversary, and these will occur not only at our seventy-fifth convention but throughout our seventy-fifth year.

Mark Riccobono is the executive director of the Jernigan Institute, who is currently celebrating his tenth anniversary as an employee of the National Federation of the Blind. In his report to the board he discussed the Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) Program, future programs to encourage work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, and a $1.5 million grant to fund a program that will allow us to work with young people from six states to encourage their participation in the study of science.

On the subject of access to technology, we continue to work with Google, Microsoft, and other software developers to convince them that accessibility should be a part of their initial design and should not be considered an optional feature to be added at some later time.

Work is ongoing as we see to the full implementation of the Help America Vote Act. A number of states wish to return to paper ballots but realize they need accessibility and therefore accessibility consultants. Efforts are also ongoing to allow voting using mobile devices, and one of the issues we have been asked to address is how we will meet the needs of the deaf-blind.

A review of the legal cases in which we are involved took a good part of one afternoon, but the list clearly demonstrates our commitment to see that blind people receive equal treatment in society, whether we are seeking to use the technology now required to pay for a taxi ride or work as a trained chiropractor.

The last matter of business to come before the board was a discussion by President Maurer about the leadership of the organization and specifically about the presidency. He has been our president since 1986 and has been the longest-serving president in our history. When he was elected, Dr. Jernigan was still in good health and was able for more than a decade to assist him in taking on the awesome responsibilities involved in leading the National Federation of the Blind. While he is still in good health and has the mental and physical energy to lead, President Maurer wants to offer to his successor the same mentoring he was blessed to receive and to be an active part of the transition of power from one generation to the next.

Fred Schroeder, the first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind and the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, wrote to his affiliate members to tell them what was discussed on Saturday afternoon. This is what he said:

As you know, Dr. Marc Maurer has been our national president since 1986. He has served as president longer than any of our previous presidents and has guided us through a period of unprecedented growth and change. It was under Dr. Maurer's leadership that we established the Jernigan Institute and all of the programs that have been so successful in demonstrating the truth of our assertion that, given proper opportunity and training, blind people can live and work as others do.

In particular we have developed many programs designed to provide blind children and youth with the skills and confidence they need to compete fully in their education and to develop their life ambitions. We have conducted Youth Slam, the Science Academy, and more recently the BELL programs.

In the area of technology, under Dr. Maurer's leadership we developed the KNFB Reader Mobile, allowing blind people to have immediate access to print with nothing more than a cell phone and special software. And then there was the Blind Driver Challenge™. There is no question that lack of access to reliable transportation remains a major barrier for blind people. Yet, the Blind Driver Challenge showed that we could develop the technology to enable a blind person to drive a car, not simply sit passively in a car that drives itself.

These are the expressions of Dr. Maurer's leadership. Yet at the heart of his leadership is his spirit and his belief in every blind person. He has inspired and encouraged us, faced the most difficult challenges with resolution and strength, and has kept us together, never letting us waiver in our belief in our own right to live normal, productive lives.

On Saturday afternoon Dr. Maurer told the board that it is his intention not to seek reelection to the presidency next summer at our national convention. He feels the time is right to transition to the next president, the next individual who can lead us for a quarter century or more. Dr. Maurer is in good health and believes that it is important that he step down from the presidency while he is able to assist with the transition. Dr. Maurer told the board that he plans to support Mr. Mark Riccobono as the next president of the National Federation of the Blind.

Mr. Riccobono presently serves as the executive director of the Jernigan Institute. He is an accomplished individual with the strength and wisdom to assume the serious responsibility of leading our movement. He has brought to his work the imagination and competency we demand from our president.

We are truly fortunate that within the Federation we have individuals who are able and willing to give all they have to furthering our move toward true equality. The demands of the NFB presidency are unimaginable. We require our leader to give all of his time, all of his imagination, and all of his personal reserve of judgment to leading our organization. This is what Dr. Maurer has done for the past twenty-seven and a half years, and it is what Mark Riccobono will do during his presidency.

This transition brings to an end one chapter in our history and what a glorious chapter it has been. We cannot face the loss of Dr. Maurer's leadership without a sense of sadness; but the transition to a new president is not just the absence of what we had before. The transition heralds a new chapter in our history and, with it, new opportunities—the chance to take all that has come before and build something bigger and more powerful than we have ever known.

Please join me in thanking Dr. Maurer for his leadership, his friendship, and his faithful devotion to our cause; and please join me in wishing Mark Riccobono the very best as he seeks to take the foundation that is all that has come before and build upon it the next great chapter in our history.

This is what Fred Schroeder wrote, and it eloquently articulates many of the accomplishments of our president and our hopes for his successor. The discussion that concluded the board meeting was more personal, with members trying to convey what our president has meant in their lives and in their development as leaders. The heartfelt remembrances reflected both the sadness that comes with the closing of an era and the tremendous possibility that comes with the beginning of another. This meeting will live in my memory as one of the most significant board meetings of the Federation I’ve ever been blessed to attend. I found myself grateful to have watched as President Maurer received the accolades for his hard work and visionary leadership and to observe the commitment shown to Mark Riccobono because of our belief in his ability to maintain the most treasured traditions of the Federation while leading us in the evolving challenges of the twenty-first century. Like the transition begun in 1986, this one will generate many questions and a good deal of discussion about what will change and what will remain the same. But, through it all, the bedrock principles of the Federation will keep us on course, and those we elect will ensure that our organization will continue to be the most vibrant, energetic, and positive force for change in the lives of blind people both here and abroad.

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