by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: Mark Riccobono was the national representative at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri and delivered the banquet address on March 29, 2014. Though he has written a number of articles for the Monitor and has had many of his speeches at the national convention reprinted here, I think you will learn some things you may not know about his upbringing and some epiphanies in his life.
I introduced him, and for the first time my BrailleNote failed me when I took the podium to read the introduction I had written. Here is what Mark said to the blind Missourians assembled at our fifty-second annual convention:
I appreciate that tremendous introduction; I'm glad you didn't write it because it clearly came from the heart. Melissa is out there listening; I presume the kids might be as well, so maybe everybody would like to say hello [crowd shouts hello to the Riccobono family]. I'll say Melissa, I love you, and to the kids I love you too, good night, and don't give your mom too much trouble because I'll have to deal with it later [laughter].
Since my story's already been told, there's not much more to say. No, actually, there is. It is a humbling task to think about what to say to you this evening, what to share with you, what there might be still to say that hasn't yet been said during our time at this convention. I do have to say that this is an awesome convention. All of you have truly refueled and inspired me. So it is a little daunting to think about what to say and how to talk about the journey that we've been on together, where we might be going, what our dreams might look like, and how to illuminate some of the tremendous things that have been shared at this convention. Many who are here have the spirit of the Federation—that's what I've felt.
So I invite you to open your heart to the conversation tonight, whether this is your first time or your fifty-second time, to be open to the idea that there might be something more for us to do, something more for us to learn, and to share this space that we've created for each other this evening. While you open your heart to that, I want to ask you a very important question and request that you reflect upon it: are you a driver or a passenger? And, not just are you a driver or a passenger in your own life, but are you a driver or a passenger in the National Federation of the Blind?
In August of 1996 the president of the National Federation of the Blind wrote a letter that said in part, "I think the first thing you should do is learn about the organization. Then I think you should teach everyone else about it. While you are telling others what we have already done, remember that there are many things to do that we have not tried. In other words, all of the nifty ideas have not yet been thought up." I also give you that quote to think about as we begin this evening.
I have aniridia, the same eye problem someone mentioned earlier today, and that led to my having glaucoma. When I was five years old, I was diagnosed as legally blind. My parents did not know what that meant. They're both good Midwestern folk from the great state of Wisconsin (by the way, the Wisconsin game is starting in ten minutes, so I'm going to hurry up). [laughter, cheers, and boos for Wisconsin]
My parents went to high school, but neither went to college. They were good, hard-working Midwestern folks, but they didn't know anything about blindness; they didn't know what to think about blindness; they didn't even know what legal blindness meant. But what they knew without question was the value of giving me that good old-fashioned, Midwestern encouragement: encouragement to get out there and do stuff as best I could. As kids we're not drivers, we're passengers. We do the things that people expect us to do. If you're a kid, you go to the sighted family members and the professionals to be the ones to teach you about driving your own life. But the fact of the matter is that, while other kids were learning to drive in their own lives, I wasn't. Whether I knew it or not, I was blind, and over time I was being taught to be a passenger.
I could recount hundreds of experiences like the one I'm going to share with you now: I went to the elementary school in my neighborhood; it was six or seven blocks from my house. Starting in first grade, I walked to school every day. In third grade I had my first orientation and mobility evaluation. The professional took me out in the neighborhood and walked me around. I seemed to do pretty well, so she said there was nothing to recommend and left. Of course, I'd been walking that same route every day for two or three years. There was no challenge. That was no test of whether I had capacity to go beyond. I was allowed to pass.
In fourth grade (let's see if the young folks get this) we read worksheets that were mimeographed. Okay, take a second and google "mimeograph." Let me just shortcut for you: it was a terrible way for anybody to make a copy and hard for anyone to try to read. It was faded blue ink that even sighted people couldn't read very easily, so, if they had trouble with it, I certainly couldn't read it. But I had a teacher who had a degree in teaching blind students, and she came by to serve as my reader. That was what she did. She didn't teach me any techniques or teach me how to operate as a blind person; she was my reader.
By fifth grade I couldn't read the large-print books that I'd started with in third grade anymore. No one told me that there might be a different way to do it, so I turned to the magnification I had. The only magnification device I owned was a monocular, which, if you don't know, is meant for distance viewing, not for looking at things close in. But, if you twist it all the way in so that you get to the setting that's meant to look at the closest stuff, you can actually read books with it. It's not very comfortable, doesn't look very good, and certainly is not very fast, but that's what I had, so that's what I used. I did it because I knew that, if you were a Midwestern kid, part of a Midwestern family, you had to work hard and you had to read and you had to compete, and this was the only way I knew how to do it. I don't know how silly I looked or how slow I was, but no one ever suggested there was a better way to do it. I was a passenger.
By sixth grade, as you know, you're thinking about certain things (like girls). Particularly in the area of being athletic, you want to look impressive. I remember we had a football drill that we were supposed to run. I knew about the sport of football, and I'd played with a football, so I knew what football was. The teacher/coach said we were supposed to run a U-shaped pattern, and, when we got to the peak of the U, we were to catch the football. Now I understood what a U was—no problem. I understood that there would be a football hurtling toward me that I should put my hands up and try to catch—no problem. Knowing I should compete, I ran. I put my hands up, knowing that I had no chance in the world of catching that football. When I missed that ball, the kids made fun of me. They did because, even with my best efforts to compete, I failed, and I must have looked oh so silly. The gym teacher felt bad for me, so he sat me down and tried to make me feel better. He said, "Look, it's going to be okay. Someday you're going to get contacts, and everything's going to be much better for you." What I understood was that, until something changed and I could have normal vision, I had to be content to be a passenger, and that's what I did—that's what I was taught to do.
I went to a very rough middle school, so actually being a passenger was a good thing. The passengers often sit where? In the back of the room—sorry to my Jeff City friends there in the back. I sat in the back because it was easy to pass there. Not much was expected of people in the back. Admittedly the people in the back of the room with me were not the smartest in the group. But they were my buddies, the people who were just getting by—certainly the passengers—not the ones in the front of the room who were driving their lives.
Once in a while a worksheet would be assigned, and I'd have them help me fill it out. I couldn't fill it out on my own, and experience taught me I had to use any technique I could just to get by. So we did those sheets—they read, I understood and interpreted, and, what do you know, we all got by, we passed, but we were not driving our lives.
In science class, one of the things we were supposed to do at the beginning of each class period was to copy down what was on the board. I will admit that it wasn’t great education, but that's what we had to do. I wasn't going to do that because I'd have to go right up to the board. So I'd get one of my friends in the back of the room to write it down for me. I don't know what good that did for him or for me, but we followed the rules and wrote what was on that far-away board. Then for the remainder of the class we'd fold a piece of paper into a triangle and flick it back and forth playing paper football. We'd do this for hours. We didn't learn a lot of science, but I wasn't causing any trouble, and I was passing, getting by as a passenger.
At this point in my life I didn't know there was another blind person in the world. I didn't know I was a blind person. I didn't know what the possibilities were for a kid who couldn't see very well, but I knew I was passing, getting by, and being a passenger.
In Milwaukee at that time all the high schools had a specialization, something that made them stand out from other schools in the area. I went to all the events where they tried to pitch you on their school. I was kind of interested in the broadcast school because I really loved baseball (you heard that from Melissa this morning), and I loved listening to the greatest baseball announcer in the world, Bob Uecker. I know there are two major league teams here, and some of you have your favorite announcers, but he was a St. Louis Cardinal at one time, so you've got to acknowledge that. I thought that learning to be a broadcaster might be cool until I went to the presentation about the high school that specialized in business, where they showed young high school students running their own businesses. I thought, "Yeah, there we go: money! Hey, I can do that. I can think up things to sell, and I can run my own business."
So I chose to go to that high school, and it just so happened that it was a high school that had a resource room for blind students. I didn't know what a resource room was, but I went there—not because of that room, but it just worked out. There was a teacher there who had RP, but he wasn't really a blind guy, either—I mean, he did read Braille, but he read it with his eyes. So he wasn't much of a mentor, and frankly by that point I had been pretty successful at getting by. I was just smart enough to figure out ways to get by, even if I had to work my head off to do it and even if the results were just good enough to pass.
I didn't identify with the other kids there who were blind, because I could see more than they could, and therefore I was better than they were. I did not understand that what was holding me back was the same thing that was holding them back, and I'm ashamed to admit it today, but I didn't think I was one of them. Yet, in every life activity, just like them, I was being taught to be a passenger.
I could tell you hundreds of stories about experiences in high school that reinforced this point. I joined the debate team in my first year, and I did pretty well. A debate starts with an eight-minute speech, and I was the man for this because I could memorize it. I was paired up with a guy from the football team; he was dumb. He would say stuff that I'd have to try to fix later, but I couldn't read any notes, so that made coming up with a comprehensive defense or a rebuttal much more difficult than doing the opening argument.
Now the second year came around and I went back to be a part of the team. The debate coach came to me after a while, and he was concerned. He said, "Well, have you memorized the speech?"
I said, "No, not yet, I'm working on it. I'm a little busier than I was last year."
He said, "How are you going to participate if you haven't memorized the speech?"
I said, "I don't know."
He said, "Well, I don't think you can be on the team anymore." I never went back. I didn't know there might be a solution out there that would let me be a fully participating part of that team. I was a passenger.
Again, I love baseball. So let me tell you about the time I decided that the best job for me was to be an usher at County Stadium. I went down there, I signed myself up, and they interviewed me. They seemed to think I had something to offer, so they hired me. Now I didn't think of myself as a blind person, but I did let them know that I didn't see very well. It happened to be close to the end of the season, and at that time the Green Bay Packers played three of their home games in Milwaukee, not at Lambeau Field. I signed up to be an usher at one of the games: it was 1992, the Packers versus the Eagles, Brett Favre’s first game, and I was working the bleachers. Oh, the bleachers: that's not the coolest place to be, but I was there, I was at the game, and I was working.
I had this technique: see, I couldn't read their tickets, but I knew the way the section I was working was laid out, I knew the seat numbers. So when a fan came to be seated, I would ask "What does your ticket say; where are you supposed to be?" They'd tell me, and I'd point. Sometimes I'd have to turn around to point to their section, but, because I didn't see very well, one time I turned, didn't see the folks that were in my periphery, and my arm hit a tray a guy was carrying. Remember, this is October in Wisconsin, and he's carrying hot chocolate. He wasn't too happy with me, and I wasn't too happy either. After that little experience I just decided that I didn't like being an usher, never really wanted that job anyway, and I quit.
I could tell you about the time I went to prom and ran into a glass door and hundreds of other times where I had a desire to do something but was stopped. I graduated from high school; they gave me a fold-up cane for graduating—congratulations. I didn't know what I was supposed to do with it or why I even had it, but I took it to the University of Wisconsin. I figured it probably wasn't a good idea to fall down stairs in front of coeds, so I took it to the orientation. But when I actually got to school, I folded it up and stood it in the corner, and that was where it stayed. I wasn't blind, and I certainly didn't want other people to think I was.
Why did I go to college? Because that was what people did. I understood that was what kids around me were doing. My grades were just good enough, I was smart enough, and I had great techniques for just getting by. But I had to work three times as hard as everybody else. I didn't go to parties because I had to study, I had to read. I didn't read with Braille; I oftentimes read with cassettes. I had human note-takers in my classes because I couldn't take my own notes, but then I would have to struggle to read their notes. I know this is really antiquated for some of you, but this was 1994, the Internet was only five years old, we still had DOS, and only a few people were talking about something called Windows 3.
I struggled, and it was getting very difficult. I went to college only because that was the path I thought you were supposed to be on. I survived my first two semesters, but, by the time I got to my sophomore year, I was falling apart. I had a long-term relationship that was coming to an end because I didn't have a good concept of who I was. I almost failed a class because I didn't have access, and I didn't know how to get it. I was at the end of my rope. I thought I was the only person in the world dealing with such problems. But I knew there had to be something more. So I reached out. I came across a blind guy in Madison, Wisconsin. He said, "You know, I live here, and I'd be happy to meet with you."
I said, "Great, let's meet at this place," a place on State Street in Madison. I picked it because I knew where it was. This was key for me because, if I knew where it was, I was okay. We had to meet during the day, of course, because that was easier too. I couldn't see anything at night.
So I was standing outside—I got there really early (that was key for me, one of my strategies), and down the street came this tapping, and this guy whipped by me and went right into the place. And I'm like, "Hey, I'm right here." How did he miss me? It turns out he was a totally blind guy—a totally blind guy! That was the first time I knew there might be something different, might be something to know that I didn't know about functioning competently as a fellow who was blind. Here was a guy who was driving his own life. He was making his own decisions. He didn't hesitate when I said, "Well, why don't we meet here?" I don't know if he knew the place or not, whether he was familiar with it or just had enough confidence to know he could find it.
He told me about the National Federation of the Blind. He said they had national scholarships and state scholarships and local scholarships. So I signed up to try and get a scholarship from the NFB of Wisconsin, and darned if they didn't call and say, "We're going to give you one, and you need to get on a plane and come to Anaheim, California." Now where did I put that cane?
I was supposed to get on an airplane by myself, and they acted like this was normal, no big deal, just what a guy needed to do to get his scholarship. So I went to Anaheim, California, and I showed up at this big old hotel. Blind people were driving their own lives, and I was filled with hope and determination and energy for the first time in a long time. Blind people were making decisions; they were doing the things they wanted to do; they were talking about how to make changes in the world so that they could do more of the things they wanted and needed to do. I wanted that too, but wanting was just the first step.
I had to get a blind person to read me the agenda. They were reading it in Braille. I had to get a blind person to tell me how to go. I wanted to be the one to decide how to go, but I had to get a blind person with a cane to show me the way. I met people who didn't know me, but the very first thing they said to me, every single time, consistently, was: "You can do better, and I'll help you."
I went out with the president of the student division. It was 106 degrees, it was Anaheim, California, and he says, "Oh, we're late getting back. We'll have to run back to the hotel. I'm thinking, "Wait a minute, I'm not late for anything. I don't have any obligations here." But we ran back to the hotel, me trying to use this cane that I didn't have confidence in as a walking tool, let alone a tool I could use to run. But who asked me: we were running, though it was 106 degrees out. Beg off, say I couldn't do it? No way, I'm from Midwestern people, and I was learning that I could run toward challenges and not away from them. I've never asked him if he set me up for that, but I think he did. Those steps, those hot, frightening steps, led me to a bigger step: one that would change my life forever.
At that convention I decided that there might be something different here. I had hope for the first time in a long time. It had always been there, but it was buried oh so deep. So I came home and wrote a letter to the president of the National Federation of the Blind, and darn it if he didn't write me back. I was impressed—didn't expect that. Earlier I read you part of the first paragraph. In that letter Dr. Maurer said, in so many words, you can drive, and I'll teach you how to do it. But you need to help me. You need to participate in this thing and teach me something. All of us have something to teach one another, and this is the best way to learn. I've taken his lesson to heart ever since.
In 1996 I was kind of like a sixteen-year-old with the keys to Dad's Mustang and a hot date. I really didn't have the experience or training to know what I was getting into. But man, I felt freedom like never before! I started reading our literature, trying to understand what it was that was different. I could read it, but what I had to decide was whether I believed it. It is respectable to be blind. That was not what I had thought before that convention, but, if it was respectable to be blind, I had a new lease on life; life was something different from what my experience had taught me it was.
"It is respectable to be blind.” Six words, but what do they mean? For me they mean what Dr. tenBroek called the faith we have in each other. At our twenty-fifth anniversary Dr. tenBroek called it "a faith that could move mountains and mount movements." It is respectable to be blind and compete on terms of equality. Dr. Jernigan helped us understand that the characteristic of blindness is not what defines us, and, if we get training, we can compete on terms of equality.
So I started to seek those things, and I learned that, to be a driver, you also need to teach. So I started teaching other people what I had learned, as fast as I could learn it. That put me on a journey that continues even today.
Melissa told you earlier that, when I was twenty-two years old, I was elected president of the NFB of Wisconsin. I started giving back, started figuring out how to build stuff, But every step of the way I kept running into an interesting problem: I was getting more than I was giving. This seemed unfair, so I'd try to give more, but still I'd get more back than I gave. Finally I decided this was a truth I needed to learn about the world, the truth that those who give are those who receive. Acting on this, I started advocating for blind kids. I didn't know anything about the education of blind children except that they deserved better than the dumpy experience that I had had in school. It turned out that this experience gave me strength and passion, and it turned out I also had a talent for telling people what to do.
So with my passion to make things better for kids, my commitment to see that they would travel a different road, a road where they might have a chance to be more than a passenger, I was hired to direct the Wisconsin Center for the Blind, and I brought some pretty crazy ideas to that venture. At twenty-four and with the radical ideas I brought, I got some push-back from people who had different ideas about blindness at that place. As you can imagine, with the day-in-and-day-out message that "We don't really think these kids need to carry canes," and "We don't really think these kids who can see some need Braille," and "We don't really think these kids can learn to take notes on their own," and "We don't really think it's reasonable to expect that kids go through the lunch line and carry their own trays," you can bet I needed the energy I got from my brothers and sisters in the Federation to keep saying, "Yes, they need to use a cane; yes they need to learn to read and write Braille; yes they can make decisions on their own, and those decisions will make all the difference in determining whether they are the actors or the audience, the spectators or the participants, the passengers somebody drives or the drivers who set their own direction and take control of their lives.” I relied on my friends in the Federation to keep me grounded, to remind me that I wasn't crazy, and to push me so that I came to understand that the space we create in the Federation is reality.
You've got to make decisions when you're fighting those fights out there, and sometimes you're faced with tough ones. There was a special education administrator in the northern part of the state of Wisconsin--his name was Ed, so I fondly called him "Special Ed." He put out a memo that said, "Thou shall not teach Braille more than X number of hours in a week to a kid." Now this is against the federal law. But he knew people at the state department of education, the very people I worked for, and they didn't say anything to contradict what he said or reprimand him for it. In fact, they gave him an award.
I decided I couldn't take it. I had to be a driver, even if it meant personal risk for me. So I started talking to folks, this kid who was only now twenty-six, and, when I started talking to legislators and others in positions of power, that didn't make me a popular guy with my bosses. They didn't have enough on me to fire me, but they certainly wanted to muzzle me, so I had to decide between a secure job that would require me to moderate my views and let those responsible do the driving, or live my life working to bring about a different future for blind children and blind people, a future that almost passed me by and might never be a reality for blind people unless I decided to act.
When I came to meet with the president of the National Federation of the Blind, he asked me an interesting question. He said, “What do you want to do with your life?"
I thought to myself, "You know, I'm so used to following the path that I've never really decided what I want to do." With some trepidation I told him that I'd like to come work for the National Federation of the Blind. I was honored that he hired me shortly before we opened the Jernigan Institute ten years ago, and I'm celebrating the completion of my tenth year working for the organization.
When I showed up there, I didn't know what I was going to do, but I found plenty of work, stayed busy, and felt like I was a part of a team that shared the same game plan. We opened the Jernigan Institute in early 2004, and we had some interesting displays there. One of the displays was a car that a blind person could drive—oooh, cool, that's neat. I thought, "That's a cool hook. Dr. Maurer has done it; he's figured out how we can hook the engineers and managed to give a little something for the public relations folks. Now it's not very realistic, but it's great; it'll give our members something to talk with people about." I thought it was a gimmick, folks.
So I came into work one day in 2007, having been working hard on education programs for a long time, and I was called into a meeting. Dr. Maurer said, "We're going to make some changes. Dr. Zaborowski, who has been the executive director of our institute, has cancer, and she's leaving. Mark is going to be our new executive director."
I thought to myself, "Well, this is good to know: I wasn't really asked if I wanted to do that.” But I started working on programs that were a little broader than the ones I had been working on, and one day I got a telephone call from Virginia Tech. They said, "Hey, we saw that you want to work on a car that a blind person can drive; we'd like to talk with you about it."
I thought, "Oh, I have to go sell this idea now." I didn't really believe in this idea that much—full disclosure. I said, "Okay, I'll come talk to you about it."
I was sitting in a room with these engineers at Virginia Tech, and they were saying, "We work on vehicles that drive themselves, and we can just put you in the back seat, push a button, and we're done."
Now you and I know that that's not actually what we had in mind. So I got up and started pacing around, letting them know that we weren't interested in being passengers—that what we actually wanted was to drive. We wanted to have technology that gave us enough information to allow us to make the decisions real drivers make. So here I was, trying to motivate them by talking the talk, and part of me was asking myself, "Why am I doing this? I don't really believe in it. It's a hook; it's a fine PR thing; it's somewhere out there in the future, but this is 2008."
They listened to what I had to say, gave it some thought, and said, "Okay, well it's a little harder than we thought. But we'll work on it." We got a prototype. I went down to see it, and I thought, "This is kind of nifty; let's take it to the Youth Slam in 2009 and see what happens. We'll put it in front of a bunch of blind kids, see what they do with it."
We put it in a parking lot with these blind kids who had, decade after decade, been told that they couldn't drive, and, what do you know, they loved it. They were excited about it; they lit up, and they said, "We need this today! When can we get this project done? This will open up opportunities for us; it can change our lives."
And I thought to myself "Oh, there is something to be learned here, and these kids are teaching me about it."
Dr. Maurer said, "Mark, go to Virginia Tech and get them to tell you when they can build a real car."
They said, "Well, twenty-two months or so."
I said, "Great. Now our first public demonstration is at Daytona in eighteen months."
"Look," they said, "we said twenty-two months."
"I know, but our first public demonstration is at Daytona in eighteen months." So we decided to go down to Daytona in July of 2010 to announce to the world that we were going to drive a car on the Daytona International Speedway, and we hadn't even built the car.
This wasn't the only thing going on in my life. My son Austin was born in 2006, and my daughter Oriana was born about a month before the 2010 convention. We're there in the hospital, ready to take her home, and, as they were checking her out, they said, "Well, here she is. Now, on Monday we want you to go see a pediatric ophthalmologist. Her eyes don't respond as you would expect.”
Ladies and gentlemen, my heart stopped—I felt sick deep inside—not because of blindness (I knew what to do about that). No, what shook my world was remembering that feeling of being a passenger, that second-class feeling I lived with in the education system. I'd been working on education for a while, but right then I felt fear—fear for my child, and I said to myself, "Not my daughter. We're not doing this again.” And this was the day when I recommitted myself in a new way to this organization. Because, as you parents know, it gets personal when it's your child, your family, your responsibility.
So I showed up at the convention in 2010 and worked on publicizing the Blind Driver Challenge™ I'd been managing; and people were talking about it. Some were excited, some were skeptical. Some saw in it the makings of a brighter future; a few saw it as a futile waste of time and money.
After the convention Dr. Maurer said, "We need some blind people who are going to drive this car. Who wants to drive?"
Who wants to drive? Well, I believed I wanted to drive.
He was very clear: "This will not be a political decision. The best driver drives at Daytona. We need the best representative of the National Federation of the Blind in that car."
We were out there in December on a track in Virginia, testing this stuff out, and Dr. Maurer was out there. I was thinking to myself that this was stupid. This was Dr. Maurer's idea. “He's our president. Of course he should drive; we should throw this contest. I didn't even believe in this when we started." As I thought about whether to throw the contest or do my best, I reflected on that very first letter that he had sent me in 1996 and decided I had no choice. If I threw that contest, I wouldn't have been keeping faith with that bond of trust, the trust that I would do my best, that everyone there would do their best, and that we'd show our best in Daytona. In pushing Dr. Maurer, we helped push this organization, and we pushed each other. And we would do it with love and respect and with each of us giving our best, not just to be the driver of the car but to be the driver of our own lives.
So with all my love and respect for Dr. Maurer, the man who dreamed this up, dared to commit to it, and dared to stake his and our reputation on what the blind could do if we put our minds and hearts into it, I went out there and I whooped him. Don't tell him I said that! [The crowd laughingly reminds the speaker he's being recorded and streamed.] But you know, that's what he wanted, the best from all of us, and that's what we gave him. That's all right, he's got some hard feelings, but he'll get over it. Because that's the bond of faith that we have with and for each other. In fact he was happy to be whooped, because that's what we're working on.
I worked on this technology, and it was hard and involved very long hours. We spent a lot of time standing out there in the snow while the engineers were fixing stuff. We sometimes wondered just what we were getting ourselves into.
Anil Lewis and I spent a lot of time together on this because we were the two finalists in the contest to see who would drive the car. One of the things we wanted to do at Daytona was a passing maneuver. We knew it would be impressive if we not only could drive around the track but could pass another vehicle. So one day we kicked these sighted engineers out of the car, and I was working on this—it was the first time we were going to do a pass. So I was driving along, and I rolled the windows down so that I could hear when the car was next to me. I was passing them on the left, I heard when I was just about past them, and I honked the horn. The sighted graduate students were all going, "Oooh, how—ooooh, how did he know? How did he know—he honked the horn at the right time."
You know that your blind buddies sometimes give you away—they know the techniques of blindness, so my friend Anil ruined it. He said, "He's driving with the windows down." They still didn't get it, so he told them about being able to hear the reflection and the noise from the car I was passing and that this would tell me when I had passed and should honk.
Finally, on Friday, January 28, we showed up. We were driving in a parking lot, were just goofing off because it was the day before the demonstration. We got everything down; we were ready to go. The graduate students and the undergraduate students from Virginia Tech were there, and we were giving them rides around the parking lot.
The president and the first lady of the Federation showed up, and I was going to be their chauffeur. I suddenly realized that Dr. Maurer had never ridden in the car with a blind person driving. Then my family showed up, and we took our first family road trip around the parking lot. Let me tell you: it's a lot harder to strap those darn car seats in than it is to actually drive. Austin would like me to tell you that he really liked driving through the puddle. There was a big puddle in this parking lot; we had to drive through it every time, and that was his favorite part.
Now the skeptics who don’t care much for the Federation or lack the capacity to dream would say, "Who cares, it's a parking lot." But they wouldn't say that about Kitty Hawk, and they wouldn't say that about that first footprint on the moon. But they don't understand the love and the bond of faith that we share in this organization.
People always ask me, "Were you nervous at Daytona?" And what I tell them is this. We had to get there very early on Saturday morning, and we were sitting around and sitting around, and finally I said, "We have to go see the Federationists. Where are they? I've got to see them." So some of you were there, right? We walked over from the pits, and we found four hundred blind folks hanging out at Daytona. Whatever nervousness I felt immediately disappeared. I had that same feeling you get at convention, the feeling that together we can do anything--anything, and I was honored to be one of the people who would make history that day, not only for the four hundred but for all of those who worked so hard to make this day a reality.
When I showed up at the finish line at Daytona and stepped out of the car, people asked, "Now, what do you have to say? You've got to say something." But there was nothing to say that was equal to what we did together. They were looking for words about a car and about technology. How could I explain in a memorable quote or a soundbite they would understand that my concept of blindness had been exploded forever. I didn't know what the limits were for us anymore. I knew my future would be different, and I knew that I would never again be a passenger. I resolved to be a driver for my life and for the National Federation of the Blind, and I realized that the limits are only what we make of them: that it was my responsibility to do all I could to be a driver and to fuel this organization. I also recognized that driving isn't just a one-person job. The dreaming, the science, the testing will require all of us. And, on a more personal level, I realized that in my life, driving can't be a one-person job either, because the people in this room, members of the National Federation of the Blind, have always been part of it, that I've been learning to be a driver since I met the organization, and that I will continue to learn as long as I live.
Now, when a blind guy named Dan Parker, a member of ours from Georgia, called up and said, "Hey, I'd like to drive a motorcycle," I kind of thought he was crazy. I thought that maybe he was trying to regain or hold on to his former racing career as a sighted guy. But I believed it was possible. So we supported him, and we've now had a blind guy drive a motorcycle on the salt flats in Utah. He's going to be at this year's convention. (applause)
I'm here to tell you tonight that there are people in this organization who can teach you stuff. I'm here to tell you our president, Marc Maurer, taught me how to drive, and he started in August of 1996 when he wrote me that first letter.
Last fall he said he wasn't going to run for the presidency this year. He asked me if I wanted to be president. I told him that I did, that as long as he wasn't willing to be in the driver's seat, I wanted to do it, because I know nothing better to do than to be a driver in this organization, and I was honored when Dr. Maurer gave me his endorsement for the presidency.
If the Federation sees fit to elect me this summer, I will pledge to be the best driver I can be for this organization. I'm prepared to accept the bond of faith that our presidency requires. But I hope that all of you understand that this bond also binds you. It binds you to be a driver in our organization because I can't be the last blind driver. This organization is bigger than any one person. And it's fitting that we call it a "vehicle for collective action." You have to be willing as well to grab that steering wheel of faith and drive, because this organization is about us.
I appreciate the tremendous driving going on in Missouri, and I have been inspired by the speeches and the discussions that have occurred here today. Earlier Chris shared a story much like mine. She was a passenger. Jeffery's story about employment, and Julie, who has matured in a tremendous way in this organization since she was at the leadership seminar a little while ago—these people inspire me. And I could go on and on and on. I am reenergized by what's going on here, and I appreciate the driving that you're doing. It gives me comfort and faith to know that together we can drive into the future because you have and are the spirit of the Federation, the determination, the hope, and the love that created it and that today we share. Let's grab that steering wheel of fate together and drive ourselves toward the future that is promised to us if together with love, hope, and determination we work to transform dreams into reality.
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