by Gary Wunder
The slogan of the United States Postal Service and its commitment to deliver the mail are strikingly similar to the commitment of the blind to appear annually before the Congress of the United States of America to discuss the hopes, dreams, and rock-solid commitment of blind people to their full and complete participation on terms of equality with the sighted. So, when winter came to the East, dumping several feet of snow on New York, Boston, and other major cities, many wondered whether we would still travel by the hundreds to visit with the newly elected Congress. But come we did, visit we did, and educate we did. Certainly the weather stopped some from coming, and a few had to leave early, but, once one was in DC, the weather was more a topic of discussion than a deterrent to doing the business we came to do. The weather was chilly, but we were spared the snow and ice that paralyzed much of the East. Inches of snow and bitterly cold temperatures, like many other events in our lives, seemed as though they might make our participation difficult or impossible, but the reality was something quite different. It was more a nuisance than a handicap, and it had no bearing on our ability to do what was demanded.
Events started on Saturday evening as the legislative coordinators from each state gathered at the Jernigan Institute to discuss our issues, strategies for best communicating them, and roleplaying to prepare for the questions we would likely encounter. After a day and a half of training, the coordinators came to the Holiday Inn Capitol, where these students became the teachers: briefing those of us who were just arriving or who had been in other seminars on Sunday and Monday.
The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children hosted the Bolotin Award-winning Parent Leadership Program at the 2015 Washington Seminar. New and returning parent leaders heard from many Federation leaders, including President Riccobono, Pam Allen, Gary Wunder, Parnell Diggs, Gabe Cazares, Jim Antonacci, Anil Lewis, and Natalie Shaheen. NOPBC President Carlton Anne Cook Walker, NOPBC Second Vice President Kim Cunningham, and NOPBC Director of Programs (and former NOPBC President) Carol Castellano led the seminar, and former NOPBC President (and current Louisiana POBC President) Laura Bostick also shared Federation philosophy and leadership principles with the parent leaders. In this two-day seminar the group focused on topics such as the philosophy and policy of the Federation, the nuts and bolts of forming a group, the value of planning an activity of the month, ways to plan a seminar for first timers, and the art and science of leadership.
At the National Association of Blind Students annual winter seminar, students from around the nation gathered to be inspired; to be informed; and, perhaps most of all, to prepare to take our message of equal opportunity for the blind to Capitol Hill. As President Sean Whalen reports, “Leaders from our various state divisions shared their successes during the past year, and NABS committees updated everybody on the work currently underway. President Riccobono called upon us to take the enthusiasm home and work in our chapters and affiliates to advance the agenda of the Federation, and Scott LaBarre armed students with the facts about our legislative agenda so that we were ready to make our case to our elected representatives. We were pleased to have so many students in attendance at the Washington Seminar and hope that even more students will make the trip to DC to push for legislative change in the years ahead.”
At 5:00 PM on Monday evening, January 26, 2015, a new but familiar voice rang out to open the Great Gathering-In meeting. President Riccobono said, “We come despite the blizzard of 2015. The blind have come to Capitol Hill. We have come to speak for ourselves, and in our seventy-fifth year we come with diamonds on the tips of our canes. We have come to assert our right to equal pay; we have come to assert our right for an equal opportunity in education; we have come to assert our right for equality in accessing the world’s knowledge and for the right to read. We bring with us our experience, our knowledge about blindness, and our firm conviction that blindness is not the characteristic that defines us. We want those in the halls of power to know that not only do we demand our rights but we intend to fulfill our responsibilities as first-class citizens to make this the greatest country on earth.” When the President asked the crowd whether it was up to the challenge of taking our message to the policymakers of America, the response was enthusiastic and unequivocal: we were, and we did!
President Riccobono announced that Diane McGeorge, the longtime coordinator of logistics for the Washington Seminar, was not with us but was recovering from a severe sinus infection that resulted in doctor’s orders that she not fly. The crowd sent out a cheer for Diane that found its way to Denver through many phone calls from those sending their wishes for her speedy recovery and ensuring she knew everything she would’ve wanted to know, were she present. Always one for managing in great detail, Diane asked if the hotel had peanut butter pie, and yours truly inquired and then consumed a piece in her honor.
Before addressing the issues that would be taken to Capitol Hill, the President suggested we review some recent victories:
Last year the Maryland Board of Elections offered an online-ballot-marking tool and said they would make it available in the election. After working with constituents to make sure that this tool was accessible, the board decided that it would not take a vote to certify the ballot. The National Federation of the Blind demanded to know why, but the board declined to give a reason. Since we consider the right to vote independently to be a fundamental right of citizenship, we took the state of Maryland to court. The state told the judge that blind people have access to the polls and that the state had already made 98 percent of the polling places in Maryland accessible. They argued that blind people who wanted to vote using a secret ballot should go to the polls and that nothing in the law required that all options a voter might use should be accessible. Since any person in Maryland has the right to vote using an absentee ballot, we argued that this right should be extended to the blind, the court agreed, and the blind were able independently to cast an absentee ballot in the 2014 election.
A new subscription service called Scribd now makes available more than 40 million titles through its online web interface. It also allows subscribers to publish their own works. Scribd is not accessible to the blind, so, standing in solidarity with a blind parent from Vermont, we have sued Scribd, for we are determined to see that the blind of America receive an equal education and access to the reading materials offered to those who can see.
The higher education community often tells us that it has accessibility under control, but despite its assurances we find we must challenge educational inequality on many campuses throughout the country. Although we have negotiated successful agreements with Penn State, the University of Montana, Florida State University, and others, many other colleges and universities continue to discriminate against blind students by not providing accessible technology. Our latest settlement is with Maricopa Community College in Arizona. As a result of this agreement Maricopa Community College will procure electronic and information technology that is accessible to blind students. This will include making changes to its website, the school’s library website, the learning management system used by the school, and the personal response systems used in classrooms. This agreement even goes so far as to require that the automated teller machines be accessible.
Recently the Federation has concluded an agreement with the United States Department of Education which will make its student loan services accessible to all students, including the blind. This agreement binds not only the department but all loan servicers with which they do business. Some people work hard to get out of their student loans, but our effort is to see that blind people have the ability to get a good education, to borrow the money required to do it, and to pay back that money.
President Riccobono spoke briefly about Pedro Martinez, a blind parent who resides in the state of New York and who was trying to gain custody of his child after she was placed in foster care in California due to her mother’s inability to care for her. A California court asked officials in the New York child protection agency to do an evaluation of Mr. Martinez to determine whether he would be able to care for his child. The New York agency praised him for his independence, his personality, and his blindness skills; but they recommended to the court that custody not be granted because Pedro Martinez was not only blind but poor. When we asked our lawyers to look into this report, they concluded that it was shockingly discriminatory. Accordingly, we intervened, and, with the energy and imagination of the National Federation of the Blind behind him, Pedro Martinez got training in the parenting classes that would help him become a better parent, the New York agency did a second assessment, and a California court has now awarded him custody. As President Riccobono said, “Both we and Pedro know that things aren’t going to be easy, but he and his daughter already have a pretty big family to help them out.” That family, of course, refers to his family and to the National Federation of the Blind.
President Riccobono concluded his discussion of legal cases by reviewing our recent settlement with Cardtronics, the largest deployer of non-bank ATMs in the world. Our settlement requires that the full fleet of Cardtronics ATMs be accessible by March 31 of 2017. The settlement also includes a significant financial contribution by Cardtronics to the National Federation of the Blind, 1.25 million dollars. Beyond ATM accessibility and the financial settlement to the Federation, Cardtronics has agreed to establish a Center of Excellence, and this they have done. Ron Gardner is serving as an expert on accessibility and as our representative in dealing with the company. “We started with litigation with Cardtronics, but I think that, going forward, we are going to find some extremely fine partners who push the ATM industry in accessibility farther than we’ve ever seen,” said President Riccobono. Randy Rice, a vice president at Cardtronics and the head of the Center of Excellence, was present and was acknowledged through applause for his commitment to accessibility. President Riccobono remarked, “Although we don’t always start on the same side of the table, it’s great when we can link arms, join our expertise, and change the world. That’s what we’re here to do with Congress.”
We then moved from highlighting some of our legal victories to an introduction of prominent guests in the audience. President Riccobono welcomed representatives from each affiliate; the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind; our immediate past president, Marc Maurer, and his wife Patricia; and Mrs. Mary Ellen Jernigan. He also introduced the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Ms. Taryn Mackenzie Williams; the Honorable Bill Zeliff, former member of Congress from New Hampshire; and Paul Cambon, an associate who has worked with us on legislative affairs for a long time.
Jeannie Massay, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Oklahoma and the cochairman of the 75 Days of Action Committee, was introduced to talk about our recently completed campaign and our commitment to recruit 750 new members this year. Jeannie welcomed everyone to the Washington Seminar, noting that it is sometimes called the midwinter family reunion of the National Federation of the Blind. She reminded us that we are all Federation-builders and that our goal of 750 new members will be substantially achieved if each one of us attending the Great Gathering-In recruits one new member. She welcomed Federationists who want to play a significant role in reaching this goal to contact her through email using the address <Jeanniemassay@gmail.com> or by phone at (405) 600-0695.
President Riccobono briefly mentioned our 2015 BELL Program, which will be hosted by more than half of our state affiliates; our NFBEQ (engineering quotient) program, in which we will be assisting in the design of advanced placement courses for engineers; and an internship program at the Jernigan Institute, which will run from June 1 to August 7. More details about this program can be found at the Voice of the Nation’s Blind blog at <https://nfb.org/voice-nations-blind>, and applications will be accepted until March 13, 2015.
Marion Gwizdala, the president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, came to thank the National Federation of the Blind for an Imagination Fund grant that helped to establish the NAGDU Information and Advocacy Hotline. Along with the new iPhone application that was made available on September 17, 2014, it has helped thousands of blind people in finding, reading, and sharing information about the laws, rights, and responsibilities of guide dog users. In recognition of the significant contribution made by the national body and in support of the unity that characterizes our work, the National Association of Guide Dog Users presented a check for $25,000 to President Riccobono for the national treasury.
Edward Shaham, the newly elected president of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut, addressed the assembled and said how happy he was to be at his third Washington Seminar. In keeping with the traditions of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut, half of all bequests made to the Connecticut affiliate are shared with the national treasury, and President Shaham presented President Riccobono with a check for $82,722. These donations, which came from generous bequests, will do a great deal in furthering the work of the organization.
Immediate Past President Maurer was greeted with enthusiastic applause when he was introduced. He came to talk about the tenBroek Legacy Fund, a program through which Federationists can make a contribution to the work of the organization by including us in their wills. He also talked about the latest incarnation of the KNFB Reader and asked that we think about and submit to him suggestions for what features should appear in subsequent releases of the product. We believe this is the best handheld reading machine on the market, but our goal is always to make it better, faster, and cheaper.
The executive director for advocacy and policy of the National Federation of the Blind, John Paré, was next introduced to begin discussion of the three issues we would take to Capitol Hill. He emphasized that, while our focus for the next few days would be on these three, the fact is that we follow and support many issues. One of particular interest is the Space Available Program, and we have every reason to believe that it will be passed this year. Another issue we are monitoring is legislation recently proposed to block all transfers of funds within the Social Security Administration. Since funds are routinely transferred, and because the Social Security Disability Insurance Fund has only enough money to sustain it through 2016, this is a major concern and one we will be asked to address as the proposal moves through the Congress.
Each of the three issues we took to Capitol Hill was then spiritedly summarized and will be covered in detail in the fact sheets that follow this article. Rose Sloan was introduced to talk about the Transition to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act. She emphasized that this affects the lives of thousands of people with disabilities, and we must ensure that they receive at least the federal minimum wage. Lauren McLarney discussed the Technology, Education, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act and asked that Aleeha Dudley offer a few words of support as a current student. Aleeha eloquently articulated the plight of many blind students who come to higher education with lofty goals and find them frustrated, and in some cases obliterated, by the lack of access found in the technology used by the higher education system. She said that we need guidelines so that the technology that is used doesn’t become yet another voice telling us that our dreams are unrealistic and our career goals unattainable.
Congressman Steny Hoyer, the Minority Whip in the United States House of Representatives, was introduced and cleverly began his remarks by observing that, if he was speaking at the Great Gathering-In, he certainly must be addressing the “in crowd.” He went on to say, “Over the next three days you will be visiting nearly every House and Senate office on Capitol Hill, sharing your personal stories, and advocating for policies that promote equal access and equal opportunity. You will be effective, and the reason you will be effective is that you will be able to speak as this young student has spoken: you will be speaking about your experiences, not something you read about or heard about or were told about, but something that you have experienced. You will be able to convey this to members of Congress who may not have had similar experiences. … Our Constitution and our system of laws espouse the principle of equal justice. We must continue our efforts to ensure that our nation is also a beacon of equal opportunity. That, of course, is what the Americans with Disabilities Act is all about. … The American dream must always be open and accessible to all of us because, if it is not accessible to all of us, we all lose—we lose the contribution of those challenged by disabilities but who are willing and able to participate effectively in so many ways.”
Scott LaBarre had the unenviable task of following Congressman Hoyer, but he did a commendable job in explaining why we need the Marrakesh Treaty, or what is also known as the Books Without Borders Treaty. Ratification of this treaty will require that two-thirds of the Senate support it, so it is important that we emphasize what ratification will mean to us: both materials we can get that have previously been recorded by English-speaking countries, and those we can get from countries where the native language is not English and the materials we need for the study of foreign languages are not available to us through resources in this country.
President Riccobono next introduced Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the United States Department of Education. In her remark she said that “It is my job and the job of my 600-person staff to ensure that the federal civil rights laws are respected in schools both K-12 and in higher education. … Just last month we resolved two cases with two universities in Ohio with a very strong impact in this area. With Youngstown State University in Ohio, which serves 13,000 students, and with the University of Cincinnati, which serves 42,600 students, we entered into resolution agreements ensuring that their websites will fully comply with our federal civil rights laws, requires that they develop and publish a notice of nondiscrimination, that they implement a plan to ensure web accessibility and to train staff in webpage development and content development, and that they ensure access to computer labs, especially regarding the provision of assistive technology that is available for all of their students. … I’m very delighted to be working arm in arm in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind to make sure that we secure the rights for all of our students, including those who are blind.”
Jim Gashel told the attendees at the Great Gathering-In that we must take advantage of the opportunity to reward agencies and organizations who are doing outstanding work on behalf of the blind. The Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award Committee is now soliciting applications and will do so until March 31. This award provides the National Federation of the Blind an opportunity, not only to recognize and highlight the most innovative thinkers and programs in the country, but to contribute to the financial support of their work.
President Riccobono reminded us to register for the 2015 convention and said that it would be hosted by the seven original affiliates that came together in 1940 to form the National Federation of the Blind. Ever Lee Hairston cochairs the committee coordinating the work of these founding affiliates, and she said that at the convention there would be a door prize worthy of our seventy-fifth celebration. It will be $7,575, so this is yet another incentive to attend the most dynamic meeting of the blind that will occur in 2015.
Jim Antonacci, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania, announced that the affiliate would be holding its annual convention in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, at the same hotel where the NFB was founded. The hotel will be the Genetti Best Western, and reservations can be made by calling (570) 823-6152. Anyone wishing to go should make reservations immediately. The hotel has only seventy-two rooms.
With the business of the Great Gathering-In meeting concluded, members went off to find dinner, coordinate appointments, and discuss the finer points of the proposals they would take to Capitol Hill. On Tuesday morning the hotel lobby was filled with Federationists proudly displaying the beautiful white tote bags we would use to carry the packets that would be given to each member of Congress. Taxis were in high demand, but many decided to start their day with a brisk walk to the Capitol. The pace was hectic as we made our rounds, meeting with senators, representatives, and their top aides.
On Tuesday afternoon a reception was held at the Rayburn House Office Building to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind. The master of ceremonies for the event was Immediate Past President Marc Maurer, and the first speaker called on to make a presentation was the newly elected representative from the thirty-first District of California, Congressman Pete Aguilar. The Congressman was particularly honored to be asked to speak at our event because his grandfather went blind as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, and under the Randolph-Sheppard Program he managed the cafeteria at the San Bernardino courthouse. Representative Aguilar’s job was to work in that facility, and in the early 70s one of his primary responsibilities was to empty the ashtrays. He said that in this job he learned about the value of hard work, a good attitude, and the cultivation of trust between human beings. When his grandfather was active in business, the talking scale had not yet been invented, but his customers would honestly and consistently tell him what they had purchased, how much it weighed, and the denomination of the bills they were giving him. Because of his experience, Representative Aguilar understands the importance of rehabilitation, education, and advocacy. He supports our work and believes that, not only can blind people be good workers, but, with the proper opportunity and training, we can become job creators, and this he pledges to help us become.
Our champion in the House of Representatives to see that blind people are paid at least the federal minimum wage is Congressman Gregg Harper of Mississippi. Congressman Harper has refiled the bill that will phase out Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and that new bill is HR 188. “You know, this is something we’ve been working on together, and we're not going to stop until Section 14(c) is repealed. Meaningful work deserves fair pay, and to say that someone can be paid less than the minimum wage is pretty insulting. We believe we can do better. Now some organizations take advantage of the special wage—I understand why they’re doing that—but there are some groups that, if they would join with us, could create a lot of goodwill. We have work to do, we’re not going to stop, and together we will make great gains to make life better.”
President Riccobono addressed the celebratory gathering with these remarks:
Thank you, Dr. Maurer, members of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind, honorable members of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, Congressional staff, friends from government and nonprofit agencies, and my fellow Federationists.
E pluribus unum has been a motto for our nation since the time of the Revolutionary War. The traditional meaning of this phrase for America was: that out of many states (or colonies) emerges a single nation. Today the motto is often used to provide a broader, more individualized meaning: that out of many diverse people—of different races, religions, languages, and backgrounds—a single nation is solidified. This phrase could also be used to characterize the National Federation of the Blind. We are a unified, powerful force that is made up of many diverse people striving for those sharing the characteristic of blindness to be recognized as first-class citizens in our great nation.
It is fitting that we have come to celebrate our seventy-fifth year here in the halls of Congress. A number of federal programs established by the United States during the 1930s accelerated the urgency to have a national organization that could unify the work of many state-based organizations of the blind and bring a collective voice to Washington, DC.
Since 1940 we have sought partnership with the members of Congress. Just as blindness is not the characteristic that defines us or our future, we have never let the politics in the halls of power define those who share our common interest in improving the status of the blind. It has sometimes been difficult to find leaders with the courage to take on the difficult issues, it has sometimes been tricky to articulate the complexities of policy changes, and sometimes our issues have gotten caught in the middle of technical issues or political battles having nothing to do with the blind.
Yet more often than not, we have found courageous friends in the Congress, like Congressman Harper, who recognize our expertise on blindness and the legacy we have built over the past seventy-five years. We, the blind of this nation, have been successful in advancing a meaningful policy agenda because we bring the largest disability-run event to Capitol Hill every year in the form of our Washington Seminar; because we follow-up when we are back in our hometowns; and because many of the members of Congress have stood with us through the years.
As we celebrate the seventy-fifth year of our organization, we should also celebrate the friends we have had in Congress and the partnerships we can look forward to nurturing in the decades to come. Recently we have been cheering our work on by saying, "Let’s go build the Federation." Inasmuch as our work helps to make the United States a better place for the blind and other citizens, let us say together today: Let’s go build the USA.
With those remarks and the applause that followed, the crowd began to chant “USA, USA, USA.”
President Riccobono was followed to the microphone by Representative John Sarbanes, who represents the third district in Maryland, where the Jernigan Institute is located. Though the Congressman was being pressed to get back to the House floor for a vote, he said, “It means a tremendous amount when you come to the Hill, when you walk the halls of Congress, when you go into members' offices and you make the case for the contribution that you and others can deliver to our communities and to our country. I like that mantra `build the USA.' That’s what you are doing every single day with your commitment; and I know that, when the National Federation of the Blind is at the forefront of an issue or concern, it is something I need to be educated on and something I need to spread the word to my colleagues about. Thank you for being here today, thank you for the great work you do, and thank you for the contributions that you make every single day in our communities all across the United States.”
These were the formal remarks at the reception, but they only begin to capture the excitement we felt about the work that had been done over the last seven decades and the work that still remains for us to do. Wednesday and Thursday were filled with more appointments on the Hill, but, as each of us packed up and left the Holiday Inn Capitol, we did so with a heightened sense of our shared history, a greater understanding of the challenges we face today, and a stronger sense of optimism about the future we intend to make for blind people in this country. The blizzard of 2015 will be but a brief note in meteorological history, but the work of the National Federation of the Blind and its visit to Congress will be much more. It will change the present, enhance the future, and make better the lives of blind people everywhere.