Braille Monitor                                             August/September 2015

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The 2015 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind: A Personal Reflection

by Marc Maurer

Marc MaurerFrom the Editor: Former President Maurer was one of the first people to impress on me the need to learn to dictate. He said that no matter how fast I might type, he was certain I could talk at least twice that rate and suggested that there might be a time when turning out material would require this kind of efficiency and therefore justified learning the skill. One of the first articles he helped me to write (without in any way accepting attribution) was one he dictated while pacing back and forth in a hotel room. With that encouragement, the advent of computer programs that could perform speech recognition, and a direct assignment from my boss to help one of our departments at the hospital where I worked to implement a dictation system, I eventually came to rely quite heavily on the ability to dictate and to have a machine turn that dictation into text. So often had I bragged to former President Maurer about the capabilities of this system that recently he invited me to Baltimore to help them learn how to use it. After a long day of work I left him with a speech about practicing what we had learned, my observation being that training is soon lost if not reinforced on a daily basis. He made no comment about my admonition, but on the following afternoon he called me to his office and asked if I was prepared to listen to something. I said yes, and what you are about to read came from his use of the computer and its ability to recognize human speech. Here, with some significant reflections about his thoughts going into the 2015 convention, is what Dr. Maurer had to say:

For twenty-eight years beginning in 1986, I have served as president of the National Federation of the Blind. During each of the conventions beginning in 1987 and continuing through 2014, I have occupied the presidential suite at the convention of the Federation, and I have directed activities of the Federation from that location, unless I was on the platform dealing with matters involving the general sessions of the convention itself.

As I approach the 2015 convention of the Federation, what I will be doing during the course of the convention seems to me to be substantially different from what I have done for the past twenty-eight conventions.

At the outset it seems to me that I have more flexibility than was true for me in past years. I will be able to attend and to participate in many of the activities of the convention which provide a measure of instruction or entertainment that have been unavailable to me in the past. The presidency of the National Federation of the Blind necessarily involves matters of political importance. Although I will be an element of the political process at the 2015 convention, my role in determining what the politics should be for the organization will be significantly different. In the past I have been responsible for decisions about internal political matters: how each of the affiliates of the organization interacts with the national group, how internal political struggles within an element of the organization shall be managed and solved, what the relationship between members and affiliates or chapters and affiliates might be—all of these have been my responsibility as the chief executive officer of the organization. At this convention, however, President Riccobono will determine what these decisions should be and how matters will be handled. I may be a consultant to President Riccobono, but the final responsibility is not mine, but his. This will mean that I can engage more thoroughly in some of the activities of affiliates and divisions and groups without having to worry about how my participation might change the political influences within the organization.

Furthermore, the politics of the organization are not only internal. There are political matters involving organizations outside of the National Federation of the Blind. These fall into two categories. First, the politics between the National Federation of the Blind and other blindness-related organizations must be considered. This has seemed to me to be external politics—sometimes I have thought of it as foreign relations. How will the National Federation of the Blind interact with National Industries for the Blind (NIB), the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), or other organizations? A new political system has evolved in the past few years. This political system involves organizations that ordinarily do not focus their attention on the subject of blindness. Thus, how the Google company will deal with accessible technology, how the Microsoft company will make its operating system useful for the blind, how the Amazon company will present books that blind people can read—all of these are now part of the political atmosphere that has to be dealt with and managed inside the National Federation of the Blind.

The Apple company made its operating system accessible about twelve years ago. The usefulness of this operating system was sufficiently great that members of the organization are reluctant to criticize the failures that have occurred. The failures have been substantial, but members of the National Federation of the Blind are dramatically grateful that anybody has created an accessible system. Therefore, criticism of Apple for the failures is reluctantly offered—if at all. Managing the influence that the National Federation of the Blind has with major companies about accessibility to their products and programs is a significant element of the work that must be done by the president. I will have suggestions to make about this political process, but it is not my responsibility today.

In the past when I have entered the exhibit room at the convention, I have almost immediately been surrounded by individuals who wanted my attention for examination of products, programs, items for sale, or other matters. I believe that this has been the case because I served in those times as executive for the National Federation of the Blind, and the support that we would give to these companies offering products or items for sale or programs that might influence the blind or be beneficial to blind people was part of the portfolio of tasks assigned to me. Would we adopt the program being promoted by a company? Would we endorse a product being manufactured by a different company? How would we give adequate support to the programs and products of companies that would be most beneficial without being so heavy-handed that the politics within the blindness field would be affected? At this convention I believe that I will be able to examine products in the exhibit hall without dramatic disruption of my process in dealing with the people who are presenting them. I will probably have a better understanding of what products are available, who is selling them, and what characteristics they have.

In addition to this freedom of movement in the exhibit hall, I believe that I will have some more flexibility for the other activities that occur during the convention. In the past, whether I went to dinner with one person or another, whether I participated in a party being offered to convention attendees by one political group or one company or not, and other such matters were a part of the decisions that had to be addressed at convention which might affect the political realities of the organization in the months ahead. I do not control these political realities anymore. This means that I may decide to participate in a dinner without reflecting that the participation or its absence would make a political difference for the organization.

Another change that I think will occur at this convention is that my personal opinions about programs, products, and people may be more freely expressed than they have been in the past. I am reasonably well known for having strong opinions about the future of programming for the blind and the characteristics that should be exhibited in building those programs in the months and the years ahead. However, I have sometimes been reluctant to express forthrightly all of my points of view because some of them are based upon opinion which is not as thoroughly established in observed fact as the opinions that I customarily express. Will I serve as a member of the Resolutions Committee? Whether I am appointed to be a member of the committee or not, my voice will carry some impressive weight in the deliberations of the committee members. In the past I have felt that many of the decisions which could go one way or another should be left to the appointed delegates of state affiliates. Although I have sometimes quite dramatically intervened in the system for adopting policies within the organization, I have only been thoroughly involved in determining what those decisions shall be when I thought that the health of the National Federation of the Blind would be affected or programs for the blind would be significantly changed for the better if I did so. I am now at some liberty to express myself more thoroughly than I have been in the past. Some people may think that I have already expressed myself as thoroughly as possible, but they do not appreciate the times that I have held my opinions within myself rather than expressing them. How this works out in the daily operation of the convention of the Federation this year is yet to be known, but I speculate that there will be a much broader opportunity for me to speak my peace even than I did in previous times.

One other element of the convention that will be new, although I did it in the past, is that I will be in support of a different chief executive. In former times, at least in the last quarter of a century or a little more, I took steps to ensure that the presidency of the National Federation of the Blind was an office that could be supported and admired by those within the Federation and also those outside the organization. I could not say that the presidency was an important office. This would have seemed very much the wrong approach because it would be praising my own performance. However, to build the Federation’s principal administrative officer was an important part of the thought process in ensuring that the Federation was highly regarded by its own members and by others around the country and around the world. This convention gives me the opportunity to praise our chief executive. Praising the President of the National Federation of the Blind is always a joy, but I have not been in a position to do this for well over a quarter of a century. The president who served before my presidency was Dr. Jernigan. He was an easy man to praise, and he was a joyous person to support. I had no problem being a strong vocal supporter of Dr. Jernigan, and I love doing it. Now I will have the opportunity to praise and support our new President. Perhaps I am a little out of practice, but I think that this task will come easily to me.

At previous conventions I have been attentive to the people and the activities occurring because I wanted to identify those that would give us new opportunities to expand our reach and to institute innovative programs. At this convention I will continue to be attentive to the people and the programs occurring. When I observe those that might give us opportunities for innovation, I will bring them to the attention of our new president. However, it will not be my responsibility to determine how to address the questions that come with innovative opportunities. This will be for our new president to do.

The preceding thoughts indicate that I may not have as many demands on my time and attention as has been true at previous conventions. What will I do with additional time and additional energy that is not already committed to the daily operation and to speculation about the future of the Federation? I do not yet know. However, I have what might be called a restless spirit. Undoubtedly I will find some useful outlet for this form of energy and the commitment that is required to use it. I look forward to learning what this convention can tell. I have always found conventions of the National Federation of the Blind to be uplifting, joyous occasions. I am quite certain that this one will be no different. The difference will be how I fit into the joyous, uplifting time. Together let us find out what the new pattern may be.

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