Braille Monitor                                             January 2016

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Statewide Blind Group Meets at Birthplace

by Eric Mark

From the Editor: This article comes from The Citizen’s Voice and its web version, originally published November 15, 2015. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher and shows what citizens of Wilkes-Barre heard about the organization that was born in their community:

The Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of the Blind held its annual convention this weekend at the spot where the organization was born in 1940: Best Western Genetti Hotel & Conference Center.

In November 1940, a group of sixteen advocates for the blind from seven states gathered in Wilkes-Barre at the hotel that is now Genetti's. They formed a constitution that created the National Federation of the Blind, or NFB, which grew to be the largest organization led by blind people in the nation. To mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Federation's founding, the Pennsylvania chapter chose Wilkes-Barre as the site for this year's state convention, said Lynn Heitz, the chapter's first vice president. "The national organization was founded right here," she said Saturday afternoon, outside a spacious meeting room where most of the 120 people who attended the convention gathered for lectures and seminars on a wide range of topics that affect the visually impaired.

Blind and low-vision people of all ages walked confidently into and out of the room with the help of long white canes. One of the seminar topics was "Technology for the blind and how it has changed.” Mark Riccobono, the national president of NFB, had some thoughts on that, as he stepped out of the meeting room to speak with a reporter. He called technological advances "double-edged" for the visually impaired community. On the upside, there are useful technologies such as voice-activated personal assistants available on computers and smart phones. Riccobono demonstrated an app he recently installed on his iPhone, called KNFB Reader, that can take a picture of printed text and read it aloud to a visually impaired person. He pointed his phone toward the program for the convention, clicked a button, and a mechanical voice started to recite the convention schedule listed in the program.

On the other hand, the push for technological solutions to replace Braille, a writing system for the blind that uses raised letters and characters, has left some blind people struggling, especially younger ones in school and college, Riccobono said. "A lot of technology is not built with accessibility in mind," he said. He cited his own experience growing up as a legally blind student in Wisconsin, where his teachers, in line with the educational philosophy of the time, tried to get him to read and study as much as possible the conventional way and use Braille only as a last resort. "I faked it all the time," he said. "I had to memorize things.”

There were lots of positive stories at the convention, which draws a dedicated core group and some newcomers each year, according to Heitz, who described the gathering as "a family.” Liliya Asadullina, twenty-two, said being blind has not stopped her from a rewarding and enjoyable college career at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "They have a really good public transportation system," she said, adding that she has no qualms about taking a bus or train on her own. She credited the local chapter of the NFB near Philadelphia, where she grew up, with helping her to develop that confidence. "They showed me you have to be independent," she said.

The NFB has led the push for civil rights for the blind, which has helped raise awareness for all special needs groups, Riccobono said. As traffic drove by on East Market Street outside the hotel, he gave an example. In 1940 when the Federation was founded, if a car jumped a curb and struck a blind person on a sidewalk, the blind pedestrian was considered partly culpable, according to Riccobono. Blind people and others with challenges or special needs were expected to basically stay out of sight and mind in those days, he said. Today, through educational efforts and legislation such as "white cane laws" that require motorists to stop and allow blind pedestrians to cross the street, things are different, Riccobono said. "Blind people have the right to be in the world," he said.

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