by Fredric K. Schroeder
From the Editor: In 2016 the General Assembly of the World Blind Union will meet in the United States of America. This meeting will be hosted by the National Federation of the Blind and will take place in late August. So that Federationists and other readers of the Braille Monitor know about and understand the reason for this meeting, we intend to run several articles about the World Blind Union, starting here with its history as featured in chapter seven of the book entitled Building the Lives We Want, an e-book detailing the first seventy-five years of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what Dr. Schroeder wrote:
“Could not blind persons from Asia and Africa speak for the blind of their countries? . . . Four-fifths of [the estimated blind population] lived in rural areas, but that need not preclude their leaders from attending a world conference to discuss, compare, and counsel. But did they have leaders, I wondered. That was the pivotal question, and as yet it was one I could not answer.”
— Isabelle Grant, 19591
The history of the blind throughout the world is bleak. It has been characterized by low expectations, paternalism, poverty, and isolation. It is also the story of human resilience and the unquenchable drive for freedom. It is the story of marginalized people rejecting the role defined for them by society and demonstrating their ability, drive, and determination to live and work as others.
When blind people appear in ancient literature, they are usually described as beggars, helpless beings who seek alms from passersby. During the Middle Ages in Western Europe, the church began to provide for the blind by establishing homes, called hospitals, where the blind and other indigent people could live. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, local governments in Europe and the United States took over the task of creating institutions to educate, care for, and employ the blind. Work was poorly paid and rudimentary, and it was completely controlled by private or public agencies (see Chapter One).
Early in the twentieth century, blind people in the United States began to form local and statewide organizations to fight for better working conditions and opportunities. Seven state organizations formed the nucleus of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940 (see Chapters Two and Three).
The service agencies for the blind did not welcome the emergence of representative organizations of blind people. They regarded blind people to be as helpless as two-year-old children, incapable of taking charge of their lives and exploring the extent of their abilities. They viewed the Federation as little more than a forum for the ungrateful and maladjusted. The NFB threatened the institutions established to govern blind people’s lives.
In 1949, representatives from blindness agencies throughout the world gathered in Rome to establish the World Council on the Welfare of the Blind (WCWB). As its founding president the nascent organization elected Colonel Edwin Albert Baker. At that time, Colonel Baker was one of the world’s best-known blind leaders, heading the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).
During its early years the WCWB was dominated by powerful service agencies for the blind: the CNIB, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), and the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) of the United Kingdom. Agencies for the blind had total control over the organization. The few existing organizations of blind people were viewed with suspicion and hostility. Nevertheless, the WCWB claimed to represent not only the governmental and private agencies, but also blind people themselves.
Despite the agency domination, the NFB felt somewhat hopeful about the WCWB. The fledgling WCWB was headed by a blind person, Colonel Baker. Perhaps, under his leadership, the new organization might work to improve the condition of the blind of the world. In a letter dated July 17, 1952, NFB President Jacobus tenBroek advised the leadership of the WCWB that on July 15, 1952, at its national convention in Nashville, Tennessee, the Federation’s membership had voted to join the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind.2
It did not take long before the Federation realized that the WCWB would not open the way to a progressive future for the blind. It would simply further paternalism and agency control. From today’s perspective, words such as subjection, domination, and control in regard to agencies for the blind may seem exaggerated. The quotes below convey the thinking of those times in all of its chilling reality.
In the mid-1950s a well-known and respected educator of the blind wrote, “With many persons there was an expectation in the establishment of the early schools that the blind in general would thereby be rendered capable of earning their own support, a view that even at the present is shared in some quarters. It would have been much better if such a hope had never been entertained or, if it had existed, in a greatly modified form.”3 At about the same time, the director of a prominent rehabilitation agency wrote, “After he is once trained and placed, the average disabled person can fend for himself. In the case of the blind, it has been found necessary to set up a special state service agency which will supply them not only rehabilitation training but other services for the rest of their lives. The agencies keep in constant contact with them as long as they live. So the blind are unique among the handicapped in that, no matter how well-adjusted, trained, and placed, they require lifelong supervision by the agencies.”4 The agencies did not view their role as one of supporting the move of the blind toward full and equal participation; the idea of protecting and guiding the blind was unquestioned and universal. It was assumed that the blind needed care, and even more important, needed direction, supervision, and control. They had no hope of integration and certainly no hope of equality.
In the United States, the struggle for self-expression was contentious and bitter, and its success was by no means assured. (See “Telling Our Story through Legislation in Washington.”) Yet many joined the struggle, and it was clear that the movement needed to spread across the world. If the blind of the world were to achieve true independence, the effort must be led by blind people themselves.
Never a truly representative organization, the WCWB sought to suppress the voice of the blind on the international stage. In 1962 the WCWB president used a sleight-of-hand parliamentary maneuver to strip the National Federation of the Blind of its seat on the Executive Committee. Then Federation President Perry Sundquist advised the WCWB that its ongoing attempts to suppress the blind were awakening a growing worldwide sentiment that a new and truly representative international organization of the blind was needed. The will of blind people to achieve full integration could not be extinguished. There was no money to build representative organizations of the blind throughout the world, and there were few individuals to help; but the need was great, and the spirit of the blind was unquenchable.
In 1959, Dr. Isabelle Grant, a talented blind teacher from California, launched a one-woman crusade to expand education and training for blind people internationally. On a one-year sabbatical from her teaching position, she visited twenty-three countries to study the education and rehabilitation of blind children. She understood the importance of representative organizations of the blind and worked tirelessly to spread the Federation message of self-determination and hope.
Dr. Grant’s views on the education of blind children were nothing short of revolutionary. At that time, nearly all blind children in the United States were educated in special schools for the blind. In the United States and throughout the world, Dr. Grant was an early proponent of integrated education. If blind children were educated alongside their sighted peers, she believed that they could learn to compete in an integrated world.
Dr. Grant’s views on education fit well with her interest in expanding opportunities for the blind worldwide. Poor countries had no money to build special schools for the blind. Integration (later to be known as mainstreaming and eventually as full inclusion) offered a cost-effective way of educating the blind. The resources were meager and the obstacles overwhelming, but Dr. Grant did what she could to make a difference. Her example illustrates the power of blind people working together to change their own condition.
The impact of the WCWB was insignificant. From its inception, it had lacked the will and the structure to represent the interests of blind people. At the 1964 convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Phoenix, Arizona, the problem was discussed in detail. As President Sundquist had predicted, the WCWB’s efforts to suppress the voice of the blind only made the blind more determined to govern their own lives. Later that summer, in New York, the International Federation of the Blind (IFB) was born. Dr. tenBroek became its first president, and Dr. Kenneth Jernigan drafted its constitution.
The IFB had a promising beginning. Organizations of the blind began to emerge throughout the world, and a convention was planned for 1969 in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. But in 1968 Dr. tenBroek died. He had been the driving force behind the IFB. After his death the IFB languished, along with many of the hopes and dreams of blind people throughout the world. By the early 1980s it seemed clear that the IFB would fade away unless it joined with the WCWB. Once again there would be one international organization to speak for blind people and for the agencies that served them.
In 1984 a joint meeting of the IFB and WCWB was held to merge the two organizations, leading to the creation of the World Blind Union (WBU). The founding general assembly of the WBU met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in October 1984. Since then, general assemblies have been held once every four years: Madrid, 1988; Cairo, 1992; Toronto, 1996; Melbourne, 2000; Cape Town, 2004; Geneva, 2008; and Bangkok, 2012. The next worldwide general assembly will take place in 2016 in Orlando, Florida, USA.
The WBU is organized into seven regions: North America/Caribbean, Africa, Asia, East Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. Each region has a president and executive committee to coordinate the work of its member organizations. To ensure the representative nature of the WBU, the president, both vice presidents, and the secretary general must all be blind people. The only exception among the executive offices is the position of treasurer, which on occasion has been filled by a sighted person.
From the outset, the NFB was an influential force in the WBU. The Federation’s long-term leader, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, understood that, if the WBU was to succeed and make a real difference in the lives of the blind, organizations of the blind must lead the way. Dr. Jernigan became a powerful political and philosophical force within the WBU. By 1987, he had become president of the North America/Caribbean Region, a position he held until the fall of 1997 when ill health forced him to resign. During his tenure, Dr. Jernigan advanced the foundational principle that the blind must be the ones to lead the blind. Others can and do help, but it is up to the blind themselves to determine their own future. Dr. Jernigan understood that self-determination was not simply a good idea, but a foundational and enduring truth. The spirit and experience of the NFB has been critical to the WBU. The NFB’s positive and progressive influence continued, even after Dr. Jernigan no longer held a leadership position.
Dr. Marc Maurer, who succeeded Kenneth Jernigan as president of the NFB, recognized the need for the Federation to remain active in the affairs of the blind of the world. In his 2004 Presidential Report, Dr. Maurer said,
The National Federation of the Blind is an active participant in the World Blind Union. For ten years Dr. Jernigan served as president of the North America/Caribbean Region, and I have also held that office. The World Blind Union brings together agencies for the blind and organizations of the blind. Because within the entities that make up the organization there are strikingly different approaches to the subject of blindness, this amalgamation of groups sometimes creates frustration. However, we learn much about programming for the blind from throughout the world, and we have an opportunity for interaction with leaders of the blind in other countries.5
The NFB stands as a beacon of hope for the blind of the world, and the Federation is a living testament to the power of collective action. At the opening session of the WBU’s 2008 Quadrennial General Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, NFB President Marc Maurer gave the keynote address, entitled “Breaking the Mold: The Power of the Unpredictable.” He said, in part,
The beginning of the possession of power is the assertion that it belongs to us. I want us to have power. Furthermore, in my own country I face challenges that cannot be solved within the borders of my own nation. I need the cooperation and the power of others around the world to bring equality to the blind of the United States, and I believe that those of us in the United States can help bring equality to the blind of the world.6
Today the WBU is widely recognized as an effective international advocacy organization. It represents 285 million blind and partially sighted people in 190 member nations. The WBU has consultancy status as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) with the United Nations.
The WBU is the international voice of the blind, speaking to national governments and a wide range of United Nations agencies. It works to address the human and civil rights of the blind. It brings organizations of blind people together with service organizations to work on issues affecting the quality of life for blind people. In its relatively brief history, it already has made a difference.
In 2008 the international Free Matter for the Blind mailing privilege came up for review by the Universal Postal Union (UPU), an agency of the United Nations. The WBU launched an effort not only to preserve the Free Matter privilege, but to broaden its scope. Since Free Mailing was established in the 1950s, the exemption applied only to “literature for the blind,” covering little more than Braille books. The WBU pushed to expand the international mailing privilege to include items such as talking watches, digital audio equipment, and other devices for the blind.
At the October 2012 UPU Congress in Qatar, the WBU succeeded in pushing through changes that would modernize the international mailing privilege for the blind. Accordingly, the UPU amended the international convention that governs the exchange of international mail. Article 7 defines the “Exemption from postal charges” for the blind. The amended article reads in part, “3.1 Any item for the blind sent to or by an organization for the blind or sent to or by a blind person shall be exempt from all postal charges.”7
In addition, the WBU has worked to secure the rights of blind people and others with disabilities. The WBU was actively engaged in crafting language for inclusion in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the first human rights charter of the twenty-first century. At the time the treaty language was being negotiated, there was a strong move to keep all references in the treaty general to persons with disabilities and to refrain from identifying any particular disability group or services that applied to a specific disability type. Many delegates objected to any mention of blindness, Braille, or any service specific to blind people. The WBU pushed hard on these issues and was successful in getting language included that recognized Braille by name. Article 2 (Definitions) of the Convention reads,
For the purposes of the present Convention: ‘Communication’ includes languages, display of text, Braille, tactile communication, large print, accessible multimedia, as well as written, audio, plain-language, human-reader and augmentative and alternative modes, means and formats of communication, including accessible information and communication technology.
Through the efforts of the WBU, Braille is also referenced in Article 9, Accessibility; Article 21, Freedom of Expression and Opinion, and Access to Information; and in Article 24, Education.
The mere mention of Braille may not in and of itself appear to be significant. Indeed it may be viewed as simply symbolic or hortatory, with no real meaning or impact. Nevertheless, Article 24 on Education is an example of the true impact of the work of the WBU. Initially, the delegates insisted on integration as an absolute principle in the Convention. Yet for many blind children, schools for the blind remain the best, and in some cases, the only option for attaining an education. Through the efforts of the WBU and of deaf and deaf-blind advocates, the language of the Convention was modified. Language was removed that would have established an absolute requirement that all children with disabilities be educated in integrated settings. In its place, the language of the treaty now says that no child should, by virtue of disability, be excluded from integration. That compromise left the door open for specialized training. Specifically, Article 24, Section 3c, states:
Ensuring that the education of persons, and in particular children, who are blind, deaf or deafblind, is delivered in the most appropriate languages and modes and means of communication for the individual, and in environments which maximize academic and social development.8
On Thursday, June 27, 2013, a diplomatic conference of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) adopted the Marrakech Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled. The Marrakech Treaty includes two major provisions. First, it calls on nations to produce more books for the blind; and second, it authorizes nations to share accessible books across national borders.
For many years United States law has allowed books to be produced in Braille and other accessible formats without first having to obtain the permission of the copyright holder. This authority, known as the Chafee Amendment, has been the law since the late 1990s, and it has worked very well.
As of 2015, fifty-seven nations around the world have copyright laws similar to the US Chafee Amendment. The Marrakech Treaty will expand this authority. As each WIPO member nation ratifies the book treaty for the blind, it agrees to change its national copyright law to permit books to be produced in accessible formats without having to seek the prior permission of the copyright holder. This will greatly increase the production of accessible works around the world. But that is only the first step in ending what many have called the “book famine.” For the first time, the Marrakech Treaty allows WIPO member states to share copies of accessible works across national borders.
At present, the WBU, together with the NFB, is working to address the danger electric and hybrid electric vehicles pose to all pedestrians, and in particular to blind people traveling the streets and byways of the world. The WBU is working with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29) to develop international standards to require electric and hybrid electric vehicles to emit a minimum alert sound. The international effort will build on the work undertaken in the United States. In 2010, the NFB led an effort to persuade the United States Congress to adopt legislation mandating a minimum sound standard for hybrid, electric, and other quiet vehicles. The US law, known as the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, is the first, and so far, the only national legislation mandating a safe level of sound to be made by these very quiet cars.
The WBU’s many successes highlight the critical importance of an international organization to address the chronic and emerging barriers to social and economic participation faced by blind people throughout the world. The WBU works on increasing access to literacy, education, and employment, all well-known, pervasive, and persistent barriers to full participation. It is also addressing new challenges brought about by advancing technology. Most important, the WBU is a vehicle for collective action.
The continued success of the WBU will depend on the degree to which it values and retains its representative nature. The service agencies must never seek to overshadow the rights and aspirations of the blind themselves. This is not to disparage the agencies for the blind; it is not to ascribe dire motives, hubris, and ill will. Rather, it is a recognition that the progress of the blind is a direct outgrowth of the will and determination of extraordinary blind people, people who faced discrimination and the damage of low expectations but managed to forge new frontiers, beyond the established norms of the day.
The WBU is a forum, an organization, a means of advancing the integration of the blind. It helps to continue the movement of the blind toward full equality. Progress will come, quickly or slowly, but it will come because the will and spirit of blind people cannot be forever suppressed by the misunderstanding of others. The challenge of the WBU is our individual and collective challenge. If we give of ourselves and encourage and support one another, we will replace the heartache of nonparticipation with hope and the realization of our dreams.
The history of the blind is bleak, but our future is bright. We can work together to shape the future for ourselves. Whenever one of us succeeds, whenever one of us refuses to accept a life of diminished opportunity, our collective future is forever changed. Together we can and will hasten society’s recognition of our ability to live and work as others.
“Withdrawal from International Federation of the Blind.” (1984) Braille Monitor, November. Internet Archive (2010)
Jernigan, Kenneth. (1988) “North American/Caribbean Regional Report,” Braille Monitor, November. <https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/bm/bm88/brlm8811.htm#14>
tenBroek, Jacobus. (1964) “The Parliament of Man: The Federation of the World.” Banquet Speech, National Federation of the Blind National Convention, Phoenix, AZ. Audio, MP3 format. <https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Audio/BanqSpeech/bsp-1964.mp3>
3. tenBroek, Jacobus. (1956) “Within the Grace of God.” Speech, National Federation of the Blind National Convention, San Francisco, CA, July 1. <https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/
5. Maurer, Marc. (2004) “Presidential Report 2004.” National Federation of the Blind National Convention, Atlanta, GA, July 2.<https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/publications/convent/
6. Maurer, Marc. (2008) “Breaking the Mold: The Power of the Unpredictable.” Braille Monitor, November. <https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm08/bm0810/bm081003.htm>
7. World Blind Union. (2012) “Universal Postal Union Rules Updates Regarding Free Post for the Blind.” News release, October. <http://www.worldblindunion.org/English/news/Pages/Universal-Postal-Union-Rules-Updates-Regarding-Free-Post-for-the-Blind.aspx>
8. United Nations. (2006) Article 24, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. <http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml>