by Fredric K. Schroeder, PhD
From the Editor: Fredric Schroeder is one of the most prolific and thought-provoking writers we have, and when his name appears on the annual convention agenda, the speeches he gives never fail to command attention and spark discussion. It is no accident that Fred Schroeder is now the president of the World Blind Union, and his service will no doubt bring the same class, intelligence, and insight that have benefited the blind of the United States. Here is what he writes for the Braille Monitor following the meeting at which he was elected:
The problems confronting blind people worldwide are not hard to list: blind children face barriers to a good education; blind adults face high unemployment; and all of us face well-intended yet damaging low expectations. We face limited opportunities that have defined our history and plague the present. So, what can and will we do? Where do we begin? What will the future be for the estimated 285 million blind and visually impaired people around the world? Will it be a continuation of poverty, lost opportunity, and discouragement, or will it be one of hope and optimism? That was the question facing the delegates to the World Blind Union’s Ninth General Assembly held August 18 to 25, 2016, in Orlando, Florida.
While the challenges are vast and complex, the solution is not mysterious nor beyond conception or reach. Time and time again, we have seized control of our own lives and asserted our ability and right to equal opportunity. We have joined together and worked together. We have combined our energy, resources, and imagination, and by so doing we have shown over and over again that, given the opportunity, blind people can live and work as others.
The World Blind Union 2016 General Assembly was a time for reflection, a time for discussion and planning, and a time for the blind of the world to take unified and concerted action.
We discussed access issues, including the challenges presented by the increase in the use of shared spaces; limitations in web accessibility; the danger of silent cars; the need to make books available in accessible formats and more. We discussed education and employment, but the 2016 General Assembly was more than a time to meet and plan; it was a time to encourage and inspire one another. At the General Assembly there were blind people helping blind people; blind people sharing their ideas and experiences; and blind people lifting one another’s confidence and expectations.
At conventions of the National Federation of the Blind, it is customary to have “talking signs,” not electronic signs that talk, but blind people giving information and direction to other blind people. The idea of talking signs may not seem remarkable or dramatic, but it is a tangible expression of our shared belief in one another, our shared philosophy, and the recognition that, as blind people, we need information, but our need for information does not mean we need a protector or caretaker. The understanding that we can determine the direction of our own lives is at the heart of collective action; it is the foundation for forcing change and expanding opportunities. Some problems take money to address and others not. Some problems require advocacy or legal action and others not. Some require organized programs of public education, and some require individual blind people encouraging one another; but all require a belief in our right and ability to live full and productive lives, according to our capacity and willingness to work hard.
At the 2016 General Assembly, I was privileged and honored to be elected President of the World Blind Union. It is a four-year term and one full of challenges. But I am not in it alone, any more than the blind child fighting for an education or the blind adult fighting for a job. They are not alone. The challenges facing one blind person are the challenges facing us all. Each of us is the talking sign for another, encouraging and supporting one another.
In the United States parents fight for the right for their blind children to learn Braille and to gain a good education; the same is true around the world. In the United States blind adults face unemployment; the same is true around the world. In the United States we battle for equal web accessibility; the same is true around the world. In the United States we combat low expectations, low expectations that blight lives and crush the human spirit; the same is true everywhere around the world. The details are different, but the root cause is the same—low expectations and limited opportunity.The good news is that there are 285 million of us around the world; 285 million talking signs, supporting one another, providing direction and encouragement; 285 million talking signs believing in one another. Will we make progress in the coming four years? Of course, but the real question is not whether we will make progress but how much. In the years to come, I will do my very best, sustained by the knowledge that together we have made progress beyond our wildest imaginings, and together we will continue to change the world.