From the Editor: Though brief profiles of the members of the current board of directors can be found on our website at any time, we periodically revise and reprint in the Braille Monitor a compilation we have used for years. It includes profiles of Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and members of the current NFB board of directors. It is high time to provide it again, so here it is:
The National Federation of the Blind has become by far the most significant force in the affairs of the blind today, and its actions have had an impact on many other groups and programs. The Federation's President, Mark Riccobono, radiates confidence and persuasiveness. He says, "We seek to set the pace, determine our own direction, build our own dreams, and expand the boundaries of independence—we know that together we have the power to turn dreams into reality, and it is our goal to go to the places and do the things that have not yet been done to create equality of opportunity for the blind. We recognize that it is not enough for one blind person to have training and opportunity. If one blind person faces low expectations, misconceptions, and artificial barriers based on his or her blindness than it inevitably holds all blind people back. Together we raise expectations, build opportunities, explore new horizons, celebrate new achievements, and knock down barriers in order to make sure that each of us has the opportunity to compete on terms of equality and live the lives we want.”
The National Federation of the Blind is a civil rights movement with all that the term implies. The blind are a minority in American society, and we face the same problems that other minorities must address: misconceptions as to our capabilities, our aspirations, and our ability to assume the responsibilities that go along with the rights we demand.
Although many organizations and agencies for the blind exist in the United States today, there is only one National Federation of the Blind. This organization was established in 1940 when the blind of seven states—California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—sent delegates to its first convention at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Since that time progress has been rapid and steady. The Federation is recognized by blind men and women throughout the entire country as their primary means of joint expression; and today—with active affiliates in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico—it is the primary voice of the nation's blind.
To explain this spectacular growth, three questions must be asked and answered: (1) What are the conditions in the general environment of the blind which have impelled them to organize? (2) What are the purpose, belief, and philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind? (3) Who are its leaders, and what are their qualifications to understand and solve the problems of blindness? Even a brief answer to these questions is instructive.
When the Federation came into being in 1940, the outlook for the blind was anything but bright. The nation's welfare system was so discouraging to individual initiative that those forced to accept public assistance had little hope of ever achieving self-support again, and those who sought competitive employment in regular industry or the professions found most of the doors barred against them. The universal goodwill expressed toward the blind was not the wholesome goodwill of respect felt toward equals; it was the misguided goodwill of pity felt toward inferiors. In effect the system said to the blind, "Sit on the sidelines of life. This game is not for you. If you have creative talents, we are sorry, but we cannot use them." The Federation came into being to combat these expressions of discrimination and to promote new ways of thought concerning blindness. Although great progress has been made toward the achievement of these goals, much still remains to be done.
The Federation believes that blind people are essentially normal and that blindness in itself is not a mental or psychological handicap. It can be reduced to the level of a mere physical nuisance. Legal, economic, and social discrimination based upon the false assumption that the blind are somehow different from the sighted must be abolished, and equal opportunity must be made available to blind people. Because of their personal experience with blindness, the blind themselves are best qualified to lead the way in solving their own problems, but the general public should be invited to participate in finding solutions. Upon these fundamentals the National Federation of the Blind predicates its philosophy.
As for the leadership of the organization, all of the officers and members of the board of directors are blind, and all give generously of their time and resources in promoting the work of the Federation. The board consists of seventeen elected members, five of whom are the constitutional officers of the organization. These members of the board of directors represent a wide cross section of the blind population of the United States. Their backgrounds are different, and their experiences vary widely; but they are drawn together by the common bond of having met blindness individually and successfully in their own lives and by their united desire to see other blind people have the opportunity to do likewise. A profile of the leadership of the organization shows why it is so effective and demonstrates the progress made by blind people during the past half-century and more—for in the story of the lives of these leaders can be found the greatest testimonial to the soundness of the Federation's philosophy. The cumulative record of their individual achievements is an overwhelming proof, leading to an inescapable conclusion.
The moving force in the founding of the National Federation of the Blind, and its spiritual and intellectual father, was Jacobus tenBroek. Born in 1911, young tenBroek (the son of prairie homesteaders in Canada) lost the sight of one eye as the result of a bow-and-arrow accident at the age of seven. His remaining eyesight deteriorated until at the age of fourteen he was totally blind. Shortly afterward he and his family traveled to Berkeley so that he could attend the California School for the Blind. Within three years he was an active part of the local organization of the blind.
By 1934 he had joined Dr. Newel Perry and others to form the California Council of the Blind, which later became the National Federation of the Blind of California. This organization was a prototype for the nationwide federation that tenBroek would form six years later.
The same year the Federation was founded (1940), Jacobus tenBroek received his doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of California, completed a year as Brandeis Research Fellow at Harvard Law School, and was appointed to the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School.
Two years later he began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, becoming a full professor in 1953, chairman of the department of speech in 1955, and professor of political science in 1963. During this period Professor tenBroek published several books and more than fifty articles and monographs in the fields of welfare, government, and law—establishing a reputation as one of the nation's foremost scholars on matters of constitutional law. One of his books, Prejudice, War, and the Constitution, won the Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Political Science Association in 1955 as the best book of the year on government and democracy. Other books are California's Dual System of Family Law (1964), Hope Deferred: Public Welfare and the Blind (1959), The Antislavery Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment (1951)—revised and republished in 1965 as Equal Under Law, and The Law of the Poor (edited in 1966).
In the course of his academic career Professor tenBroek was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto and was twice the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1947 he earned the degree of SJD [Doctor of Juridical Science] from Harvard Law School. In addition he was awarded honorary degrees by two institutions of higher learning.
Dr. tenBroek's lifelong companion was his devoted wife Hazel. Together they raised three children and worked inseparably on research, writing, and academic and Federation projects. Until her declining health prevented travel, Mrs. tenBroek continued as an active member of the organized blind movement. She died October 7, 2005.
In 1950 Dr. tenBroek was made a member of the California State Board of Social Welfare by Governor Earl Warren. Later reappointed to the board three times, he was elected its chairman in 1960 and served in that capacity until 1963.
The brilliance of Jacobus tenBroek's career led some skeptics to suggest that his achievements were beyond the reach of what they called the “ordinary blind person.” What tenBroek recognized in himself was not that he was exceptional, but that he was normal—that his blindness had nothing to do with whether he could be a successful husband and father, do scholarly research, write a book, make a speech, guide students engaged in social action, or otherwise lead a productive life.
Jacobus tenBroek died of cancer at the age of fifty‑six in 1968. His successor, Kenneth Jernigan, in a memorial address, said truly of him: “The relationship of this man to the organized blind movement, which he brought into being in the United States and around the world, was such that it would be equally accurate to say that the man was the embodiment of the movement or that the movement was the expression of the man.
“For tens of thousands of blind Americans over more than a quarter of a century, he was leader, mentor, spokesman, and philosopher. He gave to the organized blind movement the force of his intellect and the shape of his dreams. He made it the symbol of a cause barely imagined before his coming: the cause of self-expression, self-direction, and self-sufficiency on the part of blind people. Step by step, year by year, action by action, he made that cause succeed.”
Kenneth Jernigan was a leader in the National Federation of the Blind for more than forty-six years. He was president (with one brief interruption) from 1968 until July of 1986. Even after Jernigan ceased to be president of the Federation, he continued as one of its principal leaders until his death on October 12, 1998. He was loved and respected by tens of thousands—members and nonmembers of the Federation, both blind and sighted.
Born in 1926, Kenneth Jernigan grew up on a farm in central Tennessee. He received his elementary and secondary education at the school for the blind in Nashville. After high school Jernigan managed a furniture shop in Beech Grove, Tennessee, making all the furniture and operating the business.
In the fall of 1945 Jernigan matriculated at Tennessee Technological University in Cookville. Active in campus affairs from the outset, he was soon elected to office in his class and to important positions in other student organizations. Jernigan graduated with honors in 1948 with a BS degree in social science. In 1949 he received a master's degree in English from Peabody College in Nashville, where he subsequently completed additional graduate study. While at Peabody he was a staff writer for the school newspaper, co-founder of an independent literary magazine, and member of the Writers' Club. In 1949 he received the Captain Charles W. Browne Award, at that time presented annually by the American Foundation for the Blind to the nation's outstanding blind student.
Jernigan then spent four years as a teacher of English at the Tennessee School for the Blind. During this period he became active in the Tennessee Association of the Blind (now the National Federation of the Blind of Tennessee). He was elected to the vice presidency of the organization in 1950 and to the presidency in 1951. In that position he planned the 1952 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind, which was held in Nashville, and he then planned every NFB national convention through 1998.
In 1952 Jernigan was first elected to the NFB board of directors, and in 1953 he was appointed to the faculty of the California Orientation Center for the Blind in Oakland, where he played a major role in developing the best program of its kind then in existence.
From 1958 until 1978 he served as director of the Iowa State Commission for the Blind. In this capacity he was responsible for administering state rehabilitation programs, home teaching, home industries, an orientation and adjustment center, and library services for the blind and physically handicapped. The improvements made in services to the blind of Iowa under the Jernigan administration have never before or since been equaled anywhere in the country.
In 1960 the Federation presented Jernigan with its Newel Perry Award for outstanding accomplishment in services for the blind. In 1968 he was given a special citation by the president of the United States. Harold Russell, the chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, came to Des Moines to present the award. He said: “If a person must be blind, it is better to be blind in Iowa than anywhere else in the nation or in the world. This statement,” the citation went on to say, “sums up the story of the Iowa Commission for the Blind during the Jernigan years and more pertinently of its director, Kenneth Jernigan. That narrative is much more than a success story. It is the story of high aspiration magnificently accomplished—of an impossible dream become reality.”
Jernigan received too many honors and awards to enumerate individually, including honorary doctorates from four institutions of higher education. He was also asked to serve as a special consultant to or member of numerous boards and advisory bodies. The most notable among these are: member of the National Advisory Committee on Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (appointed in 1972 by the secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare); special consultant on services for the blind (appointed in 1975 by the federal commissioner of rehabilitation); advisor on museum programs for blind visitors to the Smithsonian Institution (appointed in 1975); special advisor to the White House Conference on Library and Information Services (appointed in 1977 by President Gerald Ford). In July of 1990 Jernigan received an award for distinguished service from the president of the United States.
To date he has been the only person ever to be invited to deliver keynote addresses to the primary gatherings of the two worldwide blindness organizations in a single year. He spoke at the fourth quadrennial meeting of the World Blind Union in August 1996 and the annual meeting of the International Council for the Education of the Visually Impaired in spring 1997. In 1998 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, the first ever International Leadership Award from the American Foundation for the Blind, and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind's Winston Gordon Award for his leadership in establishing NEWSLINE for the Blind®.
Kenneth Jernigan's writings and speeches on blindness are better known and have touched the lives of more blind people than those of any other person writing today. From 1991 until his death he edited the NFB's immensely popular series of paperbacks known as the Kernel Books. On July 23, 1975, he spoke before the National Press Club in Washington, DC, and his address was broadcast live throughout the nation on National Public Radio. Through the years he appeared repeatedly on network radio and television interview programs.
In 1978 Jernigan moved to Baltimore to become executive director of the American Brotherhood for the Blind (now the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults) and director of the National Center for the Blind. As president of the National Federation of the Blind at that time, he led the organization through the most impressive period of growth in its history to date. The creation and development of the National Center for the Blind and the NFB's expansion into its position today as the most influential voice and force in the affairs of the blind stand as the culmination of Kenneth Jernigan's lifework and a tribute to his brilliance and commitment to the blind of this nation.
From 1987 to 1997 he played an active role internationally as president of the North America/Caribbean region of the World Blind Union. He traveled widely and spoke frequently before international groups about blindness and the NFB's positive philosophy that changes lives and society.
Jernigan's dynamic wife Mary Ellen remains an active member of the Federation. She works with dedication in the movement and is known and loved by thousands of Federationists throughout the country.
Speaking at a convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Jernigan said of the organization and its philosophy (and also of his own philosophy):
“As we look ahead, the world holds more hope than gloom for us—and, best of all, the future is in our own hands. For the first time in history we can be our own masters and do with our lives what we will; and the sighted (as they learn who we are and what we are) can and will work with us as equals and partners. In other words we are capable of full membership in society, and the sighted are capable of accepting us as such—and, for the most part, they want to.
“We want no Uncle Toms—no sellouts, no apologists, no rationalizers; but we also want no militant hell‑raisers or unbudging radicals. One will hurt our cause as much as the other. We must win true equality in society, but we must not dehumanize ourselves in the process; and we must not forget the graces and amenities, the compassions and courtesies which comprise civilization itself and distinguish people from animals and life from existence.
“Let people call us what they will and say what they please about our motives and our movement. There is only one way for the blind to achieve first-class citizenship and true equality. It must be done through collective action and concerted effort; and that means the National Federation of the Blind. There is no other way, and those who say otherwise are either uninformed or unwilling to face the facts.
“We are the strongest force in the affairs of the blind today, and we must also recognize the responsibilities of power and the fact that we must build a world that is worth living in when the war is over—and, for that matter, while we are fighting it. In short, we must use both love and a club, and we must have sense enough to know when to do which—long on compassion, short on hatred; and, above all, not using our philosophy as a cop-out for cowardice or inaction or rationalization. We know who we are and what we must do—and we will never go back. The public is not against us. Our determination proclaims it; our gains confirm it; our humanity demands it.”
Born in 1951, Marc Maurer was the second in a family of six children. His blindness was caused by overexposure to oxygen after his premature birth, but he and his parents were determined that this should not prevent him from living a full and normal life.
He began his education at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, where he became an avid Braille reader. In the fifth grade he returned home to Boone, Iowa, where he attended parochial schools. During high school (having taken all the courses in the curriculum), he simultaneously took classes at the junior college.
Maurer ran three different businesses before finishing high school: a paper route, a lawn care business, and an enterprise producing and marketing maternity garter belts designed by his mother. This last venture was so successful that his younger brother took over the business when Maurer left home.
In the summer of 1969, after graduating from high school, Maurer enrolled as a student at the Orientation and Adjustment Center of the Iowa Commission for the Blind and attended his first convention of the NFB. He was delighted to discover in both places that blind people and what they thought mattered. This was a new phenomenon in his experience, and it changed his life. Kenneth Jernigan was director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind at the time, and Maurer soon grew to admire and respect him. When Maurer expressed an interest in overhauling a car engine, the Commission for the Blind purchased the necessary equipment. Maurer completed that project and actually worked for a time as an automobile mechanic. He believes today that mastering engine repair played an important part in changing his attitudes about blindness.
Maurer graduated cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 1974. As an undergraduate he took an active part in campus life, including election to the Honor Society. Then he enrolled at the University of Indiana School of Law, where he received his Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1977.
Maurer was elected president of the Student Division of the National Federation of the Blind in 1971 and reelected in 1973 and 1975. Also in 1971 at the age of twenty he was elected vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Indiana. He was elected president in 1973 and reelected in 1975.
During law school Maurer worked summers for the office of the secretary of state of Indiana. After graduation he moved to Toledo, Ohio, to accept a position as the director of the Senior Legal Assistance Project operated by ABLE (Advocates for Basic Legal Equality).
In 1978 Maurer moved to Washington, DC, to become an attorney with the Rates and Routes Division in the office of the general counsel of the Civil Aeronautics Board. Initially he worked on rates cases but soon advanced to dealing with international matters and then to doing research and writing opinions on constitutional issues and board action. He wrote opinions for the chairman and made appearances before the full board to discuss those opinions.
In 1981 he went into private practice in Baltimore, Maryland, where he specialized in civil litigation and property matters. But increasingly he concentrated on representing blind individuals and groups in the courts. He has now become one of the most experienced and knowledgeable attorneys in the country regarding the laws, precedents, and administrative rulings concerning civil rights and discrimination against the blind. He is a member of the Bar in Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, and Maryland and a member of the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Maurer has always been active in civic and political affairs, having run for the state legislature from Baltimore. Through the years he has also served on the board of directors of his apartment complex's tenants association, the board of his community association, and the school board of his children's school. In 1981 Maurer was elected president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers and served in that office until 1985. From 1984 until 1986 he served as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland.
An important companion in Maurer's activities and a leader in her own right is his wife Patricia. The Maurers were married in 1973, and they have two children—David Patrick, born March 10, 1984, and Dianna Marie, born July 12, 1987.
At the 1985 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, Kenneth Jernigan announced that he would not stand for re-election as president of the National Federation of the Blind the following year, and he recommended Marc Maurer as his successor. In Kansas City in 1986 the Convention elected Maurer by resounding acclamation, and he served for twenty-eight years until July of 2014. From 1997 to 2000 he also served as president of the North America/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union, and he chaired the WBU Committee on the Restoration of the Louis Braille Birthplace in Coupvray, France. In 2004 he became vice president of the World Blind Union North America/Caribbean Region, and in 2006 reassumed the presidency.
Maurer was honored with the Maryland Black Caucus's Leadership Award in 1985, the United States Presidential Medal for Leadership in 1990, the 1990 Heritage Award from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and the Baltimore Business Journal's 1999 Innovation Award for Excellence in Workplace Technology. Recent honors include the 2002 VME Robert Dole Award and the Daily Record's 2002 Innovator of the Year award. He joined President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in July of 2001 to celebrate the success of the NFB Everest Expedition and once again when President Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act of 2002. He received honorary degrees from California's Menlo College in 1998 and the University of Louisville in 1999. In 1987 he delivered an address at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and in 2000 he was invited to deliver addresses on civil rights at Oxford University and Birmingham University in the United Kingdom.
In his tenure as president of the National Federation of the Blind, Maurer has boldly led the organization into a new test of its resolve, beginning with the visionary expansion of the National Center for the Blind—the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, which was completed in the spring of 2004. The facility, located on the grounds of the National Center, has added more than 170,000 square feet to the NFB's headquarters. The Institute, which is the first of its kind, conceived and built by the blind for the blind, is developing innovative education, technologies, products, and services that support independence for the world's blind. One of the early products of the Institute was the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind handheld reading machine, produced in conjunction with the noted futurist and inventor, Raymond Kurzweil. Maurer's unswerving determination to succeed and his absolute conviction that the organized blind are the best-equipped people to solve the problems facing them have set the tone and are guiding the organization into this exciting new period of growth and accomplishment.
Born in 1976, Mark Riccobono is the only child of two hard-working parents of modest means. Both were high school graduates, and, although they encouraged their son and gave him an example of what persistence and hard work could do, they had no experience of higher education and no familiarity with blindness. Riccobono was diagnosed as legally blind at the age of five, glaucoma being the disease that took his sight. Although he knew he had a vision problem, as a child he never felt limited in what he could do. Being an only child just meant he relied more on friends, and his elementary years have left him with good memories. He benefited from going to his neighborhood school because his contact with children was not just at school but in play, birthday celebrations, and school holidays. His low vision meant he sometimes had to work harder, but the print was large, he got a seat in the front of the room, his teachers did what they could to help, and his friends were comfortable with their buddy who didn't see quite as well as they did. “I was comfortable in my own skin, and that made others around me comfortable as well.” The obstacles he faced and the fact that he had some limitations simply emphasized that he should do what his parents did when things got tough: they just worked hard and powered through, and powering through became an indispensable part of his personality.
Riccobono got a very good elementary education, but found himself in a rough middle school. It was probably what would be called a failing school today. Many of his elementary school friends went to other middle schools, so his social network began to evaporate. Now there were new friends to make and already established groups who had reservations about adding new members to their circles, and this further added to what was already a difficult transition. The year before he entered the school there had been a stabbing, and little emphasis was placed on academic success. This was the place where he learned to stay under the radar, to isolate himself from others, and to decide his place was in the back of the classroom, where he was less likely to be noticed or called on. There were no services to deal with vision loss, and the only accommodation he can recall receiving was a special lock for his locker that he could operate.
Without a good way to read and to see the blackboard, he learned to rely on memory, but even a good memory could not consistently deliver good test scores, and he believes that sometimes he was simply passed.
Riccobono remembers that he was sometimes challenged to do better and that often it was the math teachers who would ask more of him. But he was all too frequently allowed just to exist there in the back of the room with the students least likely to raise their hands, shout out answers, or be called upon by the classroom teacher. Riccobono describes this as learning to “be a passenger in my own life.”
To add to the difficulty of middle school, surgeries for glaucoma in eighth grade not only caused him to miss school, but eventually cost him a significant amount of the little vision he had. An uncle who observed these futile attempts asked his nephew, “What are you going to do if it doesn't work? What will you do if you don't get vision back?”
“I began to ask myself with each surgery whether we might not be chasing the unreachable dream,” Riccobono said. A surgery performed to burn off some of the scar tissue proved to be too effective, destroying the vision in his left eye and eventually causing it to shrink.
So Riccobono went into high school totally blind in one eye and with little vision in the other. In Milwaukee one could choose a high school based on its specialty, and Riccobono chose the one that emphasized business and becoming an entrepreneur. Unbeknownst to him when he made his choice, this school had a resource room for blind students. This was the first time he had considered that there might be others facing the challenges that made school difficult.
Riccobono is glad he chose to attend the high school emphasizing business. The teachers saw potential in him, and, for the first time in a long time, he found himself surrounded by people who believed he had capacity. “High school was better than middle school had been; it had some very good teachers who believed in my capacity, and it had people who worked to mentor me. They didn't understand where blindness fit into my career possibilities, but they knew how to teach, saw potential in me, and were determined to cultivate it.”
He joined DECA, an association founded in 1946 to prepare emerging leaders and entrepreneurs. In this organization he engaged in competitions in public speaking, marketing, and creating a business plan. As a high school senior he was involved in statewide competition, where he won first place in public speaking and earned himself the opportunity to compete in national competitions representing the state of Wisconsin. During that same year he started a school-based business selling sports cards based on a business plan he developed the previous year.
After high school Riccobono arrived at the University of Wisconsin with a folding cane, a laptop computer with no screen-reading or screen-enlargement software, and a closed circuit television to enlarge paper documents. “I had to study a lot because I read slowly, and memorization was the key to any success I might enjoy.” But even with the extreme focus he placed on academics, Riccobono hit the wall in his sophomore year and almost failed a computer class because he had no access to the machines. Eventually his rehabilitation counselor sent him for a technology evaluation, and the use of speech and other technology was recommended. At this point Riccobono started reaching out to other blind people, knowing that, if some of them were successful, they had to be doing something he was not. He knew that the barriers he was facing were real and that he was making a significant effort to overcome them, but he was learning that effort alone was not enough: he needed techniques, strategies, and building on the experiences of others. So it was that he came to find the National Federation of the Blind, won a state scholarship, and attended the national convention in 1996. “A lot of what I heard at the convention resonated with me—gave me real hope—but I wasn't sure it was real because I hadn't had the chance to test it myself. But whatever skepticism I had, the truth is that my predominant emotions were excitement and hope that what these people were saying was true. For the first time in my life it was clear to me that in this group it didn't matter how much or how little I could see. In this group no one ever asked or tried to limit where I could go. For the first time I didn't feel as though I had to decide what I would or would not do based on my vision.”
In the summer after he found the Federation, Riccobono learned Braille, started using the white cane, and came to understand that blind people used other techniques that might help him. He immediately began testing what the Federation said about blindness and encouraged other students to do the same. In the fall of 1996 he founded and became the first president of the Wisconsin Association of Blind Students (a division of the NFB of Wisconsin). He also began rebuilding his dreams. He secured employment with the disability resource center on campus and coordinated the delivery of accessible materials to other students. Riccobono also began expanding his participation in the campus community, knowing that blindness was not the thing that held him back but rather his own low expectations learned over many years. Among his new activities Riccobono became the first blind person at the university to be certified to independently sail one-person sail boats in the Hoofers Sailing Program on Lake Mendota.
Riccobono finished college in May of 1999 with a degree in business administration, majoring both in marketing and economics. He interviewed with Sears in his senior year of college and already had a job offer in hand when he graduated. While attending the Washington Seminar, people asked what he intended to do between his graduation in May and the start of his new job in August. They suggested he use this time for training. Finding the advice sound, he attended the Colorado Center for the Blind. There he worked on attitudes and skills and had a chance to test some of the Federation ideas he had thought about with such hope. He found they had verity in his life.
After training with Sears, Riccobono moved to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where he rented an apartment about three blocks from where he had grown up. At this point he was feeling good about himself: a college graduate with a job, living on his own, and the recently elected president of the National Federation of the Blind of Wisconsin, having won that post in 1998. Before his election a proposal had been advanced to close the state's school for the blind. Riccobono was appointed to serve on an advisory committee charged with transforming the institution from a school to a center where ten programs serving the blind would be housed, one of them being the school for the blind. Riccobono learned from the Federation that his true passion was not necessarily business (although he exhibits the thinking of an entrepreneur in everything he does) but rather education and building innovative educational programs. When the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired was established, Riccobono was hired as its director shortly before his twenty-fourth birthday. He headed an agency with a budget of six million dollars and began to implement programs that required more of staff and students, consistent with the expectations of blind people he found in the Federation. He worked at the Wisconsin Center for three and a half years, and an audit ordered by the implementing legislation gave the new center good marks and was the best the school had received in over a decade. But Riccobono found making changes at the center painfully slow and thought that his focus on improving education would be better served by working on a national level. Having concluded that Riccobono possessed some skills that would be valuable at the Jernigan Institute, President Maurer hired him. Mark and his wife Melissa (a strong leader, advocate, and educator in her own right) moved to Baltimore. Given his interest in education, he took a master’s degree in educational studies from Johns Hopkins University. After working for some time in education, he became the executive director of the Jernigan Institute, a position he held until his election as President of the National Federation of the Blind in July of 2014. In his Federation work he has led a number of critical initiatives including establishment of the National Center for Blind Youth in Science, building a national mentoring program, expanding Braille literacy programs (including the NFB Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning program), development of cutting-edge technologies (including a car that a blind person can drive—the NFB Blind Driver Challenge®), many advocacy priorities, affiliate-building projects, and serving as a point person for key relationships with NFB partners.
Mark and Melissa have three children: Austin born in December 2006, Oriana born in May 2010, and Elizabeth born in June 2012, all of whom are growing up in the Federation. Their daughters both carry the same eye condition that Mark has, but they will have greater opportunities than their dad because of their connection to the National Federation of the Blind. With the emphasis on social media, YouTube, and communication that goes beyond the written word, his family and their activities have been more visible than those of earlier leaders. “While as a family we draw some lines, we are generally pretty comfortable with letting people know what we are doing, the message being that we lead normal lives and do the same things others with children do. We try to show people what we have learned—that blindness does not prevent us from being the kind of parents we want to be and from living the lives we want.” Riccobono is always building—his social media presence frequently shows him engineering new creations out of LEGOs with his children.
When asked about his responsibilities as the newly elected President of the National Federation of the Blind and whether it is scary trying to fill the shoes of Immediate Past President Maurer, Riccobono says, “It isn't so much trying to fill someone's shoes as building on a foundation. It is a tremendous responsibility to figure out how to go farther, to strengthen the movement, to lead in such a way that we go forward and build on what we have been given. My challenge is to meet the expectations of folks who have given a lot and have been around a long time, to meet their expectations and let them know they are still wanted, valued, and needed, while at the same time recognizing that the world is changing, that the organization must continue to evolve, and assuring people that these requirements are not in conflict but a part of continuing to exist and thrive. I worry less about the shoes I must fill or the comparisons that will be made than I do about figuring out how to lead us in the miles we must go, preserving the resources we have, while spending enough of them to make the world what we want it to be. I feel grateful that Dr. Maurer recognizes my challenge—he has had to face it in his own transition and presidency, and I feel confident that most of our members understand this too. The nature of this office demonstrates daily just how far we have to go, and, although we have a tremendous organization and significant resources, we have just a fraction of what we need to do the work that remains.
"In accepting the Presidency of this organization, I pledged to give all of my energy, my creativity, and my love to our movement. This is how I intend to pay it back, pay it forward, and make a future full of opportunity for blind people. I have no illusions that this will be easy, but I have every expectation that it will happen when all of us pull together to create the kind of future in which we truly live the lives we want.”
Pam Dubel was born in 1970 and grew up in Lancaster, New York. She became blind when she was approximately two years old as a result of retinal blastoma, a type of cancer. Although her parents were shocked by her loss of sight, they fortunately realized that she was still the same child except that she could no longer see. Through love and high expectations, they instilled in Pam a sense of pride and confidence in her ability to succeed. They constantly taught her that her blindness was not a limitation to achieving her goals and dreams. Growing up as the youngest of six children also helped her learn to be independent. Since she was the youngest, nobody, especially the brother a year older than she, let her get away with anything. Pam attended a private Catholic school, where she was the only blind student. Her itinerant teacher provided a sound foundation in Braille, which helped her excel in academics. Her parents expected her to do her best and to engage in activities that would make her a confident and well-rounded person. She participated in horseback riding, skiing, and cheerleading during elementary school. During high school her interests shifted to performing in chorus, doing community service, and having fun with her friends.
While growing up, Pam had limited contact with other blind people her age. In general she had no desire to associate with other blind people. She understood that every high school senior experiences some trepidation about the transition to adulthood and independence. However, as high school graduation approached, she began to grapple with questions that her sighted peers couldn't answer. She planned to attend college, and she hoped that she would eventually find a job, but she secretly wondered if she would truly be able to obtain employment. After all, she had had difficulty finding part-time work during high school. Her loving family and friends encouraged her, but she had questions that went unanswered. Although she entered college with some apprehension, she was determined to achieve her best. Her small liberal arts college provided an exciting environment in which to learn and grow. But those unanswered questions continued to nag at her. If people were amazed that she could accomplish the most insignificant tasks, would they ever treat her as an equal? She realized that she had to meet other blind people with more experience than she who could serve as role models.
Her search exposed her to a wide variety of groups and organizations of and for the blind. However, not until she attended a student seminar hosted by the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio did she begin to find the answers for which she had been searching. Although she didn't realize it at the time, that seminar marked the beginning of a new chapter of her life. She met Barbara Pierce, president of the NFB of Ohio, who told Pam about the Louisiana Center for the Blind. More than that, she spoke with Joanne Wilson, its director, who arranged for Pam to complete an internship at the center the following May. As soon as that was completed, Joanne invited her to work as a counselor in the children's summer program that year.
Pam was a 1991 National Federation of the Blind scholarship winner when she was a senior at Denison University, where she majored in psychology and minored in women's studies. She served as vice president of the Ohio Association of Blind Students and as secretary of the National Association of Blind Students, and throughout college she worked summers for Joanne Wilson at the Louisiana Center for the Blind with the children's program.
After graduation from college Pam decided to become a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She recognized that she still needed to gain some confidence in her skills and in her ability to be a successful blind person.
Since 2001 Pam Allen has served as the director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, one of three NFB adult rehabilitation centers. Prior to becoming the director, she served as the director of youth services, working with blind infants and toddlers and their parents, supervising the training of classroom aides to teach Braille throughout Louisiana, coordinating summer camps, and developing innovative programs for blind children and teenagers.
People often ask her what makes the Louisiana Center for the Blind such a special place. Pam responds, “What sets our alumni apart from those of other kinds of rehabilitation facilities? The answer is that, by attending our center and the other centers conducted by Federationists, students are exposed to the National Federation of the Blind and its philosophy. The NFB is more than an organization; it is a loving family. Regardless of where you are, you can find members of the NFB who can give you support and encouragement when you need it. The NFB also provides a constant supply of mentors and role models who challenge you to set goals for yourself. Lives are positively changed every day at the Center because of the philosophy of the NFB.”
Allen recalls that she used to believe that she did not need other blind people. She thought that being independent meant succeeding without the help of others. Her involvement with the National Federation of the Blind has taught her that this is not true. She has learned that she needs reinforcement from her blind colleagues and friends.
Pam lives in Ruston, Louisiana, with her husband Roland Allen, a dedicated Federation leader and a gifted orientation and mobility instructor at the center. She is currently the president of the NFB of Louisiana and vice president of the National Association of Blind Rehabilitation Professionals. In July of 2002 she was elected to the National Federation of the Blind board of directors. Four years later, in 2006, she was elected to serve as treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind. In 2012, Pam and Roland received the prestigious Jacobus tenBroek Award in recognition of their distinguished service in the Federation. In 2015, Pam was elected as first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind. Allen is also involved in a variety of community and professional organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce and as a gubernatorial appointee to the Louisiana Rehabilitation Council. She says, “Being elected to the national board has allowed me to give back and to spread the message of our movement. It is an incredible honor and privilege to serve!”
Ron Brown was born in Gary, Indiana, the first of eight children, to Marzette and Myra Brown on May 15, 1956. When he was a senior in high school, he became blind after he was shot on his way home from a basketball game. At the time he knew nothing about blindness and was overwhelmed by the feeling that his entire life had been radically changed in an instant. One of the first painful lessons he learned was that many of his friends could not deal with his blindness and stayed away from him. Luckily he began to make new friends, members of the National Federation of the Blind. They became inspiring role models for Ron, teaching him that it was respectable to be blind and that he could continue to strive for the goals he had set for himself.
Armed with this newfound freedom, Ron graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor of science degree in health science. He then went to work at Tradewinds Rehabilitation Center in Indiana, where he met his wife Jean, who was on the staff. Eventually he was offered a job in the Business Enterprise Program. He had always wanted to own his own business, and this gave him the opportunity to do so. He has now been in business for himself for thirty years. Recently Ron returned to school and earned a master's degree in educational psychology with a certification in orientation and mobility from Louisiana Tech University. He now owns a second business, Cane and Able Orientation and Mobility, teaching cane travel to blind people in the state of Indiana.
As Ron Brown has developed and matured in his personal life, his commitment to and service in the National Federation of the Blind have deepened as well. In the early years he was a chapter president and was then elected to the NFB of Indiana's board of directors. He was first elected president of the affiliate in 1996 and has been reelected every two years since. In 2001 he was elected to serve on the NFB board of directors, and in 2008 he was elevated to the office of second vice president. He was the recipient of the prestigious Jacobus tenBroek Award in 2015.
Looking back, Ron Brown says, “Becoming a member of the national board is the fulfillment of a life dream. I have been an advocate for blind people for more than twenty-five years, and with every passing year my commitment to serving the blind of this nation increases. My life indeed changed the night I became blind, but with the perspective I now have, I must say that it was for the better.”
Jim Gashel was born in 1946 and grew up in Iowa. After his early introduction to the National Federation of the Blind as Kenneth Jernigan's student at the Iowa Commission for the Blind during the 1960s, he has been devoted to serving the blind community in various capacities. A 1969 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa with work toward a master's degree in Public Administration at the University of Iowa, Jim started his career teaching speech and English for one year in Pipestone, Minnesota. He then accepted a position as assistant director at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in Des Moines. With that move he found his calling is working with the blind and finding ways of solving the problems that face them as individuals and as a minority.
On January 1, 1974, Jim joined the staff of the National Federation of the Blind as chief of the Washington office, where he became one of the best known advocates for the blind of the United States, combining his commitment to blind people with his interest in the political process. As the Federation's scope and influence evolved, so did his roles and responsibilities. In his professional career of almost thirty-four years with the Federation, he held the positions of chief of the Washington office, director of governmental affairs, and executive director for strategic initiatives. Jim's Federation work has led to significant changes in virtually every law directly affecting blind Americans: the Social Security Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Randolph-Sheppard Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Copyright Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Help America Vote Act. In addition to championing these causes, Jim has won the love and respect of the thousands of blind men and women across America who have directly benefited from his informed and effective personal advocacy. No matter what his position, through his drive and devotion to Federationism, Jim has earned the informal title of the organization's non-lawyer lawyer.
With his first wife Arlene, Jim is the father of three adult children and the grandfather of nine. His daughter Andrea and her husband Jeremiah Beasley have four children, daughter Valerie and husband Sam Costanza have three, and his son Eric and wife Miranda have two.
During Jim's service at the NFB, he received the Commissioner's Award for Outstanding Leadership in Rehabilitation Services to the Disabled, the highest honor presented by the commissioner of the United States Rehabilitation Services Administration. He is also a recipient of the secretary of labor's Outstanding American Award. In 2001 Jim and his second wife, Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, jointly received the NFB's highest honor, the Jacobus tenBroek Award, honoring them for their achievements through decades of leadership in work with the blind.
In November, 2007, Jim and Betsy moved from Baltimore to Denver, Colorado, but Betsy soon died after a recurrence of the condition—retinal blastoma—which had caused her blindness from childhood. In September, 2012, Jim married Susan Kern, now Susan Gashel. Their marriage occurred a few months after Susan had returned to Colorado after retiring as an assistant attorney general in the state of Hawaii. Beyond continuing Jim’s active work on behalf of the blind through involvement in the Federation, and Susan’s work to uphold rights and opportunities for blind Randolph-Sheppard vendors, Jim and Susan are passionate about downhill skiing and all the Rocky Mountains have to offer near where they live in the Vail valley of Colorado.
Beyond his volunteer activities, Jim serves as vice president of business development and product evangelist for KNFB Reader, LLC, where he works to develop and promote the NFB’s KNFB Reader technology. While serving as the Federation’s executive director for strategic initiatives, he led the public introduction and launch of the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader, the world's first truly portable text-to-speech reading device for the blind. As part of this effort he raised and administered the funds necessary to support pre-release beta testing, product announcement, and public promotional efforts to bring the product to market in 2006. Jim's work with KNFB brings him full circle in his career since, after first meeting Ray Kurzweil in April 1975, he also organized and raised the funds necessary to test and launch the original Kurzweil Reading Machine, released in 1977 as the world's first text-to-speech reading system for the blind.
Jim was elected to the NFB's national board of directors in 2008 to fill an unexpired term and was reelected in 2009. Then he was subsequently elected to the position of national secretary, a position he has held since 2010. Serving in each of these capacities, he brings to the board both expertise and contacts in the blindness field and an abiding commitment to the work of the NFB. In accepting his 2001 Jacobus tenBroek Award, Jim offered comments that remain relevant today and reflect his approach to our mission. “All I would ask is that all of you remember that it's all of our responsibilities to go out and work for the movement. We can't all go out and climb a mountain like Erik [Weihenmayer] did, and we can't all do the wonderful things that every one of you do all the time, or raise five or six million dollars like Betsy did, but we can all work for this movement. We all have a place in it.” Jim's place is absolutely unique.
Jeannie Massay was born in 1968 in Oklahoma City, the youngest of three children and the only girl. She said she was blessed to be a daddy’s girl, with brothers who did whatever she told them to do. “They always had my back and were loving and supportive,” she said.
Jeannie had good vision for the first thirty-seven years of her life, though she did suffer from severe astigmatism and wore strong glasses to compensate for it. She attended Windsor Hills Elementary School because her mother was a teacher there. “I have been an avid reader all of my life, and because my mom was a reading specialist who worked with sixth-graders, after school I went to her classroom to learn about Pompeii, the pyramids, and all kinds of things younger children didn’t normally get to read about.”
In junior high she attended Leo C. Mayfield. As a student she was involved in competing in intermural basketball and softball. She was also involved in the Pep Club and Student Council. In ninth grade Jeannie had unexplained weight loss and severe abdominal cramping, but soon the symptoms went away. They would return every couple months, and initially she was diagnosed with hyperglycemia. When she was sixteen the cramping, weight loss, and lethargy caused the doctor to do a blood glucose tolerance test, revealing a blood sugar level as high as 900. A normal blood sugar is considered to be around one hundred, and one is considered to be a diabetic if blood sugar levels exceed 140. She was hospitalized for a week to learn to manage her diabetes.
Jeannie attended Putnam City West High School, where she played competitive softball and performed in the band for three years. She was on the debate team and managed to get A’s and B’s, which kept her on the honor roll. “Although I didn’t do badly, I wish I had done better. I was pretty social and liked to talk to people. I was a pretty well-rounded kid, but it was tough being a diabetic and wanting to eat like a teenager. Since I wanted to fit in and do what I thought was normal, at times I went to the pizza parlor and the hamburger joints.”
After high school Jeannie attended the University of Central Oklahoma, living at home until her senior year. She thought she wanted to be a lawyer until her first political science class and then decided this was not what she was meant to do. Instead, she began studying psychology, and in 1990, during a two-week period, she graduated, got married, and watched her husband leave for active military service. Jeannie got a job selling cosmetics in a department store. When her husband Mark was transferred from Fort Knox to San Antonio to go through medical training to be a dietitian, she moved to be near him. After his training was completed, Mark was stationed at Landstuhl General Hospital in Germany, the largest military hospital in the European Theatre.
When Jeannie was eventually able to go to Germany, she loved it: the people, the food, and the opportunity for travel. She taught at a department of defense dependent school, providing instruction in reading, math, and language arts. She also worked with a behavioral management specialist, which led her to think at the time that she did not want to work with children—all the funnier because she eventually came to realize this was her calling and now part of her practice is counseling children and teenagers.
Jeannie and her husband were in Germany just over three years during the first Gulf War. When the military began downsizing, Mark was offered early contract closure and both returned to the States. Jeannie went back to selling cosmetics, working at Estée Lauder. She started by working behind the counter, then became counter manager, and then assumed the job of account coordinator, managing seven counters around Oklahoma. When Mark received a promotion, both moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he managed Marriott contracts for Georgetown University. Jeannie was able to continue her work with Estée Lauder, but now she was back to working on the counter. Soon that counter was bringing in $1 million a year.
Yet another promotion for Mark found the couple moving to Jackson, Mississippi. Estée Lauder helped Jeannie find another job, this time managing multiple counters. The couple was in Jackson for two years, but a merger sent Mark to St. Louis, where he ran the food and conference center for Boeing. Jeannie went to work for a subsidiary of Estée Lauder, Origins, where she worked as the coordinator for eight stores in Missouri and Indiana. While in St. Louis the couple lived in an old Jewish Temple which had been renovated into an apartment. This she loved. Soon she was given the opportunity to interview as an account executive for Origins, flew to New York for the interview, talked with Mark, and was gratified to learn that his reaction to making a move that would further her career was unequivocal: “You have followed me around for ten years, so now I will gladly follow you.”
The couple moved to Memphis, and Jeannie was responsible for the states of Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. In this position she managed eighteen counters for Dillard’s stores and for other retail establishments. She supervised eighty people and loved the job.
Even the jobs we love the most come with significant drawbacks. Jeannie was traveling more than three weeks each month, and this was tough on her marriage and tough on her physically. “Sometimes I would work so hard that I would forget to eat. I got really skinny and sickly. So, after close to four years of this kind of life, Mark and I agreed that something had to change.” She chose to resign her position with Estée Lauder because she could not keep up with the demands of the job without continuing to damage her body. They decided to move back to Oklahoma to be closer to family and friends, drastically improving their quality of life.
Her next job was with the Oklahoma Blood Institute doing public relations and helping to run blood drives. She realized she liked working in this nonprofit organization because she believed in its mission, liked helping people, and felt she was doing something good for society. She worked there for two years before she had a hemorrhage in her eye. When she woke on a Friday morning and found that everything she saw was pink, she thought she was having a problem with allergies, because it had happened before. When the problem had not improved on Monday, she went to the doctor and on that day received 1,000 laser shots in both eyes. Problems with her vision would consume the next year of her life. Every two weeks she was having eye surgeries, procedures, and experimental injections. The frequent laser treatments on both of her eyes meant that she missed a lot of work, and the director of public relations called her in to ask why. No doubt feeling the need to expose her repressed inner doctor, the supervisor suggested Jeannie “get an eye transplant.” In the quest to save her vision, she could not assure her supervisor that her attendance would improve, so she resigned.
Four times during that year of struggle to save her sight, she lost all of her vision. Each time it would return, there would be less of it. Emotionally she tells the story of traveling to a 7 AM Rotary Club meeting and finding that, on that day, she had so little vision that her usual ten-minute trip took forty-five minutes. “I freely gave up driving because I was terrified that I was going to hurt someone else.
“I went through the next six months of surgeries and injections and finally came to the realization that I was mostly blind and it was going to stay that way. I couldn’t see to read or to sew, and at that point I had difficulty figuring out anything I could really do. Part of my self-concept is that I am a strong-willed person, but I couldn’t see how that strong will was going to save me.”
Mark was initially terrified by the onset of her blindness and for a time was very overprotective. Neither of the Massays knew a blind person, and the only thing Jeannie knew was that blind people carried long white canes. The rehabilitation agency had not offered her one, she had no idea where a cane for the blind could be had, so she began using a three-foot carved walking stick her father had used. “Mark and I moved in with my mom because I was familiar with the layout of her house. I started receiving library services for the blind but was on so much medication that I really couldn’t read or enjoy the books they sent. I signed up for rehabilitation services and tried to learn something about assistive technology, but only once did a rehabilitation teacher come to my house for fifteen minutes. Not knowing what else to do, I went to the Library for the Blind in Oklahoma City and spent hours there. They offered no formal training there, but I observed other people, listened to what they were doing, and came to understand a bit about the assistive technology used by blind people.
“The one thing I got from the rehabilitation agency that did seem to help was orientation and mobility services. I appreciated my instructor because she showed up for appointments and was the first person I could clearly see who wanted to give me back my independence.”
When Jeannie decided that she would need more training than she could get from an occasional home visit by the Oklahoma agency, she looked at residential rehabilitation centers. She considered attending the Colorado Center for the Blind and was given a long white cane, but the information she had heard about the National Federation of the Blind and the rigor of CCB training, along with biased information and the opinions of her counselor, convinced her that she should attend the Carroll Center for the Blind. She was at the center about six months, and in addition to personal adjustment to blindness training, she also went through an office skills program so that she could learn enough assistive technology to go back to school and get her master’s degree. As she gained confidence and a working set of blindness skills, Mark once again saw in Jeannie the fiercely independent woman he’d married. After her time at the Carroll Center, Jeannie went back to school to become a therapist. Working in the cosmetics industry had always been lucrative, but it had never been her passion. Mark also made the decision to go back to school, and both graduated with their master’s degrees at the same time.
After graduating in May of 2011, Jeannie set out to begin the supervision process, part of the requirements for licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in Oklahoma. The requirement consists of working for a minimum of three thousand hours under a counselor who is already licensed. Jeannie encountered discrimination when seeking a job to complete the supervision required for her to pursue licensure. “Although I was equally qualified and had a high GPA, many people saw my cane and assumed that I wouldn’t be able to do the job,” she said. After going on lots of interviews, Jeannie finally found a job in October of 2011. She began counseling children, adolescents, and their families who deal with ADHD depression, and anxiety disorders. Jeannie completed the state and national exams in November of 2013 after having had issues gaining appropriate and desired accommodations. She passed both examinations and was fully licensed as a Licensed Professional Counselor on January 31, 2014. Jeannie has been in solo private practice since that time and has most recently been certified to work as clinical supervisor for LPC candidates working towards their licensure.
Jeannie’s first association with an organization of the blind came when she joined the Oklahoma Council of the Blind, the state affiliate of the American Council of the Blind. Although she liked some of the people in the organization, she became concerned with how much time they spent complaining about this radical and militant organization known as the National Federation of the Blind. She did just enough research to realize that the NFB gave state and national scholarships, decided that she was as competent and capable as anyone else, and even decided that crazy, militant money was still spendable. She did not win a national scholarship but was invited to attend the 2008 state convention in Oklahoma. There were fourteen people at that convention, and, to her surprise, Steve Shelton nominated her for a board position. During the luncheon speech presented by the national representative from the Federation, Jeannie was touched by the idea of finding something larger than oneself and reaching out to help others.
Although the Oklahoma affiliate did not award her a scholarship in 2008, it did provide resources she could use to attend the national convention. “I was a bit overwhelmed by the three thousand blind people in the Hilton Anatole,” she said, “but once I heard the gavel drop, I knew we had to bring this kind of enthusiasm and the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind home to Oklahoma. I felt a duty and an obligation to organize a chapter in Edmund, so Steve Shelton, Dick Morris, Selena Crawford, and Dan Frye worked to make the first meeting possible. We had four people attend, and I thought this was great! I told myself we would have an awesome chapter, but at our first regular meeting only the officers showed up. I was disappointed but resolved. The chapter kept growing and pretty soon it came to have twenty and then thirty people on average. We kept at it, and at the same time we worked on developing the affiliate.” Jeannie won a national scholarship in 2009, was invited by President Maurer to attend a leadership seminar, and at that time she told him that, when she graduated with her master’s degree, she would run to be the state president in Oklahoma.
Jeannie says she has never had problems believing in the teachings of the National Federation of the Blind regarding the need to learn blindness skills. She says that, after her initial loss of vision, what she can see has varied so much that she has never been tempted to put down her cane. “My vision isn’t what I use to live—it is helpful and icing on the cake, but it cannot meet my daily needs for travel and other activities.”
Jeannie Massey was elected to the national board of directors in July 2013, and advanced to the position of treasurer in 2015. “When I was growing up, and to this day, my mother used to ask me ‘What are you?’ She taught me to respond in the following way, ‘I am intelligent, capable, beautiful, and lots of fun to be with.’ This was our way of affirming who I wanted to be and who I could become, and blindness hasn’t changed any of it. This is the message I want to share with blind people: that our hopes, dreams, goals, and aspirations are no less real simply because we do not see.”
Everette Bacon was born in Huntington Beach, California. At the age of five he was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy, a condition which had run in his family on his mother’s side for thirteen generations, causing rapid-onset blindness primarily in female family members. Despite the diagnosis, Everette’s family took the advice of teachers and medical experts, believing (or, more accurately, hoping) that since Everette was male and his vision was not deteriorating rapidly like that of other family members, he was unlikely to go blind. As a result, Everette did not learn Braille or other alternative techniques during his school years. Looking back, Everette says, his mother and other family members wish that they had encouraged him to learn Braille and other blindness skills.
When Everette was around eighteen his entire family moved to Texas. Everette pursued a degree in church music at Dallas Baptist University. He jokes that he was pushed toward music because “you know, blind people sing.” His first job was teaching a seventh grade choir, but he found it not to his liking. Searching for other employment in order to earn money to help his wife through medical school, Everette ultimately accepted a management position with Blockbuster Video in 1997. He was very successful in this position, winning several awards and steady promotions. By 2004, he was managing ten stores in the Houston area.
Everette’s eye condition began to worsen, and instead of giving up, he adapted by using alternative techniques. “I started carrying a cane, mainly for identity, but I was using it when I felt I needed it.” “I was never embarrassed or ashamed about becoming blind, because I grew up around blind people, adapting was something you just became accustomed to doing.” However, when he asked for reasonable accommodations from his employer, instead of granting these accommodations, Blockbuster terminated his employment despite his outstanding record. The company even went so far as to describe Everette’s conduct as “fraudulent,” implying that he had deceived the company about his capabilities, even though he had previously been praised and awarded for his work.
This experience traumatized Everette and his family. His wife, mother, and other family members sent angry emails to everyone they could; urging readers to avoid shopping at Blockbuster based on discrimination against the blind. One of these emails found its way to Scott LaBarre, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado and a successful disability rights attorney. Scott took Everette’s case, and ultimately Everette received a settlement from Blockbuster. More importantly, though, he learned about the National Federation of the Blind and the many battles the organization has fought in the effort to advance and protect the civil rights of blind people. “I had heard of the Federation and been told that they were militant,” Everette says, “but my experience taught me the importance of our advocacy.” There are so many reasons to be proud of who we are as blind people, and the Federation has paved the way for our climb to the top of the mountain of civil rights!
In 2004, Everette and his wife, Dr. Angela Peters, moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. Everette became involved in the Utah affiliate and developed what he describes as life-changing relationships with dedicated Federationists like Nick Schmitroth, Karl Smith, and Deja Powell. These friends helped Everette improve his blindness skills and grow in the movement. Everette was also looking for new employment opportunities in Utah and heard about a job opening as a blindness skills teacher at the Utah Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Everette remembers speaking with Ray Martin about the fact that he knew nothing about teaching blind people. Martin told him that being blind was the most important qualification. The agency supported Everette in his pursuit of a master’s degree in rehabilitation. He went from teaching technology to supervising the technology staff and now serves as the agency’s field services coordinator, overseeing all of the agency’s technology and employment services and supervising a staff of nine.
Everette began advocating for Utah’s blind residents with an effort to encourage a prominent local cinema chain to incorporate audio description technology into its theaters so that blind people who wanted to experience movies with audio description could do so. An avid movie fan with an extensive collection dating from his Blockbuster days, he believes that audio description can enable blind people to connect more easily with their sighted peers when discussing entertainment. “One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from the NFB is the understanding that blending into society is an important skill. Being able to relate to our sighted colleagues about movies, television, politics, and sports are excellent paths to opportunities that help change common misconceptions about blindness.”
In 2012 Everette was elected president of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah. He is proud of the affiliate’s successful advocacy for a state “mini-508” law requiring accessibility of new state websites and procurement of accessible electronic and information technology, with agencies being subject to fines when they fail to comply. His advocacy for accessibility made him an outstanding candidate to serve as the Federation’s representative on the Disability Advisory Committee to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He was nominated for appointment to this committee by President Riccobono and duly appointed to serve by the FCC in 2015. Everette is chair of the Utah Library Advisory Board. He also sits on the Utah Assistive Technology Council and the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind’s Audio Equipment Advisory Committee (Western Region). He was unanimously elected to the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind at the organization’s 2015 convention. He and Angela and their two dogs live in Salt Lake City, but Everette still roots for his beloved Dallas Cowboys.
James Brown was born in 1974. "I sometimes wished I had brothers and sisters, but, being an only child, I just went out and got me some. I’ve always been good at making friends, so being an only child didn’t mean I was a lonely child.”
Brown started school with a vision problem but was not declared legally blind until the age of nine. No one really appreciated how difficult it was for him to read print, but reading would send him home at the end of the day with frequent headaches and migraines. “Vision simply wasn't talked about at my house, even though my mother suffered significant vision loss while pregnant with me.” Brown says that she continued to drive on a limited basis, and never did she acknowledge that he might have trouble with his sight. He was always told to “look over there,” or “read that,” so "blindness" was the secret word never spoken.
It is not surprising that Braille was never suggested or offered to Brown. He began his education at Lighthouse Christian, a private school he attended through the seventh grade. His need for large-print books that the private school didn't have eventually pushed him to go to public school for two years. As his vision continued to decline, Brown transferred to the Tennessee School for the Blind to finish his high school education. He was never encouraged to learn Braille, and, when he asked about it at the school for the blind, he was told that it would be inappropriate for him because he would end up reading it with his eyes. Interestingly, Brown went to school with Kareem Dale, a former official in the Obama Administration. Dale and Brown were the same age and had about the same amount of vision. Dale also asked for Braille and was granted it. Brown believes this is because Dale's grandparents were actively involved in their grandson’s education and a part of the IEP process, while Brown’s parents were not very involved. Both young men lost their remaining vision about a year after graduating from high school; Dale had a way to read—Brown did not.
Brown found his time at the private school challenging, the years in public school less so, and his time at the school for the blind did not begin to challenge or stimulate him academically. When asked about his strengths in school, Brown says, “I was never exceptional at anything—maybe some of that was because I was trying to act sighted when I just didn't have the vision—but, while I wasn't outstanding in anything, I was fortunate to be good in just about everything. I didn't really take school as seriously as I should have, and I was not an honor roll student until college.”
Given these experiences, how did Brown decide to pursue a higher education? “Neither of my parents had a college education, and they really regarded it as something that only the exceptional could do or expect. Eventually I came to see that any real advancement for me meant schooling, and that meant going to college,” Brown said.
After high school Brown says he was ready for a little bit of life without school, so he worked at Custom Craft Cabinets. But after two-and-a-half years of sanding, wood planing, and attaching knobs, he realized the job would not pay enough to support him and his growing family. At this point he was a married man, having taken Crystal as his wife, and at that time they had one child, Christopher, who was born in 1994. They would also have another child, Joshua, who was born in 1996. “I was making about $9 an hour, and, although $9 meant more than it does now, it was clear to me that I could not raise a family on that kind of money. I figured out that the only way I was going to move up was by going to college, but, before I could do that, I had to learn some skills—how to use a computer, do word processing, and take advantage of the internet. My grades in college were good, but I had trouble with math. I was always good at it when I could see a little. Having no way to write down the problems, I could do only what I could keep in my head, and college algebra produced the only D on a transcript that was otherwise composed of A's.
“My original goal was to attend law school, so I majored in political science. Before I graduated and applied to any of them, my cousin, who was then in law school, told me I better be prepared to go for a year or a year and a half without seeing much of my wife or my child. I decided that was not acceptable, given that I was newly married and had a young child, and that, if law school was to be something I did, it would have to come later.”
Given his change in career goals, Brown graduated from college and began applying for every job he could. The job he landed was as a transportation tech for the Tennessee Highway Department. He has since been promoted and now serves as a transportation specialist planner 3.
In his job Brown conducts road safety audits. This involves analyzing safety data (the number of fatal crashes that occur on a given segment of highway) to determine their cause. If the analysis concludes that corrective action can be taken to eliminate or reduce the problem that contributes to the crashes, Brown must then determine how to fund the repairs. “If you look at the data and you see that most crashes happen when the road is wet, the corrective action is to add a high-friction surface to that part of the road. If you see a road which is well-traveled during the day but the majority of the fatal crashes happen at night, you then have to assume that night and the lack of light are playing a part in the fatalities. The answers are all there in the data, and my job is to figure them out.”
Brown came to know about the National Federation of the Blind when he won a scholarship in 2007, but winning didn't mean that he immediately became active in the organization. He relates that one of his first reactions when arriving at the convention in Atlanta was to observe to himself that “God didn't make three thousand blind people to be together. There were all these canes and dogs and people heading toward one another.” At the same time he was thinking all of this, he couldn't help being impressed by all that the blind people who came to the convention were doing. At the bar where he sat, there was a lawyer sitting to his left, a television producer on his right, and next to him a scientist who was working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. All were blind. But, no matter how impressed he was by the national convention and the leaders he met, the weight of home life, work, and his participation in a graduate program meant that it took him more than a year to connect with the Federation. “Because of problems going on in Tennessee at the time, I wasn’t really too impressed with becoming a part, but the Affiliate Action Team kept me involved and kept showing me that what was happening nationally could and should be happening in my state. Going to the Washington Seminar was one of the ways they kept me involved, and the first one I attended in 2009 happened to involve our work with the quiet cars—the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act—something I felt I knew a little about.”
When Brown earned a master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, he decided he had more time for outside activities, and what he saw in the National Federation of the Blind helped to convince him that the work of the organization was worth his time and talent. “I liked what I saw in these people—they didn’t hide from blindness, weren’t ashamed to be blind or to say the word. The thing I appreciated most was that many of those I met walked the talk—they were real.”
Brown became the president of the Tennessee affiliate in March of 2012 and was elected to the national board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind on July 5, 2014. “I was extremely honored to have been elected, and I'll do my best to honor the trust that has been placed in me.”
When asked what he sees as the most important challenge facing the Federation, Brown says: “I think our most immediate challenge is to recruit young people and to train them to be leaders. Young people respect those who are older, but they also want people their own age. We have to let them know that the Federation is just as important for their generation as it was to those who created it and to those of us who work to sustain it. It takes work, persistence, and targeting our efforts, but we will persuade young people in the same way we were persuaded. They will become invested and committed, and all blind people will be the better for our ongoing work. I am proud to be a part of this organization and to see to this transition.”
Today Amy Rut Buresh says, “My blindness is simply another of my characteristics like my auburn hair.” She didn’t always feel that way. Amy Rut was born prematurely June 4, 1974, in Fairbury, Nebraska, and has been blind since then from retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). When she was five, her family moved from their farm to Nebraska City so that she could attend the Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped (NSVH). Her parents made the difficult decision to relocate to a new community far away from family, friends, and all they knew so that Amy could continue to live at home during her school years rather than in a dormitory. Young Amy received a solid education and had a normal family life, complete with two pesky little brothers, family campouts, picnics, dress-up, and backyard sports. Amy has said her family’s sacrifice was crucial to her peace of mind in her formative years, and she has always been grateful her parents made the choice they did.
While a student at NSVH, Amy received training in many blindness skills, the most critical of which was Braille, which helped her to excel academically. She participated in countless musicals, the track team, cheerleading, and speech competition. In her freshman year Amy began taking classes at the public school in Nebraska City. Although she was active in extracurricular activities, including “swing choir” and president of her school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Amy found it hard to make friends. She recalls that throughout her public school years she sat through many lonely lunches. With an outgoing personality Amy easily made acquaintances, but no one invited her to parties or asked her to go to the movies.
Amy took piano lessons from kindergarten through her sophomore year and voice lessons from her freshman to her senior year. She still sings at churches, banquets, and karaoke as often as she can. She taught summer enrichment courses on the basics of Braille to school children in her hometown. Through the Nebraska Human Resources Department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Amy also participated in a Big-Sister-style program, in which she was paired with a blind elementary school student whom she continued to mentor well after the program’s conclusion.
Growing up, Amy had few positive blind role models and limited contact with her blind peers. During her teenage years she first participated in youth programs sponsored by the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (NCBVI), where she gained many valuable skills and met her future husband.
For several summers Amy worked as a volunteer counselor at the Summer Kids Independence Program (SKIP) Camp, a program for children ages five to twelve, sponsored by NCBVI. She wanted to share with other blind youth the things she had learned during her high school journey: which plans had worked for her, and which hadn’t. She believed then and believes more absolutely today that mentoring is important in improving one’s attitude toward blindness and a great way to learn how to handle being different in our society.
Whether at home or at school, participating in music, academics, or athletics, Amy was successfully working and competing with her sighted peers. She was even named second runner-up in the 1990 Nebraska City Miss Applejack Pageant. Yet in addition she had to face another, deeply personal aspect of life. As a senior in high school she began wrestling with life questions that neither her family and teachers nor her sighted peers could answer. Could she really be successful as an independent blind adult? Would she ever marry and have a family? What about employment? Could she get a job and do it well?
Following graduation, Amy began conquering her fears and seeking answers to these nagging questions by attending the Orientation Training Center of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Lincoln. There she was first introduced to the underpinning philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind and, equally important, to kind and inspirational Federationists.
Armed with newfound confidence and skills, Amy enrolled in Peru State College, graduating with a BS in psychology, sociology, and criminal justice. Throughout her time on campus she was active as a peer mentor, in student senate, and in residence hall government. She also soloed and toured with the concert choir. She helped found and held several offices in the Association for Challenged and Enabled Students (ACES), a group dedicated to breaking down stereotypes and eliminating discrimination against those with disabilities. ACES sought to educate the non-disabled public about the challenges people with disabilities face. During the years at Peru State College Amy began working with women and children who experience domestic violence, a field to which she still devotes time when she can. She served as a volunteer counselor for a nonprofit in Southeast Nebraska and other agencies. She has worked tirelessly as an advocate, role model, and leader for both women and the blind. She attributes her success with blind people to her discovery of and involvement in the National Federation of the Blind.
In 1993 the NFB of Nebraska established a scholarship program, and Amy won that first scholarship. With this award she faced a turning point in the evolution of her personal philosophy and in her affiliation with the National Federation of the Blind. Growing up, she had been warned that the NFB was an organization of militants whom she should avoid. Thanks to the scholarship program, Amy attended her first state convention in the fall of 1993, discovered the warmth of the members of the NFB and the important work we are doing, and hasn't looked back since.
In fact, the very next year, in October of 1994, Amy and a handful of other concerned blind Nebraska students were granted the charter for the Nebraska Association of Blind Students within the Nebraska affiliate. She was elected president of the student division, an office she held for two years.
Since those early days in the Federation, Amy has held a number of chapter and affiliate positions in Nebraska. In 2003 she was elected to serve as affiliate president, and in the summer of 2006 she was elected by the national convention to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind.
Amy and her husband Shane (a leader and dedicated Federationist in his own right) live in Lincoln with their son Noah (born May 2, 2006) and daughter Sarah, (born February 14, 2014). She is employed as a rehabilitation counselor with the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“My ordinary life, juggling family, Federation and work commitments, struggling to keep all the balls in the air—this is the life I’ve chosen—the life I’ve created. My life as a blind woman is ordinary, not extraordinary. Therein lies its beauty.”
Shawn Callaway was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland. When he was a sophomore at South Carolina State University, a classmate was playing with a gun and accidentally shot Shawn in the temple. The accident resulted in the detachment of his optic nerves, which caused total blindness. Shawn returned to the DC area and received blindness training at the Workforce Technology Center in Baltimore. He credits a blind man named Lou Smith with providing his training and being an early mentor. He also credits his parents for encouraging him throughout his transition to life as a successful blind person. After his rehabilitation training, Shawn earned his associate’s degree in psychology from Essex Community College in 1995, his bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in 1997, and then his master's in social work from Catholic University of America in 2000. He began his professional career working with the homeless at Catholic Charities and then went on to counsel children in the Washington, DC, public schools system for the city's Department of Behavioral Health. He now works as a program specialist for the United States Department of Health and Human Services, specifically in programs of the Administration on Community Living and the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. In 2005 he married Latonya Rollins of Cleveland, Ohio.
Shawn had heard of the National Federation of the Blind in the mid-1990s but was initially convinced by a friend that the organization was too radical for him. In retrospect, he believes he was given bad information and wishes that he had become a Federationist earlier. After being invited to a chapter meeting by Linda Black-White, Shawn finally joined in the spring of 2009. He found himself leading the Washington, DC, affiliate when longtime leader Don Galloway died in 2011.
Shawn already had confidence in most of his blindness skills when he joined the National Federation of the Blind, but he says that he was still apprehensive about becoming a parent. The opportunity to observe and talk to blind parents like Mark and Melissa Riccobono and Tracy Soforenco, as well as a DC Federationist named Vicky Smith, gave him confidence that he could be a successful blind parent. He is now the proud father of his daughter Camille who was born in 2014.
Shawn also credits participation in the NFB with opening up other leadership and community involvement opportunities for him. He has served on the boards of the DC Center for Independent Living and the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind and has chaired the DC rehabilitation council. He currently co-hosts a community radio program called “Open Our Eyes” on a local station. In addition, Shawn serves as the president of the DC Friends of the Talking Book and Braille Library and is a member of the DC Blind Bowlers Association. Shawn says, “I am grateful for the opportunity to serve on the NFB board of directors, both to give back to the organization as a whole and because so many past and present board members like Dr. Fred Schroeder, Anil Lewis, Dr. Joanne Wilson, Sam Gleese, Pam Allen, and Ever Lee Hairston have inspired and mentored me. I will strive to fill the same role for other leaders and members of our great movement and devote every ounce of my energy to building the Federation and advocating for all blind citizens.”
Norma Beathard was born on January 25, 1956, in Conroe, Texas. She was the first of five children born to Robbie and Joseph Beathard. Norma was born legally blind because her mother contracted rubella during her pregnancy; however, Norma’s blindness remained undetected until she began walking. At that time her parents began to notice that she seemed to bump into things that a sighted child should see, and they had her vision tested. A determination was made that she was blind when she was two years old. Years of surgery followed with no improvement.
Norma was an active child. She joined her siblings in most of the games they played, and her blindness was not a real obstacle when she was small. But she couldn't read the blackboard when she started school, and she experienced a number of problems related to her vision as she grew older.
Norma always attended school in rural communities, a circumstance which she describes as “both a blessing and a curse.” Because no one in her life knew anything about blindness skills, she wasn't able to learn Braille or cane travel. She used large print books, which were bulky and heavy for a tiny girl. Since her vision was extremely limited, she had to read with her nose practically touching the pages of her books, even though the print was enlarged. Despite the lack of training in blindness skills, Norma feels that she received a quality education because she had caring teachers who always found ways of making it easier for her to learn. She was fortunate to have the same teacher from her first grade year through her third grade year, and that teacher was determined that Norma would be included in everything the class did. Her name was Jean Todd, and she spent countless hours offering Norma one-on-one instruction. Other teachers with similar attitudes were a part of Norma's life throughout her K-12 experience.
Professionals in the field of work with the blind were not as helpful. When Norma asked for Braille training, she was told by a rehabilitation professional that she was wasting his time, and she was made to feel guilty because, according to him, she was depriving a “real” blind person of the opportunity to learn by making this frivolous request. Eventually she was able to convince him that he should provide her with training, and he traveled to her small town and spent two hours with her. This was woefully inadequate, but it did allow her to learn the alphabet, Braille numbers, and some punctuation symbols. Her experience with inadequate Braille training has made Norma a strong advocate for providing Braille education to children with low vision.
After completing her education, Norma found herself living in a small community with no opportunities for a blind person. She knew she had to leave her rural home if she was to become successful. Her father was opposed to her leaving, but her mother understood that a different environment would provide Norma with a better chance of living the life she wanted to live. So she took the unusual step of going against the wishes of Norma's father; drove Norma to the bus station in Lufkin, Texas, and purchased a ticket to a better life for her daughter. Norma traveled to Austin that day, and although she had no idea what she would do to become successful, she was confident that she would be able to make a life for herself.
Norma began her working life as an employee at the Travis Association for the Blind. That employment did not last long because Norma found that she couldn't live on the $1.05 an hour that the sheltered workshop was paying its trainees, and her questions about how to make a higher wage went unanswered. In fact, it became clear that she was unlikely to be paid the federal minimum wage anytime soon, so Norma began to look for other work. She also married during this time and began a family. Her first son was born on March 10, 1976, and her second son was born on March 10, 1978. Once her children were out of diapers, Norma started work at the Texas School for the Blind. She worked as a dorm parent at the school from 1979 to 1982.
After a divorce Norma found the National Federation of the Blind and became an active member in 1983. By 1985 she was living in Houston, and she was an important part of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas leadership. She didn't hold elective office in the Federation, but she worked hard to help the affiliate president and other leaders to carry out the organization's mission. She became president of the Houston Chapter in 1989, and she continued in that role for eight years.
When Norma joined the Federation, she met Glenn Crosby. Glenn was serving as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas, and as the two worked closely together, a personal relationship developed. They were married on April 15, 1989. Each of them had two children, and the two families have blended into a harmonious group. Glenn and Norma are now the proud grandparents of seven grandchildren, ranging in age from four to twenty-one.
Four years before they married, Glenn asked Norma to begin managing the office for his food service business, and they became professional partners. The Crosbys owned five food service locations during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but they sold all but two of the locations and were operating those two locations when they retired in 2013.
Though both Norma and Glenn grew up in Texas, they decided they wanted a change in 2001, and they spent about a year in South Dakota. Then they spent several months in Ajijic, Mexico. Ajijic is near Guadalajara, and, while they enjoyed their time there, they needed to be closer to home for business reasons. So in 2005 they moved to Ruston, Louisiana. Shortly after arriving in Ruston, Norma was elected to serve as president of the North Central Chapter of the NFB of Louisiana. She remained in that position until January of 2009, when she and Glenn made the decision to move back to their native Texas. They now live in Alvin, near Houston, on four acres of land and have a few cows.
In 2012, Norma was chosen to serve as the first president of the Lone Star Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas. Then, at the affiliate's 2014 convention, she was elected to serve as the state president. While Norma believes strongly that it is not necessary to hold an office in order to be an effective leader, she is honored to serve as both the president of the NFB of Texas and, since her election at the 2015 National Convention, as a member of the organization's national board of directors.
John Fritz was born in September of 1966. He was raised on a family dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin, the oldest of five children. He was lucky enough to have parents who made him learn the value of hard work early on. “We were a farm family, and I was the oldest son. I was expected to help with the chores and work outside with my dad.” He was born legally blind but had some sight. This diminished to light perception by the age of three. He believed at an early age that sight was not a requirement to be successful.
John attended the Wisconsin School for the Blind from kindergarten through the seventh grade, primarily because the public school didn't believe a blind child could be served in his hometown. In seventh grade he was able to persuade the school counselor to allow him to transfer back to his local public school. He remembers this being a very difficult adjustment. Having lived at the school for the blind for seven years and being away from his siblings, he found it hard to return and take his place again. Everyone had to get to know each other again. “I realized how much I was missing out on at home,” he said.
John graduated from Fennimore High School with honors in 1985. Before and after school he was responsible for milking cows and helping with general farm work during high school. He earned his letter in wrestling and played trumpet in pep band, marching band, and concert band. His most significant accomplishments came in Future Farmers of America (FFA). John was involved in an extemporaneous-speaking competition, the Creed Speaking Contest; dairy judging; and parliamentary procedure. He placed fourth in the nation in computers in agriculture and achieved the American Farmer Degree and served as president of his FFA chapter for two years.
John attended the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where he graduated with honors in 1989 with a major in animal science, emphasizing dairy management, nutrition, and reproduction. He also earned a minor in computer science. While in college he participated in the academic decathlon in agriculture and in seven academic clubs and organizations.
In these years John got his first dose of the low expectations many professionals have for blind students. When he told his Department for Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) counselor that he wanted to be a veterinarian, his counselor informed him that, if he pursued that career, DVR wouldn't fund him. The counselor announced that a blind person wouldn't be able to be a veterinarian. So John told the DVR counselor to leave. That day he learned quickly that, if he wanted to pursue his goals, he needed to find a way to pay for college himself. He found part-time jobs, work-study assignments, and scholarships to pay his way.
“The most significant event of my life occurred the summer of my sophomore year at a national convention when I won a National Federation of the Blind scholarship in Phoenix, Arizona,” John said. This was his first exposure to the NFB. He was relieved to find peers doing similar things and blind people with the same philosophy. He realized during that convention that he had finally found the biggest and most reliable source of information any blind college student could ever have—other blind people. While attending college, he continued to work on the farm on weekends. College provided him the opportunity to advocate for himself and become a self-sufficient person.
John started working on the family dairy farm right after graduating from college. By this time he had decided that the dairy farm was the immediate need, and veterinary school would have to wait. He was responsible for the day-to-day operations and management of the farm, where he milked sixty-five registered Brown Swiss cows. In 1991 he started working part-time for a local computer store as a computer technician. His main responsibility was repairing computers. The next year he became store manager, where his responsibilities included the day-to-day operation of the store, sales, and service. He left the farm and moved to town. He continued at this job for six years. In 1995 he married Heather Ross. They met during the 1992 NFB convention in Charlotte and started dating after running into each other again during the Dallas convention in 1993. In 1997 he accepted a job with the Louisiana Center for the Blind as the computer instructor. He describes it as a very rewarding experience because it provided the opportunity for him to fully absorb and live the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind each day. While in Louisiana, John and Heather Fritz started their family. Lindsey was born in 1998, Christina was born in 1999, Mark was sponsored from Korea in 2001, and Andrew was born in 2002.
In 2003 John made the difficult decision to leave his job and friends at the center and return home to Wisconsin with Heather's parents, who had just retired to Wisconsin from California, to begin his own vending business with the Business Enterprise Program. This is what he continues to do today. In 2005 the Fritzes adopted their daughter Katie from China at the age of six. In 2006 John and Heather built their dream home for their growing family on fifteen acres in Kendall, Wisconsin. He also built a warehouse for his business, J&H Vending, Inc.
John says that he was honored to be elected president of the NFB of Wisconsin in 2006. He has enjoyed working with the affiliate, divisions, and the blind of Wisconsin. In 2008 he was elected to the National Federation of the Blind board of directors. He remains very busy with the state affiliate, along with being a member of Lions Club, the local Ham Radio Club, and various other clubs and organizations. He also likes to do woodworking, grilling, fishing, and hunting large game with his kids.
As busy as he is, and as many activities as he pursues, nothing is more important to John than spending time watching his children grow—all seven of them! Child number six, a four-year-old boy from India they named Jacob, was adopted in May of 2009. The Fritz family has also been joined by a seventeen-year-old daughter named Anna, who was originally adopted from China by another family when she was nine years old, but became part of the Fritz clan in the summer of 2009.
Reflecting on his life and work, John says, “The National Federation of the Blind doesn't prescribe what a blind person should do or even what he or she can do. It merely invites every blind person to dream and work to achieve those dreams. Its members blaze trails for one another and cheer each other along the way.”
In 1947 Vicksburg, Mississippi, was not an ideal place for a black child to be born with congenital cataracts. For years no one even noticed that little Sam Gleese had difficulty seeing, least of all Sam himself. He simply assumed that everyone else saw things with the hazy imprecision that he did.
One day when he was in the second grade, the teacher in the segregated school he attended sent a note home asking his mother to come to school for a conference. To the Gleese family's astonishment she told them that Sam had significant difficulty seeing to read and do board work. By the fourth grade the bouts of surgery had begun. Glasses (which Sam hated and forgot to wear most of the time) were prescribed. But none of this effort enabled young Sam to make out much of what his friends could see. Then in 1962, when he was fifteen, Gleese underwent surgery that gave him enough vision to show him by comparison just how little he had seen until that time.
He graduated from high school in 1966 and enrolled that fall at Jackson State College, where he majored in business administration. Looking back, Gleese is sure that he was legally blind throughout these years, but he never considered that he might have anything in common with the blind students he saw on campus. His struggle was always to see, and that made him sighted. Occasionally he was forced to deal with his difficulty in reading, particularly when a fellow student or teacher pointed out what he seemed to be missing, but for the most part he denied his situation and resented those who tried to make him face his problem.
After graduation in 1970, Gleese joined a management training program conducted by K-Mart. Everyone agreed that he was excellent on the floor and dealing with employees, but, though he did not realize it, he was extremely unreliable in doing paperwork. He consistently put information on the wrong line. His supervisor confronted him with the problem and told him he had vision trouble. He hotly denied it, but within the year he was out of the program.
During the following years Gleese applied repeatedly for jobs that would use his business training. When he supplied information about his medical history and his vision, would-be employers lost interest. Finally in late 1972 he got a job as assistant night stock clerk with a grocery chain. He had a wife to support—he and Vanessa Smith had married in August of 1970—and he needed whatever job he could find. Gradually he worked his way up to assistant frozen food manager in the chain, though it wasn't easy.
Then in 1979 his retinas detached, and within a few weeks late in the year he had become almost totally blind. For a month or two he was profoundly depressed. His wife, however, refused to give up on him or his situation. Gradually Gleese began to realize that she was right. He could still provide for his family and find meaningful work to do. He just had to master the alternative methods used by blind people.
Early in 1980 he enrolled in an adult training center in Jackson, where he learned Braille, cane travel, and daily living skills. He is still remembered in the program for the speed with which he completed his training. By the following summer he was working as a volunteer counselor at the center, and in the fall, with the help of the state vocational rehabilitation agency, he and his wife Vanessa were working in their own tax preparation business.
It was difficult, however, to maintain a sufficient income year round, and the Gleeses had a daughter, Nicole, born in 1976, to think about. In 1983 he decided to try taking a job making mops in the area sheltered workshop for the blind. He worked there for two years until a staff member pointed out that he could do better for himself in the state's Randolph-Sheppard vending program, which had finally been opened to African Americans in 1980-81.
In January of 1985 Gleese was assigned the worst vending stand in the state of Mississippi. Because of his degree in business administration, his phenomenal record in personal rehabilitation, and his work history in the grocery business, officials decided that he needed no training but could learn the program in his own location. He spent two years in that facility, mastering the business and improving his techniques. Then during the next several years he had somewhat better locations. But in 1992 he bid on an excellent facility and then appealed the decision that awarded it to another vendor. Though the appeal decision, which eventually came down, did not give him personal redress, it did correct unfair practices that had plagued many vendors in Mississippi for years. In April of 1994 Sam, with the help of his wife Vanessa, became the manager of one of the largest food service operations in the state vending program.
Gleese has always been active in the Missionary Baptist Church. From 1973 to 1990 he taught the adult Sunday school class in his own church, and in 1980 he became a deacon. He was ordained to the ministry in November of 1992 and is now senior associate minister at the College Hill Baptist Church. He headed the scouting and the taping ministry. Currently he heads the members’ ministry and works with several other ministries.
Gleese first heard about the National Federation of the Blind in the early 1980s and attended his first national convention in 1983. He reports that from that moment he has been a committed Federationist. Vanessa has worked steadily beside him through the years as he has struggled to improve the lives of Mississippi's blind citizens. He became president of one of the state's local chapters in 1985, and the following year he was elected state president. He continued to serve in that office until 2016. Under his leadership the number of chapters in the Mississippi affiliate nearly tripled.
In 1992 Gleese was first elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind, where he continues to serve with distinction. He has dedicated his life to educating the public, blind and sighted alike, about the abilities of blind people. According to him, too many people in Mississippi believe—as he did for many years—that blind people can do nothing and belong in rocking chairs and back rooms. Sam Gleese is making a difference everywhere he puts his hand.
In May of 1999 the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, chose Sam to serve as chairperson of the newly formed Mayor's Advisory Committee on Disabilities. In September of that year he was appointed and confirmed by the city council of Jackson as the first blind person to serve on the Jackson-Hinds Library administrative board. This board oversees the services of public libraries in each of the seven towns in the Hinds County area.
In August of 2000 Gleese retired from the vending program for health reasons. He served one year in the AmeriCorps volunteer program. The project with which he was associated encourages and enables people with disabilities to become fully involved in the community. The program is the only one of its kind in Mississippi and is staffed by disabled people. Sam explains that other AmeriCorps programs are designed to assist in education—tutoring and the like—but this program allowed him to increase his outreach to blind people and the general disability community. It provided yet one more way of living his Federationism and ministering to the people he has been called to serve.
In August of 2001 Gleese accepted a position as an independent living specialist with LIFE (Living Independence for Everyone) of central Mississippi. This position provided opportunities to work with adolescents with special health care needs between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one in Mississippi. The project, called Healthy Futures, was funded by a four-year grant through the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
In January of 2002 Gleese became the statewide project director for the Healthy Futures grant. This position enhanced his opportunity to serve all adolescents with special health care needs, including blind people.
On October 1, 2007, Sam was employed by the City of Jackson as its ADA compliance coordinator. In considering the position with the city, Sam saw an opportunity to have an even greater opportunity to positively influence the lives of the blind and other people with disabilities in Jackson. “I believe that the energy and commitment I bring to this job will set a benchmark for other cities to strive for and meet.”
In 2014, Sam received the prestigious Jacobus tenBroek Award in recognition of his distinguished service in the Federation. He makes it clear by word and action that each advancement he has made through the years has been in large measure the result of the hope and determination the NFB has instilled in its members, and he makes it clear that he will do what he can to see that others enjoy a quality of life as good as or better than the one he has been privileged to live.
Ever Lee Hairston was unanimously elected to the board of directors at the 2010 National Federation of the Blind (NFB) convention on July 6, 2010, in Dallas, Texas. She brings considerable experience to this position, having served in various capacities with the NFB over the years—including nineteen consecutive years of service on the NFB Scholarship Committee and a fourteen-year stint as first vice president of the NFB of New Jersey. Ever Lee founded and served as the president of the Garden State Chapter of the NFB of New Jersey from 1991 until 2005, and for many years she was the coordinator of the LEAD Program, a mentoring program for blind and visually impaired teenagers. She currently serves on the board of directors of the Louisiana Center for the Blind and as president of the NFB of California.
Born to Arizona and Clarence Hairston on the Coolemee plantation in Mocksville, North Carolina, Ever Lee is the third of seven children. She grew up and attended schools in the segregated South. “I felt like a second-class citizen, using hand-me-down books in school; and, due to unexplained vision problems, I had to struggle to read from the bulletin board,” Ever Lee noted. In spite of the challenges of growing up in the segregated South and continuing visual problems, Ever Lee had a strong desire to become a nurse. Ever Lee’s parents simply could not afford to send her to college; so after high school, Ever Lee went to New York City to earn money for college by working as a live-in maid. She returned to North Carolina at the end of the summer anxious to pursue a nursing career. However, she failed the required eye examination and was told that she would not be suitable for admission to Duke University Nursing School. “I was heartbroken but refused to be defeated,” she said. She was accepted at North Carolina Central University, where she earned a teaching degree.
After graduating from North Carolina Central, Ever Lee taught high school business courses in New Jersey. While working as a high school teacher in New Jersey, Ever Lee’s eyesight continued to deteriorate. She finally sought answers and medical care. Ever Lee, along with three siblings, were diagnosed with a genetic eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa (RP). And, four years after starting a challenging teaching career, Ever Lee was forced to resign from her position because of her impending blindness.
At the age of twenty-nine, facing total blindness, with a failed marriage, a child to raise alone, and uncertainty about future employment, Ever Lee admitted to being devastated and feeling sorry for herself. However, she held on to the hope that a better way of life was in store for her. Ever Lee admits to believing in the old adage that “When God closes a door, He opens a window.” She began looking for the window.
After inventorying her strengths, she stepped through a window of opportunity at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, where she took graduate courses in counseling. In 1983 she landed a counselor trainee position with the Camden County Department of Health and Human Services. But, as Ever Lee explains it, “With no blindness skills, I was faking my way through.” She notes that she relied heavily on sighted people to read to her and to act as guides.
In 1987 Ever Lee received a call from Jackie Billie inviting her to an NFB convention in Phoenix, Arizona. At first she made excuses because she was afraid of requesting the time off from her job. Jackie was persistent, and Ever Lee finally agreed to attend the convention.
Ever Lee describes arriving at the hotel in Phoenix to the unfamiliar sound of canes tapping and the unsettling feeling of dogs licking her legs. The most profound experience, as Ever Lee explains it, came when she started through the registration line. She remembers being asked, "Would you like a Braille or print agenda?" She could no longer read print and did not know Braille. It was then, according to Ever Lee, that a light bulb went off.
“I am illiterate,” she thought. She talked to as many people as she could at that convention in Phoenix and learned about the NFB centers. From then until 1990 she continued to function without blindness skills but worked on a plan with Joanne Wilson to get to Louisiana where she could be trained.
Ever Lee attended the Louisiana Center for the Blind from October 1990 until April 1991. She learned to read Braille, mastered cane travel and independent living skills, and learned to utilize adaptive technology. She returned to New Jersey, after the Freedom Bell rang for her at the Louisiana Center, with a confidence she never had before, integrating blindness skills into her everyday life.
Ever Lee credits her training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind with enabling her to succeed at her chosen career. After twenty-six years holding many successive positions with the Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program in New Jersey, Ever Lee retired from the position of program director in 2006. In July of that year she moved to California.
She continues to devote tireless hours mentoring and advocating for the blind, as well as delivering inspiring speeches to blind and visually impaired audiences and educating the sighted public about blindness. Ever Lee is blessed with one son, Victor; a wonderful daughter-in-law, Brenda; and three energetic grandchildren: Briana, Kendall, and Jasmine. She enjoys traveling, reading a good novel, and spending time with family and friends. She was elected as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of California in 2016. In July of 2015 Ever Lee became an author with the publication of Blind Ambition: One Woman’s Journey to Greatness Despite Her Blindness.
Mary Catherine Brothers (Cathy) was born on October 25, 1949, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Charles and Catherine Brothers. She is the third of nine children, four girls and five boys.
Cathy was born with congenital cataracts. In 1949 few resources were available to parents of blind children. The National Federation of the Blind was only nine years old, and the Kentucky affiliate was only two years old. The Brothers family had not heard of either. Her parents had never known any other blind people and couldn't imagine what the future might hold for their daughter. However, they decided that a commonsense approach was their best avenue. Luckily for Cathy, they never considered any approach to raising their blind daughter other than the methods they were using to raise their two older boys.
After several eye surgeries Cathy gained some usable vision in her right eye. At age five she was enrolled in a Roman Catholic school. Her parents chose this educational setting since the school offered a sight-saving class, where she would have access to large-print books and other materials that would make classroom work easier. Then in the fall of 1960 Cathy was enrolled at the Kentucky School for the Blind, where she remained until graduating from high school in 1967. Her parents and teachers decided that it would be more beneficial for her to attend school where she would have access to all of her textbooks in large print and, perhaps more important, where she could learn Braille.
This was Cathy's first exposure to totally blind peers and adults. Although she had been around other visually impaired students at her elementary school, the majority of them could see considerably better than she. Cathy and her parents soon learned that blindness was simply a physical condition, certainly not one that would keep her from achieving whatever goals she set for herself. During these seven years while attending the Kentucky School for the Blind, she began to learn not to be ashamed of her blindness. She learned to advocate for herself and others. Being student council president during her junior and senior years launched her political career.
During the summer of 1967 Cathy attended the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. An ill-advised rehabilitation counselor thought this training would be the crowning touch to prepare her for college in the fall. That summer school Lighthouse class of 1967 was comprised of very bright, outgoing, normal young adults, who turned the tables on the Lighthouse staff and teachers. As Cathy remembers the experience, the adults were the ones to get the education when the students refused to be bound by the low expectations and negative attitudes of the staff. At this point in her life she still had not heard about the National Federation of the Blind but was already preaching and practicing NFB philosophy.
Upon graduation from high school Cathy attended Spalding University, formerly Catherine Spalding College in Louisville, Kentucky. She majored in psychology, minored in sociology, and took an active part in academic, student government, and social organizations. The blindness skills and attitudes she had learned at the Kentucky School for the Blind and even the negative attitudes she had been exposed to at the Lighthouse the summer before college were beginning to pay dividends. Cathy was growing into an adult with increasingly resolute convictions and positive attitudes.
In 1972 Cathy met Betty Niceley, the longtime leader of the Kentucky affiliate and for many years a member of the NFB board of directors. The rest is history. This friendship began her formal Federation education. Although Cathy was slow to join the Federation, Betty never gave up on recruiting her. In 1975 Cathy became a member of the Louisville Association of the Blind, the former name of the local NFB chapter. Through the years Cathy eventually served as secretary, vice president, and president of the National Federation of the Blind of Greater Louisville. She was also treasurer of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille of Kentucky. In the Kentucky affiliate she has served as board member, treasurer, first vice president, and now president. At the 2002 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind held in Louisville, she was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind.
Cathy has held a variety of jobs through the years. During college she was employed at the Kentucky Industries for the Blind (now LC Industries for the Blind) to do seasonal contract work. For a short time after college Cathy worked for the state of Kentucky as a social worker in the Food Stamp Office. After staying home to raise her daughter, Cathy has worked successively as the program coordinator for the National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky Braille Service Center, a clerical support staff member in a law office, and the Braille clerk for the Jefferson County school system. But her favorite job of all was stay-at-home mom to her daughter Dana Nicole. She volunteered as a classroom aide, did substitute teaching, and worked as a secretary in the principal's office. She served as president of the school Parent Teacher Association, secretary of the athletic club, and member of the parish council. In addition she coached both the peewee basketball team and the cheerleading squad.
In June of 2010 Cathy joined the ranks of the retired. She is enjoying retirement to the fullest. She says it affords her more time to concentrate on her NFB obligations. She is also enjoying spending precious time with her family, especially her two granddaughters, Hana and Haley.
Cathy has received a number of awards for academic and athletic achievement, but the awards she cherishes most are the Susan B. Rarick, Harold L. Reagan, and T. V. Cranmer awards presented to her by the National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky. Cathy commented that her roots and commitment to the NFB go deep and that the past thirty-eight years are just the beginning.
Carla was born and raised in Southern California in the early 60's, the youngest of 4 children. In the summer before fifth grade, Carla lost a great deal of vision but did not notice it until she started school in the fall and was unable to read the chalkboard from the front row. A few years earlier, her older brother had been diagnosed with a rare genetic eye condition called Stargardt's disease, which resulted in the loss of central vision. It was soon confirmed that Carla had the same condition. She was diagnosed legally blind in 1971.
Because of her remaining peripheral vision, Carla did not “look blind,” so she was not taught Braille or any other alternative techniques of blindness. She had very little experience with blind people. The only blind person she knew was her brother, and he was forever using his blindness as an excuse for standing on the sidelines. Carla knew that this was not the life she wanted and was determined to do everything in her power to convince the world that she was not blind.
After high school Carla went to Humboldt State University in Northern California. There she met her husband Lucas. They were married in the summer of 1981 and moved to San Diego for Lucas's master's degree program. Though Carla had not completed her bachelor's degree, she was more than happy to put her college career on hold and work to support the couple. Her one year of college had not been very successful. Without the ability to read Braille and eyesight too poor to read print, Carla, who had been an A student in high school, saw her grades drop.
She got a job as a Montessori preschool teacher in San Diego while Lucas completed his master's degree. Their daughter Alison was born in 1983. In 1985 the family moved to Illinois. Lucas enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Illinois, and Carla decided to complete her bachelor's degree. With Lucas' encouragement, Carla asked for accessible textbooks and decided to learn Braille. The staff at the university’s disabled student's services office told her how difficult Braille would be to learn and how inefficient it would be. Discouraged and defeated, Carla wondered if there was any hope for her future. Fortunately she learned of a scholarship program through the National Federation of the Blind. She won a scholarship from the organization’s Illinois affiliate in 1988. The state convention changed her life. Her negative attitudes about blindness and about her own potential to be a successful professional were replaced by confidence and self-assurance that remain a hallmark of her character today.
After both graduating with high distinction from the University of Illinois in 1988, the McQuillans completed their family with the birth of their son Duncan. They moved to Oregon to be near Carla's family. Carla started her own Montessori preschool, which later expanded to include three schools and a Montessori Teacher Certification Program. Carla served as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Oregon from 1992 until 2006, when her business responsibilities became too demanding. She also served on the NFB's national board of directors from 1998 until resigning from that position as well in 2006. She was re-elected president of the Oregon affiliate in 2012 and still serves in that capacity. She is the director of NFB Camp, the program that offers child care during the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Carla was again elected to the national board of directors in 2016.
“I had such horrible misconceptions about blindness for most of my childhood and early adult life,” Carla says. “I thought I knew what blindness meant, and I didn't want any part of it. The National Federation of the Blind taught me that blindness was only as limiting as I allowed it to be. My friends and colleagues in the movement have been more than ideal role models; they have saved me from a life of regret and underachievement.”
Born July 6, 1949, in Montclair and raised in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Joseph Ruffalo, Jr., had already graduated from Bloomfield High School, attended Montclair State College, and served America in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star, before he learned in 1976 that retinitis pigmentosa would slowly claim his vision. For six years he continued his work as a manager in a Thom McAn shoe store, but by 1983 he began looking for guidance about how to achieve greater proficiency and control over his life as a blind adult.
The staff at the Joseph Kohn Rehabilitation Center (JKRC), then located in Newark, told him he should not learn to use a cane, read Braille, or master any adaptive devices because he still had enough vision to do without them. Though eager to obtain the necessary skills, at the time Joe believed he had no recourse but to adhere to the advice of the only professionals he knew. Not until 1986 did he learn to use a cane, and he accomplished that by teaching himself. While at JKRC, Joe discovered a talent for baking, which led to a successful nine-year career as the owner of a pastry business.
In 1988 Joe tentatively attended his first NFB chapter meeting in Newark. He reports that after ten minutes he knew that his life was about to change dramatically. Realizing that the NFB was a place of fraternity and empowerment, empathy and accomplishment, Joe says, “I saw blind people doing things I wanted to do. They were holding jobs, volunteering, and achieving in every pursuit.” This was the beginning of Joe's own growth and achievement. In 1990 he became second vice president of the New Jersey affiliate; two years later he was first vice president; and by 1993 he was president of the NFB of New Jersey, a position he maintains to this day. The members of the NFB of New Jersey honored Joe at the fortieth state convention on November 12, 2016, with the Raising Expectations Award. “It is a tremendous honor and responsibility to promote positive attitudes about blindness and the abilities of blind people,” Joe comments.
But Joe's community involvement has not been limited to the National Federation of the Blind. He has been a leader in the Lions Club for over twenty-nine years, serving as president for three. He has also held positions as zone/regent chair and serves on the district cabinet. In over twenty-eight years with the Knights of Columbus, Joe has held the positions of guard, warden, and deputy grand knight. He also was an active member of the Boy Scouts of America for over fourteen years, serving as cub master for four years. As past president of the Special Education Parent and Professional Organization for thirteen years and past chairman of the board of trustees of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, he has further worked to assure the full integration of people with disabilities into society.
Joe attended the Therapeutic Massage Center to obtain certification in massage therapy and from 1998 to 2001 provided massage for staff, patients, and visitors at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville before moving his practice to a private office. He has served as a consultant to the Somerset School of Massage, making recommendations to staff and students and answering questions about training methods for blind students.
Joe also worked to smooth others' transitions from dependence to independence as a leader in two programs sponsored by the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He was previously employed by the First Occupational Center of New Jersey and the Puerto Rican Association for Human Development as a program manager in the Senior Community Independent Living Services (SCILS) program, which identifies people over age fifty-five in Essex and Ocean counties who have experienced vision loss, with the goal of teaching independence skills so that these seniors can remain active in the community and independent in their homes. As state program director and northern region coordinator of the Leadership, Education, Advocacy, and Determination (LEAD) program, administered in partnership with Heightened Independence and Progress, Joe provided mentoring activities for blind teenagers and their families. Unfortunately, the LEAD program was terminated as of October 1, 2013. However the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired established the Employment Development Guidance and Engagement (EDGE) Program, where Joe provides his experience as a mentor to raise expectations of blind and visually impaired teenagers and their parents. His goal is to help them transform their dreams into reality and to live the lives they want.
Joe’s many contributions to the community were recognized in November 2000 when he was honored with the Partnership for Progress Award at the New Jersey Commission's Believe and Achieve ninetieth anniversary celebration. In July 2001 his leadership in the blindness community was again acknowledged when he was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind. In October of 2002 the State of New Jersey honored Joe by presenting him with the New Jersey Vietnam Service Medal.
Joe has always been encouraged and supported by his wife of thirty-nine years, Judy, and his two sons, Joseph and James and his two daughters-in-law Bettina and Kelly. In his spare time Joe likes sports of all kinds, especially baseball and basketball, and recently experienced surfing at Asbury Park in New Jersey. For nearly ten years he enjoyed hosting Thru Our Eyes, an Internet radio program www.thruoureyes.org that highlights blindness issues, discusses technology, and promotes positive attitudes about blindness.
Joe’s life and work express his commitment to the blind and their struggle for equality in society. His achievements stand as an example for others, like those of the Federationists who deeply impressed him at his first chapter meeting. He achieves and grows, facing every challenge with energy, enthusiasm, and common sense. In so doing, he exemplifies his belief that “One of the most important things for members of the blind community to do is to teach the public that blindness is only a characteristic. With the proper training, skills, attitude, and techniques, blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance.”
Adelmo Vigil was born in the small community of Amalia, New Mexico, in 1951. He was adopted as a baby by his aunt and uncle and raised as an only child on their small ranch. Although it was clear very early that he did not have normal vision, his parents expected him to handle his share of the chores, which included caring for the horses, cows, sheep, and goats. At the age of five Adelmo received the official diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa. He began his education in the local public school, but no one there had any expertise in the needs of blind students. Adelmo was not taught Braille, could not read the print that he was expected to use, and therefore did not read or write well. In 1964 when he was thirteen, his parents decided to enroll him in the New Mexico School for the Blind. Although the family did not wish to be separated, it was their hope that Adelmo would receive a better education at the residential school.
Adelmo's first two years at the school for the blind were no different from his public school education—he was still encouraged to use his limited vision. He remembers that each weekend he had to write an essay for his English class to be submitted and read aloud on Monday. Adelmo would write the piece and memorize it because he could not read his own writing. But, after two years of struggling, he went to an eye examination and was told by the school nurse who had accompanied him to the appointment, “I have some bad news for you. You're going to have to learn Braille.” The relieved Adelmo responded, “That is the best news I've ever heard. Maybe I'll learn to read now.”
Passionate about mentoring and teaching young people, Adelmo pursued a degree in elementary education at Western New Mexico University. There he met his wife Soledad, who was also pursuing a teaching career; they were married in 1975. When he began to seek employment in the Silver City area, where he had been a successful student teacher, Adelmo encountered discrimination for the first time. None of the local schools could hire him, because his name was not on the list of teachers available for hiring provided by the district administration, even though he had completed his student teaching at one of the district schools. Fortunately, his student teaching supervisor, Travis Columbus, believed in Adelmo's capabilities and helped him file a complaint against the district with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. Ultimately, in 1977 Adelmo applied for a position in Shiprock, New Mexico, and began his teaching career. The principal at Adelmo's first school in Shiprock would not assign him to some of the routine responsibilities expected of other teachers, such as supervising students during recess. But when Adelmo transferred to a different school, the principal there was eager to have him not only assume all the duties of other teachers, but also to serve on the curriculum committee and in various other roles. Adelmo gained a reputation of being gifted with difficult students, and parents were asking for their children to be in his classes. He also coached junior high and high school wrestling.
Adelmo's experiences teaching sighted students and combating discrimination earned him an invitation from Joe Cordova and Fred Schroeder to speak at the 1982 convention of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico in Albuquerque. That convention and his first national convention a year later were revelations to Adelmo. “I realized that I was not alone in facing challenges and discrimination and that I had the Federation family behind me. I also learned that the progress I had been able to make and that other blind people were making was due to the work that the National Federation of the Blind had been doing since its inception,” he says. Adelmo immediately became involved in the affiliate and has served in various roles since that time, culminating in his election as affiliate president in 2012.
Adelmo's passion for helping his blind brothers and sisters also led to his second career. In 1989 he was appointed to the Board of Regents of the New Mexico School for the Blind, a position from which he helped engineer the school's dropping of its NAC accreditation. In 1993 he moved to Alamogordo to take a position as director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind's orientation and adjustment to blindness center. In 1997 he became deputy director of the Commission and continued to serve in various roles there for the next ten years. He was particularly passionate about working with young adults in the commission's summer programs. He retired in 2007 but jokes that he has retired three additional times since then. In 2009 he received training as an orientation and mobility instructor through Louisiana Tech and has received the National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) from the National Blindness Professional Certification Board. He went on to supervise and mentor other blind travel instructors.
Adelmo was elected to the NFB Board of Directors in 2016. He says, “I am honored and humbled to serve on the board and to give back the encouragement, support, and love that I have received from my Federation family. I remain passionate about helping the blind live the lives they want, particularly young people, and will do my utmost to build the National Federation of the Blind and to advance our goals.”
Adelmo and Soledad live in Alamogordo. They have two sons, Adrian and Gabriel, and six grandchildren so far.