by Gary Wunder
With every Washington Seminar we build on a tradition, and even in the fast-paced, hard-working, and politically volatile world of the United States capital, inevitably turnover occurs, and each visit we make adds to our name recognition, face recognition, and credibility. This year the weather was wonderful for our gathering, but the Congress’s institutional memory found us starting in-person meetings with a congressman or senator saying, "You were here last year during the big blizzard, weren’t you? I think you even made it back here before I did. We were amazed that with the town shut down you people still showed up."
What some refer to as the Midwinter Convention of the National Federation of the Blind began on Sunday with a job fair for those seeking employment and a meeting of the student division. In this latter meeting students discussed the challenges in getting a higher education, and talked about when individual effort could resolve the problem, and when collective action was necessary to bring about the use of accessible hardware, software, and other aspects of campus life.
When the gavel fell at 5 PM, ushering in the Great Gathering-In meeting which is traditional at the Washington Seminar, President Riccobono wasted no time in welcoming our members to Washington, DC, and explaining the issues that had caused us to travel from throughout the country to change the lives of the blind. Here is what he said:
Fellow Federationists: Change has once again swept America—promises have been made, mandates are being claimed, and deals are being brokered. And, depending on your point of view, greater hope or uncertainty exists. Regardless of the promises, mandates, and deals, there is one great certainty that again expresses itself in this room tonight and on Capitol Hill this week: the National Federation of the Blind is on the watch. The blind stand self-determined to ensure that our equal participation will be part of the promise. The blind bring a mandate that blindness is not the characteristic that defines us or our future. The blind say that every deal must raise expectations for the blind because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. We can live the life we want, and Washington will not hold us back. We bring our hope, love, and determination to Republicans and Democrats, freshman members and longtime veterans in Congress. Our collective voice offers our authentic experience on any topic affecting blind people, and we come with our own agenda for change.
Now is the time for all great institutions of higher education to knock down the artificial barriers and make their educational technologies accessible. We are tired of having our ability to overcome inaccessible technologies tested rather than our competency in science, math, history, psychology, literature, art, or any number of other subjects we pursue. We have studied politics, and we know that when people come together with a unified voice, change is possible.
From our seventy-six years of field experience as an organized movement of blind people, we know that when we resolve to tackle a problem, nothing will stand in our way. To the schools that continue to hold us back, we say: don’t deny, aim high; don’t deny, aim high; don’t deny, aim high.
We seek to participate fully in our communities in play and in work. We strive to have good jobs and, believe it or not, pay taxes. In order to have those opportunities to integrate fully into society, we need access to information in a nonvisual manner. We need to buy the accessible technology that will allow us to utilize our skills and talents fully for the betterment of our communities, and for our efforts to empower ourselves, we seek a tax credit when we spend our own dollars to buy the expensive technologies required to access information—not a handout but a step-up on the staircase of independence and equality. We seek not to avoid taxes but to get ourselves in a position to pay more of them. Give us a fair chance to get the technology needed to compete on terms of equality, and watch us give back to our nation as we pursue the American dream.
We seek to equip all blind people with knowledge by giving them greater access to the most fundamental tool for reading and writing—Braille. We have one national library that distributes accessible content in Braille for our use, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and last year we helped change the Pratt-Smoot Act in order to authorize the library to distribute devices that would allow Braille to be read with refreshable displays. Now we seek the funds required to establish a national program so that no blind person will be required to live in the twenty-first century without Braille under his or her fingers. Braille is knowledge, and knowledge is power. Let us power the greatest revolution and literacy for the blind by establishing the expectation that all blind people will read.
And finally, we seek to open up the borders of knowledge by creating the systems to share accessible materials around the world. For far too long the volumes of accessible materials have been locked away for only a select few to access. To the protectors of the world’s knowledge in accessible form, we say “Unlock our books, and set the knowledge free.”
This week the Marrakesh Express has come to Capitol Hill, and the blind have a ticket to read. Because the National Federation of the Blind was a key player in getting this historic Marrakesh Treaty established, it is now time for the United States Senate to ratify the treaty for our own country and give us access to the accessible materials around the world. We seek knowledge; we seek Braille; we seek the opportunities to secure the technologies we need, and we seek equality in our educational system. These are the promises we seek; this is the mandate we carry; and we intend to broker the deal for all blind Americans. That is why the National Federation of the Blind has come, and that is the purpose of our Washington Seminar.
After a rousing cheer for the statement of our commitment and the issues we would take to Capitol Hill, President Riccobono introduced the Honorable Phil Roe representing the First Congressional District of Tennessee. In his fifth term as a congressman he serves as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and is a member on the House Education and Workforce Committee. Congressman Roe comes to the House of Representatives after a distinguished career as a pediatrician, who has delivered nearly five thousand babies. So, when we went to Capitol Hill looking for someone who could deliver on the promises contained in the AIM HE (Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education) Act, it was no accident that we asked for the help of Dr. Roe.
This distinguished member of Congress began by thanking us for our invitation and saying that good invitations to speak are few and far between given the poor reputation Congress enjoys. He said that he told the Speaker of the House that there were only three things that polled worse than the Congress: Lindsay Lohan, meth labs, and North Korea.
Dr. Roe said that it is a credit to the National Federation of the Blind that we have worked to get such stakeholder involvement in the AIM HE legislation he is sponsoring. He wishes to commend us for helping to bring on board the Software Industry Information Association, the Association of American Publishers, EDUCAUSE, and the American Council on Education (ACE). He believes that it is through the cooperative work of all of these organizations that we have developed a common sense, bipartisan piece of legislation that has a good chance of passage in this Congress.
Dr. Roe said that his interest in our issues came from what he learned about blindness from his mother. She lost her sight later in life, and as her only child, he was responsible for most of her care. He said that when he came to Congress and was greeted by our proposals, he would think about them, go home at night, turn off the lights in his small 800-foot-condominium, and challenge himself to learn to move about independently. The strong conviction he feels for the AIM HE Act is the result of the importance of education in his life and the brief attempts at orienting to a new and different situation that convinced him that blindness can mean very different things depending on the opportunity one is given. The country he represents wants the best she can get for all of her people, and he is determined to see that the AIM HE Act results in greater education, employment, and quality of life for blind Americans. His remarks, given their thoughtfulness, sincerity, and enthusiasm, were met with tremendous applause by the crowd, and he said he was looking forward to seeing all of us on Capitol Hill.
President Riccobono presented the Great Gathering-In with the summary of legal cases with which we have recently been involved. He talked about a twelve-year-old girl who was once thought to be incapable of benefiting from instruction in reading and writing but who now has Braille as her primary method for reading and writing in the Individualized Education Plan that bears her name. The President discussed the recent release of regulations regarding the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, details of which will be found in the April issue.
More and more in the public environment we are finding ourselves confronted with kiosks, and far too many of them have no nonvisual means one can use to access them. We find them in health facilities, dining, and grocery stores, just to mention a few. Seldom do we find any of these that are accessible, but this will soon be different as a result of the National Federation of the Blind. The kiosks placed in public locations by Pursuant Health will be accessible. This agreement was signed with Pursuant, the National Federation of the Blind, and the attorney general for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The signing took place on the twenty-sixth anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In the week prior to the Washington Seminar, we reached an agreement with New York City’s LinkNYC program, which has taken over thousands of no longer needed telephone booths and placed kiosks in them. Based on our agreement, these will be accessible. The only thing not covered in the agreement between New York City and the National Federation of the Blind is where Superman will go to change into his suit.
Tackling the inaccessibility of university programs, services, and equipment, in August the National Federation of the Blind settled with Wichita State University, requiring that the university procure only devices that are accessible, and then ensuring that those who can benefit by using them are given the instruction necessary to do it.
On a similar note, two years ago the Washington Seminar heard from Aleeha Dudley. Because Aleeha hung tough and because she had an ally in this organization, in October 2016 we announced, along with the United States Department of Justice, the gold standard for access to technology in instructional materials in universities, a settlement and consent decree that now should be the roadmap for every university in this country. Because of Aleeha’s tenacity and the commitment of the Federation, there is good news to report in her case, and it will be found in the April issue of this publication.
After briefly covering other activities, President Riccobono introduced two dignitaries in the audience. They were Karen Keninger, the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and Diane McGeorge, the coordinator of logistics for the Washington Seminar for more than three decades. She talked about the changes since the first seminar she coordinated: the way we keep records, the room we use to coordinate activity, the hotel now taking reservations, and the large crowds which are routinely a part of our annual event. But not everything is about change, and the peanut butter pie that has been on the menu for lo these four decades has once again made its appearance for the Washington Seminar.
Some traditions are longer lived than others, but it is amazing how many of them revolve around food. Shawn Calloway, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of the District of Columbia, announced that, after a two-year hiatus, the provision of donuts for those going to Capitol Hill would take place on Tuesday morning in the lobby of the hotel. These are provided courtesy of the National Federation of the Blind of the District of Columbia. He went on to say, “Two years ago we ran out. Now, President Riccobono, Anil Lewis, Pam Allen, and Gary Wunder: they were the reason we ran out. This is a warning for all of you to get there early tomorrow morning.”
President Riccobono’s response was, “See, that’s what I get for going down there to hand out doughnuts.”
On other matters, President Callaway thanked those who attended the networking and professional development meetings held on the previous day. He thanked members of the Virginia affiliate for helping to put the events together, and he also congratulated those who put together and attended the job fair held as one of the concurrent sessions that took place before the Great Gathering-In meeting.
Chris Danielsen, the director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, reminded us that our job was not only to go to Capitol Hill but to take our message to our fellow countrymen and women. One effective way to do this is through the use of social media, and he talked about how all of us could help in this effort. Whether we were members with shoe leather on the Hill or members at home wanting to help, all of us could have a role in seeing that what was happening at the Washington Seminar was widely posted and ensure that our issues were ones which trended on Twitter.
Immediate Past President Maurer was introduced and began by asking Jim Gashel if he remembered the first significant gathering on Capitol Hill that began the convening of the Washington Seminar. They agreed that it happened in October 1973, that the event gathered lots of press and Congressional attention because it was new to have lots of blind men and women running around on Capitol Hill, but that all of that attention came to a screeching halt with the resignation of the Vice President of the United States, Spiro T. Agnew. As significant as this day in history would turn out to be for the country, Dr. Maurer no doubt understated his feelings and those of others who were present at the time by commenting that the shift in attention was “a pain in the neck.” He observed that one thing that has not changed about the National Federation of the Blind since that beginning in 1973 is that, when we want something, we either build it ourselves or see that it gets built. This is true not only of products but also of programs, and he went on to describe our recent hosting of the meeting of the World Blind Union, an activity which was immensely helpful for us in showing to the world just what an organization of blind people can do to make a change in the world in which we live.
Fred Schroeder, the newly elected president of the World Blind Union, came to talk about how changes made here in the United States will affect millions of blind people around the world. The passage of our AIM HE Act won’t just make things better for students within the borders of this country. The existence of this law in our country will be seen as a beacon by others, will provide a precedent they can use in crafting their own laws, and will give them encouragement that, through their own self-organization, they can raise the bar for education and employment in their countries. The passage of this act will also demonstrate for people of other countries that blind people are worth educating, and that’s really what it’s all about. You don’t educate children unless you think there is a reason to educate them. You don’t worry about the unemployment of blind people unless you believe that blind people can and should be competitively employed.
There is significant synergy that exists between our work and the work of the World Blind Union. One of President Schroeder’s next activities is to travel to Geneva with the purpose of defeating a proposal in some European legislation that would allow the driver of a low-sound emitting vehicle to turn off that sound if he or she judged it unnecessary. Interestingly that switch has been called a kill switch, and Dr. Schroeder’s goal is to see that it is removed from regulations being considered abroad. We are also working together on the Marrakesh Treaty, because the need for information transcends borders, and its provisions help blind people no matter where in the world they may live. He summed up his comments by saying that our most important objective is to build the National Federation of the Blind, for this will be the single most important thing we can do to help the blind of the United States of America and the world.
Anil Lewis came to the podium to talk about a new program being created by the organization. Its acronym is BUILD, and it stands for Blind Users Innovating and Leading Design. The goal of this team will be to tell developers what we need, what works, and what doesn’t. For information about how to become a part of the BUILD team, contact Anil by writing to him at [email protected].
For those who are interested in helping in the effort but believe they are not yet technically able to do so, Anil related a story about a woman calling to offer her help. He gave her the website she could use to fill out the form for volunteering, but she said she didn’t think she had the skills to fill it out. He took her name and contact information, put her in touch with her affiliate president for further training, and fully expects to see her as an active participant on the team once she has received the training she needs. Again, we take people where they are, help them get to where they want to be, and benefit from their contributions as they benefit by becoming a contributor.
Again this year we are conducting our summer intern program, and students who are willing to spend a good bit of their summer working at the Jernigan Institute should contact Anil Lewis at the address above. The internship provides a tremendous opportunity to get to know the workings of the Federation, to meet many of the people who are involved in making things happen nationally, and to grow to be one of them. For more information about the National Federation of the Blind 2017 Summer Internship Program go to <https://nfb.org/blog/vonb-blog/national-federation-blind-2017-summer-internship-program>.
In 2017 we will once again be holding the National Federation of the Blind Youth Slam. In July we will bring one hundred young people from across the country to participate in the most dynamic STEM program of its kind for people who are blind. More information will soon follow on our mailing lists and in the pages of this magazine.
One of the most important things we do is advocate for the rights of blind parents, and the program through which we undertake most of this activity is the Blind Parents Initiative. We need to capture experiences of successful blind parents through video, audio, and written presentations. Those interested in making a contribution to the project should contact Melissa Riccobono by writing to [email protected]. We must also work to adopt model state legislation that will remove the presumption in too many state laws that to be blind is necessarily an indicator that warrants greater watchfulness on the part of agencies charged with child welfare. We must remove the barriers that each blind parent must overcome in convincing child welfare authorities that they are capable, competent, and caring parents who are able to take care of the children they bring into the world.
Parnell Diggs reported that we are now working on a case in Illinois in which a blind infant was removed from its parents because hospital authorities judged that the blind mother would be unable to determine when her child’s feeding bottle was empty or when the child was wet and needed changing. The removal was also based on the concern that she would not be able to safely lift her child from a crib, her own mobility being suspect because she cannot see. Over and over again we are faced with the assumption that when the majority uses their sense of sight to accomplish a task, the absence of sight must mean that task cannot be safely accomplished without it. Our life experience denies this. We must share our reality and see that the full force of the law is brought to protect blind people and our children.
President Riccobono reminded us that preregistration for the convention begins in March, that the convention will be held at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, and that details about the upcoming convention can be found in each issue of the Braille Monitor. The convention will be held from July 10 through July 15, and the President encourages us to come and bring ten or fifteen of our closest friends.
John Paré, executive director for advocacy and policy, took the floor to introduce members of the government affairs team who discussed each of the issues we would take to Capitol Hill. The remarks they made are covered in the fact sheets which appear immediately following this article.
John Paré was followed to the microphone by Scott LaBarre to discuss our Preauthorized Contribution Plan. Currently our members are giving over half a million dollars a year, but the ever-increasing number of programs we sponsor requires that we do even better. We now have three affiliates giving over $2,000 a month, and it is our goal to reach annualized giving of at least $600,000 by the end of the year.
With the adjournment of the Great Gathering-In meeting, members went off to find food, organize in caucuses, and role-play for the legislative discussions that would follow. The National Association of Blind Students hosted a fantastic get-together complete with hospitality, music, and delicious desserts.
Being as good as its word, the NFB of the District of Columbia did provide donuts for those heading for Capitol Hill, and although this writer cannot speak to the behavior of President Riccobono, Pam Allen, or Anil Lewis, he can say with confidence that he left the doughnut table with only one round tasty treat in his hand. His protest that “No one can eat just one,” was ignored as people filed through the line, grabbed a napkin and their own sweet morsel, and filed off to Capitol Hill to begin a long day’s work.
At noon on Tuesday many of us assembled in the upper Senate Park for a student rally to support the passage of the AIM HE Act. Twenty-seven students addressed the gathering, and whether their stories represented the gaining of a 4.0 grade point average or struggles that sometimes led to failure and having to regroup to try again, all of them had one thing in common: the biggest challenge in higher education is not learning the material that others are expected to learn; the biggest challenge is using the technology that is supposed to make learning easier but which sometimes makes it almost impossible. Our class participation, our papers, our test results, and our grades must reflect what we know about the subject matter being taught, not how skillfully we are able to work around inaccessible technology. Over and over again we challenge the schools: aim high, don’t deny; aim high, don’t deny; aim high, don’t deny.
At the conclusion of the student rally we returned to Capitol Hill to keep appointments, meet with our congressmen and their staff, and gather support for the four major pieces of legislation that constitute our 2017 legislative agenda. At 5 o’clock many of us gathered in Senate Room G50 for our second annual Congressional Reception. We were joined by six Senators and ten Representatives, each of whom made brief and moving remarks. Senator Jon Tester was the first to speak, and Federationists will be familiar with his work on our behalf to see that blind veterans have the right to travel on space available aircraft. The senator noted that we are in a time of change, that for some of us it brings about a time of uncertainty and for others a time of challenge. Regardless how we feel about the change that is afoot, we must see that it is positive and that it reflects what we need. He says that we bring a message that all parties should be able to get behind, and he offers his close working relationship with Senator Heller as evidence that this kind of work can and will take place in the current Congress.
Senator Dean Heller addressed the crowd and said that meeting with the National Federation of the Blind was one of the highlights of his senatorial year. He said that many people who walk through his door do so as representatives for some group or other, but he knows that when he meets with the National Federation of the Blind that we are in Washington, DC, because we are an organization of the blind who speak for ourselves. He says that he knows our work involves seeing that we are not defined by one characteristic and that we are given every opportunity to participate fully in our communities. He believes that every American, regardless of their circumstance, should have access to quality jobs, and as part of the Senate Finance Committee he vows to be an important part of the dialogue to see that the opportunity for those jobs and the jobs themselves materialize for people who are blind. At the same time he will continue to work closely with us to see that blind veterans are able to take advantage of the space available provisions that are offered to other former members of our armed forces.
The next gentleman to approach the podium has the distinction of being at both of our Congressional rallies, the one held in 2015, and this one in 2017. The presenter was Congressman Gregg Harper. He has been the principal sponsor of the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act we have been supporting and which will again be introduced after some minor changes that have been suggested by the Congressman. He stressed that one of the reasons for the effectiveness of the National Federation of the Blind is that we realize success on Capitol Hill depends on building relationships. This not only means relationships with members of Congress but also with members of their staffs. Often a staff member will come to know more about the specifics of an issue than his or her boss, and it is because of the judgment and expertise of these staff members that many members of Congress decide whether they will support a piece of legislation and how much energy they will put into seeing to its passage. As important as our Washington visits are, it is essential that we get to know Congressional staff at the local level, for they too have tremendous influence over providing advice about how to best shepherd our legislation through the halls of Congress and onto the desk of the President.
Representative Donald McEachin is a freshman representative from the Commonwealth of Virginia who brings a long background of service in the senate of Virginia and is excited to learn about the issues facing the blind which require federal action. He says that although he and his staff have a lot to learn, the door is always open, and he will always be attentive to the needs and concerns of blind people.
Congressman Tom Rice of South Carolina came to address the crowd, and he is one of only a few representatives who has the distinction of supporting each and every proposal currently advanced by the National Federation of the Blind. Our own Parnell Diggs ran for the position that Congressman Rice now occupies, but both agree that they are united by a strong bond, that bond being the commitment to see that the needs of South Carolinians, and indeed the needs of all Americans, are uppermost on their agenda. Congressman Rice says that in Parnell Diggs we have a man who is brilliant, articulate, and persuasive, that the Congressman is honored to work with him, and that Parnell will always have the ear of the Congressman and his staff.
Senator Boozman of Arkansas was the next to take the microphone, and he said how much he admired the blind of the nation coming to Capitol Hill, especially those from Arkansas. He says that our presence on the Hill is far more important than any number of people we might send to speak for us, and he values those members of the National Federation of the Blind of Arkansas who work so diligently to keep him informed.
Congressman David Young of Iowa was the next person to be introduced by President Riccobono, and readers of the Braille Monitor will remember that representative Young visited the Jernigan Institute in April of last year at the instigation of Jim and Sharon Omvig, who told him that there was nothing more important he could do for the blind than to see the programs and activities of our organization. He said that as a result of a meeting held with the Iowa delegation early in the afternoon, he agreed to sponsor the Access Technology Affordability Act. He agreed this would be handled as a bipartisan issue and commended us on bringing concerns that should easily garner bipartisan support in the Congress.
From Florida we welcomed our longtime friend, Congressman Gus Bilirakis. He began by saying that we could count him in as a cosponsor on the Access Technology Affordability Act. He thinks that nothing is more important than increasing the educational and economic opportunities for blind people, and he looks forward to being closely allied with us in making this happen.
President Riccobono acknowledged the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers for their help in passing the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act and for their generosity in helping to sponsor this congressional reception. No doubt our work in the future will involve insuring the accessibility of autonomous automobiles, technology available in the near future that will help to significantly reduce one of the major limitations of blindness in our society.
Senator Bob Casey came to offer his comments to the group, and in addition to endorsing the positive proposals that we have advanced, he said it was also important to make sure that we do not lose the significant gains we have made over the last twenty-five years. While it is always important to fight for necessary change, it is also imperative to fight against those who would reverse advances already made in this country, and he pledged to stand as an ally to defend the laws and the programs that we count on today.
Our last congressional speaker of the evening was Representative French Hill from Arkansas. Representative Hill worked in the administration of Former President George H. W. Bush and witnessed the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the changes it has brought about. He pledges to stand strong to see that these are not eroded. He thanked us for taking the time to come, for visiting in his office, and for letting him share with us the pride he feels in representing the citizens of Little Rock and Arkansas.
When the rally ended at 7 PM, there was quite some congestion at the Capitol as taxis, cars, and vans assembled to get people back to the hotel.
On Wednesday we again took to Capitol Hill and at the end of the day assembled for our traditional 6 PM debriefing. Many of those reporting believe that their congressmen and senators will sign on to our legislative proposals, and there was real excitement in the air at what we had done and what we would continue to do after our stay on the Hill. On Thursday we finished our meetings with members of Congress, and the two major airports serving the District of Columbia were once again filled with the clicking of claws and the tapping of canes as we headed home to follow-up on the seeds we had planted on the Hill. Our work is far from over, but we understand what needs to be done, have the commitment to do it, and have promised ourselves not to stop until the job is done. This is what the Congress knows about us; this is why they respect us; and this is why, no matter the administration, the Congress, or the political mood in the country, we continue to receive support for the good we are intent on doing. We are not tied to any political party or ideology. We go where the needs of blind people take us, and we engage to meet those needs with open minds, strong hearts, and the resolve that comes from constantly seeking to be the fully participating citizens we are intended by our Creator to be.