by Ron Gardner
From the Editor: Ron Gardner is a past president of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah. He was a staff member of the National Federation of the Blind who actively helped to recruit many new members through his example of love, caring, and commitment. His work strengthened many of our existing chapters and affiliates. He continues to evidence the kindness and wisdom that are demonstrated in the speech he delivered to the 2017 National Convention on July 15, 2017. With the candor for which he is known, Ron explains how bumps in one’s life can shake what we think of as our foundational beliefs and that the way to once again regain the higher ground is to work for the good of one’s fellow human beings and find oneself incalculably better off. Here are his remarks:
Thank you, President Riccobono. You may recall that last year at our convention President Riccobono asked me to offer a prayer. I offered a prayer, and this year I'm giving a speech. So the first take away I have for you is that, if he asks you to pray, turn him down! [laughter]
President Riccobono, we all felt the heartbeat of the National Federation of the Blind as you delivered the presidential report on Thursday afternoon. I know I did.
There is a modern proverb or an adage or a saying that states, "he who cuts wood is twice warmed." That first appeared in print in 1819, and Henry David Thoreau later published it in his book Walden. I think the meaning is straightforward. He who cuts wood is twice warmed—once when he cuts the wood and once when he burns it in the fireplace. I'd like you to keep that in mind as we go through my remarks today.
I want to remind you that a few years ago David Capozzi was at this podium. David Capozzi had been invited by Dr. Maurer to come and speak at our convention. Mr. Capozzi is the executive director of the United States Access Board. He uses a wheelchair. The Access Board is a government agency with responsibility to identify and remove barriers that prevent people with disabilities from competing on terms of equality. The board attempts to ensure that there are ramps for wheelchairs and works to ensure that technology is accessible.
In the meeting following Mr. Capozzi’s attendance at our national convention, he reported his experience to the Access Board, on which I was serving at that time. He said, "Many of you know I visited the National Federation of the Blind, and I am of the opinion that, without a doubt, it is the best organized and most powerful organization advocating for people with disabilities in our country today."
What is it that makes our organization strong? I believe it is, as we heard yesterday, that collective action that we all participate in as members of this organization. It is the work that we do when we are feeling the heartbeat as referred to by President Riccobono on Thursday.
Yesterday we were told that collective action can also be called collective compassion or collective service. In other words, we are all working together. This is why so many doors were opened when I first met the National Federation of the Blind. I was a young man—blind—trying to go to college, being told that I couldn't. But I had blind mentors that showed me the way, and I got into college and did just fine. I was told I couldn't go to law school. Well I met some people in the National Federation of the Blind who had been to law school, so I knew it was possible, and I went to law school. During my career as an attorney, I had the responsibility to litigate tax cases before the United States Tax Court. I also served as the legal director at a legal center in Utah. I was the director at Louisiana Tech University in our master’s degree program. So, can you imagine how I felt in the year 2014, not so long ago, when I realized that I did not have a job; I was afraid in my own home; I was struggling with panic and anxiety; and I kept wrestling with the question of what I was going to do. I had a life to live, and yet that life had been interrupted.
You see, I was flying home from Washington DC one day in January 2011, and I sat down in my first-class seat—not that I purchased a first-class seat, but I flew a lot, and the airline upgraded me to first class. I walked on with my briefcase, in my coat and tie, and carrying my long white cane, and I sat down in first class. Soon thereafter I was assaulted by a passenger from behind me as I tried to put my seat back.
We've heard a lot recently about the airlines in the news media, but on this occasion, it was happening to me. After hassling me, the person behind me threatened the lead flight attendant. The lead flight attendant told him to back off, that the person in front of him was a first-class passenger, and that he needed to mind his business. Later the lead flight attendant told me that the passenger behind me was a federal air marshal. Can you imagine what went through my heart and my mind when I realized that the guy that's now ticked off because I turned him in for being a jerk is a federal air marshal, and he's now probably going to lose his job? Keep in mind that he has a big shiny badge and a really big gun. I'm telling you that the panic started welling up inside me, knowing that federal air marshals can determine when I fly, know when I'm away from home, and know where I live. All of this was exacerbated when, at the end of the flight, the lead flight attendant said, "Stay in your seat; I'm going to walk you off this plane." So I did stay in my seat; the lead flight attendant didn't come and didn't come and didn't come. I finally gathered my white cane and my coat and my briefcase and stood to get off the plane, only to find that the federal marshal was blocking my exit.
Something happened in my mind. I can't explain it, but I know that when I was a legal director and one of my attorneys showed up and said he didn't get his brief done because he had anxiety, I thought to myself, "Suck it up." Now I was the one having that type of anxiety, and I didn't like it. What was I going to do?
Well, in 2014 I had been in counseling—therapy for three years. I had been taking anti-panic and anti-anxiety medication. Man, I was tired of all of this; I wanted to do something else, but I didn't have a job, and the job I had tried to get for sixteen months and thought was mine fell through. This happened because a person on the decision-making committee decided that a blind person would really have a difficult time doing the administrative work and checking on people's sick leave and vacation time. So, I didn't get that job because I was a blind guy, and I didn't like it much.
President Riccobono, I'm sorry to tell you that at that time I was not feeling the heartbeat of the NFB; I was feeling the drumbeat that ravages us when we forget who we are! But we do know who we are, and we will never go back.
The philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind has as one of its principle tenets that we give back. It's in the book Freedom for the Blind by Jim Omvig. Joanne Wilson has taught many of us at the Louisiana Center for the Blind—and others have taught at our other two NFB centers—that in order to be an independent and confident blind person, you do need to give back and serve others. I learned that in the Koran Allah says, "Do not forget to do good to others." It also says that Allah is with those who serve one another. The Old Testament says, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and the New Testament tells us that when Jesus was talking with his disciples, he said, "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
“Then his disciples asked him, ‘When saw we thee an hungred and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’ And then Jesus said unto them, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’”
So what did all that mean? It meant that it was time for me to quit feeling sorry for myself and start listening to the heartbeat of the Federation instead of the drumbeat that ravages us when we forget who we are. Jan and I put in an application to serve as missionaries. We didn't know where we would be called, but we were called to the Caribbean. It was really hard duty. We were called to serve in the Caribbean in the legal office because on my application it showed that I was an attorney. I wasn't sure I wanted to do a lot of legal work down there or sure at that moment whether I could, but I was called to help locate local attorneys to help with the legal issues that come up from time to time such as land acquisition, visas, immigration, and so forth.
What was so interesting to me is that God knows us and He loves us and He puts us in that place where we need to be at that time. So, we were called to serve in the Caribbean, and within one week, people came into our office to talk with Jan and me, and they said, "In today's headlines it talks about a blind woman who is starting a foundation here in the Dominican Republic."
I thought, "Well, I'm certainly not getting away from the blindness aspect of life—here it is, right here in the Caribbean." President Riccobono, I had a little glimmer of that NFB heartbeat again. I, along with Jan, was also asked to visit the Patronato Nacional de Ciegos. In other words, the nonprofit organization that delivers rehabilitation services to blind people in the Dominican Republic. And it felt good to be there in that environment. I can tell you that I found lots of energy along with lots of low expectations.
Within a few weeks after that I needed to fly to Barbados, so Jan and I went there to take care of a tax problem with the government. We scheduled three days for that trip because we didn't know how long it would take to get into the government offices, so what joy we had when, after awakening on the first day, we went to the government office, got right in, and the problem was solved within the first hour and a half of being on the island of Barbados.
Now what were we to do? We have aqua blue, clear warm water, we have white sand beaches and blue skies, so, of course, we went to look for a blind person. We found a blind person. We had been told that there was a high-level politician in Barbados who is blind. Her name is Senator Kerryann Ifill. She is the president of the parliamentary senate. We called upon her and were told that she was very busy, and I thought to myself, "This is no problem! I'm in the NFB. I know what it takes to get into the offices of high-level politicians. We've been doing this for years." So I called her, and she said that yes, we could have fifteen minutes, which turned into forty-five minutes and an invitation to come back the next day. The next day it was a three-hour meeting, and the day after that we went to a nice social dinner with her. She explained to us that the country had only one orientation and mobility instructor who was seventy-two years old and wanted to retire. Could we help to identify somebody and train them to teach O&M?
It was a few weeks after that, when Jan and I were serving in the temple back in Santo Domingo, and I quite by accident ran into a blind guy from Jamaica. Now I have to stop right here and say—isn't the name Jamaica just an interesting word? What a beautiful name for a country. And, as I say to Jan, "Jamaica me crazy!" [applause] So anyway we ran into this blind person, and after our service in the temple I gave him a white cane—the first one he had ever had. I gave him a Victor Reader Stream and taught him how to use it. I taught him how to use the little SD card that my brother Norm Gardner had prepared. Norm put on the card the Bible, the Scriptures, and other holy books, not to mention some of the speeches from our leaders in the National Federation of the Blind about positive attitudes and collective action and the heartbeat of the NFB.
We met another person in Guyana who had been an artist until three years before, when he went blind. He was discouraged and depressed. Needless to say, each of these encounters helped me start feeling that heartbeat of the Federation. We went to work. We wrote some grants, decided that if they were approved we could create two or three seminars—maybe three seminars in each of three countries. So we chose Barbados, Dominican Republic, and, you got it, Jamaica me crazy. We knew that we could call upon teams of blind people to help us—teams from the Louisiana Tech program—master’s degree students, and others in the NFB. We called some of them, and you may recognize their names: Conchita Hernandez, Deja Powell, Adam Rushforth. We had several people who went to the Caribbean to help us complete these grants.
In the first week that we had a seminar in Barbados, Deja Powell was there and was working with a man who lived within one half mile of the beach. The country is only fourteen miles wide, and it's an island, so nobody lived very far from the beach. But he lived half a mile from the beach and told us that he was too afraid to go to it. After working with Deja, he reported, on the last day of our one-week seminar, that he had been to the beach the night before and had made it home just fine, thank you very much. [Applause]
We knew that we could not do in one week what is being done in our NFB centers. It was impossible, and we didn't try. But what we did do was give hope and raise the level of expectations in blind people and in the staff of the agencies that were trying to serve them. There were two young women, seventeen and eighteen years old, and Corina Trujillo Tanner worked with them in Barbados. On the first afternoon that we were there I was going out the front door and down the steps when a man passed me coming up the other way. He got to the top, met his daughter, took the cane out of her hand, put her in the car, and drove away. And I thought to myself, "Why don't you just undo everything we tried to do for your daughter today?" But Corina was undeterred. Corina said that neither one of these young women had ever cracked an egg before, at least not purposely. They had never cooked, they had never been allowed in the kitchen, so Corina promptly had them light a gas oven, mix up the dough, crack the eggs, put them in the right bowls, and on the last day of that seminar this same young woman went down the stairs by herself with her cane, met her father at the car, and handed him a batch of warm cookies. [Applause]
Senator Kerryann Ifill, the blind president of the Senate in Barbados, has a chauffeur who drives her around the island when she's on official government business, and I could tell that she was nervous about using a cane. So here is one of the highest political officials on the island, who is inviting us to help in blindness, who was herself very frightened of crossing the street alone. I decided she was my project, so we took a long white cane (she is totally blind), and we went out on a little O&M session. We went to downtown Bridgetown, and it was fascinating to hear the responses from the people on the street. Madam President, Madam Senator, the Honorable Senator—they knew who she was, and she was walking around town with a white cane. It was wonderful!
She said she had never walked to the parliament building before, so, of course, I said that was exactly what we were going to do. We walked to the parliament building, we found it--we got turned around a couple of times, but we found it—no big deal. As we walked up to the door, the chauffeur who usually drives her around spoke with a catch in his voice as he said, "Madam President!" He had never seen her walk around outside the building with a cane before, and there she was, in comfortable jeans and sneakers and a white cane—he had never seen her that way before, and yet, once she crossed through the front door, she became that same president of the Senate.
She was no different on the inside of the building than she was on the outside of the building, and it made an impression on her. I got an email from her at the end of the week. It said that she had gone to a grocery store by herself, purchased a few items, and had walked home for the first time in her life. [Applause] She also invited us to attend a session of Parliament and watch her in operation. It was fascinating; I've never been in parliament before, and none of the blind people from Barbados who went with us had ever been in parliament before. So what do you think it did to them to see one of their blind sisters sitting in the president's chair of the Barbados parliamentary Senate? It was fascinating. [Applause]
In Jamaica we had a teacher who was so bored on the first day that she decided not to come the second day, so I knew we had a problem. She returned on the third day and agreed to work with me on O&M. After all, she was a teacher of blind children. As we began, I handed her a pair of sleepshades. She said, "Oh no, I'm a teacher. I don't do sleepshades." Now we've all been there. We talked a little while; she asked lots of questions; she put on the sleepshades; and off we went. At the end of that day she had her calendar out, trying to schedule an exact date and time when we would come back to Jamaica.
Amber Holiday, another one of the tech graduates, taught Braille. Now how much Braille can be taught in one week? I'll tell you how much. She taught enough Braille in one week so that every student was actually reading with their fingers under sleepshades—reading with their fingers a few letters and words, and writing with a slate and stylus a few letters and words. Were they proficient in Braille? No. But had their hopes been raised and their expectations been raised? That was our goal, and Amber accomplished that.
Brook Sexton went with us (another tech graduate), and she had a pretty difficult time with O&M on that street because, you see, the people who came had been to that center. I believe Conrad Harris is here from Jamaica, and he's the director of their blindness program. Welcome Conrad Harris. But he and several of the blind people had come to the blind center many times, and they knew that street like the back of their hand. Brook didn't. What was she to do to teach them O&M? I'll tell you what she did: she took them to the nearest bus stop, they all got on the bus, and they went to a place in town that the other people didn't know. Now, on terms of equality, Brook began teaching them a few of the finer points of O&M.
My older brother Norm Gardner went with us. He took some Victor Reader Streams because they wanted to read the Bible, and this is one of the things they had asked us for. Norm has the scriptures on a little card. While he's teaching them how to use the Victor Reader Stream and how to navigate the scriptures, he is also preparing them for something else. He was preparing them to be able to navigate in textbooks, along with other books and materials.
In the Dominican Republic we wrote another grant that allowed us to purchase high-speed scanners, and Adam Rushforth started teaching and preparing some of the staff in the Dominican Republic to put navigation marks in a scanned copy of a textbook. That project was closed last week as Adam finished up the training with two people from the Patronato and from the Fundacion Francina (Francina Foundation) in Santo Domingo on how to scan, how to convert the scanned file into an HTML document, how to insert the navigation marks into it, and I've told you much more than I really know about the process. All I can tell you is that it works, and they are thrilled because they have dozens of blind university students who are struggling with the same things we struggle with in college, and that is inaccessibility. Adam's work has gone a long way toward solving that, at least for those who are participating with us. [Applause]
I would like to tell you just a couple of stories quickly because I'm running out of time. The Dominican Republic presented an interesting challenge because, of course, they speak Spanish, and most of us don't. My brother Norm does, I do, but who else could we get? Well, of course, we called another Louisiana Tech graduate, Conchita Hernandez, who happens to speak Spanish. She went to the Dominican Republic and taught O&M. The teachers had lots of enthusiasm but were very helicopter oriented, very hands-on, very hovering, very close to their students. Conchita solved that by taking her students around the corner, stepping on a bus, and waving goodbye to the teachers who were on the sidewalk trying to catch up. In other words, those who came down to help us used the philosophy and the techniques of the National Federation of the Blind to improve the lives of others.
One more, President Riccobono. Yadiel Sotomayor. We had a student come one morning who said that he had left his white cane at home because it couldn't fit in the small, makeshift taxicabs used for public transportation—it just didn't fit. Yadiel took that problem on, and everybody was able to get their white canes home and bring them back the next day and the day after that. I'm pleased to tell you that my understanding is that Yadiel is now going to be a mobility instructor in Utah. How great is that!
So, at the end of all of that, I found myself feeling the heartbeat of the Federation, the same thing that rejuvenates and motivates and keeps us going—the collective action in which we are all engaged. I believe that when wood is cut in the Federation, it warms not twice but three times: once when we do the work by cutting the wood, once when we burn that wood, and once when we share that wood with others. [Applause]
My mother taught me an important lesson using an important scripture when I was very young. She said, "When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God." Thank you very much.
For more than seventy-five years the National Federation of the Blind has worked to transform the dreams of hundreds of thousands of blind people into reality, and with your support we will continue to do so for decades to come. We sincerely hope you will plan to be a part of our enduring movement by adding the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary in your will. A gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will is more than just a charitable, tax-deductible donation. It is a way to join in the work to help blind people live the lives they want that leaves a lasting imprint on the lives of thousands of blind children and adults.
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