by Kirk Adams
From the Editor: There was a time when the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind were actively at war. The foundation regarded itself as the expert on all things blindness related. What blind people themselves might say was inconsequential; after all, any real speaking done for the blind would be done by professionals, and those professionals turned to the foundation to give and get information about how they would deal with their clients. The NFB took a different view. It was that the blind, having the most to win or lose in the struggle and being competent to set the direction of the programs serving us, should be the most significant force in this work; no longer were we going to sit idly by and let others speak for us.
Tensions began to lessen in the middle of the 1980s, and although the road has not been straight or without bumps, relations have gotten better as the recognition that blind people are best suited to speak to the needs of blind people is more widely embraced by the field.
As President Riccobono remarked: "To start off the afternoon, we have a presentation which features an organization which has not been on our agenda in at least a decade. The American Foundation for the Blind has sometimes been at odds with the National Federation of the Blind, but there is a new direction for the American Foundation for the Blind, and here to talk with us about it is a gentleman who used to direct the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind where he demonstrated an openness and true willingness to work with the organized blind movement, and he's bringing that perspective to the work of the AFB. So here to talk to us about the future at the American Foundation for the Blind is its president, Kirk Adams:"
Good afternoon, everyone. I'm un-telescoping my cane—if that's a word—it's my cane of choice, the NFB carbon fiber telescoping cane. [cheers] It's really great to be here. The acceptance speeches by your new board members—that was worth the price of admission—tremendous. It's just always a pleasure to witness strong leadership in action.
Again, my name is Kirk Adams. I'm the sixth president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind. I want to thank President Riccobono for reaching out to me and inviting me to speak with you. I'm here to tell you a little bit about AFB, and really also to highlight our strong desire to work more closely with the Federation to create the world of no limits for people who are blind.
You know over the years AFB and NFB have worked together on many important initiatives. In the early 2000s we worked together to establish the right for all blind K-12 students to receive their accessible textbooks on the first day of school. We worked on advocating for access to instructional materials in higher ed. You know that together we fought to hold the makers of e-readers accountable for their responsibilities under the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. So, we want a lot more of that in our future. As Scott [LaBarre] mentioned earlier today, we're also part of the coalition really driving toward US ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty, so we need to make that happen. [applause] We're grateful for the Federation's leadership in protecting the civil rights of blind people, and we know that a successful Federation is just vitally important for blind people in the country, so at AFB we do look forward to working with you more closely in the future, thank you. [applause]
For those of you who don't know much about AFB, I invite you to visit our website afb.org. I invite you to send me a Facebook friend request (I'm a little bit of a Facebook addict, so I'm there a lot.) We're a private nonprofit; we're not a membership organization like the Federation. We were created in 1921 by the two professional associations that existed then in the blindness field. There was an American Association of Workers for the Blind, and there was an American Association of Teachers of the Blind. They met every other year, so, in their meetings in 1919 and 1920, both organizations voted to put forward leadership and resources to create a new, central nonprofit agency which was meant to identify, understand, and address the most important issues affecting the lives of people who are blind. Today, ninety-five years later, like all of you here in this room, we are working hard to create the world of no limits for people who are blind that everyone who is associated with NFB and AFB knows is possible. Maureen [Nietfeld] this morning made it just so very clear that, like all people, blind people have unlimited potential to achieve, to create, to live the lives we want.
Prior to coming to AFB, as President Riccobono mentioned, I was the CEO of the Lighthouse for the Blind in Seattle. I worked very closely with members of NFB of Washington, and I attended lots of state conventions. I look forward to getting to know the Federationists in my new home state of Virginia [cheers]—three weeks in, and I've also had the privilege of attending a number of national conventions. Dr. Maurer gave me an opportunity to address the general session in Atlanta when I was at the Lighthouse, and I've attended conventions in Dallas, Detroit, and here in Orlando, too. I know firsthand the amazing work that you all do. The Federationists in this room are living proof that there are no limits to blind people's talent and ambition, our creativity, our courage, our compassion; but the reality remains that limits are being placed on us in the form of barriers to inclusion in nearly every aspect of life. So we all know that blind people face barriers to equal employment opportunities, to educational and health care services, to transportation systems, to electronic information and resources. The book famine—95 percent of books are not available to us yet. At AFB we are working hard to understand why and how these limits are being imposed on blind people and what we can do about it.
I know every blind person in this room has had a limit placed upon them at some point, and I've had my own experience. One very small example: when I was a senior in high school, my first day I went to my math analysis class and my physics class—I was carrying about forty pounds of Braille books—all was well. I went to my chemistry class, and my teacher told me I could not take chemistry. A blind person would not be able to conduct the required experiments. I was sent out of the classroom; I was assigned to a study hall; case closed. I was seventeen years old in a small rural town in Washington state. Now, of course, I've met successful blind chemists and chemistry professors. At the time that I was kicked out of chemistry class, I didn't have any relationships with any blind people; I didn't have any blind adult role models; I didn't have any self-advocacy skills to speak of. But this week we are all here in community together, so that's a community full of role models and expert self-advocates. [applause] And I know that we are all taking advantage of the unbelievable opportunity here in Orlando to learn from one another.
Back to chemistry class: a limit was placed upon me by that teacher and that school. I did not know how to deal with it, so I was not allowed to live a life of no limits in that case.
But for the good news: now we have unprecedented opportunities to create that world of no limits. Advances in technology, the power of social media to help us share knowledge and to organize—research and data analysis tools that will really allow us to dig deep and look at old problems and find new solutions—in this world which is changing each and every day, we really need to be strong and decisive as blind people right now to make sure that these changes contribute to the world of no limits for people who are blind, rather than creating even more barriers. Of course we know individual blind people can and do overcome all kinds of barriers, sometimes in really remarkable ways, like running across America. At AFB we really want to make overcoming barriers easier for all blind people.
I had a really neat experience visiting the New York Institute for Special Education in the Bronx asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. And there was a little girl—totally blind little girl—about six years old. When we asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up she said, "I can be a helicopter pilot if I want to." [cheers] When she's in high school, and she walks into her intro to aeronautical engineering class with her white cane in her hand, I don't want some ignorant so-and-so telling her she can't do it. [cheers, applause]
To create a world of no limits for kids like her, AFB just went through a year-long strategic planning process. We took a step back and asked, "What can we do as an organization that will bring the greatest long-term value to people who are blind in our country." We talked to lots of people, leaders both inside and outside of the blindness field—including President Riccobono and Anil Lewis. Thank you for participating in our planning process [cheers]—and we got a really clear answer. We were told that the AFB should really identify the most challenging barriers faced by blind people and use research and data analysis to understand these barriers, to create knowledge about these most challenging issues, and then to share that knowledge to make positive changes in the lives of people who are blind.
So at AFB we are going back to our roots. We're identifying evidence-based promising practices using research and data, pursuing goals that will result in direct, measurable, positive results for people who are blind. We look forward to working with partners like all of you to create solutions in the areas of employment, education, and access to technology. We want to promote understanding of the issues faced by blind people with the decision-makers and influencers across our country. We're going to focus efforts on those key decision-makers in corporate America, government, health care, education, and the nonprofit sector. So we'll be reaching out and building relationships across all of these sectors, and we'll be sharing our research, our data, and our knowledge so that better decisions can be made concerning the inclusion of people who are blind in all aspects of life.
I know it's going to be hard to imagine how knowledge can break down barriers, but in the long run we think it is the best way for AFB to contribute. So just think about how we can level the playing field for blind people if we had clear, evidence-based answers to some of our tough questions: why are employers afraid to hire people who are blind? How do we change that fear to enthusiasm? What will transportation systems look like twenty-five years from now, and how can we make sure blind people have full access? Which of the new technology solutions that are popping up literally every day are going to be game changers and which are going to be a flash in the pan? But the essence is really to do our best to understand the most challenging issues facing blind people, to use research and data to identify solutions, and to drive toward these solutions, working in collaboration and partnership with people like you.
So thank you Federation for everything you do. Thank you for including AFB in this year's convention; I hope it's not another fifteen years before you have us back, [laughter] and enjoy the rest of your time. Thank you.
President Riccobono asked Mr. Adams to stay onstage for a moment after he finished speaking so that he could ask two questions. The questions and Mr. Adam's responses follow:
Mark Riccobono: Thank you Kirk. I really appreciate you being here. As you know, this organization has staunchly been for the elimination of the provision in law that allows employers to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage. In the past the American Foundation for the Blind has told us that they're not prepared to support such a provision. AFB, I think, stands out really as an outlier amongst organizations. I'm wondering if you have any plans to change AFB's position on this topic?
Kirk Adams: Yeah, 14(c) is an antiquated law that needs to be eliminated. [cheers] My concern is a repeal-and-replace without knowing, in an evidence-based way, what the impacts will be on individuals living with the most significant disabilities, in particular developmental disabilities. I think if blindness is your only disabling condition, there is no reason on God's green earth that you should be earning less than the minimum wage. I am concerned about blind people, in particular, who also live with significant developmental disabilities, in which that disability is really the most impactful disability. I would really welcome an opportunity to be in dialogue with NFB and understand more clearly how we make sure to protect and hear the voices of the individuals who are engaged in the community with use of this antiquated tool. Again, I welcome a chance to talk more about it. I think AFB's position has been based on the concern for blind individuals who are severely developmentally disabled.
Mark Riccobono: I appreciate the answer, would point out that the law doesn't distinguish classes, and I think this crowd would urge that we figure out a way to eliminate—get on the path to elimination—and then we can work out the other details. But I have another question: we've been working now for over two years to get an accessible instructional materials bill into Congress, and AFB has also not fully endorsed our perspective. Earlier this week a higher ed bill came out that has language in it that apparently AFB does endorse. Now, we would urge and ask that the American Foundation for the Blind join with us in supporting accessible instructional materials and a true pathway to getting schools to do something about this, since so far they haven't taken it seriously. Can we get your support with that?
Kirk Adams: We have—again, I've been there for a year—but I see that we have supported NFB language and bills in the past—past versions. The most recent version added the safe harbor proviso, which we feel weakens the previous bills and language. We would like a stronger bill. When we look at the Higher Ed Improvement Act language that was dropped yesterday, it looks like all the accessibility provisions are included in that bill, and it does not include the safe harbor provision, so it's back to very similar to the original language that NFB put forward in previous versions which we did support, and we're supporting the version that dropped yesterday.
Mark Riccobono: Thank you, Kirk. I would point out that one problem we have is that—where are the students in the room? [cheers] A whole bunch of them—the one problem is that we have to ask ourselves what kind of bill is going to get through Congress, and what are we going to do about those students who are sitting out in those seats right now to make sure that the technology is accessible in the next year, not in the next ten years? [cheers] I think we need to be realistic about the prospects in front of us in Congress, and so far I've noticed that no other organizations are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel to help sue schools. So if we could get some support telling Congress that something has to happen today, that would be great. [applause] Thank you for being here today Kirk.