by Gary Wunder
Focus is defined as the state or quality of having or producing clear visual definition, e.g., his face is out of focus; the point at which an object must be situated with respect to a lens in order for an image of it to be well defined; a device on a lens that can be adjusted to produce a clear image; to focus a telescope; a person or their eyes; adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly. But for all the references on focus that relate to vision, focus was the heart and soul of the 2018 Washington Seminar, and it had nothing to do with sight or cameras or telescopes. It had everything to do with a laser-like focus or concentration on improving the lives of blind people. It had everything to do with not being distracted by the divisive issues that seem to divide the country and everything to do with finding common ground, being bipartisan, and dealing head-on with the issues that affect all of us regardless of our political ideologies and the labels that might be attached to us. The most important label we displayed with pride—the one that identified us as members of the National Federation of the Blind.
The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children started early by hosting its own two-day seminar, and as a parent I met at the elevator said, “This seminar was wonderful for us. It came at just the right time, gave us lots of information, and has convinced us that there are opportunities for our child we didn’t dare to dream possible. We are so grateful.” What more could an organization ask of a division responsible for creating a magazine called Future Reflections which is dedicated to bringing such hope and comfort to parents of blind children and such opportunity to blind people themselves.
But we had more than parents who wanted to meet to discuss issues in-depth. One was the National Federation of the Blind Merchants Division, and there was much for them to discuss. What once was a program that offered a small corner in a federal or state building was transformed in 1974, and blind merchants today have business locations that private vendors would love to occupy. When big corporations come to Washington to tell Congress that these facilities should be assigned to them rather than the blind, the blind have something to say about that. We demand our right to be a part of the free enterprise system, not just as women and men employed by someone else but as managers who oversee lucrative businesses who are the job creators of our nation and who provide a quality service that is as fine as any big business can supply. A more detailed report of the division’s meeting can be found later in this issue.
Our meeting in Washington has for a long time been the midwinter meeting of our National Association of Blind Students, and the room for that meeting was jam-packed. A report of this meeting is found elsewhere in this issue.
On Monday afternoon many who planned to go to Capitol Hill met with members of our legislative team to become familiar with the intricacies of the legislation we would discuss with those on Capitol Hill and to hear some dos and don’ts when dealing with the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. The issues we were briefed on are covered in the fact sheets that appear elsewhere in this issue, but what is so special about the early afternoon meeting is the tips we are given: Start by defining the problem. If this is an issue we have covered several times and the member or his staff already know about it, go lighter on the problem, stress the need for its resolution, and reserve more time for new issues. Don’t forget to say thank you for past support. At the end of the presentation, don’t forget to make the ultimate ask—will you cosponsor this legislation? If the answer is clearly no, move on. If the answer is clearly yes, move on. If more information is likely to determine the outcome, make sure you understand what is needed, find the answers, and do the follow-up to ensure that this information gets back to the Congressman’s office.
When the gavel fell at 5 PM to signal the beginning of the Great Gathering-In Meeting, President Riccobono inspired the group with these remarks which set not only the tone of the evening but the tone of the four-day event: “Some have been wondering what that sound is in Washington, DC. No, it’s not the sound of the government gearing back up after a shutdown. No, it’s not the sound of social media being blown up with fake news. And it is certainly not the sound of uncertainty, confusion, doubt, or despair. Those who are in the know recognize that what they hear in Washington is the heartbeat of the blind of the nation. We have come with hope and confidence to speak for ourselves, to lead the way with authenticity, to call upon our elected leaders in Congress and urge them to join us in achieving security, equality, and opportunity and to answer the question, who are we?” The crowd responds with “NFB.” “But really, who are we? We are the National Federation of the Blind.” The crowd now responds with “National Federation of the Blind, National Federation of the Blind, National Federation of the Blind,” and it does so each time the President and later presenters pause and prepare to say the name of our organization. President Riccobono continues:
We are the only organization that believes in the full capacity of blind people. We are the National Federation of the Blind. We have the power, influence, diversity, and determination. We are the National Federation of the Blind. We value collective action, democracy, respectful participation, courage, and love. We are the National Federation of the Blind. We are filled with hope, energy, and love by participating in our movement because our expectations are raised, and our contributions make a difference to us and to others. We are the members of the National Federation of the Blind.
It is up to us to make sure that the government does not create artificial barriers between blind people and our dreams. The Social Security Administration provides benefits to blind people that are a critical safety net while receiving rehabilitation training and while seeking and securing employment. We are invited to come to local SSA offices to meet with personnel of the agency about our benefits, but we are required to check in using touchscreen kiosks. We value full participation, but the Social Security Administration has implemented inaccessible visitor intake processing using touchscreen kiosks that require blind people to provide private information, including their Social Security number, to the sighted person who just happens to be nearby. We are not willing to be second-class citizens. We have asked the government for equal access, and they have dragged their feet. We have dragged them into court because we are the National Federation of the Blind.
We seek to enjoy opportunities like all other Americans. In addition to work and school, we like to grab a meal out and maybe a movie now and then. Apparently it is not just the government that is fascinated with the use of kiosks. They also appear on our restaurant tables and in our grocery stores. Late last year we settled with E la Carte and Applebee’s to incorporate text-to-speech capabilities into all current and future PrestoPrime touch tablets across the nation.
In November we resolved a class-action suit with Redbox which will result in Redbox outfitting its kiosks with tactile keyboards, headphone jacks, and text-to-speech capabilities. When Redbox is done, blind people who live in areas that are served by Redbox should never be more than a five-minute-drive from an accessible Redbox kiosk where you can pick up the latest movies offered by the company. We will monitor Redbox to make sure they get it right because we are the National Federation of the Blind.
We want to work, but we are often denied equal access to information about available jobs. Working with us, Monster has renewed its commitment to accessibility and has agreed to make all of its employment job ads available through monster.com and monster-branded applications fully and equally accessible by next December. Monster will also collaborate with us on ways that it can educate employers and promote the benefits of employees who are blind in real jobs. We want to work in integrated, competitive employment. We are the National Federation of the Blind.
We want our blind children to get the best education they can. Some school districts hold our blind students down. In Iowa a local school district had failed to educate a blind student to such a degree that he was poised to transition out of high school without the ability to read Braille or use screen-access software. We will not allow educators to fail another generation of blind students. If they will not teach them, we will advocate for them and teach them ourselves. That is what we did in this case, and today this high school student is receiving training to make up for the years of insufficient services he received in Iowa. The training is being conducted by BLIND, Inc in Minnesota. BLIND, Inc is a training center operated under the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.
We come to Washington, DC, to let our elected officials know that we intend to give them advice and vote to determine whether they will return next year. Some states believe that we need not enjoy the full range of voting opportunities afforded to sighted Americans. We know what equality means, and we have the power and determination to get it when it is not granted. Earlier this month the office of Ohio’s Secretary of State changed its mind about access to voting for the blind. All Ohio counties were ordered to implement an accessible absentee ballot-marking tool in time for the November 2018 election. We helped them change their mind, and we are the National Federation of the Blind.
If you have not yet met us, you can be certain you will. Whether you are a museum creating a significant historical exhibit of our time, a manufacturer of vehicles that require no driver, an airline that insists on burdensome notifications before we can board, or an antiquated professional organization trying to ride a dead horse to accreditation, you will soon know that we are the National Federation of the Blind—we are the National Federation of the Blind—we are the National Federation of the Blind.
We come with our dreams and our legislative proposals. We have not asked that the proposals be written for us. We have crafted the solutions and have come to get them enacted. We speak with a unified voice built on the authentic individual experience of thousands. We have gathered together to transform our dreams into reality. We have come to live the lives we want.
Diane McGeorge was introduced and said that this was her thirty-fourth year as the coordinator of logistics for our Washington Seminar. She gave the logistical information we have been accustomed to getting, and the applause that she received reflected the tremendous admiration we have for her and all that she continues to do.
This year’s Great Gathering-In Meeting was broadcast on Facebook live, and both President Riccobono and Kirsten Mau, director of marketing and communications, welcomed our remote visitors. Although there is nothing quite like being in the Capitol Ballroom where people are packed from wall to wall or in the overflow room which is also well-populated, it is wonderful that we can extend the spirit of the Great Gathering-In to Federationists throughout the country and around the world. Kirsten urged everyone who has a smartphone to download our NFB Connect app that provides access in one place to the Braille Monitor, the Voice of the Nation’s Blind blog, current announcements, our Twitter feed, the location and meeting time of the chapter nearest you, and so much more.
Immediate Past President Maurer has recently focused a lot of attention on different ways that blind people can learn, and one of those ways involves pictures. This way of displaying information has long been considered off-limits to blind people, and although the pictures are still somewhat costly to produce and difficult for those of us not acquainted with them to understand, the potential they offer to enrich the learning of blind people is enormous. The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults has developed the drawing kit and is selectively distributing it to people interested in increasing the ways in which blind people learn and in expanding the possibilities that come through an understanding of pictures, drawings, graphs, and other material. People interested in helping with this project should contact Patricia Maurer at the Jernigan Institute by writing to her at [email protected].
The Great Gathering-In was next addressed by the congressman representing the Twelfth District of Florida, the Honorable Gus Bilirakis. He is the vice chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and he is a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. He has sponsored H.R. 936, the Space Available Act; is a cosponsor of H.R. 1734, the Access Technology Affordability Act; and he is an early supporter of H.R. 3388, the SELF DRIVE Act which foreshadows the appearance on our nation’s streets and highways of self-driving vehicles. The congressman wrote an amendment to this bill establishing a committee to ensure that these vehicles will be ones that senior citizens and blind people can operate. The congressman has a dog in the fight since he has significant vision loss as well as a loss of hearing. He reviewed all of the other bills which he is involved with as a result of the Federation, wished us luck as we went to The Hill, and encouraged us to keep on bringing our message year after year to the Congress of the United States.
When our blind brothers and sisters are in need, we are there. This was never more evident than when hurricane Harvey visited Texas and Louisiana and when blind people found themselves confronting devastating destruction in Puerto Rico. In Texas more than seventy inches of rain fell over one week. More than 105,000 people had their homes destroyed. The National Federation of the Blind set up a fund which was administered by state president and national board member Norma Crosby. She addressed the Great Gathering-In, talked briefly about the assistance we provided, said that we have now met all the requests received from Texas, and that since we promised that all money sent for hurricane relief would be spent on hurricane relief, the balance in the fund would go to Puerto Rico. The audience greeted Norma’s presentation with enthusiastic response, representing our pride in being able to help, our pride in having leaders such as President Riccobono and President Crosby, and our determination to see that those in Puerto Rico receive all the help we are capable of giving.
Anil Lewis is the executive director of the Jernigan Institute, and he began his presentation by saying that one of his first national events was participating in NAC Tracking, the name we used to symbolize the protests against a bogus accreditation body that cared little about what the blind said or thought. Anil related that it was a rainy day, that Immediate Past President Maurer had put him in charge of the poncho crew, and he hadn’t a clue how we would actually organize a protest. When Diane McGeorge saw his hesitation, she grabbed up a picket sign, moved to a corner, raised the sign, and began shouting, “Come to my voice and turn left.” It was then that Anil knew that blind people were quite capable of organizing and participating in protests, and he has been sounding his voice on behalf of blind people ever since.
So we protest when we must, but our preference is to build relationships and programs. One of the finest we have built is the Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning Academy, and it is now taking applications to serve young people ages four to twelve. Parents who have children who can benefit from our program should go to https://nfb.org/bell-academy. As wonderful as our program is, it is exceedingly frustrating to deal with a school system that fails to recognize the role of Braille and the importance of dual-media learning for our blind children. We have created instructional materials. We have created the National Reading Media Assessment, we certify Braille transcribers, and, as a last resort, we take on school districts that refuse to live up to their responsibility to the students they are charged with serving.
Science, technology, engineering, and math provide one of the most exciting industries for lucrative employment, but blind people are underrepresented in these fields because instead of being trained using the alternative techniques of blindness, we are educated in schools which see us as broken sighted people, and our students are encouraged to do things the way sighted people do them. But we are not broken sighted people who are forever put at a disadvantage. We are blind people with educational tools and techniques that will let us be as productive as our sighted neighbors. As noted elsewhere in the program, access technology gives us education; access technology gives us jobs; access technology gives us independence.
As a follow-up to our first grant from the National Science Foundation, we have been given a second. It is a five-year grant to conduct a program called Spatial Ability Blindness Engineering Research. Spatial ability is linked to performance in STEM, and the ability of blind people to do mental mapping actually means that we have the potential to be great engineers. This means that we will continue to build on the research that illustrates that our natural abilities to live in this world promote opportunities for us to engage in STEM areas. For more information, go to blindscience.org.
Lastly, Anil reminded us that very soon we will be launching a national mentoring program. We are built on mentoring, survive on mentoring, and are best known for our each-one-teach-five philosophy. All of us have something to offer to young blind students, so everyone should go to www.nfb.org/mentorapplication and become a mentor. Anil said, “Won’t it be fantastic when someday soon we call on our self-driving car to go pick up our mentee for a visit and a meal out?”
Following upon Anil’s desire for us to form new relationships, President Riccobono noted that Kirk Adams, the president of the American Foundation for the Blind, was in the audience, and when he was asked about NAC, he said that there was no way that the foundation would be supporting it. So, if we are called upon to take up our picket signs, it may be that we form some new relationships on the picket line as we work to see that blind people chart our own destiny, demand quality service, and are the customers who will determine whether an agency is providing quality service or not.
None of the initiatives we undertake is more important to the maintenance of our families than ensuring that we have the right to be blind parents. Melissa Riccobono is heading up our blind parents initiative, and we all know that she can’t mentor all of the blind parents who need mentoring by herself. If you know something about being a blind parent and wish to help others, please go to blindparents.org and fill out the form to become a mentor.
President Riccobono reminded the assembled that we are looking for innovative agencies and individuals to recognize them with our Dr. Jacob Bolotin awards. Jim Gashel chairs this effort, and more information about the program and the process for making nominations is found at www.nfb.org/bolotin/. The President also encouraged us to remember that we are actively engaged with Uber and Lyft to monitor their compliance with agreements to transport people using guide dogs. Please log every ride you take with your guide dog by going to www.nfb.org/rideshare.
This year the national convention will be sponsored by our affiliates in Iowa, Florida, and Virginia. The convention will be from July 3 through July 8 and will be held at the Rosen Shingle Creek. More detailed information can be found at the front of this issue.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am the biggest proponent of our Preauthorized Contribution Program (PAC). I am because, like so many of you, it has helped me transform my dreams into reality and to live the life I want. But it’s even more basic than that. It has allowed me to know that I have the right to have dreams. It is this Federation who in 1986 took a scared high school graduate and helped turn him into a confident young man largely thanks to the introduction I got to the Federation through our scholarship program. Guess what funds the scholarship program? The PAC Plan. It was during my first Washington Seminar in 1987 that I realized I might want to go to law school because I wanted to make a difference through the law. … This is our single most successful internal fundraising program, and everyone who can should be a part of it.” So said our intrepid PAC Chairman, Scott LaBarre. Contact your chapter or affiliate president for more information or go to https://nfb.org/images/nfb/documents/pdf/pac-form-fillout-accessible.pdf to sign up or to increase your contribution.
President Riccobono announced that on the following evening the National Federation of the Blind would be sponsoring the first fully tactile art exhibit in the United States at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Street in Washington, DC. The Newseum was opened for the exclusive use of Federationists and our guests between 6 and 8:30 PM, and we will cover this first-of-its-kind exhibit in the April issue of the Braille Monitor.
The executive director for strategic initiatives of the National Federation of the Blind, John Paré, took the stage to introduce the legislative team who would join the rest of us on Capitol Hill throughout the week. In addition to the four issues which appear on our fact sheets and follow this article, John reminded us that we are also supporting other pieces of legislation including the TIME Act, the Space Available Act, and the SELF DRIVE Act. We are also working hard to see that blind vendors retain privileges to work the roadside rest areas that are now run by blind merchants by opposing H.R. 1990. We are working on language to reform the AbilityOne Act, and the accessibility of medical devices is also a high priority with us, especially those devices used by blind diabetics. We will, of course, see that blind people continue to have the right to be accompanied by their guide dogs when flying, and we totally reject the idea that anyone must give forty-eight-hours’ notice before bringing their guide dog onboard. Whether we support or oppose a piece of legislation, regulation, or a comment made by a public official, we always stand out in the way that we conduct ourselves because we are polite, professional, persistent, and persuasive.
After a brief review of each issue we would address on Capitol Hill, Patti Chang was introduced to talk about the Dream Maker’s Circle, a program that will help continue to fund the National Federation of the Blind when those of us who now do it are no longer alive. Kevan Worley mentioned a program negotiated by President Riccobono and the Aira Corporation to provide special discounts for members of the National Federation of the Blind. The specific offer made to Federationists can be found at http://go.aira.io/nfb. In addition to special discounts for members, all state affiliate conventions and the national convention will be Aira sites, and subscribers will not use minutes when taking advantage of Aira services.
When the meeting concluded, many of us went off to find some food and then a quiet place where we could do the role-playing that would get us ready for the next three days on Capitol Hill. Nothing builds confidence in quite the same way as fielding questions, giving answers, and getting gentle direction and constructive criticism from those who’ve done it before. The thing that really cements confidence in one’s ability comes when a legislative aide or a congressman says that they get it, that they appreciate our communication, and that they are proud to join us in supporting or opposing a bill.
People who attend the Washington Seminar annually love the experience and regard it as a significant part of their year. But to gauge the impact of the seminar, it is important to talk with those who are attending for the first time.: “The Washington Seminar was more exciting than I ever dreamed it could be. I met a lot of people I’ve read about, and when I would tell them I had read their articles in the Braille Monitor it was wonderful when they would say, ‘Yes, I wrote that article.’ And then say that it was a pleasure for them to meet me as well.” Another first-timer said: “I come away feeling inspired. It is amazing to think that I really have a say in the important policies of our nation. It makes me proud to be a part of an organization that is so empowering.”Indications are that this year will garner us a number of new cosponsors for the legislation we support and will do much to eliminate the possibility that a law to dismantle the ADA will not pass the House of Representatives or be seriously considered in the Senate. These are victories by any standard, and they are made possible because, through the National Federation of the Blind, we turn intentions into action and action into positive results.