by Peggy Chong
From the Editor: Sometimes we are asked why the National Federation of the Blind presumes to speak for blind people and why what we say should carry any more weight than what other people have to say. The answer is that we are not just blind people presuming to speak for blind people; we are blind people elected to speak for blind people and to coordinate action based on agreed-upon policies. In this article Peggy tries to explain to those who are not members of the Federation why they do not have the right to be a part of meetings which the Federation has set up to discuss strategy and eventually propose policy to elected leaders. Here is what she says:
Recently here in Albuquerque we had some discussion at our chapter level as to why our elected officers carry more weight than an individual blind person appointed to city or state boards, committees, and councils. Questions came up as to why we do not have to include the so-called non-represented blind people at any meeting we have with government officials. Sometimes I forget that I know background information and philosophy that some of our new Federationists don’t, and how important it is to revisit our policies.
Our city is making major changes to our bus system along a central corridor. We call it ART [Albuquerque Rapid Transit]. Many constituents of our city have widely differing opinions as to whether or not this will be a viable service. Accommodations for the disabled have been a topic from the beginning because ABQ RIDE’s history has not been strong in this area.
With all the discussion surrounding ART at our local chapter meetings, questions have come up about what should be included to make it accessible, or what does accessible mean. Are my personal concerns blindness-related? If not, then they should not be included in the NFB’s statements. The comments that I have privately about the system should not be considered when we as a Federation chapter list our concerns as blind people to bring up when meeting with the city while representing the Federation. Why is that?
Our NFB philosophy from the very beginning has been based on informed evaluation, discussions, and voted-on agreements. Our local chapter wrote a “Statement of Concern” that after discussion we distributed to the press, city council, our newly-elected mayor’s office, other city committees, and anyone else who expressed an interest. Previously, we had short meetings with transit officials and nothing happened. We would follow up and nothing happened. After the new mayoral administration came onboard and the NFB of Albuquerque chapter’s “Statement of Concerns” was widely circulated, progress was made. We had a meeting with many of the top officials with the transit company with promises to meet again. As of this writing, we have had an opportunity to have input in the “almost ready-to-go” software that will be installed into the fare machines at the new transit platform stations. It is not quite ready to go, and our concerns may cause modification of other parts of the software. We have had a meeting with the mayor’s office. This is a start but has a long way to go in addressing our policy and communication concerns about the transit program.
After we had made the news with a focus on our concerns, others wanted to get in the act. There are some blind people here in our city who say they represent the unrepresented. The Federation does not speak for them, and they should be heard. They say they should be at our meetings with the transit authorities and at the mayor’s office. When we said no, they could not be present, these nonmembers went to the city to complain. Some of our members felt challenged and thought that they had to cave into these blind people who had not put any time into developing our policy nor cared why we came to our conclusions.
We have said no to them attending our private transit meetings. Yet, some of us long-time members had to explain why. We do not need numbers at these meetings. The unrepresented have chosen to be unrepresented. They have been asked to join the NFB but have chosen not to.
Our chapter spent hundreds of hours researching, gathering data, and organizing input from our members and others. We spent many meetings discussing and honing our responses to be sure we were realistic in our expectations and goals for a positive outcome.
Literally hundreds of public meetings surrounding ART have been held in our city over the past three years. Did they attend these meetings? No. The vast majority of the blind in our city, including many of our members, did not until our chapter leadership strongly encouraged each and every one to show up to at least one public meeting and state their concerns.
Do these unrepresented have an independent view that needs to be heard? If they are the only ones who have this view and they did not take the time to come to a meeting, should their ideas be given equal weight with the other thousands of Albuquerqueans’ who were united in voice at the city meetings? As a Federation we know too well that the voices of the many can drown out the voices of the minority unless the minority is willing to work very hard and can show reason why the many should listen and join in with the voices of the few.
Do these unrepresented have unique concerns related to blindness? They say that the Federation brainwashes its members. They say that not everyone can benefit from blindness training. They say that because they did not have blindness training, the city should provide more and more services to them. They say that the Federation expects too much of the average blind person. We, a united group of blind people from all walks of life, have made a commitment to better the lives of the blind, not being content with staying in one place or going backwards.
A political party of the US would not allow other parties, let alone an individual with competing opinions, share center stage when holding a press conference to lay out its agenda. All would agree that doing so would be a distraction, confusing and watering down the message. Why should we allow others to share our center stage?
When we as a chapter, state affiliate, or national body make a decision through our resolution process, it has been discussed many ways. Many views have been taken into consideration, evaluated, prioritized, and agreed upon. Often we bring to the table possible solutions, sometimes multiple ones for the same issue.
Our reputation is important, as is the time we spend in the meetings with policy makers. To bring along a nonmember who would rather talk about how their dog guide is confused when crossing the new platform access or that the color of the edging does not make it easy for them to find the edge takes away from our credibility, wastes time, and accomplishes little to nothing. We have all heard the line, “Why can’t all of you blind guys get together?” Those of us who care have gotten together and need to stick together to provide the strength of our convictions and recommendations to those who can act on them. A united front is what is required to get us the second meeting or the opportunity to examine the proposed software before it is installed and unusable by the blind.
If the unaligned or “independent” blind want to join the Federation and work on these projects, we encourage them to join us in going out and gathering first-hand experiences, writing letters, and attending public meetings; we welcome them. If they choose to be off by themselves, we wish them the best.
Our NFB philosophy was not new when our founders met in Wilkes-Barre that November day in 1940. Blind men and women across the country had been saying it in newspapers and letters where they lived. We are not any more intelligent than the almost-forgotten T. J. Nichols was in 1904 when he articulated our NFB philosophy to young blind men and women in the state of Maryland. But we are wiser and more well-informed because we joined together in 1940 to effect change. We have taken our combined knowledge and have built and are still building an even stronger philosophy that cannot be dismissed. We are no longer just the one blind woman who came to the state legislature asking for fair housing laws. She is now the representative of the many blind members from their home districts who also came along and gave weight to her demands. The quiet voice on a farm in the wilderness of Nebraska now held the same weight as the professors in New York City when our representatives such as Raymond Henderson of California went to Washington DC to lobby for legislation to better the lives of the blind of the country.
I make no apology for our philosophy, our methods of determining policy, or how we carry out our resolutions. The NFB does so openly and encourages the participation of any and all who want to be an effective part of change that betters the lives of all blind people. I am proud and honored to take part in our activities resulting in actions that better the lives of so many more than just our chapter members. To those who wish to jump on our backs and derail the progress we have made, even if they say that is not their intention, I say: cease your disruptive activity and come join us. Be a part of the solution. If not, then get out of our way so we can affect the change that will allow you to live the life you want.
This is why we have a National Federation of the Blind and why we have the right to represent ourselves with local, state, and national leaders to effect change.