by Gary Wunder
Second only to the excitement of the National Federation of the Blind national convention is what some people call our mid-winter meeting or the Washington Seminar. It is a time for learning a lot about laws affecting blind people and even more about what we need to do to see that those laws lead to real equality of opportunity. We are the faces behind the legislative proposals Congress will consider, and it is our lives that will be made better or worse by its action or inaction.
But before we brief one another and prepare to go to the Hill, we build our organization through other meetings. The first of these was the Parent Leadership Program whose gathering took place at the NFB Jernigan Institute on January 27 and 28. Parents learned about the laws affecting their children's education, got first-hand instruction in being advocates, and learned that the Federation goes far beyond individualized education plans and individual plans for employment. Working with the organization to change the environment for these young people will determine whether they have technology they can afford, appliances they can use, and remunerative employment. The message we try so hard to send is this: today your child is five years old, but you need to know more than what to do until she is twenty-one. You need to be a part of molding the world she will inherit, and we, as a part of your family, are here to help.
The noisiest and most enthusiastic meeting certainly comes from our students and their division, the National Association of Blind Students. These young people, who are often known for late nights and late starts in the morning, surprised everyone when they were anxiously waiting at 8:30 a.m. for the 9:15 registration and a 10:00 a.m. start of the meeting. The hubbub was wonderful, but what started as controlled chaos turned into a well-oiled registration system and a meeting that started within seven minutes of when the agenda said it would.
President Kathryn Webster gaveled the Learning Through Living 2019 Student Seminar to order, welcomed the students, and asked our social media coordinator Karen Anderson to talk with the group about social media and our Twitter hashtag #NFBINDC.
President Mark Riccobono was introduced, and he talked about unity in the National Federation of the Blind. We get things done because we are united, but we can only be united if everyone knows his or her voice matters. United doesn't mean the old guys and gals run everything; united means all of us decide the course we will take, and all of us make what we decide become the reality that we and other blind people come to experience.
Gabe Cazares, our manager of government affairs, was introduced. When he says "Howdy," you know that information is soon to come, and it is delivered with the poise, enthusiasm, and clarity that makes it stick. He briefly outlined each proposal, took questions, and left more detailed discussions for later in the seminar.
Everette Bacon came to encourage students to apply for scholarships, and the fruits of the program were made perfectly clear by Trisha Kulkarni, a 2018 winner, who delivered a presentation that appears elsewhere in this issue.
In the afternoon many of us came to hear about the issues we would take to Congress. Having the fact sheets in hand well before the seminar was helpful, but there is nothing like being able to ask questions of people who know our proposals inside and out and who exude the enthusiasm for what we are doing in coming to Congress.
When 5 p.m. arrived, the Capitol Ballroom was filled to overflowing, and the overflow Congressional Room had few unoccupied chairs. Together we had two rooms full of people ready to take the Hill. President Riccobono began by welcoming those in attendance and then delivered moving remarks which appear elsewhere in this issue.
As the next order of business, he observed that the Federation has been coming to DC longer than any member of Congress, and in the thirty-seven years we have been using this hotel, Diane McGeorge has been our Washington Seminar coordinator. On this evening she announced her decision to retire and introduced Buna Dahal as her successor. Buna is a fine member who lives in Washington state, but still identifies herself as a Coloradan. Buna said she would do the best she could to fill the big shoes Diane has given her but that we should remember that her real shoe size is a 2.5. The standing joke between Diane and Buna was that Diane wants someone to take her place who is shorter than she, so this posed a tall challenge. Through its applause the Great Gathering-In crowd thanked Diane and welcomed Buna to her new job. Before yielding the floor, Diane announced that once again she was able to get the hotel to make available the peanut butter pie which has been a tradition.
The President mentioned our newly remodeled website, NFB.org. The team working on the new site has dedicated the last year to making the beauty people see on the web as elegant as
what they see when they visit the NFB Jernigan Institute in person. As with any new site, we will find bugs and missing content, but your observations are wanted and should be sent to [email protected].
Anil Lewis next stepped to the microphone to speak in his capacity as head of blindness initiatives for the Jernigan Institute. Here are some of the points he made: first we dream, then we create programs, then we show people about the possibilities that await them. When we cried out for training in science, technology, engineering, and math, we were the first. Now others have taken up the chant, creating programs of their own. Whereas their idea of teaching the blind chemistry involves putting powder and water into a glass, mixing it, and calling it Kool-Aid, we teach children how to dissect sharks, launch rockets, and build things. And we do more than teach: we teach others how to teach through paid internships at our three training centers. From our Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning Academy to our seminars on tactile graphics, we are not only raising the expectations of blind students but providing them a path to walk in getting to places we know they can go.
President Riccobono reminded us that it is important to recognize innovation, and one of the ways we do this is through the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award. Any individual or organization demonstrating innovation and hard work on behalf of the blind can be nominated, and those wishing to make nominations should do so before the deadline of April 15.
Monitoring the results of negotiation and litigation is a part of what we do, and the President thanked those who have participated in the Greyhound testing and have filed reports for our Uber and Lyft rideshare monitoring. Remember that with Uber and Lyft, we are interested both in good and bad experiences. It is also helpful if we report our challenges and successes in using websites for job seeking. Please report these to Valerie Yingling at [email protected] or by calling 410-659-9314, extension 2440.
The crowd was excited when President Riccobono talked about the national convention, which will be held in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 7 to July 12, 2019. Rooms are going fast, so those who wish to attend and have not yet made reservations should refer to the convention information earlier in this issue. Registration for the convention will be open March 1, and every person who pre-registers will save money on both registration and the banquet.
Last year many of those attending the Washington Seminar went to the Newseum to celebrate the arrival of the tactile talking exhibit commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Huế during the Tet Offensive. This exhibit was developed by John Olson of 3DPhotoWorks. This exhibit has been so popular that its time at the Newseum has been extended twice. Officials at the Newseum say that this exhibit has more dwell time (the amount of time that people spend looking at it) than any other object at the facility. The exhibit will remain at the Newseum until at least March 17, 2019.
The membership of the National Federation of the Blind is our most valuable asset, and the recruitment and retention of new members is essential to ensure that we continue to be the true representatives of blind people. Jeannie Massay is the chairman of our Membership Committee, and she briefly addressed the group about initiatives to strengthen our efforts in recruitment and retention. She said that each member of the National Federation of the Blind will get a membership coin to signify that they are a member and to provide something we can display with pride to show that we are a part of a unified group invested in improving the lives of the blind. A fuller discussion of our membership activities will be found in the April issue, the majority of which will be devoted to this most vital Federation activity.
Immediate Past President Maurer was introduced for the purpose of welcoming to the Great Gathering-In the distinguished senator from the state of Iowa, Charles Grassley. Senator Grassley has been involved in the legislative process as an elected official since the late 1950s. He served in the Iowa legislature and supported the programs of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. He then moved to the United States House of Representatives and later was elected to the United States Senate, where he has served for thirty-eight years. Senator Grassley was the chairman of the judiciary committee when the Marrakesh Treaty was considered and passed. He supported it and put forth tremendous effort to see that it was adopted. For his work in increasing the number of accessible publications this will make available both to the blind of the United States and the blind of the world, he was invited to deliver a keynote presentation to our gathering. What he said will appear elsewhere in this issue.
But before he spoke, Dr. Maurer presented Senator Grassley with the Distinguished Legislator Award from the National Federation of the Blind. The award read as follows:
of the Blind
Charles E. “Chuck” Grassley
For championing the Marrakesh Treaty
to Facilitate Access to Published Works
for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired,
or Otherwise Print Disabled, and its
Your leadership, hard work, and dedication have
unlocked the door to expanded literacy
and access to the world’s knowledge.
Together with love, hope, and determination,
we transform dreams into reality.
January 28, 2019
Patti Chang was given the difficult task of following Senator Grassley to the microphone. Her request was that we look beyond the needs of today and think about how we will help the National Federation of the Blind for the generations who will come after us. The primary way we can do this is by joining the Dream Maker’s Circle, a program that lets us commit on our deaths some amount of money or percentage of our estate that we wish to give to the organization. Making certain that this happens can be as simple as creating a “payable on death” or POD account which instructs the bank to pay an amount that you specify to the Federation on your death. Patti is available to help in this or in more complicated arrangements involving wills, trusts, and other means through which one can make a gift to the Federation.
John Paré was invited to the podium to introduce the government affairs team and the issues we would take to Capitol Hill. He reminded us that last year witnessed the passage of the Space Available Act and the passage by the House and the Senate of the Marrakesh Treaty.
After John's presentation, President Riccobono interrupted to say that Scott LaBarre was on the phone with an important message. His message was that President Trump had, on this very day, January 28, 2019, signed ratification documents that would henceforth be sent to the State Department and officially transferred to Geneva, Switzerland. We understand that those documents have been deposited in Geneva, and after ninety days the United States will be a full participant in the Marrakesh Treaty.
Kimie Eacobacci was introduced to talk about the Accessible Technology Affordability Act, legislation that would provide a refundable tax credit when we who are blind wish to purchase the specialized technology that helps to make us even more competitive. She was followed to the podium by the newest member of the government affairs team, Stephanie Flynt. She briefly explained the Greater Accessibility and Independence through Nonvisual Access Technology or the GAIN Act. In this act we are looking for equal access in using medical devices, exercise equipment, and home appliances.
The last presenter to discuss our issues was the manager of government affairs, Gabe Cazares. He briefly explained the Disability Employment Act and its potential to revolutionize employment opportunities for the blind by reforming the ways in which government contracts for sheltered workshops are awarded, inviting the private sector to participate in creating job opportunities for the blind, and by ensuring that all people with disabilities will be paid at least the minimum wage. More about these issues can be found in the fact sheets which appear immediately after this article.
The last person to come to the podium was our longtime friend in the National Federation of the Blind and now an employee of Aira, Daniel Frye. He talked about two plans available only to members of the National Federation of the Blind: an introductory plan offering thirty minutes a month for twenty dollars, and a ninety-nine-dollars-a-month plan providing 140 minutes of Aira service. Dan stressed that Aira is not meant to replace the blindness skills we worked so hard to teach and evolve, but its job is to help with those aspects of our lives that require or are made significantly easier with the assistance of vision, be it human vision or artificial intelligence. He concluded by saying that anyone who wanted to try Aira for one week could sign up for service without charge.
President Riccobono closed the meeting with two short items. Traffic to the new NFB website was so heavy after his announcement earlier in the evening that the site crashed, but this kind of heavy testing is exactly what we need to provide a world-class example of what a website should look like and the way it should function with assistive technology. He went on to say that by long-standing tradition the District of Columbia affiliate would provide doughnuts in the early morning to those venturing off to Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday we began our visits with individual members of Congress and their staff. On Tuesday evening we hosted a congressional reception, and several members were invited to speak. The first presenter at the reception was Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. He said that he was not surprised that when the blind decided to storm Capitol Hill, we quite literally brought with us an actual snowstorm. He said that he is proud that our national headquarters is based in Baltimore, that we have created the momentum to expand educational services and to make healthcare more inclusive, and that he looks forward to working with us, standing shoulder to shoulder, as we take the next steps in making competitive employment a reality for people who are blind. He is proud to be one of those who signed on to the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act which will phase out section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act within six years. His goal is to round up one hundred cosponsors for this legislation in order to provide the help and resources needed to level the playing field so that blind people will transition into competitive, integrated employment. He concluded by expressing his continuing support for the Assistive Technology Affordability Act, and he believes that a refundable tax credit is an excellent way to put technology in the hands of those who need it.
Congressman John Sarbanes was enthusiastically welcomed to the podium, and he too expressed his pride in the fact that the headquarters of our Federation is located in the third District which he represents. He appreciates not only the work we do on behalf of blind people but the way in which we have worked to become integrated into the community and to be a real resource for it. For him this shows that we are not only interested in issues affecting the blind but have an interest in any work that makes better this country in which we live.
The last presenter of the evening came from District 18 representing the great state of Texas. We welcomed to the podium Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. She was quick to acknowledge that thirty-six members of the National Federation of the Blind were present from her state, and her most immediate concern was whether she could get all of them into her office on the following day. Congresswoman Lee admires the Federation's dedication in pressing for the equality of all people, and she believes that our presence and participation in this constitutional form of government is a gigantic statement that we are here, we are equal, and we deserve the fullest of civil rights. She said that she was proud of George H. W. Bush for supporting the Americans With Disabilities Act, and now, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, it is her responsibility to exercise oversight of the Department of Justice and to see to the vibrancy, the strength, and the power of this act. She concluded by saying that the reason that she came to our reception was to commemorate our stand against intolerance: to support our determination to change the minds of those who say we can't; to proclaim that those who say the task is too hard for us are wrong; to refute the belief of those who say a blind person can't do this job; to answer those who say that we who are blind cannot teach by showing them that we can and do; to challenge those who express doubts that we can become research scientists; to confront those who believe we cannot parent, adopt, or become foster parents; and for all of the other reasons we have formed to act in concert as the National Federation of the Blind.
After all of these stirring remarks, the congressional reception was adjourned, and those of us who witnessed its enthusiasm prepared for another two days on Capitol Hill.At last it was Thursday, January 31, and the blind had come and made our case to the lawmakers of our land. When it came time for canes on the ground to give way to wheels up as we headed home, all of us knew that we had taken a substantial step in addressing the needs of blind people. Our task is now well defined: to convert intention into action, action into policy, and policy into opportunity. This we will most certainly do, for as President Riccobono reminds us, “We are the National Federation of the Blind, and we cannot be shut down."