by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: President Riccobono opened the Great Gathering-In meeting with these remarks, setting the tone for our annual visit to our nation’s capital and emphasizing that who we are as a Federation is found not in one meeting, one program, or one division. We tackle all things blindness, and we do this with unity, optimism, and love. Here is what he said on the evening of January 27, 2019:
Martin Luther King Jr. said that progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle—the tireless exertions and passionate concerns of dedicated individuals. Once again dedicated blind advocates have come to Washington DC to make progress and to secure for themselves equality.
We are not highly paid lobbyists carrying out an assignment from our clients. We are not an organized crew of partisan enthusiasts sent to support an entrenched political message. We are a diverse organization of everyday Americans with different backgrounds, perspectives, economic positions, political points of view, and characteristics that give us advantages and disadvantages. Most importantly, we are brought together by the characteristic of blindness and unified in our common bond as we march together to secure equality and opportunity. We are the blind, and we have come—not because someone has paid us to do so but rather because of our desire to be the masters of our own future.
We seek to live the lives we want and to enjoy full participation in this great nation. We come together to transform dreams into reality. We are the National Federation of the Blind, and we cannot be shut down. [applause]
We recognize that our progress is not inevitable. That is why we have made progress and enjoyed success for the last seventy-eight years. There is no injustice too large that we cannot move it; there is no freedom so insignificant that we are willing to ignore it. We say that we seek to live the lives we want. It is not a hopeful aspiration; it is a determined declaration of our intention for the future. We are the National Federation of the Blind, and you can’t shut us down.
Ten years ago we began seeking a worldwide treaty to secure access to all accessible books around the globe. As blind people we are only granted equal access to a small fraction of the world’s knowledge, and artificial barriers prevent sharing accessible works across borders. When we began, the government officials told us that the process of creating an international treaty, securing enough countries for it to be in effect, and then getting the United States of America to ratify and be a party to the treaty would take at least twenty years. They did not know the spirit and dedication of the members of the National Federation of the Blind. [applause]
In 2018 one of the only matters that both branches of Congress unanimously agreed to support was the Marrakesh Implementation Act. We are now just months away from the United States being a full party to the Marrakesh Treaty, and in half the time we were told it was possible. When it comes to living the lives we want, we come to get it done! We are the National Federation of the Blind, and we cannot be shut down.
Service in the United States military is one of the most significant commitments an American can make to his or her country. Yet, veterans with disabilities are denied equal access to privileges extended to non-disabled veterans such as access to the government’s Space Available Program. Again, we first came ten years ago seeking to fix a loophole in the law that prevented blind veterans from equal access to the Space Available program. Year after year Congress made excuses as to why this relatively minor change in the law could not be made. Maybe they thought we did not mean it. Maybe they thought we would get tired and go away. Maybe they thought we did not have enough votes to throw them out of office. Whatever the reason for their lack of action, we kept coming every January and to their local districts in the months in between. In August of last year our space available provision became law and granted equal access to blinded veterans. [applause]
So let’s just take a moment to salute our veterans, who also cannot be shut down. [applause and chants of USA, USA, USA.]
It is important that we show up not just in Washington DC. We are prepared to be in all of the places where equal participation of the blind is in danger. Some believe that the World Wide Web is not a place where the blind have a right to equal access as we do in businesses with physical locations. In California a case was brought on behalf of a blind person seeking access to the website and mobile app for Domino’s Pizza. The court ruled that Domino’s could not be required to make their digital domains accessible to the blind. While the case was not brought by the National Federation of the Blind, we were not willing to sit on our hands while our rights were taken away. We provided support in the appeal of the court’s misguided decision, and earlier this month the appellate court agreed that equality means nonvisual access to the website, to the mobile app, and that providing a telephone number is not providing the same benefits as the company and its technology does for the sighted. [applause]
Whether paying our bills, accessing our online bank accounts, or ordering a pizza with the toppings we want, we will continue to show up and to protect our rights to live the lives we want because we are the National Federation of the Blind, and we cannot be shut down.
Employers have exploited the sweat equity of workers with disabilities since 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act established a legal system for excluding these workers from the wage protections everyone else in America enjoys. We want to work, and we are not willing to accept the low expectations that drive a profitable industry that is based on the principle that our work is worth only a fraction of the minimum guaranteed to all others as a right of citizenship. Even if many of us have broken out of the slavery of the sheltered workshops, we have not forgotten our blind sisters and brothers. [applause] This is why we continue to fight the exploitation used against workers with disabilities in places like the workshops in Ohio, where we are using the courts to expose the systems that have held us back for decades. This is why we will show up year after year and decade after decade until the United States Congress gets the courage to support blind workers and eliminate section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. [applause]
Tonight we declare 2019 as the year of permanent phasing out of 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. [applause] And just in case there is any doubt, we are the National Federation of the Blind, and you can’t shut us down.
Let us not be misunderstood. Our desire to work the jobs we want is not limited to gaining equality in our pay. We also seek to drive progress in the type and quantity of jobs available to the blind in the future. One of the largest employment programs for people with disabilities is the federal procurement contract program that operates under the name of AbilityOne. In July of last year the AbilityOne program, without any input from blind workers, without any opportunity for the blind to share their hopes and dreams for the future, without any public disclosure of any type impacting our future—it announced that the new caretakers for the blind of the twenty-first century providing great promise and hope for our jobs would not be the blind but would be the American Foundation for the Blind. On behalf of the blind people currently employed under this program and to protect the jobs of the future as defined by blind people, we filed suit against the AbilityOne program to block this illegal action. [applause] We want to work the jobs that we have in mind, and we are the National Federation of the Blind, and you can’t shut us down!
Whether it is educating the universities that equal access is our right not their burden, giving the American Chemical Society the formula to end their discriminatory practices toward test-takers, eliminating the virus that has spread in many healthcare facilities which apparently renders them unable to provide Braille materials or electronic healthcare records that are accessible, or working collaboratively with major companies like Kellogg and Procter & Gamble to innovate accessible packaging, joining together with the largest school district in the nation to make its website a model of accessibility, or demonstrating our full participation in society by having professional sports teams wear jerseys with Braille uniforms, a couple of things are clear: the policymakers have two choices. They can either take advantage of our understanding, perspective, and expertise, or they can ignore us and meet our ballots at the polls where we protect a secret, independent ballot for blind people. Progress is not automatic, but our persistence in the halls of power is inevitable. We are the National Federation of the Blind, and you can’t stop us. We recognize that Washington DC has enough problems. That is why we have come with solutions and a readiness to work with the leaders of our nation to be part of implementing the solutions of the future. We bring the diversity and power of a movement that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world, so if there is any doubt about our intentions, we are the National Federation of the Blind, and you can’t shut us down. That is the significance of our Washington Seminar, and that is the heartbeat of the National Federation of the Blind.