by Emily Coleman
From the Editor: Not all conflict can be resolved by communication, but if it is to be, communication is at least the first step. The Federation is reaching out to AER as evidenced by its multiple invitations for the Association to appear on our convention agendas. I think that the speech that appears below represents a commendable effort on the part of AER’s president to try building a bridge. See what you think:
Thank you President Riccobono, and thank you all for allowing me some time at the National Federation of the Blind 2019 National Convention. I’m grateful to be on this stage as I’ve watched a packed agenda with impressive speakers. Before I move to the topic of my presentation, I wanted to mention how I personally became acquainted with the Federation to help you understand my own philosophies. In 2005 my son Eddie was born blind in Montana, and I met a remarkable family trying to get a parent support group off the ground. By the time Eddie was six months old I had been recruited as an officer in our new organization tied to the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children—[applause] yeah, it’s worth clapping. We were called HOPE in Montana. HOPE was an acronym and in true NFB style meant Helping Other Parents Excel. [applause] So my introduction to NFB as a parent was that yes, you wanted to support families, but also you wanted to help me excel to provide the highest expectations for my son.
As he entered school some educational programs were better than others, some teachers were better than others. Because he had multiple disabilities, at times I had to fight for better instruction so others could see him through the same lens as myself. Although his schools had accrediting bodies and certified teachers, they sometimes didn’t understand how to push my child. So I’m going to ask you all a few questions. Let me know if at any point in your life you were met with low expectations because you are blind. [loud cheering] Let me know if those people setting a low bar were certified professionals of some kind. [cheering] Now let me know if they worked for an organization that was supposed to train or educate blind individuals. [cheers] Let me know if you felt frustrated or helpless. [cheers]
So personally, for my son, I could answer yes to all of those questions. As a parent I felt helpless in many meetings because my voice was unheard. At that point in my life I knew I had to return to school and become a teacher of blind students. I couldn’t rely on always having good teachers and good programs and had to be prepared to be all those things for Eddie. While enrolled at Portland State University I learned about the NFB’s Teacher of Tomorrow Program. [applause] Not having worked with NFB from the professional angle, I wanted in. We don’t have enough time today to talk about all I learned in that year of travel, or the trouble we may have gotten into, or time to discuss the quality relationships I built with other teachers and also with Federationists. From Maryland to DC to Louisiana to Dallas, every step only fortified my belief that the NFB has great value to us, our children, and our work. [applause] So thank you for the multiple opportunities you provided to me and educators like myself.
Of course there is one phrase I learned from NFB that stuck in my mind and continues to be echoed in my thoughts throughout my work, and that is: nothing about us without us. Or as we just heard, nothing without us. I hope that as a teacher of blind students, as a past administrator at the Washington State School for the Blind, as the soon-to-be-Superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind, and as I’m here today as the president of the AER that I will always be seen as a professional inclusive of consumers. Somebody who invites you to the table and values your contributions to our work and the personal expertise that you bring to every conversation. [applause]
Now to return to my presentation, titled, “Perspectives on Raising the Bar in the Blindness Field: Why A New Accreditation System?” As Mark shared, I became president-elect of AER in July of 2018, and then due to Janie Blome’s move to executive director I became president early in January of this year. Therefore the decision to take on an AER accreditation program was made prior to me being seated on the board. However, I have great respect for AER leadership, membership, and the organization as a whole, so I do trust their decision. Our mission is to serve and empower professionals to deliver standards-based practices that lead to improved educational and rehabilitative outcomes for individuals with visual impairment and blindness. This is powerful to me. It speaks to me, and I can see why accreditation would land in our wheelhouse. As the AER president I am here to speak on our behalf, and I hope I can share something valuable with you today.
In some ways the title of my presentation answers the question within. We ask: why a new accreditation system? And my answer would be to raise the bar in the blindness field. As I shared about my own journey, we know in some instances poor services are being delivered. We know blind adults and students aren’t getting what they need. We know accountability systems for schools and agencies are often geared toward individuals who aren’t blind. Because of this their standards often do not reflect the needs of blind people. There are beliefs that organizations are mandated to have some accrediting or certifying body, but that is not the case. After asking around I’ve learned that, for example, some schools for the blind seek out accreditation not because they were required to do so but because they see value in outside oversight. However we know that oversight doesn’t work unless it is continuous and not just one check-in every five years or so. AER intends to provide continual progress monitoring of those they accredit and will not give a stamp of approval unless standards are met. Our council has already proved that to be true, AER accreditation is not easy. We also know that accreditation does not work without knowledgeable individuals on the team who know what to look for to ensure quality outcomes for consumers. AER’s accreditation work cannot consist of just anybody; it has to involve the right people and the right organization. This includes you. [applause]
As I shared, I wasn’t on the AER board when President Riccobono and Dr. Bell wrote their articles in the January 2018 edition of the Braille Monitor. I was on the board when Everette Bacon wrote his article in October 2018 and attended the NFB Texas convention shortly after, because we want to collaborate with NFB. I specifically look forward to collaborating with NFB Texas, which is a robust, successful chapter, as we heard earlier today.
Before traveling to Fort Worth I discussed my intent to attend, and our executive director at the time Lou Tutt and President Janie Blome were in full support. Learning about AER and my role as president alongside Janie has been a positive experience for me. It is my understanding that she meets regularly with President Riccobono, and although AER and NFB have not always seen eye-to-eye, our conversational efforts are important and will lead to better outcomes for blind adults and children. Through their discussions, it is also my understanding that blind individuals will be a required part of our accreditation council and your voice will be heard.
Janie was disappointed she couldn’t be here today, but she had, as Mark said, a family obligation which we all know is important too. After speaking with President Riccobono on the phone and reading his article in the Braille Monitor I have a better understanding of your history with NAC, so I understand your alarm when AER initially agreed to take on its accreditation program. Lou Tutt is a great mentor of mine, and his guidance lead me to AER leadership. He wanted you to understand that AER wasn’t just taking over NAC, that there would be new standards and greater oversight, but we may not have fully understood the personal component for all of you. I didn’t understand until recently. I’m fairly new to our field, so I did a little research, and based on what I’ve read within the Braille Monitor the NFB had real, valid concerns about NAC’s standards and its treatment of consumers. [applause]
AER has heard your concerns in regard to NAC and in regard to accreditation in general. We will continue to listen to NFB. As we’ve learned in our current political climate and the divisiveness in our country, we can’t ignore the past. We all come to the table with history, some good and some bad. And when we ignore the history we cannot help but repeat our mistakes and bring with us not only our knowledge to the table but also our unaddressed bias. AER plans to move forward acknowledging NFB’s concerns, including the lack of blind adult and blind professional participation in the past. [applause] As Dr. Jernigan said in 1971, NFB is not against the concept of accreditation, but NFB is against the lack of consumer participation. In President Riccobono’s call to action in 2018 he said to, “let AER know that the blind are not opposed to accreditation itself, but we are opposed to repeating all of the sad songs of the past.” We don’t want to repeat that playlist, either.
I want NFB to know, and President Riccobono to know, that AER hears you. Yes, we took over NAC, and yes, that means we have assumed its history, which was made very clear by the reaction of NFB which I completely respect. Therefore we need to make sure that we don’t ignore your concerns from the past and that we try to address them for the future to improve outcomes. Dr. Bell’s article in the January 2018 Braille Monitor explained the difference between certification, accreditation, training, and licensure. I, personally, was grateful for his work because the concepts are so intertwined that it’s hard to sort them out. He said that at their core, all of these concepts have largely to do with ensuring the individuals receive quality training and education and are protected from negligence and incompetence.
So if we ask why a new accreditation system, I would say why not? Can there be too many entities ensuring blind individuals are properly educated, trained, and kept free from negligence? Can there be too many effective organizations looking out for the best interests of blind people? I say not if it’s done right, and AER intends to do it right. [applause] As I understand it from my limited knowledge, NFB’s National Blindness Professional Certification Board has proven a successful method to ensure quality practices and outcomes for training centers operating under the Structured Discovery approach. [applause] Your model includes continual oversight, program monitoring, onsite visits, and more. You’ve recognized a need for oversight, and your training centers agreed and have thrived because of it. AER’s wishes are the same. We hope agencies will recognize a need for oversight, will seek out accreditation from not just anyone but someone knowledgeable about blindness. If they happen to seek out AER accreditation, we will increase positive outcomes for their clients and students, and we will be confident in our work because we will have learned from our field’s history.
As the president of AER, soon-to-be superintendent of TSBVI, and parent of a blind child, I want to thank NFB. Your work is some of the most important in our field, and I’m grateful for every written word or conversation you have that advocates for blind individuals. Advocacy is critical, and you have it in spades. There may be times we have differing opinions, or I need to ask lots of questions to better understand your perspective, but that doesn’t mean I want you to not show up. Keep up your work and hold us to task. Our task is better services for blind people, and you set the highest standard. If you choose to seek more opportunities to work with AER or with other organizations in our field, I hope you do. If you choose to simply stay behind the scenes and monitor what we’re doing, that’s great too. My only request is that you don’t disengage. We need you, and so do our consumers and students. [applause] I encourage you to think back ten minutes or so when I asked about you or your children receiving poor services and maybe feeling unheard. That’s a horrible feeling. Even given my professional background and personal experiences, I still find myself frustrated at complicated systems with questionable priorities. I look to organizations like AER and NFB to hold programs accountable to us, our students, and our friends.
Many parts of the president’s report two days ago resonated with me. When President Riccobono said, “Raising societal expectations starts with setting the highest standards for ourselves,” I felt that applies to professionals, too. If AER doesn’t set the highest standards for training and educational programs and doesn’t have a way to articulate what those are, then professional expectations will not rise either.
I appreciate your time and attention. Please reach out to me, and I’ll answer what questions I can. If I can’t answer due to my lack of knowledge, Janie Blome or myself will follow-up. As President Riccobono also said on Wednesday, “A movement is more important than any one leader,” and I need other leaders and members within AER, NFB, and beyond to have my back and more importantly the back of blind individuals. Thank you. [applause]
Before President Coleman left the stage, questions were invited from the audience, and Immediate Past President Maurer asked this one: “We have been doing the work of picketing the National Accreditation Council during almost all of the time I’ve been in the National Federation of the Blind. We have used the phrase repeatedly that we speak for ourselves. [applause] The education system in the United States has not served the blind well. I know there are some very good teachers and some people with very good hearts. But, as a whole, it has not served the blind well. I want to know if, when you put an accreditation system together, you plan to tell us what programs are good for us or if you plan to set up a system in which we have the right to tell you which programs are good for us? For we who experience what they are can tell you precisely which ones work and which ones don’t.” [applause]
President Riccobono called on President Coleman, and she replied: “I know that Janie and Mark have been in conversations about what the direct involvement will be from the NFB. I do know, as Mark shared, that 50 percent of the Council will consist of blind individuals, and we have offered a seat. I know there was some concern that that was a token offer. I don’t know that there has been a decision made on that at this time, but I would request that NFB strongly consider taking that seat because the Council will decide who receives accreditation and who doesn’t, and NFB should be in that room. So that is the suggestion I would make, but I don’t know exactly what is entailed in the entire process of accreditation, but I would almost guarantee that they do speak to individuals being served by the agencies and schools that are seeking accreditation, and I would personally value any of their input just as much as anybody else’s.”
Carlton Walker asked for and was granted the floor. She asked: “Miss Coleman, as you would agree I’m sure, teachers must be competent at what they teach. According to AER’s accreditation website, six University TVI programs hold AER accreditation. The Louisiana Tech program, which we know is superb has Braille courses that are integrated into every single course in the program, and individuals must demonstrate Braille proficiency by reading at least twenty words per minute or by obtaining NCUEB certification before graduating. Would AER be willing to condition accreditation of programs on similar high expectations and standards for teachers?”
President Coleman responded: “Thank you. I’m not going to argue against Louisiana Tech; that’s a great, great program. It’s hard to answer that question because I’m not on the accreditation council, and, as I shared with Mark, I’m probably not the best person to be here today. But I do think that is an important part, for NFB to be involved in the process to help us look at those standards and make sure that we are setting a high bar, because I certainly think that our teachers need to be qualified for the population that they serve. Personally I hold myself to the highest standard in that regard by maintaining my Braille certification anywhere that I live, even though I’m not doing direct teaching, just because I think that’s important for our students. [applause]”
President Riccobono concluded the presentation with these remarks: “So Emily, I appreciate you coming here to this convention. Again this is the first time that we’ve had an AER president be here with us. [prolonged applause] I think it does suggest a change in opportunities from the approach that AER has taken in the past. I also appreciate that you have acknowledged the real detrimental experience that people in this room have had from the low expectations that they’ve experienced and your real personal commitment to raise the bar. We give our commitment to that same thing. We are here to raise expectations, and whether it is as a formal member on the accreditation council, which we have not committed to because we don’t really feel that it accurately reflects the power and importance of the organized blind movement, but whether it’s on the council or not, you can be assured that this organization will continue to be honest with you, will continue to be authentic, will continue to hold ourselves and the professionals in the field accountable, and we will definitely let you know whether a program is accredited or not, whether it meets the expectations of the blind of this nation. Thank you for being here.”