Braille Monitor                          October 2019

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Bringing the Synergy of the Blindness Movement into Concentrated Programs: Blindness Initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute

by Anil Lewis

Anil LewisFrom the Editor: Anil is the executive director for blindness initiatives at the Jernigan Institute, and whenever he speaks, it is clear that we are blessed to have him as a part of our movement and as a part of our staff. He is a deep thinker, an effective communicator, and a man I admire for the tremendous ability he has to understand others, meet them where they are, and develop meaningful and lasting relationships. Here is what he said to the 2019 National Convention on the morning of July 10:

Good morning, Federation. Thank you guys for waking up and coming down. Hasn’t this been a wonderful convention? [applause] I have to admit that I was a little afraid that we had gotten so comfortable in Florida that the challenge of a new location would trip us up, but in Federation form and fashion we stepped up, and man, we turn this place out. Thank you guys, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.

When I saw the title, bringing synergy, I reflected back on last year’s banquet speech. I had to go back and revisit it to understand what synergy was. So what I learned is that synergy is the interaction and/or cooperation of two or more agents working together to produce a combined effect that is greater than the sum of the separate effects. What? That’s where I went with that! So I thought about this a little bit, and I recognize that that is what we do as an organization. In order to get grounded in really understanding this, I picked one of our programs and realize that yes, synergy is what we do through our movement and our programs.

The Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning [BELL] Academies evidenced in 30+ states and 40+ programs is definitely exemplary of synergy in the blindness movement. This program started with the recognition that we as an organization needed to step up and provide services to our blind students in a way that the current systems are not. If they will not teach them, we will teach them ourselves. [applause] It started as a program in Maryland with Jackie Anderson and all of her team, and then other people added to that program to get where we are now, to the place where we have such nationwide exposure, starting with one program and growing to include so many. Beyond this, the efficacy of what we do has also drawn the attention of funding sources that have allowed us to leverage that as well. Yes, we could do it through our commitment, our volunteer efforts to change the lives of blind people, but it sure does help a lot when we get $100,000 to put in the bank to help some of that programming.

Thank you to Wells Fargo for being a financial partner in our BELL Academies.

I think that what is important to understand is that synergy is not the sum of our separate efforts, but it’s producing an effect that is bigger and broader than that sum. So the different parts are not just additive; they are exponential. We are not talking about 2X, but X squared. When we add to this the advantage of our diversity and continue to work on including more and more people, we can raise this to the third power and the fourth power. Our synergy helps us take one person’s desire and wish, build on the effort of the nation’s blind, and create exponential programs that positively affect blind people.

But this effort requires all of us, not just some of us. We must seek to understand from various perspectives in order to make sure that we can bring individuals with varying perspectives into our organization.

How many of you guys have seen the movie The Help? [applause] I often try to find analogies that help me understand stuff, but it wouldn’t do any good if you didn’t share that same understanding. The Help is a movie about black domestics in the 60s. I should’ve asked permission, but I’m going to put this out there. Ever Lee Hairston, Gary Wunder, and I were sitting around having a conversation about The Help. Ever Lee was saying “Oh, I really just didn’t like the way that the movie was portraying some of these black people. That’s real; that’s her perspective. But, being a little country boy raised in the big city and my mom being a domestic for a significant part of her life, a lot of the scenes in that movie resonated with me and struck as so true with what I saw her experience to be. But the interesting dynamic ends up being two things: Ever Lee and I are both African-American, and we saw it from a different perspective. We saw good and bad in the movie from different lenses. So Ever Lee said that she was very disappointed in the way that black people were portrayed in that movie. Gary Wunder, just being Gary Wunder, added insight that helped me expand my paradigm of this perception: “I was embarrassed and upset by the way they portrayed white people.” [laughter] That hadn’t been my lived experience. So it’s very helpful for us to have those candid conversations, for us to really look at things from different perspectives, and then what we need to do is respect them and value them. [applause] When it’s all said and done, we need to just look at each other and say, “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.” If you don’t get that, you have to watch the movie; I’m sorry.

So as we work on our diversity and inclusion efforts, one thing that’s very important is this: let us not forget that, as we seek to embrace every characteristic of individuals, we don’t stray away from our core of accepting everybody regardless of their vision. [applause] Regardless of their level of sight, they are part of the National Federation of the Blind. Moreover, we must accept them regardless their skill level. [applause] Whether you can make it from here back to your room without touching anything or needing any assistance or whether you need someone to guide you through this, you are still a member of the National Federation of the Blind. [applause] We are not an organization of elitists. But the National Federation of the Blind is an elite organization. We have to be welcoming and accepting to everyone. The foundation of the National Federation of the Blind is what gives us our strength because we are founded on the lived life experiences of blind people. That’s our core. It’s not based on some curriculum that someone passed; it’s not based on some program; it’s based on our everyday lived experiences interacting with the world, and we develop strategies and techniques that allow us to be successful in this world. We know the perils and the pitfalls of blindness, we challenge them, and we overcome them.

We have not just survived; we have thrived. We took what little the world had to offer us, and we made something powerful—the National Federation of the Blind. [applause]

Now you know that I can’t get up on the stage without being authentic to who I am. My grandma raised hogs. You guys are asking yourself, “Where is he going with this?” [laughter] Since my grandma raised hogs, I have had everything on the hog from the rooter to the tooter. That’s a delicious animal; I’m just letting you know. I’m sorry, John Paré, but it is a delicious animal. I’ve had pigs feet and pigtails and pig ears, but see we had that because my grandma raised the hogs. But we didn’t get the good stuff. Very rarely did we get the porkchops and all the pork loin, for that is what we sold. We sold it so we could have money to buy other groceries. We had to use the leftovers, but man my grandma made it delicious. The only thing I couldn’t get into was the chitlins.

I thought I had eaten every part of the pig until I talked with Mrs. Patricia Maurer one day, and she says, “Obviously, then, you’ve had pig cheeks?”

I thought about that and I said, “No, pig feet, pig ears, pigtails, but no pig cheeks—oh, you mean hog jowls. Oh yeah, I’ve had some hog jowls. From the rooter to the tooter, I’ve had it all.”

You know back then those were the dregs, but people like my grandmother, who knew how to cook those things, made people realize that they can be gourmet dishes. Now the pig feet and pigtails and pig ears I used to get are now top dollar when you go to a restaurant. But my grandma was not getting any cut of that. I mean that’s just not right. She started this, opened up this industry, and she’s not getting anything.

I only say all of that to say this: we as an organization have taken what little the world has offered us, and we’ve made something very powerful: the National Federation of the Blind. We need to make sure that our value is respected as we move forward. We need to make sure that the world recognizes that we can enhance and enrich through our participation.

One of the programs we’ve developed to do this is our Blind Users Innovating and Leading Design. As technologies evolve, we recognize that only if we are involved in the design phase can blind people really impact the development so that not only is it accessible for us when it’s over—it’s also better for everyone who uses it, not just blind people. Through our build program we offer support from novices to experts, because many companies out there developing this technology will hire a blind person who’s definitely skilled. God rest her soul, Rachel Olivero could’ve made the most inaccessible thing accessible, but that would leave a person like me unable to use it at all. So we make sure that we give feedback in a way that really represents our selfish desire to see that we can access things but also our altruistic desire because we realize that our participation helps everyone, not just us.

Let me take the time now to thank each and every one of you who signed up for the build program. I know we haven’t pushed a lot of it out, but we have to build the infrastructure first so that we can make sure that as the demand comes, we’re able to meet it and that we keep the demand coming.

Just to show you some examples of this, where are New York and Colorado? [shout outs from both states] So we had a company contact us, and they wanted to test digital lockers. They wanted to make sure that they were accessible for blind people. We’d already demonstrated our expertise in that by working with the Amazon locker system, but in the past they would’ve pulled blind people aside, had them participate in the experience, and said “Thank you very much,” and shook their hands. But because we were able to negotiate and they recognized the value of our participation, we were able to make sure that each and every person who participated in that demonstration received $100 for about forty-five minutes worth of work. I think that’s a pretty good minimum wage, don’t you? [applause]

Now everything won’t bring that degree of value, so I don’t want everybody to sign up thinking wow, I’m about to get paid. But we do want to make sure that our value is recognized and our members are not co-opted. We have more work to do. We have to work on accessible kiosks; we have to work on accessible websites; we have to work on different banking solutions. We definitely have to work on point-of-sale machines and those new virtual customer interfaces like we find at McDonald’s, who launch this nationwide announcement about this flagship location in Manhattan where they are introducing all of this technology and the kiosk where you walk up and make your order. It’s not accessible. Now those of you who know me know that I love myself some Mickey D’s. But right about now, [he sings the McDonald’s theme song] I’m not loving it.” So we must make sure that we’re in this game and we are playing in a way that makes certain that our participation is appreciated.

We must protect our brand. That’s the other piece that’s important for this. This might hurt some people, but I’m just going to put it out there. We have to make sure that our brand is not co-opted. The work that we do needs to bring value back to the National Federation of the Blind. How many of you guys know what the blues are all about? [cheers] Okay, so maybe this will help those who didn’t understand the hogs. The blues is music that is born out of struggle, and as the music moved up north, it turned into the foundation for R&B and rock ‘n roll. But a lot of people don’t realize that the blues is that foundation because the brand got co-opted. Langston Hughes, in a poem around the Harlem Renaissance wrote: “You’ve taken my blues and gone. You mix them up on Broadway, and fix them up in operas, so they don’t even sound like me. Yep, you’ve taken my blues and gone.”

We can’t let anybody take our blues. Our struggle and the success and strategies that we develop as a result of that struggle belong to the National Federation of the Blind. [applause] And we are not going to let people take our blues. But we must be strategic in making sure that that is not the case. We must make sure that our value is recognized. Our National Federation of the Blind training centers, the Louisiana Center for the Blind, the Colorado Center for the Blind, Blind Incorporated, and all of our certified structure discovery centers recognize the benefit of our lived life experiences, have benefited from our struggle, but there are others out there trying to take away our blues. They think that if they add sleep shades and longer canes into their curriculum that they are in NFB training centers. No. We can’t let them take our blues.

I went to a meeting of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, and the work that our Michigan affiliate did with the state VR office there to build autonomous vehicle opportunities for our blind students to learn was phenomenal, and they gave us phenomenal credit in that open forum. However, there was an agency, and I’m sorry that I’m going to call them out, an agency from Idaho that talked about the wonderful work they had been doing with their BELL Program, but they gave no credit to the National Federation of the Blind. They are taking away our blues. Don’t boo them: let’s hug them until they realize that it is safe to say, “We did this with the NFB.”

There is our research that we conduct, and there are individuals who have come here for many years and have taken blind people and have done research and published it. We’ve even had partnerships with individuals with whom we’ve collaborated, and you’re going to hear from them next. One of them will be Wade Goodridge from Utah State, and the other will be the new assistant professor at Illinois State University, the master teacher that we know and love, Natalie Shaheen. Wherever she goes, you know she’s a Federationist, but some of the people we partner with in our research don’t acknowledge us. They are trying to take our blues.

When Brad Smith presented, he talked about Anne Taylor, who we know and love. In his presentation he recognized and acknowledged that she is a member of the National Federation of the Blind, and she says that proudly in every place that she goes. But there are other individuals out there who have built their reputation on the National Federation of the Blind and who have gained the skills and the confidence that they have needed to be successful. When we are talking to them here, they are all about NFB. But when you talk with them outside, they act like they can’t pronounce the letters. They’re trying to take our blues.

Chancey Fleet of New York: I have come to rely lately on Chancey in so many ways. I love her expertise, her knowledge, but most of all I love her frankness. It is very helpful. Chancey is building a significant brand for herself as she’s moving around, but anytime I’ve called on her or have talked with anyone about her, they recognize that she is a member of the National Federation of the Blind. But there are others out there who are using the Federation to build their brand and don’t in any way acknowledge the NFB. They’re trying to take our blues.

Joe Ruffalo said it best when he was reelected to the board: “The best title we have is as members of the National Federation of the Blind.” [applause] As I said last year and Terri Rupp reiterated it, whatever hat we’re wearing, it has to be on our Federation head.

We have to make sure that as we move forward that all of these things are put in place that reflect the value that the Federation has to offer. Internally we have to make sure that the programs we build through the Federation are not just programs of our National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. People shouldn’t say, “Oh, this is what we’re doing at our national office.” These are not just Jernigan Institute programs. They are programs of the National Federation of the Blind. They are programs for each and every one of us, and they represent all of us. And all of us should participate in the development and execution of those programs. That’s what gives us our strength and our power.

Last year I talked about our career mentoring program. I just want you guys to know that that’s going really well. We’re trying to make sure that we maintain the authenticity of our program within the bureaucratic framework, and we’re doing a good job of doing that in Mississippi, Nebraska, and Maryland. We’re doing a lot of work with autonomous vehicles. Back in 2011 under the leadership of Dr. Marc Maurer, our current president Mark Riccobono got to drive independently an automobile on the Daytona International Speedway. That has given us credibility and standing in this space for autonomous vehicles because they recognize that we have the technical expertise and the capacity to not only make the vehicles accessible but to make them better for everyone. We’re addressing the fears that people have about these autonomous vehicles, and even more, we’re putting it in a way that helps them advertise the efficacy of this. You guys may not know this, but with the advent of all of this ridesharing, now there are so many more cars on the road. I think this is very frustrating because they are making it sound like the technology that has allowed us to be more effective is just disrupting their lives. Well that’s just too bad. We too pay taxes to get the roads built; we want to use the roads just like you; stop exercising your degree of privilege in prohibiting us from being able to live the lives that we want.

Luckily we’ve been able to manifest significant partnerships through Lyft and Uber, and most importantly through Lyft at this convention through autonomous vehicle rides, which was awesome. This wasn’t just a demonstration of our collaboration; it was a manifestation of our desire to continue to want to participate and add value.

I’ll add one of the things that we’re doing and that’s inaccessible museum spaces. I want individuals who are interested in being ambassadors as we talk to these museums to reach out to us. We’ve developed a wonderful partnership with John Olson of 3DPhotoWorks to expand accessibility in all multimodal functions. Again, making the museum experience accessible for blind people enriches the experience for everyone.

So you’ve taken my blues and you’ve gone. You’ve mixed them up in Broadway and mixed them up in operas so they don’t even sound like me. Yeah, you’ve taken my blues and gone, but someday someone’s going to stand up for me, sing about me, and write about me. The poem says black, but I’ll add blind and beautiful in the vein of Ever Lee Hairston. But someday someone’s going to stand up for me, going to sing about me, going to write about me—black, blind, beautiful—it’ll be me, I reckon; Yep it’ll be me, but it won’t just be me. It’ll be me working together with 50,000 members of the National Federation of the Blind to combine our efforts to produce an effect that is greater than the sum of our separate effects. Let’s go forth and build the National Federation of the Blind.

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