Braille Monitor                          October 2019

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Led by the Blind: Bringing Authenticity to Services for the Blind and Making Them Relevant to the Lives We Want to Live

by Bryan Bashin

Bryan BashinFrom the Editor: Bryan Bashin is the chief executive officer at the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind. When I first heard about him, he was a science writer, and I was soon fascinated by everything he had to say. I was delighted to find that he was a Federationist, and I felt a real sense of awe at playing on the same team. I admit to being somewhat dismayed when Bryan gave up his work as a reporter and moved into the field of rehabilitation. But I should have expected good things, for that is certainly what Bryan has delivered at the LightHouse. Here are the comments he made on the last morning of the 2019 national convention:

Thank you, President Riccobono, thank you, distinguished guests, good morning, Federation Family. Twenty-five years ago, a blind Federation cane travel instructor put a cane in my hand and taught me to believe in myself and the dignity of the blind. Fast forward twenty-five years, and I find myself leading a remarkable agency in charge of reinventing itself with that dignity in mind. [applause]

Why reinventing? As President Riccobono said, we have a 117-year history with some high points and some low points. Reinvention is our friend.

I want to talk with you about what happens when a large private agency starts hiring blind people at every level of management and people, blind and sighted, who know the truth about blindness. Perhaps the way an agency is led and governed is revealed by talking about who the people are who are working at our agency, and I will remind you that a little more than ten years ago the number of LightHouse people attending convention was zero. Here are the ones who are here this week: Scott Blanks, the director of our programs; Erin Lauridsen, the director of access tech; Amy Mason in our technology program; Debbie Worstman, tech trainer; Bobbi Pompey teaching life skills; Amber Sherrard, wellness; Jamey Gump, youth; Ann Kwong transition, youth; Serena Olson, adult programs; Kate Williams, employment immersion; Wanda Pearson, employment; Christina Daniels, communications and the Holman Prize; Katt Jones, O&M; and from our MAD Lab Greg Kehret, Caitlin O’Malior, and Maritza Calderon.

Oh yes, did you see one other person from the LightHouse that you may have heard of—we have seen him on Sixty Minutes this January, Chris Downey, our board chair. He is my boss, his predecessor chair of the board was blind, and his successor is likely going to be blind.

These folks that I just mentioned are helping us be authentic. Yes, the LightHouse does the same core training as you could find around the country, but a little differently. We believe in the power of words. We don’t call the people who study with us clients; we call them students. [applause] We’ve gotten rid of the ableist and insulting term for blindness that so-called professionals use: we never say vision loss. We describe, out of respect, all publications, whether it’s our SuperFest Film Festival or our own communications, all images.

You know, we’ve had a camp in Napa for seventy years. For more than sixty of those years blind people were not permitted to cook in the commercial kitchen. Last year our director of camp, Tony Fletcher, went into the kitchen for something and noticed there were seven people working in the kitchen; all seven were blind. [applause] We have twenty counselors who lead the hundreds and hundreds of campers in a dozen sessions at our summer camp. Last year seventeen of those counselors were blind. Our board in our management designed our 40,000 square-foot headquarters in San Francisco; every square inch of it was designed with the blind in mind. It is a beautiful place, but much more beautiful is the fact that you can control things there: the audiovisual system, the thermostats, and we even have talking business caller ID. It’s all accessible.

We believe in the history we have, and we owe our predecessors a debt of gratitude. So when you come and stay at the LightHouse, you’ll notice the rooms are named for people you may know: Blind Boss Chris Buckley, the San Francisco boss; Newel Perry; Isabelle Grant; Jacobus tenBroek.

We shatter some myths about blind people always being dependent. We have a blood drive that takes place several times a year where blind people roll up our sleeves and contribute back to the Red Cross. [applause] A few years ago we created the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition. We spent over a quarter of a million dollars making the dreams of blind people come to life. Last week, Red Szell from the U.K. rode across ten miles of a bog in Scotland, swam across the boiling Atlantic, and climbed a twenty-two-story sea stack and successfully summited it. [applause] Last month Stacy Cervenka’s Blind Travelers’ Network went live, and I bet there may be one or two comments about the Mandalay Bay on that network as well. In a couple of weeks Conchita Hernandez will do the first ever all-Spanish blind family retreat in Jalisco in Mexico. [applause]

In making the hard decisions about who wins the Holman Prize, we have a distinguished international committee, and all of them are blind. You may know a few of these names who are judges: Anil Lewis, Gary Wunder, Katherine Webster, Brian Miller, Debbie Kent Stein, Chancey Fleet, and a new member still in training in Colorado, Holly Scott-Gardner. [applause]

Now while the name LightHouse may have suggested to you a giant factory with little blind leadership, our community and our authenticity now demand that we be more bold. So, what have we done? When nobody thought five years ago that this scrappy little startup could succeed, we invested $100,000 for an app that now has 2.5 million volunteers and 150,000 users, Be My Eyes.

When it was unheard of that a LightHouse would pursue blind civil rights, we sued Redbox and made sure that 30,000 Redboxes across the states are now accessible. When we switched to an HR and payroll system at the LightHouse and found that it was inaccessible, we brought out the lawyers. We’re talking with them now. When we finish and make that system accessible, the 500,000 people who get their paychecks through ADP will have an accessible system. [applause]

When Goodwill in Northern California wanted to work with the LightHouse, we said, “No, you have to reject the 14(c) subminimum wage of your parent organization.” [applause] We challenged them, and their board of directors removed the 14(c) certification. I ask you, is your local blind private agency troublemaking enough?

When the experts said that seniors couldn’t be taken to an immersive training, sometimes at our camp, sometimes in San Francisco, we thought otherwise. We are now in our seventh year of “Changing Visions, Changing Life” retreats. In our eleven-story headquarters, we fired our cleaning company and decided that blind people should get the benefits of cleaning. Today five of the seven people who clean our building are blind or deaf.

Against skepticism, we put twenty-nine beds in our high-rise headquarters so that blind people could stay and connect and form community. There are hundreds and hundreds of students who stay there every year, and you may have seen some of them, the thirteen students who are here from the LightHouse’s YES! (Youth Employment Series) program. Next week they’re going to be staying in the rooms and commuting to their internships and jobs directly from the LightHouse.

In the San Francisco Pride Parade we marched 120 strong, the largest contingent we ever had in the largest Pride Parade in the United States. [applause]

We have a robust relationship with the big tech companies around San Francisco. For seven years now we’ve operated a sort of scrappy tech salon, LightHouse Labs, led by Erin Lauridsen and assisted by people like Amy Mason, Jim Barbour, and Brian Buhrow.

But in a greater sense we are developing something precious and rare at the LightHouse—a 50/50 mix of blind and sighted people at all levels of management, working together, people who know the truth about blindness. Now we didn’t do this because we are a wealthy organization. I submit to you that we became a wealthy organization precisely because of the authentic and bold steps that we in our community insist that we do. I want to tell you a few things about our biggest benefactor, Donald Sirkin. He was not, when in his eighties, an authentic low-vision person. Like so many seniors, he was ashamed and hid his own vision loss, as he would say. He saw our messages, our blind positive messages on our website, and named us in his will in 2010. He followed our authentic message of living the life we want and again, when he revised his will in 2014, named the LightHouse. We’ve discovered that blind authenticity pays, that fewer people give when we have these maudlin messages about the plight of the blind. But people respond to messages of hope and pride. Oh yes, about that bequest: it is the largest single bequest in the history of American blindness, $130 million. [applause]

But in my heart, the biggest gift I ever received was each one of you. The only way I can repay that debt is to ensure that the United States has more agencies that are authentic and reflective of the blind community. So today the LightHouse has 140 employees in six locations. This September we’re opening a new satellite location in Berkeley. We have eighty-two different and distinct programs, and we’re looking for cool blind people to run them, to manage them, to direct them at all levels of our organization. And may I remind you that we are especially looking for some NOMCs. We’re going to continue to do strategic blindness investments in technology like Be My Eyes. We’re going to continue to do our blind civil rights advocacy. We’re going to go where underserved people who are blind need our help.

Last week the director of programs, Scott Blanks, went to California’s Corcoran State Prison because there are blind people there—not one or two—how many blind people are in that prison? Would you believe eighty-five? It’s practically an affiliate. [laughter]

We want to expand our connections to people who have not been served, like the undocumented. We want to expand our TMAPS. Did anybody get one of our tactile maps in the exhibit hall? [cheers] We’re proud of the Bolotin Award that we achieved last year for the tactile maps, and we are only going to grow it. These are tools blind people can use.

We’re going to do more immersive short-term courses like how to learn LinkedIn over a long weekend or how to learn audio editing hands-on. We’re going to continue to do media partnerships, particularly with National Public Radio. Look for more than thirty podcasts about the blind and broadcasts on NPR about that. Again, we’re not talking about the plight of the blind but the joy and the beauty of how we live our lives.

We want to raise the bar about traditional and often overlooked blindness institutions. There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of hours that blind youth and young adults spend in blindness camps. There’s never been any kind of gathering to raise the bar about that, so this October the LightHouse and CNIB in Canada are going to organize the first ever best practices in blind camps conference. [applause]  

We’re looking to expand partnerships so that we can offer more Holman Prizes. The Holman Prize for Blind Ambition just announced our 2019 blind awardees last night. Do you want to hear who they are? Computational chemist Mona Minkara has an ambitious goal to visit the teaming public transit systems on six continents, and, like Anthony Bourdain, to blog and video how a blind person takes ordinary transit. Alieu Jaiteh, in The Gambia, will build a mentorship system of seventy blind people in the most rural parts of that nation. People will get for the first time the positive message of blindness in The Gambia. And Yuma Decaux in Queensland in Australia, a blind astronomer, has developed an app that can run on your iPhone or some other smartphone and will take the data that our satellites are getting and sonify it so that blind people directly, as part of citizen science, can play a role and discover the next exoplanet.

Now there have always been blind people with self-confidence in California. Think of Newel Perry, Jacobus tenBroek, and all of those, but what we have not had is an agency in California with those kinds of people at all levels of management until now. Take the aspirations of Jacobus tenBroek for our right to live in the world and expand it now into our right to influence our world. If I can name a law, I will call it Bashin’s law, which says that the more money an organization has, the fewer are the blind people who run its board of directors or are in senior management. If you look at it, in California the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh largest agencies, apart from the LightHouse, are people with overwhelmingly sighted management from the top down. Nationally fewer than 10 percent of blind private agencies are led by blind people or management teams. In 2019 I ask you, is this managerial apartheid acceptable? [The audience responds with a resounding no!] Even the 660 independent living centers are mandated to have half of their management and half of their board of directors be people with disabilities. In California though, one large private agency actually fought a bill in the California legislature, saying that it could not be mandated to find even 20 percent of its board of directors because it couldn’t find qualified blind people in California.

The LightHouse now is at 50 percent blind and sighted parity on our board of directors, and in the next few months it is likely that we will codify that as a permanent part of our bylaws. [applause] So it’s time to take that disability refrain “nothing about us without us” and just make it simple: nothing without us!

Our authenticity is based on the understanding that blind people want to be actors and not passive people. We want to be subjects and not predicates in somebody else’s sentence. We don’t believe in an artificial schism between blind and sighted people working in our field. And we certainly don’t need a divisive and outmoded organization like NAC to tell us what’s progressive and what’s authentic. [cheers] In thirty years the LightHouse has not needed the services of NAC, and we never will. [applause]

Our future and the future of private agencies lies in cultivating and not alienating sighted allies. They are essential to amplify our reach. Our goal then is to teach and engage and involve our wider community, but a community that must learn from us with humility and respect.

It is now time for us in the Federation to take some larger strides, to expand our reach beyond our three training centers and the handful of commissions and state training centers we now influence. [applause] Our task is to light more flames of authenticity in places that call themselves lighthouses, societies, centers, or happy homes for the blind. So whether your local private agency is in the east or the west, north or south, or even in San Francisco, will you please join me in the new refrain, “Nothing without us, nothing without us, nothing without us.” Thank you.

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