Vol. 63, No. 8 August/September 2020
Gary Wunder, Editor
Distributed by email, in inkprint, in Braille, and on USB flash drive, by the
The National Federation of the Blind
Mark Riccobono, President
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THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND KNOWS THAT BLINDNESS IS NOT THE CHARACTERISTIC THAT DEFINES YOU OR YOUR FUTURE. EVERY DAY WE RAISE THE EXPECTATIONS OF BLIND PEOPLE, BECAUSE LOW EXPECTATIONS CREATE OBSTACLES BETWEEN BLIND PEOPLE AND OUR DREAMS. YOU CAN LIVE THE LIFE YOU WANT; BLINDNESS IS NOT WHAT HOLDS YOU BACK. THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND IS NOT AN ORGANIZATION SPEAKING FOR THE BLIND--IT IS THE BLIND SPEAKING FOR OURSELVES.
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Vol. 63, No. 8 August/September 2020
Illustration: The BELL Academy Comes to Your Home
The 2020 Convention Roundup
by Gary Wunder
The National Federation of the Blind 2020 Convention Principles of Engagement
Presidential Report 2020
by Mark A. Riccobono
Scholarship Thank You to Sponsors
Scholarship Remarks from Our 2020 Finalists
The 2020 Scholarship Presentation
by Cayte Mendez
Language, Action, and Destiny: The Lived Experience of the Organized Blind Movement
by Mark A. Riccobono
Ray Kurzweil Remarks
The Presentation of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award
Interview with Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi
Authentic Intelligence: A Blind Researcher Bringing Wisdom to the Future of Technology Innovations
by Cynthia L. Bennett
Not Blind to Color in the Federation: A Panel on the Experience of Black and Blind in America
by Ever Lee Hairston, Denice Brown, Ron Brown, Bobbi Pompei, and Tarik Williams
Equal Justice under Law: A Blind Clerk Blazes a Trail behind the Scenes at the Supreme Court
by Laura Wolk
Our Roots: Advancing Human Rights and the Tradition of Serving Our Nation
by Mariyam Cementwala
Presenting the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award
by Carla McQuillan
Convention 2020 Resolutions: A Potpourri of Influences
by Sharon Maneki
A Test of Strength and Equality: Blind Students Organized Against the College Board
by Kaleigh Brendle
Copyright 2020 by the National Federation of the Blind
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Jon Paul practices typing on a Braille writer with his fellow students via Zoom.]
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Kingston smiles while checking on his germinating seeds project.]
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Liz wears sleep shades during her cane walk lesson on Zoom.]
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Mae smiles as she stands outside with her new white cane.]
For the last dozen years, the Federation has come to associate summer with teaching Braille to blind children through our Braille Enrichment through Literacy and Learning Academy (BELL). The key to BELL has been providing hands-on instruction, often one on one, for a two-week program. COVID-19 threatened this program and tradition, but when challenged, Federationists found creativity where others might have found crisis. We figured out how to teach Braille through classes made possible by the Internet and the connections it enabled.
Like we normally do in person, the staff combined teaching and play, and several times each week were conferences between participants and the BELL teachers in their states. The work and the fun concluded with what we called a BELLebration on the evening of August 20, and everyone is looking forward to next year when we hope to all be together again.
[PHOTO CAPTION: Gary Wunder]
by Gary Wunder
Eighty years ago sixteen people from seven states journeyed across the country to talk about their state organizations. Beyond that, they came to grapple with the growing role of the federal government in programs for the blind and the need to speak with one voice rather than many smaller voices to that ever-growing body that was coming to dominate programs of financial support and rehabilitation. The concept of blind people speaking for themselves and exercising influence was radical. As one agency director remarked about the thought of blind people exercising influence in the programs that served them: “It is like turning over the keys of the asylum to the inmates housed there.”
Many of the organizations created to help the blind rejected the idea that we could become a force for change. The things we wanted—to get an education, get a job, have a family, and play a meaningful role in our communities—that was clearly impossible. But when the blind came together to meet and share their stories nationally, they found that some of the things they dreamed about were actually reflected in the lives of people they had not known before. We wanted to be teachers, and when we searched the nation we found a teacher here and there. Some of us wanted to be college professors, and the man heading this new national organization was himself a professor. So those who were charged with seeing to the welfare for the blind gave up saying that what the blind wanted was impossible; instead they said it was virtually impossible. The goal of these blind radicals might ring true for a very few: the lucky, the talented, the intelligent, the very motivated, but the message of those whose job it was to be keepers of the blind said that we would forever be dependent and that we should be grateful that charities and government even gave us what little we got.
Interestingly, eight decades later we found ourselves once again trying to figure out what was possible. We wanted to hold a national convention, but the coronavirus made travel far too risky, and the crowds our convention generates would make social distancing impossible. Should we cancel the convention? During a couple of lean years in World War II, this is what we had done, but we were not ready to cancel if there was an alternative. The task might seem virtually impossible, but this time the word virtual would serve rather than hamper us. We could meet through the miracle of modern telecommunications. We could propose policies, discuss them, and decide whether they should be the action plan for blind people in America. This we did through the organizing of the eightieth anniversary convention using the Zoom platform to conduct our business using audio and video. An application called AttendeeHub was useful in letting us visit the exhibit hall, read the agenda, mark items we wanted to attend, and attend that meeting by activating a link. Almost all of the meetings we would have had in person were held virtually, and the numbers who attended them were remarkable. Many of us found that we could easily move from meeting to meeting and actually learned more about the workings of groups, committees, and divisions than we would have at our traditional in-person event. So that we could cast votes with either a conventional telephone, a smartphone, or a computer, we purchased the services of Swift Polling by ExciteM.
A week before the convention was to start, many of us met in our first large virtual gathering to participate in the Rookie Roundup. Though it is normally for first-time attendees, this Rookie Roundup was special, because all of us were attending our first virtual national convention, and being veterans did not mean that we would understand details about how to connect, how to move from meeting to meeting, and how to vote.
Beginning with the Rookie Roundup and continuing throughout the convention, we made it clear that our code of conduct would be enforced as rigorously in the cloud as it is in person. We would use this opportunity to help grow our organization with continued emphasis on diversity and inclusion. In physical conventions, the times reflected in the agenda are understood to be the time zone in which we are meeting. With this virtual convention, we had to agree on what convention time would be. We decided that in all cases convention events would be referenced in eastern daylight time, and all who participated would quickly learn and make adjustments for their time zone. This took the ambiguity out of when events would be held, but scheduling was another matter. Could we really start the convention at 8 a.m. eastern time? If we did, it would be 2 a.m. in Hawaii, and many from California would still be waiting to be roused from bed by their alarm clocks.
Registration was another process that had to undergo some change. In 2020 it was free, but there were no waiting lines and no differentiation between those who wished to register at the event and those who had saved money by pre-registering. Our cutoff for registration was June 15, but just as in our in-person events, we welcomed all to come and participate. Registration made one eligible for a door prize and eligible to vote. All of us were very proud when President Riccobono announced that we registered 7,252 members and that certain program items featured at the convention saw us exceed 8,200 participants.
On Tuesday, July 14, we engaged in this great experiment to see whether all of the technology we were trying to harness could really let us meet and transact business. Our first victory was the opening of the presidential suite. Though we were a little light on food and drink, the hospitality was second to none. While some visited, others explored contemporary issues in rehabilitation and education, and, as they so often do, they furthered the process of influencing the programs designed to serve us. The mammoth retailer, Target, talked about its successes in making friendly webpages and applications so that blind people can enjoy browsing and shopping from the convenience of their homes. Shopping takes money, and most of us find that employment is the greatest source of that money. So it is that the National Federation of the Blind Employment Committee met to discuss getting, keeping, and advancing in the job.
When most of us think of Microsoft, we think of the Windows operating system, and although Microsoft is working hard to make its operating system and all that runs on it accessible, it also has other projects. One of these is Seeing AI, and it offered a session on the product and recent improvements made to it. It has also developed and is continuing to refine a product called Microsoft Soundscape, which uses innovative audio-based technology to aid in mobility.
Our friends at Vispero were also present to talk about three of its major products: JAWS for Windows, Fusion, and ZoomText. Google is best known for its powerful search engine, but it has made major investments in other software and hardware. In several sessions throughout the convention the company conveyed its commitment to accessibility in both its hardware and software and discussed improved automatic image descriptions that will be most helpful to blind people.
Members who are American Arab, North African, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and Sikh met to discuss difficulties they face as blind people in the post-9/11 America in which we live. JPMorgan Chase held an interactive discussion on digital accessibility and banking in the time of the coronavirus.
In almost everything he writes or says, President Riccobono concludes by saying, “Let’s go build the Federation!” The Membership Committee is a crucial component in coordinating our work to build, and all affiliate membership chairpersons and guests were warmly welcomed to the session.
Living through this pandemic has created an urgent need to figure out how to do virtually what previously has been done physically. Accessible learning activities that are done virtually must be meaningful for blind people, so the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children division sponsored a workshop on this topic.
Mujeres [Women] of the Federation was a group meeting featuring a bilingual celebration of blind Latinx excellence. The Braille Monitor understands that there were some rather moving speeches made in this group, and we hope they will find their way to the editor for inclusion later in the fall.
HumanWare is always a prominent presenter, and this year it sponsored a number of sessions discussing new features in the BrailleNote, in the Victor Trek, and in its projects for low-vision users. Amazon came to tell us what is new in terms of accessibility including Fire TV, tablets, Prime, Video, Echo, and Kindle. Facebook hosted a presentation in which it talked about making its service more accessible and extending its efforts for accessibility throughout the industry.
One of the most important services we provide is NFB-NEWSLINE®, and convention is always a good time to advertise it and provide some much-needed training given the number of access methods that now exist.
The National Association of Guide Dog Users held two meetings at the convention, and we have every reason to believe that a report will be forthcoming to discuss the advocacy efforts of the division, its concern about training programs, and practical issues surrounding veterinarian care, exercise, and other issues important when having a healthy, happy guide dog.
“Transforming Lives for Transgender People” gave members a chance to discuss shared experiences in accessing mental and medical health services, learning useful practices for interacting with healthcare professionals, advice about managing medications, and learning how to navigate daily social interactions.
Once again we held a session entitled “SSI and SSDI 101: What You Need to Know.” This session is always helpful for recipients and advocates. What’s happening with the National Library Service is always important, and Director Karen Keninger was on hand to bring updates and answer questions.
With significant elections soon at hand, the topic of electronic ballot delivery and how it works was a well-attended meeting, and so too was the meeting held on the following day to discuss how to privately and independently vote by mail. The need for creative and accessible solutions has always been important, but the need has increased significantly as a result of COVID-19.
The National Association of Blind Students held its annual meeting, the advocacy and policy group did a recap of the Washington Seminar and provided a rundown of the priorities the Federation is pursuing legislatively. “Cultivating Asian/ Pacific Islander Identities” generated some wonderful presentations and discussion, as did “Black Leaders Advancing the Federation.”
“We’re Blind, But Not Color-blind” was a topic presented by sociologist Angela Frederick, and what she discussed would appear in a slightly different form in one of the general sessions. The National Association of Blind Students hosted a session entitled “Oh Yes, I Made Mistakes–and Lived to Tell the Tale”, a meeting focusing on learning the soft skills of socialization. This is just a sample of the activities that took place on seminar and division day. To truly understand the diversity of the people, professions, and interests represented at the convention, one must go right to the agenda. It can be found by searching the NFB website.
The gavel for the board meeting fell promptly at 2 p.m., and all seventeen members were present. As usual, a substantial number of convention attendees also were in attendance, many regarding this as one of our formal convention sessions.
The President began with a moment of silence recognizing those marchers in our movement who have passed in the last year. Sixty-six people were on his list, but our prayerful moment of remembrance extended to all who died between our last convention and the present one.
Daniel Martinez was in charge of our Spanish translation initiative, and he reported that his twelve volunteers would significantly expand the sessions that were translated and had worked to see that our agenda was also available in Spanish. At the conclusion of Daniel’s remarks, President Riccobono asked whether he would like to say the same thing in Spanish. Daniel gently assured him that his remarks had already been translated in real time. Quickly we established that spontaneous humor was not inhibited by our virtual convention or the Zoom platform.
We then said the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the Federation pledge. This was followed by a recitation of members of the Board of Directors up for election and a list of those whose terms will expire next year. Those who were up for election in 2020 were: President Mark Riccobono, Maryland; First Vice President Pam Allen, Louisiana; Second Vice President Ron Brown, Indiana; Secretary James Gashel, Hawaii; Treasurer Jeannie Massay, Oklahoma; and board members Amy Buresh, Nebraska; Shawn Callaway, District of Columbia; John Fritz, Wisconsin; Carla McQuillan, Oregon; Amy Ruell, Massachusetts; and Adelmo Vigil, New Mexico. Holdover board positions are filled by Denise Avant, Illinois; Everette Bacon, Utah; Norma Crosby, Texas; Ever Lee Hairston, California; Terri Rupp, Nevada; and Joe Ruffalo, New Jersey.
As the president of our convention host, Norma Crosby began by welcoming all of us virtually to Texas. She expressed regret at all of the things we could not do, one of the most important being the sharing of barbecue. But the essence of her message focused on what we could do and would do virtually. She encouraged us to be present for the opening session on Thursday and promised that the greeting from Texas would be all we expected from this grand state.
President Riccobono explained that the convention sessions were being captioned and that those using the Zoom platform could take advantage of this service. A written transcript of what was being said could be viewed on screen or in Braille using a refreshable Braille display.
The President took a moment to discuss our code of conduct and observed that we follow it not only for in-person meetings but for virtual meetings and on social media. Anyone who believes there has been a violation of the code should report it either by telephoning our Jernigan Institute and using extension 2475 or by emailing [email protected].
Hand-in-hand with our insistence that people be treated with respect is our commitment to diversity and inclusion. We want to welcome all people who are blind or who are interested in our work. This means celebrating our differences as well as our similarities. It means fighting the age-old human urge to give in to tribalism, making a commitment to fight the desire to feel superior because of one’s characteristics, and refusing to pretend superiority on the supposed inferiority of another. We will be conducting active programs to encourage diversity and inclusion, and this training will begin with our board of directors, our affiliate presidents, and our chapter presidents. Working with them and through them, the training will be available to every member of every chapter. We will all benefit by the sharing of the diversity we enjoy, and we should use the pages of our Braille Monitor to express this diversity and the challenges that blindness may pose.
Shawn Callaway is the co-chair of our Diversity and Inclusion Committee. He talked about the progress made in the past year, meetings planned for the convention, and what he hopes to accomplish in the coming year. He made sure that the convention understood the crucial role that Rosy Carranza plays as his co-chair and acknowledged that the work of the committee is substantial enough that it requires the work of all who serve on it.
Given that this convention was virtual, we had to deal with the changes that not meeting physically would require. We did this by creating a Principles of Engagement document. It will be found elsewhere in this issue.
Since we would be voting electronically, two votes were scheduled for practice. Neither had anything to do with an official Federation vote. The first issue we were asked to decide was whether the sixty-game baseball season was a good idea or not. We could vote using a regular telephone and pressing one for yes or two for no, or we could use a smart device and text the words yes or no.
Jeannie Massay is our Membership Committee co-chairperson and the treasurer of our national organization. She took the opportunity to invite those listening who may not be members to consider joining our movement. We need them, and she noted that this convention would give them a good opportunity to hear about what we do and decide whether they would like to join with us in this most noble of causes. She talked about the ongoing work of the Membership Committee, the calls where potential members can speak to leaders, and the efforts we are making to ensure that once a person is a member, he or she continues to be nurtured and encouraged to contribute energy and ideas to the process.
Our next presenter was the much loved John Berggren. President Riccobono noted that it was John’s birthday, and there is no doubt that the room would’ve been filled with song if we had been meeting in person. This gentle, firm, patient, and organized man has been in charge of convention organization and activities for a number of years, and as challenging as his work normally is, it was even more challenging for the 2020 Convention. He and his colleagues were responsible for learning about the capacity of Zoom, how to obtain different licenses for meetings that would range widely in their number of attendees, and then figuring out how to get most of us the training we would need to be active convention participants. John talked about the challenge of moving from a physical to a virtual convention. He and his team have configured Zoom rooms for more than two hundred meetings that will take place at the convention. We tested out and selected the most accessible meeting planner we could find, and though none was perfect, the one we selected did a good job in meeting our needs. The product is called AttendeeHub, and the company we hired will get a full report on how it can make its quality services even more accessible.
The AttendeeHub had an agenda containing the time of every meeting, a link that would take you to the Zoom room, and a way to mark whether or not you wanted that meeting on your calendar of events to attend. If attendees weren’t comfortable with this kind of convention agenda, it could be found on our website in EPUB, HTML, Microsoft Word, and even as a Braille-formatted file that could easily be embossed or used with a refreshable Braille display. John went over the high points of the agenda, cautioning all of us to remember that every time listed in the agenda was eastern daylight time or, as we came to call it, convention time.
The convention was available on many platforms. We have already mentioned Zoom, but many joined us through ShoutCast, YouTube, and NFB-NEWSLINE®. We could even be heard using Alexa by enabling our special skill, and many people have observed that they liked this option because of the audio quality that has been designed into the Amazon home devices.
Since a small part of John’s usual report involves pointing out the guide dog relief areas, he said that they were in the same place that they were yesterday, and this is where they would continue to be found throughout the convention.
President Riccobono quickly reviewed the number of people who registered for our convention, and that number was an impressive 7,252. It may be that some of the people in this count are not members, so we issue to them a cordial invitation to be a part of who we are and what we do.
Meeting virtually required that we make some adjustments to our normal door prize system. Those winning a prize would receive it by mail from the Jernigan Institute. Each time we drew, we would select five people, and to ensure that they were in the convention session, we provided a code word to go along with their prize. Door prize winners could either raise their hand using the Zoom platform or could send an email to [email protected] sending their first name, last name, state, and their special code word. We tried this first in the board meeting, and the first codeword was the last name of our founder and first president, tenBroek. As a final note about door prizes, they were handled by Diane McGeorge, who has been doing this since 1977, and Bennett Prows, who has been doing it since 2010.
Even with a virtual convention, we managed to open the presidential suite. Members and nonmembers alike were encouraged to come by and enjoy the virtual hospitality. All throughout the board meeting and the convention, we were active on social media using the hashtag #NFB20. This was a wonderful opportunity for people to engage in discussions about what they had observed, what was currently happening, and what would happen in the not-so-distant future.
Carla McQuillan was called on in her capacity as the chairperson of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award. Her presentation and the one given by the winner will appear elsewhere in this issue.
Divisions of the National Federation of the Blind play an important part in our work. The President asked that changes in division officers be sent to him immediately and that a report from each division was due by August 15. He also discussed the importance of committees in the work that we do. Committees are appointed by the President, and those who are interested in serving on them should write to the President at [email protected].
Last year at the convention we helped the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults celebrate its 100th anniversary. The Action Fund is a valued partner, and even in this time of the coronavirus, it continues to produce Braille books for blind children. This year it has distributed more than four thousand books. It also operates the Share Braille program, which lets those wanting hardcopy Braille have books chosen from the online library. We gratefully acknowledge the help of the Action Fund with our free white cane program, our program to give a slate and stylus to any blind person who wants one, and the calendars that the Action Fund provides free to anyone wanting a calendar in Braille. Our partner has taken up a program we once ran, that being Braille Readers Are Leaders, and we in turn help our partner by sponsoring an annual Braille book fair.
Sandy Halverson is the chairperson of our rainy day fund. Interestingly, the fund’s name is Shares Unlimited in the National Federation of the Blind, so its acronym is SUN. Currently forty-six states are giving to our fund that is to be used in times of dire financial need. Like every family with a rainy day fund, we hope we’ll never need it, but we know that we must have it.
One of our most successful fundraisers is our Preauthorized Contribution Program (PAC). For many years our effort to raise money has been chaired by Scott LaBarre. This year he introduced a co-chair, Ryan Strunk, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. Those who want to help the National Federation of the Blind financially give a monthly contribution, and this program is consistently one of the most successful we operate. A monthly contribution can be made from one’s checking account, savings account, or credit card. Giving in this way is painless, and it provides the organization with a very predictable source of revenue. Without tools, a builder cannot build; without money, we don’t have the tools to build.
At the beginning of 2020 the program was generating $471,000. With the pandemic we have seen a drop, but it is not nearly as severe as we feared. Coming into the 2020 Convention the Preauthorized Contribution Program was at $466,000, a very modest drop given the economic consequences many of us have faced. Even so, we had a tremendous opportunity for PAC to expand, and the goal of our chairperson was to reach $500,000 by convention’s end. Contributions can be initiated or increased by going to www.nfb.org/pac or by calling 877-NFB2PAC. On the numeric keypad that equates to 877-632-2722.
Patti Chang is our director of outreach, and she coordinates a number of programs that are essential in bringing money to the organization. She began her presentation by thanking the wonderful people at UPS. Normally they provide us with hundreds of volunteer hours, but this year they couldn’t do that in a virtual environment. What they were able to do was make a generous contribution to our convention, and for this we are most appreciative. Giving Tuesday was the best one-day giving event we have ever had, and again we are even more thankful given that this happened in the midst of the pandemic. Patti reminded us about our Vehicle Donation Program for getting rid of unwanted vehicles and of the GreenDrop program that takes gently used household items and turns them into funding for our programs.
Patti concluded by talking about our Dream Makers Circle for those wishing to see to the future of blind people when they are no longer around to do it themselves. Signing up to provide a contribution on your death is easy, and you can talk with Patti and others about it by calling our Jernigan Institute and dialing extension 2422 or by writing Patti at [email protected]
Every year we help first-timers attend the national convention through our Jernigan Fund. Part of that convention experience is to be paired with mentors, and this year we had forty-two people who took advantage of the program. Meeting virtually means that there was no need for us to help with funding, but the mentoring continues to be invaluable.
The scholarship class of 2020 was introduced, and each one was given about thirty seconds to introduce themselves to the board and others who were in the session. What they said can be found elsewhere in this issue.
Kathryn Webster chairs the Jacobus tenBroek Memorial Fund. She reminded us that the Jacobus tenBroek Fund owns the building that houses the Jernigan Institute and other organizations that do work along with the National Federation of the Blind. Donations from chapters, affiliates, and individuals who are moved to do so are very much needed and appreciated.
One of the agreements between state affiliates in the national body is that half of all bequests come to the national treasury. In this spirit, the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland has presented in the name of Carolyn Kutilek a check in the amount of $445,889. In this time when expenses are up and it is harder for donors, the value of this gift is extraordinary.
Sheltered workshops in this country play games with the blind people who come to them. When it is to the advantage of the sheltered workshop, it calls itself a training center or a rehabilitation facility. When its major function is hiring blind people to fulfill contracts, it refers to itself as an employer. Eve Hill, a lawyer at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, took the stage to address some of the pressing legal issues in which we are involved, and she started with this very topic. Many workshops are taking advantage of the law that allows them to avoid providing unemployment compensation. This has been particularly problematic during the pandemic, and the Federation is attempting to do something about it. A resolution dealing with this issue can be found later in these pages.
Many of the big box stores that want us to make purchases from them have a practice of hiring blind people and then immediately dismissing them using the unsafe nature of their warehouses and distribution centers for blind people as their excuse. Still other employees are dismissed when the employer realizes that screen reading technology must be employed in order for them to do the job. It is shameful that SourceAmerica is one such employer given that its sole mission is to create and contract for jobs on behalf of blind people. Many of the contracts SourceAmerica is getting are federal contracts, which makes it even more difficult to conceive of blind people being left out.
What is interesting is that sometimes blind people lose jobs because of software upgrades by their employer. This is outrageous given that new software should be designed to comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and technology standards that exist in the world. The proliferation of inaccessible websites also contributes to this problem since many jobs require proficiency with web applications that they may or may not have contracted for or support. Anyone who has suffered discrimination in any of these categories should contact Valerie Yingling at our national office using extension 2440.
Eve concluded her report by briefly addressing the options available for blind people to vote. Absentee voting has always been an option for blind people in every state, but in far too many cases one cannot cast a vote privately and independently if voting absentee. This is an issue we must address, for it is every bit as important as being able to vote privately and independently on-site.
Valerie Yingling addressed the group and started by discussing access to virtual healthcare and how frequently that access is not accessible for the blind. During this pandemic, we have seen our share of inaccessible information related to the COVID-19 outbreak and up-to-date information about how the virus is spreading. We continue to press for accessible kiosks and the self-checkout possibilities they enable. We will continue our work with Uber and Lyft, so please report incidents of ride denials or cleaning fees that drivers attempt to impose. Our work with Redbox continues, and our testing has been extended by three months because of the virus. Valerie encourages us to complete NFB's educational technology survey and unemployment benefits survey. Both are available on the NFB's legal webpage. The information we can provide is critical as we pursue equal access to education and employment and its related benefits.
To wrap up the board meeting, President Riccobono introduced the chairperson of the board for any comments she might like to make. Pam Allen greeted all in attendance and suggested that there was one item that we needed to discuss. The President opined that we had finished everything on his agenda, but the chairman was insistent. What she wanted to talk about was the 2021 convention, and the great reveal was that it will be in New Orleans. Anyone wanting to hear the enthusiasm of the New Orleans sports personality known as the Cajun Cannon should review the convention highlights. Chairperson Allen made remarks that were perfect for closing the board meeting. She said:
I am so grateful and so proud to be a member of the National Federation of the Blind. I want to thank our host affiliate in the great state of Texas, our incredibly dedicated affiliate leaders, our phenomenal team at our national center, and most importantly everyone who is taking part this week and contributing to our convention. The work that we are doing is life-changing, and it would not happen without your leadership and your example, President Riccobono. Thank you to you and to Melissa for inspiring all of us, always, to push the boundaries and work together to increase opportunities for blind people, anywhere and everywhere. Some people wondered if we would gather this year, and not only did we gather, but we set a record--the largest gathering of blind people in the world. That's the way we work in the National Federation of the Blind. Kudos to our members, and if you're not yet a member, we invite you to join our family.
Roland and I are wishing everyone an incredible week. We can't wait to connect with all of you. Our whole Louisiana family can't wait to welcome you in person to New Orleans in 2021. Happy convention to all. Let's go build the National Federation of the Blind!
President Riccobono had promised that we would have two opportunities to vote during the meeting. The question on the floor was whether we liked New Orleans as the location for our 2021 National Convention. The overwhelming vote reflected the excitement about our upcoming location, and with that, the board meeting was adjourned.
There was work aplenty to do following the board meeting, and the Research and Development Committee discussed what the blind should do when we face products we are excluded from using and what we might develop to meet needs that have not otherwise been met by technology. Although the federal government has committed to making itself a model employer for blind people, there are many issues we face in working for it, and the Blind Federal Employment Committee addressed some of these.
Dockless electric scooters provide another way for the public to travel, but more and more they are becoming a problem for blind travelers. The Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety discussed this issue, and those who are interested in learning about the problem and the solutions we are proposing should contact chairperson Maurice Peret.
On Thursday, July 16, activities began at 10 a.m. convention time with the meeting of the Committee for Advancement and Promotion of Braille. The Committee on Autonomous Vehicles and Innovations in Transportation set its hand to collecting information in emerging technology which may present opportunities for the blind to move around independently and ensuring that the NFB plays a prominent role in the future of transportation. Wells Fargo conducted a workshop to discuss financial resilience and managing one’s finances during a crisis, and the Community Service Division encouraged convention attendees to learn how to become everyday heroes in their community without a cape. We reiterate that anyone wishing to learn more about the diversity and involvement of the National Federation of the Blind and all aspects of life should do their own review of the convention agenda, for this brief summary of activities between sessions in no way begins to encompass all that this organization is doing.
An important touch to the convention experience was having Melissa Riccobono and Anil Lewis—our Nation’s Blind Podcast personalities—do a session thirty minutes before every general session. These sessions attempted to bring some of the feeling of being at an in-person convention including background noise from previous conventions. These were informative and entertaining, and comments from social media were used to influence the conversation. While some content was planned, these were organic conversations based on what was happening in real time at the convention. Members of the board of directors participated in these warmup sessions, and Chris Danielsen was helpful in making it all happen, demonstrating why we are so fortunate to have him as our director of public relations.
The first general session of the convention began at 6:30 p.m. with the falling of the gavel and an invocation by our devout Muslim brother Syed Rizvi. Syed is one of our major leaders in the student division, and his profound love of God, country, and his fellow Federationists is second to none.
Norma Crosby took the floor to welcome all of us to our eightieth anniversary convention. It was supposed to be in Houston but turned out being everywhere. To begin the welcome, she introduced Mayor Sylvester Turner, who expressed his regret that we could not be in Houston but complimented us on getting together virtually to do the work that is so badly needed in our country. He is excited, as are we, that we will be going to Houston in 2023, and traveling to Texas already sounds mighty fine.
Norma then introduced three dynamic members of the Texas affiliate: Kimberly Aguillard, Jose Marquez, and Adriana Mendez. Their remarks were quite inspirational. Then Astronaut Anna Fisher, the first mother in space, delivered her own message about the parallels between the National Federation of the Blind and our nation’s desire to explore the boundaries of space.
There is no way to capture in writing the enthusiasm of the Texas welcome we received, and those who want to share in the spirit all of us felt should go to https://www.nfb.org/images/ nfb/audio/2020-convention-highlights/welcoming%20ceremonies%20from%20houston%20 to%20everywhere.mp3 and enjoy this tremendous experience. Those who receive this magazine on a flash drive will find the ceremony as the last item.
Vernon Humphrey is the president of our National Association of Blind Veterans. He said that in military service his mission was to safeguard and improve the lives of others. His mission and the mission of all of the veterans in the National Federation of the Blind remains the same. The convention heard directly from those who recorded a message and got it to President Humphrey, and he read from a list of equally deserving veterans who could not contribute a recording. Father John Sheehan serves as the chaplain for the National Association of Blind Veterans, and he made us all swell with pride by singing the National Anthem.
President Humphrey concluded the ceremony with these words: “Just as we in the NFB could not give 100 percent without the support of family and friends, today we can achieve anything. As a proud member of the NFB and a proud veteran, I would like to thank you for your support. God bless America. Thank you, President Riccobono.”
After hearing from our PAC chairperson and taking a fit break, we moved to the roll call of states. All of those who answered the roll call expressed tremendous pride in their affiliates and the places from which they hail. We cannot cover all of the remarks made, but some states offered tidbits that must appear here: Arizona boasted 201 first-timers; Maryland boasted 593 in attendance, and 194 of those were new. When we reached the state of Illinois in the roll call, we had a surprise visit from Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. She is the sponsor of our Greater Access and Independence through Nonvisual Access Technology (GAIN) Act, and in her brief remarks she made it clear that social justice means creating and marketing technology that is usable by blind people. She said that the disruption caused by COVID-19 has made progress on many pieces of legislation more difficult, but her commitment is unshakable, that she will get Republican and Democratic support, and this bill will become law.
The NFB of Minnesota reminded us that it was celebrating its 100th year as an organization and suggested we visit its website to hear the tribute its members wrote and produced. Texas humbly announced that 482 people were proud, loud, and present. West Virginia is proud of the fact that it was able to bring about accessible online voting in the state, but at the time of the roll call there was no way to make the request for such an accommodation. At the end of the roll call, President Riccobono reported that all fifty-two affiliates were present, and so were 7,252 registrants.
The Principles of Engagement read at the meeting of the Board of Directors was presented to the convention and was ratified. While the voting was taking place, President Riccobono took time to acknowledge and express appreciation to our convention sponsors. Those stepping forward to support our 2020 Convention are: Platinum sponsors: Google, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Microsoft Corporation, Oracle, UPS, Vanda Pharmaceuticals, and Vispero. Gold sponsors: Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP, Target, and Waymo. Silver sponsors: Adobe, Amazon, AT&T, Facebook, Lyft, Market Development Group Inc., Pearson, and Sprint Accessibility. Bronze sponsors: ACT Inc., Aira, American Printing House, Charter Communications, Democracy Live, HumanWare, Learning Ally, Verizon Media, VitalSource Technologies, and Wells Fargo. White Cane sponsors: Duxbury Systems Inc, En-Vision America, Envision Inc, LCI, McGraw-Hill Education, Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, C&P - Chris Park Design, Five Cedars Group Inc, and VotingWorks.
When the vote was tallied, the convention approved the rules of engagement by an overwhelming margin. The President thanked members of the board for discussing, drafting, and putting forward the rules that the convention had just approved.
President Riccobono reported that one of the resolutions read during the resolutions committee meeting was an old version. The new one was read, and the correct version was posted to our website. It, like all of the other resolutions, would be voted on during our Saturday session identified on the agenda.
The first general session of the convention was adjourned, and perhaps for the first time in Federation history, many of us went directly to bed.
At 1:30 p.m. on Friday the gavel dropped, a few door prizes were drawn, and David Stayer of Young Israel of Merrick, a modern orthodox synagogue, delivered the kind of invocation we have come to expect from him.
Mark Riccobono delivered the much anticipated presidential report which will appear elsewhere in this issue. A few sentences that capture the theme of his report are:
In the wake of a worldwide pandemic, economic collapse, and the social disruption driven by centuries of racial injustice, the blind have once again demonstrated the qualities that make success possible. We have strengthened connections among blind people and protected our fundamental right to live the lives we want. By focusing on connecting and protecting, we have sustained our ability to build our movement, and we have been building with the love, hope, and determination that makes us unstoppable! Although we gather together today from a distance, we remain undivided. We are the National Federation of the Blind!
At the conclusion of his report, we were given a rendition of “Live the Life You Want”we had not heard before. It was beautiful, and what made it even better was that it was performed by a virtual choir comprised of eighty people. This meant that each person made a recording of the song from his or her homes, and all of these recordings were mixed and blended into one wonderful piece. It is worth going to the convention highlights page to hear this performance. It is a testament not only to the talent of the choir but to all of the people involved in gathering and putting together these diverse performers in one recording.
The presentation that followed was very special indeed. Certainly it was one of the highlights of our convention. It was an interview President Riccobono conducted with the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. In the politically charged times in which we live, it is not surprising that some people wondered why she was featured so prominently on our agenda. Several answers come to mind, none of which are very complex. Very few organizations can draw the attention of the Speaker of the House, and very few organizations are able to draw on the knowledge of powerful people about the National Federation of the Blind. Speaker Pelosi demonstrated a good working knowledge of our current legislative activity as well as a good bit of our history. She was responsive to the questions that were asked and, unlike so many presenters, did not use the time we gave her simply to promote her own agenda, politically or otherwise.
It should go without saying that we issued invitations to the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, Senator Mitch McConnell, and other ranking Republicans. Although only one Republican representative appeared on our agenda during the advocacy and policy report, Republicans have been very good about appearing on our agendas. Vice President Bush attended one of our rallies. High cabinet officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations have been featured not only in our agenda but in the pages of this magazine. Each and every political person who has appeared before us has been treated with courtesy and respect, and we take seriously our role as a people’s movement, one which has members who feel great passion and concern on every issue in which it is conceivable that there can be government involvement.
When we ask officials to talk, we give them titles that strongly suggest they address issues about blindness and the issues we support. The fact that they sometimes exercise their own autonomy and speak to other issues shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who watches the political talk shows in which every politician comes with talking points important to them. As you read Speaker Pelosi’s remarks later in this issue, keep in mind how many times she references the Federation and observe that while she makes it quite clear that she is a Democrat and hopes that the Democrats will advance in the election, she also said that all of us should vote, regardless of our party affiliation. President Riccobono’s interview with her will appear elsewhere in this magazine.
The next presentation to keep the excitement flowing was “A Commitment to Progress through Accessibility: Answering the Call of the Nation’s Blind to Provide Educational Products and Services.” Its presenter was Tim Bozik, the president of Global Product & North America Courseware at Pearson; Hoboken, New Jersey. He began his presentation by commending the students who have been forced to deal with virtual education on platforms that have not always been conducive to learning. He said that Pearson has often had advances and setbacks and that the National Federation of the Blind has been in the forefront of offering criticism and assistance. The Federation has now been engaged as a formal consultant with the hope that this will result in better and more consistent accessibility to Pearson software.
Pearson and the National Federation of the Blind will also participate in a mentoring program. A full report of the comments made by Tim Bozik will appear later in the fall.
“A Test of Strength and Equality: Blind Students Organize against the College Board” was the next presentation, and its charismatic presenter was Kaleigh Brendle from Freehold, New Jersey. Kaleigh graduated from high school in 2020 and found that the advanced placement tests she wanted to take were not being made available in hard-copy Braille. She found this unacceptable, so she found and united others who were facing the same situation, got in contact with the National Federation of the Blind, and saw to it that the policy was reversed. Her comments will appear later in this issue.
Our next presenter was Craig Meador, the president of the American Printing House for the Blind. The title of his presentation was, “From Chameleon to Mantis and Beyond: A Partnership of Shared Value with the Organized Blind Movement.” He talked a bit about the history of APH, the culture that he found when he came, and the changes that he has pushed and that the staff has embraced. He said,
We need to be intentional with our relationships. So again, what do I mean about that? When we partner and choose to partner with someone, our values and our interests must align. We must have shared common ground there. There must be shared values, because if you don't have that, you end up getting a very dysfunctional relationship, and the people that suffer from that are the people who are on the receiving end of that product or that service.
If we've learned nothing else from COVID-19, and we've learned a lot, it's this: In this day and age, in the 21st century, especially in a time of a pandemic, or a time of inconvenience, you cannot go it alone. There is no room anymore for lone rangers, especially if you are a company charged with the idea of producing product. You need to find solid partners. Not only manufacturing partners, but you need to find like minds and like hearts that can help you carry out your mission. I'm happy to say that we have that partnership with the NFB. And we have been working that and cultivating a strong relationship with Mark and the team there.
President Meador concluded his presentation by talking about two new refreshable Braille displays that the Printing House brought to market. One has been designed for students, and the other for adults. His presentation can be found in the convention highlights on our website, and anyone who has not listened to his presentation will benefit from the enthusiasm, commitment, and heartfelt love for what he does.
Many who will read this are familiar with the name Cynthia Bennett. We are the beneficiaries of her choice to be involved in the organization, and she is the beneficiary of many who have helped mentor and encourage her. Her presentation to the 2020 Convention was “Authentic Intelligence: A Blind Researcher Bringing Wisdom to the Future of Technology Innovations.” Her message was thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing. What she said will appear elsewhere in this issue.
Tom Tiernan is the president and chief executive officer for Vispero. He believes that product development should stem from the needs that blind people have, that a significant number of his employees at all levels should be blind, and the products that his company sells should be ones that not only serve the consumer market but serve the people who make his company what it is. His remarks will appear in full in an upcoming issue.
Suman Kanuganti was the founder of Aira and its chief executive officer. He has now moved on to other things, and he was called on to talk about “Starting Up with the Blind: Remarks from a Partner and an Introduction to Luther Primes.” Suman has long been an advocate for artificial intelligence and harnessing it to enhance the information available to the human mind. He is now working on a system that uses artificial intelligence to help us retain memories that would otherwise be discarded as a result of the passage of time or our inability to recognize their importance when we undergo the experience that creates them. Those interested may go to the new company by writing to [email protected].
The afternoon session was adjourned, but promptly at 6:30 p.m. the evening session began. Our first presenter was Congressman Dick Durbin of Illinois. In his presentation he evidenced a firm working knowledge of the National Federation of the Blind and its founder, Jacobus tenBroek. He talked about the need to advance the Accessible Technology Affordability Act and other legislation to improve opportunities for blind people. His remarks will appear in full later in the fall.
Our next presenter is well known to Federationists. She is one of those courageous souls who works in the foreign service, exemplifies the highest values of the United States of America, and does all of this as a blind person. She is a dedicated member of the National Federation of the Blind, was a significant leader in our student division, and continues to represent Federation values in all that she does. Mariyam Cementwala’s remarks will appear in full in this issue.
This was definitely a convention of firsts. Our next presenter was the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. The title of her presentation was “Using Knowledge to Inform, Inspire, and Engage: Perspectives on Equal Access from the Largest Library in The World.” She spoke eloquently about the importance of libraries in our country and the role they play in the sharing of information so necessary to maintaining a functioning democracy. Her remarks will appear later in the fall.
“Movie Enjoyment Made Easy: Innovations to Include All Subscribers at Netflix” was the title of our next presentation, and it was delivered by Greg Peters, the chief product officer at Netflix. We know of no television provider that has done more than Netflix not only to ensure that what it creates is audio described but also to ensure that what it runs from other sources also has the description we need. The presentation given by Greg Peters will appear later in the fall.
In an evening filled with informative and inspirational speeches, it is hard to know how to introduce “Equal Justice Under Law: A Blind Clerk Blazes a Trail Behind the Scenes at the Supreme Court.” This outstanding presentation was delivered by Laura Wolk who worked for the Honorable Clarence Thomas as a law clerk in 2019. Many will recognize Laura as a former scholarship winner, and there can be absolutely no question about the good we were able to do in helping Laura help herself. Laura’s remarks will appear elsewhere in this issue, so get ready for a wonderful read.
After all the impressive presentations that preceded it, we moved to a discussion of the Americans with Disabilities Act entitled “Leveraging the Power of the ADA to Secure Our Right to Live in the World for Thirty Years.” The panel was chaired by Scott LaBarre, and its members included Immediate Past President Maurer, Daniel Goldstein, Eve Hill, and Tim Elder. In my time as a Federationist, I’ve seen a number of tremendous panels, but this presentation was second to none in discussing the opportunities presented by the ADA and the significant holes in it that make progress difficult, expensive, and risky. The discussion by this outstanding panel will appear later in the fall.
“From the Heart to the Hand: A Blind Artist Advancing Touch for Over Forty Years” as we transitioned from law to art. Michael Naranjo is the talented artist who made this presentation. Michael was blinded during his service in Vietnam, but he learned that blindness would not keep him from pursuing his lifelong passion of being an artist. His remarks will appear sometime later in the fall.
“Broadcasting the Authentic Perspective of Blindness: A Conversation with a Blind YouTuber Who is Advancing a Positive Image” was presented by Molly Burke, and her conversation partner was Mary Fernandez. The exchange was extremely interesting because it highlighted the tension between wanting to educate people about blindness while conveying the message that we are not all about blindness but about living in the world. This conversation will appear later in the fall.
Our next formal session began at 1 p.m. on Saturday with an invocation provided by Tom Anderson who is the minister of music at the chapel at Lecompton Pentecostal Church in Kansas. He's also president of the NFB in Communities of Faith, a longtime member and leader in the National Federation of the Blind.
On this day we acknowledged the passing of a great civil rights leader and a respected member of Congress, John Lewis. Congressman Lewis was a presenter at our first March for Independence held in 2007. We found a copy of his remarks in our outstanding archives, and we played his speech in honor for all he did for civil rights and for the man he was.
The financial report was presented by the President. Every number that he read can be found on our website, but a fair summary is that we did quite well in 2019, with income exceeding expenses. In 2020, given the coronavirus, we have not done quite as well, but income and expenses are roughly equivalent. It is very difficult to know how we will fare as COVID-19 continues to affect the income of so many in the nation. The good news is that people have continued to give generously to the support of our programs, and for this we are most grateful.
We moved to reading and voting on resolutions as the next order of business. Anyone wanting to speak for or against a resolution was previously asked to submit an email explaining the number of the resolution to be addressed and whether the comments would be for or against the resolution. In cases where a resolution had an opponent, the resolution was read in its entirety. In cases where there was no opposition noted, the chairperson and her assistant would read only the resolves. The convention ratified this procedure with the vote, and we then moved to the process of considering twenty-nine resolutions. Twenty-eight of them were passed, and elsewhere in this issue will appear a report from the chairperson of the resolutions committee and a copy of all of the resolutions that were adopted.
When our final session before the banquet convened, our first order of business was the election of officers and those board members whose term was expiring at the end of the convention. Pam Allen presented the report of the nominating committee, and it was accepted.
After a day of voting on resolutions and other procedural matters, as we attempted to move to elections we experienced a glitch. Because our voting system was not operational, we shifted the agenda and moved to the panel that was to follow elections. Its title was “Not Blind to Color in the Federation: A Panel on the Experience of Black and Blind in America.” The moderator was Ever Lee Hairston, and panelists serving with her were Denice Brown, Ron Brown, Bobbi Pompei, and Tarik Williams. There is no doubt that this was one of the most moving items on the agenda, and many who suggested they were tempted to take a break before elections and the banquet report that they were glad they didn’t. These remarks, made by accomplished men and women who choose to give some of their time to the National Federation of the Blind, were a real wake-up call for those of us who would like to believe that colorblindness is gaining ground in the country or that it should be something we strive for in the Federation. The remarks made by this panel will appear elsewhere in this issue.
The problem with the voting system being unresolved, we moved to elections and relied on delegates for the voting. Mark Riccobono of Maryland was nominated to be President, and he was elected unanimously. In accepting his position, he said:
Thank you very much, Pam, and thank you to the Federation. It is a distinct honor to serve this organization. I think I said yesterday in the presidential report most of what I would say. The last year has tested the best of what the Federation is, what it puts into us, and what we do together. It's really truly an honor to serve with each and every one of you—the Federationists who really support what we do. I want to acknowledge my family, Melissa and our three kids. Our children usually win more door prizes than Melissa or I do. (Laughter)
They [the family] are a tremendous source of inspiration and motivation as are all of the great colleagues we have in the Federation. It's truly an honor among other things that we have people in this organization who are doing incredible work behind the scenes at every moment to make sure our movement is the strongest it can be. Thank you all for the honor of continuing to serve, and I will continue to give everything that I have, including being open to the difficult questions and exploring them in a way that continues to improve what I do. I will lead with humility to recognize that we all can do better, including this organization, and it starts with me as your President. So thank you very much.
Pam Allen from Louisiana was nominated to be our first vice president, and she was elected unanimously. She said:
Thank you, President Riccobono and all my Federation family. I'm very humbled and very grateful to serve as your first vice president. I'm so thankful for your trust and your faith and the fact that every day, together in the National Federation of the Blind, I am constantly pushed out of my comfort zone. Michelle Obama said, “You may not always have a comfortable life, and you will not always be able to solve the world's problems at once. But don't underestimate the importance you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.”
For eighty years the National Federation of the Blind has challenged us as blind people and worked to change society at large to view blindness in a completely different way. We have taken this call to action with hope, courage, strength, and tenacity. We are not afraid to take risks or stand up against social injustice. The NFB is made up of people with diverse backgrounds and with many different life experiences. Together we share our life-changing message of empowerment and love for all blind people.
I also want to take a moment to thank my husband, with whom the work that I do wouldn't be possible, and all of you who have been so loving and supportive and so committed to the work that we do together. I look forward to learning and growing and serving and leading as we continue to build the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you. [Cheering and applause]
Ron Brown, who hails from Indiana, was nominated to fill the position of second vice president and was elected unanimously. He said,
Mr. President, and my Federation family: It is indeed an honor and a privilege to serve on this dream team of leadership. This team of leaders has given me and my family an opportunity to pave the way for other leaders coming the same way that we have come. Mr. President, I also am honored and privileged to serve on the executive team--one of the first African-American males to do so. It just goes to show you that Martin Luther King was right. If you cannot fly, then walk. If you cannot walk, then run. If you cannot run, then crawl. But keep moving forward. I thank you for your leadership and moving our organization forward. A true leader is a leader that doesn't create followers. A true leader is a leader that creates more leaders. I thank you so for your leadership. I thank you for the opportunity to serve in this organization. This is truly a dream team of leaders. I also want to say thank you for sharing the reflections of John Lewis's life today. It was truly inspirational to celebrate our eightieth anniversary and to celebrate his eighty years here on this earth. Thank you, sir. [Cheering and applause]
James Gashel from Hawaii was nominated to be the organization’s corporate secretary. His nomination was seconded, and he was elected unanimously. He said that in his fifty-five years of work with the National Federation of the Blind, one of the most significant things he ever did was vote for President Riccobono. In all of the work he has done from staff member to consultant to holding elective office, nothing is more meaningful to him than the trust that is shown through his election. He made a solemn vow to continue doing whatever he can to advance the cause of the organization and thanked all of those who honored him with this position.
Jeannie Massay from Oklahoma was nominated to fill the position of treasurer. Her nomination was seconded, and she was voted in unanimously. In her acceptance she talked about the honor in serving with President Riccobono and the rest of the fine men and women who make up the board of the National Federation of the Blind. She drew a beautiful parallel between two quotations—one by Theodore Roosevelt about the man in the arena, and the other by John Lewis about getting into good trouble. It was clear from her remarks that she will be the woman in the arena, and when she finds it, she will be in the vanguard of those getting into good trouble.
Amy Buresh of Nebraska was nominated to serve on the board, and she was elected unanimously. Giving what was unquestionably the shortest acceptance speech of the convention, she said, “Thank you, everybody. Jeannie, you're not alone in those goosebumps. They happen every year without fail. Lead bravely. Do that, and the future is yours. God bless you, God bless the Federation, and thank you.”
The next person to be nominated and elected unanimously to the board was Shawn Callaway who hails from the District of Columbia. One of the major roles he plays nationally is chairing our diversity and inclusion committee. In his acceptance speech he observed that some believe the emphasis on diversity and inclusion to be divisive. He does not. He asked us all to remember how important it is to find in the Federation people like ourselves and how off-putting it can be to feel unwelcome. He concluded his remarks by saying, “So again to all of you, I thank you for this opportunity, and I just say, let's hold arms, lock arms, march, and let's build the Federation. Thank you all so much.”
John Fritz of Wisconsin was nominated and unanimously elected to the board of directors. In his acceptance he thanked his fellow Federationists for teaching him and for entrusting him with the responsibility of carrying forward the programs of the Federation. He also gave special thanks to his family for making it possible for him to do the work that he does.
Carla McQuillan from Oregon was unanimously elected to the board, and in her acceptance speech she acknowledged being moved by the comments of those elected before her and said that the late Steve Benson once observed that the question wasn’t whether Carla was going to cry but win. She concluded her remarks by saying, “I appreciate your faith and confidence in me. I will do my very best to meet your expectations and hopefully exceed them. I love the diversity of this organization, and I love the support that I've received from all of my Federation family. Thank you so much. And I appreciate this honor more than you can know.”
Amy Ruell of Massachusetts was the next member to be nominated by the committee, and she was elected unanimously. In accepting the position she said:
Thank you, everyone. I always do cry whenever this happens. I've been struck this year, and particularly at this convention, about how far reaching this organization is, about the efforts under Mark Riccobono's leadership that we have made to become more inclusive and more diverse, and about the infinite capacity that we have as an organization to reach out to many, many people who are just learning to know us. I have been struck and humbled by the opportunity to meet some of the people for whom this is their first convention—some of the people who may have ventured perhaps a little warily into our midst. I want to pledge not only to work with my fellow board members and the national office, but also to embrace those people who may not understand everything about us yet, who may have questions and worries, and who may wonder whether they fit into our movement.
I want to be a voice for them as well. I appreciate and am humbled by this opportunity. I want to thank my husband Jim, without whom my work for the Federation would not be possible. And I want to pledge that I will do everything I can to move this organization forward. Thank you. [Applause]
Adelmo Vigil was unanimously elected to the board. He thanked his affiliate for supporting him in the work he does as a national board member, and he gave special thanks to his wife whose generous spirit is such a critical part of what he does in the Federation. He concluded his remarks by saying, “I love and appreciate each one of you today, and I thank you for your confidence in me. And I pledge to continue to build and to change what it means to be blind. Let's go build the Federation!”
Because of unanticipated logistical problems, two items from the agenda were not covered. Luckily they have been recorded and will be printed later in the fall. The first was the traditional advocacy and policy report. After the drawing of door prizes and a one-minute video from Conchita Hernandez Legorreta, the session was adjourned, and all were welcomed to the banquet soon to come.
Anil Lewis was our master of ceremonies for the banquet. First Vice President Pam Allen was prepared to take on this responsibility, but a death of a loved one meant that we do what families do—we improvised and reacted with the love characteristic of our Federation. Anil handled this job with his characteristic charisma, warmth, and humor. He began by recognizing Ever Lee Hairston for the invocation. After thanking God for all the many blessings we enjoy, we also expressed our thanks to the generous donors who make our scholarship program possible, and this appreciation can be found elsewhere in this issue.
After the video, the banquet audience was treated once again to the miracle of a virtual choir singing the song “Make Them Hear You.”
Because of shelter in place and social distancing, most of us enjoyed the banquet from our homes. But some were fortunate enough to be able to observe social distancing and still get together in small groups. Throughout the banquet we heard from meetings held at BLIND Incorporated, the Louisiana Center for the Blind, from our members in Utah, and, of course, from some members of our host affiliate in Texas.
Vispero gave several prizes for those visiting its booth, and after acknowledging those products and the people who got them, we next moved to the Give Twenty Campaign and the convention memory minute chaired by Tracy Soforenko. The banquet was treated to the three top videos, and these can be heard by going to the convention highlights section of our webpage where the audio of the banquet can be found. Before chairman Soforenko gave up the floor, he announced that the winner of a trip to the 2021 National Convention is Ed McDonald. He will receive round-trip airfare for two, as well as a check for $1,000.
The banquet is the place where we review our progress in trying to get new people to join our Preauthorized Contribution Program and, to get those already giving to up their pledge. This year, even in the time of the pandemic, 367 people accepted the challenge of further helping our organization. Of these, 230 are new contributors to the program. If we maintain the numbers that we have coming out of this convention, our annual PAC giving will be $523,334! This is amazing, and we thank everyone who helps make our program the success that it is.
After introducing the virtual head table, the master of ceremonies invited President Riccobono to deliver the National Federation of the Blind’s annual banquet speech. In his remarks, the President made clear the importance of the words we use, the way they shape what we believe, and the way our beliefs lead to the actions we take. President Riccobono’s address will appear elsewhere in this issue. At the conclusion of the speech we were treated to an encore performance of our virtual choir, the song they sang being “This Is Me.”
Ray Kurzweil is a futurist and inventor, and he has been a part of the National Federation of the Blind since he came in contact with us when the Kurzweil reading machine was in its infancy. Just how meaningful his contribution has been to changing the world for the better can easily be overlooked, but the introduction he received from Anil Lewis helped put in perspective how much hope Ray Kurzweil has brought to blind people. His remarks and the remarks of Mr. Lewis will appear later in the fall.
James Gashel is the chairman of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award Committee, and he had the pleasure of announcing to two delighted winners that they each would receive a substantial amount of money. The remarks of Mr. Gashel and the winners of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award will appear elsewhere in this issue.
Nearing the end of our 2020 banquet, the name of Rod Holloway was drawn. The prize he won was $2,100. The Texas affiliate arrived at that number by following the tradition of offering in dollars the year of the presentation and then by adding the years that the National Federation of the Blind has been in existence. So that we could verify Ron was in attendance, he was asked to call a special number. Just when we concluded that he was not in attendance and called the name of Jennifer Stevens, the phone rang, and there was Rod. His excitement at being a winner was evident to all of us, and we promised Jennifer that there would be an alternate prize for her.
Our master of ceremonies handed the gavel to President Riccobono, and with his request that we all cheer and let our neighbors know they are living next to blind people, the convention was adjourned.
Eighty years is considered a long life for a human being, but not so for an organization such as the National Federation of the Blind. At eighty we are strong, creative, flexible, and focused on the future. There are challenges aplenty to overcome to see that blind people have all the rights and benefits of American citizenship, but this convention gave us every reason to believe that we are in a position to identify, address, and overcome any obstacle that stands between us and our dreams. When we work together, there is nothing that is impossible or even virtually impossible.
From the Editor: Given we would not meet physically but virtually, the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors and the 2020 National Convention adopted these policies.
These principles of engagement were adopted by the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors on Thursday, June 25, 2020, for recommendation to the national convention. The convention ratified them on Tuesday, July 14.
Nothing in these rules of engagement is intended to change Article V, Section A of the Federation’s constitution. The convention remains “the supreme authority of the Federation. It is the legislature of the Federation. As such, it has final authority with respect to all issues of policy. Delegates and members in attendance may participate in all convention discussions as a matter of right. Any member of the Federation may make or second motions [and] propose nominations.” These procedures simply implement the method for following the constitution in an electronic convention.
The principles and procedures below are intended to provide clarity and advance notice on how the convention will be managed in 2020. This document will be read at the NFB board meeting on July 15 and then a second time on July 16 after the roll call of states. The intention is for it to be voted on the evening of July 16. Those eligible to vote on this proposal will be any enrolled voter present and voting at the session on July 16 as described below.
A subcommittee of the board of directors comprising those who are not standing for election this year shall deal with questions and issues of credentials for voting. The subcommittee will include Denise Avant, Illinois; Everette Bacon, Utah; Norma Crosby, Texas; Ever Lee Hairston, California; Joe Ruffalo, New Jersey; and Terri Rupp, Nevada. Everette Bacon shall chair the subcommittee.
[PHOTO CAPTION: Mark A. Riccobono]
by Mark A. Riccobono
During the past year, the organized blind movement has grown by every measure of success. But progress itself is not a certainty. Our success comes from the real efforts each of us contributes. Blind people from every community in this nation, from diverse backgrounds and with varying perspectives, have continued to march forward together to build a world where we can participate fully in all aspects of life without being limited or defined by our blindness. We, the blind, have directed our own actions, crafted the programs needed to fulfill our dreams, and strengthened the bonds with our partners. Over the past six months, we have faced some of the most adverse external barriers to building our organization since the early years of our movement. At that time, our new organization overcame the resource constraints of World War II in order to build. This time, our movement has faced the challenges of COVID-19 with determination and demonstrated the depth of its strength, innovation, and heart.
In the wake of a worldwide pandemic, economic collapse, and social disruption driven by centuries of racial injustice, the blind have once again demonstrated the qualities that make success possible. We have strengthened connections among blind people and protected our fundamental right to live the lives we want. By focusing on connecting and protecting, we have sustained our ability to build our movement, and we have been building with the love, hope, and determination that makes us unstoppable. Although we gather together today from a distance, we remain undivided. We are the National Federation of the Blind.
Protecting the right of blind Americans to vote privately and independently in elections remains an important priority. There has never been a time when blind Americans have had equal access to the complete range of voting options in a manner that protects the privacy, independence, and accuracy of our voting choices. But over our eighty-year history, we have pushed ever closer to equality.
In September 2019, as part of our extensive outreach and advocacy efforts consistent with the Help America Vote Act, we sent a letter to secretaries of state outlining their responsibility to ensure equal access to voting for the blind. Our objective was that states would plan for equal access for blind people across the range of voting options in time for the 2020 elections. Most states ignored our advice, and when the coronavirus pandemic pushed states to quickly shift to all mail-in elections, they simply made no plans to include the blind.
In Michigan, just days before the May 5 primary, we secured an interim settlement requiring the state to provide voters with disabilities an accessible version of the ballot used by overseas and military voters. In addition, we secured a consent decree requiring the state to set up a remote, accessible vote-by-mail system in time for its August election and all future elections. We continue to monitor to ensure appropriate enforcement is executed in a timely fashion.
In Pennsylvania, we secured a last-minute court hearing before the June 2 primary election. The state proposed, and the judge accepted, an interim solution of using the federal write-in ballot. This accessible electronic ballot permits a voter to type in their candidate selections from a list provided by the state. While the interim solution was better than an inaccessible piece of paper for voting in the primary election, we are not prepared to accept this second-class system in the future. Our litigation in Pennsylvania continues to seek equal treatment in November and all future elections.
In New York, we joined with others to prevent the use of inaccessible absentee ballots for the June 23 primary and special elections. This case builds upon our February 2019 court-ordered settlement agreement that ensures private and independent voter registration through a fully accessible website. We reached an interim agreement to provide accessibility for the June 23 election, and we continue to negotiate for a permanent, remote, accessible vote-by-mail system in time for the November elections.
Public officials responsible for managing elections in many other states claim they cannot implement accessible voting unless action by the state legislature is taken. We are supporting our affiliates in Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia, and all the other places where excuses are being used to deny our access to the vote. Let us just clear it up right here and now: Compliance with federal election law and the Americans with Disabilities Act is not optional. States are bound to provide equal access in federal elections regardless of the desires or politics of the local legislatures. We will strengthen and expand the gains made in the Help America Vote Act whenever Congress advances new voting reforms, and we will continue to offer our expertise to the states. We will continue to charge aggressively forward to a time when the blind have equal access to all of the voting options for federal elections, and we will not stop until we also secure the same access in local and state elections.
We continue to set the pace for protecting and expanding the rights of blind people through federal and state legislatures and government agencies. During our 2020 Washington Seminar we advanced seven bills in the United States Congress that were a direct result of the Federation’s priorities. In addition, we have been actively working on influencing bills related to voting, access to rideshare services, website accessibility, and other important policy areas. As Congress has considered laws to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, advancement of our own policy proposals, as well as our feedback on the proposals of others, has helped protect blind people in this difficult time. Beyond Washington, DC, our expertise has been critical in helping blind people navigate everything from the changing rules related to securing economic impact payments, to overcoming the inability to access drive-up COVID-19 testing facilities. We continue to track and respond to a broad range of government regulatory issues such as access to air travel, audio description, and the Public Charge rule. We also continue to lead the way on defining equal access to fully autonomous vehicles. On February 11, 2020, a hearing on this topic was held in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. The primary testimony on access to autonomous vehicles for people with disabilities was presented by the President of the National Federation of the Blind. A full report on our advocacy and policy work during the past year will be featured later in this convention.
We seek to protect the rights of blind people to participate in the full range of positions in integrated competitive-employment settings. Specialized programs for the blind often tell us they are at a great disadvantage due to the structure of federal regulations related to integrated competitive employment. Yet these same agencies are pleased to benefit from exemptions in the law. While many blindness agencies no longer utilize the exemption permitting them to pay less than the minimum wage, they continue to block unemployment payments to their blind workers when layoffs occur. One example is Shirley Colbert, a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana. She was laid off from her position as a laser operator at the Louisiana Association for the Blind. She rightfully thought she would be eligible for unemployment benefits but was denied due to another exemption in the law. Agencies providing both training and employment to people with disabilities can avoid paying unemployment taxes on the wages earned by their disabled workers by claiming them as rehabilitation clients. We commend Ms. Colbert for exposing this unfair exemption, and we will continue to fight this harmful practice in any agency for the blind that continues to claim it is a competitive employer but labels blind people as clients in order to avoid paying unemployment taxes. If you are a blind person who has faced this unfair treatment in the past year, we need to hear from you. We will not quit until we protect the right to equal compensation and benefits for blind workers.
Agencies for the blind are not the only employers systemically holding blind people back. Joe Orozco is an active member of our Virginia affiliate. He serves as an intelligence analyst for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Since he began working for the FBI in 2012, Joe has regularly worked within his chain of command to advocate for the use of accessible technology within the agency. However, the FBI continues to use inaccessible software programs that prevent blind employees from fully contributing their talents and gaining new work assignments to advance their careers. Similar artificial barriers are encountered by blind employees in every agency of the federal government. The use of inaccessible information technology violates Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. It is rare for an agency to meaningfully enforce the requirements even when violations are well documented and submitted as formal complaints to agency leaders. We have had enough of the discrimination. We have supported bringing Joe’s complaint to federal court. We seek to protect the right of blind federal employees to hold indifferent federal agencies accountable for Section 508 violations and have those rights enforced by the court.
Frequently the discrimination we encounter is employers protecting us from the danger they perceive to be inherent in blindness. In 2004, Alina Sorling was hired as a food service technician by Mercy Medical Center of Redding, California. In 2014, a serious illness left her in a prolonged coma that caused her blindness. Mercy promised Alina that her job would be available to her when she was ready to return to work. After receiving blindness skills training, she asked for her job back. Mercy responded by terminating her employment in 2015, claiming that it would be too dangerous for her to work in the hospital’s cafeteria.
Fortunately, Alina found protection against the employer with the National Federation of the Blind. We helped her file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigated the case and determined that there was probable cause to believe that Mercy had violated the law. The EEOC took the extremely rare step of filing an enforcement action in the United States District Court against Dignity Health, which owns Mercy. We joined in that action to represent Alina. In September 2019, Judge Charles Breyer entered a consent decree that ordered Dignity to cease discriminating against persons with disabilities, to implement proper reasonable accommodations practices, and to provide training on the Americans with Disabilities Act to all employees, with extra requirements for management staff. Among the specific provisions of the order, the company official who fired Alina was required to undergo immersion-to-blindness training to understand the techniques blind people use. For Alina’s lost wages, emotional distress, and attorney fees, Dignity paid her $570,000. Alina’s dignity was restored when the judge gave no mercy to her employer, and we have again affirmed the right of blind people to be protected from the harmful effects of low expectations.
Low expectations bring the continued lack of innovation and persistent discrimination of Amazon to mind. FaShandra Howard, Rosa Negrete, Tony Lane, and Luz Avalas are members of the Federation from the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. All four of them applied to work in Amazon warehouse fulfillment and sortation facilities, and they disclosed their blindness during the orientation and application process. Amazon hired each of them, and each was met with discrimination during their first day at the warehouse. Amazon refuses to make its warehouse scanning and inventory technology accessible so that blind people can work in a variety of positions. In some cases, Amazon goes so far as to restrict blind people from working in its facilities at all, claiming unfounded safety concerns. Just weeks ago we assisted in filing charges with the EEOC. Our goal is to advance a class of blind employees who are being denied job opportunities at Amazon facilities. We want to hear from any other blind people who have had similar experiences with Amazon.
COVID-19 has given a new importance to work-from-home jobs, but this has long been a concern for us. One example is our work with Ronit Mazzoni, a member of our Silicon Valley chapter in California. After nearly ten years of experience as a licensed genetic counselor, her skill set is highly sought by employers like Myriad Genetics. This company provides tele-healthcare services to patients across the country using genetic counselors who work remotely from home. Ronit applied to Myriad and successfully navigated a series of interviews. The company said it really wanted to hire Ronit based on her qualifications, but no offer would be extended because she needed screen-reading software and accessible, electronic information technology to be successful. With assistance from the National Federation of the Blind, Ronit filed a lawsuit in federal court and settled the case earlier this year. We have recovered the cost of our assistance in the case, and Ronit is now employed by another tele-genetics company, working remotely with accessible software configurations. We are actively pursuing the discriminatory practices of other employers, and we will continue to protect blind people from being shut out of the full range of work-from-home employment opportunities.
Another aspect of our work is protecting the personal information of blind people by ensuring that communications are available in multiple forms including Braille, and that technologies like check-in kiosks are fully accessible. One recent example is the settlement of our 2017 case against the Social Security Administration (SSA) challenging its implementation of inaccessible visitor-intake processing kiosks. Under the settlement, SSA agreed to deploy Section 508-compliant kiosks in its field offices and to make best efforts to add keypads to existing kiosks.
Another persistent barrier imposed by the Social Security Administration has been the requirement to complete inaccessible paper forms and include a wet-ink signature. The COVID-19 pandemic forced this issue by presenting blind people with a choice: risk exposure to the virus by seeking assistance completing the paper forms or forgo the benefits and services that have been developed to support living independently. In response to our federal complaint and request for preliminary injunction on behalf of blind applicants and beneficiaries, the agency changed some of its policies for the COVID-19 pandemic period to allow online applications where paper had been required and to forgo certain reviews and accept certain forms differently to avoid the need for wet-ink signatures. The lawsuit continues regarding the permanent solutions.
Another example is a suit we filed shortly after last year’s convention. Blind people want to work and, although we complain about it as much as anyone else, we want to pay our fair share of taxes. However, we are not willing to go through the extra expense of figuring out what our inaccessible notifications from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tell us we owe. The government must provide equal access, and we filed against the IRS to stop their persistent failure to do so. Our structured negotiations with the IRS have resulted in an agreement signed just days before this convention. Under our agreement, the agency will develop a system enabling blind people to request ongoing receipt of IRS notifications in accessible formats, which include Braille, electronic, and large print. We will continue to aggressively protect equal access to all forms of private information that blind people have for too long been forced to expose to others.
Education is an important area of our work to protect the equal participation of the blind. For over a decade, we have been advocating that colleges and universities take affirmative steps to only implement educational technologies that are fully accessible. Had institutions of higher education paid attention, they would not have struggled to provide equal access to the blind when they rapidly shifted to online environments as a result of COVID-19. The Federation, on the other hand, was well prepared to support students and families in the rapid shift to online learning. We quickly launched our #AccessibleNow efforts, including monitoring educational accessibility challenges and providing advocacy resources like our self-advocacy in higher education toolkit. Despite the resources we make freely available, the universities continue to put barriers in the way of blind students.
One example is Federation member Mary Fernandez who graduated this spring from Duke University with a master’s degree in business administration despite the university’s efforts to make it as difficult as possible for her to complete her studies. We assisted Mary in filing suit against the university for its failure to provide her with timely access to Braille, electronic, and tactile materials during her MBA program. We once again call on institutions of higher education to protect the rights of blind students under the Americans with Disabilities Act and stop the unequal treatment. We would hope that Duke is the last of these cases that we are required to take to court, but we are prepared to challenge other universities that continue violating the law.
High school students take Advanced Placement courses with the hope of being able to score high enough on tests to receive college credit in certain subjects. The Advance Placement tests are administered by the College Board. For years, we have tried to work collaboratively with them to improve the process for accessible testing and to raise expectations, with modest success. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we learned about the board’s plans to shift to online testing, and we offered feedback, especially as it related to hardcopy Braille and tactile graphics. Even if the online testing platform was fully accessible, certain subjects like calculus and biology would be extremely difficult to manage with speech or a one-line Braille display. The College Board ignored our advice and did not even plan to offer hardcopy Braille during the initial testing period.
Prior to the testing week, Kaleigh Brendle, a seventeen-year-old, blind, high school junior from New Jersey decided that unequal treatment was not acceptable even in a pandemic. She posted a video on social media highlighting the unequal treatment by the College Board and inviting other blind students to join with her. When we learned about Kaleigh’s work to organize blind students, we offered to add the power of the National Federation of the Blind to her efforts. The NFB and Kaleigh quickly filed civil rights complaints with the Departments of Education and Justice, and our legal counsel reached out to the College Board. After a period of negotiation, with Kaleigh taking the lead for blind high school students around the country, we reached a settlement with the College Board that provides for blind students to have an equal opportunity for retesting, including the availability of hardcopy Braille and tactile graphics. Among other provisions, the College Board will also provide a letter to affected high school seniors so they can provide their universities with justification for their delayed test scores. Sometimes students fight to get out of testing. These blind students fought to get into testing, and all they wanted was to use Braille—the method of communication that would best facilitate their ability to read and respond to the test content.
Our strong work to protect and expand the rights of blind people is essential for our full participation in society. However, our efforts to connect blind people through a network of resources is critical to our living the lives we want. Shortly after last year’s convention we launched a new series of regular Membership Open Houses where we invite blind people to come learn about our organization. Many times people think they know who we are from what others have told them, and frequently their understanding is inaccurate. Our open houses allow us an opportunity to engage directly with those who have not yet joined to discuss their perceptions and what they are seeking. This is just one of the many tools we have tried during the past year to engage and onboard new members. Since our last convention we onboarded 475 members through our new-member process. Each of these individuals was mailed a membership certificate in Braille and print and a membership coin. They were also provided with information to connect with others in the organization. Welcome to all of our new members and first timers at this convention and thank you to our affiliates that have made this a priority. Our new-member efforts have been led by our Virginia, New Jersey, and Ohio affiliates, which brought in the most new members during the past year.
We recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic was a time for us to continue growing together as a movement. Knowing that accurate, accessible information is critical, we made COVID-19 resources easily discoverable on our NFB-NEWSLINE® service. While six of our state affiliates do not have local sponsorship of, and therefore access to, NFB-NEWSLINE, in March we made the service available in these locations at our expense, in order to ensure that every blind person in this country had access to breaking news. In this case, the information could mean the difference between life and death.
To maintain the connections within our organization despite social distancing, we quickly made Zoom licenses and resources available to all of our affiliates and national divisions at no charge. We assisted in collecting and disseminating information about virtual Federation events across the country. During the height of the nation’s shutdown, a blind person could connect with more than fifty Federation events in a week without even considering local chapter meetings, open state affiliate calls, and other local outreach efforts. We held yoga classes, philosophy discussions, technology trainings, talent shows, happy hours, and dozens of other enrichment gatherings leveraging the talented membership of our movement. All of these gatherings we offered at no charge to participants. These events demonstrated the power and love of our network. Our challenge now is to develop the systems for extending our virtual presence and integrating it with our in-person meetings, as that becomes possible in local communities, with the goal of continuing to build our movement. Regardless of state borders or method of participation, we recognize we are all one movement.
When COVID-19 caused the shutdown of schools, blind students were forgotten. But our talented Federation educators stepped up their efforts to connect families with resources and blind youth with successful mentors. Our distance education program included offering nine weeks of interactive Zoom lessons, posting twenty-five videos equaling nearly six hours of content, and sharing nearly thirty text-based activities from our early childhood newsletter. The videos ranged from blind people reading Braille books out loud to making scented playdough and learning basic indoor cane travel techniques. This is in addition to the individual consultation with families and educators that resulted from these offerings. Thanks to Carlton Walker, president of our National Organization of Parents of Blind Children; Eric Guillory, president of our division for Professionals in Blindness Education; Emily Gibbs, who oversees educational programming in our Texas affiliate; and Krystal Guillory and Kristen Sims from Louisiana, who are experts in turning our philosophy into action for families. These volunteers worked closely with Federation staff to develop these unanticipated quality resources ensuring that our blind youth were not forgotten. These resources remain available for free, and we expect to offer additional lessons in the fall of this year.
The summer of 2019 was our twelfth straight expanding literacy through our NFB Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning® (BELL) Academies where we offer two weeks of hands-on learning. In 2019 we operated the program in twenty-six states delivering Braille education, nonvisual technique training, and a real connection to blind mentors to 279 blind youth. When COVID-19 threatened our ability to execute our traditional program in 2020, we chose not to shut down but to take the opportunity to extend our program into an area we had not yet explored.
The NFB BELL In-Home Edition was launched only six weeks before the first session started on June 1. Registered families were sent a box with seven pounds of accessible materials for Braille education in the home, as well as an appropriately sized NFB straight cane. During the two-week program, families could join a daily lesson as well as a social hour to connect families together. Blind mentors from our local affiliates provided support, assisted with reinforcing new concepts, and connected families with other resources throughout the Federation. A customized session was offered in Spanish to provide an authentic environment to families for whom English is their second language. By the end of this summer, we will have delivered the NFB BELL In-Home Edition to 280 blind students ranging in age from four to twelve. Families from all the sessions will come together for a BELL-ringing ceremony in August. This new approach to our Braille enrichment efforts, including the additional costs associated with moving to this model, would not have been practical without the continued financial support of our partners at the Wells Fargo Foundation and the generous financial and volunteer support of many of our state affiliates. We are eager to again ring the bell in person with students across the country, but we can all be proud that our Braille enrichment efforts have reached a new height by connecting the Federation directly into the homes of these future leaders when they most needed us.
Through our Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, we pursue the development and coordination of programs, training, and research that advance our movement. This work helps us connect our expertise to others, but it also facilitates strong connections between blind people. Over the past year, the NFB Career Mentoring Program has provided pre-employment transition services and mentoring to eighty-two transition-age youth from Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Virginia. Through our ten Career Quest retreats we have facilitated career exploration, work-based learning experiences, tours of college campuses, exposure to job-readiness skills, use of nonvisual techniques for independence, and development of self-advocacy. We are expanding this work to the online environment and expect to add the state of Illinois to our circle of mentoring later this summer.
Connecting blind students to high-quality opportunities to pursue science, technology, engineering, art, and math continues to be a priority of our movement. We are coming to the close of the third year of our five-year National Science Foundation-funded project focused on the development of spatial skills and challenging blind youth with opportunities to exercise those skills through engineering activities.
In order to continue advancing our objectives within the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, we developed NFB Engineering Quotient (EQ) Online. Over a period of six weeks, including this convention, blind students who previously participated in our programs are offered an opportunity to reconnect, discover new mentors, and continue developing their technical knowledge, spatial reasoning, and other skills essential for success as a blind person. The program includes synchronous online group events focused on apprenticing students into our community of practice and hands-on STEM activities that can be completed as the student has time. Program activities were selected based upon the self-directed preferences of the students and include engineering challenges, tactile puzzles, and drawing activities. To facilitate the hands-on activities, we shipped each student a twenty-three-pound box containing tactile measuring tools (such as Braille calipers, a click rule, and tactile protractor); tactile drawing boards; and building materials.
Through our Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access (CENA) initiative we coordinate technical expertise based on our authentic experience. This expertise breaks down artificial barriers in society and creates meaningful connections for our partners who seek to synergize with our movement. Some examples of our efforts this year include work with Disney+ on accessibility; Pearson on tactile graphics; and with VW, Ford, Waymo, the Federal Transit Administration, and a number of universities on autonomous vehicle research efforts. We maintained productive relationships with Apple, Google, HumanWare, Microsoft, and Vispero while strengthening our work with other partners such as the American Printing House for the Blind and GoodMaps. We have continued to work with Target and D2L as Strategic Nonvisual Access Partners (SNAP). Through our SNAP program we formalize a working relationship and assist our partners in finding innovative ways to extend their accessibility work. We continue to build our partnerships by advancing our Accessibility Switchboard and accessibility community of practice. For us, accessibility is not a business model, it is a tool to facilitate the full participation of the blind in society, and we want everyone to have the tools to advance our mission.
Last October, we connected non-blind people to our mission in a fun and competitive way. Through a partnership with Mattel toys, we collaborated in the launch of UNO® Braille. UNO is one of the most popular family games in the world. UNO Braille consists of 112 cards, with each card featuring Braille and the logo of the National Federation of the Blind. The game packaging included the words “UNO Braille” and “National Federation of the Blind” in Braille as well as our logo on multiple sides of the box. More importantly, it was sold in Target stores across the country at the same price as other versions of the popular game. UNO Braille continues to be available on the store shelves. We intend to pursue more efforts to get Braille onto consumer packaging, to assist the industry in establishing best practices for access to products like gift cards, and to create more meaningful connections through our partnerships. By the way, our relationship with Mattel continues, and you can expect other interesting announcements in the near future.
These are only a handful of the highlights and a small sampling of the people impacted by our work together. These accomplishments are because of you. Each and every active member of this movement makes the difference in what we do. You have stepped up this year in a way that demonstrates to the world that our movement is exactly what we need in good times and bad to ensure that blind people have equality, opportunity, and security. You have dedicated extra dollars, more time, and a large measure of love to our work together. The results are found in this report, but more importantly in the thousands of individual stories we do not have time to tell today. Thank you to the members of the National Federation of the Blind for turning one of our most challenging years into our strongest building year ever.
We know there are more blind people who have not found us or have not decided to join our movement for one reason or another. Some of them are participating in our convention for the first time this year. If that is you, we extend our hand and welcome you to our family. We need you. We need your diversity, your perspectives, and your talents. We also know from our experience that you will get a lot, more than you can imagine today, from being part of our Federation family.
We also know that some of you joining us for the first time this year are members of another organization. The American Council of the Blind was established by a small group of individuals who left our movement nearly sixty years ago. For a long time the Council opposed nearly every priority we undertook. Today, its scope is significantly smaller than ours, and it does not often openly attack our efforts. Last summer I invited the Council’s newly-elected president to meet, and, in that conversation, I invited him to consider holding the Council’s annual meeting in conjunction with one of the Federation’s future conventions. This is not our first time extending this offer and, as in the past, we still await a response. Despite the silence, we welcome those Council members who have come on their own to closely examine the Federation’s work. If you like what you find, we invite you to join our mission, take our pledge, and walk confidently with us into the future we are building for all blind people. If you decide this space is not for you, we want you to know that the Federation family will still be actively working hard to ensure that you too can live the life you want. To all those who find hope, energy, love, and strength in this Federation: join us, pledge to participate actively in our efforts, and receive the title that we proudly share: member, National Federation of the Blind.
Our value proposition to society is that we bring the lived experience of blind people to the front of society’s consciousness. During the past few years we have been making a concentrated effort to fulfill our promise that we represent all blind people regardless of their race, creed, color, religion, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, national origin, citizenship, marital status, age, genetic information, disability, or any other characteristic or intersectionality of characteristics. In doing so, we recognize that the words are not enough. Words need to be followed by actions, and our Committee on Diversity and Inclusion has been guiding our actions in this area. This spring, we were shocked by the video of the killing of George Floyd approximately three miles southeast of BLIND, Incorporated, our training center in Minnesota. That moment caused us to examine our actions within this movement and whether we have done what was needed to fulfil the promise we make to each other in our organizational code of conduct. On June 2, we released a statement of solidarity, and we committed that we would take positive steps to ensure our organization is free of racism. Some people tell us we are lucky as blind people because we do not see skin color. We know that this is simply another ableist misconception about blind people. As blind people we are shaped by the society around us as much as our non-blind friends. We have made the commitment to work harder at exposing and shattering the misunderstandings we have related to the other characteristics found in our movement. In many ways, it was easy for us to say Black Lives Matter; now we need to plan and execute the actions that will make a difference within and outside our organization. We are all stronger when we make the commitment to explore this honest reflection within ourselves, and our movement will be better when we use the learning to create more space for those who perceived that this organization did not represent them. We will continue to seek innovative ways to bring all blind people together, to connect a larger, more diverse audience to our movement, and to grow the connections in person and online.
My Federation family, I am truly prouder of what we have done in the past year than I have ever been at any of the previous twenty-four conventions I have attended. How our movement has responded in the past year gives me deep strength and boundless hope for what we will do together in the future. It continues to be my deepest honor to serve as your President. Answering to you and carrying out your priorities is the most challenging and joyous undertaking of my life. In the past year, the challenges were ones I never imagined. Yet you gave me everything we needed to push through. You invested in me. You trained me. You challenged me to test the limits for us as blind people by encouraging me to dare to do so within myself. You have loved and trusted me enough to give to me and to accept what I have been blessed to give back. A year ago I would have told you I had no idea how we would do what we have done this year, but the truth is you prepared me long ago for these moments. I carry the understanding that we are in this together—you have my back, and I have yours. The wise counsel and unwavering support that you have given to me combined with your extraordinary efforts makes it possible to lead. The love that you share with me and my family makes it possible to live the life we want. I again pledge to you my dedication, energy, imagination, and heart in advancing the mission of our movement. I will never ask of you anything that I am not prepared to do myself. I am prepared to serve in this office as long as you call upon me to do so. I will continue to march shoulder to shoulder with you until I have nothing left to give. I will never run out of gratitude for all that you have given to me, and I will continue to work tirelessly to pay the value of the Federation family forward to a new generation of leaders.
Fellow Federationists, this is my report for 2020. This is the continued progress we make in protecting. This is the unshakeable bond of faith we share in connecting. This is how we transform dreams into reality despite unexpected challenges. This is our love, hope, and determination in the National Federation of the Blind.
The National Federation of the Blind scholarship program is the largest of its kind for blind students in the United States. Each year we award more than $120,000 in cash and prizes. We would like to recognize the generous partners who contribute to our scholarships and those who add cash and prizes to help make this such a dynamic program.
Some scholarships are supported by the Lillian S. Edelstein Trust. All scholarships that are awarded to blind women and are not otherwise endowed are made possible by a generous bequest from the estate of Dorothy R. Olson. Some NFB scholarships are made possible in part through the support of the Jesse and Hertha Adams Charitable Trust. Through the trust, Jesse and Hertha Adams wanted to help people with disabilities lead productive and meaningful lives.
Thank you to the partners who add cash and prizes to each of our winners’ packages: The Kurzweil Foundation and Ray Kurzweil add $1,000 to each recipient’s award and provide each finalist with a commemorative plaque in both print and Braille. Ray Kurzweil is a long-time friend of the Federation and deserves our special recognition. Google Inc. adds another $1,000 to each winner’s scholarship. Google also provides each recipient with an Acer Chromebook.
Independence Science is proud to award each winner a $1,500 gift certificate to be redeemed toward the purchase of a new Sci-Voice talking LabQuest, version 2. Vispero will award each winner with a five-year home software license for their choice of either JAWS screen reading software or ZoomText magnifier with speech. Winners also enjoy the gift of a KNFB Reader, courtesy of the National Federation of the Blind.
Thank you to these contributors for helping to fund our twenty-two $3,000 scholarships: The E. U. and Gene Parker Scholarship honors two longtime leaders of the National Federation of the Blind whose participation stood for strong principles and strong support of the Federation's work. The Charles and Betty Allen Scholarship is funded by Betty Allen. This scholarship is given by a longtime leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky. Betty and her late husband Charles began this scholarship prior to his passing to support young people in attaining higher education. Charlie, who was extremely successful, left school at an early age to care for his family but retained a strong belief in education. The Adrienne Asch Memorial Scholarship is given in loving memory of Dr. Adrienne Asch, a consummate scholar and a longtime member of our Scholarship Committee. The Edith R. and Alvin J. Domroe Foundation supports college scholarships and has funded its scholarship to encourage academic excellence. One Charles and Melba T. Owen Memorial Scholarship is funded in the amount of $3,000. The NFB STEM Scholarship is jointly supported by the Science and Engineering and Computer Science Divisions and is awarded to a student studying in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or a related field. Members of these divisions wish to encourage the success of blind STEM students in their chosen field of study.
Anonymous contributors—you know who you are—and we thank you very much. Our gratitude goes out to the collective membership of the NFB for funding many National Federation of the Blind scholarships. This year, one of our NFB scholarships will be dedicated to Federationists impacted by, and first responders coping with, COVID-19. Also this year we will present four awards in the amount of $5,000 each. The first of these is funded by the collective membership of the National Federation of the Blind. The Pearson award is funded by Pearson Education and is given to a student who plans a career in education. For Pearson, learning is a never-ending road of discovery. The Mimi and Marvin Sandler award is funded by longtime friends of the Federation. Marvin Sandler served as president of Independent Living Aids for more than thirty years. He and his wife wish to further academic excellence by sponsoring this award.
The JAWS for Windows Scholarship is funded by the developers of the JAWS screen reader, Vispero. JAWS, Job Access with Speech, has been committed to expanding the opportunities of education and employment for the blind with both speech and Braille since the late 1980s. In establishing this award Vispero said, “On behalf of all the individuals responsible for the development and support of this product over the years, we are honored to establish this scholarship for students recognized by the Federation.”
We have two $8,000 scholarships, both donated by Oracle. Thank you, Oracle. The first is the Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in Computer Science. Oracle seeks to hire the best and brightest talent to build its products. It recognizes the significant impact that its products and technologies can have on people with disabilities. This scholarship is for a student in the field of computer science, computer engineering, user experience, or a related field. The second is the Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in a STEM Field. This scholarship awards academic excellence and leadership in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. Oracle wishes to promote excellence and funds this scholarship based on Oracle’s understanding of its impact on disabled employees and customers throughout the globe.
Our $10,000 scholarship is another Charles and Melva T. Owen Memorial Scholarship. First established by Charles Owen in loving memory of his blind wife, this award is now endowed to honor the memory of both. In founding the scholarship, Charles Owen wrote: "There shall be no limitation as to field of study, except that it shall be directed toward attaining financial independence.”
Finally, we have our most prestigious scholarship, the Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship for $12,000. This scholarship is given yearly by the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, a nonprofit organization that works to create publications and assists blind people. Kenneth Jernigan is viewed in our field as the most important figure in the twentieth century in the lives of blind people. The Action Fund wishes to keep the understandings he brought to the field alive and well throughout the twenty-first century and has endowed this scholarship dedicated to his memory and to the continuation of the work he began.
Each of our thirty scholarships rewards academic excellence and promotes leadership in the blindness community. They are all made possible by the generous contributions of many individuals and partners. Our winners are living the lives they want, and we sincerely thank all of you. You help make dreams come true!
[PHOTO CAPTION: The Scholarship Class of 2020: (from top left) Alek Wolfe, Bri Broadwater, Brian Mucyo, Chris Bove, Marissa Nissley, Griffin Miller, Deiascha Britte Bancayanvega, Rob Blachowicz, Emily Keihl, Matthew Duffell-Hoffman, Logan Stenzel, Elaine Hardin, Precious Perez, Kevin Darcy, Sara Luna, Kaitlin Hippe, Mick Carey, Brayan Zamarripa, Jillian Skye Milton, Marie Villaneda, Moreblessings Chikavanga, Paxton Franke, Nick Spohn, Josh Loebner, Natalie Charbonneau, and Danielle Schultz.]
From the Editor: President Riccobono introduced our scholarship committee chairperson in this way: “This is the moment in the board meeting where we come to the presentation of our scholarship program. Our scholarship program is premier in terms of acknowledging the hard work of blind students across the country. Our scholarship chair has been juggling a lot of new things in the last few months doing a great job shepherding all the committee members and going through the process of dealing with the hundreds of applications we get in a very competitive program. Here to present our 2020 scholarship finalists from the great State of New York, is Cayte Mendez.”
Cayte Mendez: Thank you, President Riccobono. Good afternoon. It's a privilege to be here with all of you this afternoon. As you know our scholarship program is one of the ways our organization makes an investment in its future and in the future of blind people across the nation. Every year we give more than $120,000 in cash and prizes to thirty blind students from across the country who have demonstrated excellence in both their academic pursuits and their community involvement and leadership. Like so many this year, I've been missing the opportunity to connect in person with my fellow Federationists. But the thing I've been missing the absolute most has been the chance to spend lots of in-person time with this amazing group of thirty scholarship finalists. I've had the opportunity to get to know them thus far over a series of Zoom calls, and they are truly an impressive and diverse group of leaders and scholars. Their enthusiasm for the scholarship process and to achieve their own goals and aspirations is evident, even through the virtual medium, and it's my honor to introduce them to you this afternoon.
So I'm going to introduce each finalist in alphabetical order by name, of course, and then I'm going to say two states. The first state will be their home state. That's the state either where they spend the most time or where they consider home, and the second will be their school state where they're going to be attending college in the fall. I'm also going to share briefly their vocational goals, and each student will introduce themselves. Throughout the presentation I'm going to share some fun facts about this scholarship class. They're a great group of finalists. Since we are urged strongly to keep things moving, without further ado, it's my privilege to present the NFB scholarship class of 2020.
Deiascha-Britte Bancayanvega, Rhode Island, California. She will be entering the field of healthcare: I would like to recognize the San Diego chapter and the National Federation of the Blind for their love and support. I am halfway in my medical education as a blind individual. My goal is to promote healthcare inclusion for the visually impaired patients and also for visually impaired healthcare workers who truly want to help yet accessibility is not fully granted. Now I speak for those who have an interest in medicine. I believe in your potential, and we all can partake in the creation of an inclusive healthcare system that welcomes everyone.
Rob Blachowicz, Arkansas, Arkansas. Rob is getting a degree in counseling: Scholars are not just academics. It is very important to note that scholars also volunteer and commit our time to helping people with technology and Braille. I have also given my time to food banks and homeless shelters. With that being said though, school counseling and a scholar is not just about volunteering, academics, and advocacy. It's also about teaching skills. One of the most important skills we can teach is teamwork, because together we can achieve our dreams.
Chris Bove, Rhode Island, Rhode Island. Chris will be pursuing a career in public service: Hello everyone. Before I start I would just like to thank you all for the opportunity to be here today. I have been working toward a career in public service for about five years now. In high school I served as a member of the Rhode Island Board of Education and as an intern in the office of Governor Gina Raimondo. At the University of Rhode Island, I serve as a committee chair on the student senate and as a member of the board of trustees. I am also an extremely active member of the Rhode Island affiliate of the NFB, and I serve as a member of the legislative team. My dream in life is to serve in government and provide a voice for people like us who have long been overlooked. This investment in my future will help get me one step closer to making that dream a reality. Thank you.
Bri Broadwater, Maryland, New Jersey. Bri will be seeking a career as a psychologist: I have been of the mindset that your life is your own, and you do with it what you choose. So that's what I do. I'm a base and tumbler on my school's cheer team, I'm an amateur baker, and I really enjoy rock climbing and hiking. I've had so many people help me during this time, so I want to help other people through volunteering with special education, helping out in my community, mentoring other blind students like myself, and now pursuing a career in psychology. I want to give back to the world like the world has given to me.
Sean Carlson, Oregon, Oregon. Sean is looking forward to a career in rehab, specifically as a teacher of blind students: Greetings. It's an honor to have been selected as a national scholarship finalist. When I joined the NFB in January 2019, I was simply seeking connection with other blind individuals like myself. What I found was a movement of successful and inspirational people doing so much good in the blind movement that I wanted to join in. I'm currently president of the Oregon student division, and the vice president of the Portland Central Chapter. After hearing about the 70 percent unemployment or underemployment of us in the blind community, I decided to switch my college major. I decided to pursue degrees which would enable me to lead and inspire others to show them that blindness is not an obstacle to becoming a successful person and leading a dignified, independent life. Thank you.
Natalie Charbonneau, Oregon, Oregon. Natalie is going into animal genetics and conservation: I'm stepping off the path of societal expectations that I've been traveling to pursue a career in conservation and animal genetics. My ultimate goal is to work at a university conducting research and teaching, allowing me to apply skills from my previous career path combined with my passion for animals and conservation, to actively model and continue advocating for true inclusivity and access in higher education.
Moreblessings Chikavanga, Texas, Texas. Moreblessings is looking forward to a career in law: Hello. A little bit about myself. I enjoy being an engaged citizen. I love helping people as the president of the local Leo's Club. In my high school I enjoyed volunteering by fundraising for a local children's home. I graduated from LCB in 2018, where I became more confident and met a lot of great role models. To give back to my blind community, I have worked as a buddy counselor last summer and have been participating in the Texas Affiliate since. I have a passion in diversity and inclusion, and I love advocacy work. With that being said, this summer I have had an opportunity to work at the Iowa Department for the Blind as a summer youth counselor, where I work with students with multiple disabilities teaching cane travel and technology to enforce independence and self-advocacy. I'm honored to be one of the 2020 finalists.
Cayte: This next finalist is one of the five finalists whose birthdays are in April. Apparently April is a really good month for having a birthday if you want to be a 2020 scholarship finalist.
Kevin Darcy, Colorado, Colorado. Kevin is looking forward to a career as a professor of anthropology: The life I want is to be an anthropologist. When I was told that blind people can't become anthropologists, I didn't let blindness hold me back. When I was told that blind people shouldn't do research in developing areas of the world, blindness didn't hold me back. I refused to become society's image of a blind person. Even so, I recognized that my identity as a white male comes with privileges and access to opportunities and resources that other blind people may not have. One of my professional goals is to shape public policy to increase access and opportunities for other blind students, and I've begun doing that through my work at CU Boulder.
Matthew Duffell-Hoffman, South Carolina, South Carolina. Matthew is looking forward to a career in electrical engineering: Hello everyone. A little about me: I am an athlete. In high school I was captain of both the wrestling team and the crosscountry team, and I now do jujitsu. I have volunteered at the NFB Bell Academy and at the NFB of SC's Rocky Bottom Children's Camp for the Blind. I'm currently working at our program called Summer Teen. My career aspiration is to be an entrepreneur and start a business converting ordinary cars into accessible self-driving cars, which comes from my personal desire to own a self-driving Dodge Viper.
Paxton Franke, North Dakota, North Dakota. Paxton will be getting his degree in biology and heading into a career in forensic pathology: I am at my very nature a curious person. I am passionate about my curiosity through the study of chemistry and physics. There is no better feeling for me than spending twenty minutes on a chemistry problem and finally understanding one of the mechanisms that make up this beautiful world. I want to further my understanding through the practice of forensic pathology and not only sustain my curiosity but contribute to a future that I would be happy to be a part of.
Elaine Hardin, Georgia, California. Elaine will be pursuing a degree in higher education with the goal of working in higher ed student affairs: Hi everyone. It's an honor to be here. I just graduated from Vanderbilt University, where I studied special education, taught and mentored in public schools as a student teacher, and served in several leadership positions. These experiences made me aware of inequities in education, and I'm dedicated to making a difference. This summer I'm beginning a one-year master's program in student affairs administration at UCLA. In my career I hope to have a big impact on the lives of students and on equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in higher education.
Kat Hippe, Wisconsin, Michigan. Kat will be pursuing a career in languages and special education: I just want to say thank you so much for this opportunity. It means a lot to me. I will be pursuing special education in foreign languages because I believe in advocating for other students who are underrepresented. In other countries they don't have as many opportunities as we do. So by getting a certification in foreign languages and special education, I can hopefully go over and represent the children who cannot be represented as well because I believe that everyone deserves a chance to live life to the fullest. Thank you.
Emily Kiehl, Ohio, Ohio. Emily will be pursuing a career in technology and business: Outside my information technology classes, I play tuba, oboe, and saxophone in several bands at the University of Cincinnati. I'm also a software developer who has gone to hack-a-thons across the country and presented at the world's largest consumer electronics show. I got involved with the NFB after having a blast volunteering at the BELL camp last summer. Now I'm on the board of the Ohio Association of Blind Students. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
Josh Loebner, Tennessee, South Carolina. Josh will be pursuing his PhD in rhetoric and communications with the goal of working in advertising and as a professor: The NFB scholarship allows me to continue my PhD advancing research and advocacy for disability in advertising. I serve on the Mosaic Council, the ad industry's premier think tank for diversity and inclusion, and mentor disabled students interested in pursuing careers in advertising, media, and entertainment. While positive strides have been made, more needs to be done to include people with disabilities. My career goal is to develop the first textbook and college course dedicated to teaching advertising and disability inclusion. Advertising is powerful. So is the the disability community.
Sara Luna, Illinois, Illinois. Sara is entering a career in museum accessibility: I would wager that most of you in attendance have visited a history museum at some point. Perhaps like me you were disappointed by the overwhelmingly visual experience. The intent of museums is to preserve history and educate the public. Personally studying history has vastly increased my understanding and appreciation of my African-American and Mexican heritage. Therefore, I intend to work to help make museums a more accessible space so that everyone may learn from these incredible institutions. Thank you.
Victor Marques, Michigan, Michigan. Victor will be entering a career in vision rehab therapy: I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to be a finalist this year. I'm a graduate student at Western Michigan University. If everything goes well in April, I will graduate summa cum laude with my master's degree. I am a professional musician. I am heavily involved with Toastmasters International, and I also work as a patient services coordinator at a free health clinic where I help patients overcome barriers to accessing healthcare. My main goal as a rehabilitation professional is to provide quality comprehensive services so that my consumers can live the lives that they choose without limits. Thank you.
Griffin Miller, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania. Griffin intends to pursue a career as an actuary: Hello, I'm Griffin. I'm pursuing a career as an actuary. I've always been interested in math since I was young and always been in advanced math classes for my age. I actually took algebra one in third grade. In addition to that, I have been interested in technology for the blind. There's another blind student at my school who I help with technology, and I also participate in the choir.
Jillian Milton, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Jillian will be pursuing a career in product development: Hi. As a legally blind student I am proud to have graduated twelfth in a class of about four hundred students. I became the first student in the nation to test with dual screens on multiple standardized tests. For the past four years I have participated in competitive sports like marching band and track that helped break barriers for other students with disabilities. I was an elected officer in the music and science honor societies. My volunteerism includes kayaking and open water swims and the BELL camp. In college I would like to study engineering or computer science to create technology products that are accessible for all.
Brian Mucyo, Arizona, New York. Brian will be entering a career in human rights law: I would like to start off by thanking the committee for this great opportunity to be a finalist this year. I just graduated from Grand Canyon University with an honors bachelor's in finance and economics. I was actually also named the top student for our college of business, so once our graduation is rescheduled, I'll be giving the commencement speech. Among other things in the past year I have been serving on the student board of the Arizona affiliate and on the board of the Guide Dogs for the Blind chapter in Phoenix. I am currently working with a business consulting firm, where we're actively working to help businesses navigate and survive this pandemic. In the fall I start my new chapter going to law school, where I hope to gain more experience and resources to be an even better advocate.
Cayte: Our scholarship class this year spans exactly three decades. Our youngest scholarship finalist is the next one I'm going to introduce. She is still seventeen and will be turning eighteen at the end of this month. Our most senior finalist is forty-seven, so just exactly thirty years between.
Marissa Nissley, New Jersey, District of Columbia. Marissa will be getting a degree in economics and entering a career in law: Hello everyone. Throughout high school I served as captain of my school's mock trial team, and for the first time this year our team placed third in the state. I served as vice president of my local DECA chapter, where I not only competed in business role-play events but also organized community fundraisers for several charities. Next year I plan to attend Georgetown University and major in economics with the goal of attending law school after undergrad. Thank you, and I'm honored to be an NFB scholarship finalist.
Sherry Pablo, California, California. Sherry will be pursuing a career in health policy and management: Ten years ago I unexpectedly lost my sight after graduating from college. My journey since then has included teaching myself how to read Braille, volunteering with seniors, providing health education to youth in a clinic, and most recently leading a team in a statewide program addressing the opioid epidemic. With a master's in public health from UC Berkeley, I plan to improve accessibility and promote equity within healthcare systems and in health policy. Thank you so much for this opportunity and investment in my future.
Cayte: Our next finalist is a tenBroek Fellow. The tenBroek fellowships are awarded to scholarship finalists who have previously won a National Federation of the Blind scholarship, and they are named after the first president of the NFB, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. So let me introduce you to Precious Perez.
Precious Perez, Massachusetts, Massachusetts. Precious will be entering a career in music education: Hi everyone. This is an honor, so thank you to the scholarship committee. I'm a vocalist, songwriter, and music educator. I'm a first generation college student, a Puerto Rican woman with anxiety from a low income family. I'm the first blind student to study music education at Berkeley and the first blind student to study abroad at a Valencia [College] campus. My goal is to break down barriers for blind educators and performers to lead by example in the mainstream setting. I represent multiple communities, so I will strive to teach my students beauty and diversity. Music is unity; education is power, and I will use both to abolish blindness stereotypes. Thank you.
Teresita Rios, California, Indiana. Teresita will be pursuing a career in law: I was born in Mexico and moved to the US at the age of eleven. I would not be as academically inclined if not for my parents. In high school through mock trial I fell in love with the founding documents of this nation. Throughout college I volunteered and interned in different legal resource centers which cemented my interest in the law. Graduating cum laude with honors from UCL, today I am thrilled to say that I am attending law school in the fall, and in three years I will be better equipped to at least in part pay my parents for their countless sacrifices and have a deeper understanding of the US Constitution. Thank you so very much for helping me achieve my dream. Thank you.
Cayte: So before we introduce this next scholarship finalist, I would just like to say that our class is representative of twenty-six states. Some folks represent two states because of their home state and their school state. This next finalist will be representing one state and that is the state of Nebraska.
Dannielle Schutz, Nebraska, Nebraska. Danielle will be pursuing a degree in biological systems engineering and will be pursuing a career in medical research: I have received many academic and athletic awards throughout my high school career. I have shown goats and pigs for eleven years through 4H and FFA. At the University of Nebraska, I plan to study biological systems engineering. As a medical scientist I plan to research genetic eye disorders. I was born with a rare form of Stargardt disease. My doctors inspired me to follow a path that would combine my love of science with my desire to improve the lives of others.
Nick Spohn, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania. Nick will be pursuing a career in mechanical engineering: I became visually impaired right before my ninth grade school year. I have led others by example through my hard work and dedication. I was one of the students involved in advocating for the college board to administer proper accommodations during this year's AP exams. Everyone should have an equal opportunity when it comes to education. My career goal is to become a mechanical engineer and make an impact on society.
Logan Stenzel, Minnesota, Minnesota. Logan will be entering the field of finance and technology entrepreneurship: Mixing technical and communication skills is essential to life as a blind person. Being able to come up with clever solutions to access issues is essential to success as a blind person and for the entire blind community. As a high school debater, I utilized these skills to achieve competitive success, unanimously winning the Minnesota state debate championship while advocating for more inclusive practices in debate. I'm grateful for the NFB scholarship for allowing me to continue this work into college.
Marie Villaneda, Indiana, Indiana. Marie will be pursuing a career as an orientation and mobility instructor: As we all know, it is very important for blind youth to connect with and learn from blind adults. This is one driving factor in my passion to address the shortage of blind orientation and mobility instructors. I worked for four years with youth at the Indiana School for the Blind, and I have been involved with the NFB since 2017 through conventions and Washington Seminar. I look forward to a continued engagement with the Federation and sincerely appreciate the investment in my future.
Monica Wegner, Minnesota, Minnesota. Shane will be undertaking a career in corporate law: What could be more exciting than a career in corporate law? Yeah, I've never heard anybody say that. No. It's not exciting. But you want to know what it is: how corporate America views diversity and inclusion. Has anyone noticed what group of people are not represented? Well, it's you and me, people with a disability. That bothers me. I want that to change. That is why I am excited about corporate law. I want to drive that change for people like us. Thank you to the scholarship committee and the board of directors for giving me this opportunity.
Alek Wolfe, Vermont, Vermont. Alek will be pursuing a career in broadcasting: Hi, thank you for this incredible honor. A very important quote that my basketball coach told me when I first got into radio was, "You live and you learn." Through my time in radio I've gotten the opportunity to give back to my community, a very important part of that being a community garden and being able to broadcast on live radio a soccer tournament in honor of a resident who had passed away from a car accident. Since then I have been able to give to many charities in her name and through radio. With this scholarship I hope to continue the work through radio and give back to the community, and I want to thank the committee for letting me be here and continue my work in giving back to the community.
Brayan Zamarripa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma. Brayan will be entering the field of media production and accessibility: Hello everybody. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. I am primarily a musician. I play guitar, violin, and a bit of voice too. I compose in many different genres and do a little bit of production as well. I also do testing for music software and accessibility in order to provide access for all who use it. Outside of music I am the secretary for my state NFB affiliate, and I also serve on committees in my local chapter. I love studying languages. I speak four of them. And I'm really looking forward to getting to know everyone.
Cayte Mendez: Mr. President, this concludes the presentation of the 2020 scholarship class.
[PHOTO CAPTION: Cayte Mendez]
by Cayte Mendez
From the Editor: These remarks were made by Chairperson Mendez to honor the thirty recipients of the National Federation of the Blind’s annual scholarships:
For the past few years, it's been my privilege to stand at the podium on banquet night and celebrate the tremendous achievements of our NFB scholars. Each year the thirty students selected by the community impress us all with their drive and the desire to live their best lives and to improve the lives of others. Throughout the convention the members of the organization get to know them through their public presentations at NABS, the board meeting, and through interacting with them in the hallways and during meetings.
From year to year our scholarship winners are stars of the convention experience. It's been my privilege for the last few years to introduce them to all of you. This spring, even before the official decision was made to take the convention virtual, President Riccobono, the committee, and I had already begun thinking about how we could make sure our 2020 scholarship finalists could be guaranteed the best convention experience possible under the unique and challenging conditions in which we all suddenly found ourselves. We made it a priority to ensure that each of the thirty scholarship finalists would have the most impactful, engaging, and interactive experience we could create as they got to know the committee and the Federation through the various convention events and their surrounding networking and social opportunities.
We knew that the true gift of the NFB scholarship program is the Federation itself, above and beyond the dollar amounts, and we were determined to ensure that the 2020 finalists would get to experience everything that our organization has to offer.
I'm so pleased to tell you all that this amazing group of finalists has dived into our remote convention experience with the kind of gusto and enthusiasm that I've always admired in our scholarship winners. They've immersed themselves deeply into our convention activities throughout the past week and have shared their questions and feedback with their mentors via Zoom, text, WhatsApp, email, and a few good old-fashioned phone calls. They've stayed connected to the committee, to one another, and forged new friendships and contacts throughout these past five days. Despite the time differences and the long hours behind devices, they've carried on the perennial scholarship tradition of twenty-hour-plus days with very little sleep as they have soaked up Federation philosophy, community, and activism.
To you guys, the scholarship class of 2020, we've all been delighted to get to know you. You've impressed me, the committee, and the membership of the organization with your tremendous stories of struggle and success, your passion for diversity and inclusion, and your commitment to advancing the future of others as well as achieving your own lofty goals.
I am really sorry to see that our time together is drawing to a close. However, this just means that we'll have more things to learn about one another and to share with one another when we do finally get a chance to meet in person.
Back in May we announced that travel and public health restrictions permitting, there will be an in-person event for all the 2020 scholarship finalists in February 2021. That will be taking place in Baltimore. The details for this event are still in the works, but we know how important it is for the members of each scholarship class to develop in-person connections with one another, with their mentors on the committee, as well as with other Federation members and leaders. The money that you guys will all win as scholarship finalists will eventually be spent. But the relationships that you'll build with one another and with the members of the Federation as a part of your scholarship process will last for a lifetime. And to give you an example, I'm still friends with my scholarship roommate, and that was nineteen years ago! So right now, our in-person event is scheduled for the weekend of February 4, 2021. Please save that date. Dr. Kurzweil, that might be a lovely time to do that handshake that you were lamenting having missed this evening.
As you all know, each year our thirty NFB scholarships range in value from $3,000 to $12,000. These scholarships are also augmented by additional grants and prizes so that at a minimum each winner leaves our convention with $5,000 plus gifts including a beautiful plaque from Dr. Kurzweil and the Kurzweil Foundation and a Chromebook from Google. In the video we aired earlier this evening, we thanked our generous donors and partners for their support. But I'm going to take this opportunity to say one more time: thank you. Thank you so much. Your support helps make it possible for these future leaders and scholars to achieve their dreams and to live the life they want. So, sincerely, from all of us, thank you.
Traditionally the determination of which of the thirty finalists will receive the eight scholarships with base values exceeding $3,000 has been made on the final night of convention after a week where the finalists get to know the scholarship committee and the committee members get to know each of the finalists. This year, given the challenges and potential inequities of adhering to our usual protocol, the decision was made to award our scholarships a little differently. In May we announced that each finalist who participated fully in the remote convention will be receiving a $3,000 scholarship plus all the additional cash and prizes. The determination of which finalist would be awarded the eight amounts exceeding $3,000, including our prestigious Kenneth Jernigan Memorial scholarship, will be made at the in-person event in February, where, again, public health and travel permitting, the committee and other Federation members in attendance will be able to get to know each of these inspiring scholars without the barriers of screens and headphones and weird internet stuff.
So, in closing this evening I have the honor to introduce one more time in full the scholarship class of 2020. Now, usually at this point when I start reading names, I'd have to tell you please hold your applause and please wait to cheer. But this year because you're all in webinar mode, I definitely encourage you to cheer, hoot, holler, scream, yell, and carry on as loud as you please while I read the names of our fabulous 2020 scholarship winners. I'll read everybody's name, first name, last name, home state, school state, and vocational goal.
Deiascha-Britte Bancayanvega, Rhode Island, California, healthcare inclusion.
Rob Blachowicz, Arkansas, Arkansas, counseling.
Chris Bove, Rhode Island, Rhode Island, public service.
Bri Broadwater, Maryland, New Jersey, psychology.
Sean Carlson, Oregon, Oregon, teacher of blind students.
Natalie Charbonneau, Oregon, Oregon, animal genetics and conservation.
Moreblessings Chikavanga, Texas, Texas, law and policy.
Kevin Darcy, Colorado, Colorado, professor of anthropology.
Matthew Duffell-Hoffman, South Carolina, South Carolina, electrical engineer.
Paxton Franke, North Dakota, North Dakota, forensic pathology.
Elaine Hardin, Georgia, California, higher education student administration.
Kat Hippe, Wisconsin, Michigan, linguistics and special education.
Emily Kiehl, Ohio, Ohio, technology and business.
Josh Loebner, Tennessee, South Carolina, advertising and academic faculty.
Sara Luna, Illinois, Illinois, museum accessibility.
Victor Marques, Michigan, Michigan, rehabilitation.
Griffin Miller, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, actuary.
Jillian Milton, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, software product development.
Brian Mucyo, Arizona, New York, human rights law.
Marissa Nissley, New Jersey, District of Columbia, law.
Sherry Pablo, California, California, health policy and management.
Precious Perez, a tenBroek Fellow, congratulations Precious on your second NFB scholarship, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, music education.
Teresita Rios, California, Indiana, law.
Dannielle Schutz, Nebraska, Nebraska, biomedical research.
Nick Spohn, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, mechanical engineer.
Logan Stenzel, Minnesota, Minnesota, finance and entrepreneurship.
Marie Villaneda, Indiana, Indiana, orientation mobility instructor.
Monica Wegner, Minnesota, Minnesota, corporate law.
Alek Wolfe, Vermont, Vermont, broadcasting.
Brayan Zamarripa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma, media production accessibility.
Folks, I hope you're still cheering and making a ton of noise, banging your cups and plates and cutlery—whatever you have—in celebration of the scholarship class of 2020. See you all in February.
[PHOTO CAPTION: Mark A. Riccobono]
by Mark A. Riccobono
Tonight we connect through words. A word is a single, distinct, meaningful element of speech or writing. When used alone or in abundance, words form the expression of ideas and emotions. Whether spoken or written, words create vibrations that influence the very reality that surrounds us. Those vibrations transmit ideas, evoke emotions, influence thought patterns, and encourage action. Words are, therefore, the connection between thought and action. The vibrational qualities transmitted through words depend on their combination, their familiarity, and the means of delivery. The influence of words is amplified or diminished based upon the action or inaction that results. Over time, the meaning of words change and gain power from the underlying beliefs.
English poet Lord Byron wrote, "But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think." The writer and businesswoman Ingrid Bengis reflected, "For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Their articulation represents a complete, lived experience." The thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi once said, "Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder." Humanitarian Mother Teresa expressed that “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless." While drafting the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin observed that "Words may show a man's wit, but actions his meaning."
Eight decades ago the first convention of the National Federation of the Blind was held in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. At the banquet of that constitutional convention, the Federation’s first President, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, made an address to the relatively small assembly. He closed his remarks with these simple yet powerful words, “It is necessary for the blind to organize themselves and their ideas upon a national basis, so that blind men the nation over may live in physical comfort, social dignity, and spiritual self-respect.” While today we choose different words, the society around us is changing at an accelerating pace, and our movement is exponentially more complex. The core belief shared by Dr. tenBroek nearly eighty years ago continues to be the motivation for us to come together at this banquet—that being the value of self-directed action by the blind.
We gather together this evening in a manner that alters the familiar patterns, but with the same love, hope, and determination that has always called us to join together. Regardless of the unknowns that lay ahead, we come to the close of our eighth decade with the certainty that we have sustained a movement that stands as the single most important force for the blind anywhere in the world. We come together to recommit ourselves to our movement, to feel the heartbeat of our organization, and to gather the strength required to build our future. We are blind people connected from every corner of this great nation. We are blind people of different backgrounds, perspectives, and intersectionalities. We are blind people who recognize the power of unified action and concentrated energy. We are blind people who benefit from eight decades of hard work and sacrifice by departed generations of our movement. We are blind people committed to the value of giving back, to the opportunities that come from building together, to the strength found in welcoming new members, and to the urgency of resisting all efforts that threaten our progress. We are the National Federation of the Blind.
Mahatma Gandhi is credited with observing that “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”
In the National Federation of the Blind, we have developed a distinct pattern of belief about blindness based upon our authentic lived experience being blind. We refer to this pattern of belief as Federation philosophy. As we put the philosophy into action, add new diverse perspectives, and influence the society around us, our understanding becomes even more meaningful. Our philosophy is further enhanced when we align our words and our actions to be consistent with our pattern of beliefs. We have consistently found that organizing ourselves and our ideas—as we have done using the Federation philosophy—is the most effective means for us to make steady progress toward our goal of integrating the blind into society on terms of equality.
In contrast, we sometimes hear from administrators, counselors, teachers, and other individuals working in the blindness field that they do not adhere to a philosophy about blindness. We are told that they prefer not to “pick a side,” but rather “pick and choose from many different sources.” What do they mean when they use these words? The philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind has been shaped, over eighty years, by the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of diverse blind individuals. To be clear, when we say blind (a word we believe has power), we mean a functional definition that includes individuals with varying degrees of blindness. When a blindness professional says they cannot adopt the Federation philosophy, they are actually rejecting a shared understanding rooted in the lived experience of blind people. These professionals have a set of beliefs centered not on the experience of the blind, but rather on a belief that the non-blind experience is normal and that the essential element in that normality is eyesight. This is the vision-centered philosophy. That philosophy frequently underlies the words and actions of many non-blind individuals, who cannot have the lived experience of being blind, as well as blind individuals who have internalized the myth that vision is a requirement for success.
We can get an understanding of people’s underlying beliefs from the words they use. Last fall, Pam Allen, first-vice president of the National Federation of the Blind, was at a large gathering of leaders in the blindness field. During a session about the branding of agencies for the blind, the facilitator asked a serious question, “Should we continue to use the B word?” The tone of the question implied that blind is a four-letter word. As executive director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, Pam was the only blind person in the room who oversaw an agency directed by a board of blind individuals and offering services built upon the Federation philosophy. When no one else spoke up, Pam confidently explained that use of the word “blind” is not merely appropriate, it is essential to reflecting the belief that it is respectable to live and compete on terms of equality as a blind person. However, she was met with strong resistance and little support from the assembled crowd of agency administrators. This was not a philosophical discussion to explore the value of the word “blind” or shifting its meaning among the general public. This was a discussion about effectively marketing agencies serving the blind and enhancing their brand by excluding the B word. If Pam was not in that room or did not speak up, the assembled crowd would have once again affirmed its belief that vision is to be advanced while blind is to be avoided.
In contrast, the Library of Congress program for providing accessible reading materials to the blind has recently considered operational changes resulting from the United States ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty. Refreshing the brand, including the name, of the program was under review. Removing “blind” from the program’s name was discussed, but the library leadership effectively articulated the significance of the word and the importance of the underlying belief in blind people—the library’s primary audience. Why did the national library, unlike some other agencies in the blindness field, remain committed to using the B word? The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled is led by a blind woman, Karen Keninger, who believes deeply in the capacity and value of blind people. The library, like our movement, recognizes that the word “blind” is a positive attribute.
As a class of blind people, all of us face artificial barriers and low expectations in society. Whether poor color contrast or unlabeled interactive controls, the failure to incorporate accessibility into web development affects all of us. When seeking employment, we are all held back by the low expectations. When seeking to vote in elections, we get equal access when we demonstrate that all of us have been disenfranchised from our rights. We use the word “blind” because we reject the outdated notion that blindness is a tragedy that limits the possibilities. For us, the word “blind” has power and meaning. For those who are vision centered, “blind” evokes fear and uncertainty. Language reflects belief, and we will not sell out our beliefs. We, the blind, follow our words with the action of living the lives we want. The result of our persistent and collective action is our shattering of the old meaning of blind and creating a new, stronger, authentic meaning.
In contrast, many professionals in the field emphasize words that center on vision. Behind their words are beliefs that hold us back. Some professionals truly believe that the words simply do not matter. Other professionals sincerely believe that, for the sake of their clients, they must only use the politically correct words. We reject these harmful assertions because we know that words do matter, that words are driven by beliefs, and that words create vibrations that lead to actions that will either help or hurt our march to freedom. Now is the time for a revolution of words in the field of blindness. Now is the time for the blind to advance our language of freedom.
Consider the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AERBVI). The association describes itself as “a professional membership organization dedicated exclusively to professionals who provide services to persons with vision loss.” While we do not protest the existence of a membership organization for professionals in the field, we do denounce their continued use of language centered on vision that emphasizes their separation from the pattern of thought found in the organized blind movement.
AERBVI’s website features a page promoting opportunities to work in the field that is prominently titled, “Become a Vision Professional.” From first impression, the association makes it clear how they would like us to think about the field—vision is at the center. Listen for yourself; here is the opening paragraph from that page: “Vision professionals have the opportunity to make positive changes in another person’s life. There is a variety of professions in the vision community, a number of different types of working environments and employment options. Vision professionals work with public or private organizations, with children and adults, and with educational, medical, and rehabilitation professionals.” The page highlights career options such as teacher of students with visual impairments, which the professionals often shorten to simply vision teacher, or vision rehabilitation therapist, which, according to the page, is the modern term for rehabilitation teacher. What beliefs underlie the titles of vision teachers and vision therapists?
The language of seeing used by AERBVI exemplifies a fundamental disconnect among some professionals in the field of blindness that continues to hold us back as blind people. It is a systemic problem that stretches back before the founding of the National Federation of the Blind. It is a bias that pushed our earliest leaders to establish this movement in 1940. The vision-centered philosophy and its language of seeing perpetuate the false notion that blind people need to be counseled by therapists to operate in a visual world—with all of the limitations that are assumed to be inherent in not being able to see. From this has come the actions of building a professional system that trains vision professionals to help those with visual impairments to make optimal gains based first and foremost upon eyesight. Yet we continue to be told that the words do not matter and that the differences in perspective are in the past. We, the blind, know that the words do matter, and we intend to follow our language of freedom with actions to make change.
Tonight, we call on all professionals in the field to change their language to reflect the beliefs we want to find in our field. We encourage you to join with the leadership of our divisions for rehabilitation professionals and blindness education professionals in using the language of freedom cultivated by the organized blind movement. We are not impaired. We do not require therapy for our eyes. We appreciate that not all blindness is the same, but our experience tells us that all people living with blindness, as we say blind people, face the same set of low expectations in society that require action. Make a conscious decision to use our language of freedom, because it will cause you to evaluate your own beliefs. This consciousness will allow you to continue the process of cultivating your philosophy about blindness centered on the lived experience of the blind rather than on the hierarchy of seeing. If you undertake this exploration of understanding within the organized blind movement, we know you will be better able to make the positive changes in the world we sincerely believe you seek.
Change starts with each of us and, as blind people, we can best influence the professionals and the general public when we consistently use the language of freedom that reflects our shared beliefs. We cannot afford to acquiesce to the words that society feels more comfortable wrapping us in. We should not give into the notion that words do not matter. I frequently overhear blind people reflecting the language of seeing that is used in society rather than what is authentic to us. Braille and print materials can be just that, rather than special and normal. How many times have you been asked if you want the regular (meaning print) menu or the special copy? Did you reply with the language of seeing or the language of freedom? How many times have you heard blind people refer to the “vision teachers”? When I have inquired of my blind friends why they use this term, they sometimes tell me that they are following the lead of the professionals. Yet those same blind individuals are frustrated with the low expectations for blind people within the education system especially when it comes to Braille literacy. If we are to secure the future we want, we must recommit to our language of freedom.
In 1993 we passed a resolution at our convention rejecting politically correct language about blindness that declared, “We believe that it is respectable to be blind, and although we have no particular pride in the fact of our blindness, neither do we have any shame in it. To the extent that euphemisms are used to convey any other concept or image, we deplore such use.” At the time, nearly everyone in the disability community criticized us for this position. We have consistently maintained the language of freedom aligned with our high expectations based upon our shared beliefs. Fast forward to today where the disability community has widely adopted our perspective, which is broadly referred to as identity-first language. I raise this not to demonstrate that we were right but rather to point out that we now need to push harder. It is not enough for the professionals in our own field to say, “We will call you blind if you prefer that.” We need them to have a real understanding of why it is important. That starts with using our language of freedom rather than settling for what the non-blind population requires.
We continue to strengthen our own understanding when we are intentional about the words we choose. When I was still relatively new to the Federation philosophy, I heard someone use the term “human guide.” At the time, I only classified guides as being of two varieties: dog guides and sighted guides. The term human guide forced me to examine my underlying beliefs and their consistency with our shared philosophy. As a blind person, I have guided many people, both blind and sighted, and vision was not required nor used in my guiding. I had the realization that my classifications were rooted in vision-centered philosophy, not from my authentic experience as a blind person. Once my consciousness was raised, I started using words that strengthened and reflected our shared beliefs. However, we should be careful not to settle for simply using and hearing the right words. Consistent beliefs and actions are also critical to achieving our destiny.
Learning to speak the language of freedom for the blind is not enough. Ultimately, if beliefs are not consistent with the words, the action or the lack of action will expose the truth. Many agencies for the blind use words like independence, self-sufficiency, and live life to the fullest. Yet their actions prevent blind people from achieving that reality. Consider the fact that the National Federation of the Blind has largely eliminated the practice of paying subminimum wages to blind people in programs at agencies for the blind. After decades of resistance, the agencies enjoy telling us they no longer use the 14(c) exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, do those same agencies provide blind workers with pay comparable to non-blind individuals performing the same job, with unemployment payments when layoffs occur, and with training leading to opportunities for upward mobility within the organization? How often are those same agencies giving their blind employees pay stubs, health and safety materials, and organizational communications in a fully accessible format? Do they offer accessible websites, provide accessible descriptions of their photos in social media, and refuse to purchase technologies if they are not accessible to blind people? For most agencies, we know that the answers to these questions, and others we might consider posing, reflect low expectations inconsistent with the encouraging words they use. In fact, those nice words are used to court donors who are given to believe there is real action behind the words. We also know that the answers are inconsistent with the understanding of blindness we have in the National Federation of the Blind.
One of the significant factors contributing to actions rooted in low expectations is the lack of blind board members and blind executives at agencies for the blind. While non-blind executives can internalize the understanding of blindness that we share in this movement, the fact remains that the severe lack of adequate representation by blind people in leadership positions directly results in little accountability and big inconsistency in the beliefs, words, and actions of agencies for the blind. Take, for example, Bryan Bashin, a blind person who serves as chief executive officer for the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind. A long-time member of our movement, Bryan spoke to our convention last year about his efforts to bring greater authenticity to the work of his agency. Bryan and I frequently discuss the challenges of attempting to work with agencies and executives whose actions perpetuate low expectations. Maybe you can relate to one of the many stories Bryan has shared with me. A couple of years ago at a meeting of blindness agency directors, Bryan was the only blind person in a group of leaders who ventured out to share dinner together. During their walk to the restaurant, it started to rain, and Bryan, being an experienced traveler, began to put on his raincoat. A non-blind agency director rushed over and, without warning, began helping Bryan. This act of public service included grabbing the strings to the hood of the coat and tightening them to make sure the hood would not come loose. In Bryan’s own words to me, “You know, as executives we’re prepared for million-dollar budget fights, HR issues, and last-minute press coverage. But nothing prepares one for the shocking realization that a CEO colleague thought you needed help tying up your jacket hood, far less the unanticipated personal invasion of ‘helping’ by touching one’s clothing without even asking. The profound symbolism of the do-good CEO being so oblivious of the paternalism inherent in his unbidden help—this symbolizes the work we have to do with agencies so removed from the people they serve that they don’t even think about the infantilizing nature of their actions.” In the moment, had Bryan too forcefully rebelled against this inappropriate action, he would have certainly been labelled as having an attitude or more likely as being “one of those militants.” More astonishing is the fact that none of the other non-blind agency executives said a word about the inappropriateness of the incident. Possibly they did not even find anything wrong with the situation.
Change starts with each of us here tonight. As blind people, we can best raise the expectations of the agencies and the general public when we consciously use the language of freedom that reflects our shared beliefs and when we follow those words with consistent actions. The stronger the relationship of our beliefs, words, and actions, the greater the influence of the vibrations we create in society and the more powerful our habits and values. When we then unify our individual contributions into a movement of collective action, we determine the shape of our own destiny.
When blind youth come to our Federation educational programs, they often use the right words. They tell us that they can do anything, and they want equal treatment. However, when asked how they do certain things, we frequently find that no action follows the words. As a result, we have built our Federation programs to focus on opportunities for blind people to perform the actions themselves, consistent with the beliefs and words we share.
Before I met the National Federation of the Blind, I too said the words but did not perform the actions. I was incapable of acting because, deep down, the beliefs I held were not ones of equality and opportunity, but rather disparity and anonymity. Finding blind mentors in the National Federation of the Blind, receiving guidance in evaluating my own beliefs, and being challenged to take action made all the difference. They taught me that I could direct my own future, and they shared with me everything they knew about living life as a blind person. I found that my destiny was rooted in, and being constrained by, my own misconceptions about blindness. My Federation family illuminated for me that belief alone is not enough. Words give power to the beliefs, and actions create the realization of those beliefs. At the same time, when we act on our words, we strengthen our beliefs. Yet I did not truly understand the power of self-directing the connections between beliefs, words, and actions until I committed to contributing to the work of the National Federation of the Blind. Only when I began freely sharing my understanding with other blind people and participating actively in our shared mission did I truly develop the habits and values required to fulfil my destiny or, to put it in the words of today’s Federation, to live the life I want.
What Dr. tenBroek understood during his time as our first leader; what Kenneth Jernigan, our second great President, demonstrated by building effective programs; what Dr. Marc Maurer, our longest serving President, taught us to feel in our hearts; and what we have confirmed through our coming together year after year is when the beliefs, words, and actions of many are synthesized and applied in the same direction, the vibrations are unstoppable. With eighty years of experience, we now have no doubt that the community of action we have built in this movement is the most powerful force for raising expectations for the blind. We also know that we will only maintain that power if we continue to apply our hearts, minds, voices, and hands to the actions that will advance our organization. This will require each of us individually to consciously align our beliefs, words, and actions. It will also require us to recommit ourselves to the bond of faith we share in working together toward our destiny. We cannot wait for the vision therapists to do it for us. We cannot expect others to define our future. We cannot settle for only the right words. We must demand action, and it starts with each of us in this movement.
Let us recommit ourselves to the actions that are consistent with our beliefs and words. It is not enough to say we want respect in society. We must take the actions that demonstrate respect for others. We must take up our responsibilities as well as expect our equal rights.
It is not enough to say we want full participation. We must take the actions to demonstrate how the artificial barriers in society hold us back. We must teach the corporations building inaccessible technology how to change their ways. We must hold accountable agencies for the blind where the words sound right but the beliefs and actions are wrong. We must not settle for the progress we have made but rather continue to expand the opportunities for full participation in society.
It is not enough to say we have the courage to go the rest of the way on our road to freedom. We must stand in the face of adversity, make sacrifices, and support our Federation family members who put themselves on the line as examples to gain equality for all.
It is not enough to say we value collective action. We must continue to welcome all blind people into our movement, teach them our shared understanding, and synthesize their perspectives into our philosophy and work. We must seek new ways to expand the active participation of a diverse range of blind people in our movement. We must do so without leaving any blind person behind.
It is not enough to say we value democracy. We must actively train leaders who are prepared to carry out the expectations of our shared code of conduct and to represent the expressed will of our members. We must continue our commitment to explore challenging questions and turn those discussions into actions for change within and outside our movement. We must continue to elect a diverse set of blind people to lead this organization who reflect our values, and we must find ways to get blind people who share our philosophy elected to public offices. We must take the actions necessary to require agencies for the blind to be guided by substantive feedback from blind people in their governance structures, and we should discourage support for agencies where their words are not consistent with their beliefs and actions.
It is not enough to say we are a Federation family and that we put love into our movement. Our actions must continue to demonstrate the belief behind the words. This movement has become known for its generosity, its warmth, and its ability to change lives through personal connections. That is because we have not just used the words family and love; we have followed them with meaningful actions.
During this past year, we have experienced the best of what we mean when we use the words family and love. We have thrown open the doors of this movement; we have reached out to and supported blind people who most needed assistance during a worldwide pandemic; we have responded with force where our rights have been ignored; we have responded with love and solidarity to blind people who face systemic injustice because of their intersecting characteristics; we have dedicated hundreds of extra hours and thousands of unexpected dollars; and we have innovated new programs to address the most urgent needs. Some may say we did these things because the times demanded it. The members of the Federation know the truth. We did these things and more because we believe in blind people, we believe that blindness is not the characteristic that determines our future, we say what we believe, and we know that the words mean nothing without action. We remain fully committed to taking all of the bold actions required to go the rest of the way to freedom. The actions of this Federation are fueled by love, and love is the faith in each other that drives the actions that will fulfill our destiny.
While we cannot all be in the same place at the same time to celebrate our progress, we feel the love, hope, and determination that comes from what we share in this movement. More than words, we share the actions of freedom. More than words, we share the actions of equality. More than words, we share the actions of independence. More than words, we share the bond of family. More than words, we share the determination to go the rest of the way to our destiny.
My Federation family, in eighty years we have come further than our founding members could have imagined, and we are not yet done. At the beginning, all we had were the words to express our hopes and dreams. Today, we have the beliefs, the words, and the actions required to go all the way to our destiny. The vision-centered philosophy cannot stop us. The blindness agencies with the nice marketing materials reflecting the wrong beliefs and actions cannot stop us. The governments and corporations that expect us to wait for accessibility cannot stop us. The critics who fail to believe in our authentic understanding of blindness cannot stop us. Nothing will stop us as long as we continue to take ownership for speaking and acting for ourselves. Nothing will stop us as long as we continue to hold tight to the bond of faith we share. Nothing will stop us as long as we commit ourselves to the habits and values required to fulfill our destiny. We are the blind, unified in action, connected by our love for each other, and motivated by the future we intend to build. While we may temporarily be distanced from each other, we will never be divided. Let us believe as one movement. Let us speak with one voice. Let us act with one heart. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.
[PHOTO CAPTION: Ray Kurzweil]
ANIL LEWIS: It's my honor, as we've made it a tradition, to introduce our next speaker, Ray Kurzweil. And Ray Kurzweil is one of the leading inventors and thinkers and futurists with a track record of over thirty years of accurate predictions. I could continue to read the description that they give, but again, I'm the emcee, so I get to take a point of personal privilege. I served as the scholarship chair back in 2008, 2009, and 2010. I actually had the opportunity to meet Dr. Kurzweil, and it's one of those moments in your life you always remember. And in this stage I am now, I will be sure to reflect on the great appreciation for the work of all the people that have come before me. I would be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to do this. When I lost my sight in 1989, I was working at the Decatur Savings and Loan and going to school at the time. It happened so quickly, it was RP, that over the weekend I could no longer read the computer screen. So I was unemployed. But I remember when I was signing the final papers in my HR office at the federal savings and loan, I remember I was leaving, and one of the ladies who worked in HR, Beverly, took me across the hall and introduced me to one of the McCurdys, who owned the bank. The gentleman had lost his sight. And he showed me one of the first Kurzweil reading machines. I sat there and watched that device turn that print into speech. And I had hope. Dr. Kurzweil, I thank you for that. So whatever comments he'd like to offer, I yield the podium to Dr. Ray Kurzweil.
RAY KURZWEIL: Thanks. That's a wonderful introduction. President Riccobono's beautiful and powerful speech using a set of words that he defined, helps us to define blindness. In recent years, I've been asked to speak after the President has shared his vision. This happened with Dr. Maurer and with President Riccobono. I appreciate this opportunity. But it's also a burden. We're greatly moved by the President's vision of what we have accomplished and the goals ahead. It's very hard to add to what President Riccobono has said, to celebrate progress, to feel what he called the love, hope, and determination that comes from what we share in this movement. Mark Riccobono began talking about the power of words. His words bring us together tonight. I've spent decades studying words myself, actually fifty years, and I'm doing that now at Google, and it was our reading machine that we developed together, that speaks written words, that brought us together almost half a century ago. He spoke about a movement that has become known for its generosity, its warmth, and its ability to change lives through personal connections. So I thought about that.
I first met this movement forty-five years ago, in 1975. At that time I had a crude working model of a reading machine. But it did not have an effective means of the user controlling how it would work. We also needed funds to finish its development. So I went around and met with all of the organizations that had an involvement with blindness that President Riccobono has talked about. Of course without the perspective that I now have. Well, everyone was very nice, but they had no idea of how a user could control a machine. They also had no ability for us to fund the next part of our work. That is, until I met with the head of government relations of the National Federation of the Blind, Jim Gashel. After I described how the machine worked, he was impressed, but he said, let me introduce you to the head of our organization, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. So I met with Dr. Jernigan and from the very beginning, it was very clear to me that here was a seminal leader who led its organization and the public for equal rights in the same way that Martin Luther King had done, had fought for people based on their ability to create and to overcome the prejudices against blind people that literally went back millennia.
Subsequent to that meeting, I met all these amazingly capable people, all of whom came from Iowa. Apparently they had all been trained to think for themselves and apply creative problem-solving abilities by Dr. Jernigan when he headed up the Iowa Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Jernigan said to me that the best way to figure out how a blind person can operate the machine would be to have blind people figure this out. Now, that made sense to me. So we agreed on a program that would have blind engineers work with us on all aspects of the machine. We would fund this with a program run by the National Federation of the Blind and funded by foundations. I remember lots of late nights with Jim Gashel in his Washington office creating these foundation proposals. I think Jim Gashel will remember those late nights as well. Well, the entire project worked beautifully. We got five foundations to sponsor it. The NFB appointed eight blind scientists, led by Michael Hingson. People remember this story because Hingson became one of the heroes of the 9/11/2001 story. He was at the top of the World Trade Center that had not been destroyed by the airplane. And you couldn't see anything because the air was impossible to see through. But that didn't affect Mike Hingson and his dog, who led people down eighty stories and out of the building just before the building was brought down.
We're back to the reading machine. The intricate design of the reading machine user control became famous. For example, if you hit a key twice it would describe what it does. That's a great idea for user controls today, as I have no idea what most of them do. Jim Gashel and I introduced the machine on January 13, 1976, at a press conference. This might be before many of your times, but I remember this date because this was the only date that Walter Cronkite, the famous anchorman, did not read his signature sign-off himself. The reading machine read "And that's the way it was" on January 13, 1976. I actually ran into Cronkite years later in a restaurant in Martha's Vineyard, and he acknowledged that that was the only time he did not read the signoff himself.
This began what is now a forty-five-year relationship between the National Federation of the Blind and myself. What began as a $20,000 device affordable only by libraries and schools became a few thousand-dollar device that individuals could afford, to now where it's a free app on an iPhone or Android phone. But it's also meant a program for me that taught me about the power of imagination, provided that you have the experience. And for blindness skills and programs, there's no substitute for the experience that the National Federation of the Blind can provide. This is why the Kurzweil reading machine was a success. Unlike major leaders, Dr. Jernigan actually provided for his own next generation through mentoring Dr. Marc Maurer. I remember that happening. And Maurer led the National Federation of the Blind through its next major growth period. In a similar fashion, Mark Riccobono is now inspiring new members using the credibility that Dr. Jernigan and Dr. Maurer were able to bring. I've been going to the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind since 1975. This is the first virtual one, and nobody here remembers the last time this was required, unless you're over one hundred and remember the 1918 flu! I don't think we had virtual video conferences back then, or even the telephone. Well, I very much look forward to our first convention when this pandemic is conquered. I've had the pleasure of shaking the hands of each National Federation of the Blind scholarship winner. This is the first time that a virtual handshake will have to do. For now. Hopefully I will meet you and congratulate you in person in the future. But you are the winners that will lead this organization into the future, to a period where we will have new technologies that you will help create. As just one example, these future capabilities will describe not only words, but everything that is in front of you as well as behind you, so everyone will actually want to use it. It will also describe everything in the room you are in, the next room, or the next building. It will have all those directions of how to get anywhere in the world. We have some portions of this working, but it will require further work inspired by the National Federation of the Blind to prove these capabilities.
I very much look forward to the next forty-five years of leadership from the National Federation of the Blind. I very much intend to be part of that. And hopefully no more pandemics. Thank you very much.
[PHOTO CAPTION: James Gashel]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Marilee Talkington]
[PHOTO CAPTION: The GLAS staff: Kate Meredith, Deb Kaelbli, Adam McCulloch, Ranger and Winter (the two dogs).]
Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman, and just responding to my friend Ray, oh, my goodness, you take me back, many, many, many years. But Ray, we're going to live long enough to live forever! So I don't think this is a problem. Now, I do remember working on these grants, and I would sleep in the office chair while you slept on the couch, but we got the work done. We funded the Kurzweil reading machine, and really the rest is history.
Well, now down to the Bolotin awards, which is what I'm really here to present. President Riccobono and my Federation family, thank you very much as we say here in Hawaii, thank you my Federation ohana everywhere. Jacob Bolotin was a blind guy. He would tell you that. He wanted you to know that. He grew up blind and graduated from the Illinois School for the Blind. He lived in Chicago. Whether he could have done so or not, he never tried to pass himself off as anything other than blind. He did a lot of things in his short life, thirty-six years from 1888 to 1924. But unflagging determination to break the mold of low expectations of what blind people could be and become in his time tells Bolotin's story more than anything else. At age twenty-five, he became a medical doctor. He specialized in diseases of the heart and lungs. You know, this is what we say when we—what we mean when we say you can live the life you want. Bolotin was a member of our Federation family before the Federation itself. I like to think of it that way.
His story has been told by his niece, Rosalind Perlman, in a biography called The Blind Doctor: The Jacob Bolotin Story. You need to read this book. You can get it from Amazon in print, or if you want to pay a lot you can also get it on audio CD. Or you can get it from the Library of Congress books for the blind and print disabled program. Our annual Bolotin awards keep his memory alive. And they also support worthy efforts to break the mold of low expectations of what blind people can be and become. Now, this is the thirteenth year for these awards made possible by the NFB with help from the Santa Barbara Foundation and the Alfred and Rosalind Perlman Trust. To date, we've presented $680,000 to sixty-four recipients. Two new winners are being honored this year. The awards include a cash prize for each recipient and an engraved commemorative plaque with a medallion appropriately configured as you'll see to recognize the award's significance. Now, here is the text on the plaque. Presented to—then the name of the organization—by the National Federation of the Blind and the Santa Barbara Foundation July 2020. The medallion, suspended above the plaque, has the NFB logo on the obverse side with these inscribed words: “The Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award, celebrating achievement, creating opportunity.” The reverse side of the medallion has Dr. Bolotin's bust with these inscribed words: “Dr. Jacob Bolotin, 1888-1924. Celebrating his life, the Alfred and Rosalind Perlman Trust.”
(Video.) Ladies and gentlemen, the National Federation of the Blind is proud to introduce the 2020 recipients of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin awards. Our winners have broken down barriers faced by blind people in innovative ways, changed negative perception of blindness and blind people, and pushed past existing boundaries to inspire blind people to achieve new heights. The winners are:
Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM Education for its innovative work to make astrophysics and astronomy data accessible to the blind. Here’s president and education director, Kate Meredith:
We had multiple projects where students were able to enjoy, discover, and understand astronomy. We provided that with lots of different kinds of tactiles. But when it comes to capturing your own image from a telescope and getting the image back, astronomical images are just numbers on a spreadsheet. That's all it is. And what we do as sighted people, since we love the beautiful images, we create visuals out of those numbers. But astronomy is not inherently anymore a visual science. It might have been one hundred years ago when everyone had to look through a telescope and draw what they saw. But now scientists take the numbers and they create ways to interact with the numbers. What we wanted to do with the data processing software is that, no matter what your visual acuity is, you can load an image into the software and analyze it, measure the brightness of objects and compare how it changes over time, calculate a position of the object in the sky, and see how maybe an asteroid moved. We wanted those tools to be accessible so that a person, regardless of their visual ability, could capture their own data, load it into the software, choose which data they wanted to analyze, acquire those data, and analyze themselves without the help of a sighted peer. It is one thing to be given a National Science Foundation Award to do something no one else has done before. But to be recognized by a leading organization who represents the people you're trying to work with and serve means everything. To be acknowledged means we've done our homework, done our due diligence, and worked hard to do it right. And to get that vote of approval means more to me than anything you can actually possibly imagine. It is that important to us.
Marilee Talkington, actor and executive director of Access Acting Academy. Marilee Talkington:
Access Acting Academy was to fulfill a couple things: one to actually train actors to go out on audition so I basically get to say, you can't use the excuse anymore that we're not trained, we're not out there. Sorry. That's not the excuse you get to use anymore. And two, to actually develop a totally inclusive pedagogy of actor training that is fully accessible for blind and low vision actors, which is what we did. That in itself, the evolution of training that has been offered for decades. Some of it even centuries, some of this is centuries old training, so that we can access this work, was a profound experience for me. I learned a ton. I think ultimately the academy was a place for blind and low vision actors to learn but also to teach where we need to grow as blind and low vision leaders.
When I got the call from you that I was to receive this award, I looked it up, and I started to cry. It's a profound privilege to receive it. Deeply honored by it! To be associated with these incredible pioneers, it's also validating, because I've been working so hard for so long in this sphere, a lot of times alone. So to be recognized in that way feels really amazing. I'm very grateful for it. Deeply. And when I saw that there was a cash element, and I was like, I could get a few thousand dollars! All of a sudden I was like, this is the sign that I needed to dive back into Access Acting Academy. In the past week, I have spoken with four other blind and low vision teachers. We're ready now, I'm ready now, to create an entire virtual studio through Access Acting Academy. I'm actually going to launch it at the awards ceremony for this award. We'll open up classes for the fall. It will be totally virtual. There will be acting classes, embodiment classes, voice classes, movement theater classes, hopefully Shakespeare classes. Because it's time that the reach just keeps going out in the world. I want to service as many people as we possibly can. It's not only to cultivate the next generation of blind and low vision actors but the next generation of blind and low vision leaders.
Ladies and gentlemen, these winners will each receive a trophy and a monetary prize to advance their work to help blind people live the lives we want. Now the National Federation of the Blind proudly presents them with their 2020 Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards. (end of video.)
JAMES GASHEL: Okay, guys, these are our two winners. What an outstanding class of programs, of unflagging determination to break the mold of low expectations of what blind people can be and become. As I like to say, keeping the Jacob Bolotin's legacy alive. Now, what you don't know, and what they don't know, is what is the amount of the cash prize each one of them is going to receive? But I do know.
Our first winner is Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM Education for its groundbreaking work to create opportunities for the blind in astronomy as education and career objectives. Now, who would have thought? Blind people becoming experts in viewing the planets, the stars, and beyond! Kate Meredith and her team at Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM Education believe in blind people, just like Jacob Bolotin believed that blind people can achieve in medicine, and he became a medical doctor. Congratulations Kate Meredith, who is president and head of the team at Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM Education. She's here tonight to accept the Jacob Bolotin award to that organization in the amount of $25,000. Here's Kate Meredith.
KATE MEREDITH: Okay! Thank you so much. And you promised me ten extra seconds to jump up and down for absolute joy. We are here. And I'm here with staff members, Adam and Stephanie. Those of you using screen readers may already know of us as GLASE Education, but we are Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM Education. At GLASE, we collaborate with blind and sighted members of the scientific community to dismantle barriers, increase accessibility in STEM, and blaze new trails in order for everyone to participate equally in every aspect of science, rather than passively participate in what others create on their behalf. GLASE allows anyone, regardless of vision, to explore the universe to the limits of their own imagination rather than those imposed on them by others' lack of imagination. There are so many people to thank for how far we've come as an organization. If it were not for the dedication of Vivian Hetty, we would not have taken those first steps to partner with the Wisconsin School for the Blind over twenty years ago. Without two consecutive awards from the National Science Foundation, we would not have trod the difficult path from 3D models and inaccessible curricula to confronting the challenges of creating accessible image processing software. This process is essential for independent scientific exploration of the universe by those who are blind or visually impaired.
From the beginning, NFB members have guided what we have become as a community. Our deepest thanks to Jeremiah Beasley, David Hyde, Katie Watson Corbitt for their steadfast support of us over the years. We thank Williams Bay Lions Club without whose contribution we would not have been able to host blind astronomers at Yerkes Observatory and GLASE. A special thanks to blind astronomer Dr. Nic Bonne for his unwavering dedication and the center for cosmology in Portsmouth, U.K. for allowing his extended stays with us to be part of his actual workload.
A personal thanks to Chris Matthews, Alex Trob, Tia Berts, who agreed to be a part of the NSF grant to develop accessible tools for astronomy. They represent the blind community with creativity, patience, and truly untold perseverance.
Lastly, we want to thank you. We want you to be proud with us for all of our future work. Your recognition today lets us know that we're on the right track. Thank you so much from myself, Adam and Deb and Chris who are all here tonight from Wisconsin. We wish we were in Hawaii, but thank you.
JAMES GASHEL: Thank you, Kate. Incidentally, if you were wondering as I was wondering what in the world STEAM means in the name of this organization, I can now tell you. This is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. I know you knew that already, but I didn't. Now I do.
Also know that the NFB has had a STEM2U program. After tonight, I'm thinking that after tonight that ought to become a STEAM2U program.
Now, our second winner is Marilee Talkington. She's being recognized for her personal initiative and her creativity in forming Access Acting Academy for low vision adults and kids. This is the first of its kind venture, which Marilee was inspired to undertake based on interest shown by people within our Performing Arts Division.
Marilee has said about this academy so well, "Actor training of this caliber and level of accessibility has never been available before. Now is the time when profoundly rich and untapped talent should be cultivated, collaborated with, celebrated, and realized." You know, these are the profound words of what it means to have unflagging determination, to break the mold of low expectations of what blind people can be and become, keeping the legacy of Jacob Bolotin alive. That's what you're doing, Marilee. Congratulations for your leadership, your belief in yourself, and your belief in other blind people. Now, Marilee Talkington is with us tonight to receive her personal Dr. Jacob Bolotin award in the amount of $25,000. Here's Marilee Talkington.
MARILEE TALKINGTON: Oh, my God! Oh, my God. Oh, my God! I'm—wow. I'm a little overwhelmed by that. I did not—oh, my goodness gracious. I had a speech. That might get thrown out. Wow. Okay. Okay. Focus. Here we go. I'm a performer. I'm a professional performer and speaker. Let me get focused here.
I am so honored and privileged to be receiving this and to be associated with such incredible pioneers like Kate Meredith and her team and everybody else that is doing work to actually raise the bar, because it has been so low! In the entertainment industry, the bar literally doesn't exist. We've been invisible this whole time. So to be recognized for the work that I'm doing not only as an individual artist for twenty-five years but also to be recognized doing the work for Access Acting Academy is incredible.
I want to say, this is what I want to say, because when you called me to let me know about this award, a fire lit inside me, because I've been suffering from the pandemic blues, just like everybody else. And what the fire said, because it spoke to me, it said, it's time. It's time now, and the vision has to get bigger. And now you have to go because more people need this.
So in the past month I have constructed an entire faculty that will be serving adults, teens, and kids on a virtual platform. This will be the first-ever professional actor’s academy for blind/low vision folks. And there's also going to be a leadership track as well so people not in the arts industry can come and study and find the ownership of their authentic power and voices. So if you go to www.accessacting.com, you'll find everything on there. We're going to launch officially in August. And I am so, so grateful for this honor and this award. And the money, what can I say? I'm a starving artist. This helps. So thank you so much. I can't wait to do more work together with you so we can keep going forward into the entertainment industry and crush it! The revolution has begun! Thank you.
MARK RICCOBONO: I am proud to welcome to our stage today the fifty-second Speaker of the House of Representatives and the first woman to ever serve in that position. For thirty-one years, Speaker Pelosi has represented San Francisco, California's 12th district in Congress. She has a tremendous record of accomplishment as an elected official that we really just don't have adequate time to cover here today because we want to hear from her directly. I do want to note that she comes from a very strong family tradition of public service. Her late father served as mayor right here in Baltimore for twelve years after representing the city for five terms in Congress. Her brother also served as mayor in Baltimore.
It's my great honor to introduce to the largest convention of the National Federation of the Blind ever, Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Madam Speaker, it's great to be with you. To begin, can you please tell us, you have a flag pin with the phrase "one country, one destiny." Could you tell us a little bit about the history of that phrase and its meaning today?
NANCY PELOSI: Thank you very much, Mark, Mr. President. It's an honor to be with the National Federation of the Blind, a force for good, working to ensure that all can live the life you want.
Thank you for your beautiful message about connecting and protecting. Thank you for your kind introduction. It's a joy to be with Tim Elder, president of the National Federation of the Blind of California, born and raised in Baltimore, now representing San Francisco. And Frank Griffy, my dear friend who is a friend—I don't see him that he doesn't talk about the National Federation of the Blind. I'm honored to be with you.
Yes, I do wear this pin. And it says "one country, one destiny." That's what we all have to think in terms of. How we are a nation of people together, "from many, one." From many, one—E pluribus unum. Now this message, “one country, one destiny”—those very words were sewn into the jacket, the overcoat that Abraham Lincoln wore. And, of course, he had it that sad fateful night. So his message that was close to him, close to his heart at the end of his life and part of who he was his entire life, is a message that we should always remember: that we are one country, and we have one destiny. And we have to go down that path together.
Especially true now as we face the COVID-19 crisis and other injustices to race and health and environment and financial security. We must keep remembering, one country, one destiny. As policymakers, if we keep that as the focus, we'll do better. That means we must put aside bias, act on facts, starting right now with the HEROES Act [Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions] that has so much in it for everyone in our country, the George Floyd Justice Act in Policing, and so many other pieces of legislation of inclusion. One country, one destiny.
MARK RICCOBONO: Nice. I love the message, and I think it rings with the beliefs of the National Federation of the Blind. Another belief of our organization is that it's critical that blind people have equal access to the full set of options that all other voters have. The vote should be private, independent, and include a means of verifying voting choices once selected. We do appreciate the voting provisions that are included in the HEROES Act. I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about your priorities for including equal access provisions in future legislation that might be considered regarding voting.
NANCY PELOSI: Well, I thank you. We have learned so much from you over the years about accessibility to the ballot in a fair and private way, so thank you to the National Federation of the Blind for your guidance, your relentless and persistent advocacy, which has made everything better, but we still need to do more.
COVID-19 has pointed out how critical it is that every voter has options for how to cast a ballot in a safe and accessible manner. Voters should not have to choose between their health and their vote. That's why we included in the HEROES Act $3.6 billion specifically to help states prepare for the upcoming election. States must be ready to ensure that not only in-person voting options are safe and accessible for voters and poll workers but must implement vote by mail. The HEROES Act included a minimum of fifteen days. We think if you have more time, that is better for everybody, certainly for those who may be new to a particular polling place and have issues with the vote.
So in-person voting. The HEROES Act includes a minimum of fifteen days of early voting as well as nationwide no-excuse absentee ballot. In other words, you don't have to say, I can't vote, come in, so I need a ballot because...No. If you qualify to vote and are a registered voter, you should be able to vote, as well as use no-excuse prepaid, so postage free, so that the ballot can be returned. We want to support all of the above approaches, a ballot that works for every voter no matter how they cast their ballot.
Now, other ways more generally that can be helpful, and that we look to you for guidance on this, is something that I know we share in common is our support for the Access Technology Affordability Act in the next COVID-19 relief program. That's something that we all want to have. We have resistance by some—and I won't be political, but some in the Congress have resisted inclusion of individual refundable credits in relief packages to date; however, we intend to push hard for inclusion in the final package. If they do show willingness to include refundable credits, ATAA is a strong candidate for inclusion.
Now, I answered—I went to two places on that. But the accessible electronic options that might be there for you in Pennsylvania, I know were a step forward but not good enough. And I commend you for the actions that you have taken, that you're taking all over the country in different states, challenges that need to be in the state legislatures. It shouldn't have to be. It should be a national expectation that the right to vote would be respected and that means removing all obstacles of participation. But you have pointed out some very specific ways—some barriers that we all should be fighting against. So I thank you for that. And again, when you make your agreements or compromises leading up to one election, it doesn't mean that becomes the best possible way for the future. It means we're all moving forward together. So I thank you for your leadership—for making America more American by making our voting process more democratic and more accessible.
MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Madam Speaker. We appreciate your acknowledgment of the expertise of the Federation, and we stand ready to work with everybody on voting accessibility. It does feel like we're pursuing equal access very aggressively in almost every state right now, so that's where the inclusion of these provisions at the federal level come in—we hope they will truly protect us as a fundamental right. And we think that we have a great opportunity to give blind people equal access to the range of voting, so we appreciate your support on that.
I do appreciate you mentioning the Access Technology Affordability Act and your willingness to consider it in future relief for COVID-19. We are pretty proud of this bill, like other legislation that we advance. We recognize that blindness is not a partisan issue, and we're pretty proud of that fact that, despite the reluctance often to have refundable tax credits, ATAA by itself has great bipartisan support, significant bipartisan support, and we appreciate your supporting it as well.
NANCY PELOSI: It has bipartisan support because of your advocacy. So I thank you for that, because it's good for the country, and it's good for you. But it also gives us a better chance of passing it. Richie Neil, the chair of ways and means, and Mike Thompson of the revenue committee, have this as a strong priority. But we want it to be bipartisan. It should be. The refundability issue is necessary, and again, it will happen. We just want it to happen sooner.
MARK RICCOBONO: We agree with that 100 percent. The sooner the better. We appreciate the support. Could you talk to us just a minute more broadly about equal access and your support for protecting the rights of blind people? You know, we believe in the National Federation of the Blind that blindness should not define a person or their future in that what really stands between blind people and our dreams are the low expectations and artificial barriers that others put in our way. We see a lot of significant opportunities for the Congress to protect our rights, especially by making sure that we're not introducing and passing legislation that, for example, puts in place technologies that are not accessible to blind people, which is really one of the things that we face in education—inaccessible technology, which stops us from being able to participate fully. Could you talk a little bit about your support for eliminating the artificial barriers in society?
NANCY PELOSI: Well, I appreciate that question. And in doing so, I thank you for raising the awareness of so many people who might not be aware. Without knowledge, people may be thinking they're going the right direction, but in fact, every new opportunity can be a new challenge for more progress. So know your power in this. Know that good things will not happen without your guidance in all of it.
In terms of my involvement, I was here for the passage of the ADA, the high priority for our office, for me personally, and when I became Speaker, one of the manifestations of that priority was that in the chambers of Congress, if you were physically disabled and couldn't climb the steps, you could not preside as a Speaker of the House. So right around the time of one of the anniversaries of the ADA, when we were going off for like summer or Christmas or something, we had architects come in, change the construction of the podium where the Speaker presides and the clerks record and the rest, so that now a person in a wheelchair can access and then be taken up to preside. It's made a big difference. James Langevin was the first person with a physical disability, challenged in terms of mounting the podium, to preside in over the two-hundred-year history of our country. Then Tammy Duckworth and others have as well.
The idea is that we respect people. We honor people for what they can do rather than judge them for what they cannot. Because cannot is just a physical barrier of some kind. And it challenges us all when we make these changes, especially seeing that they are changes for the positive. And in order for that to happen, you all, the National Federation of the Blind, etc., have to be on the ground floor of that decision making. It's not like, oh, here it is, oh, too bad we didn't know, maybe next time. No. Again, know your power.
In my own office, our chief counsel—and that is a very high position in the Speaker's office—our chief counsel has been there for years when I was Speaker before and still now. And he is hearing impaired. He's deaf, and he has every technology, every opportunity to participate. We don't even think of him as hearing impaired or deaf or whatever the term that he prefers, or that you prefer for him in this conversation. He's remarkable, and he's brilliant, and his brilliance is not deterred by any obstacle in terms of hearing. So we're very, very proud of the fact that he is a senior member of the Speaker's staff and of the Congress of the United States.
But it is amazing that so many things happen because people just don't know. And that's why when you're going around to these states and talking to these secretaries of state and other states to say, “Maybe you didn't realize it, but this is why this is problematic for us.” You make such a tremendous, tremendous difference. You give people a path. You show them the way to do it in a way that removes obstacles of participation.
As a matter of fact, in our democracy, whether we're secretary of state, community activist, legislator, or whatever, removing obstacles of participation to voting or to anything is what our country should be about. So thank you for challenging us, but understand how welcome that challenge is.
MARK RICCOBONO: I appreciate that and your support for the Americans with Disabilities Act. You know, our organization—this being just on the doorstep of the thirtieth anniversary—we have really been advancing the notion that the Americans with Disabilities Act has to apply to the digital environment, which of course not too many people were thinking about in 1990. And we appreciate your support for helping make that a reality, not just in the physical facilities but in the digital assets of our nation, which of course are becoming an increasingly important part of our economy and the work that we do.
Before we run out of time, I want to make sure that we give you an opportunity. You know, this is an important election year. All election years are important. But with everything else happening right now, there's a lot of focus on this being a very significant election cycle. As an organization, our job as I've said is to make sure that blindness is considered by everybody regardless of their political background. But I wondered what you would say to blind Americans about the importance of just getting out and participating in the American democracy this fall.
NANCY PELOSI: Well, I appreciate that opportunity. Before I do, Mr. President, though, may I just congratulate you on your upcoming anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind. When you think all the way back to that post World War II era, think of the courage of those people. I mean, you're courageous, right? But think of the courage they had to say, “We're going to make a difference, and we're going to do it by bringing people together, one nation, one destiny, one friend, many friends, bringing people together.” So always recognizing the great work that you're doing, we just have to think of the courage of the people who started all of this and whose shoulders you stand on and the difference they have made over time.
But as you indicated, with technology being in a hurry and moving so quickly, who could have ever anticipated some of the change that could be so rapid. So good for you for being on the ground floor and recognizing that and seeing what opportunities are there and leapfroging over any incremental notion that something could be a little bit better. Just leapfrog over that whole thing. Where you want to be—let's back up from there and make that happen.
So with elections, they have ramifications. And whoever you vote for, Democrat or Republican or whatever, make sure that those people understand that public policy makes a difference in your personal lives. Whether it's how people are educated, how they are employed and how their employment is respected and valued, and how there isn't a difference in terms of unemployment insurance. I was reading some of the examples that you had about unemployment insurance not being fully respected here or there. So you have the need for unemployment insurance.
Look, I'm a Democrat. I want a Democratic president, Senate, and House because we believe in the people. We want to have budgets that members of Congress vote on and presidents acknowledge to be for the people so that their resources are there. Investments in education and challenges that you face bring a bonus back to the American people. It's for the people, not just the people who might be directly involved in terms of the blind, but if the blind are helped, it's for everyone. So again, in my most nonpartisan way, I would say, whoever you vote for, make sure you have their commitment to you, to the opportunity that you present, to the beautiful value that you add to our country.
And remembering that, at any given time, the challenge could affect any one of us. So while we're concerned about everyone in our nation, we want to be sure that we can understand. A friend of mine once had a disability just for a period of time, and he said, “If I hadn't had that disability, I would never have had a full appreciation of what other people go through.” For example, the subject of time. It might take me a shorter period of time to do something than it might take somebody else. I have to recognize that. So whether it's time or transportation or whatever it happens to be, education or employment, advancement, politics—and aren't we excited about the candidate in Washington state running for lieutenant governor there? He said he went from Braille to Yale.
MARK RICCOBONO: We need more blind people to be elected to office.
NANCY PELOSI: That's right! That's right! So again, make sure people know your story, and make sure you know your power. And again, take some responsibility by deciding to run for office yourselves, because, again, being present at the table, as Mr. President, you can tell us, you have been there, Mark. You're a leader. And that leadership is required in your organization, of course, the National Federation of the Blind, but also for our country.
There's nobody like each and every one of you. You bring a unique set of talents and experience and the rest. And that uniqueness and that authenticity is so valued, and at the table of decision making, the diversity that that recognizes is invaluable.
So I'm going to encourage you all to run for office soon but also to vote in this next election and make sure that whoever you vote for cares about what you care about, knows about what the opportunities are, and is willing to make them a priority. God has truly blessed America in so many ways. One country, one destiny. Let's all work to move toward that one way or another—whatever the party, whatever the challenge.
MARK RICCOBONO: Madam Speaker, I really appreciate your words, your support for both the history and the future of the National Federation of the Blind. We want to extend our appreciation to you for the courage that you have, both continuing the tradition in your family for public service, which we know public service takes grit and commitment. You've got to stand and take the incoming fire day after day, which you do. It does take courage. But also the great line of public service that you represent, and we appreciate you trying to pass that forward to our members by encouraging us to go out and be not just part of the voting electorate but of the elected officials to run this nation. So thank you. Thank you for serving also in this time when our nation is facing really unprecedented circumstances. It's not the first time for you. Your first time around you had some pretty unusual things to deal with too. So we appreciate what you're doing and trying to keep our country moving forward. And we look forward to your support for the National Federation of the Blind in the future. God bless you.
NANCY PELOSI: Thank you. God bless you as well.
From the Editor: Many who believe we need to be saved from our blindness or the more difficult consequences of it first suggest that we need vision. When this is understood to be impossible, artificial intelligence is offered as the next best thing. It will liberate by freeing us from the necessity of asking other people things that we cannot see. Coupled with a camera, it will tell us what we could otherwise see for ourselves.
But as Cynthia Bennett tells us, there are pitfalls that exist as we begin to journey into the ever-widening use of artificial intelligence. Sometimes it is because the artificial intelligence is modeled on our own biases and prejudices. Sometimes it is because the artificial intelligence lacks the experience to understand what we think it does, meaning it generates its own biases. Still we give great weight to it in the privacy we sacrifice and the decisions we let it make about us. Here is a most provocative presentation delivered by our friend and fellow Federationist, Cynthia Bennett:
Thank you, President Riccobono, for inviting me to address the convention. I’ll start with some access notes1. I tweeted a text transcript of this speech from my account on Twitter @clb5590 using our hashtag #NFB20. There are a lot of linked resources in that transcript, so I encourage you to check it out. And I’ll provide a visual description. I’m a blind white woman with dark blond hair worn down. It’s not completely visible on video, but I’m wearing a navy blue shirt that says, “Access is Love.” Finally, my virtual background is a view of my resident city, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Specifically, it shows downtown where the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio rivers meet.
Today I am going to be talking about some of the things I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of years and specifically at Carnegie Mellon. Professionally, I am a researcher. An important evaluation of a researcher’s work occurs through a process called peer review. During peer review, researchers submit work for publication. People who are deemed to be peers or colleagues with relevant expertise are then recruited to evaluate the work by drawing out its strengths and requesting improvements. But I’ve been submitting publications for eight years, and I have never been reviewed by my peers. Sure, reviewers may have degrees, but the vast majority of them are not blind like me. So I invite you, my blind peer reviewers, to join in using my aforementioned Twitter handle, @clb5590 and our hashtag #NFB20 to share your feedback on what I have to say.
During this talk I’ll argue that blind people should be organizing for the ethical study, deployment, and yes, sometimes withholding, of artificial intelligence that analyzes humans and our data and which shares particular information or makes decisions based on that analysis. To make this argument, I will first offer some definitions and examples. Second, I will share some biases and consequences of AI that have already proved harmful. Finally, I will offer some suggestions for moving forward.
Before we dive in, I’ll recognize some leaders in AI bias research who have scaffolded my education in this area, and many are black women scholars. They include Ruha Benjamin, Simone Browne, Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, Safiya Umoja Noble2, Morgan Scheuerman, and Meredith Whittaker.
Artificial intelligence or AI is a branch of computer science focusing on mimicking “cognitive” functions we often associate with human intelligence like “learning” and “problem solving.” A key term in computer science is the word algorithm. Algorithms are sets of instructions that dictate how computer programs will work. Traditionally humans write and update algorithms. But one type, called machine-learning algorithms, learn and change based on data provided to them. As machine learning algorithms are exposed to data, they recognize patterns, classify those patterns, and make predictions based on these classifications. And as machine learning algorithms are exposed to more data, what counts as a pattern, and what happens when a pattern is recognized will change. For example, as your search engine learns data from you, possibly in the form of what types of search results you open and what types of search results you ignore, machine learning algorithms will make predictions about which types of search results you may open in the future, and rank those search results higher on the list.
Many blind people, including me, benefit from machine learning, and that’s why I’m talking about it. For example, machine learning may help us do things nonvisually a little bit easier, like frame scenes in our camera’s viewfinder, discern identically-shaped objects from one another, and learn what is shown in photos.
Now that I’ve provided some definitions and examples, I’ll move on to contextualize my argument for why blind people should be organizing for the ethical study, deployment, and yes, sometimes withholding, of AI that analyzes humans and our data and which shares particular information or makes decisions based on that analysis.
AI impacts everyone. So why is this issue important for blind people to care about uniquely? I will offer two reasons:
First, blind people, particularly those living at intersections of systematic marginalization including our blind members who are black indigenous people of color, are disproportionately negatively impacted by some applications of AI. I will offer some examples. Some of these examples have been retracted and are no longer in use. But as we know that updates may make accessible technology inaccessible again just because some mistakes are now in the past, does not mean they won’t happen again. These are just a few recent examples. You can search AI bias and discrimination to learn more.
First example: Hiring software uses machine learning to judge whether someone should be called in for an interview. In one now retracted instance, women applicants were ranked lower. We know that because of systematic discrimination of blind people we do not always take traditional paths to employment that would come to be recognized as patterns by machine learning algorithms that would then be classified as qualified. A lot of us might not fit those patterns, so we would be classified as unqualified.
Second example: A new AI system very recently claimed it could reconstruct sharper images of people's faces from blurry images, but it "reconstructed" a blurry but recognizable image of Barack Obama into an unrecognizable image of a man with much lighter skin. And finally, Robert Williams, a Black, Detroit, Michigan, resident, was recently wrongfully arrested when AI incorrectly labeled him a suspect. These instances may seem like one-off mistakes. But the scholars I mentioned earlier teach us that extreme cases of consequential classification by machine learning are often highlights of deeper systemic patterns. For example, unjust surveillance and the classification of Black people is not new but has a long history of being encoded into laws and human behaviors. If automatic, AI is built and maintained by humans, and it tends to replicate and amplify existing bias and discrimination which most impact our members living at intersections of marginalization.
My second reason for why blind people should care about AI and bias is that stories of our access barriers motivate its innovation. While our narratives are powerful, my research has unpacked the ways our stories have been misused to promote development that may not actually reflect what blind people want. Given AI’s biased track record, we should be very concerned as blind people about how our stories are used to promote it.
So how should we move forward? We will all be able to engage in different ways. I’ll begin with some general advice that has helped me. I agree with recent calls to educate ourselves about injustice, and as President Riccobono mentioned earlier, I hope that part of this learning turns inward so that we better learn about ourselves. If we learn new things while failing to connect them to our own lives and use of technology, we risk believing we are not responsible and therefore not responsible to act. On this topic specifically, as we educate ourselves, we might ask ourselves questions including: Why haven’t I learned about the potential harms of AI when it has been promoted to me as a tool to increase access? Why do I think that it’s okay for access technology to work for some of our members and maybe not work well for others? In what ways have I been asked to put aside parts of my identity in order to promote access for blind people? I am still processing these questions myself, and they are helping me to recognize how I have power, including power to share my lived experiences and power to listen and act given I’m an accessibility researcher who’s able to work in this field. These recognitions are a first step to direct what types of action I, and hopefully you, can do.
Specifically, at an organizational level we can craft resolutions that not only concern our direct user experiences in technology but concern how our data should be used, whether and how it can be used with machine learning algorithms. Those of us with powers to research, design, and deploy technologies need to follow up on our commitments to diversity and inclusion by widening how we collect feedback. Feedback must come from blind people with a variety of life experiences, and we should build in research methods and activities which allow us to work through potential harms this technology might cause so we aren’t just presenting them with potential positives.
Individually, I want you to tell your story, and tell it directly, not filter it through someone else. Great outlets to share them include the Braille Monitor, the Disability Visibility podcast, or your personal blog. There isn’t a lot of documentation of the impacts of AI on people with disabilities. This is a very missing part of the conversation that we need in AI fairness right now. We need more stories of blind people and the impacts, both positive and negative, and how AI impacts not only you as a blind person but you as a whole person and the various identities that make you who you are.
Finally, we might think about promoting automation that turns the gaze away from humans and classifying us and our data. A lot of AI is implemented to increase access to visual information because that information wasn’t accessible in the first place; it was remediated. How can we think about using machine learning or automation to instead make the processes of our disability from the start a little bit easier and to educate the humans who are a part of these workflows? These are just a few starting points.
I realize this talk is sharp and critical. But I know that blind people are well-positioned for this work. We constantly repurpose things from their intended use and invent new objects and processes to make our lives easier. And crucially, we are great at sharing this genius with our blind family. For example, highlights of my quarantine include learning electronics circuitry and soldering from The Blind Arduino Project led by people including, Josh Miele and our own Chancey Fleet from the NFB of New York. And I’ve been learning origami from NFB of California’s Lisamaria Martinez. I know we can apply this creativity, laden with our persistent hope for better futures and the connections that we make along the way, to develop more equitable applications for AI and accessibility. This is already happening. Visual interpreting services are giving users more control over how sessions are recorded, and companies are developing AI for accessibility solutions that do as much computation on people’s local devices as possible to minimize the amount of data you have to share. So let’s stay the course with reminders to ourselves and others that we have a lot to offer to this challenge, and change is possible.
To close, writing this presentation was difficult. Being blind and working with engineers makes positioning myself a challenge sometimes. I’m supposed to love technological innovation. Yet my life experiences of being incorrectly classified and discriminated against keep me cautious, as I have demonstrated today. As such, I sought feedback on this presentation from people like Chancey Fleet, and my colleagues Sarah Fox, and Daniela Rosner, and thanks to J.J. Meddaugh for picking my intro music, because I had no idea what to pick. Finally, thank you, everyone, for receiving my message and for composing my first accurately-named blind peer review. I’ll meet you on Twitter for continued discussions. Thank you.
[PHOTO CAPTION: Ever Lee Hairston]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Denice Brown]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Ron Brown]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Tarik Williams]
by Ever Lee Hairston, Denice Brown, Ron Brown, Bobbi Pompei, and Tarik Williams
From the Editor: At this time in the history of our country, we are forced to confront some very painful truths. The treatment we receive as Americans is not always just, and a significant factor in the way we are treated depends on the color of our skin. Not only is this true in our country, but sometimes it is true in this Federation we share. This panel, which appeared on the agenda late on Saturday afternoon, was one of the most moving events of the convention. Its members came from diverse parts of the country, and every one of them holds leadership positions in the organization from service as a national officer, service on our national board, and service as a chapter president. Here is what the panel said to an audience dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and the promise to be an organization for all blind people. President Riccobono starts by saying:
This is a panel that I'm very excited about, and I'm glad that they have agreed to participate with us. We've been having the discussion about what we can do within our organization to combat racism and to make sure that we create an environment where we're able to discuss the intersectionality of various characteristics that we have as blind people.
One of the myths I referred to in the presidential report is that because you're blind, you don't see skin color and therefore don't carry the same bias as everybody else. We know the truth is that's not true. That's just another ableist misconception about our capacity and our participation in society. We hope that this is just one piece of an ongoing conversation we're having within our organization. Here to moderate the panel and to guide the discussion is a board member of the National Federation of the Blind. She has a long, distinguished history in our organization, including winning our highest award. You heard her on a fit break earlier. From California, here is Ever Lee Hairston!
EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Good afternoon, everyone, and good evening to some of you. This is a sad day for me in some respects because of the death of Congressman Lewis. I marched with him fifty-seven years ago. We were marching then for the things that he talked about. And I remember that John Lewis stood on the front of the line many times, and he was beaten, and he had his skull cracked, walking in the protest lines. So let us focus now on the topic of today, not blind to color in the Federation: black and blind experiences in America and in the National Federation of the Blind.
Our perspective on diversity should be clear: we may have different religions; we may have different languages; we may have different colored skin; but we all belong to one human race. It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences. We believe getting to know others is a true way to connect. Unfortunately, some people are not willing to change their beliefs or their attitudes about someone not like themselves.
One of my most profound experiences in the Federation is one I think is necessary to share. Several years ago, I was asked to be the national representative at one of our state conventions. As a national representative, normally I would fly from California to that state on a Thursday evening. So that's what I did. When I arrived at the hotel and checked into my room, I received a text message from the state president asking me to meet them in the lobby. I was so excited for being in a state that I had never visited, anxious to meet in person the president. So I left my hotel room, went to the elevator bank, and stood waiting for the elevator. Then I heard three ladies walk up. I heard the cane, and I was excited. I said, wow, they must be Federationists. So I said, "Good evening, ladies." No response. "Good evening, ladies." No response. I felt, well, they're chatting. I don't think they're deaf. Then the elevator stopped on our floor, and I got on. Still trying to be polite and cordial, I said, "Ladies, are you coming on?”
One lady replied, "I don't know who you are, but I'm not getting on that elevator with you." And she called me the N word. Shocked and in disbelief, I knew at that moment that I was there on a mission. I had a purpose to fulfill. I was there to inform, to inspire, to motivate, and to serve. I knew that I could not stoop to her level. But the one thing that helped me was thinking of a quote, and the author is Lao Tzu, a mystic philosopher of ancient China, best known as the author of Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power). It goes like this: "Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny." That gave me the courage that I needed to move on and not be distracted by the negativity that I had just endured.
So I would like to have the members of this panel today share some of their black and blind experiences. First on the panel today we have Ron Brown. Most of you know he serves as second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind. He is married to Jean Brown. They have been married for thirty-three years. He is also president of our Indiana affiliate, and he has been a member of the Federation for forty years. We have leaders on this panel.
Our second panelist is Denice Brown. Denice hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and serves on the board of NFB of Pennsylvania. She is a retired teacher. She taught elementary school in the city of Philadelphia. Denice is also the president of the greater Philadelphia Chapter, where she has been the president of that chapter for seventeen years.
Next we have Bobbi Pompey. Bobbi comes from my home state, which is the Tar Heels of North Carolina. Bobbi is an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University. She serves as the chairperson of the scholarship program in the National Federation of the Blind of California, where she lives now, and she works for the San Francisco LightHouse.
Last but not least we have Tarik Williams. Tarik is from Arizona, but he hails from Pennsylvania. Tarik serves on the board of directors of the Arizona affiliate. He works for the rehabilitation office there.
We're now going to hear from our panelists in that order. Ron, take it away.
RON BROWN: Thank you, Ever. Greetings to my Federation family. I want to take a few minutes and talk to you all about growing up as an African-American young man in my community. A lot of you all know about "the Talk," and the Talk in the African-American community is this: I was just learning to drive, and my father and mom told me, "Ron, we want to have a talk with you about driving and about how you live your life."
It kind of took me by surprise, so I said, "Okay."
I started to have this conversation with my father, and he said "You're old enough now to drive, and I want you to understand a couple of things. One thing is this: When you're driving, you may get pulled over by the police. And if you do, I want you to keep your hands on top of the steering wheel. I also want you, if they ask for your license, to say okay, and you let them know that you are reaching for your license."
I thought this was kind of a peculiar conversation at the time. I said, "Why would they pull me over, dad? I'm just driving. I didn't do anything wrong!"
My father told me that "You need to make sure your hands are where they can see them, and let them know that you're reaching for your license. Because this talk will help keep you safe. It will keep you secure, and it will get you home alive.
I filed this information away, and I thought about it that day. Wow, I can just get pulled over just because I'm black?
As time progressed, I lost my vision, and I started to teach orientation and mobility for the blind. I went and got a master's degree out of Louisiana Tech University, and I was teaching cane travel in a little small town in an Indiana community. As I was teaching this young white girl, we were walking, and someone said to me, "Hey, you, come here. Show me your license." I never thought I would have to bring back up the Talk, because I had filed it away in my mind—but it all came rushing back to me. And this police officer said to me, "I want to see your license."
I said to him, "So, officer, what did I do wrong?"
He said to me, "We got a report that a black man was following a white girl."
Now I said to the officer, "So what is my crime? I'm teaching her how to get from her home and navigate to the bus stop." I said, "What is my crime?" This officer didn't answer, so I answered for him. "So my crime is walking while black?" He still didn't answer, so I chalked it up as ignorance and let it go.
About two weeks later, I was in the same community surrounded by four police cars this time! And the officers again said to me "Let us see your license. Let us see your ID."
And I said, again, teaching the same little white girl in the same community: "Officers, what did I do wrong?" And they didn't answer.
Then one of them said, "We got a complaint that a black man was following a white girl."
And I said again, "So my crime is walking while black?" They didn't answer.
You see the talk I want to have with my Federation family today is that people say, “We don’t see color, though.” But you know, guys, I want you to see my color. I want you to know that I’m an African-American male. I want you to know that I'm blind, but just like my blindness, you should not let my blackness define who I am as a person. I am a black male who happens to be blind. These officers didn't see my cane, nor did they see anything else. They didn't even see her cane. They just saw an African-American male following a white girl.
So I say to you all, and I'll wrap it up, that I want you to see that I am a black, African-American male; but my blackness does not define me, nor does my blindness. I want you to celebrate our differences, celebrate our diversity. Thank you.
EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Denice, you're up.
DENICE BROWN: Good evening, my Federation family. Before losing my vision as a black woman, I saw racism in a couple of ways. Sometimes it would hit you right in the face. For example, when going to a very high-end fashion store in Philadelphia, I'm in there looking through the clothing because I'm preparing to go to a special event on an upcoming weekend. I'm just looking, and I hear a salesperson walking toward me. In my mind I'm thinking she's getting ready to say, "Can I help you?" But when she walked up to me, she said, "We don't do layaway here." That took me aback for a moment. I don't have the length of time to give you the answer that I gave to that salesperson.
I've also experienced racism sort of territorially, I'll call it. For a short period of time, I lived in a suburb of Philadelphia, and in that particular suburb where I was living, it happened to be about 99 percent white. I was starting to look for a teaching position at that time. I had one, but I was looking for something better. So I had sent out applications all around the state. I got a phone call from a school district saying that they saw my resumé, they knew I had just graduated from college six months earlier, and they wanted me to come in because they thought I had everything that they needed. There was a second-grade opening, and I would fit well in that position. They wanted to know how soon I could get down to the office to have an interview. So I made my appointment, and I spoke to the same person that I spoke to on the phone. We had a great conversation. Then I had to go to the superintendent, who was doing the hiring.
Well, when I walked in the door of the superintendent's office, I barely got to sit down, and he told me that I would not be able to get that job because I had just gotten out of school. I said, "Well, someone told me the same thing about my being fresh out of school. They said you knew that I had just gotten out of school and that I would be good for the job for that very reason."
He said, "Well, there was a mistake."
Well, I understood what that meant. My address—he saw it, and probably my name, too. It isn't very ethnic; they probably thought I was a white individual. So obviously I did not get that job.
When I came to the Federation, I was forty-two years old. I was a seasoned adult but not seasoned in the Federation. I quickly became president of my chapter, and of course, not knowing the full philosophy of the Federation and knowing that I had to learn things, I started seeking out individuals who had been in leadership so that I could learn. I had twenty years of education under my belt as a teacher, and I wanted to do other things. I wanted to be involved with other committees.
With my education background, I thought I'd be a good candidate for one of the committees, the scholarship committee in Pennsylvania. But I was not able to get on that committee, and I thought, well, okay, as time goes on, maybe I'll have a chance. Again, I built my chapter, and membership kept going up. I continued to attend state and national conventions, Washington Seminar, volunteering at possibility fairs, reading speeches from banquets.
Youth Slam came up. I decided that I should be a volunteer. It made a lot of sense to me. No one told me to become a volunteer. I knew this was something I should do so I could learn and get more involved.
Somewhere along the line in meeting people around the NFB, I heard about something called a leadership seminar, which takes place at our national headquarters. I inquired about possibly being able to go to one of these seminars. But at that time, I was told that I wasn't really possessing the leadership qualities in order to go to one of these. But I kept on doing, and I kept on participating and getting involved in whatever I could with the NFB. In 2009 I got a phone call shortly after our convention in Detroit, and it was inviting me to the leadership seminar for that year. I was ecstatic. I knew that somebody felt my worth, somebody knew I had potential, somebody knew that I had value. So I want to thank that person, or thank those people. Because the things that I learned at the leadership seminar—I will never lose them—they are highly cherished.
What I want to say to some of my Federation friends is that I have listened to some of you who feel that you are stuck in certain positions; that you haven't had the chance to get the responsibility that you would like to have. I would like to say to you, just keep looking forward. Keep looking forward. Think of the NFB as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Because you will get your chance as long as you keep the NFB as the key.
I cannot tell you the great things that I see in this organization. The Diversity and Inclusion Committee is doing a great job. Again, I want to say that this organization is not only changing what it means to be blind, but it is changing what it means to be black and blind. Thank you.
EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Thank you, Denice. Let's hear from Bobbi Pompey.
BOBBI POMPEI: Hello everybody. I'd like to start by saying thank you. Ever Lee, Ron, Denice, and Tarik for agreeing to be on this panel and to share these stories that are painful and vulnerable. I'd like to thank my Federation family and people who are tuning in from anywhere and everywhere during this virtual convention.
Let’s talk about sound. We use sound constantly, especially as blind people, from the voices of our screen readers to the different taps of our cane tips, even to the gavel that we've come to know and symbolize as the beginning of these general sessions. I guess we can now add in the spinning of the membership coin. All of these sounds are based on perception. For example, we're all familiar with the phrase, "If it quacks like a duck, it must be a duck." But what if it's not? Keep that in mind.
Specifically, today, I'd like to talk about one specific sound, and that sound is my voice—yes, this voice that you are hearing right now. Picture this: Bobbi, the young and beautiful (small giggle), less than two years into the Federation and running for a presidential office. I'm at this convention, bright-eyed, eager, and I am putting in the work, and I'm also working the room! Or as boring people say, "networking." As part of this networking, I was introduced to one particular NFB leader, but it wasn't the first time I'd been introduced to an NFB leader. I'd like to go back a little further to my first Washington Seminar. I was invited to attend a dinner where we'd be meeting another Federation leader at this dinner. On the way to the dinner, the people that I was going with stopped in the hallway and pulled me over to the side. They go, "Bobbi, I mean, it doesn't matter, and we don't know how to ask you this, but—are you black? I mean, we know you go to a historically black college, but we're just not sure because of how you talk.
Now let me go back to my election and my presidential bid. Over the convention, I'm getting closer and closer to this leader; we're going to dinners; we're really socializing together, getting comfortable with one another. And when comfortable, well, a leopard will show its spots. And I'm starting to pick up on some subtle clues, and it's hard to put my finger on it, but my spotting senses for racism are tingling. And somehow, when I'm not around, they find out that I'm black. Put a pin in that story again, but we'll be back.
Last year someone else got comfortable with me. This time it was a man who was black and blind. He pulled me to the side—that must be the way to do these kind of things—and goes, “Bobbi, I love your voice because you don’t sound like you’re from the hood." He had the NERVE to think that was a compliment. That is NOT a compliment. That, my friends, is a microaggression.
So in closing, I'll finish the story about the election. If you recall, my secret is out, and this leader knows that I'm black. It's the time of the election, and I walk in confident, okay? I'm excited. I'm thrilled to be presented with this opportunity to be president in this organization that I'm just beginning to love. And I notice we have a really large turnout. So I'm happily welcoming all of these unfamiliar faces. We vote, and I lose.
I later found out that this leader had paid the dues of these unfamiliar faces. These people had not been dues-paying members before. But he had them come to the meeting and paid their dues so they'd be eligible to vote—just so they could vote against me—because he did not want a black person to be president.
Race is perceived in so many ways. These blind people use their sense of sound, and they use a stereotype based on what it means to "sound black." President Riccobono, I'd like to thank you for putting together this panel and thus confirming the fact that within this organization, racism must be addressed, acknowledged, and ultimately rectified. Because I cannot live the life that I want until Black Lives Matter. Thank you, and rest in peace to John Lewis.
EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Thank you, Bobbi; and next, Tarik, you are up.
TARIK WILLIAMS: Hello, my Federation family. Once again, I want to thank you guys for listening and for this opportunity. I want to start with having you guys visualize a little bit of a picture that I think about often as I work in SAAVI Services for the Blind as an orientation and mobility instructor and student services coordinator. I think about the first time I ever wore sleep shades at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I remember getting my shades and thinking about how people were interacting and saying "on your right" or "on your left" and how they were able to just move throughout the center so efficiently.
So feeling as uncomfortable as I did, I still wanted to be able to do that, even though I hadn't had any lessons yet. I had gotten my shades, and I started walking in the hallway, already late to my first class. I heard some people in front of me. As I was walking, I said "on your right" and continued walking. I thought their course was changing, so I said "on your right" and continued walking. At first I wasn't hearing much more, so maybe they had heard or maybe not. I thought maybe they didn't hear me, so I said "on your right" again, a little bit louder, but their course had not changed, and we collided.
I tell you this story to say that black people, for so many years—before the Federation, during the Federation, and now—we're oppressed, but the course of action hasn't changed. So again we're oppressed, and the situation hasn't changed. So we say it again, and then there's a collision. This collision is happening in so many different situations in our world today. We think about all the different things that are going on in the world, and I get the question, "Tarik, well, don't you think that we've come a long way in terms of slavery and everything like that?" And to be honest, I'll say, "Yeah, sure, but it's incomplete."
Now, we are still fighting some of the same battles today that we fought not so many generations ago—we think about Ruby Bridges, the first black individual to ever go to a white school, and she's only sixty-five years old. So put that into perspective. Obviously black people are in schools with white people, but there are some battles we're still fighting today that happened back then and some new ones now.
When I think about the word I use to tell people about our progress, the word is incomplete, and the work that's yet to be done, I think about the term microaggression. Bobbi brought up the term. Microaggression is intentional or unintentional discrimination. It may be subtle or not so subtle. It is normally experienced by a marginalized group. Even though it might be subtle and may not mean much, I do want to be clear that ignorance is not bliss. Because microaggressions cause pain. If you're not accepting the sound of my voice or you're not accepting my blackness, that hurts. When you say, "Tarik, you don't sound black. Let me touch your hair to see if you are telling the truth,” that hurts. Why would I lie about being black? Why would anyone question me? When you say, "Tarik, you sound a little white, so even though you're black, you're definitely white on the inside, and you're an "Oreo." That's painful. Are you saying it's better to be white and trying to compliment me? It is painful when you say, "Tarik, you sound a little too ghetto in this situation." What does that mean—what is wrong with my sound? Did I ask how I should sound or criticize you about the way you sound? I think it's important to know that all of us need to be accepted.
I want to come across to you, my Federation family, as a Black, blind individual, proud of who I am. I'll be honest. There was a time when I was not proud of my blindness at all, and the Federation helped me overcome that. With that being said, it's important to know that these traits don't define me as a person. But they are important to me because they make up the person I am, and I have come to be proud of who I am. I want us to get beyond microaggression and other forms of discrimination. I want our Federation and our society to be a place where I can be comfortable and not feel like I have to put on a mask.
I want to leave everybody with this quotation from Langston Hughes, who wrote a poem in which he says: "Let America be again. The land that must be. That hasn't been yet. The land where every individual is free.” Thank you.
EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Thank you, Tarik. As we continue to evolve in our quest for equality and opportunity, we hope this has been an education for you. We hope we have raised your consciousness regarding racism.
I hope this information that you have heard today will propel you to make changes in your attitude, in your ability to accept and celebrate the differences in America and in the National Federation of the Blind. Together with love, hope, and determination, we transform dreams into reality.
So let's try a new perspective on diversity. We are all one in the Federation. I want to let you know that we certainly believe in our grand personality, inspiration, innovation, powerful and inviting. We invite you to get to know us as we make a commitment to know each of you. We love you, and God bless you. Thank you.
by Laura Wolk
From the Editor: Here is what President Riccobono said in introducing a truly stellar presentation: “Our next presenter is the first of our Notre Dame graduates on the agenda! This item is “Equal Justice Under Law: A Blind Clerk Blazes a Trail behind the Scenes at the Supreme Court.” I'm pretty excited about having her with us today—that she was able to carve out time to be with us. This is an individual who you can really say grew up in the Federation in Pennsylvania. Her dad actually started our parent’s division in Pennsylvania. I already told you she was educated; she has a law degree from Notre Dame, juris doctor summa cum laude, and she went to Swarthmore where she got a BA in psychology. She has been serving as a law clerk to the Honorable Clarence Thomas, and she has been an active member of our National Association of Blind Lawyers, including successfully advocating and leading the way to make sure some of the technology companies make sure their tools work effectively for blind lawyers. I am proud to introduce Laura Wolk.”
Thank you so much, President Riccobono. Good evening, everyone. It is such an honor to be with you tonight. As President Riccobono mentioned, I went to my first state affiliate convention when I was very, very young. It's been a while since I've been to one, a national convention in person. So it's really an honor for me to be here presenting this evening.
As President Riccobono mentioned, I just last week finished up a year clerking for Justice Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court of the United States. I hope in hearing that sentence you know it was an extraordinary year for me. It was a transformative year for me personally and professionally—I mean in every aspect of my life, including what it means for me to be a blind person in the United States. I'd like to just give a little sense of what it means to be a law clerk, for those who might not be familiar with what that job entails, and then talk a bit about two main takeaways that I took from the job that I think are broadly applicable to everyone who is currently involved in the National Federation of the Blind.
So each justice—there are nine justices on the Supreme Court—each justice has four clerks assigned to him or her, and each clerkship lasts one year. So you spend a year of your life working very, very intimately with a justice. Your job duties break down into two main categories: you assist the justice preparing for oral argument, and then you also assist even with the drafting of the opinions that ultimately become the decisions of the Supreme Court. Sometimes that means you assist the justice with preparing an opinion for the majority of justices on the court or the entire court, and other times it means that you prepare or you assist with drafting an opinion for a smaller number of members or even for the justice writing only for himself or herself. So it is an incredible experience.
It is a great responsibility, and there is a lot of trust reposed in a law clerk. You have to be 150 percent there every day, every hour of every day. Because without the assistance of the law clerks, the Supreme Court just cannot function. Beyond the access and the amazing mentorship and lifelong relationship that you create with your justice, being a law clerk is so extraordinary because you also get to interact with the other eight justices on the Supreme Court. You also get to interact with all of the clerks from the other chambers. There's about thirty-nine of us this past term. You get to work with these bright lawyers, these young minds who are going to go out and do great things in the legal field, whether they go to firms or back to the government. You just get to spend a year learning from them, debating with them, sometimes very heatedly arguing with them. You just get a front row seat for an entire year into the inner workings of this very important institution to our government that so many people and even very few lawyers will ever get to witness.
So I will say from the moment I walked in the door on my first day to last Friday, when I sort of tearfully pulled myself out of the building for the last time, it felt very surreal. Every day felt surreal to me that I was there, that my workplace was the Supreme Court of the United States. The conversations that I got to have, the people that I came to call friends—this was an experience that I will keep with me for the rest of my life.
I don't think that my approach to the job is very uncommon. I think if you approach it right, and I think that many of my co-clerks and other clerks do approach the job with a sense of humility and understanding of the responsibility that has been given to you. But I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge that I also felt a particular responsibility and a particular honor to be asked to serve in that position as a blind person. Because it is the case that it is increasingly difficult to succeed in the higher echelons of our career paths, and I felt like I was being asked to do something very good, not just for myself but the entire movement of the organized blind: that I could spend a year with the eight other justices and hopefully show them that blindness is not an impediment; that I could spend the year talking about accessibility and talking about the need for young people coming up into the institutions to know about accessibility and to realize the massive gap between what a blind person can do if they're given all the tools and resources and what a blind person is ALLOWED to do by virtue of the various obstacles put into our path that we have no control over and have to constantly fight against.
When I say I carry that responsibility with me, I don't mean that to imply any negative connotation. It felt like an honor to me that I would be asked to do that and to participate in the long line of work that the NFB has done for the past eighty years to even make this opportunity possible for me. So, from those experiences, I've done a lot of reflecting this year—a lot of reflecting on what this experience has meant to me personally and professionally, but also the takeaways, as I mentioned earlier, that can be broadly applied to all people in the NFB and all of your friends who might not yet be part of the NFB.
There are two takeaways I would like to share with you this evening. The first is that, as I sort of alluded to a moment ago, I firmly believe that this opportunity would not have been possible for me if I was not a member of many communities. I think it is absolutely imperative that we as blind people include ourselves in as many communities as possible in society. Faith-based communities, civic engagement communities, sports, whatever it is that makes you feel alive and makes you feel like you are flourishing and what truly interests you about life. We need to be including ourselves and integrating ourselves into those communities.
I think a lot of times there is this understanding that we focus on where the barriers are, and we say, you know, there’s barriers to education, so we have to talk to the educators. There are barriers to employment. We have to talk to the employers. We have to talk to the developers. And that is very true, very necessary, very, very important hard work that is being done. But the fact remains that educators do not spend 100 percent of their time educating, and web developers do not spend 100 percent of their time web developing. They are human beings, and they are going out into communities, and they are living their lives in robust and rich ways. The more blind people that are out there that they can encounter in any capacity whatsoever, that makes a huge difference. By all of us doing that, we just increase the odds that the next time someone is hiring, let's say they even casually mention it at a dinner party, that someone is going to say, yeah, I know a blind person, like, that candidate is competent. This person, just because they're blind, doesn't mean they can't do the job or play the sport or take the leadership role or go to Harvard Law School, as we heard earlier this evening. So I just really encourage anyone who's out there listening tonight—if there ever has been something you wanted to try, that you have been holding yourself back for fear of what it would be like to try to get into that community, I really encourage you to do that.
I have experienced this because of the pandemic in a very concrete and tangible way this year. I will give you one example. I am a runner, and I use running not only as a way to stay physically active, but also for benefits to my mental health. It also helps me to clear my head and to process ideas and arguments that I'm actually stuck on when I'm thinking about a legal argument.
When the pandemic struck, all of that was stripped away from me immediately. I could tell almost instantly that it was impacting my work because this was a way that I handle stress, and I was in a very stressful job. So I wrote to my friends in my running communities (some of them have blindness-related aspects and many do not), and I asked for help. The next thing I knew, friends came to my aid and provided me with a bike and a trainer so that I could continue to exercise in my apartment and stay focused. So never did I think that when I started running, and when I first took myself out of my comfort zone to show up at running events and ask sighted people if they would run with me, that it would ever impact me professionally, that it would ever affect my career development. But I also never could have imagined that my year on the Supreme Court would include a pandemic and going remote and being in quarantine. So the benefit of that community that I never expected to show up and help me in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity really pulled through for me.
The second takeaway that I want to share with you all, and again, if you are a lifelong Federationist, this is not going to be terribly groundbreaking, but I think it bears emphasizing as many times as necessary, and that is this: In order to be successful as a blind person in the United States in 2020, we have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Okay? President Riccobono mentioned my clerkship on the Supreme Court. But I had two previous one-year clerkships before them, and I also spent a year at a firm. I’ve had four jobs in four years, and all four of those places had never hired a blind person or had not hired them in an appreciably long enough time that things had changed. So four times I had to go through the process of teaching an entire institution how to make things accessible for me. It is VERY, very difficult sometimes, disheartening sometimes. Even when you have amazing support, it can be really disheartening. But if you've ever been to a training center and held a chainsaw, (which I loved that code word), if you've ever walked with a cane for the first time, if you've ever confronted the fear of pulling a stroller or a shopping cart behind you, all of these things teach us that we have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Because the more comfortable we get having difficult conversations, the more we gain control over the conversations. The more we get comfortable talking to a supervisor and remaining calm when things get heated and stressful, the more we have the power; we regain the power to direct the conversation back to us and our needs instead of what other people tell us our needs are or what might work better than what we're proposing. It not only benefits us, but the fact is this: Ideally, we would be living in a world where universal design is the norm, where things are designed as accessible from the ground up, where there's no discrimination, there's no stigma, there's no bigotry. We've made immense progress, but that's not where we are, and that's not where we'll be tomorrow.
So we're faced with a choice. What do we do with those circumstances? And if we learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, instead of becoming angry or frustrated or disheartened, if we embrace that, then what you develop in yourself are the qualities of a leader. You develop grit. You're adaptable. You're resilient. You're smart. You're flexible. You're creative. You're all of the things that a company needs today. You are all the things that a family needs, that a community group needs. These are the qualities of a good leader. So if we collectively embrace that, we'll not only be making our own lives better as individual blind people, but we will be making the lives of every other blind person in the country better. Because all of our successes are connected.And I just want to close with that. Because as President Riccobono said, I have grown up in the Federation, and I am aware, thankfully aware, of the history that has come before me and the very hard work that our leaders have done. I am very grateful for that work, and I know that this opportunity I have just had, which is an extraordinary one, would not be possible without that. The way that I've explained it to some people is that I feel like in each of our lives, when our role is to work to break down accessibility barriers, even if we don't make it perfect, you were placing one more step on top of a flight of stairs so that when I came along, even though it was still a very steep climb, I didn't have to jump from the bottom directly to the top. I could climb. I'm very, very appreciative for all of that, and I can only hope that through this past year and the other work that I've done so far in my career, that I have also added a step for the next person. I look forward very much to seeing what comes next for us in the years to come. Thank you.
by Mariyam Cementwala
From the Editor: President Riccobono introduced our next presenter with these words: “Our speaker is a policy advisor in the United States Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom. She has many distinctions, including having worked for Senator Durbin. She advances religious freedom in United States government foreign policy, working at the intersection of promoting religious freedom and conflict prevention, including countering violent extremism. She speaks four South Asian languages as well as Arabic, and she has a wealth of experience in several international contexts. Again, there's a lot we could say about her. If you have been around the Federation for a while, you have probably met her before. She is a lawyer by training who has received her JD from the University of California at Berkeley in 2007. She, among other achievements, is the first blind Muslim American woman to receive the prestigious George J. Mitchell Scholarship. She has been one of our national scholarship winners, which you know is a distinction, and she served for a time at various levels of our student division. I'm really pleased to introduce to our podium--literally to our podium because she's in the building, so I'm grabbing the NFB mask to put on—here is Mariyam Cementwala!”
Thank you, Mark, and thank you, Senator Durbin, for your kind words, and to your staff, particularly your Chief Counsel Joe Zogby, who gave a young blind lawyer a chance to enter the field of government affairs a decade ago. I’ve been honored and privileged to work for two incredible public servants, Senator Durbin, and the person who leads the US Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom, where I work now and which we’ll talk about a bit later.
If you pluck up a shrub, a plant, even a full-grown tree and try to replant it somewhere else without its roots, that shrub, plant, or tree will not survive. It will wither. It will die. But if you pull up even a budding plant or shrub—let alone a tree or even its branch—by its roots and take them along, then replant it anywhere else, that shrub will blossom and bloom. That tree will bear fruit. It will thrive.
Now, I didn’t come here to talk about botany, but we’re not that different from plants in this way—like them, we too need our roots to survive, to thrive.
So what are our roots? Let me come back to this question.
On a sunny morning in early 2012, I hailed a taxi outside my apartment building to go to work, expecting an ordinary 20-minute drive. I was an officer in the Political Section at the US Embassy, and I explained to the driver that, when he approached the American Embassy, he should pull up at the first guard entrance rather than the second one. In conversation, I discovered that the driver was Pakistani, spoke Urdu, and was unusually curious.
We began with a game I would often play with expat taxi drivers. They’d ask in Hindi, Urdu, or Arabic, “So where are you from?” And I’d ask them to tell me where they thought I was from, believing that the obvious clue was that they were dropping me off at the staff entrance of the American Embassy. This particular driver became exasperated with the game—naming every country in South Asia, proceeding to Iran and the “stans,” and finally bellowing: “Why don’t you just tell me where you’re from?”
So I asked: “Where am I going?”
He said, “The American Embassy, but I thought that’s because you need a visa.”
“No,” I explained, “I asked you to stop at the first entrance—the staff entrance—not the visa entrance.”
“Oh,” he said, “but that’s because I figured you didn’t know which entrance because you’re blind.”
I chuckled and said “Yes, I’m blind, and I’m also American, and I work there.”
“You work there? They let you work there? But how…? I mean, you’re Muslim, and you wear a hijab, and you’re … blind!” He was incredulous, like he was looking at a ghost.
I replied, “Yes, I work there, and they don’t let me work there—they want me to work there, they need me to work there because I help make their understanding of foreign cultures, foreign peoples, and foreign policy better.”
At that moment, I didn’t quite realize the magnitude of his incredulity and of my immense privilege. I didn’t realize how much I just took for granted in my daily life. What this taxi driver was questioning in 2012 was what the National Federation of the Blind’s founder and first president, Jacobus tenBroek, had written about in the California Law Review in 1966: “Whether and how we, as blind people, as people with human differences, abilities and disabilities, have “the [human] right to live in the world;” the right to work in it and to influence the course of human destiny rather than allowing charitable actors to influence ours as wards of others. Don’t we deserve the right to belong in the world and out of it; the right to privacy; the right to enjoy full and equal access to the modes of transportation, communication, information, and public accommodation; and the right to contribute as full and equal citizens to our communities and our countries?”
My conversation with the taxi driver triggered my memories of teaching a course on the blind civil rights movement at UC Berkeley in 2002, where tenBroek had once taught as a law professor, and from where he had founded this organization that celebrates its eightieth birthday this year. It also triggered my memory of the gentleman I met at the 2002 NFB convention and an unfinished story that I had always wanted to hear.
For those of you who never met him or only knew of him through his obituary and writings, let me share our collective story, and with it, the story of this organization’s role in changing our nation’s diplomatic history. Avraham Rabby, known to his friends as Rami, was going off to the American Embassy in New Delhi to serve our country as a diplomat managing public affairs—our outward messaging, public outreach, and programming within India.
I’m of Indian descent and speak several South Asian languages. So on one of those typical convention evenings, when groups huddle in conversations in corners of hotel lobbies or hotel rooms, Rami peppered me in his distinctive British accent with questions I was completely ill-equipped to answer about the host country where he would soon be posted. His job traveling all around the world, living in and learning about different cultures and places, and building or strengthening relationships with foreign governments and peoples on behalf of the United States sounded intriguing and even glamorous to a twenty-something who had studied international relations and just completed her bachelor’s in political science.
That night, Rami planted a seed in my mind, but I was destined for law school and a lifetime’s practice of law, or so I thought…
The story Rami didn’t tell me that evening and that I subsequently spent some time researching was how, despite graduating with degrees from Oxford University and the University of Chicago and speaking several languages fluently, he had struggled—back in the 1980s—to join the US Department of State’s Foreign Service and how the National Federation of the Blind had given him the support and stood with him in the fight to open the doors of the diplomatic corps for aspiring diplomats with disabilities.
Even though he had passed the written and oral assessments, some leaders in our government, including the then-Director General of the Foreign Service George Vest, questioned whether he could understand and interpret the nuances of diplomatic negotiations, such as body language and facial expression, without sight. Could he protect classified information and reside safely in foreign countries where he would be asked to serve?
But Rami, who had grown up as a leader in the National Federation of the Blind working with Dr. Kenneth Jernigan to organize the Illinois affiliate and fight for civil rights and equal employment opportunities, refused to go away or back down, be bought off by a financial settlement, or cower even before the United States Congress, which held hearings in 1989 on his ability to serve as a foreign service officer. Confident in his own skills and abilities, Rami stridently made the case that “No international treaty has ever been decided on the basis of a wink or a nod!”
He and leaders and members of this organization, many of whom worked with him to convince state department bureaucrats and piled into the halls of Congress to support his bid to join our country’s diplomatic corps, changed the department’s policy through concerted collective action, never caving to complacency with the world as it is. Over thirty years ago, they pushed the department to take a case-by-case approach to allow individuals with disabilities to serve in the United States Foreign Service. Today people like me are the beneficiaries of those important advances in our country’s quest for human rights.
So I come back to the question: What are our roots?
Our roots can be found in our history, in our philosophical and attitudinal architecture, in our faith and values that keep us grounded, and in the people who remind us of and help reinforce those values in our lives.
Like Rami, I grew up in the blind civil rights movement and am glad that I developed some of my leadership skills and policy chops there—organizing state student division events, advocating for myself and others to have the right to make our own choices about the rehabilitation programs we attended, and even walking out in protest from a camp with fellow blind colleagues because the camp’s administrators decided to segregate blind camp counselors from sighted camp counselors so as not to influence young blind campers to think it was okay to be “too independent!”
If you haven’t read Dr. tenBroek’s parable of the organization of the bald “malcontents” or “pariahs” in his 1956 banquet address, “Within the Grace of God,” now’s a good time to catch up on it. The stuff of the late 90s and early 2000s wasn’t all that different from 1956, I discovered, and perhaps we’ve still got a way to go now.
One of the turning points in my life was choosing to go to the Louisiana Center for the Blind and fighting with California’s Department of Rehabilitation to get there. Unfortunately, this remains an age-old struggle. After getting through layers of bureaucracy, I finally told the district administrator that he could deny me the right to exercise my choice, and if he did, I would appeal; or he could grant my request—but either way, I was going. He decided that he wouldn’t bother denying my request. In my teens and twenties, I was learning how to be a “malcontent” or “pariah” well—from people like Joanne and Harold Wilson, Rosy Carranza, and Nathanael Wales, people who knew me before I was a diplomat, who keep me grounded, and who still shape and enrich my life today—along with that guy who told me to go to the center in the first place (on our first date, no less!), my husband Ali, known to many as “Chris” Foster. Ladies, if your guy tells you to go to a training center, he’s a keeper!
The lessons I learned about life, attitudes about blindness and disability, travel, people, and yes, even home economics are priceless gems I carry with me all around the world. When Joanne Wilson, the Louisiana Center’s founder and first director (and the epitome of a great leader in my view, and someone I’m very grateful to call a mentor) visited me at one of my former posts, I proudly showed her my Freedom Bell and the five-tier spinning carousel bookcase I haul all around the globe from post to post. These stand as daily reminders of my philosophical foundation and roots—that blindness can be reduced to a characteristic, not a handicap, with the right tools, training, opportunity, and attitude; that we can and must compete on terms of equality; and that, if needed, I can use a radial arm saw and table saw again!
Rami began his diplomatic career in 1990. After law school and law firm practice, among other advocacy jobs, I started my diplomatic career in March 2011—long after he had already retired! People had all kinds of questions for him then. What about now?
Well, as one of my local staff members got really comfortable with me, she piped up memorably one day as we rode up in the Embassy elevator:
“Mariyam, you know how you said it was okay to ask you anything about your blindness; well, I have a question… How do you know when you get your period?”
… to which I answered: “Well, how do you know when you get yours?!”
During one of my early tours, I arrived at a charity reception on behalf of the Embassy, and a bunch of women suddenly encircled me! “We want to hear your story! We want to know how you got here!”
I was confused. “Here? In a car…”
“No, how did you get here—to this country!?”
“On an airplane…”
“No, no!...to this country, representing the American Embassy and the American government! We want to know everything! You are so amazing!”
When I returned from this reception, I shared the exchange with my then-deputy chief of mission, who channeled Michael Bailiff when he advised, “It could be worse if they thought you weren’t amazing! If you’re going to have extremes, you may as well have their positive impression. And use it to build the connections and trust. Use it to your advantage.”
So I did. Candidly, my disability has been a huge advantage in building relationships of trust with contacts and working on sensitive issues of human rights and religious freedom, because one of my perceived vulnerabilities is on display for all to see. Seeing that I have a vulnerability makes others more comfortable to open up—which is critical because I learned early in my diplomatic career that the currency of diplomacy is reliable and accurate information.
I’ve used what others in society might continue to perceive as a vulnerability as an advantage in every posting. For instance, in one of my recent tours I was given an incredible opportunity and an impossible task—I had eighteen hours (as I was packing out of my post) to get in a car and go to a far-flung region of the country in which I was posted, then organize meetings there, return two days later, and produce a draft cable about the political landscape and people’s attitudes. I knew no one there but had a strong network of people with disabilities in the capital city I knew, so I contacted a couple of its leaders—both blind—and asked them to help me organize meetings with their professional and social networks. They didn’t just help me because I am an American diplomat; they helped me because we had built a relationship driven by our commonalities of human difference, and in my success was their support and their success!
Today, in my current posting, I work in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom under the leadership of Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback, who has a legacy of championing the rights of persons with disabilities in his distinguished political career. Supported by him and office leadership, I again brought my disability experience to bear in recognizing a policy gap and working to address it. Our office works to promote and protect the right of religious freedom of people around the globe, including minorities.
But when houses of worship are inaccessible, when faith leaders organizing religious pilgrimages gently turn people with disabilities away, when faith leaders preach that albinism or other physical disabilities are results of witchcraft and evil, when virtual worship services and activities are not on accessible platforms, persons with disabilities are once again left behind in exercising their fundamental freedom of religion or belief, from participating in community with others, and from enjoying freedom from stigma and their “right to live in the world.”
I’m blessed to come from a faith community in which my spiritual guide, and before him, his father, have been incredible pillars of strength, support, open-mindedness, and inclusion. When there were plenty of naysayers, they have been my champions, never limiting me on account of disability.
But every community of faith has those not so enlightened. Once someone who clearly disregards the concept of reasonable accommodation said to me that I use my blindness like a “sympathy card.” Ironically I was on a religious pilgrimage abroad without family or personal assistance and was essentially requesting to be close up, to touch and be touched, since I don’t experience by sight like others. Another time, when I was being guided amidst a throbbing crowd to the sacred black stone at the Kaaba, someone taunted loudly from behind: “If she’s blind, why is she even here? Why are you bringing her!” disregarding that, as a human being and a Muslim, I have the same right, obligation, or desire as anyone else would to kiss the sacred black stone known as the Hajr-e-Aswad.
You can’t expect everyone to be enlightened, wise, or inclusive. But when people try to shun, exclude, or belittle you, don’t recoil or allow yourself to be distanced from your community and your faith. Confront ignorance, indifference, and injustice by calling it out because, if you don’t, you enable its perpetuation not only toward you but countless others who may not have your strength or conviction.
My experiences have inspired me to work with colleagues from our Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor as well as our Agency for International Development to launch the disability and FORB (freedom of religion and belief) interagency working group last October. Our purpose is not only to identify the challenges to religious freedom persons with disabilities face but also find the champions of inclusion among faith leaders to derive the best practices for community inclusion. Faith leaders play key roles as social and political influencers, and engaging them on disability rights is something we hadn’t done before as a concerted part of our foreign policy. What’s more, we realized that they could have a tangible impact on service delivery and challenging stereotypes about a disabled person’s quality of life during the COVID-19 crisis. So on July 1, we launched a global social media campaign called “Every Life Is Worthy.” It will continue until the ADA’s thirtieth anniversary and will conclude with a virtual roundtable to which I hope you will tune in!
You can learn more about how I do my job, the working group, and the Office of International Religious Freedom during tomorrow’s breakout session at 11:30 a.m. But for those who won’t be up quite that early, what I hope you’ll remember is that your perceived vulnerability is not a disadvantage at all. It’s just part of your humanity, as it’s part of mine. It has made me a sharper, smarter diplomat who is more rooted in and committed to the principles of human dignity, respect for human difference, human rights, and equal justice.
My own background in advocating for the rights of myself and others—at Washington Seminars decades ago and elsewhere—has instilled in me as a diplomat the important recognition of civil society’s value in formulating good policy. Without organizations like the National Federation of the Blind who speak loudly as constituents for themselves, ready for a fight, ready to go to the barricades, can you even imagine what policies and laws would look like for persons with disabilities—not just in the United States but the world over? Our thinking and approach don’t just matter at home—they have a global impact.
Advancing human rights—not charity but opportunity, not compassion but understanding, not tolerance but respect and acceptance, not dependency but independence, not exclusion but equality—is in this organization’s DNA. That’s in your roots.
So as the leaders and members of this organization look ahead on this eightieth birthday to your next eighty years, I leave you with a challenge. In 1997, toward the sunset of his life, Kenneth Jernigan harkened that “The day after civil rights is fast approaching.” Sitting then in the audience as a young scholarship winner, I thought like many that we had almost arrived! It was imminent. We wouldn’t need to raise voices and signs in protest. The days of confrontation were our past—our future would be communication and public education.
But according to Cornell University’s disability statistics research, between 1997 and 2017 the employment rate for persons with disabilities (or those identifying as having a work limitation) between the ages of 18 and 64 had risen by less than 12 percent, from 25.5 percent to 37 percent. And 63 percent are still unemployed. In twenty years the rate among this group that lived below the poverty line had only dropped by 1.8 percent.
Here’s another snapshot: Looking at the picture just three years ago in 2017, 34.5 percent of non-disabled Americans between the ages of twenty-one and sixty-four had obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher education, as compared to just 14.8 percent of Americans with disabilities in the same age range.
Looking at this yet another way, ask yourself how many blind people you know who work exclusively in the field of blindness or disability, even disability law, because they were pushed to do so to get a secure job.
What I have learned from my experiences, and in reflecting back on Rami’s, is that there’s no doubt that progress toward integration has been paved—with this organization playing a crucial role. But perhaps as we had optimistically hoped in 1997, we haven’t quite arrived at that day after civil rights.
Hindsight is always 20/20! While it is acceptable, even normal, for civil society organizations to build up communication and public education campaigns to become the recognized expert conveners instead of the outsiders, confrontation remains a necessary tool to combat covert and overt discrimination.
The shape of injustice may have changed, but the root of injustice has not. It still stems from willful or uncorrected ignorance, a belief in the superiority of ability and the inferiority of disability, and unequal access or none at all.
Today, the fights are different. There is access to the buildings perhaps, but not to the technology that helps run them. There is access to millions of books and newspapers, but not equal access to the tangible information and technology that can help persons with disabilities get jobs and keep them.
There’s even the legal concept of reasonable accommodation, but the sighted, non-disabled implementers—in their infinite wisdom and years of experience with disability and blindness—are more than happy to set the policy on what is an effective reasonable accommodation, like how and when to use readers, if you just keep your head down, quietly do your job, and let them push you around.
As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
So the challenge is how and when to speak up, how to confront while convening, how to harness collective action once again and fight complacency, and when necessary, how to get back on the barricades and not back down.
But being on the front lines of the barricades is part of the roots of this organization; Rami Rabby never backed down, and he taught me by example never to do so either. These are my roots, and they are yours. When I move around the world, I thrive because these foundational lessons are always with me. No matter where I go, as long as I have my roots, I know my spirit won’t wither, it won’t die.
No matter where you go, now and over the next eighty years, or eight hundred, hold on to your roots (as Rami Rabby did, as Jerry Whittle did, as Brian Miller did), and you too will continue to thrive.
God bless you, and God bless the United States of America! Thank you.
Blind children, students, and adults are making powerful strides in education and leadership every day across the United States. For more than eighty years, the National Federation of the Blind has worked to transform the dreams of hundreds of thousands of blind people into reality. With support from individuals like you, we continue to provide powerful programs and critical resources for decades to come. We sincerely hope you will plan to be a part of our enduring movement by including the National Federation of the Blind in your charitable giving and in your estate planning. It is easier than you think.
With your help, the NFB will continue to:
The National Federation of the Blind legacy society, our Dream Makers Circle, honors and recognizes the generosity and vision of members and special friends of the National Federation of the Blind who have chosen to leave a legacy through a will or other planned giving option. You can join the Dream Makers Circle in a myriad of ways:
You can specify that a fixed sum of your assets or property goes to the National Federation of the Blind in your will, trust, pension, IRA, life insurance policy, brokerage account, or other accounts.
You can specify that a percentage of your assets or property goes to the National Federation of the Blind in your will, trust, pension, IRA, life insurance policy, brokerage account, or other accounts.
You can name the National Federation of the Blind as the beneficiary on a Payable on Death (POD) account through your bank. You can turn any checking or savings account into a POD account. This is one of the simplest ways to leave a legacy. The account is totally in your control during your lifetime, and you can change the beneficiary or percentage at any time with ease.
If you do decide to create or revise your will, consider the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary.
Visit our Planned Giving webpage at https://www.nfb.org/get-involved/ways-give/planned-giving or call 410-659-9314, extension 2422, for more information.
Together with love, hope, determination, and your support, we will continue to transform dreams into reality.
Since the start of 2019, the NFB:
Just imagine what we’ll do next year, and, with your help, what can be accomplished for years to come. Below are just a few of the many diverse, tax-deductible ways you can lend your support to the National Federation of the Blind:
The NFB accepts donated vehicles, including cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, or recreational vehicles. Just call 855-659-9314 toll-free, and a representative can make arrangements to pick up your donation. We can also answer any questions you have.
General donations help support the ongoing programs of the NFB and the work to help blind people live the lives they want. You can call 410-659-9314 and elect option 4 to donate by phone. Donate online with a credit card or through the mail with check or money order. Visit our Ways to Give webpage at https://nfb.org/get-involved/ways-give for more information.
Through the Pre-Authorized Contribution (PAC) program, supporters sustain the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind by making recurring monthly donations by direct withdrawal of funds from a checking account or a charge to a credit card. To enroll, call 410-659-9314, extension 2213, or fill out our PAC Donation Form online at https://www.nfb.org/pac.
If you have questions about giving, please send an email to [email protected] or call 410-659-9314, extension 2422.
[PHOTO CAPTION: Carla McQuillan]
by Carla McQuillan
From the Editor: Carla is the chairperson of our National Federation of the Blind Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award Committee. Here is the presentation she gave at the meeting of the national board on Wednesday, July 15:
CARLA MCQUILLAN: I would like to start by thanking the members of the committee: Michelle Chacon, Emily Gibbs, Eric Guillory, and Dan Wenzel. Thank you very much for going through the applications and making the tough decisions.
In the National Federation of the Blind we understand that a solid, quality education in early childhood is critical for the success of our blind children. Since 1988 we have been giving the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award to those educators who distinguish themselves in the field by going above and beyond the expectations of their job description.
This year our recipient has not only been in the field of education of blind children for over twenty years, but her volunteer work in her community (in the state of Texas) has been inspirational, to say the least. She has worked with children, their families, seniors, and in our BELL Academy in Texas as a volunteer for many years now.
Let me tell you what this individual will receive. She will be speaking to the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children at this convention. She will receive a check in the amount of $1,000, and she will receive a plaque. The plaque reads as follows:
The National Federation of the Blind honors
Graciela L. Olivo
for her skills in teaching Braille
and other techniques of blindness,
for devoting graciously extra time
to her students to meet their needs,
and for empowering her students
to perform beyond their expectations.
You champion our movement,
you strengthen our hopes,
and you share our dreams.
July 15th, 2020
Graciela, would you like to say a few words to the convention because you certainly tell your story better than I?
GRACIELA: I would like to extend a grateful and heartfelt thanks to the following persons for choosing me as this year's National Federation of the Blind distinguished educator of blind children: Mr. Mark Riccobono, Mrs. Carla McQuillan, Mrs. Carlton Anne Cook Walker, Ms. Kimberly Banks, Mrs. Norma Crosby, and Ms. Liz Wisecarver who nominated me for this position, Mr. Daniel Martinez who was my former student and who initiated this nomination, and to our local NFB chapter here in the Rio Grande Valley for all of its support. I want to give thanks to God for giving me this ability and who made it possible for me to serve those students whom He has placed in my path to teach.
Thanks to all of you for thinking so highly of me. I'm humbled and honored to be a part of NFB and for this prestigious award, as well as for the opportunity to serve others through the National Federation of the Blind. I only ask that I may be permitted to continue working with the blind and visually impaired for many more years to come and that I make you proud. May God bless you.
Mrs. Carlton Anne Cook Walker asked me what the title of my speech would be, and I said, “Virtual Reality Versus Reality.” How is that, you say? Well, I never thought of teaching blind or visually impaired students. As a matter of fact I was teaching home economics food service skills to middle school students when I was approached about a blind student requesting to be in my class.
"What? No, way! I don't know anything about working with blind students. I'm not trained to work with blind students." God has other plans. This blind student’s VI teacher told me she had every right to be in my class and that I had the responsibility as a vocational teacher to teach her, just as I was teaching all the other students in that class.
Well, by the time the conversation was over, we were both a mess. She walked out of my classroom crying, and I walked over to the principal's office crying my eyes out, telling him there was no way this was ever going to happen and that I would rather quit than do this. He calmed me down and he said, “Let's talk tomorrow.”
When I came in the next day, before me as I signed in, there was a poster that read: “University of Texas teachers of the blind will be coming down to the Region One Education Service Center and will be offering classes for educators to become certified teachers of the blind and visually impaired.” This made me really angry, and I tore it off the wall. I took it in to the principal, and I told him, "You did this on purpose!" He told me that he hadn't seen it, but maybe it was a sign from a higher power.
He said, "Maybe we need to work on this, and you and I can do this together?" By that afternoon he had gotten the information he needed, and this was the beginning of my entry into the world of VI. The information stated that I would need to go to Edinburg, which is a city about forty-five minutes away, to take classes every other weekend starting Friday noon and ending Sunday late afternoons. This meant cutting out of my classes and getting a substitute—all too much for me to handle—but my principal made all the arrangements for me to go out and not stress too much. This also meant that I would be traveling back and forth, which meant gas money. Times were hard then, and money was tight in my family. It was suggested that we make arrangements to stay at a nearby hotel to avoid so much traveling. Again, more money. But soon the university paid for everything, including books and registration, all at no cost to us. Things started falling into place, and I really couldn't believe it.
After all my course work was done, I got a call from the special education department in my school district saying they were in need of my VI services. At that time I reluctantly left home economics. But in hindsight I've never looked back as this was definitely my calling. Now I know that you do what the Lord has planned for you, not what you want. This is reality.
Thank you for this recognition, and I look forward to continuing my journey in helping the lives of the blind and visually impaired in my community and in other communities that I might be able to help out. Thank you very much.
[PHOTO CAPTION: Sharon Maneki]
by Sharon Maneki
From the Editor: Sharon Maneki has been the resolutions chairperson since 1999. The part of the job the public sees is hard enough: publicly chairing a large committee, seeing that everyone who should gets recognized, and on resolutions day reading at least half of the resolutions that come to the floor. But there is so much more to this job that Sharon will never tell you. Resolutions start as ideas, and if they are to go anywhere, they need to be loved and nurtured. So too do the people who submit them. Once they get presented to the committee, it has a number of changes that it may or may not wish to make prior to convention day. This is where Sharon the diplomat steps in.
When the gavel falls on the last convention session, Chairperson Maneki’s work isn’t over. She makes sure that all the changes adopted get put in. Then she sits down to write the article you are about to read, and this is the twenty-first she has written.
Each year the convention resolutions process follows a similar pattern. Yet each year’s experience is unique because of influencing factors. This year there were a variety of influences. What were the influences that made the 2020 resolutions process and content unique?
As usual the Resolutions Committee met on the second day of the convention, which this year was July 15. The committee was large and as is customary consisted of Federation leaders from throughout the country. Once again I was honored to chair the committee and was ably assisted by Patricia Miller, who served as secretary to the committee.
The Resolutions Committee met on a Zoom webinar platform. Since we could not vote by voice, the process was more cumbersome, which made the meeting longer than expected. In true Federation spirit, we persevered and considered twenty-nine resolutions. Joe Miller, Chris Danielsen, Sophia Connell, and Ronza Othman served as Zoom maestros, and their assistance was invaluable.
The convention considered the twenty-nine resolutions later than normal, on the last day of general session, as the convention was shortened by a day due to the use of virtual platforms. The mood of the convention on the last day of general session was more somber than usual because of the death of US Congressman John R. Lewis, a renowned civil rights leader from the 1960s, who had served as the conscience of Congress since 1987. President Riccobono began the July 18 general session by playing Congressman Lewis’s remarks when he joined us at the 2007 Convention in Atlanta. Congressman Lewis was a Federationist at heart. He, too, believed in standing up to make “good trouble” to achieve equality. Jonathan Capehart’s article “John Lewis Practiced What He Preached and We Are a Better Nation for It” from the Washington Post dated July 19, stated the following:
“In my last interview with Lewis last month, I asked him what advice he had for this generation of marchers, who will invariably face setbacks. ‘You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more,’ he said. ‘We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it.’” Good advice indeed!
The afternoon moved quickly as we considered each resolution. Each individual who had enrolled in the voting system in advance was able to cast his or her vote for each resolution by text or phone. This voting system took a little more time than the conventional voice vote that we would have used if we had met in person. However, we enjoyed the fit breaks and listening to Federation folksongs as we waited for everyone to complete their vote. We heard favorites such as “Braille is Beautiful,” “Tap That,” and “Live the Life You Want.”
Members who wished to speak in favor or against a resolution on the convention floor had to sign up in advance due to the virtual nature of the convention. This need for planning did not stifle debate.
Even though we met virtually, the convention exercised its will as the supreme authority by passing only twenty-eight of the twenty-nine resolutions that it considered. The convention killed resolution 2020-19 which criticized media coverage of the problems faced by voters with disabilities. This resolution failed in part because voters felt that it did not contain enough examples of media bias. Maura Loberg, a recent graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind who also serves as president of the Nebraska Association of Blind Students, proposed this resolution.
The virtual nature of the convention did not cause members to shy away from proposing resolutions. Having twenty-nine resolutions for the committee and the convention to consider was not a record, but it definitely was a high number. The last time that we handled twenty-nine resolutions was in 2015. Let us turn to an examination of the factors that influenced the content of our 2020 resolutions.
Since the world is in the middle of a pandemic, it is not surprising that approximately one-third of the resolutions passed by the convention were influenced by COVID-19. While the issues of these resolutions are very familiar to us, they came to the forefront of widespread conversation because of the pandemic.
The convention passed three resolutions concerning education. Schools and colleges closed in March 2020 to prevent the spread of the virus and moved to online learning. It was more important than ever for parents to be able to communicate with teachers. Blind parents need the same opportunity that sighted parents have to be involved in their child’s education. Melissa Riccobono is First Lady of the Federation and is a member of the board of directors of both the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. As a parent of three children, it was most appropriate for her to propose resolution 2020-02. In this resolution, we “demand all companies responsible for the development of parent-school communication apps ensure that their products are accessible to blind parents, teachers, and school administrators.”
Another blind parent, Terri Rupp, who also serves as president of the NFB of Nevada, sponsored resolution 2020-15. Phone apps are being developed to encourage the practice of reading. These apps are especially useful because people had to stay at home during COVID-19. By using these apps, teachers and parents can easily track the reading progress of young children. Children have thousands of books to choose from, and they like using the phone. In resolution 2020-15, “We demand that the creators of educational apps make them fully accessible to ensure all blind students, parents, and teachers can have the ability to read any book available using a Braille display.”
Due to COVID-19-related school building closures, the College Board shifted the administration of its Advanced Placement (AP) tests to a virtual format. The College Board cancelled accommodations for blind students, such as the provisions of hardcopy Braille and tactile graphics. High school students, led by Kaleigh Brendle, sought the help of the NFB to stop this discriminatory action. Kaleigh, a rising high school senior from New Jersey, proposed resolution 2020-17. The resolution reads in part: “…that this organization demand that all high-stakes testing entities, including College Board, implement plans for the provision of hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics for any test administration, in conformance with Title III of the ADA, regardless of whether testing occurs in person or virtually.”
The convention passed three resolutions concerning accessibility that also related to COVID-19. Because of COVID-19 and the need to stay home, more people were using virtual conferencing platforms for work, school, church, and other activities. Justin Young, president of the New York Association of Blind Students, introduced resolution 2020-06. In this resolution we “urge all conferencing vendors to continue to improve nonvisual access to their platforms and to collaborate with the National Federation of the Blind to find new and innovative solutions to barriers that exist now or may arise in the future.”
There were three proponents of resolution 2020-07: Amy Baron, John TeBockhorst, and Jessica Beecham. Amy and John are active members in the Minnesota affiliate. Jessica Beecham will be familiar to Federationists as the leader of the fit breaks that occur during general sessions. Jessica serves as president of the Sports and Recreation Division of the NFB and as first vice president of the Colorado affiliate. She won a national scholarship in 2011. Many fitness facilities have been closed because of COVID-19. This trend has led to the growth of the digital fitness industry. Resolution 2020-07 reads in part: “this organization urges wellness and fitness industry leaders including Weight Watchers, Beachbody, Aaptiv, Fitbit, and others to collaborate with the National Federation of the Blind to make their programs, services, websites, and apps nonvisually accessible, and to work with the National Federation of the Blind regarding customer service training.” The inequity faced by blind persons because of lack of access constitutes a health emergency. In this resolution we also call upon “national health care organizations and advocates, such as the American Medical Association, to join their voices with ours to raise awareness about this unjust healthcare inequity.”
Access to information has always been a problem for blind people. It is more important than ever that we have access to news because of the need to know about changing government regulations and statistics about the spread of COVID-19. As the proponent of resolution 2020-08, Virgil Stinnett, president of the NFB of Hawaii, explained that too many websites provide information by using maps, graphs, and charts with no verbal description of their content. In this resolution, “We call upon the Federal Communications Commission to consider expanding requirements for media access, particularly in the area of broadcast and cable television, with the goal of making news and information more accessible to the blind and deafblind communities.”
Blind people, along with the rest of the public, are facing economic hardships during COVID-19. The convention passed three resolutions to improve economic security for blind persons. Blind individuals who work for the Louisiana Association for the Blind Inc. could not collect unemployment during COVID-19 because state and federal law permits sheltered workshops to exclude wages paid to blind employees in the calculation of unemployment benefits.
Consequently, sighted workers, who performed the same tasks as blind workers, obtained unemployment benefits, but blind workers did not. We were surprised to learn of this loophole in state and federal law. Long-time Federationist Shirley Colbert, who has worked at the Louisiana Association for the Blind for approximately twenty years, sponsored resolution 2020-04. Shirley explained that, despite her many years of service and her ability to function as a laser machine operator for the past six years, she is still considered a client. The resolution reads in part, “that this organization condemn and deplore sheltered workshop employers, such as Louisiana Association for the Blind Inc. and others, who refuse to provide unemployment benefits to blind employees solely on the basis of blindness and call upon these employers to cease and desist this discriminatory practice.” You can be sure that, because of Shirley and other sheltered workshop blind employees, as well as resolution 2020-04, we will work with Congress and state legislatures to repeal these discriminatory wage laws.
Emily Schlenker, president of the South Central Chapter of the NFB of Kansas, proposed resolution 2020-09. To sustain themselves, many blind people are applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits because of COVID-19. If an individual is determined eligible for SSDI, he or she must wait an additional five months before receiving any benefits. SSDI beneficiaries are eligible for Medicare insurance after they have received benefits for twenty-four months. These waiting periods are especially burdensome to beneficiaries during COVID-19. In resolution 2020-09, we urge Congress to temporarily eliminate these waiting periods for eligible SSDI recipients.
As a result of COVID-19, many entrepreneurs in the Randolph-Sheppard program had to close their businesses because many government employees were working from home. Nicky Gacos and Ed Birmingham—president and first vice president of the National Association of Blind Merchants, respectively—sponsored resolution 2020-29. The US House of Representatives included $20,000,000 in a budget bill to provide relief to blind vendors negatively affected by this pandemic. In this resolution the NFB urges the US Senate to provide the same funding in their budget bill.
Resolution 2020-23, sponsored by deputy director of the Jernigan Institute Lou Ann Blake, is the last resolution under what can be classified as COVID-19. In the spring of 2020, more local, state, and federal elections were conducted by using vote-by-mail to protect the health of both poll workers and voters. The US Congress must update the Help America Vote Act to cover all types of elections, not just federal elections, as well as vote-by-mail. Resolution 2020-23 reads in part:
…this organization demands that Congress provide funding to the EAC (Election Assistance Commission) for grants to develop technology that will enable electronically delivered ballots to be returned electronically in a secure manner, that will enable blind voters independently to verify their printed ballots, and to develop technology that will tabulate ballots printed from home or office printers in a manner that preserves the secrecy of the ballot.
Since its inception, the National Federation of the Blind continues to strive to improve programs and services for the blind. We also create new, innovative programs. The convention passed two resolutions offering challenges to agencies serving the blind and six resolutions urging the US Congress to take actions that will improve the lives of blind people.
Longtime Federationist Bryan Bashin is the chief executive officer at the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind. When Bryan addressed the national convention in 2019, his mantra was “Nothing without us.” This captures the spirit of resolution 2020-05, which Bryan sponsored this year. The resolution reads in part, “that this organization calls upon private agencies for the blind to adopt the formal goal of committing to a governing structure with numeric parity between blind and sighted directors and managers, which will ensure partnership with the blind who have dedicated their lives to improvement of blindness services nationally.” By formally adopting a pledge, these private agencies will demonstrate their commitment to involvement by the blind in management, governance, etc.
Resolution 2020-12 was also directed at agencies serving the blind. In this resolution we urge “all providers of services for the blind to incorporate diversity and inclusion principles and policies in their employment practices and service delivery.” Justin Salisbury, a frequent contributor to the Braille Monitor, who serves as second vice president of the National Association of Blind Students and won a national scholarship in 2011, sponsored this resolution.
The lives of blind people will definitely be improved when the US Congress heeds the next six resolutions that the convention passed. The first action we are asking Congress to take is to enact the Access Technology Affordability Act immediately. This legislation is outlined in resolution 2020-01, which “provides a solution that empowers blind people to procure these items for themselves by creating a refundable tax credit in the amount of $2,000 to be used over a three-year period.” Derique Simon won a national scholarship in 2019. He is the president of the South Carolina Association of Blind Students and is a member of the affiliate board of directors. He was the sponsor of this resolution.
Nina Marranca, a college student herself who recently graduated from the Louisiana Center for the Blind and is also the secretary and treasurer of the New York Association of Blind Students, proposed resolution 2020-03. We have worked on the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act for many years. In this resolution we thank the many members of Congress for their leadership in promoting this legislation. In this resolution we also demand that “colleges and universities make accessibility a top priority for their virtual and face-to-face campus communities.” We look forward to the passage of this legislation soon.
Jen Spears, the friendly voice who answers the phone at the Colorado Center for the Blind, described the aggravating problems that too many blind people face when Social Security alleges that they owe money due to overpayments. She sponsored resolution 2020-13. In this resolution, we urge “the United States Congress to amend the Social Security Act to specify that recovery of an overpayment for any month that is more than twelve months in the past is against equity and good conscience and must be waived unless the recipient is at fault in causing the overpayment.”
Seniors losing vision will be cheering when Congress implements resolution 2020-16. In this resolution we urge “Congress to substantially increase funding for the Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind program, so that older individuals who are blind can get the training and technology needed to live with complete independence, social integration, individual productivity, and personal dignity.” Rachel Grider sponsored this resolution. Rachel is president of the Central Valley Chapter of the NFB of California and a member of the Affiliate Board of Directors. She won a National Scholarship in 2012 and also serves as vice president of the California Association of Guide Dog Users and the secretary of the California Organization of Parents of Blind Children.
Long-time Federationist and avid Braille reader James Konechne sponsored resolution 2020-21. Congratulations to James, who, at the time of the convention, was president of the NFB of South Dakota for less than a month! The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled plans to move its headquarters closer to its parent organization, the Library of Congress. This move will definitely improve the visibility of this important program. In resolution 2020-21, we urge Congress to approve the necessary funds so that this move can take place as soon as possible.
Lizzy Mohammad Park is an active Federationist who serves as vice president of the Performing Arts Division. She won a national scholarship in 2014. Lizzy sponsored resolution 2020-27, which commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In this resolution we call upon “Congress and the United States Department of Justice to maintain the integrity and intent of the ADA and to update regulations on a timely basis so that they reflect the manner in which members of the general public live their lives, including in the areas of web accessibility.”
Eliminating barriers to employment is another long-term goal of the Federation. FaShandra Howard, treasurer of the Englewood chapter of the NFB of California, passionately described the need for resolution 2020-11. She previously worked for Amazon at a warehouse in San Bernardino. Amazon chose to terminate her rather than to provide reasonable accommodations to allow her to perform the essential functions of the job. Resolution 2020-11 reads in part, “that this organization hereby condemn and deplore Amazon’s pattern of discrimination against blind employees and job seekers in violation of federal and state law.”
It is not surprising that the convention passed a multitude of resolutions about the effect of the lack of access to various technologies. What is striking about the next eight resolutions that I will discuss is the breadth and variety of accessibility issues described in them. We have raised our expectations with regard to access over the years. We are no longer willing to allow various industries to ignore our needs.
Derrick Day will be a freshman at Westminster High School in Westminster, Maryland, in the fall of 2020. When he was in the seventh grade, he joined a robotics team to compete in the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) challenge competition. The students were to program an autonomous robot to perform certain tasks. The team faced various accessibility issues because neither the programming software nor the interface to the controller were accessible using screen readers. Since Derick and his teammates are members of the National Federation of the Blind, they were not willing to accept these limitations. Derick sponsored resolution 2020-10, which reads in part:
that this organization strongly urge the FIRST LEGO League to engage with the National Federation of the Blind, LEGO MINDSTORMS competition teams having blind persons as members, and others interested in providing an accessible LEGO MINDSTORMS experience to develop and implement full nonvisual accessibility for the LEGO MINDSTORMS programming software, LEGO EV3 Intelligent Brick and all future control brick user interfaces, and any related software or hardware necessary to program and operate LEGO MINDSTORMS robots.
Resolution 2020-18 is another example of our unwillingness to be left behind in access to information. Charles Vanek is a senior director of engineering in the communications industry. He has also been a brokerage and retirement account investor for twenty years. Charles has found frustrations in this field, so he decided to write this resolution. In resolution 2020-18, we demand “that mutual fund, brokerage, and rating services build their online and mobile applications in a manner that allows blind users to access the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services offered to other users with the same privacy, independence, and substantially equivalent ease of use.”
The International Association of Accessibility Professionals [IAAP] offers various exams which lead to certification as web accessibility specialists and other types of certification to help business professionals advance in their career. Darrell Hilliker recently took an IAAP exam which led him to propose resolution 2020-20. IAAP allows sighted people to take tests at testing centers but does not give blind people that option and does not force the testing centers that it contracts with to do the same. In this resolution we demand that IAAP develop robust accessibility policies and procedures that will eliminate the barriers faced by blind people. IAAP must also make sure that all centers that it may contract with follow the same robust accessibility practices. In proposing this resolution, Darrell was continuing his practice of promoting accessibility wherever he can. He is a long-time Federationist, and he and his wife, Allison, publish the Blind Access Journal blog and podcast.
Scott LaBarre, president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers and president of the NFB of Colorado, proposed resolution 2020-24. For many years we have been working with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to implement the Marrakesh treaty. The purpose of this treaty is to provide greater access to published works for print-disabled individuals. In resolution 2020-24, we urge WIPO to continue to rapidly expand its Global Book Service and to establish one global search site so that blind persons here and throughout the world can quickly and efficiently search for accessible titles and download them directly and immediately.
Cricket Bidleman and Paul Sandoval brought a very interesting resolution to the committee and convention. Cricket is president of the California Association of Blind Students, and she won a national scholarship in 2017. Paul is a technology trainer and is the president of the Wild West Chapter of the NFB of Colorado. The gist of resolution 2020-26 is to make sure that the accessibility needs of blind citizens are incorporated when building the structures and services in smart cities. A smart city “uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to collect data from citizens, devices, buildings, and assets to improve city services and the lives of the citizens and businesses that inhabit the city.”
Curtis Willoughby is a licensed ham radio operator. He helped to start the NFB Amateur Radio Division and served as its president for approximately twenty years. The American Radio Relay League is the preeminent organization of amateur radio operators in the US. Resolution 2020-28, which Curtis sponsored, reads in part, “that this organization demand that the American Radio Relay League immediately adopt policies and procedures to ensure that all present and future digital content be published in an accessible format on all of its platforms.”
The last three resolutions that I will discuss in this article deal with audio description. The energetic new president of the NFB of North Dakota, Jesse Shirek, sponsored resolution 2020-14. In this resolution, we demand that “YouTube develop the capability for producers to upload videos with incorporated audio description tracks that can be independently activated by the user if desired, eliminating the need for producers who wish to include AD for blind viewers to upload two separate versions of their content.”
As the sponsors of resolution 2020-22, Kelly Cussack and Samantha Flax described the wonderful experiences they have had because of the policies that Netflix has of making its films and other digital content available with audio description. Kelly is a recent graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind and will be on her way to college this fall. Samantha is president of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students and is the social media coordinator for the Minnesota affiliate. In this resolution, we commend Netflix for its extraordinary commitment to “full and equal access to its programming and services for its blind customers.”
By contrast, in resolution 2020-25, we strongly admonish HBO for its failure to provide audio-described content for its blind customers. HBO offers content from other companies but does not even bother to use their existing audio description! Last year President Riccobono wrote a letter to HBO and enclosed a resolution about its audio description failures, but HBO never responded. Jordan Moon, first vice president of the NFB of Arizona, sponsored this resolution. He lamented that, as a blind person, he pays the same subscription price that persons without disabilities pay but receives an inferior service.
As you can see, the 2020 resolutions were varied and timely. Having a virtual convention did not stifle debate, and everyone was able to cast their vote on each resolution. The influences of COVID-19, core Federation goals, and technology shaped the content of the resolutions this year. This article is merely an introductory discussion of the resolutions considered by the 2020 Convention. The complete text of each resolution is reprinted below. Readers should analyze the text of each resolution to fully understand our policies on these subjects. These resolutions will affect our activities for the coming year and beyond.
WHEREAS, blind people use access technology tools such as screen readers, refreshable Braille displays, and embossers to participate in school, succeed in careers, and live independently; and
WHEREAS, public and private entities that are responsible for providing these tools struggle to meet the current demand of blind people, which results in prolonged delays in the delivery of necessary technology to the blind; and
WHEREAS, access technology is highly specialized technology designed and manufactured for a relatively small population, leading to the high cost of these tools; and
WHEREAS, according to the 2017 American Community Survey, 69.5 percent of Americans who report having a “visual disability” are unemployed or underemployed and do not have the financial resources needed to purchase these tools; and
WHEREAS, even more blind Americans have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, blind children and blind college students are learning online from home, and many states are enforcing stay-at-home orders; and
WHEREAS, access technology could help blind citizens look for new jobs, keep up with their coursework, or find out which local businesses are open and safe for them to visit; and
WHEREAS, on March 14, 2019, Senators Boozman and Cardin introduced S. 815, and on April 4, 2019, Representatives Thompson and Kelly introduced H.R. 2086, the Access Technology Affordability Act; and
WHEREAS, this legislation provides a solution that empowers blind people to procure these items for themselves by creating a refundable tax credit in the amount of $2,000 to be used over a three-year period: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization commend Senators Boozman and Cardin, and Representatives Thompson and Kelly for introducing the Access Technology Affordability Act; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization strongly urge the United States Congress to enact the Access Technology Affordability Act immediately.
WHEREAS, children who have parents who are involved in their schools and communicate with their teachers regularly are more likely to succeed educationally; and
WHEREAS, blind parents need equal access to the various communications sent home from their children’s schools in order to be as active in the education of their children as sighted parents; and
WHEREAS, schools are often turning to various apps, such as ParentSquare, to provide instant and simple communication between parents, teachers, and school administrators; and
WHEREAS, ParentSquare has proven to have a level of accessibility that allows blind parents to keep up with school-wide and classroom events, sign up for parent-teacher conferences, volunteer in the classroom or school, communicate with other parents, and privately message teachers or groups of teachers in order to share accomplishments or discuss concerns; and
WHEREAS, other apps have not proven to have this level of accessibility, thereby denying blind parents the right to easily obtain relevant information about classroom and school events and communicate with other parents and teachers in the same way as sighted parents: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization commend ParentSquare for its work to make its app accessible; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand all companies responsible for the development of parent-school communication apps ensure their products are accessible to blind parents, teachers, and school administrators.
WHEREAS, technology has revolutionized access to information, course materials, interaction with administration, and other facets of student life in higher education; and
WHEREAS, Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit colleges and universities from discriminating against persons with disabilities and mandate equal access to educational opportunities; and
WHEREAS, many postsecondary institutions are failing to comply with these mandates as they apply in the digital world, routinely developing, procuring, or deploying inaccessible technology, which results in unequal access to academic opportunities and denial of full and equal participation for blind students; and
WHEREAS, solutions exist to make technology accessible to blind students and faculty members, but such solutions must be prioritized in the higher education market and beyond; and
WHEREAS, on December 5, 2019, Congressman Roe of Tennessee and Congressman Courtney of Connecticut introduced H.R. 5312, the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education (AIM HIGH) Act; and
WHEREAS, on December 18, 2019, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with Senator Ernst of Iowa, Senator Bennet of Colorado, Senator Sullivan of Alaska, and Senator Tester of Montana introduced companion legislation, S. 3095; and
WHEREAS, this legislation establishes a commission to evaluate existing accessibility standards and to develop guidelines that technology procurement officers and other postsecondary personnel can adopt in order to expand the circle of participation and include blind and print-disabled students in the 21st century interactive classroom: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that we demand colleges and universities make accessibility a top priority for their virtual and face-to-face campus communities; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the National Federation of the Blind commend Congressmen Roe and Courtney, as well as Senators Warren, Bennet, Ernst, Sullivan, and Tester for their leadership on this crucial initiative in the 116th Congress; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization commend the American Council on Education, the Association of American Publishers, and the Software Information and Industry Association for working with the National Federation of the Blind and for supporting the swift passage of the AIM HIGH Act in the 116th Congress.
WHEREAS, blind people are and can be productive employees, with all of the talent and capacity possessed by other employees across the range of employment in the United States; and
WHEREAS, the amount of unemployment benefits, if any, that a person is entitled to if laid off depends on the applicant’s earnings in the months before being laid off (known as the “base period”); and
WHEREAS, Section 3309 of the Federal Unemployment Tax Act, 26 U.S.C. § 3309(b)(4), declares that wages paid to blind employees in sheltered workshops may be excluded from benefits under the Federal Unemployment Tax Act; and
WHEREAS, this provision discriminates against blind employees on the basis of blindness; and
WHEREAS, blind people employed in workshops perform the same work as their sighted colleagues and rely on their earned income just as do their sighted colleagues; and
WHEREAS, blind employees at workshops are laid off during times of slack employment to the same degree as other employees and have the same need for unemployment compensation to pay for rent, food, utilities, and other obligations; and
WHEREAS, many states have adopted laws that exclude from unemployment calculation wages earned by blind individuals employed in workshops; and
WHEREAS, the effect of implementing these laws is to deny unemployment benefits to blind people working in sheltered workshops in states that implement these laws; and
WHEREAS, Louisiana Association for the Blind Inc. has decided, in accordance with state and federal laws, that it will not include wages paid to blind employees in its calculation of unemployment benefits: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization condemn and deplore sheltered workshop employers, such as Louisiana Association for the Blind Inc. and others, who refuse to provide unemployment benefits to blind employees solely on the basis of blindness and call upon these employers to cease and desist this discriminatory practice; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon the United States Congress to repeal the discriminatory provision of the Federal Unemployment Tax Act that authorizes the exclusion of wages paid to blind employees from unemployment benefits; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon the legislature of each state that has authorized exclusion of wages paid to blind employees from unemployment tax benefits to repeal this discriminatory provision.
WHEREAS, over 200 private agencies in the US have been created to serve the blind; and
WHEREAS, an essential part of the governing structure of an agency for the blind is to include the processes, policies, and procedures that will ensure that the agency for the blind administration is responsive to the interests, needs, and aspirations of its constituency; and
WHEREAS, the most authentic representatives of the constituency of agencies that serve the blind are blind people who have the lived experience of blindness and have shown the commitment to engage in self-organization and who are willing to be partners, directors, or managers of agencies for the blind and advisors to them: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization call upon private agencies for the blind to adopt the formal goal of committing to a governing structure with numeric parity between blind and sighted directors and managers, which will ensure partnership with the blind who have dedicated their lives to improvement of blindness services nationally; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we call upon and invite all United States blindness private agencies formally to adopt the following Blindness Parity Pledge, to wit:
Our agency, the [NAME OF ORGANIZATION], was created and exists to help blind people. We believe that those in whose name we serve should be represented in parity in the governing board of directors and agency management. This parity will result in blind people having a significant contribution to help guide the services our agency provides and guiding the most effective ways to give it. Therefore, we pledge ourselves to the values and commitments that follow:
We are managed by executives who are compensated for their work, and those executives, in turn, are managed by a board of directors. We believe that blind people must be a part of any blind agency’s management team at both of these levels. While setting any particular percentage may appear to be arbitrary, we know that without a number it is impossible to measure whether we are meeting our goal of significant involvement. We therefore pledge that this agency will assure, in five years or less, that at least half of our management team be composed of people who are blind. We further pledge that within the same five-year period that our organization will commit that a minimum of 50 percent of its governing Board of Directors be composed of people who are blind.
To underscore the importance of parity representing those we serve, we pledge to amend our bylaws to ensure that the parity, once achieved, will continue as a hallmark and point of pride in our agency in perpetuity.
We believe there is no better way to demonstrate our commitment to the constituency we serve than to have blind people contributing by being part of our management. Our agency's current operation and its goals for the future must be informed by those we serve, and we must, in appearance and in fact, be guided by blind people’s experience and aspirations at every level.
The effect of blind inclusion and parity will ultimately help our agency address the accessibility needs of those we serve. They will help ensure that every document we create will be accessible. With our full community engaged, we will strive to see that our presence on the World Wide Web is exemplary and demonstrates that websites can be both visually attractive and completely usable with screen reading technology. Furthermore, our commitment to accessibility will extend far beyond the written word. When we produce charts, graphs, and documents with pictures, we will use state-of-the-art technology to make these accessible for the blind.
We value the feedback and active participation of blind people in the development and implementation of the services we provide. In addition to reaching parity on our board and management team, we pledge also to create a working committee of the consumers we serve to meet regularly throughout the year and advise on best practices in our programs and services. The members of this independent advisory committee and the chairperson of the committee will be chosen by the consumers themselves and meet at least quarterly with senior management to build an agency which will continue to grow in responsive, relevant, and blind-positive ways.
WHEREAS, companies are increasingly hosting meetings and events online and schools are conducting more classes virtually; and
WHEREAS, COVID-19 has dramatically increased the use of virtual events by all organizations; and
WHEREAS, virtual conferencing software provides features including audio and video sharing, sharing of a user’s screen, text chat, and more; and
WHEREAS, virtual conferencing software is commonly used to conduct many internal and external activities for organizations including team meetings, company presentations, webinars, product demonstrations, trainings, and classes; and
WHEREAS, the nonvisual accessibility of virtual-conferencing solutions varies widely, with some programs not announcing chat and screen share activity and others having problems with user interfaces; and
WHEREAS, even the most accessible solutions have not found ways to make features such as screen- and document-sharing and interactive features, such as remote control and whiteboards, fully accessible; and
WHEREAS, Zoom conferencing is one of the most nonvisually accessible solutions available, with its variety of keyboard shortcuts, straightforward and accessible interface, and variety of announcements for screen reader users; and
WHEREAS, Zoom has been responsive to the needs of blind and low-vision users and continues to work to improve the nonvisual accessibility of its product: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization commend Zoom Video Conferencing for its leading work on nonvisual access to conferencing solutions; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge all conferencing vendors to continue to improve nonvisual access to their platforms and to collaborate with the National Federation of the Blind to find new and innovative solutions to barriers that exist now or may arise in the future.
WHEREAS, regular physical activity, healthy eating, and quality sleep are key factors in maintaining good health and reducing the risk of obesity; and
WHEREAS, blind people are twice as likely as our sighted peers to experience obesity and significantly more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle, leading to increased risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, depression, and certain site-specific cancers; and
WHEREAS, many of these risk factors—including obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes—are likely to increase the severity of COVID-19, potentially resulting in hospitalization or even death; and
WHEREAS, most people have the option of using quality fitness applications and websites to access exercise programs and diet plans, as well as to track various health and wellness information in order to achieve and maintain good health; and
WHEREAS, Gallup’s 2019 Health and Healthcare survey reports that more than 1/3 of Americans currently use a fitness application or wearable fitness technology to track their fitness, food intake, sleep, steps, stress, or other health-related factors; and
WHEREAS, the temporary, and in some cases permanent, closure of fitness facilities across the United States due to COVID-19 has accelerated the demand for and growth of the digital fitness industry; and
WHEREAS, many fitness applications, websites, videos, tutorials, pictorial representations, recipes, brochures, and other materials are inaccessible to blind people, making it increasingly difficult for blind people to manage our health effectively; and
WHEREAS, customer support is inconsistent at best and rarely offers alternatives that allow blind people equal access to fitness tracking, programming, and supplementary items; and
WHEREAS, digital accessibility guidelines and best practices in video description and web and application accessibility exist to enable these companies to make their digital content and supplementary items accessible without causing an undue financial burden; and
WHEREAS, in light of the risks associated with neglecting to manage our health, the inability to fully access features of major fitness companies including Weight Watchers, Beachbody, Aaptiv, Fitbit, and many others, constitutes a public health emergency and an inequity that is not addressed by the medical community: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization urge wellness and fitness industry leaders including Weight Watchers, Beachbody, Aaptiv, Fitbit, and others to collaborate with the National Federation of the Blind to make their programs, services, websites, and apps nonvisually accessible, and to work with the National Federation of the Blind regarding sensitivity training for blind customers; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we strongly urge the United States Office of Personnel Management, Medicare, other health insurance companies, vocational rehabilitation agencies, and others who contract with third-party providers of health and wellness content to stop procuring health and wellness products and services that are inaccessible to blind people; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon national health care organizations and advocates, such as the American Medical Association, to join their voices with ours to raise awareness about this unjust health care inequity.
WHEREAS, equal access to current news and information is critically important for everyone in the twenty-first century, and this is no less true for the blind; and
WHEREAS, the current COVID-19 pandemic has only increased and accentuated the urgent need for equal access to timely and accessible information; and
WHEREAS, the pandemic has also acutely demonstrated the need for accessible infographics, tables, charts, and other image-based or graphical formats in the presentation of news and information; and
WHEREAS, inaccessibility is a problem across news and media platforms: for example, many news websites and apps contain significant accessibility barriers; streaming services have widely varying degrees of accessibility; and television newscasts do not include any audio description, not even to identify speakers and interviewees, which could easily be accomplished using available text-to-speech technology; and
WHEREAS, while federal regulations have done much good by establishing a system for the uniform provision of emergency weather information to the blind over broadcast television channels, consideration of further measures to increase the accessibility of news and current information is warranted, including to expand access for deafblind consumers; and
WHEREAS, the vast majority of news and other mass media in the United States is produced, controlled, and/or distributed by a relatively small number of large media conglomerates owning multiple media outlets (e.g., National Amusements, Disney, News Corp., Time Warner, Comcast, Bloomberg, Fox, Sony, Hearst, Scripps, Sinclair), each of which owns properties across multiple platforms and each of which has the resources to develop and implement a comprehensive accessibility policy across its outlet; and
WHEREAS, leaders in the news and mass media industries, by implementing well-thought-out accessibility policies and practices, would set an example for the many independent and startup mass media companies now proliferating: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization call upon all major media companies in the United States to develop and implement cross-platform accessibility strategies including web and mobile app accessibility, audio description, and other components designed to make news and information fully and equally accessible to blind and deafblind consumers; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we call upon the Federal Communications Commission to consider expanding requirements for media access, particularly in the area of broadcast and cable television, with the goal of making news and information more accessible to the blind and deafblind communities.
WHEREAS, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many Americans to lose their jobs, including blind people; and
WHEREAS, blind Americans who have lost their jobs can be expected to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Medicare benefits; and
WHEREAS, once a claimant has been determined eligible, a waiting period of five months must be observed prior to receiving SSDI payments, and a waiting period of twenty-four months must be observed before a claimant can receive Medicare insurance; and
WHEREAS, Congress, in legislation intended to ease the financial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on all Americans, neglected to address these overly burdensome waiting periods: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization urge Congress to temporarily waive these waiting periods during this pandemic so that blind Americans can receive SSDI and Medicare benefits immediately after they are deemed eligible.
WHEREAS, FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international youth organization that operates the FIRST Robotics Competition and other FIRST LEGO League Challenges; and
WHEREAS, in 1998 the founder of FIRST and the owner of the LEGO Group joined forces to create FIRST LEGO League (FLL), which challenges kids to think like scientists and engineers to solve real-world problems while learning how to build and program autonomous robots; and
WHEREAS, one of the core principles espoused by FLL for its competitions is that of inclusion: “we respect each other and embrace our differences”; and
WHEREAS, a desire to explore the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is not limited to sighted students; and
WHEREAS, presently, neither the software provided by FLL for programming nor the interface to the MINDSTORMS robot controller includes any accessibility features or support for third-party screen-reader access technologies; and
WHEREAS, a team working with Dr. Andreas Stefik from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has developed an alternative firmware which enables the Quorum programming language to run on the LEGO EV3 Intelligent Brick (the brain of the robot), providing an accessible path for blind students to participate in FLL challenges; and
WHEREAS, this firmware requires approximately fifteen seconds to load before the MINDSTORMS robot can begin executing instructions, and the native LEGO MINDSTORMS firmware requires no appreciable boot time; and
WHEREAS, without allowances for the extra boot time that the alternative firmware requires, teams of blind students who must use screen readers are unfairly penalized for using a tool necessary for them to program their robot; and
WHEREAS, blind students are further penalized because they are required to execute their missions on a mat that has no tactile cues; and
WHEREAS, for many years, FLL executives have been informed of these problems by accessibility experts and leaders and coaches from teams of blind students, but have failed to eliminate the barriers faced by blind participants; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind is the largest consumer organization of blind people in the nation, which, for eighty years, has worked to increase educational opportunities and access to STEM subjects and careers: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization strongly urge the FIRST LEGO League to engage with the National Federation of the Blind, LEGO MINDSTORMS competition teams having blind persons as members, and others interested in providing an accessible LEGO MINDSTORMS experience to develop and implement full nonvisual accessibility for the LEGO MINDSTORMS programming software, LEGO EV3 Intelligent Brick and all future control brick user interfaces, and any related software or hardware necessary to program and operate LEGO MINDSTORMS robots; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization strongly encourage FLL, until such time as the LEGO MINDSTORMS software and control hardware is fully accessible to all, to allow any team that so chooses the opportunity to use the Quorum programming language and alternative firmware so as not to create a segregated environment for teams where blind students participate; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that FLL restructure its rules to eliminate time penalties, to ensure that all documentation is provided in formats that are accessible to blind participants and coaches, and to develop tactile representations of the mats used for executing robotic challenges during competitions.
WHEREAS, Amazon promotes itself as building an inclusive culture for employees with disabilities, in part, through the establishment of its Global Accessibility Awareness Month and Amazon People with Disabilities affinity group; and
WHEREAS, employment with Amazon is highly desirable in that Amazon offers industry-leading benefits, including comprehensive healthcare, retirement savings plans, tuition reimbursement, and more; and
WHEREAS, Amazon maintains a practice of refusing to accommodate blind employees in entry level positions by prohibiting the use of screen access software in workstations, refusing to modify job assignments, and failing to install tactile safety features in warehouse settings; and
WHEREAS, Amazon has established a pattern of shifting these blind employees to leave-without-pay status or terminating them, rather than providing necessary accommodations; and
WHEREAS, Amazon could provide these accommodations, modifications, and safety features without significant difficulty or expense given Amazon’s financial and technological resources; and
WHEREAS, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from denying employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities when that denial is based on the need to provide reasonable accommodations; and
WHEREAS, Title I of the ADA obligates employers to engage in an interactive process when reviewing accommodation requests; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind has advocated strongly on behalf of blind employees by filing suit and supporting administrative complaints against Amazon for its disparate treatment of blind workers and job applicants: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization hereby condemn and deplore Amazon’s pattern of discrimination against blind employees and job seekers in violation of federal and state law; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand Amazon promptly implement processes for reviewing and approving reasonable accommodations and modifications for blind employees, including the use of third-party screen access software at workstations, approval of reasonable assignment modifications, and implementation of nonvisual safety precautions in warehouse settings; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand Amazon immediately cease placing blind employees on leave without pay while Amazon engages in a reasonable accommodation review process.
WHEREAS, employers that incorporate diversity and inclusion principles and policies implement positive initiatives, policies, and practices to eliminate the disadvantages some people experience due to systemic discrimination which influences recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement in the workplace; and
WHEREAS, agencies that incorporate diversity and inclusion principles and whose leadership and staff come from demographic backgrounds representative of the people they serve are more effective in relating to their clientele and operating in non-discriminatory ways than agencies that have not adopted diversity and inclusion policies; and
WHEREAS, the United States has a long history of discrimination based on demographic factors such as race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disability, and other factors, which can affect the provision of blindness-related services, such as vocational rehabilitation; and
WHEREAS, blind people can be restricted from reaching their full potential when they experience discrimination in their quest for the blindness-related services that are designed to elevate them above low expectations and societal attitudes; and
WHEREAS, some agencies serving the blind do not currently incorporate diversity and inclusion principles and policies into their recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement approaches; and
WHEREAS, agencies that do not implement diversity and inclusion principles and policies often do not have a workforce and management team that is diverse, inclusive, or demographically similar to the clientele served by these agencies; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind works actively to promote diversity and inclusion while raising the expectations of blind people: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization urge all providers of services for the blind to incorporate diversity and inclusion principles and policies in their employment practices and service delivery; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization commend all providers of services for the blind that have already embraced diversity and inclusion principles and policies in employment practices and service delivery.
WHEREAS, blind Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients are often notified of alleged overpayments made to them by the Social Security Administration; and
WHEREAS, the law allows the Social Security Administration to seek recovery of alleged overpayments without regard to whether an individual is or is not currently receiving benefits and without regard to when in the past the alleged overpayment supposedly occurred, leading to overpayment allegations that are more than twenty or thirty years in the past; and
WHEREAS, this situation leaves both current and former Social Security and SSI recipients at permanent risk of having to defend themselves against attempted recovery of alleged overpayments, which often amount to tens of thousands of dollars; and
WHEREAS, it is unconscionable that the Social Security Administration is allowed to pursue overpayment allegations against recipients at any time, past or present, while at the same time holding recipients to timely filing of reports to document earnings and continued entitlement to benefits; and
WHEREAS, requiring alleged overpayments to be returned years after the proceeds have typically been spent on day-to-day living expenses such as food, clothing, and shelter is unjust and can result in extreme financial hardship: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization urge the United States Congress to amend the Social Security Act to specify that recovery of an overpayment for any month that is more than twelve months in the past is against equity and good conscience and must be waived unless the recipient is at fault in causing the overpayment.
WHEREAS, YouTube, a product of Google, is the most popular platform for the hosting of internet videos created by members of the public; and
WHEREAS, YouTube hosts millions of videos from all over the world, and more are uploaded every day; and
WHEREAS, YouTube collaborated with the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute to create YouDescribe, a separate website and app that allows volunteers to produce audio description (AD) for YouTube videos and hosts the described versions of the videos; and
WHEREAS, other than the YouDescribe project, YouTube has made no real effort to incorporate AD into its own platform or to acquire or license AD for the programs hosted on its premium YouTube TV service; and
WHEREAS, specifically, even if a video producer chooses to include AD for their video, the AD track cannot be incorporated into the uploaded video for optional access by users through a toggle button, as can closed captions, and instead the producer must upload an entirely separate version of the video that includes the audio description; and
WHEREAS, Vimeo and other popular video-upload services also do not have an option for producers to include integrated AD with their content: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization demand YouTube develop the capability for producers to upload videos with incorporated AD tracks that can be independently activated by the user if desired, eliminating the need for producers who wish to include AD for blind viewers to upload two separate versions of their content; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand YouTube TV incorporate AD into its offerings to the maximum extent feasible; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we call upon Vimeo and other video hosting services to incorporate the ability to accept AD into their services as well.
WHEREAS, literacy is a crucial skill for all in order to fully succeed in education and adult life; and
WHEREAS, for blind children, true literacy means becoming proficient in reading and writing the Braille code; and
WHEREAS, blind children are at an automatic disadvantage when compared to their sighted peers, as print for sighted children is pervasive in the environment, and Braille is not; and
WHEREAS, children master reading best when they practice early and often, and they will be much more likely and willing to practice if they have a variety of books at, or just above, their current reading level to choose from; and
WHEREAS, more and more apps such as Epic! and Raz-Kids are being developed to provide thousands of books electronically, particularly for children pre-K through second grade, so they can practice reading, and so teachers and parents can track their reading progress; and
WHEREAS, these apps are being used in millions of classrooms and homes across the country; and
WHEREAS, most do not offer the ability for a blind student to read any of their titles using a Braille display, and although some offer an audio option, listening to a book without the ability to follow along in Braille the way their sighted peers can in print is not a true literacy experience for a child who is blind; and
WHEREAS, parents and teachers who are blind would also benefit in countless ways if they had the ability to interact with these apps using a Braille display: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that we demand the creators of educational apps make them fully accessible to ensure all blind students, parents, and teachers can have the ability to read any book available using a Braille display; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge these developers to call upon the expertise of blind students, parents, and teachers in the National Federation of the Blind while making these changes in order to create apps which will truly reflect the needs and authentic experiences of blind people.
WHEREAS, Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind (OIB) is a program funded through the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) that provides training and accessible technology for individuals fifty-five years or older who are blind, to increase their ability to live independently and care for their individual needs; and
WHEREAS, for the past three fiscal years the OIB program has been awarded $33,317,000 each year; and
WHEREAS, the American Community Survey estimated that in 2018 there were 4,584,000 blind people who were fifty-five or older and, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this number should increase rapidly due to diabetes and other chronic diseases that cause blindness; and
WHEREAS, with $33,317,000 awarded to the OIB program each of the past three years to serve an eligible population of approximately 4,584,000 individuals (approximately $7.27 per eligible individual), this funding is woefully inadequate; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines one's abilities, and, given the proper technology and training, blind people can live the lives they want; and
WHEREAS, in order for blind people to fully participate in their communities, they must have access to technology such as screen readers, smart phones, and Braille notetakers and training to use them, as well as training in orientation and mobility and independent living skills; and
WHEREAS, the limited funding for the OIB program is far from adequate to cover the cost of such access technology, which often ranges from $1,000 to $6,000, as well as quality training to meet the needs of the individual: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization urge Congress to substantially increase funding for the Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind program, so that older individuals who are blind can get the training and technology needed to live with complete independence, social integration, individual productivity, and personal dignity.
WHEREAS, College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) exams are high-stakes tests through which students can demonstrate subject mastery and use their test scores to fulfill college credits; and
WHEREAS, College Board’s AP exams are historically administered within high schools; and
WHEREAS, due to COVID-19-related school building closures, College Board shifted its AP test administration to a virtual format; and
WHEREAS, blind students who had previously been approved by College Board to receive hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics as test accommodations were told that these accommodations would no longer be available for the Spring 2020 AP administration; and
WHEREAS, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits testing entities from discriminating against individuals with disabilities and stipulates that tests must be delivered in a manner that measures an individual’s mastery of the subject matter, as opposed to reflecting his or her disability; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind and five high school students filed complaints with the United States Departments of Education and Justice regarding College Board’s refusal to provide hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics; and
WHEREAS, College Board subsequently agreed to make hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics available for blind students who had previously been approved for these accommodations for AP tests, should the students request them again; and
WHEREAS, College Board announced its intention by letter to the National Federation of the Blind to consult with the Federation on ways to make a digital SAT accessible to blind students should the test be administered digitally in Fall 2020: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization hereby commend the College Board for revising its interim COVID-19 AP testing procedures to reincorporate delivery of hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics and for committing to consult with the National Federation of the Blind on delivery of such accommodations for a possible 2020 digital SAT administration; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that all high-stakes testing entities, including College Board, implement plans for the provision of hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics for any test administration, in conformance with Title III of the ADA, regardless of whether testing occurs in person or virtually.
WHEREAS, most investment platforms for mutual fund and brokerage services do not offer blind investors all of the information contained in infographics, charts, or graphs in accessible formats; and
WHEREAS, popular investment rating websites and apps that are used to make critical investment decisions frequently contain inaccessible infographics, charts, and graphs; and
WHEREAS, monthly, quarterly, or annual financial statements may be provided on these websites and apps as inaccessible PDFs or other electronic formats; and
WHEREAS, blind investors should be able to make well informed investment decisions and updates to their accounts in a timely manner without the loss of privacy resulting from assistance needed to work around inaccessible content; and
WHEREAS, blind investors should have all the benefits of data available to other investors on platforms or on investing websites to manage their wealth: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization demand mutual fund, brokerage, and rating services build their online and mobile applications in a manner that allows blind users to access the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services offered to other users with the same privacy, independence, and substantially equivalent ease of use.
WHEREAS, the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) is a not-for-profit membership organization based in Atlanta, Georgia; and
WHEREAS, the members of the IAAP are individuals and organizations that are focused on accessibility or are in the process of building their accessibility skills and strategies; and
WHEREAS, the IAAP’s “Vision of Universal Design” states that “implementing Universal Design principles takes everybody into account and leads to fully inclusive and sustainable digital and built environments"; and
WHEREAS, the IAAP claims to be a space where "accessibility professionals from around the world come together to define, promote, and improve the accessibility profession through networking, education, and certification"; and
WHEREAS, the IAAP offers the Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC), the Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS), and other professional certification exams to facilitate credentialing in the accessibility industry; and
WHEREAS, the IAAP offers the most widely recognized and accepted credentialing exams in the industry; and
WHEREAS, the IAAP offers its tests at specialized testing centers, as well as at professional conferences such as CSUN, and most recently online at home because of COVID-19; and
WHEREAS, the IAAP discriminates against blind test-takers because it does not offer blind test-takers the same access to these multiple testing options as it does to sighted test-takers; and
WHEREAS, the IAAP contracts with Kryterion Global Testing Solutions (KGTS) to provide the testing centers, and these testing centers refuse to make reasonable modifications to allow their services to be accessible to blind test-takers; and
WHEREAS, for instance, KGTS uses biometric eye scanners for identification as a requirement to access online testing, a function which most blind people cannot perform; and
WHEREAS, KGTS frequently refuses to work with blind test-takers and simply refers the individual to the IAAP; and
WHEREAS, instead of forcing KGTS to accommodate blind test-takers, the IAAP requires the blind test-takers to sit for a privately proctored exam and to employ their own proctors, at their own expense; and
WHEREAS, to no avail, blind test-takers have challenged the IAAP’s discriminatory testing policies by filing complaints explaining these issues: Now, therefore
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization demand the IAAP develop robust accessibility policies and procedures that will eliminate the barriers faced by blind people to truly meet its stated goal of full inclusion; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization insist that the IAAP promptly end its relationship with Kryterion Global Testing Solutions unless KGTS adopts and publicly posts a robust accessibility policy, including use of accessible testing centers and accessible testing practices.
WHEREAS, since 1931, the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), a program of the Library of Congress, has provided quality reading materials to the blind, thereby increasing knowledge, opportunity, and the ability to live the lives we want; and
WHEREAS, because of the responsiveness to feedback from blind patrons, the quality of service provided by the NLS has made it widely recognized as the most successful library program for the blind in the world; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind has a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the NLS that has resulted in the expansion of the library’s programs to include children, the inclusion of music materials, the transition to digital technology, and advocating for the distribution of refreshable Braille displays; and
WHEREAS, the operations of this national treasure of equality and accessible information have been relegated to a rented building miles away from the center of our nation’s capital where all of our most important federal buildings are located and far from the Library of Congress, which manages the program; and
WHEREAS, a new location at 501 First Street SE, Washington, DC, has been identified for relocating the NLS to property already owned by the federal government and within a few city blocks of the main Library of Congress building; and
WHEREAS, placing NLS on this property would highlight the nation’s commitment to equal access for all citizens, create greater awareness resulting from greater public exposure, be more easily accessed using public transportation, improve the storage and security of library holdings, increase the ability for elected officials to benefit from the expertise of the NLS to better communicate with constituents, and more effectively utilize the specialized knowledge base of the staff at the National Library Service: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization urge the United States Congress to appropriate the necessary funds to move the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled to the property at 501 First Street SE, Washington, DC, and that the design and execution of this construction project begin as soon as possible.
WHEREAS, Netflix is a subscription streaming service that hosts movies, television programs, and other video content; and
WHEREAS, content available on Netflix includes an ever-increasing number of popular and/or critically acclaimed films and programs specifically created for the service, such as the TV shows Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black, and the Oscar-winning film, The Irishman; and
WHEREAS, since 2016 Netflix has incorporated audio description (AD) into all of its original programming, and the vast majority of new programming released by Netflix since that time has included AD at the time of its release to the general public; and
WHEREAS, while the incorporation of AD was spurred by a settlement agreement, there can be no question that Netflix has gone above and beyond that agreement in making accessible content available; and
WHEREAS, for example, Netflix not only includes AD for its original programming, but has taken care to acquire or license AD for programs that it gets from other producers and providers, including acquiring AD produced for foreign markets when necessary, and in some cases has commissioned AD for popular programs not produced by Netflix, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, when AD was otherwise unavailable; and
WHEREAS, Netflix has continuously engaged with the National Federation of the Blind to seek feedback on the quality and availability of AD on the platform, as well as the accessibility of its website and apps and possible other improvements to the service that may increase its usefulness to blind customers: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization strongly commend Netflix for its extraordinary commitment to full and equal access to its programming and services for its blind customers; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we urge Netflix to continue to work with the National Federation of the Blind to improve the overall value and quality of its service to blind consumers.
WHEREAS, the ability to cast a secret ballot independently is a cornerstone of our democracy that enables citizens to vote their consciences without fear; and
WHEREAS, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that voters with disabilities be afforded an opportunity to exercise the right to vote that is equivalent to the opportunity afforded to voters without disabilities; and
WHEREAS, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) currently applies only to federal elections and to voting systems found in the polling place; and
WHEREAS, the use of vote-by-mail and absentee voting to conduct local, state, and federal elections has increased substantially due to the COVID-19 pandemic; and
WHEREAS, data collected by the United States Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) show that the percentage of ballots cast by mail and absentee voting has steadily increased nationwide from twelve percent in 2004 to twenty-four percent in 2016; and
WHEREAS, while the accessible electronic ballot delivery systems currently available enable blind, low-vision, and deafblind voters to mark their ballots privately and independently using computers and access technology, the printed paper ballot that most jurisdictions require the voter to mail in requires the voter to have access to a printer and frequently cannot be verified by the blind voter because optical character recognition (OCR) does not recognize a filled-in bubble; and
WHEREAS, the ballots marked using an electronic ballot delivery system and printed on a home or office printer cannot be inserted into currently available tabulators to be counted, and the votes contained on these ballots must be manually transferred to ballot-stock ballots and then visually inspected for accuracy; and
WHEREAS, because of security concerns, most jurisdictions do not permit the acceptance of ballots that are delivered electronically to be returned electronically or via email; and
WHEREAS, there is currently no federal certification process or federal guidelines to guarantee the accessibility, usability, and security of electronic ballot delivery systems as currently exists for in-person voting systems under HAVA: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization demand Congress amend HAVA to require that there be at least one accessible ballot-marking system in each polling place for all local and state elections in addition to all federal elections; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand Congress amend HAVA to include vote-by-mail and absentee voting and to require that an accessible electronic ballot-delivery system be available to voters with disabilities for all local, state, and federal elections; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand Congress amend HAVA to provide the authority and funding to the EAC necessary to develop and implement federal guidelines to ensure the accessibility, usability, and security of electronic ballot-delivery systems, and to develop a certification program to certify systems that meet these guidelines; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand Congress provide funding to the EAC for grants to develop technology that will enable electronically delivered ballots to be returned electronically in a secure manner, that will enable blind voters independently to verify their printed ballots, and to develop technology that will tabulate ballots printed from home or office printers in a manner that preserves the secrecy of the ballot.
WHEREAS, the member states of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) adopted the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled (Marrakesh Treaty) in June 2013 to create exceptions and limitations to copyright law permitting the copying of published works into accessible formats and to allow the sharing of accessible copies across international borders; and
WHEREAS, there are currently 67 parties to the Treaty covering 94 countries including the United States; and
WHEREAS, WIPO created the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) in June 2014 to help implement the Marrakesh Treaty through establishing the accessible Global Book Service, building capacity to produce accessible books in developing and least developed countries, and to promote inclusive publishing throughout the world; and
WHEREAS, the Global Book Service now has 71 participating libraries for the blind and print disabled, with 634,000 accessible titles available through the Service; and
WHEREAS, WIPO is dramatically expanding the capacity of the Global Book Service by migrating its collection to the Cloud and developing an application to allow consumers of ABC’s partner libraries to search for and download books; and
WHEREAS, ABC is also leading the effort to establish a global, federated, online search, whereby the blind and print disabled will be able to search for accessible works from the widest number of sources, leading to the ability of eligible blind and print-disabled persons to find accessible books immediately; and
WHEREAS, Dr. Francis Gurry has served as Director General of WIPO since 2008; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind awarded Dr. Gurry its Global Literacy Award in 2018 in recognition of his outstanding leadership, which played a key role adopting the Marrakesh Treaty and establishing ABC, and for his commitment to recognizing and securing the right of the blind to access information; and
WHEREAS, Dr. Gurry’s term as Director General comes to a close on September 30, 2020: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth Day of July, 2020, that we applaud WIPO for its commitment to implementing the Marrakesh Treaty worldwide; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge WIPO to continue rapidly expanding its Global Book Service and establishing a federated search site so that blind persons here and throughout the world can quickly and efficiently search for accessible titles and download them directly and immediately; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we commend Dr. Francis Gurry for his committed leadership in putting accessible books into the hands of the blind, congratulate him on completing his term as Director General of WIPO, and wish him well for the future.
WHEREAS, HBO, operated by Home Box Office, Inc., a subsidiary of AT&T’s Warner Media, is a package of premium cable channels that air commercial-free, uncensored content including movies, comedy specials, concerts, documentaries, sporting events, and original scripted television series; and
WHEREAS, HBO has now launched HBO Max, a stand-alone streaming service, which according to its website includes “all of HBO together with even more of your favorite series and blockbuster movies, plus new and exclusive Max originals for everyone in your family”; and
WHEREAS, over the past two decades the original programming produced by and for HBO has been among the most critically acclaimed, culturally significant, and popular television programming available, including shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, True Detective, Veep, and Westworld; and
WHEREAS, neither HBO nor HBO Max offer audio description (AD) for any of their programming, even though AD has often been produced for said programming for airing in foreign markets like the United Kingdom; and
WHEREAS, HBO Max includes many movies (e.g., Wonder Woman and other DC Universe franchise films) and television shows (e.g. Friends, The Big Bang Theory) for which AD has been produced, either domestically or for foreign markets, but the service does not include the existing AD for these movies or programs either; and
WHEREAS, the service also includes content from TNT and TBS, cable networks that regularly air audio-described programming, but the AD for their programs is not included as part of the service; and
WHEREAS, last year the national convention of this organization unanimously passed Resolution 2019-21 demanding that HBO add AD for existing programming and produce AD for new original programming, and subsequently President Riccobono wrote a letter to HBO expressing this demand and including the resolution, but no response has been received from any representative of HBO or its parent companies; and
WHEREAS, HBO has provided no indication to the National Federation of the Blind that any plans are in the works for any of HBO’s services to include AD; and
WHEREAS, in failing to provide AD on any of its platforms, HBO has not only failed to respond to the needs of blind Americans but, with respect to HBO Max, has also failed to follow the lead of other streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Hulu, CBS All Access, Watch ABC, and more; and
WHEREAS, the lack of audio description on both HBO and HBO Max continues to mean that blind subscribers, while paying the same subscription fees for access to HBO and/or HBO Max as subscribers without disabilities, do not have equal access to its programming; and
WHEREAS, to add insult to injury, the HBO Max app for iOS devices is completely inaccessible: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization condemn and deplore the failure of HBO, Warner Media, and AT&T to provide audio description for programming on the HBO channels and/or HBO Max or to engage with us on this topic; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand HBO begin serious discussions with the National Federation of the Blind with the goal of producing a plan to include AD on HBO and HBO Max to the maximum extent feasible, including, but not limited to, acquiring and/or applying existing AD tracks available for the TV programs and movies that these services carry and for which AD has already been produced, as well as contracting for AD to be produced for all new programming currently being planned or in production; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon all other major streaming services that currently do not carry audio description to make plans to include it in their offerings.
WHEREAS, a smart city is an urban area that uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to collect data from citizens, devices, buildings, and assets to improve city services and the lives of the citizens and businesses that inhabit the city; and
WHEREAS, the key technology behind a smart city is an intelligent network of connected devices and machines known as the Internet of Things (IoT), which enables these “things” to connect and exchange data using wireless technology and the cloud; and
WHEREAS, this sharing of information helps citizens, municipalities, and enterprises improve the quality of a city’s infrastructure and services and enhances citizen decision-making and welfare by, among other things, monitoring and managing traffic and transportation systems, power plants, utilities, water supply networks, waste management, crime detection information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services; and
WHEREAS, the top ten United States cities already engaged in the exploration and integration of Smart City technology are New York, New York; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio; LaGrange, Georgia; Fresno, California; San Francisco, California; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Louisville, Kentucky; Austin, Texas; and Boulder, Colorado; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind is committed to ensuring the rights of blind people to live, work, and play in our local communities; and
WHEREAS, the integration of innovative accessible technologies within emerging Smart Cities offers an opportunity for blind people to have equal access to essential information and resources; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind effectively partners with many ICT developers, including developers of innovative wayfinding technology, to create a variety of tools, technologies, and strategies that allow blind people to access information to, among other things, facilitate safe and independent travel; and
WHEREAS, many city planners and developers without knowledge of these innovative tools and technologies often introduce features deemed to offer greater accessibility that instead create segregated experiences for blind people and people with other disabilities, such as restrictive truncated dome pathways or ramps located in the rear of buildings; and
WHEREAS, the same technologies being used by the sighted can be developed to be used nonvisually by the blind with little or no additional cost when accessibility is taken into consideration during the design phase, and the resulting technology often enhances the ability for the sighted to obtain access to valuable information; and
WHEREAS, the integration of accessibility features into wayfinding technology can be accomplished in a manner that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional through approaches such as the use of different textures for walking surfaces and the use of green space and ornamentation offering tactile and audio cues for blind people to travel safely and independently without creating a separate environment or requiring separate maintenance: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization call on developers of the technology being replaced in our cities or being used in the new development of infrastructure and community services to consult with the National Federation of the Blind to ensure the accessibility, appropriate implementation, and proper installation of such Smart City technology into public spaces; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the National Federation of the Blind urge city planners and city developers to consult with members of the National Federation of the Blind during the process of developing and planning implementation of new Smart City technologies concerning the accessibility, appropriateness, and utility of the proposed technologies, including wayfinding technologies.
WHEREAS, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is the result of years of advocacy by individuals and organizations, including the National Federation of the Blind, which make up the United States disability rights movement; and
WHEREAS, the ADA is a comprehensive civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability in all areas of public life and guarantees people with disabilities equal access to employment, state and local governments, and places of public accommodation; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind has helped to create high-impact change and build legal precedence under the ADA that further advance the rights of all individuals with disabilities; and
WHEREAS, there are employers, state and local governments, and places of public accommodation that have yet to comply with the ADA to the detriment of the blind and other people with disabilities; and
WHEREAS, a small group of plaintiffs and attorneys have exploited the ADA’s private right of action by filing rapid-succession lawsuits and entering into confidential settlement agreements that limit systemic change prompting some elected officials to propose, and in some cases enact, harmful limitations to the ADA’s scope; and
WHEREAS, critical guidance regarding web accessibility for public entities and places of public accommodation remains notably absent from the ADA’s regulations: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization, in acknowledgement and honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the ADA, call upon Congress and the United States Department of Justice to maintain the integrity and intent of the ADA and to update regulations on a timely basis so that they reflect the manner in which members of the general public live their lives, including in the areas of web accessibility; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we demand employers, state and local governments, and places of public accommodation that do not yet comply with the ADA take immediate action to implement policies and procedures that align with the ADA’s requirements, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we urge all disability rights lawyers, plaintiffs, and advocates to use the ADA, not for short-term personal and financial gain, but rather for pursuing systemic change that further expands the rights of people with disabilities and their integration into all aspects of daily life.
WHEREAS, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is the preeminent organization of amateur radio operators in the United States; and
WHEREAS, the ARRL has avoided making its principal magazine, QST, available to its blind members because the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), a program of the Library of Congress, has published this magazine in an accessible format; and
WHEREAS, this practice continued even though the ARRL has been publishing QST on the web for several years; and
WHEREAS, the NLS version of QST is not as timely as the ARRL’s web version and does not contain all of the information that the web version contains, which places blind ham radio operators at a disadvantage; and
WHEREAS, since nonvisually accessible publishing software exists, the National Federation of the Blind’s Amateur Radio Division has approached several of the ARRL’s directors and vice directors requesting that the web edition of QST be published with nonvisually accessible software, but thus far has been met with avoidance, stalling tactics, and referrals to staff, and therefore no action has been taken to date; and
WHEREAS, this year the ARRL published three more of its magazines on the web, still in an inaccessible format, released nonvisually accessible apps, while proclaiming that all its members can read and use all four of its magazines on the web or on the app: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization condemn and deplore the discriminatory behavior of ARRL toward its blind members by refusing to provide accessible digital content; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that ARRL immediately adopt policies and procedures to ensure that all present and future digital content be published in an accessible format on all of its platforms.
WHEREAS, the Randolph-Sheppard Act affords over 1,800 blind entrepreneurs the opportunity to manage and operate vending facilities in government buildings; and,
WHEREAS, the vast majority of these businesses were shut down or had sales drastically reduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; and,
WHEREAS, the United States House of Representatives included $20,000,000 in the Fiscal Year 2021 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Funding Bill to provide relief to the Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs negatively affected by the pandemic; and,
WHEREAS, the United States Senate has not yet included this one-time appropriation in its version of the bill: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization thank and commend Representative Nita Lowey, Chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, and Representative Rosa DeLauro, Chair of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, for including this funding for Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs; and,
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the National Federation of the Blind urge the United States Senate to include this same funding in its Fiscal Year 2021 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Funding Bill.
[PHOTO CAPTION: Kaleigh Brendle]
by Kaleigh Brendle
From the Editor: Kaleigh is a rising high school senior. College is expensive and time-consuming. One way to make the experience less so is to take advanced placement tests to show that there are college courses one does not need to take. When accommodations to provide the Advanced Placement test were going to be suspended with COVID-19 given as the reason, Kaleigh, then a junior in high school, said no and started organizing and complaining. Here is what she says:
Good afternoon. Before I begin, I would just like to express what a true honor it is to be able to speak to all of you today. My name is Kaleigh Brendle. I am seventeen years old, and I'm a rising senior in the Scholar Center for the Humanities Program housed at Howell High School. Since birth, I’ve possessed a condition called Lebers Congenital Amaurosis, which left me visually impaired.
As many of you know, living with blindness can be a challenge, but it is that which challenges us that strengthens our resolve and solidifies our courage. Keeping with that philosophy, I strive to challenge myself in all aspects of my life, including, most notably, the classroom. Since third grade my curriculum has consisted of rigorous courses. As I grew older, the level of classes I could take grew more strenuous, and in high school the option arose for me to participate in courses classified as "AP" or Advanced Placement.
Advanced Placement courses are essentially collegiate classes that high school students across the world are eligible to enroll in. If a student performs well on the final exam at the end of an AP course, they may be eligible to receive college credit, making the exams important for both academic and fiscal reasons, as AP courses are more cost-effective than regular college classes. The curricula and final exams for these courses are created and administered by an organization called the College Board. This organization also presides over various other influential standardized tests, including the SAT.
This past year, I opted to take four AP courses. I submitted my accommodation plan, in which I requested that my exams be provided in hard-copy Braille. For such visual courses as AP Biology, that also meant that any diagrams or graphics would be tactually produced for me. I requested the common accommodation of “Breaks as Needed," to prevent such factors as eyestrain or finger fatigue from interfering in my performance. I was granted all of these accommodations.
Since accommodation plans apply to all College Board exams, I encountered no difficulties with the SAT when I took it this past December; I was provided with everything I needed. Thus, I expected the AP exams to be no different.
Then the pandemic struck, and everything began to take an unexpected turn. The College Board announced that it was shortening and digitizing its exams with no intent to provide blind and deaf-blind students with Braille. Its solution for those exams inclusive of graphics was something called Alternative Text, which screen-reading software will read if it is coded into an image. However, large blocks of text are not a substitute for the spatial information contained within a graph. Moreover, the Alt-text is not visually accessible, so if VoiceOver or JAWS were to malfunction, a parent or teacher of the visually impaired would be unable to assist by reading the description. College Board’s website informed me that 65 percent of my AP Biology exam score would be dependent upon my ability to successfully interpret and analyze a single graphic. If this were a lab, whose data was expressed in an XY-coordinate plane with multiple lines for the experimental and control groups or other experimental variants, I would not be able to feel and explore the graph and derive the information I need through touch, as any other student would through sight. Executives suggested that blind and deaf-blind students use our Braille displays, but these devices are extremely expensive, and they only display a fraction of a sentence at a time. So for those English-heavy exams where students need to quickly navigate between lengthy passages, this would prove insufficient. I also desired to see what would happen if my technology were to glitch. As Dr. Natalie Shaheen expertly phrased it, "Blind students have more opportunities for our devices to glitch, possessing two additional variables pertaining to our assistive technology."
In speaking with a representative, I learned that any time it took me to resolve an issue with my technology would count against me in terms of my exam completion time. If I had an hour to complete an exam and assistive technological glitches ate up forty-five minutes, I would have fifteen minutes to test. I could, of course, request a makeup, but if my devices were to glitch during that makeup, I would have no more opportunities to test. The suggestion that I received from both that representative and multiple College Board executives was, "Use a device with less problems." No one can forsee when technology will malfunction; I found that suggestion absurd and slightly offensive.
At this point I desired to see if any other blind students I knew were experiencing this. I released a video to social media in which I explained the problem, and it currently possesses almost 90,000 views. TVIs, parents, media reporters, and students began contacting me. Some students were unaware that this was even a problem. Some had figured it out but, like me, they were unsure if anyone else was enduring this. Many felt alone and exhausted from constantly fighting for their needs to be met, so I orchestrated a Zoom call for just students, where we could all express our feelings. It was a powerful experience for all of us. Nicolas Spohn, a student on that call with mechanical engineering aspirations, who would go on to join our eventual complaint, stated the following when recollecting about that call: “I alone could not stand up to the discrimination from the College Board. It was great to know that other blind students also believe that our accommodations should not be reduced or eliminated during this pandemic.”
At the same time, I was contacting the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and preparing to file a class complaint. I also reached out to Valerie Yingling, the legal program coordinator of the National Federation of the Blind, for assistance. I began working closely with her and with Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, a managing partner of the Brown, Goldstein & Levy law firm. With the experience of both of these individuals and my knowledge of the situation, we began assembling the documentation necessary to file a class complaint. Four other students, Christopher Abel, Ryan Menter, Nicolas Spohn, and Mitchell Smedley signed on as complainants. "The Americans with Disabilities Act was created with the intent of providing students with an equal opportunity on standardized and AP exams,” asserted Ryan Menter, one of the aforementioned complainants intent on pursuing a children's rights advocacy career. He added, "Without accommodations, students with disabilities would be at a severe disadvantage to their nondisabled counterparts, and the entirety of their educational future could be jeopardized. Filing a complaint against the College Board was the last thing we wanted to do, but advocating for our rights and the rights of other disabled students who needed a voice in this fight was a necessity.” And he’s exactly right. Even after we filed, we still did everything in our power to compromise. As the complaint was submitted, I worked with Chris Danielsen, the public relations director of the NFB, to draft a press release. The day after we filed, the press release circulated far and wide, and reporters began to pick up the story, including individuals from major media outlets such as Fox News and the New York Times. That very same day we cross-filed with the US Department of Justice. I spent the next three weeks on the phone with attorneys, executives, governmental officials, and the media. As someone who desires to become a disability rights attorney (and later run for office thanks to the Speaker [Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke previously at this convention]), I was and am extremely grateful for the experience; however, I spent so much time attempting to ensure the accessibility of my exams that I hardly had time to study for them. Regardless, if I couldn’t access them, studying would not help, so I did everything I could to resolve the issue.
I came in contact with the CEO of a Braille transcription company, who expressed that if the College Board could provide the exams, his staff would produce the Braille. But the College Board wouldn’t. Apparently, what it was concerned about was security. It was fearful of us cheating. The NFB and I shared the many solutions it could implement to ensure that that wouldn’t happen, but it would not listen.
Finally, the College Board agreed to meet with us over Zoom to discuss the situation. I received the honor of representing the students involved, and I became part of an incredible team. This team consisted of Dr. Shaheen; technology specialist Matt Hackert; Valerie Yingling; Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum; Kevin Docherty, an esteemed disability rights advocate associated with Brown, Goldstein & Levy; and President Mark Riccobono, who allocated his support for our cause and expressed an earnest desire to assist us in any way he could. We spent hours discussing with College Board’s accessibility executives, and after two days they finally heard us. They listened to us, and they were ready to create an agreement.
The first call I made following this amazing breakthrough was directly to the students. Throughout the entire process, I always kept the students informed, hosting recap calls every step of the way. The relief and joy on that call was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Christopher Abel, another plaintiff whose passions lie in finance, had this to say about that incredible announcement: "I was not surprised to hear the great news of our success. I knew we had a fantastic team of students and NFB leadership, and we were only seeking equal accommodations for blind students. Given the solutions our team had provided College Board, it was simply much easier for them to fullfill our needs than to fight to exclude us. I was certainly relieved to learn that our battle had finally reached its conclusion. I was proud to work with and get to know so many intelligent blind students and advocates."
In the following days, we solidified our agreement, and I again collaborated with Mr. Danielsen to create a press release. According to our agreement, which you can read on NFB's website, any student, regardless of whether they had already taken their exams with College Board’s improper accommodations, would be eligible to receive a hard-copy Braille exam in September. On May 29, we withdrew our complaints, the press release was issued, and the College Board began to fulfill its agreement.
I sincerely wish that the situation had not climbed to the zenith that it had, but all of us students were lucky to have one another and the NFB to guide us through that turbulent time. Now other students will also be able to utilize this experience as an example of the type of self-advocacy they can exemplify if they strive to do so. This is an assertion that complainant Mitchell Smedley, a future broadcast journalist, firmly believes: “It doesn’t stop with College Board. Blind people will face challenges and inequalities at virtually every turn." He added, “Don’t sit idly by." And I agree. Every voice is powerful, and no one should be afraid to raise theirs in the name of equality and opportunity.
I want to thank President Riccobono and the National Federation of the Blind for permitting me to share this story with you. I ask you to remember that if ever an accommodation that you require is being denied or revoked, fight for what you know you need. This May I showed that I am not blind to injustice. If the situation arises for you, I encourage you to do the same. Thank you.
The Writers Division
The Writers Division held its seminar on Tuesday, July 14, in which writing styles and what makes them different were covered. Also covered were some ways to improve writing such as the old one, reading, and asking questions in dialog to move forward. We also discussed the general progress of a writer’s journey from learning to write to publishing and holding a book in your hand.
Our division meeting on Thursday featured two presentations: one from Anthony Candella on Bookshare and his road to publishing, and one from the division president, Shelley Alongi, on self-publishing, the state of self-publishing, and the general inaccessibility of websites.
One of our goals for 2021 is to start a discovery phase into what kinds of experiences are had by blind writers with self-publishing websites. We want to improve the accessibility of websites and will spend this year gathering experiences and finding ways to start conversations about this important aspect of the new writing landscape. We want to look into any forays into making self-publishing websites accessible—a big goal reached one step at a time.
The division increased membership from nineteen to thirty-five and drew in as many members in one week as would normally be gained in one year. One of the goals from 2019/2020 was to build up the division and become more active and get the division name out in the Federation. This goal was accomplished, and we are off to a running start!
Community Service Division
Did you hear who attended the Community Service Division’s seminar? Well, allow me to spell it out for you: H E R O E S! When you have a lineup jam-packed with hope, empowerment, resources, outreach, entertainment, plus supernatural vision, you walk away with superpowers to serve globally. The Superpower Hour honored everyday heroes in our community who turned this pandemic into opportunities to serve. The presenters have been volunteering for crisis hotlines, donating free groceries, offering no-cost virtual trainings and social activities, sharing local resources, partnering with nonprofit organizations, spreading their gifts and talents ensuring “Blind People Feel Better,” and providing supernatural vision beyond our current view. Our division’s seminar had additional heroes who have unleashed their powers to volunteer at church, work, and from their homes. The principle theme of our seminar underscored that COVID-19 does not have the power to stop the movement of fearless Federation members who serve with love, hope, and determination changing our communities one service at a time.
The Krafters Division was filled with anticipation, excitement, and a bit of sadness. Yes, that is an interesting variety, but we bet you totally understand. Thanks to Rebecca for her assistance in making our meeting a possibility! Smile! Hats off to Rebecca!
Everyone understands the anticipation of all of the new ways we have had to adapt over the last few months, but we just continue to move forward. By moving in a positive direction and using the Zoom platform, the Krafters Division has gotten so excited. During the past in-person meetings, we had between twenty and thirty interested people participate in our meeting. This year we were thrilled to have nearly ninety participants. Wow! The most common thing said was, “I just found out about you.” WELCOME! We welcome anybody that is interested in crafts. Another common statement was, “I thought I had to give up … because my vision got so bad.” We respond with a list of classes and invite her/him to come join us.
Crafts may sound like such an unnecessary activity to some, but to the Krafters Division it brings confidence and the potential to give back to our community. The side benefits are great as well. By sharing our skills with others, we grow friendships. We consider our crafts very therapeutic and relaxing. Hold onto your hat, some people even make their craft into a business. Yes, some of our members do such a nice job and have the confidence to sell their items.
This year we replaced our in-person marketplace with a virtual marketplace. Come check it out at www.krafterskorner.org. If you are interested in selling your handcrafts with us, you are invited to do that as well. The nice thing about this market is there are no lines, no social distancing required, and you can get started on that Christmas list. Smile!
The sadness in the list was over the loss of a special crafter, Cindy Zimmer. Her contributions to the Krafters Division were so greatly appreciated and will be dearly missed. As a way of moving forward, we offered a time during our four-hour meeting to share a few small crafts as teasers. This portion was called “Cindy’s Extravaganza.” We hope we did Cindy proud! What a way to honor her, doing what she loved doing most.
In conclusion, we invite you to come check us out. We have chats, classes, and a listserv. A few of our classes are set up as “ongoing classes.” You can join the class anytime during the year, and we will work with you collectively and individually. A few of our classes are offered for a one-time slot or over a few days. The nice thing about being on our listserv is if you have a craft question or maybe are interested in getting a class going, you can post it on the listserv. Many of our classes develop from request.
We can’t share all of the wonderful benefits and opportunities our division offers in this article, but you can check out what happens at www.krafterskorner.org. Here you can explore our calendar, join the listserv, and even become a member. Our annual dues are $20, which gives you access to all of the classes you want. If you have questions, you can contact our president, Tammy Freitag, at [email protected]. You are welcome to join us and share this information with others. We look forward to having more crafters.
NABV Division (National Association of Blind Veterans)
The NABV meeting had forty-two attendees. Due to this being an off year, elections were not held. We had Laura Deck from Bookshare talk to us, and James Vale, the national service director for the BVA [Blinded Veterans Association] talk to us as well.
Performing Arts Division
Every year, the National Federation of the Blind Performing Arts Division seeks to break down misconceptions about blind performers and engage our members in gaining helpful real-life experience at national convention. Though the platform was virtual, this year was no exception.
During our annual business meeting on July 16th, we had a packed agenda and around one hundred eager participants. We took time and encouraged anyone to introduce themselves, which showcased the diversity and wide range of talent in our division. We heard several reports on the past year’s activities of the division, including our wildly successful Singing Telegram fundraiser, our Zoom workshops teaching skills from Braille music to beatboxing, our brand new Facebook group to facilitate networking and discussions among performers, and our continued efforts to foster inclusion and authenticity in the entertainment industry.
Rachel Grider, the brilliant mind behind creating the Virtual Convention Choir, shared about the rehearsal and production process. The final product of three songs was presented later at various key points throughout the convention. Julie McGinnity was recognized for her exemplary service in leadership for so many years. Next, Ryan Strunk, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and an improviser and audio engineer, spoke about the immeasurable talent within the Federation and how we can best use it to further our movement and raise expectations.
Additionally, we had a fabulous panel with five wonderful contributors who are all successfully employed in performing-arts-related careers. They spoke about the challenges that arise in their fields, the methods they use to make a path for themselves, and encouragement for budding performing artists. The panelists were Jessica Victoria, Cristina Jones, Tom Page, Kaiti Shelton, and Tiffany Taylor, moderated by Lizzy Muhammad Park.
Lastly, we culminated our meeting with an interactive dance workshop, where Katelyn MacIntyre taught the basics of the Latin-inspired ballroom dance, Cha Cha. Everyone got up and got moving, learned purely by detailed verbal explanations, and ended up dancing to some great music together, demonstrating that blind people can achieve their dreams with the right training and opportunity.
If you would like to join us as we continue connecting with and advocating for blind performers, please visit www.nfb-pad.org. You can contact our board at [email protected]. We would love to have you!
NFB in Communities of Faith Division
The NFB in Communities of Faith held its annual meeting using Zoom on July 16. The first agenda item was a panel discussion of publishers of faith-based literature for the blind. Those participating were: Craig Leeds, director of Braille Bibles International from Liberty, Missouri; Daniel Jenkins, vice president of ministry advancement, Lutheran Braille Workers from Yucaipa, California; Malaky Fallon, executive director of Xavier Society for the Blind from New York, New York; Jeri Lyn Rogge, executive director of Christian Record Services for the Blind from Lincoln, Nebraska; and Yvonne Pilot, executive director of Lutheran Braille Evangelism Association from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.
Braille Bibles International produces the King James Version and the New King James Version of the Bible. It also distributes the MegaVoice Audio Bible and cartridges of various Bible versions, which can be used on NLS players. Additionally, it offers some free books, as well as a Bible dictionary that may be purchased.
Lutheran Braille Workers produces the New International Version of the Bible and the English Standard Version in Braille. The Xavier Society for the Blind produces Bibles and other literature for the Roman Catholic Church. Christian Record Services for the Blind has books on loan. The Lutheran Braille Evangelism Association produces the Tract Messenger, a magazine for the blind, the Christian Magnifier, a magazine for the visually impaired, and has twenty versions of the Bible available in audio form on a device called the Bible Courier.
We next had a discussion from two blind people who serve as chaplains, Paul Grenier from Pennsylvania and Kelsi Watters who serves as a chaplain in North Carolina. We then heard from Gregory Martin and two other representatives from HOPE Ministries (Helping Other People Excel and Experience God). This ministry holds phone conference meetings each Saturday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and on Mondays from 6 to 8 p.m.
At our business meeting, the minutes and treasurer’s report were approved, and other routine business matters were discussed. We also discussed the subject of inclusion. Federationists are always welcome to participate in this division.
From the Editor: Here are the results from the division elections that have been reported thus far from the 2020 National Convention:
NFB in Computer Science Division
Brian Buhrow, president; Steve Jacobson, vice president; Louis Maher, secretary; Curtis Chong, treasurer; Jeanine Linebeck, board member; Harry Staley, board member; Jim Barbour, board member.
NFB Science and Engineering Division
John Miller, president; Ashley Neybert, vice president; Louis Maher, secretary; Harry Staley, treasurer; Nathanael Wales, board position one; Jamie Principato-Crane, board position two.
National Association of Blind Students (NABS) Division
Trisha Kulkarni, president; Kenia Flores, first vice president; Justin Salisbury, second vice president; Elizabeth Rouse, treasurer; Mausam Mehta, secretary; Nina Marranca, board member; Johna Wright, board member; Robert Parsons, board member; Monica Wegner, board member.
NFB Diabetes Action Network Division
Debbie Wunder, president; Gene Brown, first vice president; Mindy Jacobson, second vice president; John TeBockhorst, secretary; Joy Stiegle, treasurer; Gary Wunder, board member; Eileen Leigh, board member; Bernadette Jacobs, board member; Wanda Sloan, board member.
National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU)
Raul Gallegos, president; Paul Sandoval, vice president; Jessica Snyder, treasurer; Aleeha Dudley, secretary; Heather Bird, board member; Jodi Witthaus, board member; Cindy Lou Ray, board member.
Performing Arts Division
Katelyn MacIntyre, president; Lizzy Muhammad Park, vice president; Cristina Jones, secretary; LaKeisha Holmes, treasurer; Chris Nusbaum, board member; Precious Perez, board member; Leslie Hamric, board member.
Shelley Alongi, president; April Enderton, first vice president; Chelsea Cook, second vice president; Shawn D. Jacobson, treasurer; Marilyn Smith, board member; Barbara Hammel, board member; Myrna Badgerow, board member.
NFB in Communities of Faith
Tom Anderson, president; Rehnee Aikens, vice president; Linda Mentink, secretary; Rev. Dr. Carolyn Peters, treasurer.
Ruth Sager, president; Judy Sanders, first vice president; Robert Newman, second vice president; Diane McGeorge, treasurer; Duncan Larsen, assistant treasurer; Shelley Coppel, secretary; Jane Degenshein, board member; Glenn Crosby, board member; Wayne Marshall, membership chair.
Assistive Technology Trainers Division
Chancey Fleet, president; Nancy Coffman, vice president; Erin Lauridsen, treasurer; Amy Mason, board member; Chip Johnson, board member; Jim Portillo, board member.
Community Service Division
Jeanetta Price, president; Dr. LaShawna Fant, vice president; Samuel Gates, secretary; Natalie Segura, treasurer; Hattie Griffin, board member; Tyron Bratcher, board member; Linda Lankston, board member.
Human Services Division
Candice Chapman, president; Bre Ausbun, first vice president; Sarah Patnaude, second vice president; Jessica Snyder, secretary; Merry Schoch, treasurer; Dezman Jackson, board member; LaShawna Fant, board member.
National Organization of Blind Educators
Cayte Mendez, president; Angela Wolf, first vice president; Harriet Go, second vice president; Valeria Jacobs, secretary; Kaden Colton, treasurer; Kayleigh Joiner, board member; Brian Quintana, board member.
National Association of Blind Merchants
Nicky Gacos, president; Harold Wilson, first vice president; Edward Birmingham, second vice president; Sharon Treadway, secretary; Pam Schnurr, treasurer; Barbara Manuel, board member; Melissa Smith, board member; Zachary Snow, board member; Melba J. Taylor, board member; Michael Colbrunn, board member; Gary Grassman, board member; John Fritz, board member; Lewanda Miranda, board member; Joe Higdon, board member; Debra Smith, board member.
National Organization of Professionals in Blindness Education (PIBE)
Eric Guillory, president; Denise Mackenstadt, first vice president; Jackie Anderson, second vice president; Deja Powell, secretary; Krystal Guillory, treasurer; Jennifer Bazer, board member; Michell Gip, board member; Casey Robertson, board member; Carlton Walker, board member.
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC)
Carlton Walker, president; Penny Duffy, first vice president; Kimberly Banks, second vice president; Carol Castellano, secretary; Sandra Oliver, treasurer; Michelle Murrey, board member; Corbb O’Connor, board member; Melissa Riccobono, board member; Casey West, board member; Jackie Anderson, board member; Sarah Erb, board member; Jean Fultz, board member; Pamela Gebert, board member; Carla Keirns, board member; Tabby Mitchell, board member.
Public Employees Division
Gary Van Dorn, president; John Halverson, vice president; Kay Baker, secretary; Marcus Soulsby, treasurer; Nicole Fincham-Shehan, board member; Katie Jackson, board member; Daphne Mitchell, board member.
National Association of Blind Rehabilitation Professionals
Amy Porterfield, president; Pam Allen, first vice president; Dan Wenzel, second vice president; Jennifer Kennedy, secretary; Amy Buresh, treasurer; Shirley Robinson, board member; Julie Deden, board member; Everette Bacon, board member.
I pledge to participate actively in the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind; to support the policies and programs of the Federation; and to abide by its constitution.