by Gary Wunder
Some things are so important that, unless national disaster prevents it, they continue to happen year after year. This has long been the case with our Washington Seminar. Sometimes the snow has been so deep that the National Federation of the Blind showed up when most of the Congress did not. Sometimes the House or the Senate changed its schedule so that our week let us meet fewer congressional members than we would have liked, but we showed up. Now COVID-19 greatly restricts travel and limits access to the capital building, but still we show up.
In 2021, showing up took a different form: we met by the hundreds with our senators and representatives, but in this year of the pandemic, we did it virtually. Instead of going to their offices, we honed our technical skills, adjusted our microphones, positioned our cameras, put on our good meeting clothes, and invited members of Congress to our offices. The agenda was still the same: advancing the issues of blind people to further our integration into society on terms of real equality.
Technology is often seen as a liberator, and especially so for blind people. But the interesting thing about technology advancement in the digital age is that we rarely find ourselves pressing for new and innovative technology to meet special needs of the blind. Instead, we find ourselves working hard not to fall behind. In the case of medical technology, mobile apps, websites, and voting, the request is not that some special devices be made for blind people but that the devices and services already made for sighted people don’t end up leaving blind people behind. Whether medical devices talk or provide some tactile interface can be as serious as life and death. Whether mobile apps and websites are usable with screen reading technology will determine how freely we can engage in the normal commerce of the nation, get an education, and take a job. Even the Access Technology Affordability Act is premised on the idea that we need special technology to use equivalent tools that are commonplace for people who can see.
In keeping with tradition, our students had a virtual seminar on the morning of February 8. Our Government Affairs team sponsored a seminar in the afternoon that included a description of our four bills and two sessions in which we did role playing, with the formidable John Paré as an esteemed Senator Paré listening to our concerns. This year we had a pre-Great Gathering-In meeting which allowed the hosts of our Nation’s Blind podcast to talk about the meaning the seminar has had in their lives. Chris Danielsen observed that sometimes our delegations are disappointed when we meet with staff members, but he related a story about a congressman who initially told us no, his staff member who told us to be patient, and that very congressman signing on to our bill just three weeks later. His message: Don’t discount the value of the people your congressman trusts for their expertise and judgment. Melissa Riccobono observed that the greatest things she got from her first Washington Seminar was the notion that if she could persuade people in DC, she most certainly could persuade them in her local community and her state affiliate. But the real thrust of the podcast culminated in this statement: Nobody can tell your story like you can, and there is nothing more influential to a representative or senator than hearing your story.
Then it came time for the 5 p.m. Great Gathering-In, and here are the remarks President Riccobono made to begin the evening’s festivities:
by Mark Riccobono
We gather today—not in our nation’s capital but from everywhere, both virtually and at our national headquarters. We gather to prepare to influence and advise our nation's leaders. We, the blind of this nation, again commit to showing up, regardless the circumstances, to make sure every voice is heard. In the past we have shown up through snow, bitter cold, travel woes, and other situations where members of Congress did not even make an effort to come to Washington. Now we add to our list a worldwide pandemic that requires social distancing and prevents all people from meeting face-to-face with their representative leaders. Hearing our voices will neither be denied nor delayed.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” We come together today to build a future full of opportunities regardless of the difficult circumstances of the moment. We have found a way to lift our voices—the voices of all blind people, with individual tones, harmonized into a collective voice. We welcome every blind person regardless of 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, to be part of this movement. We lift up the voices of all blind people, and we intend for the unified choir of the voice of the nation's blind to be heard in the halls of power.
We also lift our voices in solidarity with our blind Black leaders during this month honoring the history of Black Americans. Our blind Black leaders have demonstrated that a class of people, historically held down by our democracy, need not destroy it to secure justice. Our blind Black leaders continue to show that the strength of struggling to improve our democracy is something we all can be proud of supporting, a democracy that accepts every voice lifted to it equally and that welcomes full participation. We come to this Washington Seminar being led by the example of our blind Black leaders. Our goal is to lift every voice so that all people, including the blind, may enjoy the benefits of our nation. We will "march on till victory is won."
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by the Johnson brothers and first performed in 1900. The older of the brothers, James Weldon Johnson, was a lawyer, diplomat, professor, prolific writer, and poet. In describing the power of this beautiful anthem, he noted many years later that it had the effect that all good movements have on the human spirit: "Someone heard it, was moved by it, and kept on singing." This is what we intend to do together for blind people through the National Federation of the Blind. "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us."
We, the blind, bring our authentic and diverse experience to the halls of power so that the harmful impacts of low expectations and inequality can be heard. We seek not for our nation's leaders to walk in our shoes, but rather for their actions to be guided by hearing the journey we share—not one, or ten, or one hundred of us, but thousands of blind people striving to live the lives we want with dignity and respect. The darkness does not come from our lack of eyesight but rather from the lack of hearing and acting upon our stories that have held us down in the past. "Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us."
Abraham Lincoln said, “The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, or at all, or do so well, for themselves.”
We have formed the National Federation of the Blind—a powerful and forward-marching vehicle for collective action. While our movement gives us hope and determination, while we intend to speak and act for ourselves, we alone cannot remove the artificial barriers that stand in our path. We seek to have our hopeful solutions heard in the halls of power so that our voice, our priorities, can be more tightly integrated into our democracy. We seek the protection of government to ensure that the blind can vote—regardless of whether the vote is cast in person, through the mail, or through other means. We sing of opportunity equal to all other Americans. We seek adoption of our hopeful solution to empower the blind to obtain their own accessible technologies to participate in education, seek employment, and lead in our communities. We sing of independence and self-sufficiency. We sing so the stories of our struggle to manage our personal medical care in our homes can be heard. We expect that our solution be considered so that we can enjoy the blessings of opportunity in this nation along with others. We sing with hope that artificial barriers will no longer threaten our lives. We sing to open the doors to full participation in the digital era by having the government protect our ability to independently navigate websites in education, commerce, health, community, government, employment, finance, and all of the other aspects of living fully in our society. We sing for integration into society on terms of equality, "Facing the rising sun of our new day begun."
President Biden said in his inaugural address, "We'll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities. Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.”
We, the blind, have come again to lift our voice with hope and singing of partnership. We reject the idea that our song is one that only appeals to one or another political party or perspective. The diversity of our perspectives collectively focused are a song that all Americans should hear. Regardless of political ideology, our song is a hopeful charge of empowering individuals to live the lives they want through our shared democracy. Our song calls for eliminating barriers and expanding full participation. Allowing each of this nation's citizens to help with the rebuilding and gain from the shared riches of community is the future we sing of together.
This week is only a moment in time on our march—one opportunity for our choir to sing. We will show up, day after day, and week after week, until we have the equality we deserve. We will show up with solutions and prepared to put our hands to the building. We will continue to lift our voice in the halls of power, in the courts, in the boardrooms and classrooms, and in the streets. We, the blind of this nation, gather together to demonstrate our love, hope, and determination to live the lives we want. We come from varied backgrounds, perspectives, and intersectionalities. We seek to serve as an example to the nation that we are stronger together: improving democracy, creating healing, building, and participating fully in our communities.
This is the significance of our Washington Seminar. This is the movement we share. This is the bond of faith we hold in our march together. "Let us march on till victory is won." Let us sing of living the lives we want. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.
At the conclusion of those rousing remarks, our director of social media, Danielle McCann, talked about the way we could mark our progress to the world as the seminar progressed. Our hashtag, which can still be reviewed by the curious reader on Twitter, was #nfbindc. We used the same on Facebook and Instagram. Danielle encouraged us to use these outlets not only to document our progress during the week but also to share our stories. They have value not only to the Congress but to all of those who follow us and need to know why we do the work we do for the blind of this nation and the world. Lastly, she reminded us to refrain from committing a senator or representative before they have had time to express that commitment themselves.
Anil Lewis reported on some of the activities of the Blindness Initiatives group he heads. He reminded us that we come to the Washington Seminar not just to make requests of power but to be a part of that power: defining problems, coming up with solutions, and demonstrating how, together, we can create real opportunity for blind people by working with those we elect to Congress.
He went on to say that, as impressive as our programs are, the need to convert them to a virtual platform has tested our initiative and helped us define what is really important to communicate. One unexpected benefit is that we have had to come face-to-face with the technology challenges that have to be addressed by so many of our students. This has allowed us to address in an even more serious way the accessibility of educational platforms and what we must achieve for true educational equality.
President Riccobono talked for a moment about the live Presidential Release, the large numbers it can reach, and the opportunity for questions and answers that it provides. It is scheduled for the first day of each month and can be found on the Zoom platform, on our NFB website, and as a broadcast on YouTube.
Rebecca Chang is a member and is a financial coach who is going to make fully accessible courses available to the National Federation of the Blind. Although the logistics are not yet set, there will be three courses: Investing with Confidence, How to Choose the Right Investments in Your Employer’s Plan, and The Wealth Formula.
Our annual Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award Committee has for many years been chaired by our corporate secretary, James Gashel. Everette Bacon will assume the responsibility for chairing the committee in 2021, and he will do this while serving as a member of the National Board of Directors and as the affiliate president for the National Federation of the Blind of Utah. Everette explained that the Jacob Bolotin Award is to honor outstanding individuals and organizations who have made a major contribution to the advancement of blind people. This annual award is now soliciting applications and will be until April 15. Those wishing to nominate an individual or organization should go to nfb.org/bolotin.
One of our most active programs is legal advocacy, but there is no way we can tackle all of the cases that need legal attention. Due to our limited resources, we look for those cases which are likely to have a broad systemic effect. Anyone interested in seeing the scope of our legal activity should go to https://www.nfb.org/programs-services/legal-program. Likewise, anyone who believes he or she has a legal issue they think we should know about should take advantage of the contact form that appears on that page.
We are continuing to conduct our survey of educational opportunities, and each student is encouraged to fill out the survey after completing every semester. Improving access to kiosks remains a high priority, and its importance is even intensified by the pandemic and the need for social distancing. We are on the verge of two important settlements in this area, so stay tuned.
Jeannie Massey is the co-chair of our Membership Committee, and she encouraged each of us to increase our efforts to find new people as we build the Federation. Last year we had over five hundred new people join, and she believes that this year our goal should be 1,500. Anyone wanting more information about the programs of the Membership Committee can write to our new membership coordinator, Christine Jones, at [email protected].
President Riccobono next introduced Cheryl Fields, a member of our Survivors’ Task Force. In her speech, Cheryl emphasized the fact that we are not only going to make the Federation a safe space with the model culture, but we are going to lead in this area in the same way that we lead on blindness issues. During the week of the Washington Seminar, the survivors committee put together several listening sessions. Cheryl encouraged everyone to look at the February issue of the Braille Monitor to learn more about the committee and how to be in touch. She concluded by saying, “It is our beautiful differences and are single commonality, blindness, that unify us in love, hope, and determination. Let’s continue marching together, and let’s go build the Federation.”
Because it is unlikely that we will have full deployment of the vaccine by the time of our national convention, it will not be held in New Orleans this year. Instead, it will be held virtually, and the convention host is Maryland. President Ronza Othman believes that this will be the largest convention ever, so it is to achieve this worthy goal that we will strive. Registration will open for the convention on March 1, and it will be important that each person who wishes to vote is registered since that is the system we will use.
The 2022 convention will be in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the hotel is honoring the same rates already advertised.
Scott LaBarre and Ryan Strunk were introduced to talk about the Preauthorized Contribution Program. This is a way for members and supporters to make a monthly contribution to the organization that can be deducted from a checking account or credit card. Money raised on the PAC Plan generates almost half a million dollars each year for us, so it is no surprise that we provide many ways for people to sign up and increase their donations. One is by going to nfb.org/pac. Another is by writing to [email protected]. One may also call at 877-NFB2PAC or 877-632-2722. Currently eleven states give over $1,000 a month, so there is much work to be done if we are to do the kind of funding we are able to do in support of our work.
Our executive director of advocacy and policy, John Paré, took the floor, and with the assistance of his team he discussed at length the four issues the Federation is supporting this year. In addition to the presentations, a mock interview was played at the conclusion of the seminar for anyone wanting to hear some interactive activity involving Jim Gashel and a number of other dignitaries.
Patti Chang talked with the group about our Dream Makers Circle. This is our legacy society whose members have made provisions to help the National Federation of the Blind with a contribution after their death. Becoming involved in this group is easy, and Patti is available at [email protected] or by calling 410-659-9314, extension 2422.
The National Association of Blind Students put together a presentation to explain to attendees what the division has meant to them. Their presentation also included an advertisement for a division fundraiser. As one would expect from this group of gifted students, the presentation was quite moving.
In 2020 the National Federation of the Blind awarded more than $100,000 in scholarships, but being unable to meet in person meant that we had to make some alterations to the process. Traditionally we would decide the recipients of our scholarships at the national convention, including those who are specially named and those who include higher amounts. This we deferred until our Washington Seminar, and Chairman Cayte Mendez again introduced the scholarship class and the names of those winners who advanced in the process. All of our winners, including the winner of the $12,000 scholarship and the speech she presented, are found elsewhere in this issue.
With the conclusion of Cayte’s presentation, President Riccobono sent us off to Capitol Hill, albeit virtually, and the meeting was adjourned.
On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evening, we all met together to summarize the days progress. Because this seminar has been done virtually, and because the Senate was considering impeachment, delegation contacts continued beyond February 11. But even with the restrictions posed by the pandemic and the odd Senate schedule, we managed to make and keep more than four hundred appointments. Our message continues to be universally embraced by both parties, and the theme of equal opportunity for equal participation rings forth not only on Capitol Hill but throughout the nation. We continue to represent the best of America by showing what a diverse group of people united in a cause can bring about. In the work we do, we not only advance the status of blind people but encourage our fellow citizens through our commitment and work. We are unstoppable in our desire to be a change for good in the land. Below are the four issues the Federation is supporting this year.