Vol. 64, No. 8 August/September 2021
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. 64, No. 8 August/September 2021
Illustration: Career Mentoring Takes Spot for First Event at Jernigan Institute Since the Doors Opened
The 2021 Convention Roundup
by Gary Wunder
Presidential Report 2021
by Mark A. Riccobono
Stronger Together: From Where the Federation Flag Flies Highest to All Corners of Our Movement
by Ronza Othman
The Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards
by Everette Bacon
Distinguished Educator of Blind Students Award
Scholarship Comments Made at the Meeting of the NFB Board of Directors
Reflection, Revolution, and Race: A Growing Understanding within the Organized Blind Movement
by Mark A. Riccobono
The Strength of a Champion: Transforming Federation Spirit into Personal Progress
by Randi Strunk
You Can Make a Difference
Federation Safe: Healing and the Transformation of Pain into Progress
Introductory Remarks by Kathryn Webster
NFB Board of Directors Statement Regarding NFB's Constitution and Code of Conduct
Transforming Advocacy into Votes: The Impact of the Federation on Voting Equality
by Eve Hill
Stronger Future Together through a Commitment to Full Participation: Building the Tools to Empower All to Vote
by Bradley Tusk
Interview with Senator Tammy Duckworth
Innovating Mapping Technology: A Mission Built on the Experience of the Blind
by Jose Gaztambide
The Transformative Power of the 2021 Convention Resolutions
by Sharon Maneki
National Association of Guide Dog Users Reports
by Raul Gallegos
Independence Market Corner
by Terry Boone
Copyright 2021 by the National Federation of the Blind
The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, a four-story brick building that stretches across a full Baltimore city block, was closed to the public and did not host events for sixteen months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 26, 2021, the building officially opened back up. Safety protocols are still in place, and we continue to recommend calling ahead to schedule a visit. We held our first in-person event on August 14, a career mentoring seminar!
The National Federation of the Blind career mentoring program connects blind and low-vision students with successful blind role models who help them navigate their path from education to career success. Hosted in conjunction with the Maryland Association of Blind Students, a Federation division, the August seminar agenda included working in teams, blind professional presentations on their careers, resume writing, and group discussions on elevator pitches, assistive technology, and professional attire. A group of ten blind students attended with several mentors that helped make the day packed with guidance, fun, and connections.
[PHOTO CAPTION: A group of blind adults and students cross a street toward the Jernigan Institute, a brick building.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Four blind students at a round table, touch materials for a team building activity.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: A blind professional in a blue suit with a white cane speaks to blind students.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: A blind professional speaks to a group of blind students who are seated at computer desks.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Three blind students talk to two mentors in a small group session.]
by Gary Wunder
Annual gatherings are often a time of celebration, and nowhere is this truer than at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Normally our gatherings are celebrated with meals, long talks, handshakes, and hugs. But for most of us at our 2021 Convention, the meals, hugs, and handshakes would have to wait until 2022 will let us safely convene in New Orleans.
“Stronger Together” was our convention theme, but stronger together was not always how it was for the blind. One hundred years ago, togetherness was forced on many of us by institutions: schools that would take the blind for twelve years but foresaw no positive outcome after a modest education. For some there were the workshops that paid pennies per hour and justified their activities as training or charitably giving the blind something to do. We either had forced togetherness or forced isolation, the latter resulting from overprotectiveness, a lack of transportation, and an egregious lack of opportunity to do anything to advance ourselves. It was through self-organization and problem-solving that we now find ourselves in the place where the organized blind movement is understood to represent the best of self-advocacy and concerted action.
Many are to thank for this, among the most visible being our leaders past and present. Of these our Presidents are most visible, from our founder, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, to the men who helped us through the Federation’s civil war, to Kenneth Jernigan, the builder and the man who demonstrated that Federation philosophy could indeed work in the real world of rehabilitation and changing lives. Then there is our longest serving President, Dr. Marc Maurer, the leader who transformed us from an organization with a philosophy, a skeleton staff, and only a few programs to one in which that philosophy was complemented by ample programs and a staff to help implement them. And now there is President Riccobono, the man charged with leading us through the struggles of the third decade of the twenty-first century with all of the technological, societal, and governmental changes that shake our society, create friction, and cause all of us to work at separating what we think we know from what we truly know. The job isn’t and never has been easy, but we know about teamwork, about commitment, and about loyalty to one another. This is what makes us the organization we are and one that will continue to lead into the future.
Like all of our conventions, the celebration of our eighty-first year would be unique, but just how was to be defined. It had the unenviable position of being like the middle child, having something worthy and special to offer that threatened to be overshadowed by conventions past and present. It could not lay claim to being our first virtual convention, for we had already demonstrated that could be done. It could not be the celebration of eight decades of the organized blind movement, for that had happened the year before. It could not be the coming together in person that all of us desire, but what it could and would be was the celebration of a year filled with significant accomplishments, the taking on of difficult tasks, the managing of difficult conversations and decisions, and the proof that we have emerged stronger together.
In 2021 Maryland was our convention host, and what thought and work went into making this convention truly special. There is no doubt it will loom large in our book of memories thanks to the thought, innovation, and creativity of our hosts. Prior to the start of our convention was the LOL Comedy Night contest in which nine Federationists competed before a live virtual audience to see who would be crowned the LOL 2021 comedian. Congratulations to Yvonne Neubert of Tennessee. For her comedic endeavor, she was awarded first prize in the amount of $200.
To replace tours that normally would consist of buses and walking, our hosts came up with virtual ones. There were four in all, but more numerous than the tours were the contests the affiliate sponsored.
The pre-convention activities started on Monday, July 5, with a rehabilitation conference sponsored by the National Blindness Professional Certification Board. In keeping with their long tradition of offering only the best to parents of blind children, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children held what could be viewed as a convention within the convention. Its exciting program items fell under the title “Empowering Our Children: Maximizing Skills, Opportunities, and Dreams.” Several of the presentations will appear later in the fall, and a fuller presentation may be found in Future Reflections, the Federation’s magazine for parents of blind children.
A number of years ago the National Federation of the Blind confronted Target about its inaccessible website, and its work as a result of our expressed concerns has made it a model of accessibility for the retail market. It is no surprise that one of the first preconvention sessions on Tuesday morning was hosted by them, its title being “Target: An App for All Guests.” The National Federation of the Blind Employment Committee hosted an orientation to the 2021 NFB Career Fair, while Vispero, a loyal convention sponsor and longtime participant, presented the first of several very popular convention activities, it being “What’s New with JAWS, Fusion, and ZoomText.” Our host affiliate started its first tour with the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) railroad museum, while Black Leaders Serving Advancement met to celebrate the numerous contributions of Black Federation leaders. Blind people with intersecting disabilities met to learn about the lived experiences of members who have multiple disabilities, and the Blind Muslims Group held a meeting entitled “Diverse in Culture, United in Faith: Finding Our Space in the Blindness Movement.” HumanWare came to showcase its significant offerings that allow for the creation and rapid reading of Braille. The National Federation of the Blind Membership Committee gathered its committee members, affiliate chairpersons, chapter presidents, and all Federationists interested in building our organization in what has been a virtual year of COVID. The National Association of Guide Dog Users held a seminar celebrating the work of puppy raisers, giving updates on guide dog training programs, and learning how we can improve the rights of all guide dog users. The NFB Employment Committee conducted its annual career fair, Vispero offered what it called the ideal solution for scanning print, and Pearson discussed the disability mentoring program it has created to target the dangerous combination of low expectations and the lack of knowledge about exploring career goals. The host affiliate conducted a tour of the National Goddard Space Flight Center while simultaneously an educational seminar focused on addressing pronouns, pride, and more was conducted; and a meeting of the Blind Federal Employment Committee discussed opportunities for employment with the government by those in the federal workplace. The Blindness Initiatives Research Advisory Council held a meeting for academic professionals working in the field of research, and Amazon came to talk about “What’s New with Amazon Accessibility.”
The topic of safety and support figured prominently in our convention discussions, and a meeting to provide training about boundaries and consent discussed how we can build safe, stronger, and more connected communities. The third tour from our host committee focused on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad she established, and the National Federation of the Blind Employment Committee rounded out its day of activity by hosting the 2021 Job Seekers Seminar.
Events continued into the evening with the meeting of the Webmasters Group, the opening meeting of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee was conducted, the National Association of Blind Students held a networking session, and a legislative meet-up to provide a rundown of our legislative priorities and opportunities to advocate for the rights of the nation’s blind was hosted by our Advocacy and Policy Department. A meeting to discuss the reopening of synagogues and how this influences us as blind people was conducted, as was a meeting to discuss Native American experiences by hearing from the voices of Native Americans in the Federation. The Blind Parents Group gathered to meet the people writing the pages of the book on how to be a blind parent by simply living and not letting blindness hold us back. And while all of this was going on, a very special concert was taking place entitled “One Voice: Stronger Together.” Federationists were encouraged to enjoy a night of performance and support the efforts of the Performing Arts Division whose goal is to change what it means to be blind one stage at a time. The Technology Evaluation Committee Exhibitors Showcase gave attendees a chance to hear about hardware, software, and services designed to help the blind. We rounded out Tuesday evening by discussing the way to Cultivate Asian Pacific Islanders’ identities and by highlighting the topic “Blind and MENA, a Different Kind of Brown.”
Wednesday morning began at 10 a.m. Eastern with a session on “JAWS Power Tips” presented by Vispero, a seminar on getting connected in your employment search by the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, and yet another effort by the National Federation of the Blind’s Employment Committee focusing on upward mobility and employment. Many of us who work hard to build the Federation ask ourselves what we can do to recruit members and leaders who are Spanish speakers and how best to make them feel included. This topic was addressed by Mujeres of the Federation. Journalism is sometimes advertised as the fourth institution of government, so it is no surprise that blind people want to be involved in the field and need “Tips for Building a Journalism Career” sponsored by the Blind Professional Journalists Group. The fourth and final tour conducted by the Maryland affiliate was of our National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, and it was led by our Current First Lady, Melissa Riccobono, and Former First Lady Mary Ellen Jernigan. The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children continued to offer valuable seminars, those being on technology.
These and many more gatherings were featured on the agenda, and only by reviewing it can one get a true feel for the scope of the meetings held and the issues discussed.
The National Federation of the Blind's Board of Directors met on Wednesday afternoon, and when President Riccobono gaveled the meeting to order, all but two members were present. After being delayed by technical difficulties, all were soon in attendance.
We observed a moment of silence in memory of those lost to us in the past year. Sixty-five Federationists were reverently recognized in addition to others whose names might not have been sent to the President. Joe Ruffalo was asked to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance, and President Riccobono followed by reciting with us the Federation pledge.
The President talked about elections, those who would stand for election and those whose terms would be up in 2022. Members whose terms ended at the conclusion of the convention were Denise Avant, Illinois; Everette Bacon, Utah; Norma Crosby, Texas; Ever Lee Hairston, California, Terri Rupp, Nevada; and Joe Ruffalo, New Jersey. Holdovers were Mark Riccobono, Maryland; Pam Allen, Louisiana; Ron Brown, Indiana; James Gashel, Hawaii; Jeannie Massey, Oklahoma; Amy Buresh, Nebraska; Shawn Callaway, District of Columbia; John Fritz, Wisconsin; Carla McQuillan, Oregon; Amy Ruell, Massachusetts; and Adelmo Vigil, New Mexico.
Joe Ruffalo asked for the floor and said that after twenty years of service he thought it was time for him to resign and make way for new talent and energy. Serving on the board has been one of the highest honors of his life, and he will continue to do whatever he can to be of service to the organization that has meant so much to him. President Riccobono thanked Joe for his two decades of service on the board as well as his twenty-seven-year tenure as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey.
James Gashel called for the floor and announced that he wished to resign as the organization’s secretary. He said that he has been a Federationist for fifty-six years, that he would try to avoid making a speech knowing that this was his proclivity after spending so much time in Washington, DC, and he hopes that anyone visiting Hawaii will drop by and say hello. President Riccobono thanked Mr. Gashel for his many years as a rank-and-file member, a staff member, a board member, and an officer. The position of secretary was added to those to be elected this year.
Ronza Othman is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. She was the next presenter and discussed everything from virtual tours to the many contests held by the affiliate. An article discussing the activities of the host affiliate will appear elsewhere in this issue.
John Berggren was introduced to talk about convention details in his capacity as the chairperson of convention organization and activities. Coordinating 185 separate convention sessions is no small task, but our chairperson brings to the job just the right combination of gentleness, decisiveness, and firmness. He said the agenda was made available on the web, as a Microsoft Word Document, and on the Crowd Compass app that allowed the agenda to be customized to show only the sessions one decided to attend and to set reminders for them. Each agenda item had a Zoom link so one could move from meeting to meeting with a simple click. Those wishing to listen to the convention had many options, the most used being Zoom, but others included YouTube, the Amazon Alexa skill, Shoutcast, and NFB-NEWSLINE®. All sessions, including breakout activities, were captioned for the deafblind, and this captioning was available either through the Zoom application or through the OneCap application that many found easier to use with a Braille display.
President Riccobono announced that our 2022 convention will be held in New Orleans from July 5 to 10. We have not been in New Orleans since 1997, and though the rates have gone up since then, they are still a bargain at $110 per night for singles and doubles and $115 for triples and quads. There will also be a three dollar per night fee charged by the city.
He then addressed our publications including our electronic newsletter, Imagineering our Future; our blog, Voice of the Nation's Blind; our magazine for parents of blind children, Future Reflections; and, of course, our flagship publication, the Braille Monitor. The President noted that the Braille Monitor editor would consider him remiss if he did not mention that the magazine is always in search of good articles, and he encouraged Federationists to share their experiences, their observations, and to write them.
Beth Braun is the assistant to the President, and she was called upon to read the proposed "2021 Principles of Engagement," a document explaining the way we would function in the virtual environment if approved. A formal vote on those rules would take place during the first convention session on Thursday evening.
To make sure that every eligible person could vote, we tried a sample, and the matter of consequence to decide was one's favorite ice cream. Since there are only two choices available in the system, we were limited to chocolate or vanilla. The clear choice was chocolate by a vote of 234 to 118.
The President reminded everyone that our Code of Conduct dictates how we will treat one another, and the rules we have established apply for our virtual gatherings as well as those in-person meetings to which we are more accustomed. One can report a violation by writing to [email protected] or by calling 410-659-9314, extension 2475. We intend, through our Code of Conduct and other procedures, to be not only the leading organization in matters dealing with the blind but the leading organization dealing with providing safe and enriching environments in which to work and interact with one another. The Board of Directors has recommended the establishment of a fund to assist victims of abuse and recommended an initial appropriation of $250,000. If approved later in the convention, it will be the Survivor's Assistance to Facilitate Empowerment or SAFE Fund.
Shawn Callaway was given the microphone to talk about membership recruitment efforts and specifically our efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion. He began by expressing his appreciation for the interest of the Federation in reaching out to groups who are not well represented among our membership. The committee has conducted a number of meetings, and he is encouraged not only by its participation but by other members who have welcomed the information and encouragement put forward by it. People wanting to talk with the committee should write to [email protected]
Tarik Williams cochairs the Membership Committee along with Kathryn Webster. He took the floor and began with the message that the key to membership recruitment is to provide a welcoming environment, one where our friendliness is a predominant aspect of who we are and what new people can expect. Every month the Membership Committee conducts a national conference call inviting new people to come with their questions about who we are in the National Federation of the Blind. When the new member signs up, he or she receives several monthly newsletters to assist with general orientation and support. As important as these tools are, they are no substitute for the personal relationships that transform new members into valued, long-term colleagues and family members.
Carla McQuillan chairs the Distinguished Educator of Blind Students Award. She came to the microphone to recognize the committee's 2021 recipient. A report of her presentation and the remarks of the winner appear elsewhere in this issue.
President Riccobono talked about the way a good deal of work is done in the Federation, that being through groups, committees, and divisions. He noted that several years ago the Board of Directors established the requirement that each division file an annual report. These are due to Beth Braun in the Office of the President by August 15.
The Board is working on the creation of standards for divisions and has established a subcommittee that is currently working on them. As most Federationists know, committees are appointed by the national President, and he is changing the term of appointments from the calendar year to September 1 through August 31. This will align with much of the work which often occurs from convention to convention. Those interested in serving on a committee should write to [email protected] or write to President Riccobono at the Jernigan Institute. A form to indicate interest is also available and can be found at https://nfb.org/committeeinterest. Please submit one form for each committee in which you are interested.
One of the organizations the National Federation of the Blind partners with is the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults. In addition to the Braille Books Program being managed by Melissa Riccobono, the Action Fund continues to produce Braille calendars, and one will be available for 2022 starting in August.
The Fund has observed that there is a lack of Braille books in Spanish and is making an active effort to address that need. It is working to identify Spanish speakers who can recommend titles they would like to read. This organization continues to distribute free canes as well as slates and styluses in partnership with the Federation. Last but not least, it manages the Braille Readers are Leaders Contest in which many of our affiliates participate, and this popular program continues to grow. Those interested in knowing more about the Fund's programs can go to its website at https://actionfund.org or can email [email protected].
Patti Chang is the National Federation of the Blind's director of outreach, and she was called on to talk about her work to expand relationships and opportunities for the Federation. She began by talking about a film producer who has recently created his second documentary about blind people. This documentary features a blind teacher, and registrants at this convention will receive a link in August providing access to this password-protected film so that we may enjoy an exclusive screening.
Patti introduced our convention sponsors for 2021. They are:
Platinum: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, UPS, Vanda, and Vispero.
Gold: Brown, Goldstein & Levy; LLP; Target; Waymo.
Silver: Aira, Amazon, AT&T, Market Development Group, McDonald's, Oracle, Pearson, and T-Mobile Accessibility.
Bronze: American Printing House for the Blind, Democracy Live, Educational Testing Service, HumanWare, Learning Ally's College Success Program, Newsela, Spectrum, Tusk Philanthropies, VitalSource Technologies, and Wells Fargo.
White Cane: Chris Park Design; Cruise; D2L Corporation; Duxbury; Envision - Workforce Innovation Center; En-Vision America; IKE Smart City; Independence Science; Law School Admission Council Inc.; Leader Dogs for the Blind; McGraw Hill; National Industries for the Blind; Personal AI; Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld, LLP; and The Chicago Lighthouse.
Last year we conducted a matching fund campaign, and it went so well that we have now conducted three of them. These are made possible by our generous sponsors: Vispero, Deque, Cherish Life, The Baiardi Family, the Gibney Family Foundation, and our anonymous donors.
We plan to conduct a fundraising seminar for all of our affiliates, chapters, and divisions. This will occur on September 15, so please mark your calendars.
Patti reminded the assembled about our vehicle donation program and urged us to learn more about it by Googling National Federation of the Blind Vehicle Donations or by calling 855-659-9314. She also mentioned our GreenDrop program, which is available in seven states and can again be found by Googling GreenDrop or by calling 888-944-drop.
Patti concluded by talking about the Dream Makers Circle, our legacy society whose members are ensuring the well-being of the Federation when they leave this earth for a better place. Those interested in helping, though none too soon we hope, can contact Patti by writing to [email protected] or by calling her at extension 2422.
President Riccobono next thanked HumanWare for their long-term sponsorship of the organization and gave the company and the American Printing House for the Blind a chance to talk about a collaborative effort that will result in some tremendous technology for blind people. Bruce Miles was the presenter from HumanWare, and he was joined by Anne Durham of the Printing House. The new creation is officially named the Dynamic Tactile Device, which is really a Braille tablet that will forever change the way blind students learn. It will produce Refreshable Braille and graphics on a multiline display in real-time. The hope for this device is that it will eventually replace the hardcopy Braille textbook that is often hard to get and in too many cases arrives after the school year has begun. Using this device, instead of waiting weeks or months, Braille books will be available at the touch of a download button. Though it is still in testing, this device is expected to be helpful not only in providing textbooks but in making testing materials and job-related information available at one's fingertips.
The work that we do in the Federation requires money, and that money comes through donations given through a number of funds we have created. Everette Bacon chairs our White Cane Fund, and he was introduced to talk about the Give Twenty Campaign. The Give Twenty Fund allowed donations to be made not only to the White Cane Fund but to the Jernigan Fund, and the SUN Fund.
Sandy Halverson chairs the SUN Fund, a savings account maintained by the National Federation of the Blind. We sometimes refer to it as the rainy-day fund, though the personality of its chairperson is anything but rainy or gloomy. We give to this fund with the expectation that it will be used only in times of financial emergency, and many of us in the Federation remember what it was like when we lived through just such a crisis in the 1970s. Currently our rainy day fund has about $1.5 million, and although this is an impressive amount, it will not long run the National Federation of the Blind when the uninvited rough times arrive.
Our most successful membership-driven fundraiser is undoubtedly the Preauthorized Contribution Program or what we affectionately call the PAC Plan. Through PAC contributors make an automatic monthly donation that is painless for them and predictable for the organization's treasury. One does not have to be a member to be on the plan; only the desire to contribute to the work of the National Federation of the Blind is required. We came into the convention at just under $494,000, and by the end of the convention—well, let's keep the reader waiting until the banquet for that announcement.
One can begin contributing to the PAC Plan by calling 877-632-2722 or, as rolls so nicely off the tongue, 877 NFB 2 PAC. If one wishes to sign up using the web, the address is www.nfb.org/pac, or one can use email to write to [email protected]. In the case of phone or email, leave a message, and someone will respond to your request.
Anil Lewis was introduced to talk about the Blind Driver Challenge. No, he wasn't on the program to talk history but about the present and the near future. Our newest iteration of the Blind Driver Challenge involves the attempt of Dan Parker to set a land speed record for a vehicle driven by a blind person. Dan's record-breaking attempt will take place in the fall of 2021, and one of our lucky participants in the Give Twenty Campaign will have the opportunity to draw for the Golden Key to Cruise ticket, admission to be there in person when Dan makes his historic run. More information can be found at https://blinddriverchallenge.org. We are joining with Cruise, the developers of self-driving vehicles to do this project.
Tracy Soforenko is the chairperson of the Kenneth Jernigan Fund, the purpose of which is to help first-time convention attendees by providing financial assistance and mentoring. Normally this fund helps around fifty people each year, and the way it raises money is by selling Jernigan tickets. Anyone who purchases tickets for the fund has their name placed in a drawing. The lucky winner gets two round-trip tickets to the convention, their room at the hotel, tickets for the banquet, and $1000 in walk-around spending money. During in-person conventions tickets are normally sold for ten dollars each, but in 2021 a chance to contribute to the fund was purchased through the Give Twenty web link.
The last fund to be discussed owns the Jernigan Institute, and it is the Jacobus tenBroek Fund. The effort to raise money for the maintenance of our building is headed by Kathryn Webster, and she vowed to keep her remarks short and sweet so that we might proceed to the introduction of the scholarship class. She did discuss a major renovation made about a year and half ago that involved new sleeping rooms, a recreation area, and shared space for sitting and visiting. Maintaining the property we have at 200 East Wells Street is definitely important, and the Jacobus tenBroek Fund is the key.
One of the highlights of every board meeting has long been the introduction of the scholarship class, and 2021 presented thirty of the finest scholars we have ever had the pleasure to assist on their journey of success. A full report of this part of the board meeting will appear elsewhere in this issue.
Scott LaBarre made a presentation in his capacity as general counsel for the National Federation of the Blind. His job is to assist the President in managing a multimillion-dollar legal program that is actively asserting our right to live in the world on terms of equality with the sighted. We have yet another victory in our case against Domino's Pizza. Legally it is now perfectly clear that the chain must operate a fully accessible website and cannot hide behind the fiction that Internet sites are not covered. We have won a case against Curative, the largest provider for scheduling vaccines and tests in California. Its website was inaccessible, and now it will be because of the work of the National Federation of the Blind.
Section 508 has been the law of the land since 1986, but we know that the federal government does not abide by the requirement that it procure only technology that is accessible. We are collecting stories from people who are employees of the federal government or from others who simply try to use its services and find that they are hampered by accessibility barriers. In addition to collecting stories, we have sent a letter to the United States Congress demanding that they conduct oversight hearings. Recently we approached McDonald's with concerns that its kiosks were inaccessible to blind customers. By the end of 2021 McDonald's will distribute only kiosks that are accessible.
Scott concluded his presentation by thanking other lawyers with whom he works: Brown, Goldstein & Levy; TRE Legal Practice; and Carlton Walker of Blindness Education and Advocacy Resources.
Having said this, Scott next introduced Valerie Yingling. She said that since the last convention we have created a new form for members wanting to discuss legal matters relating to blindness. It appears on the NFB legal webpage at https://nfb.org/legal. On this page are links to several important surveys, our newest concerning digital library services. Those who have any experience with accessibility on these sites are encouraged to fill it out.
Since the expiration of our Uber and Lyft agreements, we have updated our rideshare surveys to gather information regarding ride denials. Not only do the surveys include service animals, but now encompass any technology we may use including the long white cane. We are also interested in the accessibility of the apps used to secure the assistance of the services.
We continue to gather information about accessible and inaccessible education technology used in K-12 and higher education. This applies both to public and private schools. All teachers and students are encouraged to complete the survey every semester. The Federation is specifically gathering information about Seesaw and Epic Books, so please report your experiences using the survey.
To close the board meeting, President Riccobono introduced the Chairperson of the Board, Pam Allen, who made these remarks:
Hello, my Federation family, and thank you so much, President Riccobono. It is such a pleasure to welcome everyone, especially our first-time attendees, to our convention.
I am so grateful to be a member of the National Federation of the Blind. Thanks to all from our host affiliate in the great state of Maryland, our phenomenal team at our National Center managing all of the logistics so that we can connect virtually, and most importantly, all of you, our members, the most important part of all we are. Though I have different roles and titles, the most important for me is member.
Thank you for your participation and your contributions this week and throughout the year, and for the transformative work we are doing to ensure that everyone feels valued, heard, safe, included, respected, and welcomed. This work would not be possible without you, President Riccobono, and the loving example you and Melissa are to all of us.
I want to recognize the work of our Survivor-Led Task Force, our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, and of all our survivors who are guiding us with strength, truth, and courage. I also want to remind everyone of the safe spaces for survivors provided by our Survivor-Led Task Force for confidential peer support and for anyone who would like to share concerns or ideas you have about safety and support measures in the National Federation of the Blind. ... I know we're struggling with much pain and working to repair shattered trust. This work is critical, and we are listening and acting.
Brené Brown said that “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, healing, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity." If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful lives, vulnerability is the path forward. Remember, we are stronger together. In our diversity, vulnerability, and humanity, love is what holds us together at the National Federation of the Blind.
I'm wishing all of you an incredible convention, and Roland and I and our whole Louisiana family cannot wait to welcome you to New Orleans next year. Happy convention to all, and let's go build the National Federation of the Blind!
The first official day of the convention began early if one considers that the convention day would extend well beyond twelve hours. The American Printing House for the Blind discussed its high-tech journey to develop products to increase the availability of Braille while lowering its cost, Accessible Pharmacy and Be My Eyes discussed their partnership to support blind and low vision people in the management of medication, Text2Vote discussed its cutting edge technology with the same ease as everyone else, and the Community Service Division continued its work to advocate for blind people being of service not only to ourselves but to others. The National Association of Blind Merchants held its annual meeting as did the Federation's DeafBlind Division. Physical health is every bit as important for blind people as it is to others, and our Sports and Recreation Division meeting is adamant about bringing this message to us every year. The National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science continues to encourage employment in the lucrative field of computing and to work for nonvisual access to all aspects of the technology. Many other divisions held meetings, and the only way to get the full flavor of these between session gatherings is to look at the agenda and to continue looking in these pages for division, committee, and group reports. If one you want doesn't appear here, write to the person in charge, and ask them to write something for the Braille Monitor.
When the gavel fell on Thursday evening, July 8, it signified the official opening of the National Federation of the Blind's 2021 Convention. Our invocation was presented by Christopher Edris Crowley, a member of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina's Columbia Chapter, who practices the Muslim faith. In his moving invocation he quoted the Koran, and these words have special meaning to us now as we embrace diversity not as a gift to others but as a blessing to us all: "We have created you from one man and one woman, and we have made you into peoples and nations so that you may know one another, not that you may despise one another."
The official welcoming ceremonies were presented by our host affiliate. This is the third time in the history of the organization that Maryland has been able to serve as host. Those introducing the welcome were Maryland affiliate president Ronza Othman, and she was joined by secretary of the Maryland Association of Blind Students, Juhi Narula. They characterized what was to follow as Maryland's fifth and last virtual tour, the other four having been mentioned earlier. In keeping with the hosting of the 2021 National Convention, even this tour had to have a contest, and the winner would be the first person to identify ten songs heard during the recorded presentation. An article appears elsewhere in this issue describing all of the tours and the contests so ably conducted by our friends in Maryland.
This unique welcoming celebration ended with a splendid quotation: "We know that we are stronger together. Through love, hope, and determination, we will transform and unify our future."
Master Sergeant Dr. Vernon Humphrey was introduced to conduct our annual tribute to the veterans who have given so much in the service of our country. He serves as the president of the National Association of Blind Veterans, and he told President Riccobono how long it had been and what a pleasure it was to be referred to as Master Sergeant. For the 2021 Celebration of Freedom presentation, veterans from around the nation were asked to make a recording, but because of his prolonged illness, Joe Ruffalo was unable to do this. President Humphrey took this opportunity to introduce him, rejoicing, as do we all, in Joe's miraculous recovery. Eighteen veterans were introduced, and following their introduction, everyone participated in pledging allegiance to our flag. Father John Sheehan is the chaplain for the National Association of Blind Veterans, and he sang the National Anthem. President Humphrey closed the ceremony by recognizing that none of the work that the veterans have done could've been accomplished without the love and support of their families.
Following a fit break, we moved to the roll call of states, and though all of them were outstanding in their own way, here are a few observations that seem worthy of note: Alaska wanted to remind us that, in addition to having a spectacular affiliate, it is two-thirds the size of the United States. One wonders if Texas was supposed to take away a message from this? Hawaii wanted us to know that it has passed five significant pieces of legislation that have been indicated as important by our Federation. NFB-NEWSLINE® has returned to Montana, special legislation has been passed for blind voters in Nevada, and in Pennsylvania ten members of its eighteen-member congressional delegation have signed onto H.R. 431, the Accessible Technology Affordability Act. Rhode Island now has a parental rights law and also is able to use accessible electronic ballots. Texas boasted nineteen BELL participants, three members of the Teachers of Tomorrow cohort, and two scholarship finalists.
At the conclusion of the roll call, we were able to state with pride that all fifty-two affiliates were in attendance. The nominating committee having been selected by the delegates, President Riccobono appointed Pam Allen to be its chair, and the committee issued its report at the time of elections covered later in this article.
The proposed rules of engagement were read to the convention, their approval was moved by the board and seconded, and the vote was taken. While tabulation was underway, Julie Deden led us in a fit break.
The rules of engagement having been adopted, we moved to one of our last items of business for the evening. It was an interview conducted by President Riccobono with Congressman Kweisi Mfume who serves in the United States House of Representatives from the Seventh District of Maryland. This was a substantial interview with good questions and insightful answers. It will appear in full in a following issue.
Before closing with a door prize, President Riccobono reflected on the sad reality that, for all of our love and optimism, we sometimes have to function while in the presence of haters. Several people tried to intrude on our meetings, offering inappropriate commentary in the chat area and through the screen sharing of pictures and sounds. Although they were quickly removed, the President reminded all of us that it is our obligation to identify, callout, and shutdown such behavior when it is observed, whether during an in-person meeting or one conducted virtually.
The session was adjourned, and for those hardy souls not intimidated by the lateness of the hour, there were sessions on safety, support, and how to constructively intervene as a bystander. The Friends of Recovery also took this opportunity to meet and exchange the strength and hope that comes from the togetherness that helps to create and maintain a healthy lifestyle and the happiness that can accompany it.
On Friday leading up to the main session, attendees could visit the Independence Market, the Exhibit Hall, and attend sessions on constructing and implementing an individualized education program (IEP). For the technology enthusiasts among us, using the Focus Braille display with the operating systems provided by Windows and iOS presented a tremendous learning environment. Later in the morning were caucuses by each of our affiliates so that we could renew ties with our Federation friends and family, review this year's resolutions, and learn more about the work of the Federation.
President Riccobono brought our second session to order noting that good afternoon or good morning might be in order, depending on where one was while attending this virtual convention. A seminary student studying to become a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church was introduced, and his name will be familiar to many. For a time he was the editor of the Braille Monitor, has served in several important capacities as a government official, and is just an all-around wonderful Federationist. Dan Frye was introduced to give an invocation, and like others from different faiths, he thanked the creator for the blessings bestowed on us and asked that they continue.
The highlight of the afternoon, as it always is during the second session, was the Presidential Report. The coronavirus and the social distancing it necessitated caused us to alter and even reimagine some of our programs, and this we did. The hour-long report that the President gave was a testament to the fact that we embrace challenge, feed on it, and use it as just another way to show the resilience of people committed to a worthy cause. President Riccobono's remarks will appear in full immediately following this article.
At the end of the president's report the virtual choir performed a beautiful rendition of “You'll Never Walk Alone.” They were followed by the Secretary of Transportation, The Honorable Pete Buttigieg. His topic was “Transformative Innovations in Transportation: A Commitment to a Future Informed by the Blind.” The secretary began by expressing regret that we could not all meet in New Orleans but said he appreciated the opportunity to address our Federation and welcomed the opportunity to participate in a conversation like this. He noted that transportation can be a major engine of opportunity for people with disabilities, or it can also be a major source of inequity. The goal of the department and of course of the Federation must be to see that it is the former rather than the latter. The remarks of Secretary Buttigieg will appear later in the fall.
At the conclusion of the secretary's presentation, the chairperson of our National Association of Guide Dog Users was called on to ask him a question. Raul Gallegos addressed the Federation's concern about the January 11 amendments to the National Air Carrier Access Act. Part of that effort was to counteract the bringing of counterfeit service dogs on airplanes, but this has unfortunately created burdensome side effects for blind travelers using guide dogs. One of these is the requirement that we fill out forms before flying with a guide dog. Another allows airline personnel to decide whether there is enough space on the airplane for one's guide dog by making assumptions about whether they can fit comfortably under the seat. This decision should be made by a guide dog handler, whose past and current experience should decide the issue. The question posed to the secretary was whether he would look into this regulation and see about modifying some of the unacceptable requirements outlined in President Gallegos’ questions. He said that he would. While he supports the public policy goals that must be achieved, he certainly wants to alter the consequences that were described. He said this is why our advocacy is so important, and he will make sure that his team gets in touch with the Federation and other advocates to see that these are addressed.
"Stronger Together: How the Organized Blind Movement Benefits from the Global Advancement of the United Nations CRPD” was presented by Gerard Quinn, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Mr. Quinn is headquartered in Ireland, and it is from there that he made his presentation. He expressed his high honor at being able to address the convention of the National Federation of the Blind and began by saying that he agrees that we are always stronger together. He was very moved by Reverend Frye's invocation saying that we should reach out and try to affect the rest of the world. Mr. Quinn encouraged us to continue working hard to see that the CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) is implemented in America because it will benefit us and the rest of the world. Our example carries tremendous weight in the world and this, if for no other reason, should motivate us. Mr. Quinn's remarks will appear in this magazine later in the fall.
After a fit break hosted by Jessica Beecham and Melissa Riccobono, President Riccobono directed our attention to voting and introduced Eve Hill, a well-known presenter on our stage who currently is a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy. Her presentation was entitled "Transforming Advocacy into Votes: The Impact of the Federation on Voting Equality." Eve talked about the inequities involved in being a blind voter: elections that provide no accessible voting technology, poll workers who are not trained in using what accessible devices are available, and voting locations that pose transportation problems because of their distance from a voter. Eve concluded her presentation with this stirring quotation from Susan B. Anthony: "Someone struggled for your right to vote; use it." Eve's remarks will appear in full elsewhere in this issue.
The convention was pleased to hear from the secretary of state from Colorado, the title of her presentation being "Transformative Leadership in Partnership with the Blind: Colorado Raises Expectations for all Blind Americans.” When Secretary of State Jena Griswold took the microphone, she began her presentation by recognizing Scott LaBarre, Dan Burke, and Curtis Chong. She said that Colorado is continually among the nation's leaders in voter registration and turnout. The state's voter participation was an impressive 86.5 percent. She stressed that Coloradans are proud of the fact that they make voting as easy as it can be. She concluded her remarks by saying,
If there's one thing we've learned during the past year, it is that one of the greatest risks to democracy is complacency. As Colorado's chief election official, I am committed to creating an election model for all the people. But to make sure we are reaching for that more perfect union, we need each state to ensure that all eligible people, regardless of zip code, color of skin, or ability have access to free and fair elections.
The secretary's remarks will appear in full later in the fall.
In introducing the next presentation, President Riccobono remarked that we do not believe that access for the blind has to come at the expense of security. "A Stronger Future Together through a Commitment to Full Participation: Building the Tools to Empower All to Vote" was our next agenda item, and it was presented by Bradley Tusk, the chief executive officer and cofounder of Tusk Philanthropies. Mr. Tusk comes to his job after a lucrative career in business, and his message is that if we want to solve any of the problems that have long confronted our country, we have to have a voting system that works. We cannot have a system that tolerates 13 percent of the electorate determining who our candidates will be through their participation in the primary process. It is too easy to villainize the people who serve us, but it is more important for us to understand that our elected officials take the positions they do because they, like us, want to keep their jobs. The question is how we can vote the way most of us feel and give them the coverage they need to vote in a way that they continue to stay in office. His remarks will appear in full later in this issue.
In introducing the first panel on Friday evening, President Riccobono made these remarks:
The panel you are about to hear, these six individuals, are outstanding leaders who have been representing the interests of survivors of misconduct, individuals who come into this organization and run into harmful situations. These six individuals have given more in the last six months than many Federationists give in a decade. They have poured their heart, their soul, and their imagination into this work, and in case there is anyone out there who thinks they've just been toeing the party line, let me say this: no way, I can tell you. I have met with them weekly, and they have kicked me around about many, many situations where it was well deserved. I'm glad that they did; they are part of my learning and healing from the mistakes I have made in the past as a leader, not knowing how to respond well to these difficult situations.
You know I have found love and support in this organization, and I've got to tell you that it really makes me angry that anybody would come to this space and be harmed. The work that we're doing is to eliminate that harm but also to try to heal what has happened in the past. I know that love and support is what so many people have found and that, even for these six individuals, it's been painful for them to stay, but they have stayed despite that. There is simply no amount of gratitude that we can give them that is fitting for the work that they've done, and I want to say on behalf of this organization that we are going to continue to pursue having the highest level of standards for our members and removing people from the organization who make it unsafe. “Federation safe” is our goal, and making it safe every day for more and more people is what we intend to do.
The agenda item President Riccobono was introducing was titled “Federation Safe: Healing and the Transformation of Pain into Progress.” The presenters were three members of the 2021 National Federation of the Blind Survivor Task Force: Kathryn Webster, Briley O'Connor, and Daphne Mitchell. The first of these to take the floor was Kathryn Webster. She began by saying that what would be discussed might be hurtful and that people should avail themselves of the opportunity to step away if they found it difficult. Speaking out can lead to relief, but before that relief may come greater pain from the revelations that concentration on this subject can bring about. Her remarks will appear in full later in this issue. The recommendations outlined by her fellow presenters will be distributed once adopted, and they can also be found at https://www.nfb.org/survivors.
"Learning from the Past and Building for Our Future: A Report from the Federation’s 2021 Special Committee” was next on the agenda. Presenters were Sharon Krevor Weisbaum, Tim Elder, Denise Avant, and Ronza Othman. These four were appointed by the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors on January 6, 2021, to oversee and direct an independent investigation looking at allegations of sexual misconduct by NFB members, participants, and staff that may have taken place at NFB affiliated events, the training centers, or within the state affiliates. The committee was also given the task of looking at our organization's response to those events. It was given complete independence to carry out the jobs assigned to it by the board, and no one in the NFB interfered with what the committee did.
Thus far the committee has authorized seventy interviews. They were conducted by the law firm the committee hired, Kramon & Graham PA.
All of the participants on the special committee began their remarks by expressing their absolute belief in the importance of the Federation and that all of their work in this endeavor has been motivated by the idea of making the organization all that it can be. Many of those remarks were movingly summarized by Ronza Othman when she said,
To you, those who are survivors, I want to say that I hope the work of the special committee is helpful on your journey of healing, and my greatest hope for you is to find peace and to feel safe. I'm so sorry for what you've experienced. I hear the pain of survivors, and I also hear the pain and love for leaders who want to simultaneously support survivors, shore up our organization so that we can proactively prevent trauma, and work on our traditional initiatives to ensure independence and equal rights for the blind. I do not believe these things are mutually exclusive or that one undercuts the other. Instead, I believe that all are possible and in fact necessary as we move forward. I love this organization and believe it should and will be the best version of itself. Our greatest strength is our membership, and our greatest struggle is that sometimes individuals among us, even those we love, do harm.
To fully appreciate the remarks that were made and the in-depth comments suggesting the changes proposed, please go to https://nfb.org/sites/nfb.org/files/2021-07/08_federation_safe_healing_and_the_transformation_of_pain_into_progress.mp3 as well as https://nfb.org/sites/nfb.org/files/2021-07/09_learning_from_the_past_and_building_for_our_future.mp3 and listen to what was said.
After these two intense panels, it was time for a fit break, and this mindfulness exercise was conducted by Jessica Beecham and Maureen Nietfeld. "The Strength of a Champion: Transforming Federation Spirit into Personal Progress” was presented by Randi Strunk, a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and the National Federation of the Blind Sports and Recreation Division. In introducing her President Riccobono said:
Our next speaker represents the best of what our movement is. She contributes where she can, and she does so without drama or fanfare. She applies the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind in her own life and tries to stretch the understanding of that philosophy through the actions and the leadership that she provides. I said in the Presidential Report that I share a love for the courage, commitment, and strength that lives in the lives of each of our members, and I think this woman exemplifies those characteristics extremely well. She is outstanding because she's authentic and strong. I'm proud to welcome her to our national convention stage this evening, a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota; here is Randi Strunk.
Randi humbly and movingly talked about her innate love of sports and athletics but how, over time, they began to occupy a lesser place in her life when the action got to be too fast and her lack of vision interfered with her ability to compete. Her love of physical activity, pushing herself, and embracing the idea of some discomfort to achieve success pushed her into training for and participating in a triathlon. So inspiring are her remarks that they will appear elsewhere in this issue.
Acknowledged by the Obama administration as a champion of change, our next presenter is a former scholarship winner and lives our philosophy, one manifestation of it being a business that he has built that is dedicated to accessibility. "Transforming and Accelerating Accessibility: The Need for the Organized Blind Movement to Innovate through Inclusive Design" was presented by Sina Bahram, the founder and president of Prime Access Consulting. Sina makes the point that we are very interested in accessibility for blind people, and rightly so. But technical changes really require that the Federation work with society to embrace accessibility as a core principle for everyone and in everything. Too many people will be left out if we don't; too many of the things we need won't happen unless we incorporate a larger community to ensure that accessibility is not just a feature for the blind but a core concept that must be baked into every product and service that is offered. His well-articulated and moving remarks will be found later in the fall.
Monique Coleman is a teacher of the blind and the president of VISTAS Education Partners and the founder of the National Homework Hotline. She lives in Highland Park, New Jersey, and spoke on the topic "Stronger Together: Raising Cultural Competency, Engaging Diverse Blind Mentors, and Advancing the Education of Blind Youth." She knows through personal experience and the research data that is available just how significantly blind people and people with other disabilities are being left behind by America's education system. Although technology is important to the blind, many who are blind and are a part of other minority populations never get it. We must work to ensure that more demographic data is gathered so that we can target these people for better educational outcomes and the life prospects that come with them. The insightful remarks made to the convention will appear later in the fall.
Most technology that blind people use for navigation has been created to meet the situations we encounter when outdoors. The Global Positioning System has almost no utility if one is not outside. But there is a tremendous unmet need for navigational assistance when inside, and this problem was addressed in the next presentation entitled "Innovating Mapping Technology: A Mission Built on the Experience of the Blind," and its presenter was Jose Gaztambide. He is the chief executive officer of GoodMaps, a project that sprang from the pioneering work of the American Printing House for the Blind on indoor navigation. The problem with indoor navigation isn't so much technology; using multiple available techniques can give us one's location with precision. The problem is that we lack the indoor maps to make use of that location information, and GoodMaps is committed to making this available without charge and doing so to a community that extends well beyond the blind. What GoodMaps intends to create will be shareable with all navigation applications, so the blind and the sighted can choose the one they prefer. This exciting presentation can be found elsewhere in this issue.
Chancey Fleet is a motivated, energetic, focused, and intelligent woman who has chosen to give some of her time and energy to building and strengthening the National Federation of the Blind. She may be best known for her active role in technology, and in recognition she serves as the president of the Assistive Technology Trainers Division. She was called on to moderate a panel addressing the topic "Stronger Together: Transforming Accessibility from Inkling to Innovation in the Technology Industry.” On the panel with Chancey were Jeff Petty from Microsoft, Eve Andersson from Google, Sarah Herrlinger from Apple, and Peter Korn from Amazon. They were each asked to address five questions ranging from the importance of Braille to the significance of artificial intelligence and its future. Many significant points were made, but only a few can be covered here. The rest we will leave to a link at the bottom of this description.
By way of introductory remarks Chancey and the presenter observed that when a product is designed, one should always start from the perspective of the user: What is it that is really needed, and in what way should it be implemented? When a product is developed, one should be cautious in deciding what it can and cannot do and in clearly advertising both its benefits and limitations.
Chancey's first question addressed to each representative was how each of the representatives engineered their development policies to ensure that what they put out is accessible. As an extension, she asked how we can work with them and others to see that accessibility is considered as essential as security in the development and deployment of products. Her second question focused on Braille and what the companies were doing to ensure that their products incorporated support for Refreshable Braille displays. Her next was how our movement and the tech industry can work together to make sure that automation for accessibility is used in measured and ethical ways. The answers to this question were interesting and informative. Artificial intelligence has to be trained not to have bias just as humans have to work against it. Artificial intelligence has limitations, just as does human intelligence. Consequently the interpretation it brings has limitations. Responsible artificial intelligence gives the user the choice to use or not use it, and those who create it must be deeply committed to frankness and honesty about what they know the current state of their product can and cannot do. Chancey's last question was splendid: What steps can leaders in our movement and in the industry take to ensure that blind talent gets cultivated, hired, and retained? Each company described what they have done in this regard, but the message that resonated with every one of them was for blind people to work where they want in a company and not to limit their ambitions to accessibility.
Since this was an unscripted question and answer session, those interested in this significantly important topic should listen to the conversation directly. It is available at https://nfb.org/sites/nfb.org/files/2021-07/14_stronger_together_transforming_accessibilty_from_inkling_to_innovation.mp3.
The next presenter to the stage is familiar, but his company likely is not. It is Personal AI, and Suman Kanuganti is its founder and chief executive officer. This is his seventh national convention, having first come to us when he started Aira in 2015. His continued presence is not just a tradition, not just a business decision, but an indication of the importance of family to him. Suman talked about the great potential of AI in bridging the gap between technology and assistive technology. At the same time, he warned about the biases inherent in it, some of the bias coming from the need for more sophisticated decision-making, but most coming from the inherent biases that data aggregation creates. When it comes to the issue of personal AI, something that is private to you, it won't matter what biases, prejudices, or experiences you have. Your AI will remember what you want it to remember in the way you want it remembered, so the user of the system will determine to what degree they wish to engage in personal and societal biases or perhaps more progressive societal change. Suman concluded with these thoughts: "Your personal AI is a true reflection of who you are; after all, what we remember is who we are, and what we can recall is who we will become." He encouraged listeners to go to https://personal.AI on the web and participate in the program by following links to create your own personal AI. To join a community discussion of this product as it evolves, go to https://personal.AI/community.
President Riccobono adjourned the Friday evening session with the request that all of us join him at 1 p.m. eastern on Saturday.
Early on Saturday afternoon after the gavel fell and a door prize was drawn, President Riccobono presented us with the financial report that covered all of 2020 as well as the first five months of 2021. Revenue and total assets were slightly increased in both reports. Part of the income for 2020 was a loan by the federal government which was erased because we met the terms of the loan forgiveness program. Income was pretty much what we budgeted, expenses were a bit less, but as in-person meetings become possible again, travel will most certainly rise. Lest one feel too comfortable about our financial position, the requests to which we must say no due to limited resources should erase any of our complacency.
The financial report of the Federation having been accepted, we next moved to elections. Nominating Committee Chairperson Pam Allen read the slate, and its report was accepted. The name of Norma Crosby was placed in nomination to be the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind. The nomination was seconded, and she was elected. Norma thanked the convention and said that she will continue the work that has been a passion of hers for forty years. In return she asks that we work hard to see that the board continues to be informed by what blind people want and need. She urges that we remember that not only are board members our leaders, but they are our friends.
The name of Denise Avant was placed in nomination, it was seconded, and she was elected. Denise expressed her appreciation for the convention returning her to the board; reaffirmed her commitment to strive for diversity, equity, and inclusion; and told the assembled what a pleasure it was to work with Mark Riccobono, a man dedicated to building and expanding the Federation for all blind people.
Everette Bacon was nominated by the committee, his nomination was seconded, and he was elected. Everette thanked the convention for electing him to another term of service. He said that the work is sometimes hard, but it is always worth doing. In his acceptance remarks he paid tribute to Pam Allen by beginning with a quotation from Harvey Milk: "It takes no compromise to give people their rights. It takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression. Here are the values that I stand for: honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated, and helping those in need." Everette completed his remarks by also remarking on what an honor it has been to serve with our President.
Marci Carpenter was nominated for board position three. After her election, Marcy said:
Thank you so much, Mr. President and my Federation Family. This is an incredible honor, and I take it very seriously. I will serve with integrity and compassion. I first joined the National Federation of the Blind as a twenty-one-year-old college student. I was fortunate to have mentors like Gary and Denise Mackenstadt, Bennett Prows, Kenneth Jernigan, and Hazel tenBroek. They taught me how the organization worked and how to further our goals, but mostly they taught me that that can only occur if we love and support one another. I've had many roles inside the Federation; I've been a chapter leader, an affiliate leader, and I've served on our Survivor-Led Task Force. I was honored to serve as the treasurer of the founding board of the Colorado Center for the Blind. But the most important role I have and have ever had is as member.
I want to speak for a moment to Federationists out there or those who may not be in the movement or may have left. I left the Federation for ten years after a divorce when I lived in Colorado, but when I moved back home to Washington state, I was welcomed with open arms by my Federation family here and by everyone around the country. I so appreciate that and want people to know that you too can come back. Some people think that if they have other disabilities in addition to blindness, they won't be welcomed or can't be a leader. I live with hearing loss, depression and anxiety, and other medical conditions. I am standing here today, and so can you.
Ever Lee Hairston was nominated to return to her position on the board, and she was elected. In her acceptance speech Everly said that this was one of the most important chapters in her civil rights career and that the opportunity to serve with such distinguished people on the Board of Directors was indeed a highlight of her life. One of her personal goals is to inspire other women of color to become leaders in our organization because we have much more to do, and now is not the time to be silent. "Find your purpose, pursue it passionately and relentlessly."
Tracy Soforenko was nominated for board position number five. After his election Tracy said that he joined the National Federation of the Blind so that he could learn how to raise his two preschool children. He thanked his Federation family for stepping up to give him the information he requested, but he learned that what he really needed was to come to believe in himself and to find greater purpose in life. The positive role models he met caused him to come to believe in himself because they first believed in him.
Terri Rupp was nominated to fill the last position up for election in 2021. She said that when she first heard of the National Federation of the Blind, she thought it was a by-invitation-only group, but she has since learned that anyone is welcome to be a member and has felt the love from coming to join in our family.
Before Sharon Maneki took the floor in her capacity as the chairperson of the Resolutions Committee, a resolution from the Board of Directors was considered to establish the Survivor's Assistance to Facilitate Empowerment (SAFE Fund). The motion of the board was seconded, voted upon, and passed.
The resolutions chairperson began the task of presenting the sixteen resolutions that had been recommended for adoption by the committee. A full report of this part of the meeting will be found elsewhere in this issue.
President Riccobono thanked everyone involved with the resolutions process and expressed special appreciation to those who, in speaking for or against, managed to keep their comments courteous and concise.
Anil Lewis was next welcomed to the microphone in his capacity as the executive director of blindness initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. "Transforming and Unifying Our Future: The Jernigan Institute Advances Our Mission through a Worldwide Pandemic" was his topic, and though he abbreviated his remarks to move along the agenda, his message was clear: it is not the national as in the national staff that makes the National Federation of the Blind strong. It is the chapters, affiliates, groups, committees, and divisions all working together that give us depth, strength, and the ability to affect our present and change our future. More important than the units of which the Federation is composed is the love and the unity that focuses our energy. As talented and hard-working as our seventy-five member staff may be, the transformative work we do can only be assisted by their efforts. The direction and the resolve must come from each of us taking personal responsibility. Anil's remarks will appear later in the fall.
Our director of Advocacy and Policy came to the microphone to speak on the topic "Transforming Action in the Halls of Power: Advocacy and Policy Coordinated through All Levels of the Movement." Whether we are talking about vehicles that can drive themselves or blind people who can chart the course of their future through earnings derived from the Randolph-Sheppard program, the National Federation of the Blind is actively involved. Whether we are talking about medical devices that must be made accessible or access technology the blind must be able to procure, our Advocacy and Policy Team is on Capitol Hill to carry our message and bring ever closer the day when blind people enjoy equal opportunity, security, and equality in society. The remarks of John Paré will appear in a future issue.
Tammy Duckworth is the junior senator from the state of Illinois, and she was next on the agenda to address the topic “Leading Alone and Marching Together: Transformative Action from the United States Senate.” President Riccobono introduced her in this way:
The Senator is a veteran of the Iraq War, the recipient of a Purple Heart, and a former assistant secretary for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. She was one of the first Army women to fly combat missions in Iraq during Operation IRAQI Freedom. … As we know, when you're the only one in a group, it is sometimes challenging to get your colleagues to see you as a fully contributing member, and I think the senator has demonstrated that she won't take anything from her colleagues. She continues to provide leadership on many issues that are important to us, and more importantly, she will do so in the future. Here is my interview with Tammy Duckworth.
Senator Duckworth noted that her disability poses problems that none of the other ninety-nine senators have ever had reason to think about, and although these problems can sometimes create uncomfortable barriers, the very fact that she has made it to the Senate has bought her tremendous respect from her colleagues. Their realization that she does not take shortcuts because of her disability also wins her great credit with them. The message she delivered was very clear: Go forward, be courteous, but when you need to, don't hesitate to make a scene. You are working not only for yourselves but also for people who don't yet have disabilities.” The senator’s remarks will appear in full along with President Riccobono's questions later in this issue.
Although we had plenty of wonderful fit breaks during the convention, none was as good as the one hosted by Pam Allen at which Homer Simpson was the guest. There is no way to do justice to the interplay in writing, so those who listen to the audio will get a special treat. It can be found at nfb.org/convention.
“Strength through a Diverse Organized Blind Movement: The Intersection of Characteristics and the Common Bond of Raising Expectations” was the last order of business before the banquet. The moderator of this panel was Colin Wong, who is the cochair of the National Federation of the Blind's Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. He was joined by panelists Tasnim Alshuli, chairperson of the National Federation of the Blind's Muslim Group; Doula Jarboe, president of the Colorado Association of the Blind Hard of Hearing and Deafblind; Sanho Steele-Louchart, chairperson of the NFB's LGBTQ Group; and Priscilla Yeung, manager of senior programs at the Society for the Blind in San Francisco.
Colin began his presentation by noting that in 1963 Dr. Jernigan asked the convention to consider whether blindness was a handicap or characteristic and concluded that it was one of many characteristics. Given this, we must revisit other conditions that people have considered handicaps and try to incorporate those characteristics in addition to blindness. Just as society fails to recognize blind people for more than the blindness that we have, we too can fail to recognize people as more than their additional characteristics. When we do this, we marginalize, alienate, and cause everyone involved to pay the price of not being fully appreciated and not being allowed to benefit from and help in our programs.
The first panel member Colin introduced was Tasnim Alshuli. She said that the formation of the Muslim group she heads and the acceptance it signifies has made her feel much more unified as a Federationist. Never again does she want to be in the place of having to choose between an important religious event and participation in a Federation meeting. She wants the new group to show the truth of the faith she and her brothers and sisters share and not the one too often portrayed in popular media.
Doula Jarboe was the next presenter, and, in addition to blindness, she is a deafblind person and a woman with Alström syndrome. With her multiple disabilities, she is extremely interested in our efforts to make medical devices accessible; not only is their current inaccessibility dangerous for her but can easily be considered life threatening. Doula has both a service dog and a PTSD dog. She notes that she is trained in the art of mediation but chooses not to be employed because her medical conditions would not allow her to handle the rigors of the job and do real justice to her clients.
Sanho Steel-Louchart was our next presenter. He is gay and described both his desire to approach the NFB and his reluctance. He clearly remembers getting the idea from others that he would not be welcomed and then finding that this was not the case. What he did find, however, was that, as in American society, some people were not comfortable with the fact that he is gay. This is certainly not true in the LGBTQ NFB group to which he belongs, but outside this group he realizes that some people are perfectly willing to accept his blindness but have trouble dealing with his sexual orientation. What we need to express to people in the LGBTQ community is that they are indeed welcome—not just part of them but all of them. Like all of us, members of this group want to say, “We are here, we exist, we are proud of ourselves, and we are so proud that you're proud of us too.” In addition to the listserv and the Facebook group, the LGBTQ group meets on Thursday evenings at 9 o'clock Eastern, and the meeting often goes as long as several hours. It is a place where people can socialize in an informal way and allows people to stay connected and do good work.
Priscilla Yeung was the last panelist member to be introduced. Her parents immigrated here from Hong Kong, and Priscilla was born in the US. She discussed the difficulty in being Asian American and growing up with cultural values that are so different from the ones that most of us experience. What she said will appear in its entirety elsewhere in the fall.
Tonight we've heard from someone who identifies as a Muslim, someone with an intersecting disability who is deafblind, and we've also heard from somebody who identifies as gay and someone who identifies as Chinese. By no means is that the end of diversity within our organization.
The moderator concluded: I have one last parting message for everybody. The leaders today have shared so many amazing stories. Stories and vulnerability go hand in hand. The vulnerability of the storytellers needs to be open enough to share their stories, but it's also necessary for the listener who hears these stories to be vulnerable and let these stories sink in. The stories that change us as people are those that inspire us by teaching us strength in how to overcome adversity. The world treats the blind in a way where we have plenty of opportunity to face adversity on a daily basis. The National Federation of the Blind cannot be a place where our members face the adversity of discrimination. It needs to be a place where members, regardless of what background they come in, have a place of belonging. It's time that our diversity is celebrated, and it's time for diversity to be recognized for the importance that it has in our movement. It's time that diversity is interwoven into everything that we do. And it starts with us—as members, as chapters, as affiliates, and as a national organization. All of our stories are beautiful, and it's time that we talk to each one, to each other, to say "I hear you. I believe you. And I want to understand you." It's time to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive Federation. Thank you, Mr. President.
As President Riccobono concluded, "The challenge for us is not our diversity; the challenge for us is finding the power in our diversity and having our common bond as blind people be the reason that we find the power in our diversity." With those words we were adjourned until the banquet.
The banquet celebrating the eighty-first anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind was much like others; we came with anticipation for a wonderful speech, the presentation of well-deserved awards, and the bittersweet knowledge that this was not only the climax of the convention but its end. Ever Lee Hairston led us in thanking God for our organization, its leaders, and the accomplishments we have won together. The invocation was followed by our virtual choir. The performance of the choir not only represents tremendous musical talent but a significant engineering feat as well given each person recorded their part separately.
Anil Lewis was introduced and talked about our newest iteration of the Blind Driver Challenge in which Dan Parker will attempt to break the speed record for the fastest vehicle driven by a blind person. This is the second partnership in which we have engaged with Dan, and we have every expectation that his name will end up in the record book, yet another challenge for another blind person on another day.
Everyone who registered for the 2021 National Convention was eligible to win the Blind Driver Challenge Golden Key, a ticket to watch Dan set a record in the fall of this year. This was just one of many reasons to register. Kimberly Evans of St. John's, Maryland was the winner. She can either take this prize or $2,000 in cash.
Tracy Soforenko stepped to the microphone to announce the winner of the Give Twenty campaign. There were 720 people who contributed to the 2020 give, and $46,569 was raised. Debbie McDonald from Albany, Georgia, was the winner of two round-trip tickets to New Orleans for our 2022 convention, hotel accommodations, two banquet tickets, and a thousand dollars in cash.
Our PAC men, Scott LaBarre and Ryan Strunk, gave the PAC end-of-convention report. We came into the convention with an annual giving rate of $493,000. As a result of our efforts, giving stands at $507,000. If we're able to maintain this for the next twelve months, the plan will generate $518,000 annually. This is a significant increase, and we very much appreciate those who give to the plan, those who have joined it, and those who have made increases.
After our mistress of ceremonies introduced the virtual head table, she called upon President Mark Riccobono to deliver his annual banquet address entitled “Reflection, Revolution, and Race: A Growing Understanding within the Organized Blind Movement.” He described our initial challenge to address the civil rights movement and the tension surrounding allowing Black members and leaders in some of our affiliates. We were a part of a society that had not decided how it felt about the concept of integration, and the Federation’s challenge was how to welcome, benefit from, and represent Black people without tearing the organization asunder. His remarks will appear in full later in this issue.
One of the pleasures of a National Federation of the Blind banquet is the appearance of Ray Kurzweil, who is unquestionably one of the world’s leading inventors and futurists, a man who has been called “the restless genius” by the Wall Street Journal and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes Magazine. What really makes his presentations special to the National Federation of the Blind is his ability to instantly critique and make meaningful comments about the banquet speech we have all heard together. This has been his role for most of the forty-six years he has attended, and as he remarked, “Many days seem to go on forever, but the decades seem to slip by so quickly.”
Next came the presentation of our Dr. Jacob Bolotin awards, and the chairperson of the committee was introduced for the honors. His presentation and a list of awardees will appear elsewhere in this issue.
A highlight of every convention is the introduction of the scholarship class, learning about the number and amounts of the awards to be presented, and then being told which winners won those awards. The presentation of Chairperson Cayte Mendez and the remarks of the $12,000 Kenneth Jernigan Award winner appear elsewhere in this issue.
Prior to adjourning, a door prize was awarded in the amount of $2,021 to Lucy Marr of New York.
President Riccobono ended the convention by announcing that we registered 6,061 people, demonstrating once again that we will continue to do the work that needs to be done on behalf of blind people, even if it means doing most of it virtually. He extended his thanks to all who had participated in the accomplishments celebrated during the convention and expressed his unwavering belief that we will all join together to meet the challenges of the coming year and those beyond. With those remarks, the gavel dropped on the 2021 Convention, and many of us returned to visit with the banquet parties we had organized throughout the affiliates and chapters of the Federation.
So if our eighty-first convention was to bear the burden of the middle child, it did so with the class and fame of Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Jennifer Lopez, and Michael Jordan. It will not be the convention that was one too early or one too late. It will be remembered as the convention that marked a turning point in our history: one that was open to reflection, criticism, and dialogue that reflected the best of our traditions, the worst of our fears, and the hopes and promises that have always made us vibrant, committed, and stronger together.
An Address Delivered by
Mark A. Riccobono, President
at the Annual Convention
of the National Federation of the Blind
online (Baltimore, Maryland)
July 9, 2021
During the past year, the depth of our determination and the power of our bond in the organized blind movement has been tested. Going back to our founding in 1940, you will find no year like the one through which we’ve persisted. Social distancing protocols and considerable uncertainty forced us to suspend the hundreds of in-person meetings, conventions, and community outreach events that typically represent our annual effort to organize and strengthen our movement. But the blind of America have not retreated from our mission, nor have we slowed the pace of our progress. Instead, we have transformed our movement—creating new ways to organize and discovering strength in the new dimensions of our march together. While the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant social and economic dynamics have tested our movement, the record will show we remain stronger together as blind people. We have encountered many unexpected challenges, but we have responded with love, hope, and determination. We have fulfilled our pledge to stay together to transform dreams into reality. We are the National Federation of the Blind.
Throughout the pandemic, the advocacy work of the Federation has been essential for connecting blind people to resources and protecting them against unequal treatment. At the beginning, the availability of public health information, accessibility of testing sites, and adequacy of economic relief were our focus. Our efforts later expanded into equal access to vaccinations. Many Federation members reported that the websites used to register and schedule appointments for COVID-19 tests and vaccinations were inaccessible. While access barriers on websites are something that blind people must overcome daily, issues on these sites put blind people at greater risk for transmitting and suffering the effects of this deadly virus. We have raised this concern with the relevant federal officials and have kept it front and center even through the transition of presidential administrations. Additionally, we raised our concerns with three of the leading entities that partnered with states and local jurisdictions to offer COVID vaccinations. Albertsons, Zocdoc, and Curative have all responded positively, and we are now in negotiations to get their vaccination and testing websites made fully accessible on rapid timelines. We expect these relationships to cause positive transformations in future healthcare sites established by these companies.
This year, the popular media has covered the importance of vaccine trials in proving the efficacy of proposed cures. The media has not covered the fact that individuals are often left out of these trials simply because they are blind. One example is Chris Sabine, who is a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. Mr. Sabine sought to participate in a COVID vaccination trial at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, but he was initially denied simply because of his blindness. The Federation and Mr. Sabine jointly filed a complaint with the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. As a part of the complaint’s resolution, Mr. Sabine negotiated a training on blindness and best practices for preventing discrimination, which took place at the hospital on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Together, we transformed denial into education to inoculate against discrimination, and we hope that only one shot is required.
Many schools and testing entities have responded to COVID-19 by permitting participation using remote technology. The inaccessibility of these technologies has been a significant problem for blind students and blind parents. Consider a blind second-grader in Berkeley, California, who we will call KW. He loves to dance, learn about astronomy, build with Lego bricks, and read Braille. KW independently participates in classroom activities using access technology and refreshable Braille. However, his equal participation was significantly diminished by the accessibility barriers in the technologies of his virtual classroom, including Seesaw (a learning management system), Epic Books (an online library), Zearn and Prodigy (systems for math instruction), and Loom (a video player). We will not tolerate second-class education for our blind youth. On behalf of KW and his parents, the National Federation of the Blind has begun negotiations with the technology providers to ensure that digital K-12 learning technology is an enhancement to educational opportunity rather than a barrier. Further, we are working closely with the school district to achieve a model technology procurement policy that prioritizes accessibility. As with all our efforts, the goal is for this policy to serve as a model for school districts across the nation. We are transforming America’s educational system to empower rather than exclude our blind youth.
Many jobs in the American economy have been transformed during the pandemic. However, blind entrepreneurs operating under the Randolph-Sheppard Program in federal and state government facilities have been especially disadvantaged. Beginning in March 2020, our governmental affairs staff worked closely with our National Association of Blind Merchants (NABM) to seek targeted relief for blind small business operators across the country. Unlike other small businesses that were able to make transformations in their business models to bring in some income, blind people in this program had no access to their businesses, their inventories, or their customers due to government facility closures. For blind business owners, the New Year’s celebration came a few days early as on December 27, 2020, the president signed an act authorizing a one-time, twenty-million-dollar emergency relief and restoration grant program to offset losses of blind vendors resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. We aggressively followed through to ensure that the United States Department of Education gave appropriate guidance to state licensing agencies, and by the early spring of 2021, blind business owners were finally receiving the financial support they needed. Once again, the National Federation of the Blind has transformed difficult circumstances into greater hope and opportunity for the blind.
The American democracy places a high value on the ability of individuals to cast an independent and private vote in elections. Yet our nation has not come to a day when all blind people have equal access to the full process of registering, independently marking a ballot, and privately casting their final vote. Thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, we are making steady progress toward that day, and we can count the last year as a significant milestone in advancing toward our goal.
In the run-up to the 2020 federal elections, as jurisdictions expanded absentee voting because of the pandemic, we found that most states failed to make their absentee ballots accessible despite the Federation’s prior legal victories and guidance. We engaged election officials, wrote letters, published op-eds, or filed lawsuits—or some combination of these—in at least nineteen states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. In most cases, the state, by settlement or under pressure from the court, either contracted with a remote accessible vote-by-mail system or made PDF absentee ballots accessible for the 2020 election. Whenever possible, our national organization led a coordinated effort including local affiliates, individual Federation members, and other interested organizations, such as protection and advocacy groups. These collaborative efforts allowed us to provide both the legal expertise and arguments and the real-world experiences of blind people to help educate the judges and the state officials on the importance of accessibility. As a direct result of the Federation’s efforts in these cases alone, over eleven thousand blind people and people with print disabilities were able to vote absentee in the 2020 presidential election—a vote they would have otherwise been denied or had to risk exposure to the virus to cast.
Through our Help America Vote Act work, we continue to educate elections officials, protection and advocacy personnel, and voting system manufacturers on nonvisual access issues. Starting with the 2008 presidential elections, the National Federation of the Blind has offered a survey to capture data on the experience of blind voters every four years. Among those completing our 2020 blind voter survey, 64 percent voted in person at a local polling place while 36 percent voted absentee. While the growing experience of blind voters using remote accessible voting systems is improving privacy and independence, we cannot ignore the importance of equal access at in-person polling places.
One success from this past year is the resolution of a lawsuit against the Maryland Board of Elections for their failure to protect the right of blind people to a private and independent vote at the polls. After defeating the Board’s motion to dismiss the case, we came to a mutual agreement on a statewide plan to increase the use of accessible ballot marking devices and poll workers’ familiarity with them. The Board also agreed to pay our attorneys’ fees and costs. No matter how often the State of Maryland, or any other state for that matter, puts barriers in our way, we will transform them into equality for the blind.
In 2020, we hosted our first-ever virtual national convention, where ten thousand individuals engaged in the seminars, workshops, exhibits, and business sessions of our organization. We were disappointed that the uncertainty of the pandemic continued into the fall, but we knew without doubt that the blind would show up to greet the 117th Congress in the winter. On February 8, 2021, we gathered for our first virtual Washington Seminar. With more than four hundred meetings engaging more blind people than ever before, we have again made the priorities of the organized blind movement clear, and we have laid the groundwork for years of work ahead. On March 1, 2021, we celebrated the date after which all hybrid and electric vehicles must be manufactured to meet the minimum sound standards established by the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, which had been a priority of our Washington Seminar more than a decade earlier. When we come to the halls of power, we know that transforming our priorities into reality takes time, energy, and lots of follow through—even after the heavy lift of getting a bill signed into law. We do not give up until we have passed the final milestone.
The most persistent example of our tenacity is our quest to eliminate Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which permits unequal and substandard pay for people with disabilities—a quest that began at our founding in November 1940. I am proud to report that we are getting closer to this goal every day. While we continue to build support for the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act in Congress, an increasing number of states, agencies, and organizations are adding their support to the message we have shared since 1940. In September 2020, the United States Commission on Civil Rights released a strong report on the intersection of civil rights and employment of people with disabilities. In October 2020, the National Council on Disability released a similar report on the unintended consequences of the AbilityOne program and Section 14(c). Both of these significant reports clearly call for the repeal of Section 14(c). Most surprisingly, an April 2021 consensus letter to Congressional leaders co-signed by National Industries for the Blind, the National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind, and Source America marks a significant milestone in our quest. For the first time ever, these entities acknowledged and affirmed the long-standing demand of disability advocates to eliminate special wage certificates. One simple sentence in the letter says it all: “We agree.” I will let you decide for yourself why this 2021 declaration is surprising. We are not done, and we will not take the pressure off until we transform the laws of the nation to eliminate unequal treatment of people with disabilities. A full report of the work of our Advocacy and Policy staff will be given later in this convention.
Similarly, the Amazon corporation has, once again, learned that the organized blind movement does not quit. Last year I reported that we filed several complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of five blind people who were hired at Amazon fulfillment centers, only to be placed on unpaid leave as early as their first day. This was not because they failed a background check or drug test or due to their violation of company policy. They were simply blind. It puts a smile on my face to report that we have delivered a settlement with Amazon that will open new opportunities for the blind in its growing number of fulfillment centers. Beginning this month, Amazon has agreed to adopt technology and accommodation solutions to make many fulfillment-center jobs accessible, to work with us to identify accessibility innovations, to provide online training internally on accommodating blind employees, and to conduct outreach to the blind community on these efforts. The company also reinstated and accommodated the four individuals who still wanted to work in Amazon warehouses, including backdating their benefits to their original start dates.
Many blind people know the pain of being rejected for a position before an application is even submitted to an employer. The National Federation of the Blind is prepared to fight against the discriminatory actions based on blindness that bar us from the equal opportunity to compete for positions. One example is our filing of a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination on behalf of Roger Sullivan regarding discriminatory hiring practices by National Telecommuting Institute (NTI). Specifically, NTI tells applicants that it cannot accommodate individuals who use tools such as JAWS, magnification greater than 2X, voice-recognition software, or relay services. We will not allow employment opportunities to be denied to individuals who request these accommodations, and we will continue to transform the employment prospects for the blind.
Some of the most damaging discrimination comes when we have work that we are passionate about, but we are forced to endure the stress of harassment and low expectations from our supervisors. We have the security of knowing that the National Federation of the Blind continues to use the force of law to raise expectations. In a proceeding before the EEOC, we fought hard against the Department of the Army on behalf of a blind childcare worker, Olivia Chamberlain, who had faced discrimination, harassment, denial of accommodations, and retaliation because of her blindness. Despite her successful record as a childcare worker for years, Ms. Chamberlain’s supervisor repeatedly made offensive remarks about her disability, demanded a list of job tasks that Ms. Chamberlain could not perform, and disciplined her when she defended her rights. The agency intentionally delayed acting on her accommodation requests for ten months and demanded unnecessary medical information. Finally, even after agreeing to some accommodations, they failed to follow through. With the transformational support of our movement, we reached a settlement agreement for Ms. Chamberlain that secured the accommodations she was entitled to and that promised the dignified treatment she deserved. The agreement also provided her with the job transfer that she wanted—one more example of the power of our movement and the strength of our togetherness.
We continue our work to ensure that support programs administered by federal, state, and local governments provide meaningful access to blind people. Christopher Meyer is a Federation member from Indiana. In 2017 he had his Indiana Medicaid terminated because he had not responded to a print mailing telling him that he needed to submit additional information to maintain his eligibility. The print letter was delivered despite his prior request that all correspondence be sent in Braille. Even if he had known about the request, Christopher would have needed to overcome the inaccessibility of the online Indiana benefits portal. On behalf of Christopher, his sister Sarah, and the National Federation of the Blind, we filed suit against the state to secure equal access. The court issued an order finding that the state’s websites are part of their programs and activities, and that the failure to offer accessible programs violates federal disability rights law. In May, we finalized a comprehensive settlement agreement in this case that will ensure that Christopher, Sarah, and all other blind Hoosiers will be given their choice of alternative formats for print communications from the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, the Division of Family Resources, and their contractors. Those agencies will also achieve and maintain the accessibility of their websites and benefits portal.
In North Carolina we found that UNC Health Care and its affiliate, Nash General Hospital, failed to provide blind patients with accessible copies of critical documents such as consent-to-treatment forms, after-visit care summaries, and medical bills. We wrote to UNC Health and asked to work collaboratively on a solution. UNC Health declined our offer, so we went to the courts. In November 2020, we reached a $150,000 settlement with Nash General Hospital, while continuing our legal battle with UNC Health, which includes affiliated medical providers across North Carolina. Both sides have now moved for summary judgment, and we are awaiting a decision. We hope this case will send a message to healthcare providers throughout the country that they must plan for the timely and consistent provision of documents in accessible formats to blind patients.
Jamal Mazrui is a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington and a retired federal employee who received health insurance benefits through Blue Cross Blue Shield’s (BCBS) Federal Employee Program. For years, he has been unable to access information about his benefits because the BCBS program’s website was inaccessible. Thanks to a transformational lawsuit filed by the Federation, federal employees, retirees, and their families will now be able to fully access all insurance benefit information that is on the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) health benefits website. Significantly, under the settlement OPM will require all of its insurance carriers to make their federal employee benefits websites and apps fully accessible. BCBS will be bound by the OPM requirements. We will not tolerate being prevented from accessing the benefits and services we are entitled to receive, and we celebrate our Federation family members who have taken courageous steps to transform their frustrations into effective communications for the blind.
The National Federation of the Blind continues to lead the way in ensuring equal access to self-service kiosk technologies, which have grown in popularity during the pandemic. Two recent examples come from California. When the California Department of Motor Vehicles implemented new self-service kiosks in local communities, they apparently assumed blind people had no need to pay their car registration and print registration tags. However, we know that while blind people are not legally permitted to drive, we often own vehicles for our family, employment, and even sometimes Federation business. California Federation members who had a need to use these machines found that the DMV kiosks, unlike ATMs and other machines they had encountered, were not independently usable through nonvisual access. With the support of the National Federation of the Blind, a group of Federation members entered into structured negotiations with the California DMV and the kiosk manufacturer, Intellectual Technology Inc., (ITI) to reach a resolution announced earlier this year. As a result, ITI has now added Braille labels, tactile controls, speech output through a headphone jack, and other accessibility features to its kiosks. ITI will continue consulting with the National Federation of the Blind, and one of its machines can be found at our International Braille and Technology Center in Baltimore. As a national contractor with a presence in many states, ITI is now positioned to lead the market on accessible government self-service technology.
While visiting McDonalds’ locations in California, Federation members Brian Buhrow, Juanita Herrera, and Santiago Hernandez discovered new self-service kiosk technology was being installed without features that would enable blind people to independently use these machines. They reported their experience to our national office, we reached out to McDonald’s, and the company has worked collaboratively with us to develop a solution. McDonald’s USA’s company-owned restaurants will implement enhancements to existing accessibility features by December 31, 2021. The enhancements include screen-reading software, tactile keypads, and the ability for customers to connect their headphones to the kiosk. The enhancements will be incorporated into 100 percent of existing kiosks in California and 25 percent of existing kiosks in each company-owned restaurant in other states. McDonald’s will also incorporate these upgrades into all kiosks that are installed in any of their US locations after July 1, 2021, including new kiosks available to franchised locations. We commend McDonald’s for their collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind to promote inclusivity and access. While there are those who will say that McDonald’s French fries are what is truly transformative, we are loving the transformation that comes from discovering greater accessibility across the nation through partnership with the organized blind movement.
Let us not forget that, as with work, we are also artificially kept out of play, solely due to our blindness. Despite numerous blind contestants succeeding on the game show Jeopardy!, one of our members recently discovered that the show’s updated online contestant application test was inaccessible to those using screen-access software. And the answer to this non-trivial discrimination: What is the National Federation of the Blind? We reached a settlement with Jeopardy! to make its online application test accessible immediately; to provide an immediate accommodation to allow our member, James Fetter, to take the test; and to pay attorneys’ fees and damages. Jeopardy! contestants beware, the organized blind movement is here to play.
A strong value in our movement as blind people is taking the responsibility to build our own future together. One way we do that is through the development of innovative programs that we coordinate from the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute in Baltimore. Though the building has only had a small core of our staff working onsite during the past year, the programs have continued to grow throughout the nation.
While schools across the country were shuttered and moved to virtual learning platforms, our blind students needed the support of blind mentors more than ever before. Our pre-employment transition services, known as the National Federation of the Blind Career Mentoring Program, pivoted from in-person retreats to high-quality, two-hour Zoom meetings held three times a month. We developed twenty-eight virtual, interactive modules delivering 165 student participant hours to more than fifty students from Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, and Nebraska. The virtual modules covered a broad range of topics including college preparation, advocacy skills, employment readiness, leadership development, goal setting, nonvisual techniques, and learning-through-service—or what we refer to as giving back. We continued to broaden the network of mentors available to our program mentees through the Federation family. We will now begin resuming in-person gatherings for which there is no true substitute. However, we expect the innovations of the past year to positively transform our mentoring resources in the future.
This summer we are expanding upon the innovative efforts we made in 2020 to deliver our NFB Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) Academy directly to the homes of families using the Zoom platform. In the NFB BELL In-Home Edition, we provide our Braille learners with a variety of hands-on materials, daily online instruction and support from skilled teachers of blind students, as well as mentoring from local blind adult role models. In the summer of 2020, we worked with 265 blind students. Each student received a Braille resource box weighing seven pounds. For the summer of 2021, we have divided the curriculum into three separate tracks—beginner, intermediate, and advanced—to facilitate more effective instruction based upon individual skill level. In addition, we have expanded the resources sent to blind students. Depending on which track a student is assigned to, they will receive a resource kit weighing eleven, sixteen, or nineteen pounds. The program also includes social opportunities to build relationships with peers across the country. Additional supports were added to the 2021 program to better serve blind students with a variety of additional disabilities, including students who are deafblind. We have also enhanced our training for mentors and instructors through a partnership with the Consent Academy. Eighty-six blind students participated in our first academy last month, and we have additional academies scheduled for July and August. Through our NFB BELL In-Home Edition, we are transforming the possibilities for the future. Literacy, independence, and the network of the National Federation of the Blind are gifts that will continue to give opportunities to these students throughout their lifetime.
Our efforts to expand the possibilities for the blind in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) have continued despite the pandemic. Last fall we converted our plans to host in-person seminars in state affiliates to a national virtual format. In October and November 2020, the NFB STEM2U program engaged 102 blind students from across the country in STEAM instructional sessions in which participants were divided into tracks based on their age and experience. Prior to the program, students were sent materials to facilitate the development of spatial understanding including tangram puzzles, snap cubes, tactile graphics, and origami paper and instructions. During the program, students developed the requisite language to help each other understand unfamiliar spatial concepts and had the opportunity to receive authentic instruction in nonvisual exploration, which is rarely experienced in public school classrooms. After the program, students were sent additional materials and continue to have access to the mentoring network within the National Federation of the Blind. Our experience with this program helped to inform our virtual implementation of our NFB Engineering Quotient (EQ) program, which began this week and continues through July 30, 2021.
This year's NFB EQ program combines best practices from online learning and traditional correspondence courses to facilitate accessible and equitable digital STEAM learning opportunities. Through synchronous and asynchronous activities, our students will develop and utilize their spatial thinking skills. Research has demonstrated that paper folding and drawing are two types of activities that help build spatial thinking abilities. So, NFB EQ activities will revolve around paper folding and technical drawing. The most exciting transformation is that our blind students, as one of their final learning outcomes, will be creating spatial thinking learning resources and opportunities for our community.
We remain committed to mentoring educators and other professionals in the blindness field. Earlier this year we selected twenty-two outstanding up-and-coming teachers of blind students for the 2021 NFB Teachers of Tomorrow cohort. This program provides monthly enrichment and mentoring from NFB members who have an educational background. Our goal is to build a community of practice for these professionals through the National Federation of the Blind. We expect these educators to be part of our transformational work to raise expectations for the blind, and we hope that many of them will teach in future NFB programs.
Through our Center for Nonvisual Access to Education, Public Information, and Commerce, we bring the authentic expertise of blind people to the intersection of technological innovations. With support from the State of Maryland, we offer intensive accessibility training seminars each month. In addition, our technology staff hosted a number of larger events, such as our Inclusive Publishing Conference, Smart Cities Summit, Educational Technology Seminar for State Superintendents, and mobile-app-development seminars for iOS and Android. As we begin to consider the next phase of our advocacy work within the technology revolution, we will be considering what the future of our International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind will be. Our physical space in Baltimore, as well as the advocacy, technical assistance, and training we provide, will evolve to support the broader priorities of our movement and to advance our leadership in the field.
Often the Federation’s partners bring us interesting opportunities to make the capacity of blind people a meaningful conversation in new places. For example, Pinna is a children’s app with podcasts, audio books, and music. The company has invited our help to improve the accessibility of their platform so that the content can benefit all families. Even more exciting is our consultation on the Pinna podcast Opal Watson Private Eye. Opal is a curious, brave, and persistent eleven-year-old with a thriving mystery-solving business. Opal also happens to be blind. Fortunately, Pinna has gotten to know the Federation and can raise Opal with a growing understanding of our philosophy. Similarly, our friends at Mattel asked us to support their inclusion of Helen Keller in their Barbie® Inspiring Women™ Series. In May the doll was publically released holding a miniature Braille book and the packaging included readable Braille. We have much more we want to do related to positive portrayals of blind people and with accessible packaging in the future.
We continue to investigate partnerships that pursue innovative ways of making visual images and cultural institutions more available to the blind in authentically nonvisual ways. 3DPhotoWorks is one of our longest-standing partners in this area. In January, together our organizations launched a tactile images partnership that leverages the tremendous resources and brand of Getty Images. The partnership allows us to work collaboratively with museums and others to potentially make any of the approximately twenty-five million Getty Images available in tactile form in institutions and for traveling exhibits. Part of our interest in innovative approaches for inclusion and accessibility is to spark our imagination for what the experience could be at a future civil rights museum for the blind. Transformation comes through thousands of partnership connections, whether they are monthly contributions from non-blind donors who support our mission, the tireless efforts of marchers in our movement, or the spirited amplification of our message around the world. We are stronger together.
The members of the National Federation of the Blind are the heartbeat of our transformation. Despite the pandemic, after our last convention we onboarded over eight hundred new members through our welcoming process. Our Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion continues to advise on the complexities of examining and expanding diversity and eliminating barriers to full participation within our movement. This spring we held a training for leaders on diversity, and six hundred members participated in our first diversity and inclusion survey. We confirmed that we have more work to do and that we need better strategies for planning and measuring that work. Later this year, we will be building a strategic plan for our diversity and inclusion work to make it more effective, more engaging, and more clearly aligned to our goal of increased participation by a more diverse range of blind people in order to move our Federation forward.
During the past year, our online meetings helped us recognize we are not adequately hearing from our members who do not have equal access to the internet. This spring we piloted a new telephone information system for gathering survey data that leverages technologies previously built to support our NFB-NEWSLINE® program. Over 250 people completed survey responses during the pilot phase, allowing us to prove the effectiveness of the system. We will be adding enhancements to the system and expect that it will open new partnership opportunities for us.
In 2018, the Federation’s Board of Directors established a consolidated Code of Conduct for members of the organization. Since that time, our members have continued to engage in meaningful conversations about the Code, how we implement it, and how our procedures for addressing misconduct could be better. The members of this organization must be the decision makers about where we go from here. I believe that the work we are doing is transformative, healing, and will make all of us stronger. You should judge for yourself and determine what our future will be.
In January of this year, we announced a partnership with RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. We have worked with RAINN to better understand the complexities of sexual misconduct within our community, including providing level-setting training to 745 leaders across the organization. RAINN has also performed a climate assessment to give us better data about the experiences and perceptions of our membership around sexual misconduct, as well as to better understand the existing barriers to reporting within the organization. The results from the RAINN climate survey were posted to our website last week, and the data will serve as a baseline to measure progress toward a safer Federation in the future. Finally, RAINN has undertaken an extensive review of our Code and existing procedures, conducted meetings with key leaders and workshops with a broad cross-section of members, and has prepared detailed recommendations for future response systems. The recommendations were delivered to our board of directors just days before this convention and will be considered in the coming months.
In parallel with the RAINN partnership, I appointed six active members of the Federation who are survivors of sexual misconduct or abuse to serve on a short-term task force to steer improvements in our movement. They were charged with only one task: to bring whatever recommendations they felt would improve our response to misconduct, prioritize support of blind people, and build the organization. We have already implemented a number of improvements in our organization as a result of those recommendations. Our progress will be forever shaped by the work of Marci Carpenter, Cheryl Fields, Sarah Meyer, Daphne Mitchell, Briley O’Connor, and Kathryn Webster. We will receive a report from these leaders later in this convention. We offer them our deepest gratitude for the transformational work they have done to make the phrase “safe in the Federation” carry more meaning than ever before.
On January 6, 2021, the NFB Board of Directors established a Special Committee to oversee and direct an internal investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct by NFB members, participants, or staff at NFB or NFB-affiliated events or facilities, including its affiliated training centers and its state affiliates—as well as the adequacy of the response to such allegations. Our goal was to give our elected leaders as much clear insight as possible about our past to strongly inform improvements for our future. Days before this convention, the board of directors made the full interim report of the special committee publicly available on our website as part of our commitment to transparency in this work. Reconciling the past with our expectations today and where we want our movement to go tomorrow is painful, challenging, and emotional work. If we continue to believe in each other, if we continue to work together, and if we stay grounded in the truth that our movement is bigger than any one of us, we will emerge from our uncertainty to a stronger and safer movement in the future. We are doing what we must do to honor the bond of faith we share in our movement. “Federation safe” means transforming our movement in ways that allow all of us to move forward, together.
There are more transformational activities that we have undertaken during the past year that time does not permit me to share. Those I have shared are representative of thousands of other individual stories of blind people who have participated in and been impacted by our progress together. It has been my deepest honor to be a part of this movement for twenty-five years and to be elected to lead us for the past seven. Despite my best efforts to always do what I felt was right for the people of this movement when confronted with an issue, upon reflection I recognize that I have sometimes been imperfect. I regret that I cannot promise you that my future leadership will be perfect. However, I can promise you that I have and always will continue to listen to and learn from the members of this movement. My compass is what I understand to be in the best interest of blind people. I trust you to judge my actions as well as my heart and commitment. This movement transformed my life from a past limited by low expectations, to today where I have the joy and challenge of undertaking the work detailed in this report with each of you. I am here because you call me to serve. I will never ask of you to do anything that I am not prepared to do myself. I stay here to contribute to our collective advancement because of the love I have for the courage, commitment, and strength that lives in each of the members of this movement. I trust the people of this movement, and I cherish the trust you place in me. These accomplishments only happen because we work together. We are stronger together. We are smarter together. We are safer together. We are unstoppable together.
My Federation family, this is my report for 2021. This is our progress in an uncertain year. This is our bond as a movement. This is the commitment we make together, with love, hope, and determination, to transform dreams into reality.
by Ronza Othman
From the Editor: Normally the hosting of a national convention can be summarized in the convention roundup because quite often there are some clever remarks, some interplay between members, and perhaps a special band comes to play two or three songs. This is fitting, welcoming, and always appreciated. But the Maryland affiliate went well beyond the traditional in its hosting responsibilities, so a separate article was requested and delivered.
Now what do you do when a convention is virtual, when we’ve already had one, and when what people are looking for is getting together to share physical experiences? You do what we always do: you do your best to make lemonade out of lemons, and you turn challenges into opportunities. This is exactly what the Maryland affiliate did. Never in my memory has any affiliate been so creative and enthusiastic in writing articles leading up to the convention to promote it, making sure that something about it got on the Presidential Release, and giving all of us something tangible to do to take the place of buying airline tickets, packing suitcases, and worrying what it was that we left out.
Ronza Othman is the capable and hard-working president of our Maryland affiliate. Holding that office means that she has plenty of things to do, but she made time for the readers of the Braille Monitor and let us in on what it was like to be the convention host, the activities that were generated, and the fun that the Maryland affiliate had in carving out new territory and raising the bar for future conventions. Here is what she says:
On behalf of the Maryland affiliate, I’d like to extend gratitude and appreciation to Federationists throughout the country and world who made the 2021 NFB National Convention the best one so far. Maryland had the privilege of being the 2021 host affiliate, and we hope everyone enjoyed the myriad of activities we planned. Our activities touched on aspects of our movement, our region, our history, and our culture, and hopefully the members had fun and learned something they hadn’t previously known. Below is a summary of many of our activities both in the months leading up to the convention and during convention itself.
We only learned that we would host the convention in February. Usually, affiliates get a year’s notice, and sometimes several years’ notice. But Maryland Federationists rose to the challenge with joy and excitement. We had more than fifty individuals volunteer to serve on the National Convention Host Planning Committee, and we broke into eight different subcommittees. Everyone worked hard to ensure that the programming leading up to the convention and during the convention for which the host affiliate was responsible was robust and meaningful.
Marylanders are very competitive, so pretty quickly a theme of holding contests as often as possible emerged. Each contest winner received twenty dollars and a squeezable crab.
We held contests as part of each Presidential Release from April through June. The April contest featured some key aspects and dates related to the convention, and contest participants needed to identify both the speakers and the music in the vignette. No one won the April contest. The May contest featured Maryland Jeopardy; congratulations to Marci Carpenter of Washington for winning this contest. The June contest featured Federation music, and Ellen Ringlein of Maryland was the contest winner.
Our writers worked hard at including articles in the April through June Braille Monitor, which highlighted our plans for the convention, Maryland-themed recipes, and even an article on how to crack codes. The code article had an imbedded contest. Congratulations to Brook Sexton of Minnesota for deciphering the June Braille Monitor hidden message.
We launched a blog that was posted on nfb.org/convention with various stories. These ranged from Maryland dialect to how to prepare crab to how to eat crab. We also posted a stoop story, which is a very Maryland concept wherein Marylanders sit on their front stoops and swap stories with their neighbors and passersby.
The goal of the blog posts and contests was to get Federationists excited about the convention. Given the hundreds of people who participated in the contests and read the blog posts, we think it worked.
Our innovative planners hosted another contest, which was first revealed at the Rookie Round-Up and shared once again at the NFB Board Meeting. This information scavenger hunt featured aspects of the convention that participants would learn throughout the week, like overall registration. Congratulations to Rose Warner of Maryland for winning this contest.
Hopefully you attended one of our four tours, the B&O Railroad Museum, the NASA Goddard Space Center, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Museum, and our NFB headquarters building tour. All of these can be heard by going to https://nfb.org/get-involved/national-convention/past-conventions/2021-national-convention and selecting the desired link. It was our pleasure to share a bit of our state’s culture and important sites with you.
Our creative Federationists also hosted LOL Comedy Night at which nine Federationists competed before a live virtual audience to see who would be crowned the 2021 LOL Comedian. Congratulations to Yvonne Neubert of Tennessee for making us all laugh out loud.
Knowing that the convention must be more than hard work, our committee organized some fun Maryland-themed fit breaks this year. Afterwards, we took an informal poll on whether people preferred the fit break where Sharon Maneki taught the students the Whip & Nay or the fit break where Pam Allen argued with Homer Simpson and ate Maryland and Louisiana themed food, which transitioned the convention host duties from Maryland to Louisiana. It was a tie.
The affiliate hosted a daily Breakfast Club to walk through the agenda and share access information for that day’s meetings. The Breakfast Club was intended to bridge the technology gap for those less comfortable with technology, and attendance was tremendous. We have been offering the Breakfast Club for members of the Maryland affiliate, and we are delighted that the entire membership was able to benefit from it this year.
We also held a drawing for the banquet parties that registered by June 30. Congratulations to Kay Spears and the West Valley Chapter of the NFB of Arizona. They received a dozen crab cakes and they ate them at their banquet party.
A convention is not a convention without swag. Maryland sold convention scrubs to commemorate the 2021 convention. They are navy blue with an image of a red crab. Superimposed on the red crab is the NFB logo in white with the words “It’s a Maryland thing” beneath the crab. Many Federationists wore their convention scrubs to their in-person banquets, and I imagine many more wore them as they attended the virtual aspects of the convention.
Finally, we brought the convention into Maryland during the opening ceremonies with our Clockwise Tour of Maryland. And, because we are us, we included a contest. Congratulations to Katelyn MacIntyre of Arizona on winning the opening ceremonies contest by identifying ten unique sounds from the Clockwise Tour.
We are the Maryland affiliate, and we’re where the headquarters of our life-changing organization resides. But though the Federation flag flies highest here, we are so very similar to our fifty-one sister affiliates in many ways. We hope the clockwise tour inspired you to think about and honor our differences while celebrating the things that bring us together in our shared experience as members of the National Federation of the Blind. We know that while we reflect on our history, we must focus forward, and with love, hope, and determination, we are Stronger Together.
by Everette Bacon
From the Editor: Brave, pioneering, and full of perseverance would begin to draw the picture of Dr. Jacob Bolotin. Decisive, hard-working, and thrilled with their task would describe the committee that selects the winners of the annual awards that recognize Dr. Bolotin. Here is the ceremony that took place to honor the pioneers and innovators of today who are recognized for their work, Dr. Bolotin’s example, the generosity of Dr. Bolotin’s family, and the hopes for blind people that all of this represents:
Everette Bacon: Hello, Madam Chair. What a wonderful speech by President Riccobono, so relevant and needed. Thanks, Mr. President for those outstanding remarks.
I'm here to present the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards. Now, for those of you who don't know who Dr. Jacob Bolotin is, you're really missing out. It was an anonymous person that said that those who create or build walls that create obstacles around others in turn create those same obstacles around their own personal freedoms. Jacob Bolotin was a man who faced many, many obstacles from his own family, his friends, religious leaders, supervisors, and from medical professionals and teachers. Yet throughout all of these obstacles, he was able to achieve his dream of becoming the first-ever blind doctor in the great state of Illinois.
There's a wonderful book called The Blind Doctor that you can download on BARD or you can find in many other places where books are available. I urge all of you to read it. If you're a student out there, this is a man who faced so much adversity through accommodations and through so many different levels. Yet he overcame all of those, and it's an inspirational story to everyone out there who has dreams of achieving their goals. I hope you go read it and learn about Dr. Jacob Bolotin. It's an honor to be able to present these awards in his name.
Now we're going to play a video. We have six recipients tonight to whom we are going to be presenting these awards. We had over fifty applications, so if you didn't make it this year, please apply again, because we read through some outstanding applications, and it was a very hard choice. Here is our video:
Narrator: Federationists and guests: The National Federation of the Blind is proud to introduce the 2021 recipients of our Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards, made possible in part by the generous support of the Alfred and Rosalind Perlman Trust and the Santa Barbara Foundation. These individuals and organizations have broken down barriers faced by blind people in innovative ways, changed negative perceptions of blindness and blind people, and pushed past existing boundaries to inspire blind people to achieve new heights. The first of the three individual winners is Darnell Booker, coach and general manager of the four-time World Champion beep baseball team, the Indianapolis Thunder.
Darnell Booker: Baseball has been very good to me, so I wanted to return the favor and be good to it and also make a difference in my community and make sure blind youth and adults have the experience of playing sports and also the socialization and camaraderie skills. It's about changing lives and making a difference in someone's life. Myself! I am blind, visually impaired in my right eye from an accident as a little kid. I also belong to the National Federation of the Blind state of Indiana, and I also would like to just thank you guys for this prestigious honor and award because I'm all about changing lives and making it better for blind and visually impaired youth and adults in the field of sports and recreation.
Narrator: Dr. Natalie Shaheen, assistant professor of low-vision and blindness, Illinois State University
Dr. Natalie Shaheen: I see my work as an academic, as a professor, as really an extension of work that the Federation has been doing for decades and that I did when I worked for the NFB. My work as an academic Federationist, as I'll call myself, is to reimagine 21st century K-12 education as a place that's equitable and accessible to blind youth and really fosters development of the beliefs in the skills that our blind students need to live the lives that they want. That's really what my work is focused on in all aspects of what I'm doing as a professor.
From the teaching perspective, my ultimate aim is to create another teacher preparation program for teachers of blind students that's rooted in a positive philosophy of blindness and kind of extending the work that the Federation has already done at Louisiana Tech University, for example. On the research side of things, my ultimate aim is to establish a blind-led research center that's focused on digital accessibility in K-12 specifically.
Narrator: Krishna Washburn, founder and artistic director of Dark Room Ballet.
Krishna Washburn: The dance field is ableist, and it was very, very difficult for me to find choreographers and collaborators who were taking me seriously as an artist. In terms of my own professional studies, it was very challenging to find teachers who were willing to really work with me to help me develop because they had stereotypes that were really not true about my learning capacities.
With my own background in education, I knew that a lot of the assumptions my teachers had about me were not true, and it was really almost from the outset of my performance career that I really wanted to start developing a curriculum specifically for blind and visually impaired dancers. It took a very long time to get that class off the ground, mostly because I was fighting against stereotypes of what a teacher was supposed to be and what a dance class for blind and visually impaired people was supposed to be like.
Narrator: The first of our three organizational winners is: Davis Technical College of Kaysville, Utah, for its program to train blind aerospace machinists. Here is college president Darin Brush:
Darin Brush: What we did is we piloted a program with our schools for the deaf and blind with our division of services for the blind and visually impaired and had our first three students, all of whom were blind, complete that initial program, and in the process of doing that, developed aerospace-grade machining skills. But more than that, more than becoming skilled machinists and very employable as a result, they showed their instructors what was possible. They overcame their own predispositions about what someone who is blind can accomplish, and they'll tell you that. They'll go on and on about the personal and professional impact that had on our instructors. But it also inspired this entire college community because what we could point to was, if we can teach students who are blind to become aerospace-grade machinists, this campus, across all of its thirty-five technical education programs, can do just about anything in terms of individuals who are blind and individuals with other disabilities. That's what this award means to us.
Narrator: Eye Learn, for providing technology and blindness skills training to blind and low-vision people in the Detroit area. Here is founder Sabrina Simmons:
Sabrina Simmons: I've been doing this for about four years now, and I got started because, upon facing blindness myself nine years ago, I tried to integrate myself back into corporate America, and here in Michigan, I kept getting shut out after the first interview or the second interview. I would get that far, and then I would get a face-to-face interview and realize that the tone and the energy of the people that I was interviewing with changed.
So I thought, let me use my degree and let me use my brain and come up with something that can not only help me but help other blind individuals become adjusted so that they can go back to work. Hence, Eye Learn was formed; I became a certified vendor with the state of Michigan and am now in the process of putting together many different programs to supplement what the agency in Michigan is already doing.
Narrator: Independence Science, for innovative products that make the STEM fields accessible to blind students and professionals. Here is spokesman Michael Hingson:
Michael Hingson: Part of the problem with blind people being in the science environment in the STEM world is that we don't get to do experiments along with everyone else because most of the laboratory instruments and the technologies are inaccessible. So some twelve years ago, Cary Supalo, who has a PhD in chemistry, founded Independence Science with the idea of finding ways to make laboratory equipment accessible. He partnered with another company, Vernier Software and Technologies, and made its product, the LabQuest, available in a talking version now called the Talking LabQuest. We're up to version two and looking at where we go from here.
The LabQuest is a box that can have a number of different kinds of probes connect to it to make different kinds of measurements, anything from temperature to current to voltage to wind speed to gas pressure—literally any kind of test that you might imagine you would do in a laboratory. Especially is that true in an educational environment, because Independence Science has mostly been education oriented.
In any case, the Talking LabQuest has been a very popular product and has been the flagship of Independence Science. Other products have been developed: a completely talking periodic table which you can see at independencescience.com. But in the COVID era, the question has arisen, how do we deal with taking those same laboratory measurements for students in a remote environment? Using another of Vernier's products with help from Independence Science, the Talking Logger Pro was developed that allows a teacher and students to interact using a LabQuest to take measurements and allows it to be remotely controlled from computers elsewhere. As a result, students are able to participate in laboratory experiments and see the same kinds of things that their sighted colleagues would see and interact in the same way that their sighted colleagues could interact.
Narrator: 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 2021 Dr. Jacob Bolotin awards.
Everette Bacon: Wow! I don't know about all of you, but I am truly excited about all of these winners. Now, before I get to their amounts, and I know all of them are listening and waiting patiently to know them, I do want to thank the members of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award Committee. I want to thank Mr. Ron Brown, Mrs. Mary Ellen Jernigan, Mr. James Gashel, and Dr. Marc Maurer. All of these individuals have been outstanding members of this committee, and all of them are outstanding mentors to me. And I am certainly extremely lucky and honored to follow in the footsteps of great chairmen of this committee in Gary Wunder and Jim Gashel. So thank you, and thank you to the members of the committee.
Let's get to the amounts. We are giving away a total of $60,000 this year. Three tiers. Five thousand dollars will be going to Darnell Booker. Congratulations. Five thousand dollars will be going to Miss Washburn of the Darkroom Ballet. Ten thousand dollars will be going to Dr. Natalie Shaheen. Thank you, Natalie. Ten thousand dollars will go to Davis Technical College of Utah. Ten thousand dollars goes to Independence Science. And our top tier award this year of twenty thousand dollars goes to Eye Learn. I believe Sabrina Simmons is with us tonight. Are you out there?
Sabrina Simmons: Yes, I'm here!
Everette Bacon: Congratulations, Sabrina. We are so excited and proud of the innovations you are doing in Detroit, Michigan. One of the things that I wanted to ask you about is during the pandemic I learned you did some outstanding innovations to continue to help blind individuals in Detroit. Can you please talk about that for a minute?
Sabrina Simmons: Yes. We stayed in business and continued to do virtual training and in-person training through the pandemic. There's a nonprofit organization which closed down, and there just weren’t services available here in Detroit. So we committed to staying open and meeting in small groups and continuing the training that is so much needed here in the city.
Everette Bacon: I was really moved to read on your application about how all of your members went out to different homes—all of your employees—and worked with people in their homes during the pandemic. They were able to maintain social distancing; they were able to follow the guidelines of Michigan; and they were still able to create and provide those services.
Sabrina Simmons: Yes. Thank you so much.
Everette Bacon: Well, congratulations, Sabrina, and Eye Learn. We are so proud of you and your staff.That's it, folks. That's the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award ceremony for this year. Again, over fifty applicants. We had some really tough times looking through all of these, so please apply again. We will be giving this award out next year. Hopefully you'll get your opportunity. Thank you so much to all of our award winners for the innovations that they are doing to help build the hope, love, and determination of blind individuals across our nation and helping us live the life we want. Thank you, Pam.
Editor’s Note: Now, at our convention we often have the opportunity to give away awards, and one of the important ones we give away is to those educators who are most distinguished in working with our blind students. Carla McQuillan of Oregon is chair of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Students Award Committee. So here is Carla for the presentation:
Carla McQuillan: Thank you very much, sir. The National Federation of the Blind has long known that high quality education and training is absolutely essential for the success of blind people. Every year the National Federation of the Blind recognizes an educator of blind students who goes above and beyond the expectations of their profession to provide the highest possible quality of education for their students. The Distinguished Educator of Blind Students Award carries with it a plaque engraved with the name of the recipient; the opportunity to network at our national convention with parents of blind children, other educators, as well as leaders of the National Federation of the Blind; the honor of speaking to the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children at its business meeting; and a check for $1,000.
I'd like first to thank my fellow colleagues on the committee. This year Michelle Chacon of Colorado, Emily Gibbs of Texas, and Eric Guillory of Louisiana all served with me.
So this year's distinguished educator of blind students lives in northern Idaho, but her native country is Ecuador. Over the past year she has been teaching blind and low-vision students all over the world Braille in both English and in Spanish. She has coordinated efforts to get blind students from all across the country together to understand each other's communities and lives a little bit better. So there is a plaque, and Beth promised me that we'd all get a chance to see the plaque. So engraved on that plaque is:
The National Federation
of the Blind honors
Jordana Maria Engebretsen
Distinguished Educator of Blind Students
For your skills in teaching Braille and other
alternative techniques of blindness,
For graciously devoting extra time to meet
the needs of your students, and
For empowering your students to perform
beyond their expectations.
You champion our movement.
You strengthen our hopes.
You share our dreams.
July 7, 2021
Congratulations, Jordana. If you'd like to take a few moments and address the rest of the board, please do.
Jordana: Thank you. It's a real honor for me to receive this award, but first I want to say thank you to my family, my husband—they have been there for me to support me and help me all the way. Thank you to many, many professionals in our field, TVIs, orientation and mobility instructors, special education directors, case managers, supervisors, janitors, librarians. The work with our students really is a team approach. I couldn't do it alone; I need to have a team.
Thank you to my students, because without them, I couldn't be a teacher. I love each of them!
Thank you to my God; my faith in him has helped me to be where I am today.
I was diagnosed with lupus at an early age. I was only eighteen. At the age of twenty-one I lost my sight; I became totally blind. I'm also mobility impaired at the same time. However, blindness does not define me. Mobility impairment does not define me.
I would like to share with you an understanding and a motto that I live by. Sometimes, often, my students didn't like it when I told them this, and sometimes I became not a popular teacher when I told them this. But I knew that they needed to hear it. I knew that they needed to hear it from me. This is what it is: Whatever you go through, whatever circumstance you go through, 10 percent is your circumstance and 90 percent is your attitude.
They didn't like it! However, I know by my own experience that a positive attitude will change your outcome. That doesn't mean that a positive attitude will make it easier. What it means is that you will be able to overcome the situation.
Another known secret that is not a secret, but that I live by, is that it's better to give than to receive. I always share with my students that we are not always the ones who receive help. I don't want them always to say, "I need help to do this." I want them to be the givers. I want them to be the ones who give to other people. Because as you know, and most of you probably know about this, the feeling of being able to do things is better than to receive.
This award means a lot to me because really what it does is help me to believe that what I am doing makes a difference in my students.
Always my focus in teaching has been to provide my students with the right tools. I don't just provide them the tools; I do my best to teach them to use the right tools efficiently.
I really, really appreciate this award, and thank you for having me here today.
Cayte: Good afternoon. It's one of the great privileges of my membership to introduce the scholarship finalists to the convention each year. The committee receives hundreds of applications every spring, and we have the honor and great responsibility to select our thirty finalists from this outstanding pool.
This year's class represents twenty-three states in all and the District of Columbia. They represent a wide range of backgrounds and academic fields, but they all have two attributes in common. First, they've demonstrated outstanding academic aptitude. Second, they've served and continue to serve in various communities as leaders and role models.
Two of this year's class are tenBroek Fellows. They are Lizzie Park and Syed Rizvi. I'll explain what it means to be a tenBroek Fellow in more detail as I present the class. Now ordinarily these presentations would be live. But due to the vagaries and quirks of Zoom and the challenges of muting and unmuting thirty people, the decision was made to prerecord these remarks in advance of the board meeting just as we did last year. As a result of this, I already know what these folks are going to say, and I'm incredibly pleased to invite all of you to be as impressed as I am by the scholarship class of 2021.
Maryam Abdul Sattar, California, California, social work and advocacy: Hi, everyone. I am a passionate social worker who has a strong desire for an equitable society. My mission is to empower individuals to education, advocacy, and service. I have engaged in community service since high school. From educating refugees on available resources to serving as a student leader and mentor during the pandemic, I have had the pleasure to make a positive impact on the lives of different individuals. After getting my master's degree in social work, my plan is to pursue a career in law and serve as an advocate to become a voice for the oppressed. Thank you.
Christopher Abel, Georgia, Georgia, financial planner: This year I was chosen as the most positive athlete in wrestling in the state of Georgia and was described as "a high-character, team-oriented leader who has experienced winning and losing and has shown a heart for their school and their community." I have played with an elite jazz orchestra and was selected to compete against the world's Blitz Chess champion. My county recognized me for being a scholar athlete. I was a dual enrollment student at Kennesaw State University, where I will attend in the fall to pursue a degree in finance. My goal is to work for a Fortune 500 company and give back to my community. Thank you.
Kaleigh Brendle, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, disability rights attorney: I serve as the secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Association of Blind Students. I'm the founder and director of the Sing for Serenity Choir, an international online choir for the blind composed of more than 120 members hailing from fifteen countries; and, as of a few hours ago, I'm officially a high school graduate headed to Villanova University. I discovered my desire to become a disability rights attorney last May while fighting the college board alongside the National Federation of the Blind to secure Braille for blind and deafblind AP test takers worldwide. Thank you so much to the NFB and the scholarship committee for this amazing honor.
Samantha Chase, Montana, Montana, behavioral health: Hi, everyone; thank you. Currently I'm working on finishing my degree after a very long ten-year break due to progressive vision loss and needing to learn how to be blind and to be successful at being blind. In the meantime, I had my two beautiful daughters, and after my little one went to kindergarten I decided that it was time for me to go back to school. Ironically enough that happened to be spring of 2020. We ended up all being back home, but we adapted, and we made it work. Currently I work at an independent living center as a peer advocate for individuals with disabilities. I mentor those who are blind and low vision, and I also participate in transition groups. That's where my passion is right now, and I'm pursuing my master's in this field. Thank you.
Tashara Cooper, Florida, Florida, modeling and simulation training and research: Akin to a line in Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken"—I often take the "path less traveled by," and at times such paths often choose me. Beyond the academic and professional me, I believe it was my humanness heard through conversation that led to me being a finalist. I lead and co-lead various projects in the academic, professional, volunteer, and professional space. As a member directly and indirectly of multiple communities, I support a variety of nonprofit organizations and associations, secondary and postsecondary mentoring initiatives, and an employer's STEM outreach program. Following the completion of my master's in modeling and simulation, I plan to pursue an interdisciplinary doctoral degree. Thank you, Federation, for this opportunity.
Shannon Donahue, Washington, Washington, pediatric health counselor: Hello, my fellow Federationists. Our society responds to difference by reacting negatively. As a person with two visible disabilities, blindness and achondroplasia dwarfism, I'm acutely aware of this. As a result I have chosen to help those voices who are discounted so that they can reclaim their rightful place as equal members of society. My first step was to take control of my own destiny at transforming my disabilities from stumbling blocks into stepping stones. To do this, I gained proficiency with the blindness skills necessary to succeed in college and my future career. Now that I am a student at Seattle Central College studying in the bachelor's program of applied behavioral science, I have the opportunity to pay it forward. Using these hard won skills at school, my future work, and within the NFB, I continue to advocate for accessibility. I plan to use this scholarship as a springboard for the next step of my journey into pediatric mental health. My professional goal is to guide and support young people with mental health issues who are struggling to obtain the power, freedom, and opportunities to which they are entitled. Today I want to thank my fellow Federationists for bestowing upon me this scholarship, the ultimate expression of your trust and confidence. Thank you very much.
Lizzie Dunn, Michigan, Michigan, social work: I have been a member of the NFB for many years and have participated in many events involving advocacy for people with disabilities, especially blind people. In 2012 I won the Braille Readers are Leaders Community Service Award and helped the NFB of Michigan protest at the capital in Lansing to overturn the governor's decision to abolish the Michigan Commission for the Blind. Since then, I've done many other volunteer experiences, community service work advocating for the positive representation of people with disabilities, and I plan to continue advocating for all people in helping people work toward well-being in their individual lives and in the world through my career as a social worker. Thank you.
Christina Ebersohl, Illinois, Colorado. Christina will be pursuing a career as a musician and music education advocate: I'm a classical violist, not to be confused with a violinist, and as I complete my master's in viola performance and begin auditions for my doctoral program this fall, I will have been the first blind music student at both my undergraduate and graduate institutions. Because of this unique challenge and experience in educating my schools in modern accommodations for musicians, I have developed an advocacy course for accessibility in music education and regularly lecture and teach my course to schools and performance institutions in the United States, Australia, and Canada so far. In addition to my active performance schedule and advocacy work, I'm a teaching artist for El Sistema of Colorado, which brings music lessons to underprivileged communities. I'm the first-ever visually impaired ABME certified instructor, and I'm also the editor for the Journal of the American Viola Society. Thank you so much for this amazing honor.
So our next finalist is one of five finalists—the first alphabetically—who has a birthday in February. Apparently if you wanted an NFB scholarship in 2021, having a birthday in February was a really good place to start. She also would like me to include in her introduction that she grew up in Kuwait and is currently living in New York.
It's my privilege to introduce Maya El Cheikh, New York, New York. She is going into law and advocacy: I did not grow up in the United States. I grew up in a society that believes someone like me, a legally blind albino woman, is incapable of getting an education, a job, let alone going to law school. Despite graduating from high school without any accommodations and getting a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in special education, prospective employers refused to see past my physical appearance. So I sought asylum in the United States in 2014. During my short time here, I have done more than I ever thought I could. I interned at the Dean's office as an advocate for the special victims crimes unit. In 2015 I volunteered at Human Rights First, an organization that provides pro bono legal assistance to asylum seekers like myself. Because of that, my passion for the law grew. After a year I was hired and promoted within months. Despite general hesitancy by my superiors that nonlawyers should not represent clients, I became the first fully accredited representative amongst four of our offices, and from there, I represented about forty indigent asylum seekers before the United States Immigration Services office and immigration court. During the pandemic I advocated for my clients who were being unlawfully denied access to languages they understood, housing benefits, and employment. As an asylum seeker myself in the United States, I learned that, unlike in my country where there is no assistance to protect people like me who are oppressed, over here my goal is to go to law school, where I can be fully equipped to advocate as a lawyer and be an advocate for change. Thank you.
Lucien Gandarias, Washington, California, physics research: Growth is struggle. Growth is a willingness to sacrifice comfort for that which you desire to achieve. This is what my ten years being active in the Federation has taught me. It's impossible to reap the fruits of which you do not sow, and thus each day I strive to sow more than I did the last. I run cross-country to break down the artificial barriers set for me by others and to grow my strength and fortitude. I study physics to deepen my understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe. Growth is living the life you want. Thank you.
Joel Gomez, California, Indiana, industrial engineer: Good afternoon, board members. I'm honored to be here today. Throughout my life I've never let my visual impairment hold me back. In fact I've always tried to be an inspiration to others with disabilities or to people who are just having difficulty achieving their goals in general. Two days ago I'm honored to say I was nominated to the US Paralympic Team, and I'll be representing Team USA at the Tokyo Paralympics this summer. In the fall I'll be attending Purdue University to achieve my other dream of becoming an industrial engineer.
Maxine Gretchokoff, Mississippi, Mississippi, emergency services dispatcher: I'm a totally blind United States Air Force auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol officer and a suicide attempt survivor. Throughout my time at Tines Community College, I made the dean's list, I've been inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, and I do not let my lack of sight prevent me from serving in uniform in some capacity to serve my local community, my state, and my nation.
The next finalist will actually be attending my alma mater in the fall, Cornell, so I'm pleased to introduce Manahil Jafri, New York, New York. She is going into public policy and disability rights advocacy: Hey, everyone. Disability discrimination has been one of the biggest issues that I view in today's society, and I really hope that I can help mitigate it through my work. Whether that be through helping increase resources for blind individuals in Latin America or helping amplify people with disability's voices through the New York City participatory budgeting process, I really want to show that people with disabilities are capable of doing more than what society holds for them. I want to say a huge thank you to the NFB for offering me this opportunity, as it really helps me fund my education at Cornell and helps me achieve my future goals.
This next applicant has a really fun birthday, and I always love to drop in tidbits about the class. I'm going to share this one with all of you; Peter Jansen, Michigan, Ohio, is going into bio medical engineering, and his birthday is Pi day, March 14, 3-1-4. That's an awesome day: Hi, everyone. I received two bachelor's degrees from Michigan State University and was the project leader for 3D Printing of Accessible Media Center for people with disabilities. I also established the first blind soccer program at MSU. In the fall I will be attending Ohio State University to get my PhD in bioengineering with a specific interest in ocular tissues. Thank you very much for this opportunity.
Jeanette Jones, California, California, child and family therapist: Hello. I currently serve as the Parents of Blind Children president for the state of California, as well as serving as vice president for my local chapter. I also have a blind son, and I'm passionate about education and children getting the services and supports they need through the IEP process. This is an area I spend a lot of my time advocating for. I'm also pursuing a degree in child family therapy to become a therapist working with children and adults with disabilities to overcome trauma. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
Adi Lemmon, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania. Adi will be pursuing a career as an elementary teacher: Hello. Throughout my high school career, I dedicated myself to school work so I could keep my goal of graduating a year early. Even though I only attended three years of high school, I participated in many leadership roles and had many honors and awards such as being president of Aevidum, president of the National Honor Society, and won a community service award as well as served in many other organizations. I make sure I dedicate myself to volunteering within my home community and my blind community. I've developed many big goals in my future, such as changing the education system for all students. Bringing special education students into the mainstream classroom can be done. Teachers need to learn to accept all of their students. I hope to make a big difference in my classroom and to educate future teachers about these overlooked problems. Thank you for this opportunity.
Eric Mandell, California, California, physics researcher: I first came across the NFB over a year ago. I had decided to go back to school and get my degree in physics, so I was looking for other blind STEM students like myself. Growing up I had loved math and science, but the challenge of accessibility and just adapting to vision loss led me to get a degree in business instead. That's why last summer when I attended the NFB Science and Engineering Division meeting I was blown away by the number of other blind STEM students and professionals. So now I'm thrilled to be doing exactly what I want to be doing in joining my amazing cohort of fellow scholarship finalists. Thank you.
Haylee Mota, Rhode Island, California, mechanical engineering: Hello. I'd like to start by thanking the NFB for providing me with this opportunity. I've known I wanted to be an engineer since sixth grade, when I joined my first robotics team. Since then I have interned for an engineering professor and led a team in designing Habitat for Humanity houses. My goal is to someday work for an aerospace company while increasing access to STEM for blind and visually impaired individuals. Thank you.
So, Lizzy Muhammad-Park, Maryland, District of Columbia. Lizzy will be pursuing a career as a Foreign Service officer, and before she gives her introduction, I just want to say that Lizzie is one of our two tenBroek Fellows this year. A tenBroek Fellow is someone who has won a previous National Federation of the Blind scholarship. The title of tenBroek comes from the name of the founding President of our movement, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. So being a tenBroek Fellow is an honor. It's my privilege to introduce Lizzie to you now: I was discouraged from learning Chinese as a blind student, but I took the classes anyway and then went to China as a blind teacher to sighted students. Now I will use those language and culture skills not only in my Johns Hopkins master's program but also with an internship with the United States State Department. Thank you to the scholarship committee and the entire Federation for giving me the tools, support, and opportunity to break barriers around the world.
Demetria Ober, Texas, Texas, social work and medical interpretation: I'm a social work major at Texas Women's University. During these times of uncertainty caused by the seemingly never-ending pandemic, I've had time to reflect on the goals and values that are most important to me. During this time I have found a passion for diversity and inclusion, and I have worked on advocacy work as the president of Pathways to Accessibility as well as joining the NFB of Texas Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I am honored to be a participant in this amazing opportunity, and I am looking forward to my future in a fulfilling and successful career as a social worker. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Treasa Marie Praino, New York, New York, policy and human rights advocacy: Hi, everyone. I'm a first year PhD student at Syracuse University, where I'm focusing on critical disability studies in the global context. I'm also a recent Fulbright grantee to South Africa, where I worked in the capacity of disability unit access coordinator at Nelson Mandela University. My ultimate goals include advising government officials, NGOs, and international human rights organizations on implementing ability-based inclusion policies and strategies that reify social-model ideologies. I plan to conduct my work in regions experiencing unrest and economic hardships within the global south and more specifically within sub-Saharan Africa. I also aim to research the intersectionality between disability, poverty, violence, and war. Thank you.
Stephen Proski, Missouri, Massachusetts, artist and disability rights advocate: As a visually disabled person, art allows me to create and understand a world I'm unable to see. I am part of a normal, living framework that treats my disability as an obstacle rather than an asset to my identity. I've worked the past five years at a nonprofit art studio supporting artists with visual and mental disabilities. Working alongside these artists has shown me just how underrepresented disabled people are in the art world, and they are my motivation to reverse that trend. I am determined to continue advocating and creating a platform for all disabled artists throughout my career. Thank you.
Tina Reisner, Utah, Louisiana, cane travel instructor: We all know that building our personal community is essential to growth, opportunity, and success. Through this organization, I have been able to build my personal community through mentors who have taught me the philosophy of independence, freedom, and the power that I can live the life I want. Blindness is not what holds me back. Which is why I am choosing to give back and help others build their personal community, by being an orientation and mobility instructor. I have gained my independence, and I hope to aid individuals in this empowering journey. Thank you for your belief in my future and the future of our nation's blind. Let's go build the Federation.
So our scholarship class of 2021 has thirteen graduate students, and one is this next finalist. Syed Rizvi, Massachusetts, Massachusetts. Syed is going into civil rights law: What does it mean to be named a tenBroek Fellow? Jacobus tenBroek, the founder of our movement, exemplified that education is the strongest foundation on which to advance civil rights. A titan in academia, his writings on the fourteenth amendment were used by Thurgood Marshall in Brown v Board of Education. His work not only advanced disability rights but also race rights. This past year I founded the American Muslim Bar Association, now including over one hundred fearless minority leaders working to advance civil rights here in the United States. I hope Harvard Law School can be my foundation on which I can pursue and advance disability and civil rights with the support of the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you.
Megan Swanson, California, Utah, instructional designer: My field of instructional psychology and technology occurs at the intersection of education, psychology, and technology. I love this field so much because I get to work with subject matter experts in various areas, and it makes me feel a little bit less guilty about this "oo shiny" mentality when I get to learn something new. Over the last year I've been able to do projects in various areas like research, teaching, design, and development. It's been incredible, and I've also been able to serve on a couple of boards for different organizations. I just want to thank you for this opportunity and say that I will continue to do those things as I learn and grow over the next year or three, until graduation and beyond. Thank you.
Kinshuk Tella, Ohio, Ohio, environmental science: I have always been fascinated by the natural sciences from creating micro ecosystems to regulating air pollutants for one of the largest United States defense contractors. Those around me saw my blindness as a suppressor, a disadvantage to my success in STEM. I take this assumption not as reality but as a challenge, paving the path for future generations of diverse scientists. With the earth sciences being the least diverse amongst all fields of science, it is crucial that we have blind role models within it. This is why I dedicate my future work to the environmental issues we face today for the betterment of tomorrow. Thank you.
Sam Theoharis, New York, Rhode Island, civil rights law: Hello. I'm a first year undergrad at Brown University, and I'm very passionate about social justice and civil rights. In middle and high school I founded and took part in many different clubs, working on local advocacy and education around many different topics regarding civil rights. Over the past year in the pandemic, I haven't yet been able to engage in my local community around these issues, but luckily I've been able to be on the policy team as an intern at the Cairo Center for Religious Rights and Social Justice. This organization is an anchor organization for the Poor People's Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival. Thank you.
Zachary Thibodeaux, Texas, Connecticut, public policy: Thank you, Ms. Mendez, and thank you to the NFB for giving me this opportunity. My accomplishments include speaking at Guide Dogs for the Blind Fundraisers, being recognized as a national Hispanic scholar, and as the first undergraduate at Yale to receive Braille textbooks, I helped pave the way for future blind Yale undergraduates. I want to eventually hold a high-ranking position in a national government because I want to show society that blind people can hold elected positions. Thank you.
Mirranda Williams, Georgia, Maryland, geriatric behavioral and mental health: 2004, 15, and 21 are years that emphasized scholastic milestones for my life. These major accomplishments are my cornerstones to what I consider to be my greatest success thus far. I am the first to receive a high school diploma, as well as higher education degrees within my family. This educational background has afforded me the opportunity, along with other life experiences, to recognize that I am a humanitarian, thus the ideal profession of social work. I enthusiastically took on the role as a change agent for my family, my communities, and my culture, and I plan to help others do the same who will reflect me after completing my master's in the advanced standing program in gerontology at Morgan State University in 2022.
Chantale Zuzi, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, diplomacy: I'm specifically attracted to the area of human rights with an interest in international relations. My personal experience led to my deep desire to become involved with human rights and justice. I myself was denied basic human rights. I was born an albino, and in my community albinos were viewed as outcasts and their bodies good only for sacrificial purposes. The only reason I survived was because my parents believed that I had a right to live. I would love to bring justice back in my country and around the world. I wish to acquire the skills and knowledge and training that will enable me to make a difference and a change in my home country and around the world. I was resettled to the United States in 2018 and wouldn't believe that today I will be here. I just completed high school and now am heading into college!
CAYTE: Mr. President, this concludes the presentation of the 2021 scholarship finalists.
MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Cayte, and what an outstanding group of individuals. We appreciate the work of the committee, and congratulations to our finalists.
Following is a complete list of 2021 scholarship finalists and the awards they received:
$3,000 NFB Scholarships (17): Maryam Abdul Sattar, Samantha Chase, Lizzie Dunn, Shannon Donahue, Maya El Cheikh, Joel Gomez, Manahil Jafri, Peter Jansen, Jeanette Jones, Adi Lemmon, Haylee Mota, Stephen Proski, Megan Swanson, Sam Theoharis, Zachary Thibodeaux, Mirranda Williams, Chantale Zuzi
$3,000 E.U. and Gene Parker Scholarship: Christopher Abel
$3,000 Charles and Melba T. Owen Scholarship: Lucien Gandarias
$3,000 Dr. Adrienne Asch Memorial Scholarship: Demetria Ober
$3,000 Charles and Betty Allen Scholarship: Tina Reisner
$5,000 Edith R. and Alvin J. Domroe Foundation Scholarship: Treasa Marie Praino
$5,000 NFB STEM Scholarship: Eric Mendell
$5,000 Mimi and Marvin Sandler Scholarship: Maxine Gretchokoff
$5,000 Pearson Scholarship: Christina Ebersohl
$7,000 JAWS for Windows Scholarship: Kaleigh Brendle
$8,000 Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in a STEM Field: Kinshuk Tella
$8,000 Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in Computer Science: Tashara Cooper
$10,000 Charles and Melba T. Owen Memorial Scholarship: Syed Rizvi
$12,000 Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship: Lizzy Muhammed-Park
by Mark A. Riccobono
"When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished."
These words, spoken by the young Black poet Amanda Gorman earlier this year, framed a moment of reflection for our nation. Tonight, we, as blind people organized in a civil rights movement, come to our own moment of reflection. We cannot remove ourselves from the nation in which we live. We cannot deny the influence of the pressures, perspectives, barriers, and inequities of that nation—a nation that is not broken but simply unfinished.
We can find hope, opportunity, and safety in knowing that we have created something meaningful within our nation. We have started by building a movement where we can, as blind Americans, work together on an equal basis for change. Our movement, like our nation, is not broken, but it is unfinished. Our movement, like our nation, is diverse, complex, and not unlimited in resources. Our movement, like our nation, has not always gotten it right. However, we choose to come together in this organization to raise up all blind people in society. We choose this organization because we believe that the blind have the right and the responsibility to speak and act for ourselves. We stay with this organization because, although it may be unfinished, we recognize that here we have the power to get more done together. We are Americans; we are citizens of the world; we are striving to achieve our hopes and dreams; we are committed to the process of learning and growing; we are committed to independence and giving back; and we happen to be blind. We are the National Federation of the Blind.
“We know who we are, and we will never go back.” This simple yet powerful line first appeared in a Federation convention banquet speech delivered by Kenneth Jernigan in 1975. Dr. Jernigan had been elected to the office of President after the death of Jacobus tenBroek in 1968. Dr. tenBroek was a brilliant scholar of the United States Constitution, a strong organizer of blind people, and a tireless advocate. He founded our Federation; served as its first long-term President; and gave it personality, direction, and wise insight for more than a quarter century. In 1940 he brought blind people from seven states together to form the beginnings of what would become the most powerful vehicle for collective action by the blind. At that time, we did not know who we were. Coming to understand ourselves as blind people and our collective power and identity as a group was our first challenge.
Centuries of myths and misconceptions resulted in our nation institutionalizing low expectations into schools and agencies for the blind. As our organized blind movement was built, we discovered our potential, and we challenged the artificial limits placed on us by the agencies. Those institutions pushed back on the right of the blind to organize in an attempt to protect myth and tradition over independence and self-sufficiency. Dr. Jernigan’s rally call in his 1975 speech, “Blindness: Is the Public Against Us,” was a pivot point solidifying the truth that the organized blind movement was here to stay and that blind people would forever determine our own future. This truth grew in imaginative and powerful ways during the next generation of the movement led by Marc Maurer—our leader and mentor for nearly three decades. This truth fuels the lives we live and the march we share today.
Just as the 1975 Convention did for Dr. Jernigan, tonight marks the end of my seventh year leading this movement—an honor and challenge unlike any other in my life. This evening, in reflecting, I find myself asking these questions: Do we still know who we are? Is it inevitable that we will never go back? And what is most essential to our future?
Let’s examine who we are. We are first and foremost blind people. Our structure as an organization requires the majority of our members and our elected leaders to be blind (including 100 percent of our national board). Upwards of 90 percent of our overall nationwide membership is composed of blind people, and we have no expectation that this will or should change. More than that, we come from every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Our members represent the full range of diverse characteristics including race, creed, color, religion, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, national origin, citizenship, marital status, age, genetic information, disability, and any other characteristics or intersectionality of characteristics you might find in our nation. While we now have a clear and well-established, open, national membership policy that applies throughout all levels of our organization, it took real effort to get here. And we recognize that where we are today is not where we strive to be tomorrow.
While we celebrate the tremendous achievements of our movement, we must also make honest reflections about the costs and missed opportunities of progress. We must learn from our past if we are truly to never go back. Today we are not prepared to submit to the low expectations of the agencies for the blind, nor are we prepared to be led by the outdated notions of the society around us. This space, our movement, must reflect the high expectations we demand from society. This requires consistent progress toward building a safe, supportive, empowering, and enriching vehicle for collective action by all blind people. This progress is destined to remain unfinished if we fail to understand our past in planning for our future. Thus, a more meaningful charge for today may be: We know who we are, and we will never go back; together we march forward and learn from our past.
Although we say with truth and conviction that our focus is the concerns of blind people, other challenging social issues have always complicated our unity in this movement. One persistent concern to consider is our nation’s conflicted struggle with inequality based upon race. Our previous organizational responses to these issues are not well known and, therefore, we should consider what we might learn from our past.
From our earliest days, our national leaders worked to promote the principle that the Federation, as a democratic representative movement, should strive to welcome and rely on the participation of all blind people irrespective of their other characteristics. This expectation was dramatically different from what was found elsewhere in our society. However, we, as a class of blind people, had not yet defined who we were. Those who believed in their heart that blindness was not the characteristic that defined them were few compared to those blind people who felt safe and satisfied settling for the social outlets of clubs for the blind and the limited work provided by workshops for the blind. Combine that with the complexity of social issues experienced in our nation after the Great Depression, the impacts of World War II, and a slowly growing consciousness of race inequality, and it is a wonder that the Federation accomplished as much as it did in its first two decades.
Starting with only seven states, our early leaders attempted to build relationships with local organizations of blind people in order to establish affiliated groups in all corners of the nation. In 1951 the National Convention changed the Federation’s constitution to prioritize having only one affiliate in each state. Our leaders recognized that competing organizations at the local level would divide the interests of the blind in ways that hurt all of us. In 1955 our National Convention, assembled in Omaha, Nebraska, went further by formalizing critical membership principles into a mandatory Code of Affiliate Standards. The establishment of these national standards proved much easier than implementing them in local communities.
During the same time, our nation was facing shifting expectations regarding race inequality. Emotions ran high after the United States Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954. Dr. tenBroek’s constitutional expertise on the Fourteenth Amendment was sought by the NAACP’s counsel, Thurgood Marshall, in August 1953, in preparation for arguing that landmark case. It is hard to know how much Dr. tenBroek anticipated the impact America’s racial tensions would have on the organized blind movement, but establishing racial equality among the Federation’s membership would take significant effort by the Federation’s leadership.
In 1957 our convention was to be held in New Orleans, Louisiana. The convention had been scheduled prior to the 1956 Louisiana legislative session, which had reacted to the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1954 by placing new limits on the rights of Louisiana’s Black citizens. One of the state’s new laws made it impossible for Black and White Federationists to meet together in the planned convention hotel. In early 1957 the affiliate informed the national leadership of the new development and negotiations began immediately with the hotel. Dr. tenBroek was prepared to move the convention to another state, even though six months was not adequate time to reconfigure the convention arrangements. The convention stayed in New Orleans, but in order to allow all Federation members to participate on an equal basis, we rented a hall outside of the hotel for our meetings and banquet.
Shortly after that convention, a Federation member sent a letter describing a call he received from the president of the Louisiana affiliate. The letter was sent to Dr. Jernigan, who had already become a respected leader in the movement. Please note the letter is written in the language of the time, and I have not changed it. Judge this excerpt for yourself:
[He] …called me Monday afternoon and told me that a colored fellow had just phoned him regarding forming an organization of the colored blind in the state. It seems that a group of colored people attending the convention had spoken with Dr. tenBroek, and he (Dr. tenBroek) had urged them to organize and join the NFB. Now, if this information comes to me straight; I am very much surprised, in fact, amazed.
Granted, it is most unfortunate that the colored of the south–the colored blind–are not organized. That is to say, we could use their support, but being familiar with the feeling of the races in the south, you know there are very few people who feel this way. Add to this our state law concerning the mixing of the races and you come up with an impossible situation. However, if there were no such law, at the present time it would be impossible to have colored and white in the same organization because of the strong popular feeling. As I said, this is regrettable, but true.
The letter is a brutally honest reflection on the circumstances. Was that who we were? Well, like our nation, the answer is complicated. Our national leadership encouraged organizing and integrating throughout the nation under the principle of wanting to represent all blind people; but in local communities, we reflected the painful reality of the time. Our structure was fragile, and many local organizations were not tightly bonded to the movement.
Inspired by their experience at the 1957 Convention, the Black blind people of New Orleans began rallying around the Federation’s mission. In the fall they wrote to Dr. tenBroek seeking recognition as a Federation chapter. Due to the Federation’s one affiliate policy, their application was redirected to the existing Louisiana affiliate for consideration. Throughout 1958 it became clear that our Louisiana affiliate did not wish to allow these blind people to join, due only to the color of their skin. Yet a Black blind movement arose in New Orleans.
On May 31, 1958, Mr. Elliott Ralrine, president of the newly formed New Orleans Chapter of the Adult Blind wrote to Dr. tenBroek. Mr. Ralrine noted that, despite the denial of membership from the Louisiana affiliate, Black blind men and women had organized, applied for recognition by the state of Louisiana as a nonprofit, and sought to attend the 1958 National Convention in Boston with the goal of being accepted into Federation membership. Dr. tenBroek responded with a warm welcome for their participation in the convention and a tone of concern about the resistance they had faced.
Immediately following the 1958 Convention, the two exchanged letters that crossed in the mail. Notably, Mr. Ralrine’s letter dated July 14 maintains a clear hopefulness, determined purpose, and complete trust in Dr. tenBroek. He closed with this powerful statement:
Mr. President, since it is impossible at the present time to integrate with the State federation of the blind, we are going to press forward and continually operate in the State independently until some provisions of law are made in the constitution of the national federation which would allow us to become a member of the national. We have just as many blind in this State as the White and we can accumulate just as much finance, if not more. And we will prove it to you at the next convention. …We are thanking you in advance and are asking you and the national body to work with us in attaining our goal.
Dr. tenBroek’s letter of July 17, 1958, appears to have two equal purposes: preserve the history of the actions taken at the convention and document the disappointment of all involved. The Federation’s executive committee agonized over the membership application of the New Orleans group but ultimately declined the application due to the one-affiliate policy. Dr. tenBroek tried to share a glimmer of hope in a hard situation by saying, “Perhaps when tensions diminish in Louisiana, as we all hope they soon will, it will be possible for you to come into relationship with our affiliate in that state and thus to become a full-fledged part of the National Federation of the Blind.”
Progress denied or progress made? Was this outrageous discrimination or incremental advancement of equality within a diverse nationwide movement? Our leaders at the time believed they were forging a path forward, keeping us together, and hopefully raising expectations at the local level. The challenge was, and continues to be, to unify and advance our organization, one which includes blind people with many diverse perspectives and characteristics. We know who we are, and we will never go back; together we march forward and learn from our past.
The work to integrate and unify blind people across the Federation continued for many years to come. In November 1959, the Federation’s executive committee met in St. Louis. The minutes from the meeting indicate that the intersection of race and the organized blind movement was a significant topic of conversation. The result was the adoption of a number of important policy proposals for consideration by the 1960 National Convention in Miami, Florida. This was an important pivot point in our effort to unify the affiliates. The 1960 Convention suspended our affiliates in Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Dakota for activities destructive to the character and objectives of the Federation. The lack of open membership policies was a primary factor in the suspensions.
The convention also adopted an executive committee proposal to modify the Federation’s constitution to include an “at-large membership” category. The Braille Monitor preserves the history of this action as, “primarily to afford membership in the NFB to persons denied membership in the affiliates of some southern states on grounds of race.” The article notes that the voice vote was supported by both northern and southern states. Open membership is now our standard, so we do not often discuss at-large national membership. However, we should not forget the significance of its development as a strategy to welcome into the Federation family blind people previously barred from membership.
In October 1960, the suspended Louisiana affiliate proclaimed that it was disassociating itself from the Federation rather than conforming to the standards. This was just one story in the lead-up to the height of the internal struggles in the Federation, culminating in the 1961 National Convention permanently suspending four affiliates and the dramatic resignation of Dr. tenBroek. The historical record shows that America’s struggle with race influenced the Federation’s own struggle for an organizational identity. What were the lasting impacts of these setbacks on our Black blind family members? It is hard to quantify, but in Louisiana we would not have a functioning affiliate again until 1972. We know from the nation we live in that the imbalance of equality takes time and real, thoughtful work to overcome. We know who we are, and we will never go back; together we march forward and learn from our past.
The rebuilding and strengthening of the Federation in the 1960s created opportunities for Black members to participate more fully and to seek leadership in the movement. This is a credit to the commitment of those Black blind individuals and their recognition of the value of the organized blind movement. Much work remained to strengthen and unify our national movement through the development of action-oriented affiliates that welcomed all blind people—work that continues and remains unfinished today.
Consider, for example, the work done within our Maryland affiliate, which was restored to good standing in the Federation in 1961. By 1965 the affiliate consisted of a group of sixty-four White blind people from Baltimore known as the Maryland Council of the Blind. Neither representative of the state of Maryland nor of the diversity of blind people of the state, the organization did not reflect the open representative membership principles we valued. In July 1965, a Black Federation chapter president from Pennsylvania named Ned Graham moved to Baltimore to get married. This fateful event helped spark a revolution in our local movement and resulted in the building of one of our leading affiliates.
When Mr. Graham sought membership in the Maryland Council, he found a group that was disorganized, isolated, and impossible to join. He noted that many existing members already supported some form of reorganization. He also found ten other Black blind people in Maryland seeking membership in the Federation, and he devised a plan for building an integrated organization. Mr. Graham organized the Black blind people into the Greater Baltimore Chapter—the chapter where I am an active member today. It is not lost on me, a blind leader who happens to be White, that Ned Graham paved the way for my own membership in the chapter; correspondence from the time shows that he intentionally sought reverse integration as part of his strategy to build the movement. At the same time, Albert M. Balducci, a blind person employed in the shipping department at the National Brewing Company in Baltimore, served as president of the Maryland Council. Mr. Balducci was clearly interested in welcoming Black blind people to membership in the Council, but correspondence shows that he was vastly out-voted by the other members. In the early months of 1966, Graham and Balducci worked collaboratively and with the support of Federation leaders to develop a new affiliate constitution for the Free State Federation of the Blind that included both the Maryland Council and the Greater Baltimore organization as equal chapters. Two highlights of our 1966 Convention banquet were the celebration of Dr. tenBroek’s return to the Presidency and the powerful and symbolic appearance of Mr. Graham and Mr. Balducci together to accept the charter for our reorganized Maryland affiliate.
The momentum continued, and the December 1967 issue of the Braille Monitor celebrated our progress in a report from our Ohio affiliate, noting the first time a Black member was elected to the office of affiliate president. Reflect on all that is communicated in this short excerpt: “It is time that we recognize ability and dedication to cause, without respect to color, Al Smith has proven his capacity for work; he has a level head; he has an eternal desire to help his fellowmen. In addition to all this, his wife Amanda and three daughters are 100% back of him.”
Our 1968 Convention was notable for many reasons, but arguably the most significant was the election of the first Black member to the national board. It will be no surprise that the organizing and political skills of Mr. Ned Graham of Maryland were celebrated in his election to the Federation’s executive committee, where he continued to serve until he decided not to run in 1976. In 1968 Maryland also elected Mr. John McCraw—a Black blind leader who had worked closely with Graham in organizing the Greater Baltimore Chapter—to serve as president of the affiliate, which he did until his untimely death in 1978. By no means is this a complete dissertation of the influence of Black members on our movement, for that would take much more time than I have tonight. These reflections on who we have been speak to experiences within our movement today and who we want to be in the future.
Our past tells us that, as a movement of blind people, race has influenced the development of our organization. This should not be a surprise; in our nation race has mattered more than our consciousness has always accepted. We are still learning how to have an intentional dialogue about blindness and intersecting discriminations. Similarly, America’s current struggles involving race add complexity to what we seek to achieve within our own membership. It is not as simple as pointing to examples like Al Smith, Ned Graham, Ron Brown, Denise Avant, Shawn Callaway, or Ever Lee Hairston to demonstrate that barriers do not exist for our members with intersecting characteristics. But it is as simple as committing to learn from the authentic experience of these tenacious leaders who continue to build together with us. The opportunity and the challenge is to learn from both the strength of our diversity and our common bonds as blind people. We know who we are, and we will never go back; together we march forward and learn from our past.
Tonight, I have not shared with you the struggles with some agencies for the blind, the public’s low expectations about us, the wasted innovations of technology experts who do not know our real capacities, or our own internalized misconceptions. All of those barriers are still real, still a concern, and still at the center of the work we have yet to do. Tonight I am concerned about the need for us to remain unified in a movement of blind people, to recognize the strength that comes through our diversity, to understand the power that is gained from learning from our past, and to embrace the faith that is reflected in the bonds that bring us together.
To those in our membership who have not felt fully acknowledged in the past, we hear you. We are blind people, and we will no longer ask you to stand together with us while also asking you to ignore your intersecting characteristics. We are blind people who are strong enough to both remain united in our common bond and seek understanding of the social barriers that impact blind people because of their other characteristics. We regret that we have not always fully understood how our drive to remain united as blind people created less space for some to fully participate in our march to freedom. We lift up in celebration your strength and your commitment to organize on our behalf even if our space was not always as open as we wanted. We commit to learn from our past with you, because we are not yet finished. Our progress is real, and our pledge is “forward together.”
To those who feel our recent actions are taking away our effectiveness to advocate for the blind, we hear you. We will never go back to a time when the blind do not speak and act for ourselves through a unified movement. We will also not go back to a time when we do not adequately represent all blind people. You have taught us to think critically about where we have been and where we must go together. You have given us the strength and determination to ensure that we never do go back, that we do not return to a time when questions of difference divide us. To you, we say that our agenda continues to be driven by the hopes and dreams of blind people. We have not yet made it all the way up the hill, and we cannot go the rest of the way without you. We are not yet finished, and your experience matters as we move forward together.
To those blind people who are quick to blame other blind people for the problems we face, we challenge you to recognize the truth of our past. We choose to support each other as blind people because we acknowledge that all of us face the low expectations that stand between blind people and our dreams. We have supported each other, taught each other, and lifted each other up. Meanwhile, our nation’s education programs, rehabilitation system, government structures, and corporate priorities create real barriers for all blind people. No particular segment of blind people is at fault for the problems we face. However, a significant number of overlapping social issues, especially the persistent low expectations society holds for blind people, stand between us and our dreams. That is a product of the unfinished America we live in, but we have committed to make it better through this movement. It starts when we each make the individual pledge to participate actively in working together to advance our collective purpose—a pledge that requires us to learn and grow together. As in the past, forward together in the organized blind movement is the answer.
To all of us, united, I reflect on the truth that has bonded us together since 1940: regardless of what is happening in our nation or around the world, the strongest force in advancing the hopes and dreams of blind people is the National Federation of the Blind. This is the movement—a movement where individual blind people are determined to speak and act for themselves—a movement where the commitment to join together is easier than the work to stay together. We, the blind, have found ways to organize even when we did not have all the tools to institutionalize the principles we sought to meet. We, the blind, found ways to train ourselves to overcome the myths and misconceptions and to develop the confidence to believe first and always in each other. We, the blind, have shared the value of giving back to each other to build upon what previous generations have gifted to us. We, the blind, have sustained a nationwide march together with the goal of bringing blind people ever closer to the top of the hill. Our movement remains unfinished, and our progress is not yet done.
The revolution that we continue to engineer as blind people is driven by a personal commitment and love for each other in this movement. That is the kindness that was shown to me when I first came to know the Federation in 1996, and it has impacted every day of my life since that time. We commit not just our minds to the work but our hearts. The bond of faith that holds us together in this movement is a recognition that all of us take a risk in coming together. We risk letting each other down, failing to meet the commitment that is expressed in our organizational values, and being vulnerable in the process of growing and learning together in our march. The revolution comes in continuing to trust the movement to change our hearts and minds by working collectively together. For me, this has meant that every time I thought I understood blindness and the limits on our future, the movement pushed me even further. It is because of this movement of blind people that I have been able to get to know, love, and appreciate a truly diverse set of people and perspectives. Thank goodness you sought to understand my own limited viewpoints, granted me the grace of helping me understand the biases that came from my own experiences, and challenged me to go beyond what society had taught me about blindness and so many other aspects of humanity. All of us marching in this movement must continue to do that for each other if we are to make it to the top of the hill together. Our challenge is not each other nor is it our diversity. Our challenge is continuing to keep our hearts open to working together to overcome the common barriers that stand in our way. Yet no challenge can stand against the strength of our commitment to understand and believe in the hearts of our coequal marchers in this unfinished movement that is the National Federation of the Blind.
My Federation family, the struggles of society and race are not new to us. However, we have more power to do something about it than at any time in our history. We also have more to lose than at any time in our history. We have known it would not be easy—our march to freedom for the blind has never been easy. It has taken organization, struggle, compromise, setbacks, sacrifice, and the limited resources we could gather. “And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.” We have overcome all of the challenges because we have bonded together in the organized blind movement. Since 1940, we have not confronted any obstacle that has stopped our progress. We know who we are, and we will never go back. Together as blind people, we march forward and learn from our past: a past that is filled with successes and failures, both informing our future. Our past taught us that we must speak and act for ourselves. Our present demands that we do the hard work necessary to go beyond where we have perceived our own limits to be. Our future requires a unified and authentic blind-led revolution to fulfill the dream. This is the commitment we make to each other. This is the love, hope, and determination felt in our march. This is the bond of faith that gives us the strength to overcome the combined forces of social instability, a pandemic, and persistent barriers preventing our full participation—a faith that can move mountains and mount movements. Let us go together to find the blind who have not yet felt our strength. Let us show the world that diversity is unity. Let us never be divided. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.
by Randi Strunk
From the Editor: Randi Strunk is a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and is also active in the Sports and Recreation Division. These things are important, but they only hint at the depth, warmth, and inspiration she evokes when she speaks from the head and the heart. Here is one of the most interesting and moving presentations I've ever had the fortune to hear. I hope you share the same enjoyment from listening to the refreshing honesty, self-reflection, and insight she puts into these remarks:
Thank you, President Riccobono. I really appreciate the opportunity to address the convention tonight and just tell a little bit of my story.
I've always loved sports. I may have been one of the few girls who asked for a football helmet for Christmas; thanks, mom and dad! At six years old, I was lying on the living room floor listening to Nebraska football games for three hours at a time. I grew up on a farm in Nebraska, and we were always outside either riding bikes or playing sports in the yard with my brother: football, baseball, basketball, whatever was in season. I didn't ever think about not playing because of blindness. Sports was just what you did.
I did have some understanding that it was a bit more difficult for me with limited vision and no depth perception, but there were moments that stuck out. For example, I remember playing baseball with my brother. You wouldn't believe what a good hitter I was, crushing homers off of a seven-year-old. But one afternoon he hit a ball, and I reached up and to my left, and pop, the perfect ball meets glove sound. It is so vivid in my mind, even today, and I thought—that's what it's supposed to feel like!
The first time I played organized sports was in junior high. I went out for volleyball, basketball, and I ran track. Now for perspective, my graduating class had thirty-six kids in it, so everyone made the team. There were no tryouts, and there were no cuts. Sports were one of the only extracurriculars that were offered, and I wanted to play, and like most kids I wanted to fit in. But I always had an undertone of anxiety that I would lose the white volleyball against the white gym ceiling or walls or keeping track of the basketball along with the other nine players running around the court. I practiced every day and put in the work, but there was a stark difference from the front yard with my little brother.
I ended up in volleyball on the "C" team. That's right: not the "A" team or the "B" team but the "C" team. And it was such a small school that we're not talking a lot of depth here. I began to think that I just wasn't a good athlete.
I then played basketball my freshman year and quickly started to dread it. With each step up in age and grades, the speed of the game gets so much faster, and as a result, I increasingly had trouble and worried about keeping track of the ball and everyone moving around really quickly. I remember a particular drill in practice one day that really kind of did me in. It involved four lines of players lining up at each corner of the square. You were to start running diagonally, and then you would catch a ball coming at you from your right, and then turn and pass it to the person at the front of the line in the direction you were running. It was very fast, multiple balls being passed, super chaotic, and I remember walking up to my coach and telling her that I just couldn't do the drill. I felt pretty defeated at that point.
I finished out the season: you know that whole "If you start something, you can't quit it" situation, but I hated it. It wasn't all bad though. There was one highlight. I was put in at the end of a couple of freshmen games, and I remember dribbling down the court in one of them, pulling up at the top of the key on the left-hand side, and sinking a shot—my one entry into the scoring column. I thought to myself, "So that's what it's supposed to feel like."
After basketball I quit sports. I didn't feel like it was worth the work or the stress. After all, I told myself, I just wasn't an athlete. The only sports that I played for the next ten years were in video games. I could do those on my own terms.
But a chance conversation changed my view on sports forever. I was at a chapter meeting in Minneapolis, the Shadow Metro Chapter. I was talking to Michelle Gittens, and she mentioned to me that she was working out with a trainer who taught "learn to run" classes. I had no idea how blind people could run, and she told me about guides and tethers. I never thought about sports being adapted for blind people, or maybe more accurately I never considered using alternative techniques for sports.
We contacted this trainer, and she agreed to do a learn to run class for a few Federationists. For our first lesson we met at a park near BLIND, Incorporated. After a few drills teaching us techniques and where your foot was supposed to land when you run, we each took a turn to run around the park with Jenny the trainer guiding us. As I finished my loop she looked toward Ryan and Emily, and she said that I looked like a natural athlete.
Now those are not words that I expected to hear, and frankly, I didn't believe them. Nothing in my experience with sports up to this point made me believe that I was athletic. But I did enjoy running, we got a treadmill, and I started running a few times a week. I even did a couple of races over the next few years.
But one day I was working out with Jenny, and she mentioned a sport called triathlon. I had no idea what a triathlon was, let alone how a blind person could do one. So, like you do, I Googled it, and I saw blind people doing triathlons with their guides. This was going to be a giant experiment, with me a first-time triathlete and Jenny a first-time guide.
I signed up for my first triathlon in 2015. This was an Olympic distance triathlon, which is a one-mile swim, a twenty-five-mile bike ride, and a 6.2 mile run. First I had to learn how to swim—no big deal, right? The only experience I really had was wading around the edge of a lake or water skiing, but you wore a life jacket for that. So yeah, that was a big deal. We also borrowed a tandem bike so we could start training.
Race day came around. We had trained for about six months, and I wasn't sure if I would be one and done or if I would like the whole triathlon thing. After a good swim and bike, we embarked on the run. It was a very hot day, so I took Gatorade at one of the aid stations, and this didn't go well. There is a saying in triathlon; they say, "Nothing new on race day." I didn't listen to those wise words, so we ended up having to walk four of the 6.2 miles as I was dealing with terrible stomach cramps. Despite that, I finished, and I was proud. I was exhausted. But I also thought, I want to do this again. I can get more fit. I can get faster. I can do this on my own terms with adaptive techniques like a guide or a tandem bike or a run tether. I'm in control of this. I'm in control of what I put into it, and it has nothing to do with blindness.
The National Federation of the Blind taught me never to be satisfied with the status quo. We in the Federation are always striving for more, whether that be more access or more equality. And through my involvement with the Federation, I also learned to embrace the idea of doing something that scares you just a little. It could be running for a position on your chapter board, organizing a fundraiser, giving a speech at general session at a national convention maybe. It could mean signing up for a race that's a little longer than you're used to or going for a swim in a lake instead of the pool. It could be as simple as going somewhere new, cooking something new, or applying for that job you're just a little bit nervous about.
The Federation taught me that I should reach a little farther than I thought possible and that I should want to do that. And it's possible to achieve your goals even if you have to walk instead of run, and there's a whole community here to support you in that.
Community is also a great part of triathlon. People come to volunteer at race check-ins or aid stations, and people come out just to watch other people race. They would come out and brave wind, rain, heat, and standing on their feet for hours simply to encourage other people. But I see great parallels to the community we have here in the National Federation of the Blind. We build each other up. We volunteer to mentor new and prospective members, and we volunteer to do all of the work that needs to be done for us to achieve our dreams.
I'm up here today because we believe it's important to highlight our own; because when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. And it is important to share our stories.
Let's flash forward in my triathlon journey to April 28, 2018. As I zipped up my wetsuit on a calm, clear morning overlooking the lake of the Woodlands in Houston, Texas, I was nervous but confident. I was about to embark on an Ironman Triathlon. This is a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run. And you have to do it within seventeen hours. I knew it would be a long day. I knew I would have to be flexible. But I knew also that I had a community behind me.
We got into the cool water, and I would be wishing for that for the rest of the day because it's Texas, after all. Now in Ironman races, the disabled athletes get to start with the professional women, which means we get a cannon start, which is pretty awesome. When the cannon roared, we started swimming. Now you can't think of the 140.6 miles that are ahead of you, otherwise you'll get discouraged. I told myself to stay calm, stay strong, and I repeated that mantra.
Since we started with the professionals, we had ten minutes of glorious clear water around us before the rest of the racers started. Each time I turned my head to breathe, I heard things like the singing of the National Anthem or the announcer getting the other racers fired up to begin their day. With each stroke I felt the water, I listened to the other swimmers come up around us, and, as Dorie said, I just kept swimming. It's my guide's job, on the other hand, to make sure we're swimming straight and to tell me when we need to turn around the buoys that mark the course. She also makes sure that no one swims over the tether that connects us in the water. I'm happy to report that my guide Caroline's foot only had to connect with one person's face on purpose to encourage them to change their course.
After the 2.4 miles were complete, we got on our tandem bike and headed out for two loops on the Hardy Toll Road. Now the advantage of being a blind triathlete: you get someone to talk to the whole time. The bike course was flat and fast. It was also straight and kind of boring. But we affectionately called the bike ride a rolling buffet because you just swam 2.4 miles, so you're starving, and it's easier to digest food while you're riding than it is while you're running. You try to replace a lot of calories on the ride and get ready for the run. Let me tell you that an Uncrustable Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich has never tasted so good along with the salt and vinegar chips I got half-way through the ride. They were a welcome distraction from the chocolate energy bars and quickly warming Gatorade that I had been consuming. Side note: I did actually practice with Gatorade before this one, so I learned one lesson at least.
We finished the bike in good time, and we headed out on a three-loop run course. Now, we run holding a tether about eighteen inches long, and my guide calls out turns and changes in the road surface. The great part about a three-loop course is that each loop seems manageable. The bad part is seeing the sign for mile twenty right next to the sign for mile three, especially when you're on mile three.
The first eight miles went pretty well. After that, the eighty-five-degree heat, humidity, and lack of shade in Texas caught up with me. After all, I had been training inside in the Minnesota winter, and we had gotten snow a couple of weeks before, so my body was not loving Texas so much.
The run turned into a brisk walk, but that gave us a bit more time to enjoy all the spectators, many of whom showed up in costume or holding signs with encouraging phrases such as "You think you're tired? My arms are killing me." Or "Worst parade ever!" One of my personal favorites: "This seems like a lot of work for free Gatorade." Finally, "Don't worry, you won't feel your feet at all tomorrow."
As we looped around the final lap, we could hear the music from the finish line, and we could hear Mike Riley, known as "The Voice of Ironman" calling the finishers home across the line. Athletes on the course cheered each other on and encouraged each other because we were all so close to accomplishing our goal.Finally, after over fifteen hours of swimming, biking, and running, we made the final turn on to the red carpet. We were under the lights, with the music blaring and crowds on each side of the road screaming. Caroline and I raised our arms as we crossed the finish line. And I heard the words that many triathletes dream of hearing: "Randi Strunk, you are an Ironman!" I hugged my guide, and we got our finisher medals; by the way, mine is hanging up behind my left shoulder right now. I was really proud! And I thought: now this, this is what it's supposed to feel like!
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 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.
Ways to Contribute Now
Since the start of 2020, 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 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.If you have questions about giving, please send an email to [email protected] or call 410-659-9314, extension 2422.
Introductory Remarks Presented by Kathryn Webster
From the Editor: On Friday evening, July 9, 2021, a good bit of the convention agenda was dedicated to survivors and our attempt to create a safe place for all people to flourish in the Federation. The first panel of the evening was chaired by Kathryn Webster, and these are the introductory remarks she made:
Trigger warning: this presentation will be discussing sexual misconduct and abuse. Please take care of yourself, step away as needed, and know that you are not alone.
The founder of the Me Too movement, Tarana Burke, asserts: “I don’t want to miss this moment. It is not always going to be on TV. The media is not always going to care about what I have to say about sexual violence. When that goes away, I need you to still care about this. I need you to recognize this is an epidemic, a pandemic that will not go away by just talking. Speeches and hashtags do not make it go away.”
So, we stand here today, vulnerable, authentic, and honest, recognizing that this speech may not bring assurance and healing. It may make you frustrated; it may cause pain because of how raw those feelings are to you in this very moment. It may demonstrate the love and heart and dedication so many are working toward within and out of our organization for the benefit of the blind community. We are here today to be transparent about our work over the past six months as NFB’s Survivor-Led Task Force and the ways in which we recommend our organization proceed.
My name is Kathryn Webster, and joining me on this virtual stage is Daphne Mitchell of New Mexico and Briley O’Connor of Minnesota. In the audience is Cheryl Fields, Marci Carpenter, and Sarah Meyer, the second half of our hearts who have supported each of us during these difficult months. We make up the Survivor-Led Task Force, bringing our diverse experiences, backgrounds, and identities to the table and driving the voice of survivors to center stage as we all are SURVIVORS.
I want to start by sharing some of the work we have done; then I will pass the mic to Briley and Daphne to present our collective recommendations as the transition from this interim task force to the soon established Survivor-Led Group is underway. I want to set the stage by acknowledging important research that shows people with disabilities are three times more likely to experience violent victimization than people without disabilities, and the rates are even higher for women and those with intellectual, psychiatric, or multiple disabilities. This means that this conversation is even more relevant within our community. I also want to amplify the fact that only 13 percent of people with disabilities who have been harmed by sexual misconduct and domestic abuse receive victim services, which further justifies the necessity of the SAFE fund President Riccobono and our national board will be bringing to the convention floor for a vote. I strongly urge support on this necessary and proactive resolution that will only strengthen the trust and help decrease harm for our survivors.
Now to get into our work. On January 1 we were tasked with advising our national leadership and President on survivorship efforts with the sky as the limit. We chose to prioritize three efforts or branches: communications and engagement, procedures and oversight, and training and culture. While these branches each explored and dove into so many topics, I’m going to hit on some of the top highlights.
Communications and engagement is critical to this work being successful and maintained—promoting transparency is the core for building trust. This branch ensured that safety and support conversations around survivors were brought to over fifty chapter meetings and over ten state conventions during the spring months, as well as during chapter presidents’ calls, Washington Seminar, and nearly all open forums of Federation work. We helped build the Code of Conduct FAQ document, created vignettes, which are nuggets of information shared on our resource page at nfb.org/survivors from survivors themselves. This branch also worked on ensuring Spanish translation was a priority; making documents digestible and reader-friendly; pushing announcements and a calendar of events out on the Presidential Releases, leadership notes, listservs, and the list goes on. This group developed blog post entries from survivors, spoke on the Nation’s Blind podcast, and maintained our website page with updates and resources. Of course, we have been maintaining our email account and voicemail box to provide consistent support to survivors, and that is still alive and well for anyone who needs an ear or advice. This branch was the stick to ensuring the work in progress was spread across our community.
Procedures and oversight was fast at work reviewing policies, working with RAINN, and working with the Special Committee. We helped develop the obligation of responsible leaders document that outlines clear expectations our leaders must follow in promoting a no-tolerance environment against Code of Conduct violations. We also helped to improve the notification of expulsion and suspension that allows leaders and select members to be proactively aware of outcomes. We worked to improve the language for report rulings that notify reporting parties. We advised on the expansion of the background check process, youth policies, and other organizational policies. Most prominently, we held three open meetings to gather feedback from the blindness community on the Code of Conduct itself, as well as the procedures, policies, and communications. We also hosted a call with our external investigator, Tonya Bana, to put a strong and honest voice to a name that is working so hard on justice and accountability for survivors. This branch also worked with RAINN on response protocols for leaders and members, which will soon translate into training center response protocols for Code of Conduct violations.
Last but certainly not least, our training and culture branch focused on immediate and long-term training, as well as various ways to ensure our community promoted a culture of informed consent. This involved developing a positive blindness philosophy embedded in our trainings around trauma-informed communication, consent and boundaries, sexual misconduct prevention, bystander intervention, and other difficult topics. We partnered and learned from the Consent Academy and know that is a long-term relationship we are grateful for. We also ensured BELL coordinators, mentors, and volunteers were trained on consent and boundaries, as well as our youth track participants. We developed a post level-set training plan to broaden the education opportunities for members and leaders including topics of unconscious bias, inclusive leadership, consent and boundaries, trauma-informed communications, and sexual misconduct prevention. The initial level set training reached nearly eight hundred leaders who serve on national division boards, affiliate boards, the national board of directors, the 2021 scholarship committee, the NBPCB Board, the national staff, the task force. It also included training center staff, students, and boards. This is just the beginning of a commitment to continuous and consistent training. We worked with the DEI Committee on accountability processes: what that could look like on the individual level and organizationally speaking. A piece of this was developing an evaluation for leaders to take post-training that ensured attendance and digestion of information. As we look ahead, our branch also developed the concept of the survivor-led group that will be established in the coming weeks, created the application, and will conduct interviews to recommend our next co-leads. During national convention, we ensured training was offered nearly every day starting Tuesday and covering topics of psychological first aid, bystander intervention and allyship, consent and boundaries, and empowerment for survivors. We also designated a Zoom room as a safe space for survivors to speak one on one with trauma-informed individuals if they were feeling triggered or have concerns or hesitations this week.
A big piece of this branch work was behind the scenes, working with individuals and state leadership on creating safe and welcoming cultures. These conversations were often the most difficult and rewarding, seeing pained individuals transforming from constant pain to glimpses of healing and hope. It has been and will continue to be our hope for restoring trust and accountability in our organization for all parts of the blindness community as we represent all blind people.
Before we move into our recommendations, I want to voice so much appreciation for our branch volunteers. They spent many hours with us brainstorming and problem-solving—both allies and survivors, members and non-members. Thank you for sharing your perspectives and ideas every week with us. Thank you to the Consent Academy for partnering with us on trainings; and we know this is just the beginning of a long collaboration given your incredible work. Thank you to Bobbi Pompey and Laura Millar for facilitating youth track consent conversations with our little ones this week. For those who volunteered your time to help out with our safe spaces, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. There are so many other thank-yous, but I do want to acknowledge Danielle Montour, George Stern, Tai Tomasi, and Bobbi Pompey for your truth, your stories, and your work on this topic. Beyond the incredible panel we just had with your voices, you each have been instrumental in shaping our vision and direction for the benefit and safety of survivors within this organization. Your perspectives and experiences are invaluable.
I often get asked why I am doing this hard work, particularly as a survivor myself. Shannon Cantan, one of our vocal allies within our organization and a dear friend of mine, shared during a panel earlier today that he had a difficult choice to make. As an ally, should he leave this organization to stand with survivors or stay to be part of the transformational change? When assaulted by a previous state leader in our movement, I had to make a similar but different choice: Do I leave the organization because a leader doubted my truth and instead told me to wear more clothes and stop being a baby, or do I educate them on my own terms and my own time because a single leader or handful of them are not necessarily indicative of an entire organization? I made my choice. That choice isn’t for everyone; and no one should feel the pressure of being involved or leaving. That is your choice, your experience, and your feelings. They are all valid. Either way, there is work to be done, and those leaders who diminish the voices of survivors should not and will not be welcomed into our family, let alone in positions of power.
These six months scratched the surface and accomplished a lot of good, but there is a lifetime ahead of us. We are here to support survivors in all angles coming from all walks of life. Our fifty-four recommendations hopefully provide clarity on our perspectives and thoughts as a task force and shed light on the collective ideas of folks across the blindness community. We’ve broken these recommendations up into seven categories. Keep in mind these will be posted on nfb.org/survivors in the next few weeks so you can see the full breadth. For now, I will hand it over to Briley to dive in.Editor’s Note: When the Board of Directors decides on which recommendations will become policy, we will cover them. Until then, please use the link Kathryn provided to hear this presentation it its entirety.
On July 22, 2021, the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors unanimously adopted the following statement:
Recently there has been some discussion in the NFB community regarding whether certain aspects of the NFB Code of Conduct and actions taken related to the Code violate provisions of the NFB Constitution. In short, the board believes that it and the President have been acting fully within the authority granted them by the NFB Constitution. We also believe our actions have been in the best interest of the organization and increasingly more supportive of survivors of misconduct.
With respect to the Constitution, the two relevant provisions to this statement are Article V, Section B, and Article III, Section E.
Article V, Section B, says in part: “The function of the board of directors as the governing body of the Federation between Conventions is to make policies when necessary and not in conflict with the policies adopted by the Convention.”
Article III, Section E says in part: “Any member, local chapter, state affiliate, or division of this organization may be suspended, expelled, or otherwise disciplined for misconduct or for activity unbecoming to a member or affiliate of this organization by a two-thirds vote of the board of directors or by a simple majority of the states present and voting at a National Convention.
With respect to the Code, the board first adopted it on January 26, 2018, and the Code has been amended three times since then, at board meetings occurring on December 1, 2018; April 4, 2019; and December 4 and 5, 2020. On each occasion, the board has unanimously voted first to adopt the Code and then the subsequent amendments to it. Additionally, since the Code’s original adoption, there have been four national conventions. Pursuant to Article V, Section A, the convention is the supreme authority of the Federation and can reverse any policy or action of the board. Notably, the convention has not taken any action to reverse or alter the board’s actions with respect to the Code.
Very recently some have argued that President Riccobono does not have the constitutional power to suspend, expel, or otherwise discipline members in the Federation and that such power is only reserved for the board and/or the Convention. The board believes that it and President Riccobono have acted within their Constitutional authority by adopting the Code of Conduct and its related processes to carry out their authority to suspend, expel, or otherwise discipline members. The board has expressly not relinquished its right to suspend, expel, or otherwise discipline members because it retains the right to review and potentially reverse any actions taken by the Office of the President under the Code. It must be noted that the President has never unilaterally issued any ruling under the Code since its inception.
A concern has also been raised regarding the perception that the Federation’s board has given decision-making authority to an external investigator. All members should feel confident in the fact that the Federation has always and will continue to direct its own efforts. While our organization is a deep source of authentic expertise related to blind people, we often partner with those with expertise in other areas in order to best inform our work. In January 2021, the board committed to engaging an external investigator to conduct independent investigations into reports of sexual harassment and abuse filed under the NFB Code of Conduct. Specifically, the external investigator has been charged with determining whether the conduct reported occurred and whether that conduct constitutes a violation of the Federation’s Code. Additionally, we have asked the external investigator to provide recommendations regarding sanctions that should be issued under the Code based on the investigator’s factual findings in any given matter. The report and recommendations are reviewed by two members of the board who make recommendations to the President (or other officer if there is the potential of a conflict of interest for the President) before a final ruling is issued. The ruling can be appealed to a three-member panel of the board. At every step, we take care to review for conflicts and protect the sensitivity of information. This interim process has worked successfully since that time and is consistent with the organization’s commitment to be survivor centered, trauma informed, and fair and equitable. If a member demanded their appeal be considered by the entire board, it will in fact be considered by the whole board. Regardless, this board is not prepared to subject survivors to unnecessary steps that may further the harm already experienced. Thus, the board retains the right to organize the appeals process in ways that minimize further harm and protect confidentiality. It must be stressed that this board reserves the right to review and revise any of these procedures at any time as we receive advice from our experts such as RAINN, the Special Committee, and our survivor-led taskforce.
The board acknowledges that the Federation’s Constitution does not specifically contemplate a written Code of Conduct. However, the board’s broad authority as the governing body of the Federation between Conventions gives it the power to adopt policies such as the Code of Conduct. Regardless, the board intends to form a committee to study whether the Constitution should be amended to address specifically the Code of Conduct or to consider other amendments that better reflect how the Federation should govern itself to meet current needs and present day realities. The board has not taken this step yet because we are still in the process of gathering advice from our internal and external experts. Those who wish to comment on this topic and provide input to the board should, by September 1, 2021, send an email to [email protected] or leave a message at 410-659-9314, extension 2263.
by Eve Hill
From the Editor: Eve Hill is a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy. She is a longtime ally of the National Federation of the Blind, and she speaks with passion, perseverance, and perceptiveness. I always find her remarks a high point of the convention, and here they are:
All right, I love the walk-on music. Thank you so much, Mr. President, and thank you all for inviting me to speak with you today. It's such an honor and a privilege to be here. I'm a white woman with brownish red hair and freckles, and I'm wearing glasses and a teal jacket and matching necklace. I finally got to get dressed up today.
So some thirty years ago Justin Dart, one of the leaders of the movement to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, exhorted people with disabilities to vote as if your lives depend on it, because they do. Now voting is the cornerstone of our democracy. It's how we choose our leaders who represent our values. It's how we hold them accountable, how we hold our leaders accountable. It's how we make our voices heard on the issues that are important to us. It's also the center of the major civil rights struggles in this country. As the news shows us every day these days, those struggles are far from over.
Blind people are at the heart of the civil rights struggle for voting equality. Blind people have faced and continue to face massive barriers to voting. Blind people face inaccessible or burdensome registration requirements, and they face inaccessible election websites that prevent them from getting information on elections and candidates. Blind people face transportation and other barriers to even getting to the polls. So the lack of convenient polling places keeps blind people from voting. They face check-in processes that undermine their independence and expose their addresses and party registrations to public scrutiny. They face the absence of accessible voting machines in polling places and poll workers who don't know how to use the accessible voting machines that are there.
As a result, blind people have routinely had to give up the secrecy of their vote and trust that a third party doesn't intentionally or unintentionally spoil their vote or cast their vote incorrectly. Over the years the National Federation of the Blind has steadfastly stood up for the right of blind people to vote and to do so privately and independently just like sighted voters do. The Federation has advocated for requirements to provide accessible ballot-marking devices at polling places, to provide enough ballot-marking devices so blind voter's privacy is maintained, to train and supervise poll workers in their use, and to make election websites accessible.
A few years ago the NFB's legal team took on the inaccessibility of absentee voting, which has traditionally relied upon mail paper ballots that were completely inaccessible to blind people. But because the ADA covers all state and local government programs including voting and requires those programs to be equally accessible to blind people as people without disabilities, the NFB succeeded in both the Fourth Circuit and the Sixth Circuit in establishing that absentee voting is required to be accessible to the blind.
Accessibility requires an accessible, fillable ballot to be delivered electronically to the voter so they can use their assistive technology to fill it out online. Numerous options for accomplishing this are now widely available, including a variety of professional commercial accessible vote-by-mail systems, some of which are appearing in the exhibit hall even now. In 2019 the Federation even went forward and notified every secretary of state in the country of their obligation to make absentee voting accessible to blind people. Then the Federation, its affiliates, its members, and its lawyers advocated for most of 2020 with nineteen states to implement accessible absentee voting in time for the national primaries and November general election. In a few states we didn't have to sue because we were welcomed, and the state moved quickly to incorporate accessibility into their absentee ballot systems. Colorado is one state that responded to NFB's advocacy to improve its voting systems voluntarily, because elections do have consequences. But sadly, most states did not listen.
Then the pandemic hit, and states all across the country limited in-person voting and shifted to absentee voting for everyone, leaving blind people caught between the need to vote as if their lives depended on it, and risking their lives to vote.
As the year went on and the pandemic continued to make people sick and kill over half a million people, the Federation could not wait patiently. We kicked into high gear and engaged in legal advocacy with about a dozen states, and we sued in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Texas, Maine, and Virginia.
Given the urgency of the upcoming presidential election, we sought the extraordinary remedy of preliminary injunctions, which required us to prove our cases at a hearing very quickly. Many of these states actually fought us. They said it was too hard to make an accessible electronic ballot. They argued they didn't have time to get it done in time for the primaries or the November election. They argued they had to go through slow and complicated procurement processes, even though emergency processes were available. I actually said to one of them, "You just bought a bunch of hand sanitizer, and you didn't have to go through a procurement process." They argued there were security concerns with delivering electronic ballots, which is not true, and they even argued that state law prohibited electronic ballots and that the federal law didn't overrule state law, which is also not true. The ADA tells you to provide accessible ballots, and it doesn't matter what your state law says.
We also faced political pushback, unfounded security hysteria, dirty tricks and falsehoods, and courts unwilling to push states to do the right thing. But in each case except Texas the Federation and its members forced the state to provide some form of accessible electronic ballot for the November general election. As the president said, over 11,000 people used those ballots just in the states we sued. Even though many of those states did not do a good job getting the word out about the accessible ballots or even in some states didn't do a good job of making those ballots really accessible.
In fact, voters with disabilities last year across the board turned out and voted in larger numbers than in previous years. So the Federation has showed that if voting is accessible, blind people will turn out to vote, and every one of those votes mattered. As Barack Obama said, "There's no such thing as a vote that doesn't matter."
So blind people are overcoming the barriers and voting as if your lives depend on it, because they do! But what next? Well, in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Virginia, the states have agreed to implement professional remote accessible vote-by-mail systems. They did it in the November elections, and they're going to do it in future elections. In New York the state was required to provide accessible PDF ballots by email, even though that was not the solution we preferred because of the difficulty of making PDFs accessible across all platforms. Because of the difficulties both the state had and voters had using those accessible PDFs in New York, we're negotiating with New York and trying to get them to implement a professional accessible absentee ballot system in future elections.
In New Hampshire the state implemented a professional system for November, and we're negotiating with them hopefully to make their election website accessible and provide a professional remote accessible vote-by-mail system in future elections. In Maine we sued the state and four major cities, and they have all agreed now to implement an accessible HTML ballot in future elections and to allow voters to return their ballots electronically.
In Texas, the unusual one, the court refused to decide our case at all. So we dismissed it, and we've written a demand letter to a county because now the state says that it has no control over what the counties do, so we have to sue the counties.
But there are still some remaining issues. Too many states continue to offer no method of electronically delivering an accessible ballot to blind voters they can mark on their own computers. Too many states are relying on inadequately accessible PDF ballots, which make the process difficult both for the voter and the state. We're preparing to file complaints with the Department of Justice about those states. Most states don't allow blind voters to electronically return their accessible ballots, so blind voters must purchase a printer, print their ballots, get them in the right envelope, sign the envelope, and return the envelope by mail, usually with the help of another person, which undermines the privacy of their vote. This is not equal access, and mechanisms such as professional accessible vote-by-mail systems as well as email and fax exist to accomplish electronic return. States refusing to allow blind voters to electronically return their ballots are relying on over-blown security concerns that they could overcome. In some states they already have overcome those barriers and allow overseas voters to return their ballots electronically, and the astronauts on the space station returned their ballots electronically last year. But these states won't allow blind people the same access.
Unfortunately, the major voting bill introduced in Congress right now doesn't provide for electronic return of ballots for blind voters, and the NFB has taken this issue on. So instead of us moving forward as voting rights move forward, blind voters are again at risk of being left out of voting rights developments.
Once again it's up to the Federation and all of us to get accessible electronic voting offered on a state-by-state basis. So here's my hope for us. I hope that we will advocate with all of our state and local voting officials to implement professional, remote, accessible vote-by-mail systems and methods of electronic return. I hope all of you will share the stories of your voting experiences trying to use inaccessible voting systems. I hope you'll contact Valerie Yingling if you're willing to take action to challenge your state's inaccessible absentee voting system. Getting an equal right to vote has always been a struggle. It shouldn't be, but it is. But the Federation is up for the challenge, and as Susan B. Anthony once said, "Someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it!"
The Federation and each and every one of you have struggled and continue to struggle for the right of blind people to vote equally, privately, and independently. So above all, I hope you will use that precious right to vote for the things you care about, the candidates you believe in, and the issues that are important to your community and your country. Because when we vote, we are stronger together. Thank you very much.
by Bradley Tusk
From the Editor: Here are the remarks President Riccobono used to introduce this innovative and committed gentleman: "Mr. Tusk has a long history of ventures that he has spearheaded, everything from capital ventures to political consulting. But what brings him to our stage today is his work through his family's foundation to really lead the national campaign to build mobile voting tools for United States elections that are accessible and secure. And he's using his own private efforts to do this. I had the opportunity to talk with him about some of his political experience and how the idea of getting more people to vote is what really drives his interest in making great policy for the nation." Here is what Mr. Tusk said:
Thanks so much for the introduction and to all of you for giving me the chance to be with you; it's a tremendous privilege.
I spent the first fifteen years of my career working directly in government and politics. I worked in New York City at city hall for Mike Bloomberg, I was the deputy governor of Illinois, worked in the United States Senate in Washington—city government, state government, federal government, executive branch, legislative branch, ran campaigns—so I really feel like I've seen government and politics from pretty much every angle.
The main takeaway I had after fifteen years is that the input shaped the outputs. If you want certain policy outputs, certain laws or outcomes, the political incentives have to be there and line up with them. If not, it doesn't happen.
Having worked with a lot of politicians over the course of my career, the conclusion I've reached is they really need the validation and affirmation that comes with holding office. This may not be true for 100 percent of them, but generally speaking, being somebody matters so much to them, it fills this hole in their psyche. They’re always going to put staying in office ahead of everything else. It doesn't make them bad people. It makes them human. My guess is that if you look back at the Greek Senate or the Roman Senate or any other democracy in history, you'd find the same thing: the people who run for office care about staying in office.
About ten years ago I ran a bunch of campaigns for Uber to legalize ridesharing all over the United States. At the time, Uber was a small tech startup, and the taxi industry was very powerful and politically connected. The way that we took them on and beat them was that we mobilized our customers and said to them, "If you like this service and want to be able to keep using it, please let your elected officials know," and through the app they were able to text or tweet or email or in some way tell their city council member, their state senator, the governor, the mayor or whoever it was that they wanted this thing to stick around. A couple million people ended up doing that, and we won in every single market in the United States. I remember thinking at the time, Wow, it's not that people are totally apathetic or disengaged. They just don't necessarily want to do what it takes to go vote in person.
What if you could vote in the way that we just mobilized all these people to argue for ridesharing? So it was an idea that was kind of in the back of our heads. Over the succeeding years, blockchain technology really improved, and it went from being a "Hey, wouldn't this be cool" to "We can do this."
I've been lucky in that in my work in venture capital and technology, I've made some money, and I put it to good use by creating this mobile voting project. We kicked off in West Virginia in 2018. Mac Warner, the secretary of state, gave us our first chance at it. It worked. We've now held twenty elections across seven different states, where it has been available either for people with disabilities or for deployed military personnel or both. We've seen states like West Virginia allow mobile voting to be available for all people with disabilities. We just heard from Secretary Griswold about Colorado doing something similar, and so far it has worked. Turnout on average has doubled in mobile voting elections, and the national cyber security center has audited every single mobile voting election. Every single one has come back clean.
Now, we have to keep improving the technology, we need to keep making it as secure as possible, but if you look at all the problems you already see with voting machines and paper ballots, we know that no system is perfect, and we know that mobile voting has the potential, as Mark said, to both make it radically easier for people to cast their ballot and be more secure than any other system.
Now the use case for the blind is obvious to everyone here, which is you should be able to vote with complete privacy and enjoy the same rights that every American has when it comes to voting, and you should be able to do that by using the same technology that helps you do so many other things all day long. You should be able to vote on your phone. It's really hard for anyone to argue that shouldn't be the case.
Yet this is still an uphill climb. That's why our work with the NFB has been so meaningful to us, and we're so grateful for your partnership. To us, the use case for the blind is obvious, but the use case for everyone is obvious, which is, we have a government that simply doesn't work. It can't function because all the incentives to staying in office are aligned toward dysfunction.
Just take this as a random example: say you're a Republican congressman from Florida, and by the way, this applies equally to both parties. Turnout in your primary is 12 percent. Because of gerrymandering, the only election that matters is the primary. The general election is a foregone conclusion. Of that 12 percent who turnout in the primary, half in this example are NRA members. You may know if you're this Congressman that people shouldn't be able to walk in off the street and walk out with an AK-47. You may look at shootings in schools, churches, and Walmarts across the country and say, "I've got to do something about this." But, at the end of the day, you also know that if you were to vote for an assault weapons ban that in the next primary you would lose your seat, and your political career would be over, and you're not willing to do that. This is true of people in both parties at every level of government—municipal, county, state, federal.
The problem isn't them; the problem is us. We either expect there to be a transformational leader who will just fix all of it—everyone who runs for president promises that, and it never happens, or we expect our politicians to act outside their own self-interest. They've never done that before; they're never going to do that going forward.
But take this same example in Florida, and imagine if the turnout in the primary were forty or fifty percent simply because everyone could vote on their phone. If you look at all the polling around assault weapons, you would see that the majority of people don’t think it should be that easy to obtain one. So, as a result, the same member of Congress who voted against the assault weapons ban to stay in office with 12 percent turnout in the primary now with fifty percent turnout in the primary is voting for it for the same reason, to stay in office. We change their political self-interest, and by doing that we change the outcome of the law itself.
We don't have to have a government that can't make decisions. We don't have to have a government that can't agree on anything. We don't have to have a government that can't get things done. We don't have to have a democracy that focuses only on the needs of a few—either the ideologues who vote in every primary or the special interests who have been able to move money and votes in primaries. We don't have to have a system where no one can succeed, but it requires change, the kind of change that you guys are thinking about here that requires thinking differently.
Look, all the people who like things the way they are aren't going to say "Yes, I prefer to keep my power the way it is. I don't want anyone else to vote." They say, "It's not secure; it's not safe. We'd love to make it easier to vote, but we just can't do it because we just can't take the risk." You see that right now in the debates over new voting laws in places like Georgia or Texas. That's what they're going to say with you too; that's what they're already saying. "Sure, we would love mobile voting, but we can't do it simply because it's too risky." That's just not true. We've already seen that in seven states and twenty jurisdictions, and people with disabilities can now tell you that firsthand in places all across the country.
So we need to keep working on the technology to make sure that it's secure, that it works, and that it's as robust as anything out there. We've got to keep working on legislators around the country to follow West Virginia's lead, follow Colorado's lead, make mobile voting available for all people with disabilities. We've got to build a movement that's willing to demand that it become easier to vote. This is only going to happen if millions of Americans step up and say, "I ought to be able to vote this way. It's secure, it's safe, and the only reason I'm not allowed to is because the people in power don't want to lose power.” That is not an acceptable reason to prevent progress and change.
We've got to do it quickly because right now we're living in a world in which every policy ends up being a failure. Every kind of political cycle ends up imploding in some way, and every time that we can't get something done—can't rebuild our bridges and roads because we can't pass an infrastructure bill, we can't figure out who is and isn't a legal American because we can't resolve immigration, we can't figure out how to make health care affordable or education more accountable or have higher standards—all of that is because the incentives in the system right now are designed to prevent things from happening. That's because turnout is low, and that's because it's simply too hard to vote, unquestionably for the blind, but in reality, for everybody. We can't keep letting that happen.
Yes, this is a hard problem, and it's a tough project. Technology can be really hard. Building movements, as you know better than anyone, is really hard, but you've done it successfully, and hopefully we can do it together again here. This is really the only way forward to a democracy that truly works, a government that truly functions, to a country that can finally solve problems like climate change or guns or education or health care, or immigration or so many others. The way we're going as a country right now just isn't sustainable. You can't fail to get anything done for decades on end and expect to stay together as a successful country.
I don't know that we can even last as one country if we don't find a way to change things. I truly believe that mobile voting is the way to change it. That's why I've put my money and my time and my connections and whatever else I have to offer into this movement, because I believe that it's the only way to save our democracy, the only way to make voting far easier and more accessible for people with disabilities and people all across our country. So I'm really just here to say thank you. You guys have been a tremendous partner to us. We've been working together in lots of different states to try to make people listen and understand why this is so important. And you guys have been among our best partners in the whole country. So the main point was just to say thank you to all of you: thank you for your partnership, thank you for listening, thank you for being part of this movement. We're going to keep fighting for you, and we're really grateful to be doing this with you.
by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: Senator Duckworth is from Illinois, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, and sustained life altering injuries while there. She was unable to appear in the timeslot provided on the agenda, so this interview was prerecorded. Here is the question-and-answer session she and President Riccobono enjoyed:
President Riccobono: Well Senator Duckworth, thank you very much for joining the National Federation of the Blind convention.
Senator Duckworth: It's so good to be here; thank you.
President Riccobono: I appreciate the opportunity to ask you some questions. I know your time is limited, so I'm going to jump right in. You have many important characteristics that you bring to the table in your capacity as a member of the United States Senate. Yet you are the only United States Senator with a visible, physical disability. Can you talk to us a little bit about how that informs your work and how it impacts the way that your colleagues perceive you as a member of the Senate?
Senator Duckworth: Well, thank you. Yes, because I am a wheelchair user, it's very clear that there is one of these senators who is not like the others. I'm the one senator that's visibly not like the other ninety-nine. I don't think it has changed how my colleagues perceive me in the Senate, but once you make it into the Senate, everybody knows the tough road it took to get here.
But it is interesting in that I've had to spend a lot of time, ever since I was elected to the House of Representatives, educating my colleagues because they do so many things here just because that's how we've always done them. I remember the first day that I was in the House of Representatives, and we had the freshmen members' orientation. They picked the restaurant, and they picked a restaurant with a second floor, and they held it in the private room because that's where they've always held the freshman orientation. But there's no elevator to get there. So, once I got there, it's like, okay, how do I get in there? Nobody had ever even thought about it, which is crazy because we spent a lot of time educating everybody that, hey, I'm going to have these needs. They would hold things in townhouses. Washington DC has lots of townhouses where you have to walk up stairs to get to them. So a lot of it is just a process of educating people and saying that, if you invite me to go someplace and I get there and it's not accessible, I'm leaving; I'm not crawling upstairs for you, even though I could do it. I have figured out that actually gives me a bigger voice on issues of disability because I can demonstrate that I know the issues, and this isn't just anecdotal. I think it actually gives me more weight in many ways in my arguments and in my conversations with my colleagues. In some ways it's actually an advantage.
But I tell you that they're often astonished by the challenges I face just to come to work every single day. One of the things that we do that is an important part of our job is we senators represent the United States overseas. Recently I was going on a trip to South Korea, and one of my Republican colleagues was going with us. "Why don't we just go in mil-air? It's so much easier, Tammy; you don't have to go through all of the other immigration and all of that. You can just go from one military base to another."
I looked at him and said, "It's because mil-air is not wheelchair accessible," and it never occurred to him. "I can't use the bathroom on the mil-air, so if you want to put me on a flight for nine hours, and I can't use the bathroom, I'm not going."
President Riccobono: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Senator Duckworth: People don't even understand the challenges that someone who has a disability faces just to get up and get out the door of your house to go to work.
President Riccobono: It's so powerful that you're there to do that, and it's even more powerful that you have to do the same thing that, well, all of us have to do on a daily basis as people with disabilities. So thank you for being there to do that extra lift there in the Senate.
Speaking to your authenticity on issues, we noticed that on March 2nd you introduced a resolution along with Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton to make the Prologue Room at the FDR memorial accessible, including proper tactile Braille there. This is certainly a work of yours that we very much appreciate. Can you tell us a little bit more about your work to make sure that the memorial is fully accessible?
Senator Duckworth: Oh, absolutely. Well, first of all, the FDR Memorial is a good start, but we can't stop there, right? The national parks belong to all of the American people. Whether or not you walk, use a wheelchair, read Braille, or listen, or—you know it doesn't matter—they belong to all of us, so they must be accessible to all of us. Our national parks need to be accessible to everyone.
But I did think it was important to acknowledge the important role that the disability community played in ensuring that future generations knew about FDR and that he led the United States during the Great Depression and World War II while dealing with his own disability. There's still a lot of issues with that memorial, including the lack of legible Braille, and I will continue to press every administration, including the current one, on how they are addressing this issue, because they know it's a problem. The National Park Service knows this is a problem. I also plan on working with the National Park Service on making all of its monuments and all of its parks accessible. This includes its websites, for crying out loud. I mean this is 2021. It's not like we just invented the web. By the way, it's thirty years since the passage of the ADA; come on, people.
President Riccobono: Yeah, well we agree with you 100 percent in the National Federation of the Blind and on websites and mobile applications. Of course, they're needed in so many areas, not just national parks, but education, employment, travel, healthcare, and in so many other areas as you pointed out. We already know that the vast majority of these sites include accessibility barriers, certainly for people who are blind. As you've already demonstrated, this is an issue that you take seriously and that you've been working on pushing improvements in. Can you talk to us a little bit about your interest and work to promote increased web accessibility?
Senator Duckworth: Oh, absolutely. Well part of this is because of my own experience. When I was first wounded and recovering at Walter Reed, I couldn't use my arms. I had to go through a lot of therapy in order to use my left hand, and we weren't sure that I was going to get to save my right arm. Eventually we did. I was in limb salvage for a number of years, and I'm always under threat of losing my arm due to infection, persistent infection. I say that because early on at Walter Reed I had to learn to use assistive devices to use web pages. I had to learn to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and I just found that, even as someone with sight but not able to type and use my hands at the time, I found webpages incredibly difficult to navigate. You know it's been eleven years since the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking came out regarding web accessibility under Title II and Title III of the ADA, and there's still no regulation. I know government can move slowly, but this is ridiculous. Given how much Americans rely on the internet and on mobile apps, addressing this issue now is critical to ensuring equal access under the law for people with disabilities. It's that simple!
I will tell you that before her confirmation I did meet with Kristen Clarke, who now heads up the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, and at that meeting I asked her for her commitment not only to hire a deputy assistant attorney general focused on disability rights but also her commitment that DOJ will prioritize its efforts to issue these very important regulations. We can legislate this as well; we can write the laws and pass them here, but it also makes sense to lean on the administration to do the right thing, because they can do it; they just have to push to do it.
President Riccobono: Yeah, absolutely. We agree with you completely. What can blind Americans do to help with this problem and make this change move in government?
Senator Duckworth: Well, several things: just making sure your voices are heard, talking to your legislators, and you know even those who are friendly like myself—I would love to get your letters, your phone calls on my answering machine—we still even accept faxes, emails, all of that—we need to hear from you. Everyone needs to hear from you so that your congress people, your senators know that, Oh my Gosh, this is a really important issue. You can go to the White House and start a White House petition. If you get enough signatures on that, they have to deal with it; they have to respond to it. I'll have to check, but I think it's 100,000 signatures? But you need to make your voices heard, because then I can go onto the floor and say "You know what? I've heard from five thousand people in this last month alone on the fact that we still need to have a rulemaking on accessibility for web pages." Keep exercising your rights as an American and holding those of us who are elected accountable. Reach out to us, talk to us, even the ones who are friendly, because then I can go and say, "Hey, I've got five thousand letters on this, and I'm going to continue to push this because this is important to my constituents.”
President Riccobono: I love the contrast of getting five thousand faxes about web accessibility. So let's flood the Duckworth fax machine on web accessibility, but, of course, all the other members of Congress as well.
Switching gears, both the National Council on Disability and the United States Commission for Civil Rights have recommended that subminimum wages for people with disabilities be phased out of law in the United States. Obviously, we in the National Federation of the Blind believe that low expectations are one of the biggest problems we face. You've already talked a little bit about how you have been conquering low expectations in your political career. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that, and then tell us if you support the phase out and elimination of Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act?
Senator Duckworth: Yes, I do. In short, the subminimum wage has got to go. Especially in 2021 it is outdated, and it is unjust, plain and simple. There are lots of examples where people with disabilities, working in competitive and integrated employment settings, are doing so in a successful way and in a profitable way for those companies; so it can be done.
I'll give you an example. Chicago Lighthouse Industries, which is an associated agency of the National Industries for the Blind—they pay fair wages. There are no problems there. We must guarantee that people with disabilities can access employment opportunities that will provide them full and fair compensation for their hard work. We don't need to create a second class of citizens! That's why I did cosponsor Senator Casey's Transformation to Competitive Employment Act last Congress, and I am a proud cosponsor of the current Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal minimum wage for individuals with disabilities in early phases and help 14(c) participating employers and employees transition out of the subminimum wage program. It's wrong, we need to get rid of it, and it's long past time that we did so.
President Riccobono: Thank you very much. We of course agree with you. I think your stance on this is one that sings with the blind of America, and we appreciate your leadership in pushing these bills forward.
I know we have only a little bit of time left before you have to go and do some of the other important work that you need to do. I just want to ask you two more questions. Our convention is the largest gathering of blind people anywhere in the world on an annual basis. If you have one thing to say to blind Americans at our gathering here today, what would that be?
Senator Duckworth: That you're equal to everyone! You were talking about low expectations; don't accept those low expectations. Sometimes we get normalized into how we are treated, and that is not the fault of the person with the visual impairment; that is the fault of society, and we have to push back. I know it can be tiring, but I will tell you that it is important to push back. Sometimes you think that “I just don't want to cause a scene; I don't want to be a problem; I just want to do my job and keep on going.” Sometimes you have to cause a scene! That's how things happen; that's how we founded this country. We caused a scene by throwing some tea into the harbor, so I think that, please, you know, speak up and know that you have allies everywhere. You have an ally in me. You're not doing it on your own, even if you are dealing with one very particular situation. Know that there are allies all over this great nation that will stand with you. Frankly, you are fighting not just for yourselves, but for others within the disability community and even for people who have yet to develop a disability. You know it was the disability community that fought for my rights as a person with a disability when I was perfectly fit and flying helicopters. I did not know that I was going to need the ADA's protection for most of my life, and yet, here I am. Thank God there were members of the disability community, like Martha Bristow and all those wonderful folks who fought for my rights before I even needed them. There are a lot of Americans right now who may even be opposing the work that you're doing who will develop a disability one day, and they will be thanking God that you were there to fight for these rights even when they were opposing them. So keep it up because you are doing incredibly important work that makes our nation better. It moves us toward that more perfect union that we all strive for but have yet to achieve. So thank you for doing the work.
President Riccobono: And thank you. Cause some good trouble. We like to say that you should hope you live long enough to be a blind person because if you live long enough you will be a blind person.
So last question: There's a lot of blind people out there, and they may be inspired by you to help make it more than just one out of one hundred members of Congress. What would you say to blind people who are interested in serving in public office but maybe they're a little hesitant about getting in the mix?
Senator Duckworth: Do it, do it, jump in and do it. You don't have to start with running for the US Senate. You can actually start off by running for smaller, local, more manageable offices. There are things like your local library board of trustees: you know who decides what books kids read? The local library board of trustees. So you could actually effect the availability of Braille, the availability of audio books, the availability of services in local public libraries for kids, for adults who have vision impairment. You can run for your local town trusteeship; you can run for the PTA. You don't have to run for US Congress or the US Senate, but if you do and you're interested, call me, I'll help. But start somewhere, because the change has to start not just from the top down but from the local up. You can make a difference in the world even at your local level. Do it!
President Riccobono: Great, thank you very much. Do it, do it and cause good trouble. Yeah I like it. So Senator, I know that you have to get to the business of the United States Senate. We appreciate you taking the time to be with us and the organized blind movement here. I want to say on behalf of our Illinois affiliate and really all of our affiliates across the nation that we appreciate your authentic leadership in the United States Congress. I suggest you remind your staff to refill the fax machine, because I think you're going to hear from our folks, and mostly what you're going to hear is appreciation for your leadership on issues that impact our lives as blind Americans. So thank you for your time.
Senator Duckworth: Thank you. We have an answering machine too, so you can also just leave a message on that as well.
President Riccobono: We agree with you about web accessibility. Eleven years is a century in terms of the internet, so thank you for that.
Senator Duckworth: Thank you. Thank you, take care.
by Jose Gaztambide
From the Editor: Like all of the presenters, Jose was introduced with music, and his song was “I'm the Map." Here is the tremendous message he brings about real, life-changing technology, not just for the blind but for everyone and with the added advantage that this is another innovation created by and because of blind people. Here is what he says about the mission of his company and the tremendous advances in travel and safety it portends:
Thank you so much, President Riccobono. I had heard stories of the intro music, but I had no idea what to expect. But oh, what an entrance.
Thank you so much for having me. This, as President Riccobono mentioned, is my first time addressing the convention, and it's a real honor and a real thrill to be here with you guys.
This is likely your first time hearing about GoodMaps and hearing my name. I'm going to start today off by giving you a brief introduction about us and what we do in our work day-to-day. I then want to tell you a little bit about our beliefs and the way that those beliefs guide our work and the way that we're building our company and partnering with companies throughout the world. Finally, I want to give you a sense of what to expect over the next year between this convention and next convention. What can you expect out of GoodMaps? I'm excited to let you know what the future holds.
A brief introduction to GoodMaps: We were born out of the American Printing House for the Blind, and we are really the spiritual successor to the indoor navigation work that APH pioneered for so many years. APH decided to carve that work out of the technology product research team and make it a truly dedicated effort as an external organization.
One of the very first things we realized both as part of APH's experience and the feedback that we heard from other friends in the field was that the real bottleneck to accessible navigation and to making it possible for you to navigate with confidence and independence any venue you enter is not any particular application. It is actually the existence of indoor mapping data. Your navigation journey ends when you get to the door of the building that you're attempting to enter. The reason for that is because, even though we have mapped the outdoor world many times over, we've barely begun the process of mapping the indoor world. That's really where our mission statement begins: we are out to map the indoors and to make that mapping data available to anybody who needs it.
So whether you're entering your local grocery store, your shopping mall, your airport, or your place of work, we believe that everyone should have the tools to navigate with independence and confidence. We are using today's technology, which includes LiDAR [light detection and ranging], augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and particle filtering to drastically increase the number of mapped buildings in this country and throughout the world. But in addition to that, we're doing so, providing an unmatched accuracy that does not burden the building and does not burden the end user with any incremental hardware. There's no beacons or no extra devices to purchase. This works on your smartphone, whether you're an iOS user or an Android user. We think that's a critical component to equity and to making sure that everybody has access to what we're building.
Let me get down to some of our beliefs because I think these are really important in terms of what you can expect from us and the kind of company that we're trying to build. The very first one is that this should be free to users. There's no reason that you should be paying for data that everybody else gets free. Our commitment to our users is that we will never charge the end user for access to this technology. We don't think that's ethical or right.
The second belief that's really core to the way that we operate is that a rising tide lifts all boats. So if you remember as I was talking about the genesis of GoodMaps and how we started to focus on mapping the indoors, we came to the realization that the indoors has effectively not been mapped, so we set about solving that issue; how do we map the indoors?
If we're successful in mapping the indoors, then it is irresponsible and in fact immoral for us to not share that data with all of the other accessible navigation apps and providers that are out there. We have developed a particular experience that we are proud of and that is data driven, but we know that there is a range of preferences among users and that you perhaps would prefer to navigate with BlindSquare or prefer to navigate with Right Hear instead of GoodMaps. We think that's okay.
One of our commitments and one of our priorities is to make our mapping data available to any accessible navigation company free of charge. We think that's an important part of making sure that this technology can find its way into your hands in whatever way it is that you choose to engage in it.
Finally, we think it is really important to offer services beyond accessibility that embed accessibility. What does that mean? When we think about the core technology that we offer, it is the mapping data, it is the ability to identify where a person or an object is within that map and then to help navigate them from A to B or make them aware of what's around them. That core technology and those abilities that I just described can be used by a multitude of people in a multitude of ways. What that does is allow us to get a yes from a venue who might not have the accessibility budget to invest in making its space more accessible but does have a safety budget or does have a facilities budget we can use. But to make that really concrete, we're working with the University of Massachusetts Boston, which is going to be the very first user of what we are calling GoodMaps Response. GoodMaps Response is a mapping service that is specifically focused on first responders and emergency personnel so that as they're entering emergency situations, they can be made aware of all of the things that are around them that can help inform the way that they respond to that situation.
When we first approached UMass Boston, there was no accessibility budget, despite the fact that they really wanted to incorporate this kind of technology within its campus. But by offering a value proposition that went beyond accessibility and allowed campus safety and allowed facilities to partake in the project and to support the project, we were able to bring accessibility along. That's really core to our belief in the way that we are building this company. We think of ourselves as a universal navigation provider in enabling safety within spaces.
What can you expect from GoodMaps in the year to come? We have more and more buildings coming online every single week including the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind, which we're extremely proud of and which will be online in the coming weeks. We also have a range of really exciting partnerships that we'll be able to announce over the coming weeks and months with a range of companies, the large tech giants that you know and tolerate and the small ones as well, a lot of the accessibility companies that you probably use in your day-to-day life. As I mentioned before, we are a rising tide lifts all boats kind of company, so we're eager to partner and eager to pool resources to work on our collective missions.
Finally, our navigation app—GoodMaps Explorer—we continue to develop and roll out new features every week and every month to make navigation easier, more intuitive, and more accessible for everybody.
Please give us a follow on social media, join us at GoodMaps.com, and join our mailing list so you can stay up to date. I want to thank all of you for your time, to NFB for the invitation to address the convention, and President Riccobono for the invitation and all of his support over the last couple of years. Thank you so much.
by Sharon Maneki
From the Editor: The convention is a wonderful experience for almost everyone who participates in it, but that participation can be real work. No one knows this better than our chair of the Resolutions Committee, but every year she seeks out people wanting to help shape Federation policy, works with them to get their thoughts into a form that will pass muster as a resolution, oversees the deliberations of the committee, presides over the reading of the resolutions to the convention, and then writes an article giving us both the 30,000 foot view and the specifics of each resolution. Here is her offering that summarizes what we did in passing resolutions in 2021:
In the Federation we are fond of saying that we transform dreams into reality. The thousands of speeches and articles written by our members attest to the truth of this mantra. Many members also view the convention as a time of transformation. The theme of the convention was Stronger Together: Transforming and Unifying Our Future. With the exception of general session IV, the business session, all of the general sessions had several items with some form of the word transform in the title. For instance, in general session III, six of the eight agenda items use some form of the word in the title. One example was the title of Randi Strunk's presentation "The Strength of a Champion: Transforming Federation Spirit into Personal Progress." It is most appropriate to think about the transformative power of our resolutions.
Any member of the Federation may submit a resolution for consideration by the National Federation of the Blind Resolutions Committee. The National Board of Directors decided to put up the resolutions on the NFB website before the committee meeting on July 7. Consequently, the deadline for submitting resolutions was moved to thirty days before the committee meeting instead of the two weeks that had for some time been our tradition. These changes enhanced the resolutions process by increasing transparency and by giving the membership more time to study the issues and lobby the committee. I was honored to chair the committee and was ably assisted by Patricia Miller, who has been part of our national staff for thirty-five years.
The Resolutions Committee considered eighteen resolutions and sent sixteen of them to the convention for further consideration. Resolution 2021-18, concerning remote voting at NFB virtual and in-person conventions, was withdrawn by the author, Aaron Espinosa from California. Raul Gallegos, the newly elected president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, wanted the opportunity to work directly with the International Guide Dog Federation, so his resolution was also withdrawn. Some form of Resolution 2021-12, concerning the inadequacies of the International Guide Dog Federation Standards, may be resurrected for consideration at a future convention.
On July 10, at session IV of the convention, the membership voted to pass all sixteen resolutions. Having a virtual convention did not dampen the spirit of debate. At least six resolutions were fully debated by the membership. Registered Federationists used our telephone voting system to vote for or against each resolution. The convention passed eight resolutions that may transform the lives of individual blind people, three resolutions that may transform the accessibility of websites and software, and five resolutions that may transform government regulations and programs. Let us examine the transformative power of these resolutions.
In his article "Changing the World One Ballot at a Time" that appeared in The Hill on April 16, 2021, President Riccobono stated: "In his 1988 children's novel Matilda, celebrated author Roald Dahl penned the line 'Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world.' When applied to voting, this sentiment becomes doubly relevant. To have the power to change the world, we must first have the power to make our voices heard through a ballot." To make our voices heard, the convention passed two resolutions about voting that will transform the voting experience for blind voters. Lou Ann Blake, the director of research at the Jernigan Institute, who spends a great deal of her time studying the elections process throughout the country, proposed Resolution 2021-02. In it we demand that state and local governments eliminate barriers that make it difficult for blind and disabled voters to exercise their right to vote. Such barriers include requiring medical documentation of a disability and denying access to voters with disabilities by limiting the number or location of early voting or election-day polling places.
In Resolution 2021-09, "this organization demand that all United States jurisdictions provide accessible electronic ballot delivery and return for all federal, state, and local elections starting with the 2022 election cycle." Marcus Soulsby, a longtime Federationist who is the newly elected president of the NFB of West Virginia, sponsored this resolution. Marcus explained that West Virginia has both electronic ballot delivery and return, which is important since more people are choosing to vote by mail. Electronic ballot delivery and return enables blind voters to cast their ballot privately and independently, thus guaranteeing that their ballot remains secret.
Think about how much the lives of individual blind people may be transformed when Resolution 2021-01 is fully implemented. This resolution states "home-use medical devices are becoming more prevalent and less accessible to blind Americans." We urge "the United States Congress swiftly to consider and pass the Medical Device Nonvisual Accessibility Act, thereby ensuring and protecting the independence, safety, and health of blind Americans." Jennifer Bazer, the newly elected president of the South Carolina affiliate, who also directs youth transition programs, introduced this resolution.
Ruth Sager, president of both the national Seniors Division and the NFB of Maryland Seniors Division, has a great deal of knowledge about the frustration that newly blind people experience because they do not know about the NFB or how they can learn the alternative techniques of blindness. To solve this problem, Ruth sponsored Resolution 2021-08. In it we urge the governing bodies of various medical professional organizations and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education to work with us "to ensure that medical professionals know that they have an obligation to inform their patients about adjustment to blindness resources and the benefits of the positive philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind."
Vernon Humphrey and Justin Salisbury proposed two resolutions that will have a transformative effect on blind veterans by exposing them to the influence of positive blind role models. Master Sergeant Humphrey, United States Army Retired, is the president of the National Association of Blind Veterans and an active member of the NFB of Georgia. Justin Salisbury is the first vice president of the NFB of Vermont, second vice president of the National Association of Blind Students, and won a national scholarship in 2011. In Resolution 2021-03, "this organization urge the United States military to amend its policies to allow blind people to enlist in military service and to provide more opportunities for service members who become blind to remain on active duty."
Currently, the United States Department of Veteran Affairs hires only rehabilitation personnel who have been certified by the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP). Obtaining orientation and mobility certification from ACVREP continues to be problematic for blind applicants, thus marginalizing blind people. The National Blindness Professional Certification Board, by contrast, treats blind and sighted applicants equally. In Resolution 2021-13, "this organization strongly urge the Department of Veterans Affairs immediately to amend its human resource policies to accept certifications issued by the National Blindness Professional Certification Board."
The convention passed two resolutions that will enhance a blind person's ability to travel independently and safely. Resolution 2021-06 will benefit blind people who travel using a guide dog. The resolution reads in part: "this organization condemn and deplore the seizure of any guide dog by any guide dog training program without proper due process." The resolution provides various examples of the meaning of due process such as what constitutes a real appeal. Raul Gallegos, president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, and Mike Hingson sponsored this resolution. Michael is a longtime Federationist who attended his first convention in 1973.
Deborah Brown, who is the first vice president of the NFB of Maryland and president of its Sligo Creek Chapter, proposed Resolution 2021-15. Because of the increasing use of bicycle lanes, floating bus stops, and shared cycle track stops, challenges for pedestrians abound. Frequently, pedestrians can only reach a floating bus stop or shared cycle track stop by crossing in the middle of the block, where there are no traffic lights or crosswalk markings. Blind pedestrians face an additional danger because bicycles, electric low-speed scooters, and other micromobility devices are silent. In this resolution, we urge county governments and local municipalities to create pedestrian crossing zones and to pass laws mandating that pedestrians in these crosswalks always have the right of way.
For decades the National Federation of the Blind has been trying to eliminate access barriers created by information and communication technology. The convention passed three resolutions that send important messages to software companies and website developers that will transform the accessibility landscape. Longtime Federationist currently active in the Washington state affiliate and technology expert Jamal Mazrui proposed Resolution 2021-14. "Despite existing standards and solutions, blind people continue to encounter unnecessary barriers to full participation in conferences, including events within the field of accessibility …This organization strongly urge that conferences in all fields make their digital content and procedures nonvisually accessible to both attendees and presenters." We also call upon conferences in the field of accessibility in particular to demonstrate leadership by modeling and promoting best practices in digital accessibility.
The convention passed two resolutions that deal with the complicated subject of using overlays to make websites accessible to the blind. The first resolution describes overlay problems in general, while the second resolution concerns a particular overlay company. Longtime Federationist Curtis Chong, who currently serves as the treasurer of the NFB in Computer Science Division and treasurer of the Aurora Chapter of the NFB of Colorado, sponsored Resolution 2021-04. The author laments that "the blind continue to fall behind as the number of websites created and deployed far outpaces the number of websites which we can confidently declare to be useable and accessible, and thus, any solution which gives the blind true nonvisual access is welcome." Overlays must be developed and implemented in ways that truly improve access to websites. The resolution also contains several specific recommendations for overlay companies to follow to ensure this accessibility. This organization also "insists that current and potential overlay customers recognize that complete and long-lasting accessibility requires more than a one-time installation of code; that accessibility should be a priority throughout the entire lifecycle of any product from design to full implementation."
Longtime Federationists Anil Lewis, J.J. Meddaugh, and Tai Tomasi sponsored Resolution 2021-17. Anil Lewis, executive director of blindness initiatives at the Jernigan Institute, needs no introduction to Monitor readers. J.J. Meddaugh is the owner of the innovative company ATT Guys and is a leader in the Michigan affiliate. Tai Tomasi currently serves on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee of the NFB and won national scholarships in 2000 and in 2004. accessiBe is a company that develops a website overlay product. In Resolution 2021-17, "this organization condemn and deplore accessiBe's disrespectful and misleading marketing and business practices."
As Monitor readers know, the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled and its network libraries depend on the United States Postal Service to distribute its materials and equipment needed to listen to or read books and magazines. In Resolution 2021-05, "this organization condemn and deplore the failure of the United States Postal Service to deliver materials and equipment to and from library patrons in a timely manner …This organization also strongly urge the United States Congress to require the United States Postal Service to report to the Congress on steps that the United States Postal Service intends to take to improve timely delivery of library materials and equipment to ensure that these items are truly treated as First-Class Mail." Dezman Jackson, the second vice president of the NFB of Maryland and chairman of its membership committee won a national scholarship in 2015, and it was he who sponsored this resolution.
The convention passed two resolutions that will increase employment opportunities when we transform these government programs. Maura Loberg, who is a sophomore in college and president of the Nebraska Association of Blind Students, introduced Resolution 2021-07 concerning the AbilityOne Program. This is a program in which "more than five hundred nonprofit agencies participate …to employ individuals with disabilities through federal product and service contracts." Unfortunately, many of these nonprofits deliberately screen out applicants who require screen-reader technology. "This organization hereby condemn and deplore all AbilityOne-approved nonprofits with discriminatory employment practices that deny reasonable accommodations and screen out applications who use screen reader software."
For years the National Federation of the Blind has engaged in litigation with many agencies of the federal government for non-compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 requires "that technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities, including federal employees and the general public." In Resolution 2021-11, "this organization call on the United States Congress to convene a Section 508 oversight hearing to examine and evaluate failures of federal agencies to comply with Section 508." Joe Orozco, who has been a federal employee for the past nine years and is involved in the leadership development program of the Virginia affiliate, introduced this resolution.
Albert Elia, who is a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Blind Lawyers and first vice president of the Seattle Chapter of the NFB of Washington, sponsored Resolution 2021-10. On January 11, 2021, the United States Department of Transportation enacted Air Carrier Access Act regulations on the transportation of service animals. Because of these regulations, blind travelers who use guide dogs face many discriminatory and unnecessary obstacles. For example, airline personnel who believe a service animal is too large to fit in a traveler's personal floor space can order the traveler to either purchase an additional seat for the service animal, allow the service animal to be transported in the cargo hold, or wait for another flight with more room. This is an artificial problem because guide dogs are trained to fit into small spaces. In the resolution, "this organization urge the Secretary of Transportation to review and amend the Department of Transportation Air Carrier Access Act regulations to ensure that guide dog users do not continue to experience discrimination."
The president of the National Association of Blind Veterans, Master Sergeant Vernon Humphrey, U.S. Army Retired, introduced Resolution 2021-16, the last resolution that I will discuss in this article. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs uses inaccessible kiosks in its medical facilities and outpatient clinics to input various types of personal information. This practice is not only an act of discrimination against blind veterans, but it also limits the privacy and independence of people who sacrificed so much for their country. The Department of Veterans Affairs has no excuse for this practice because accessible technology for kiosks already exists. In Resolution 2021-16, "this organization demand that the Department of Veterans Affairs purchase and use only kiosks that offer full and equal access for the blind."
As you can see, the National Federation of the Blind has the power to transform the lives of individuals, transform the accessibility landscape, and transform government programs and practices. This article is merely an introductory discussion of the resolutions considered by the 2021 Convention. The complete text of each resolution is reprinted below. Readers should analyze the text of each resolution fully to understand our policies on these subjects. These resolutions will affect our activities for the coming year and beyond. Let us use our resolutions to continue to transform dreams into reality.
Proponent: Jennifer Bazer
WHEREAS, home-use medical devices are becoming more prevalent and less accessible to blind Americans; and
WHEREAS, most newer models of home-use medical devices such as glucose and blood pressure monitors as well as emerging in-home devices that offer medical care options such as chemotherapy treatments and dialysis require that consumers interact with digital displays or other visual interfaces; and
WHEREAS, the health, safety, and independence of blind Americans may be in imminent danger unless developers integrate nonvisual accessibility in the design phase; and
WHEREAS, accessibility is relatively easy and inexpensive to implement when it is incorporated into the design of a product from the outset; and
WHEREAS, the ability to operate all home-use medical devices nonvisually is essential to a blind person’s wellbeing, independence, and overall quality of life: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization urge the United States Congress swiftly to consider and pass the Medical Device Nonvisual Accessibility Act, thereby ensuring and protecting the independence, safety, and health of blind Americans.
Proponent: Lou Ann Blake
WHEREAS, being able to cast a ballot privately and independently is the bedrock of our democracy; and
WHEREAS, the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) has enabled the majority of blind voters and many others with disabilities to exercise their right to vote privately and independently at polling places; and
WHEREAS, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that voters with disabilities be provided the opportunity to exercise their right to vote equal to the opportunity provided voters without disabilities; and
WHEREAS, states that require voter identification or medical documentation or are limiting polling locations are restricting that right by creating barriers for individuals with disabilities; and
WHEREAS, the time and expense in obtaining state issued ID or other forms of identification can be onerous and therefore create a barrier for voters with disabilities; and
WHEREAS, legislation requiring voter identification has been enacted or is currently before the legislature in Arizona, Alaska, Arkansas, Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia; and
WHEREAS, medical certification forms are frequently not available in an accessible format; require the signature of a medical or rehabilitation professional; and as a result are excessive and unnecessary hurdles for voters with disabilities to overcome, as well as a potential violation of privacy for disabled voters; and
WHEREAS, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have enacted or have bills currently before their legislatures requiring medical documentation for voters with disabilities; and
WHEREAS, limiting the number and/or location of early voting and election day polling places may prevent some voters with disabilities from accessing a polling place due to a lack of transportation; and
WHEREAS, legislation limiting the number or location of early voting or election day polling places has been enacted by or is currently before the legislatures in Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington; Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization condemn and deplore all acts of suppression that make it difficult for blind and disabled voters to exercise their right to vote; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that state and local election officials protect the right of voters with disabilities to cast a private and independent ballot, as required by HAVA and Title II of the ADA, without having to provide difficult-to-obtain state-issued identification and documentation; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that all state and local governments implement legislation and election procedures necessary to expand the number of polling locations so that they are accessible to public transit routes and so voters need only travel a reasonable distance to cast their vote.
Proponent: Justin Salisbury and Vernon Humphrey
WHEREAS, blind people demonstrate our capabilities by performing many civilian jobs in the United States military, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, and related federal agencies; and
WHEREAS, participation in the defense of our nation through service in the Armed Forces is as important to qualified and capable blind individuals as it is to those who have sight, yet blind people who wish to serve in the United States military are currently disqualified based on blindness; and
WHEREAS, blind people successfully working in noncombat positions (e.g., cybersecurity, personnel, finance, supply) can serve as positive role models for veterans and civilians who become blind; and
WHEREAS, military service would teach blind people valuable skills that could be translated to the private sector after their military service and would provide the military with another pool of valuable talent; and
WHEREAS, service members who become blind are frequently forced into medical retirement instead of using their valuable experience and talent for the service’s mission; and
WHEREAS, The US Army has on occasion allowed service members, for example Major Scott Smiley and Master Sergeant Vernon Humphrey, to remain on active duty for a period of time after a diagnosis of blindness, but all military services should regularly adopt this practice: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization urge the United States military to amend its policies to allow blind people to enlist in military service and to provide more opportunities for service members who become blind to remain on active duty by reclassifying their positions.
Proponent: Curtis Chong
WHEREAS, companies such as EqualWeb, Max Access, UserWay, TruAbilities, AudioEye, and accessiBe are deploying overlays as a strategy to automate the task of making websites accessible—i.e., compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and
WHEREAS, to make websites nonvisually accessible, overlays are intended among other things to identify unlabeled graphics and automatically attach readable text descriptions to them; to enable keyboard activation of links, buttons, expandable/collapsible menus, and other controls which have been incorrectly coded to be triggered only with a mouse; and to insert header tags (often used by the blind for quick and efficient navigation on web pages) where the print is highlighted or enlarged and not already marked as a heading; and
WHEREAS, in achieving nonvisual access, overlays today have their limitations; for example, they cannot determine when a picture that would be described generically as “two people standing in front of a building” should be described as “Sarah and George standing in front of Macy’s department store”; they cannot automatically add audio description to a video presentation; they can inappropriately apply headings to text that is not intended to function as a heading; they can misinterpret the layout of a table and improperly handle row or column headings; and they cannot accurately solve an inaccessible visual CAPTCHA; and
WHEREAS, the current inability of overlays to perform all of the tasks critical to nonvisual access means that, while they may help to make certain parts of a website nonvisually accessible, they alone cannot guarantee full nonvisual access to every website where they are deployed; and
WHEREAS, companies deploying overlays have attracted hundreds of thousands of customers by fostering the false idea that with one easy operation (e.g., inserting a small amount of code) their websites will be accessible and fully compliant with prevailing web content accessibility guidelines and, further, that they will be protected from lawsuits; and
WHEREAS, the companies deploying overlays have not, in any meaningful way, engaged with the accessibility community, not to mention the organized blind, to learn from a broad base of consumers whether or not overlays really improve the accessibility of websites; and
WHEREAS, as the use of overlays has grown, blind people have encountered an increasing number of websites where they have been prompted to turn on an accessibility or screen reader mode by pressing ALT+1, ALT+0, or some other key combination, but there is no readily-available information to tell them whose overlay is operating, how to report problems with the use of the overlay, whether or not the overlay is actually turned on, and how to disable the overlay if it isn’t working as expected; and
WHEREAS, some of the overlays which are supposed to improve the accessibility of the websites where they are installed present accessibility options (e.g., screen reader profile or anti-seizure profile) which are themselves not accessible to screen-reader users; and
WHEREAS, the lack of helpful information and the presence of inaccessible overlay controls leave people with disabilities without the means to provide feedback and suggestions, use the overlay effectively, or report problems related to the overlay; and
WHEREAS, given the large customer base which some overlay providers enjoy, it is certain that the blind will encounter more and more websites where overlays are employed, ostensibly to improve accessibility; consequently, there is a compelling need for us to obtain direct, hands-on experience with the various overlays on the market today in order to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each overlay product and to identify those overlay providers whose technology might actually offer real and sustainable nonvisual access to websites and web-based applications; and
WHEREAS, the blind continue to fall behind as the number of websites created and deployed far outpaces the number of websites which we can confidently declare to be usable and accessible, and thus any solution which gives the blind true nonvisual access is welcome: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization call upon overlay developers and their paying customers to engage with the National Federation of the Blind and the broader accessibility community to ensure that overlays are developed and implemented in ways that truly improve access to websites; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization insist that current and potential overlay customers recognize that complete and long-lasting accessibility requires more than a one-time installation of code; that accessibility should be a priority throughout the entire lifecycle of any product from design to full implementation; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization condemn and deplore the unethical practices of overlay providers which attempt to convince website owners that overlays are the easiest and most affordable way to protect a website owner from lawsuits and make their websites accessible and compliant with the WCAG; and we demand that overlay providers stop making misleading, unproven, and unethical claims which falsely inflate the value and effectiveness of their technology; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that companies which develop and deploy overlays to improve accessibility design their overlays to enable users to:
Proponent: Dezman Jackson
WHEREAS, the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Print Disabled, Library of Congress, and its cooperating network libraries provide books and magazines in specialized formats to blind and print-disabled children, working-age adults, and seniors losing vision; and
WHEREAS, this valuable service not only provides the major source of reading material for these people, but also fosters literacy skills for children, interaction in community life for adults, and hope and encouragement for the newly blind; and
WHEREAS, NLS and its network libraries depend on the United States Postal Service (USPS) to distribute its materials and the digital players, Braille displays, and other equipment needed to listen to or read these books; and
WHEREAS, these libraries are permitted to use the Free Reading Matter provisions of the postal regulation and the USPS claims on its website that Free Reading Matter is “treated as First-Class Mail for purposes of processing, delivery and forwarding, and return if undeliverable”; and
WHEREAS, from June 2020 to the present, far too many library customers across the nation have experienced long delays or total absence in receiving their books and equipment, even though the libraries have sent them to the individual patron using the USPS; and
WHEREAS, this failure by the USPS not only has a detrimental effect on the lives of blind and print-disabled Americans, but is also creating a loss of taxpayer dollars since digital players, Braille displays, and other valuable equipment are stuck in the post office, never reaching the people who need it; and
WHEREAS, blind and print-disabled citizens cannot use the USPS Informed Delivery service for residential customers to see if they will be receiving library materials or equipment because it is inaccessible; and
WHEREAS, in Resolution 2018-19, the National Federation of the Blind urged USPS to make this service accessible and informed the agency that it was violating federal law, but the result was no action; and
WHEREAS, although Congress created and funded the Books for the Blind program under the Pratt-Smoot Act of 1931, neither the Library of Congress nor Congress itself demands any accountability from the USPS, which plays a vital role in the success or failure of the program: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization condemn and deplore the failure of the United States Postal Service to deliver materials and equipment to and from library patrons in a timely manner; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization insist that the Librarian of Congress annually issue a report card to USPS based on data from NLS and its cooperating network libraries on the timely delivery of materials and equipment; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization strongly urge the United States Congress to require the USPS to report to the Congress on steps that the USPS intends to take to improve timely delivery of library materials and equipment to ensure that these items are truly treated as First-Class Mail; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that the USPS immediately end its discriminatory practices by making its Informed Delivery service accessible to blind and print-disabled citizens.
Proponents: Michael Hingson and Raul Gallegos
WHEREAS, a guide dog is not only an important vehicle for independence and freedom but also offers emotional support and companionship to its handler; and
WHEREAS, the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU) has been contacted by guide dog users on a number of occasions concerning unwarranted and inappropriate repossession of their guide dogs by the guide dog training organization that provided the users with their guide dogs; and
WHEREAS, training schools often remove the guide dog without even bothering to consult the user in advance to identify whether the school’s information about problems is accurate, and even sometimes refuse to provide any justification at all; and
WHEREAS, if guide dog handlers ask to appeal the training program’s decision, they are frequently told that the supposed appeal was conducted internally, although there was never an opportunity for input from the handlers; and
WHEREAS, for example, in March 2021, Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc. in Florida took a dog that the handler had possessed for eight years without prior notice to the handler that there might be a problem and also refused to allow the handler to participate in the appeals process, leaving the handler distraught over the loss of the dog and coping with reduced travel independence; and
WHEREAS, guide dog schools further disregard consumer rights by refusing to provide accessible training materials, contracts, policies and procedures, and other information to consumers and potential applicants, even though knowledge about how to provide materials in specialized formats is readily available; and
WHEREAS, many guide dog training schools have engaged in this unlawful and paternalistic disregard of the handler’s rights for many years: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization condemn and deplore the seizure of any guide dog by any guide dog training program without proper due process; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that all United-States-based guide dog training programs immediately revise their processes for repossessing guide dogs to incorporate a third party arbiter outside of the program’s influence to investigate whether a guide dog should be removed or returned to the handler or dog owner; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization insist that training schools’ policies and procedures for removing guide dogs must include an unbiased appeals process that is decided by a third party who is approved both by the guide dog handler and the guide dog training program and with the equal participation of all parties in this appeals process; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization strongly urge guide dog training programs to work with the National Federation of the Blind and NAGDU to ensure that prospective students and consumers of their services are provided with timely, accessible information about all policies, procedures, and practices.
WHEREAS, more than five hundred nonprofit agencies participate in the AbilityOne Program to employ individuals with disabilities through federal product and service contracts; and
WHEREAS, these nonprofit agencies purport to provide employment opportunities and training, including work-from-home opportunities, to individuals with disabilities; and
WHEREAS, some of these nonprofits use inaccessible pre-employment assessment games, restrictive statements on their websites, or targeted interview questions to screen out applicants who require screen reader technology; and
WHEREAS, some of these same nonprofits refuse to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who use screen reader software; and
WHEREAS, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) obligates covered entities to provide reasonable accommodations to employees and applicants with disabilities unless the accommodation would qualify as an undue hardship; and
WHEREAS, Title I of the ADA prohibits covered employers from denying employment opportunities to applicants or employees with disabilities based on their need for reasonable accommodations: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July 2021, that this organization hereby condemn and deplore all AbilityOne-approved nonprofits with discriminatory employment practices that deny reasonable accommodations and screen out applicants who use screen reader software; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that these nonprofits comply with the regulations implementing Title I of the ADA; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge the AbilityOne Commission promptly to sanction or ban from participation in the AbilityOne Program any nonprofit that demonstrates discriminatory hiring and employment practices against blind individuals who use screen reader software.
Proponent: Ruth Sager
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future, but many members of the general public do not believe or understand this principle; and
WHEREAS, too many medical professionals, such as ophthalmologists, hold the same misconceptions about the capabilities of blind people as the rest of society; and
WHEREAS, newly blind people frequently become frustrated because they cannot find information about how to adjust to blindness and have not been exposed to the positive philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind; and
WHEREAS, since ophthalmologists are already treating newly blind people, they could provide such information but rarely do because they view blindness as a failure of their practice; and
WHEREAS, states such as Minnesota have addressed this problem by requiring ophthalmologists and optometrists to inform legally blind patients that services exist and, pending the consent of the blind patient, to report the names of legally blind adults to the rehabilitation agency, State Services for the Blind; and
WHEREAS, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in adults, and diabetes requires medical care from endocrinologists and other medical professionals, who could also improve the quality of life and independence of their patients by giving them information about rehabilitation services but frequently fail to do so; and
WHEREAS, the best way to change the attitudes of medical professionals towards blindness is to influence their training programs at a high level, such as reaching out to the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), which evaluates medical residency and internship programs, and other similar organizations: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization strongly urge the CEOs or governing bodies of medical professional organizations such as the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology, and the Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists to work with the National Federation of the Blind to develop a resource list of rehabilitation services for blind patients and to encourage their membership to distribute this information so that newly blind people learn that they can live the lives they want; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge the ACGME to work with the National Federation of the Blind to ensure that medical professionals know that they have an obligation to inform their patients about adjustment to blindness resources and the benefits of the positive philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon state legislatures to require that ophthalmologists, optometrists, and medical professionals concerned with diabetes inform legally blind patients of the availability of rehabilitation services and report the patient’s name to the appropriate state rehabilitation agency, pending consent.
Proponent: Marcus Soulsby
WHEREAS, the ability to cast a secret ballot independently is a cornerstone of our democracy that enables citizens to vote their conscience 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, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act states that public entities that receive federal financial assistance may not discriminate against people with disabilities in their programs, services, or activities; and
WHEREAS, the percentage of voters who vote by mail has steadily increased since 1996, and, according to the MIT Election Data Science Lab report, about half of all voters voted by mail in the 2020 election;
WHEREAS, while accessible electronic ballot delivery was available to voters with disabilities in approximately twenty-five states, only five of these states permitted the marked ballot to be returned electronically, and the remaining states required that the ballot be printed, signed, and returned by mail or placed in a dropbox; and
WHEREAS, many blind voters do not own or have easy access to printers and as a result must rely on a friend, family member, or copy center to print their ballot and need sighted assistance to sign the ballot, which jeopardizes the secrecy of their ballot, or sign the return envelope, which jeopardizes their independence; and
WHEREAS, accessible electronic ballot return enables blind and low-vision voters to return an absentee or by mail ballot privately and independently using their own access technology without needing to print or sign the ballot; Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization demand that all United States jurisdictions provide accessible electronic ballot delivery and return for all federal, state, and local elections starting with the 2022 election cycle so that all blind and low-vision voters who vote absentee or by mail can mark and return their ballot privately and independently as required by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Proponent: Albert Elia
WHEREAS, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) released new Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulations on the transportation of service animals, which went into effect on January 11, 2021; and
WHEREAS, pursuant to the new regulations, airlines now require travelers with service animals to fill out a DOT form to travel; and
WHEREAS, the new DOT regulations and guidance allow airlines to require that this form be completed in a PDF or HTML format, but some airlines are requiring both, creating a time-consuming process of entering substantially duplicative information in two different formats; and
WHEREAS, even though large guide dogs are trained to fit into small spaces, the new regulations state that, if airline personnel believe a service animal is too large to fit in a traveler's personal floor space, the traveler with the service animal must either purchase an additional seat for the service animal or allow the service animal to be transported in the cargo hold or wait for another flight with more room; and
WHEREAS, DOT presented no evidence that actual service animals were the cause of any problems in air travel; and
WHEREAS, other businesses, including entertainment venues and rental property management companies, have begun requiring similar forms for service animal users in contravention of the laws governing those businesses; and
WHEREAS, guide dog users are being burdened with these new regulations because of emotional support animals and pets that are fraudulently claimed as service animals: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization condemn and deplore the Department of Transportation for permitting airlines to require guide dog users to complete and submit burdensome, onerous, and duplicative forms, despite presenting no evidence that guide dogs are a direct threat to anyone; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization condemn and deplore the Department of Transportation for ruling that airlines may require blind guide dog users with large service animals to purchase an extra seat or risk being given the choice of having their guide dog placed in the cargo hold or their flight rescheduled; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that the Department of Justice find landlords, businesses, and other non-airline entities that require any pre-approval or completion of any forms for blind people to be accompanied by a guide dog to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge the Secretary of Transportation to review and amend the DOT ACAA regulations to ensure that guide dog users do not continue to experience discrimination, including discrimination based on guide dog size; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge the airlines, as well as the Department of Transportation, to work with the National Federation of the Blind to ensure that the amended ACAA regulations require no more than an oral attestation by a blind person that their guide dog is a service animal and that any misrepresentation of a pet as a service animal is a violation of federal law.
Proponent: Joe Orozco
WHEREAS, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities, including federal employees and the general public; and
WHEREAS, Section 508 requirements apply to all federal workplace technology, including time and attendance, issue tracking, training, and all other software, virtual meeting spaces, and other technologies; and
WHEREAS, Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits federal agencies from discriminating against employees and applicants based on disability and requires agencies to comply with diversity and inclusion processes designed to improve the recruitment, hiring, advancement, and retention of federal employees and applicants with disabilities; and
WHEREAS, many blind federal employees cannot perform essential functions of their jobs, are prohibited from advancing in their careers, or are not hired because of agencies’ use of inaccessible technology; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind has engaged in litigation with the United States Department of Agriculture, Department of Justice, Office of Management and Budget, General Services Administration, and other federal agencies or offices to remedy Section 508 and 501 violations; and
WHEREAS, federal agencies continue to use technology that is inaccessible to employees with disabilities regardless of federal law and legal precedence: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization call on the United States Congress to convene a Section 508 Oversight Hearing to examine and evaluate failures of federal agencies to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge all federal agencies promptly to investigate and resolve Section 508 and 501 violations and revise agency procedures to prohibit the purchase or use of any technologies that do not comply with Section 508 requirements.
WHEREAS, veterans who have served their country in the military deserve high-quality rehabilitation that empowers and inspires them to live the lives they want; and
WHEREAS, in 2001 the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB) was created and now offers certifications in orientation and mobility, rehabilitation teaching, literary Braille, and Unified English Braille and emphasizes a positive philosophy of blindness and the importance of blind role models; and
WHEREAS, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not accept certifications issued by the NBPCB and recognizes certifications only by the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP) when hiring rehabilitation personnel; and
WHEREAS, the pathway to obtain the Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist certifications issued by ACVREP continue to be problematic for blind applicants, thus marginalizing blind people within the professional community affiliated with ACVREP; and
WHEREAS, the NBPCB was established to administer certifications for blindness rehabilitation professionals in a way that does not discriminate against blind instructors and thus treats blind and sighted instructors equally; and
WHEREAS, blind people holding certifications from the NBPCB have been successfully providing vocational rehabilitation services to blind adults through vocational rehabilitation programs funded by the United States Department of Education since 2001, demonstrating their capabilities for the last twenty years: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization strongly urge the Department of Veterans Affairs immediately to amend its human resource policies to accept certifications issued by the National Blindness Professional Certification Board so that they are recognized as valid and treated equally to certifications from the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals.
Proponent: Jamal Mazrui
WHEREAS, in almost every professional field, conferences regularly occur in which presenters analyze or teach topics related to a subject of shared interest; and
WHEREAS, conferences are, in fact, so common as to be organized in furtherance of nearly any field of human endeavor, addressing academic, civic, recreational, or personal subjects; and
WHEREAS, over the many years that conferences have been organized around the world, solutions have been developed to implement principles of universal design, inclusive participation, and accessible use; and
WHEREAS, international standards for the accessibility of information and communication technology (ICT) have been established by broad consensus, following decades of experience with accessibility problems across government, corporate, and consumer sectors of society; and
WHEREAS, central to these standards are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium; and
WHEREAS, WCAG has been extended to be technology neutral, covering domains such as video presentations, online chats, and mobile apps, in addition to websites; and
WHEREAS, despite existing standards and solutions, blind people continue to encounter unnecessary barriers to full participation in conferences, including events within the field of accessibility; and
WHEREAS, problems frequently arise from a common practice in conferences where speakers show slides during their presentations, whether live or recorded; and
WHEREAS, slides enrich a presentation in multiple ways, such as giving an outline summary of the content that helps learners understand its hierarchy and highlights; and
WHEREAS, slides also share precise written information, including names, URLs, and email addresses, that would be tedious, time-consuming, or error-prone for presenters to speak and spell; and
WHEREAS, multiple techniques exist for making this content accessible to blind conference participants; and
WHEREAS, one technique requires presenters to submit an advanced electronic copy of their slides, conformant with accessibility guidelines; and
WHEREAS, such slide decks—in formats like PPTX, PDF, or HTML—are then made available for conference attendees to read in ways that work best for them, either with or without access technology; and
WHEREAS, it is equally important that presenters who are blind, not only attendees, are afforded a fully accessible process, from submitting a proposal to delivering a presentation, thereby enabling audiences to benefit from their expertise; and
WHEREAS, conferences about accessibility itself should serve as role models, but often they are not: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization strongly urge that conferences in all fields make their digital content and procedures nonvisually accessible based on international standards, applicable to experiences of both attendees and presenters; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon conferences in the field of accessibility in particular to model and promote best practices in digital accessibility, including among others, the following annual events: CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, Accessing Higher Ground, AccessU, and M-Enabling Summit.
Proponent: Debbie Brown
WHEREAS, floating bus stops, protected bike lanes, and shared cycle track stops are becoming common in many urban and suburban areas; and
WHEREAS, a floating bus stop is a stop on an island in the middle of the street that allows the bus to stay in its travel lane rather than pulling up to the curb while allowing cyclists to continue their use of a bike lane situated along the curb; and
WHEREAS, a shared cycle track stop is a stop where a protected bike lane rises and runs along the boarding area, along the extended curb, rather than wrapping behind the boarding area, and bicyclists can ride through the boarding area when no transit vehicles are present but should yield the space to boarding passengers when a bus stops; and
WHEREAS, pedestrians are in danger because they must cross these bike lanes to get to a floating bus stop or shared cycle track stop, which could involve crossing in the middle of the block, where there are no traffic lights and in many cases no crosswalk markings; and
WHEREAS, traffic control devices would offer some protection to pedestrians by reducing the speed of bicycles, electric and low speed scooters, and other micro-mobility devices; and
WHEREAS, blind pedestrians face an additional danger because bicycles, electric and low-speed scooters, and similar micro-mobility devices are usually silent and therefore cannot be heard by blind pedestrians: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization urge county governments and local municipalities to make greater efforts to consider the needs of and gather input from pedestrians, including the blind, when designing bicycle lanes, floating bus stops, and shared cycle track stops to ensure that traffic-controlling devices are effective; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge cities and municipalities across the United States to mark crosswalks and provide other signage between curbs and floating bus or shared cycle track stops to warn bicyclists and users of electric and low-speed scooters and other micro-mobility devices about a pedestrian crossing zone; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge cities and municipalities across the United States to pass laws or ordinances mandating that pedestrians in these crosswalks always have the right of way.
Proponent: Vernon Humphrey
WHEREAS, kiosks are increasingly used in Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities and community-based outpatient facilities nationwide as a means to improve veterans’ access to their health information; and
WHEREAS, VA kiosks are used to conduct patient intake, update personal and insurance information, and complete other administrative tasks, with additional functions slated to be added; and
WHEREAS, these kiosks lack the necessary audio navigation prompts and are almost universally inaccessible to blind veterans; and
WHEREAS, blind veterans deserve the same privacy, respect, and independence afforded to sighted veterans, but blind veterans are often forced to rely on assistance from sighted patients or others and as a result risk sharing private health information simply to check in for appointments; and
WHEREAS, this can be a humiliating and degrading experience that compromises the privacy each veteran should be able to expect; and
WHEREAS, the VA facilities using these kiosks are covered by Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities and using inaccessible technology; and
WHEREAS, existing technology allows accessibility features, including audio output, to be built into the operating systems used in kiosks; and
WHEREAS, the hardware of these kiosks is often already configured for audio output and keyboard or touch-screen input, and therefore there are no technological reasons why these kiosks cannot be made accessible to the blind, offering full equality of access: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization condemn and deplore the United States Department of Veterans Affairs use of inaccessible kiosks in VA medical facilities in violation of federal law and in disregard of the needs of many of the veterans who sacrificed so much for their country; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that the Department of Veterans Affairs stop using inaccessible kiosks immediately; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that the Department of Veterans Affairs purchase and use only kiosks that offer full and equal access for the blind.
Proponent: Anil Lewis, Jason Meddaugh, and Tai Tomasi
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind, the transformative membership and advocacy organization of blind Americans with affiliates, chapters, and divisions in the fifty states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, is the leader in advocating for nonvisual accessibility; and
WHEREAS, through the active participation of our network of members across the country, we engage in the development, testing, and implementation of a host of nonvisual access solutions, offering the lived experience and expertise of the blind; and
WHEREAS, as America’s civil rights organization of blind people, the National Federation of the Blind carries out the will of blind Americans as expressed through our National Convention and, between conventions, through the decisions of our elected officers and directors; and
WHEREAS, our movement values empowering individual members to influence organizations positively regarding concerns using the Federation’s philosophy and policy platform and to coordinate with our national leadership; and
WHEREAS, National Federation of the Blind members engaged with accessiBe, a company that develops a website overlay product, and after researching and interacting with the company representatives, determined that the marketing and business practices of accessiBe were disrespectful, misleading, and fallacious; and
WHEREAS, our members brought these actions to the attention of our national President and board of directors, who reviewed available information related to accessiBe’s business practices and came to agree that they currently engage in behavior that is harmful to the advancement of blind people in society; and
WHEREAS, in particular, it is the opinion of the board of directors that AccessiBe:
WHEREAS, as a result of this review, the board revoked accessiBe’s sponsorship of our national convention on June 22, 2021, stating: “We hope that the company will ultimately recognize and appreciate the experience and expertise that blind people can bring to improving its products and services and align its mission with the expressed will and true interests of the blind. Unless and until that happens, we decline to accept accessiBe’s participation in the 2021 National Convention or to allow it to use our convention platform to promote itself.”: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this tenth day of July, 2021, that this organization support and affirm the actions taken by our national board of directors to protect the interests of blind Americans by holding accessiBe accountable to the will of the nation’s blind; andBE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization condemn and deplore accessiBe’s disrespectful and misleading marketing and business practices.
by Raul Gallegos
From the Editor: Raul is the president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, a division of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is his report after convention:
1. NAGDU continues to promote informed choice when it comes to guide dog users choosing a guide dog training program. What may be a deal-breaker for one might be the best thing ever for someone else.
2. NAGDU submitted three resolutions for this year's convention. The first one was concerning asking the guide dog training programs to make all materials accessible and available prior to a handler committing to their program, to establish transparent due process when executing the contract, and to allow for third-party arbitration in case of appeals. The second one was concerning asking the International Guide Dog Federation to include blind people in its accreditation process, to make the accreditation rules public, and to allow the blind guide dog handler to have a say in how a training program gets its accreditation. The third one is concerning the Department of Transportation and the new ruling of the Air Carrier Access Act where we want it to retract the filling out of travel forms. We want it to change the law so that a guide dog user isn't faced with the choice of rescheduling their flight if someone, not qualified to make the decision regarding the size of the dog, says the dog will not fit. We want to ensure that other businesses don't start asking guide dog handlers to fill out forms just to enter into their businesses.
3. NAGDU is promoting the use of its public events calendar. This is a subscription calendar of events that will give you updates about all NAGDU and guide dog user state affiliate division events taking place across the country. The calendar subscription has gotten enough notice that several other affiliates, not all of them related to guide dog users, have reached out to NAGDU to find out how to setup their own calendar for their own chapter or division.
by Terry Boone
As a service to our members and the general public, the National Federation of the Blind operates a blindness products store known as the Independence Market, which sells mostly low-tech items, designed to enhance the every-day independence of blind people. We will be highlighting a different product every month and listing sale products from time to time.
Braille Alphabet Blocks: Introduce your young child to Braille with these twenty-eight wooden ABC blocks. Each individual 1-3/4 inch square block features two lowercase engraved print letters with corresponding Braille signs, as well as pictures of the sign language alphabet. Ages two and up. AIG40B $28.00
Braille/Print Raised Shapes Counting Cards: Teach shape and number recognition as well as pre-reading and pre-math skills through various activities and games with these cards. This kit features four sets of eleven white plastic 4-1/2 × 5-1/2 inch cards. Each set focuses on a shape (circles, squares, stars, and triangles) and includes a card for the numbers zero through ten in Braille and raised print together with the corresponding number of raised shapes. Includes an activity guide in print and Braille. AIG84B $25.00
Modular Instruction for Individual Cane Travel: LSA01P $5.00
Cube Clock: AIC01T $5.00
Egg Separator: AIK04E $2.00
Atomic Talking Travel Clock: AIC42T $15.00
For more information about the products available from the Independence Market, contact us by email at [email protected] or by phone at (410) 659-9314, extension 2216, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. eastern time. Our staff will be happy to assist.
The NFB in Communities of Faith Annual Meeting:
The NFB in Communities of Faith held its annual meeting virtually on July 8, 2021. The theme for our meeting this year was Prevailing Faith.
First of all, we had a panel discussion of producers and libraries which make faith-based literature available to the blind.
Craig Leeds, executive director of Braille Bibles International spoke about the work of this organization. Since 1957, this organization has made Braille Bibles and other literature available to blind people. It provides free the King James Bible, the New King James Bible, and has a book of scripture promises on varying topics. It also has versions of the Bible on NLS cartridges and has a Bible player available as well. Malachy Fallan from the Xavier Society for the Blind described in detail the excellent work that this organization is doing to make Catholic literature available to blind people. Diane Thurber, president of Christian Record Services described in detail the work of this organization. Yvonne Pilot, executive director of the Lutheran Braille Evangelism Association described its work. This organization was founded by John Erickson in 1952. It produces a Braille magazine entitled The Tract Messenger and another entitled The Christian Magnifier. It has a Bible Courier available in numerous translations for $99 each. Darrel Templeton, the president of MegaVoice spoke about the excellent work of this organization.
Following this panel, Marilyn Baldwin, cochair of the NFB of Florida in Communities of Faith Committee, spoke about the work that it is doing. Marilyn is also a leader in the Diversity and Inclusion Committee in the state.
Faith-based divisions educate the public about the capabilities of blind people and work to persuade leaders of places of worship and other faith-based organizations that blind people can participate fully in their respective endeavors. Rehnee Aikens, vice president of the division, spoke about the history of the National Church Conference for the Blind and its Texas affiliate.
We next had a panel discussion on the subject of prevailing faith, overcoming adversity. Luke Seibert, a seminary student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke about his faith and his learning to adjust to blindness as a result of an auto accident. Mr. Seibert came to realize that there was an eternal purpose in his losing his vision. Lillyia Asudilina, a graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind, spoke about her struggles in overcoming cancer when she was a little child and about when it came back again when she was a teenager. The Lord showed her that life is well worth the living.
At our business meeting, the following officers were elected by acclamation: Tom Anderson, president, Kansas; Rehnee Aikens, vice president, Texas; Linda Mentink, secretary, Nebraska; and Rev. Dr. Carolyn Peters, treasurer, Ohio. We wish to reach out to members of the NFB who speak primarily in Spanish and also wish to have more youth in our division. This division welcomes people of all faiths.
Seniors Division Elects New Officers:
Congratulations to our new slate of officers who were elected at the NFB Seniors Division meeting at convention. President, Ruth Sager, MD; first vice president, Judy Sanders, MN; second vice president, Diane McGeorge, CO; secretary, Shelley Koppel, SC; treasurer, Duncan Larsen, CO; board position one, Jane Degenshein, NJ; board position two, Glenn Crosby, TX.
Notices and information in this section may be of interest to Monitor readers. We are not responsible for the accuracy of the information; we have edited only for space and clarity.
Ski For Light Returns To The Snow:
The 47th annual Ski for Light International Week will be held Sunday, January 30, through February 6, 2022 in Granby, Colorado. After a very successful virtual Ski for Light event in 2021 enjoyed by more than 400 registered participants, Ski for Light is looking forward to again gliding on the snow at Snow Mountain Ranch.
Ski for Light is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that hosts an annual, weeklong event where blind and mobility-impaired adults are taught the basics of cross-country skiing. The event attracts more than 250 skiers, guides, and volunteers from throughout the United States and the world. During the Ski for Light International Week, each skier with a disability is paired with an experienced, sighted cross-country skier who acts as ski instructor and on-snow guide. New participants will learn the thrill of gliding on the snow while veteran skiers hone their skills, and both will experience a new level of inner confidence and make new friends that could last a lifetime.
Instructor/guides should be intermediate level classic cross-country skiers capable of safely managing their own speed and direction while, at the same time, communicating skiing basics and describing the beauty of the area around the trails to their skiing partner. Ski for Light provides a training session for first-time guides taught by experienced skiers and guides prior to the start of the week.
If you have never attended what many have called “the experience of a lifetime,” please consider participating in the Ski for Light 2022 International Week as a skier, a guide, or a volunteer. View a brief narrated video introduction to Ski for Light at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjC96E7cyzg. If you have specific questions, contact Melinda Hollands at [email protected] or call at 231-590-0986. Applications for skiers, guides, and volunteers will be available in August at www.sfl.org.
Hope to ski with you in Colorado!
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.