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.