From the Editor: Seldom do we publish articles anonymously. When we do, it is at the request of the author, but never are we unclear about the source of the article or the authenticity of what is said. In this case we publish an article from a survivor. The Braille Monitor wishes to let her say what she wishes on her own terms and to show her the kind of respect she has every right to expect as a Federationist. Here is what she says:
Content warning: This article mentions instances of abuse and sexual misconduct. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you are not alone. The National Sexual Assault Hotline offers free, confidential support, 24/7, at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or at online.rainn.org.
I am a Federationist too! I am also a two-time survivor of sexual assault at an NFB-sponsored event. In December my stories were shared publicly without my consent, which I'm sure you can imagine has led to personal pain and anxiety. That sharing did not come from the NFB, and the telling of my stories without my consent isn't made better by the argument that it was for a noble motive or to serve a higher purpose.
To clear the air, and because I know there will be many who are wondering, in both situations in which I was involved, there was no alcohol consumption on my part. In both situations there were a number of public witnesses, bystanders who knew exactly what was going on but who did nothing.
As I write, I can almost hear pages turning as some will say they want to skip on because they are only interested in blindness issues. "What does this have to do with blindness?" There are so many issues we need to be fighting. “Why aren't we tackling them instead of focusing on these distracting topics?"
While I do not presume to speak for all survivors given there are a number of diverse opinions on where things stand and how to move forward, there is one thing we all have in common: we are Federationist too! We ache for independence and good training in blindness skills. We want to fight for appliances that are accessible to the blind. We want equal access in both primary and secondary education. We want equal opportunity employment to truly mean equal opportunity. We feel the threat when, like you, we realize that most states in our country can remove our children based on ill-informed people in positions of authority who refuse to educate themselves on the way the blind care for children.
Here's the problem in seeking to focus only on blindness: if people don't feel safe, they can't concentrate on the issues that unite us. If they don't feel heard, they can't be a part of crafting our future.
Just as the car in the blind driver challenge can't run with a flat tire or an overheating engine, we can't ignore important problems in the name of staying true to the race. The reality is that both the overheating and flat tire represent symbolic issues that have become nationally recognized within the last few months. Instead of turning our heads, we need to attack these issues head on, including at the state and local level. The alternative is to keep bleeding members, losing them through attrition because they think we don't care. This should be unacceptable to all of us: they need us, we need them, and we are all the better for solving the problems that push or keep good people away.
The reality is that one of the most effective ways of building our membership is to attack head on the elephant of sexual misconduct that has been in the room since the founding of the organization. We should not be surprised by this statement, for if blind people really represent a cross-section of our society, then what affects America affects we who are blind and the organizations we form and support. Rape and sexual assault are one of the most abhorrent behaviors in our society, and two out of three sexual assaults go unreported each year. No one can be unmoved by this statistic or the behaviors it quantifies, but the difficulty is when we are forced to look at people we know and love and must recognize they have been a part of this problem.
If there is one thing I observed from the 2021 Convention, it is that no leader is indispensable. Acknowledging the significant ideas, contributions, and expertise that perpetrators have brought to our movement in no way excuses their behavior, nor can it be used as a reason to sweep what they have done under the rug. If our leaders and our members are serious about making this organization safe, they must allow for a messy and transparent examination at every level. Fixing a car is messy. Mechanics reek of oil; sometimes the car has to be taken apart piece by piece and then put back together.
Supporting victims means that all leaders and members need to be unified in exposing mistakes made at every level, doing our best to prevent them from happening, and pledging ourselves to reveal them when they occur. The support and transparency NFB leaders have demonstrated over the last few months must continue. Their work must continue in our affiliates and in our chapters because the problem isn't just something that happens nationally. For those tempted to say that all of this happens somewhere else, I plead with you: Instead of dismissing survivors in your midst as naysayers, let us all address and improve on how well code of conduct complaints are processed, both physically and emotionally. The next time you are at an NFB event, look to your left and to your right. I guarantee someone near you is a survivor. Please don't dismiss us just because taking us seriously is uncomfortable. Treat us with kindness, the very kindness you want shown to you.
I know there is much impatience on the part of survivors, a fear that nothing will change. As difficult as it is, we need to recognize that being thorough takes time, and the more critical the issue, the more important it is that we do it right. As survivors, we need to decide whether we want the car repaired quickly, focusing only on the cosmetic, or that we want the car repaired thoroughly and competently so that it is the vehicle for change we can all drive with pride toward our destination of equality.
I have been a Federationist since 2004, and never in my eighteen years as a member have I seen such rampant and disdainful attacks against the core of what the NFB is. For us to demand change leading to a safer NFB is reasonable. Whether or not these attacks are merited, for us to allow everything for which the NFB stands and all the good it has done to be attacked serves no one and should not happen in the name of helping survivors.
The one unified belief we survivors hold is the need for continuous transparency. This means transparency after the final code of conduct report has been filed. This means choosing transparency over simply saying "We can only imagine how difficult this must be to wait on change, but we assure you this is still at the forefront of our minds and our organizational agenda." Transparency means continuing an open dialogue of concerns and ideas with survivors. A commitment to survivors does not come at the cost of the organization but is the very thing that builds and strengthens it.
To my fellow survivors, I say: Don't give up. Hold onto why you became part of the NFB in the first place. I believe wholeheartedly that only through collective action will code of conduct complaints as well as blindness issues ever change. I have heard the suggestion that we survivors should go and form a new organization, but why reinvent the wheel? Do not lose sight of where we would be as blind Americans without the National Federation of the Blind and its tireless efforts for legislation, the enforcement of civil rights, and the life-changing philosophy that has caused many of us to dream and then to live those dreams. To say that our leaders are not listening is to paint them with a broad stroke and to ignore those national and state leaders who do care and are tirelessly working on a safer Federation for us all. I personally have not heard anyone deny that sometimes cataclysmic mistakes have been made. All members and leaders are fallible. Only through continuous dialogue and sometimes changes made through elections will we be able to create an environment of safety and security for all.
Before you think about walking away, consider what we have and what we risk losing. Education and rehabilitation require advocacy by committed and experienced women and men who are deeply invested in our wellbeing and their own. In today's environment, how safe do you feel our programs and services will remain without the commitment and experience our organization has taken eighty years to cultivate? What we have built has taken time and energy we cannot afford to waste. Let us look clearly at our imperfections and address them. We know how to bring about external changes, and I believe we can bring the same focus, perspective, and success to addressing what ails us internally.Lastly, I want to say this to survivors: I'm so sorry: I'm sorry for your pain and frustration. I'm sorry for your shame. I'm sorry you were ignored. I'm sorry for your anger. I'm sorry that your ability to improve your own world has been dramatically changed by the actions of someone else. I'm sorry, and I believe you.