In October one of the ways we introduced the shift from Meet the Blind Month to Blind Equality Achievement Month was by asking leaders in the Federation to write blog posts; one for each letter. We wanted to feature perspectives on what each of these things means to our movement. We’ve compiled the posts here in case you missed them on the blog. Your comments are welcome and encouraged both in the Braille Monitor and through our other communications channels, one being [email protected]. Here are the blog entries for each letter:
by Mark Riccobono
Language is a fundamental building block to creating patterns of understanding. For centuries the term “blind” has been used to articulate negative concepts and to identify individuals who, because they possess the characteristic of not being able to see, are assumed to be less capable than others. This began to change in 1940 when we, the blind of the nation, organized a movement to decide for ourselves what our future would be and to redefine blindness by shattering the stereotypes.
Kenneth Jernigan set forth one of the strongest articulations of our understanding about blindness in the 1960s with his reflections on "A Definition of Blindness" (https://nfb.org/sites/default/files/images/nfb/publications/books/books1/kj07.htm). This understanding has been reframed and restated in many ways including in my own writings. Consider my 2020 banquet speech “Language, Action, and Destiny: The Lived Experience of the Organized Blind Movement” (https://nfb.org/resources/speeches-and-reports/banquet-speeches/language-action-and-destiny-lived-experience). As I note in that speech, use of the word “blind” is not merely appropriate, it is essential to reflecting the belief that it is respectable to live and compete on terms of equality as a blind person. We use the word “blind” because we reject the outdated notion that blindness is a tragedy that limits the possibilities. For us, the word “blind” has power and meaning. For those who are vision-centered, “blind” evokes fear and uncertainty. Language reflects belief, and we will not sell out our beliefs. We, the blind, follow our words with the action of living the lives we want. The result of our persistent and collective action is our shattering of the old meaning of blind and creating a new, stronger, authentic meaning.
People frequently tell me that people know what blind means, and it cannot be changed. That is not my experience. I thought I knew what the word “blind” meant until I met the members of the National Federation of the Blind. They demonstrated something different, and they helped me own the word and define its meaning in a new way in my own life. When I used the word with confidence and began backing it up with actions—like traveling independently—my confidence and beliefs grew. This was a process of understanding for me, and the growth and learning continues even today. I want to help others have that same transformational journey.
People sometimes say to me that when we use the word “blind” it leaves them out because they still have some eyesight. This demonstrates that we have more to do toward creating understanding that blind is a broad definition. We want those experiencing progressive changes in their eyesight to recognize that they have a common interest and bond with other blind people even if they do not yet fully identify with others who are blind. It is in fact the diversity of experiences with blindness that have helped shape our philosophy about living the lives we want as blind people.
I do not think about being blind anymore. It is part of who I am and how I experience the world. Before I embraced blindness as a characteristic and learned the techniques to compete in the world, I thought about what I could or could not see all the time. Lifting that burden gave me the freedom and power to focus my energy on the things I need to do to pursue my own dreams.
October has long been an important month for teaching others about the capacity of blind people. We used to designate it as “Meet the Blind Month.” That work was valuable as it helped us get to be better known in our communities. However, we are rebranding it this year as “Blind Equality Achievement Month” in order to raise the expectations even farther. We want more than to just be met; we want you to stand with us for equality, opportunity, and security. We want our nonblind friends, family, and colleagues to come to know that the definition of blind is best shaped by our lived experience not by the misperceptions of those who have not lived with the characteristic of blindness every day. For those who are not blind, yet, as it certainly may happen if you live long enough, that when that day comes we want you to know that it is a new beginning and not an end.
We, those individuals who identify as blind people and who will not let that one characteristic define our future, have determined to redefine “blind” in the world. We invite you to join us in sharing this new definition, this authentic understanding, so that all blind people may live the lives they want.
by Linda Melendez
As long as I can remember, I’ve never quite fit in with the intersecting communities in my life. Although I’m of Puerto Rican descent and my full name is very much Latin, I’m white-passing so the Latinx community didn’t accept me. Meanwhile, my fair skin, freckles, and red hair didn’t get me very far within the white community. They kept me at arm’s length because of my name and accent. Needless to say, I had to fight for equality within these spaces.
When my son Logan was six years old, I attended my first National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey convention on my own. The following year, Logan came with me, and though I enjoyed myself at both conventions, it wasn’t until my son was nineteen that I really became an active member; Logan’s encouragement and belief that I needed the Federation in my life convinced me to join. By this time in my life, I had experienced discrimination and exclusion because of my race, being a single mother, and my blindness. I came in to the NFB hoping that I would find a place where I fit in.
We fight tirelessly as an organization for equality in areas from education to legislation, employment to health care and so much more. I have never felt as though I had to fight for equality within the Federation family. As a newer member of the organization, I benefited when Joe Ruffalo took me under his wing, and through his mentorship, I have felt empowered to push for equality for all blind people. I’m honored to be leading the charge here in New Jersey as affiliate president. 2020 was my first year in this position, and I advocated for the rights of blind parents before the state judicial committee. The expectation is for the bill to be signed into law before our next National Convention. I’m also proud to say that to date, two-thirds of our representatives have signed on to the Access Technology Affordability Act (ATAA), another piece of legislation that gives blind people equal footing in society.
When I attended my first National Convention, President Riccobono said something that really sealed the deal for me. During the Rookie Roundup, he said to new members, “welcome home.” Those words truly changed my life. For the first time, I felt that I truly belonged. I felt accepted and equal to everyone else within the movement. All of the things that kept me from full and equal participation within my community are now strengths that I use in the Federation. I like to think of myself as “Abuela [Grandma] President.” I am teaching my two-year-old grandson, Lucas Matthew, to see people as equals no matter our background. I proudly pay membership dues for Lucas every year and will do so until he’s eighteen. My hope is that he is inspired to lead his generation to the place where equality for all is the rule, not the exception.
by Anil Lewis
I made my decision to become a member of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) after attending an NFB of Georgia meeting and listening to the speaker make an impassioned plea for the membership to do everything possible to ensure that a young blind student receives Braille instruction in his classroom. I soon pledged to participate actively in the effort of the National Federation of the Blind to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind and have subsequently shared in many significant milestone achievements as part of the world’s most transformative group of blind people.
Reclaiming my life through the acquisition of the alternative skills of blindness (Braille, cane travel, access technology, and independent living skills) all nested in the NFB philosophy of belief in the true capacity of blind people was a significant personal achievement. Establishing a positive self-concept of myself as a blind person, developing the necessary problem-solving skills, and recognizing the need to fight for full participation while accepting full responsibility allowed me to achieve professional success and serve as an active member of our movement.
I shared in securing several significant achievements as a member of the Georgia affiliate of the NFB. In addition to securing Braille instruction for many more blind students, NFB of Georgia members were able to support the passage of the Audible Universal Information Access services legislation, which funds the NFB-NEWSLINE® in Georgia. We were able to work in concert with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office to make Georgia the first state with nonvisually accessible voting machines in every precinct and every election.
The struggle is real, and progress does not come as quickly as we would like. We have overcome many of the barriers of the past that prohibited us from being considered as equals, and if the world was static, we may have achieved the fundamental equality we seek. However, the world continues to evolve, and we must evolve with it. Therefore as the methods of providing education evolve, we will still need to struggle to ensure that blind students receive appropriate Braille instruction and have access to accessible learning materials. As voting technology evolves, we will still need to struggle to ensure that blind people have the right and ability to cast a private independent ballot. Likewise, as the nature of the jobs and the skills required to perform them evolve, we will still need to struggle to eliminate the barriers that prevent blind people from securing competitive integrated employment.
In fact, this month, we have an opportunity to reach a tremendous milestone in the elimination of Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows employers to legally pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. A Proposed Rule by the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, known as the AbilityOne Commission, has recently been posted to the Federal Register instituting a prohibition on the payment of subminimum wages under 14(c) certificates as a qualification for participation as a nonprofit agency under the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Program (https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/10/12/2021-22118/prohibition-on-the-payment-of-subminimum-wages-under-14c-certificates-as-a-qualification-for). Each of us should take time to comment so that we can all celebrate this milestone once it is achieved.
Blind Equality Achievement Month is a time for us to intentionally focus on celebrating our milestone achievements to remain motivated to continue along this sometimes difficult and frustrating path toward full citizenship. As we remain focused on our destination, we should revel in our journey. As we continue to make rational, incremental progress toward achieving our goals of equality, opportunity, and security, we will measure our progress by the many milestones along this path to freedom.
by Gary Wunder
For the last few weeks, we have been writing about Blind Equality Achievement Month, focusing a bit of attention on each letter that encompasses our approach to October and the effort that we make to change people’s perceptions about what it means to be blind. We saved the toughest questions for last: Why a month? Have we achieved enough to celebrate? And why should the blind get special attention?
So, what is a month? Merriam-Webster says it is “a measure of time corresponding nearly to the period of the moon's revolution and amounting to approximately four weeks or thirty days or 1/12 of a year.” So as much as I respect and rely on Merriam-Webster that really doesn’t get us very far because it tells us what we already know. I could play a little bit with the romantic notions about the various stages of the moon, but I’m not sure that would tell us anything about why a month is the appropriate measure of how long we should celebrate the achievements of the blind or focus our energy on receiving equal treatment.
Maybe we can start by admitting that a month is an arbitrary period when we are talking about how long a celebration should be. Perhaps what we should be discussing is not why a month is the obvious choice for our program but instead figure out how to take best advantage of this measure of time.
If we want to send a message to people, we must realize that they are busy and offer it at times when they may be available to receive it. A month lets us choose from all the weekdays that end in Y, and we may take the same advantage of weekends to catch those who are otherwise occupied during the week. A month is long enough to let us schedule multiple activities and not wear people out by trying to squeeze those activities into a week.
Some people are concerned less about the unit of time but instead are focused on the appropriateness of celebrating achievements by blind people. They ask why we should be celebrating when there is so much work still to do. The acknowledgment of achievement suggests that work pays off, and this is important if in fact we have more work to do, which we most assuredly do. We need some time to do cheerleading to get people excited about what blind people have done but, more importantly, about what blind people can do. For some this excitement may translate into extending opportunities to people they had previously considered incapable. For others it may mean taking a step that they previously thought foolish, unrealistic, or imprudent. Encouraging a person to dream is a positive step, but helping them to act on that dream is truly a noble leap forward.
One question that is periodically raised is why blind people should highlight our own achievements given there is already Disability Awareness Month? If we are engaging in needless duplication, it is a poor use of our resources and time. A compelling argument for me has always been that blindness is feared more than any other disability, and polls have suggested that it is feared second only to cancer when it comes to health conditions. A significant reduction in eyesight is specific in the life changes it can bring about, and answering those fears must be equally specific. Generic terms are fine when crafting legislation to broadly address human rights or trying to define large groups of people. But when it comes to problem-solving, people are looking for specific solutions, and being responsive must mean we are specific in discussing our life experiences and the alternative techniques we daily employ.
Is there a reason to focus energy and attention on the quest for equality and the achievements that have sprung from it during the month of October? The answer isn’t found in some book of wisdom; it is found in us. If we believe that the pursuit of equality of opportunity is worth it, we share that passion with the public. If we believe that our achievements are worth sharing with the world that too often undervalues us, we will do it. If our life experience is that “we should do that sometime” is less effective than “let’s do that next week,” then we will rally behind the idea of Blind Equality Achievement Month and focus on making who we are, what we do, and what we can bring to our communities more visible in the thirty-one days October gifts to us. I think we should, know we can, and fervently believe we will.