Braille Monitor               October 2022

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Owning Our Future: Continuous Revolution in Training through the Organized Blind Movement

From the Editor: Often those who follow President Riccobono on the day of the Presidential Report make some reference to the difficulty in following him, but his construction of the agenda left no doubt that his report was to be the start of a fantastic afternoon. Dan Parker spoke with us about a race to the finish line, and in this presentation, our three center directors and the founder of the Louisiana Center for the Blind talked about our joint race to the top. Here is the way President Riccobono introduced this panel:

MARK RICCOBONO: We thought this item would be important to talk about—the training centers that participate specifically as part of the National Federation of the Blind. These are our training centers. These training centers are independently managed, and they have boards that are independent from the National Federation of the Blind that are responsible for their operation. However, they make a specific commitment to link to the National Federation of the Blind through a memorandum of understanding, and it's not just a written piece of paper. Not only do they bind their operations to be guided by the Federation and subject to the Federation's policies, which means that they're inevitably shaped by us, but they also make a significant contribution to this convention by shaping the expectations for blind people all over this nation. They shape the future that many blind people have the opportunity to experience.

What do I mean? Well, how many of you, like me, are a graduate of a Federation training center? [Applause]

Tell me they don't have an influence on the convention!

Here we have our current directors of our training centers, but also, we are honored to have with us on this panel the founder of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. So please welcome Joanne Wilson, Pam Allen, Julie Deden, and Jennifer Kennedy. [Applause]

Joanne WilsonJOANNE WILSON: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Wilson, and as usual, I'm going to begin with one of my favorite stories. This story is about fleas. Now, if you take fleas and you put them in a jar, and you put the lid on the jar, the fleas will try and jump out of that jar. They'll jump once, twice, three times—each time banging their head on that lid and then falling back down into the jar. If you take the lid off of the jar, the fleas will continue to try and jump out, but this time they will jump just right below where that lid used to be. They never realize that, with one more push, they would be free of the jar and would have freedom!

The real problem with blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem with blindness is the misconceptions, the misunderstandings, the stereotype notions that exist about blindness. And these misconceptions exist within blind people and the sighted public. We are often kept in the jar.

In 1940 there was a group of blind leaders who said: You know, if we are ever going to get out of this jar, we need to organize, and we need to speak for ourselves. We need to tell what the new truths are about blindness. So, the National Federation of the Blind was started.

In the 1950s, some of our Federation leaders—Jacobus tenBroek, Kenneth Jernigan, and others--said: we've got all these beliefs about blindness. But now we need to put them into action. We need to show that they really work so that the sighted world can see that our ideas work, and the blind can see that as well.

So, in 1958 Kenneth Jernigan took over the worst agency for the blind in the country. It was in Iowa and was the Iowa Commission for the Blind. It was there that he started our first NFB center. We had high expectations. He and we believed and continue to believe that blind people can live normal lives, that we can live the lives that we want. He put our philosophy into action with conviction, with passion, and with real belief.

I was a student at Dr. Jernigan's NFB center in 1966-1967. Dr. Jernigan used to have a lot of his students over to his apartment when he was entertaining public officials, state legislators, so that we could mix and mingle with them and educate them about blindness. I was at one such dinner one night, and the dinner was over, and I was hanging around the kitchen. Someone came up to me and said, "Joanne, would you go refill the coffee cups of the state legislators?"

I said, "Um, let Marge over there do it. She has a little more eyesight than I do." So, Marge took the coffee pot and went and refilled the coffee cups. I thought, whew! I got out of that one.
The next morning I got called into Dr. Jernigan's office. He sat me down, and he said, "Joanne, what do you want to do when you leave this training center?" By then I knew all the right answers: "Well, I'm going to go to college, I'm going to become a teacher, I'm going to get married and have children, and live a normal life as a blind person."

He said, "Joanne, do you really believe that?"

I said, "I do."

He said, "But you wouldn't refill the coffee cups last night?"

I thought, that doesn't make any difference. What's that all about?

He said, "Joanne, I want to tell you something. If you start saying no to filling the coffee cups, pretty soon you'll start saying no to crossing a busy street or cleaning your house or taking a college class.” He said, “Life is made up of a series of little things, and if you say no to the little things, pretty soon the days will pass, the weeks will pass, the months will pass, and the years will pass, and you'll never achieve the big things.” Dr. Jernigan always said, "Philosophy bakes no bread, but without a philosophy, no bread is baked."

Now let's fast forward to the 1980s. Diane McGeorge and the Colorado affiliate were running around trying to reform sheltered workshops in the state of Colorado. Joyce Scanlan and the Minnesota affiliate were running around trying to close homes for the blind in Minnesota. I and the Louisiana affiliate were trying to kill a particularly awful piece of legislation for the blind. Then suddenly, simultaneously, almost like spontaneous combustion, in 1985 the Louisiana Center for the Blind was started. In 1987, on the same day, the Colorado Center for the Blind and BLIND Inc. were started. We did not compare notes on this, you guys. We did not know what each other were doing. We had no idea that we were planning these things. There was no thinking ahead about it. It just happened because it was meant to happen.

Of course these three centers had the same expectations: the high expectations that our first NFB center had. It had the same belief in the normality of blind persons. It had very, very rigorous courses in skills training. But the most important thing our centers had, and have, is that we help our students develop their own personal, defined philosophy about blindness. Our students are pushed by words and deeds. Old notions that they have about blindness, the old stereotype misconceptions, are taken out of their heads and hopefully replaced with new truths about blindness.

In 1998 there was the reauthorization of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. In this reauthorization, there was a new amendment called the Choice Provision. It was introduced by Congressman William Jefferson from Louisiana because members of the National Federation of the Blind asked him to introduce that. What did this mean to us, this new provision? It meant that disabled people that receive federal funds could choose where they wanted to go for training and what kind of rehabilitation center they wanted to go to. In this case, in this country right now, there are probably ninety residential training centers for blind people. But we had the right to choose, even if it is not in our own state, where we want to go for rehabilitation training.

In 2001 the National Blindness Professional Certification Board was started. This is a board that now certifies what we call Structured Discovery Centers or NFB Centers. The centers are still certified based on methods and philosophy. There are six such centers now certified in our country. There are three state ones and our three private centers.

I have one more very important and critical element that needs to be part of our NFB Centers. The centers need to connect our students with the NFB. Why? Because when the students leave the centers, they will have a structure, a support group that will continue to mentor them, give them role models, give them advocacy, give them a network so that they can keep growing for the rest of their lives as blind people.

Our students also need to be shown how to give back. And why not? We're blind people. So a logical thing to give back is to the NFB. Giving back is often thought as one of the secrets to happiness and true equality. You know, I think each of us desires to give our lives to something bigger than ourselves. You here in this audience right now who are listening to these words are part of our training. You are part of it because you are part of the National Federation of the Blind. Yes, you can be the force that pushes other blind people out of their jar and into new freedom. Thank you. [Applause]

I now want to pass the mic on to Julie Deden, the director of the Colorado Center for the Blind.

Julie DedenJULIE DEDEN: Good afternoon to my Federation family. I am honored to be part of this panel, to be up here today to talk to you about how our NFB training centers have transformed the lives of blind people across the country and the world.

In 1978, forty-four years ago, I attended my first convention of the NFB in Baltimore, Maryland. [Applause] I cannot believe that it was so long ago, because in so many ways it seems like it was just yesterday. I was eighteen and had just completed my first year of college at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I had floundered, and I was so scared that year because I did not use a cane, and I did not feel good about myself as a blind person. I was even afraid to go down for breakfast by myself. So I skipped it.

Walking across campus one day, I fell into a drainage ditch because I thought it was a sidewalk. I tried hiding my blindness, my identity.

I attended my first chapter meeting in April, and even though I did not know very much about the NFB, I picked up on everyone's passion and caring and their excitement to teach me about being proud to be blind. In May of that year, we all watched a film entitled "We Know Who We Are." I actually still remember sitting there, and at the end of the film, Dr. Jernigan says, "We know who we are, and we will never go back!” [Applause] This sparked something inside of me, and I began thinking that I did not need to feel ashamed about being a blind person.

Life for blind people in 1978 was very different from what it is now. There were no NFB training centers. Most of the training that blind people received was limiting. We the blind were not in charge, but rather we had sighted professionals dictate to us what we could and could not do. At my first convention, I observed that blind people mostly did not travel on their own. Blind people were not using canes. They latched onto each other fairly often because they didn't have the training they needed.

The Teamsters union came to that convention to help us organize because hundreds of blind people were being paid subminimum wages and being abused in sheltered workshops. We demonstrated at the Federal Aviation Administration because blind people were getting their canes taken away on planes. As you can only imagine, I loved my introduction to the National Federation of the Blind. [Applause]

I wanted to be part of this. I wanted to make a difference. But first I had to figure out myself as a blind person. Today, when I look back on my journey in the NFB, I can only thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for taking me in, for believing in me. I have learned and been mentored by so many and continue to always learn.

Diane McGeorge and her husband Ray took me under their wings. Ray encouraged me in his gentle way to use a cane. Diane took me to North Dakota and to Wyoming to teach me about building the NFB. In Wyoming she told me that I would need to be the emcee at a banquet. I was really scared and nervous about this. She said, "Julie, you can handle this."

It is often the case at our NFB training centers that we believe in our students long before they come to believe in themselves as blind people. Diane believed in me. This belief and the high expectations that we have for our students at our centers build them up and propell them forward so that they will believe in themselves.

In 1988 Diane became the first director for the Colorado Center for the Blind. Her love, commitment, passion, and understanding of the NFB, along with her strength and tenacity, were key to the center's success.

I never had the opportunity to be a student at one of our training centers. My training came from the National Federation of the Blind. I would not have had the understanding, passion, or belief to direct the Colorado Center for the Blind if I did not have a solid grounding and love for the NFB.

Several years ago many of us had a wonderful opportunity to visit each other's centers. In Louisiana I felt right at home. Pam began the day with announcements, just like we do in Colorado. She encouraged one of the students who had a challenging travel route. The energy at LCB felt just like the energy that I am lucky to experience every day in Colorado.

When we visited Minnesota, one of their students was serving her meal for forty, and there was so much celebration around this accomplishment. Students were playing air hockey, and we could hear the fun throughout the building. Blind people teaching blind people: this concept was not accepted in the blindness profession thirty years ago. Many still feel that it is dangerous and that the blind who have blind instructors truly can't learn anything.

We have worked tirelessly to change this attitude, and we'll continue to do this.

We have come a long way. Most of our staff members at our centers have been students themselves. They have the passion and the caring and the dedication that it takes, always encouraging, teaching, and working right alongside each student. Our centers have the best staff in the world, and we applaud them! [Applause] They too are grounded in the positive philosophy of the NFB.

At our centers, our students always come first. We never take what we do for granted, and we enjoy working with a wide variety of people who just happen to be blind. We want every student to feel welcome and to feel secure and excited to take on challenges. We know that skills alone are not enough. That extra edge, that confidence is the key to jumping into life and not letting blindness stop us.

Just the other day a student came into my office and said, "Julie, I really do not have time for rock climbing. I need to practice my Braille."

I said, "I know you might feel a little nervous about climbing, but I know you can do this." The student went climbing and came back to my office the next day to thank me. She told me that getting on the rock face and figuring out how to get to the top was exhilarating. Somehow she felt changed.

This is what our training is about. What do we want the future to bring for us as blind people? We have revolutionized the training center landscape. We still have a long way to go. Most of the agencies in the country are still run by people who have degrees but do not have intrinsic beliefs in blind people. We in the organized blind movement have shaken down many of the barriers that we have faced. We still have much work to do. Remember this: We know who we are, and we will never go back! Let's keep building! [Applause] Let's look forward to our future, where we are in charge of our training and our destiny. Thank you. [Applause]

Next, it is my true honor to introduce to you Pam Allen, director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I just want to say that we in our three NFB Training Centers work really closely together, and I love Pam and I love Jen, and I love Joanne. Here is Pam.

Pam AllenPAM ALLEN: Once upon a time, a long, long time ago in 1991, I was very new to the blind community. I had been selected as an NFB scholarship winner and had the opportunity to travel to this great city to attend my first convention. Luckily, I have amazing parents and family, but I needed to hear the positive message about blindness from blind people themselves. I could never have imagined where that path on which I embarked all those years ago would lead.

The year prior to receiving my scholarship, when I first came to the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston for an internship, I thought I was going to New Orleans. Clearly, I was geographically challenged. What I experienced at LCB was like no other blindness program I had ever seen. Joanne Wilson was the director, and she also had five kids, and somehow she juggled it all, making it look easy. Incredibly, Jerry Whittle as my Braille instructor, Ruth Sager as my cooking and home management instructor, Suzanne Mitchell, assistant director, and Arlene Hill as my travel instructor were also all blind and were managing their lives and families effortlessly. Joanne's love and mentoring were invaluable!

When I came to the center for that May term, Barbara Pierce told me that I would be immersed in the "heart of NFB philosophy" and I could not have been nurtured in a more loving and challenging environment. LCB was a place where people who barely knew me gave me opportunities to grow and learn so many lessons. Joanne and the staff and my peers believed in me and had high expectations for me.

At LCB, I met incredible people who changed and enriched my life. Many of them have become my closest friends and mentors. Roland Allen and I worked together, and ultimately fell in love and got married, and I could not imagine my life or this work without him. Today as then, the dedicated staff share the journey with students to build rapport, model independence and respect, and cultivate lasting and meaningful relationships.

The NFB training model has transformed the landscape of our field. We believed in the fundamental abilities of the blind and that, with the right training and attitude, blind people could live productive, independent, rich lives, the lives we want. Our philosophy on blindness was perceived as radical at first (and in some spaces still is). But as our students went out into the world and did remarkable things previously not done by the blind, the expectations in the field correspondingly changed. Once we proved that it could be done, others began following our lead. The result is higher expectations, better training, better philosophy across the country, and brighter futures for all blind people.

We partner with various entities throughout the country to ensure high quality adjustment to blindness training. Among the most impactful partnerships is that of LCB with Louisiana Tech University. The idea that blind people could run a university program and train both blind people and sighted colleagues who believed in our philosophy was unheard of. Just like our centers, many waited for the Louisiana Tech program to fail, but it not only succeeded, it flourished. The dream Joanne began and that Dr. Bell and our dedicated team continues has revolutionized our field and changed the lives of thousands. Now so many of our Louisiana Center for the Blind and Louisiana Tech graduates are teaching others, determining policy, serving as change-makers, and leading in the field of rehabilitation.

The consumer-based Structured Discovery model sets our graduates apart. Our alumni come from diverse backgrounds, life experiences, may have additional disabilities, but they all are seeking hope, possibility, and connection to other blind people, which is the greatest gift of the NFB.

This hope, sense of possibility, and culture of shared connection with other blind people is not fostered by one person alone, or even a handful of people. It is cultivated through all of us—including every single person in this room, those listening at home, and those who came before to make our training center possible. This hope, sense of possibility, and culture of shared connection is the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of blind people who themselves experienced the life-changing impact of training, those who never had the opportunity to attend training but believe in its power to transform the lives of others, those who may never get the opportunity to attend training and yet know the difference it can make so they help others to get there. It is about the countless people at this convention who are serving and leading and connecting in big and small ways to demonstrate that message of hope and resiliency!

I see the tangible impact of our philosophy when I encounter students heading out to find the theater to see Hamilton or when I hear about a new job someone just accepted in corporate America or when I ring the bell for someone who used their cane around their family, or when I witness someone begin to view their blindness in a more positive way or when I learn that someone was elected to their child's school's parent-teacher organization or local city council or when I hear stories of how people traveled abroad. The list goes on and on.

Someone who worked at a non-NFB affiliated training center once visited LCB and asked, "I hear everyone talking about positive philosophy. What is this philosophy? We do not have a philosophy of blindness at our center." I thought, "Oh, but you do! And therein lies the problem!" Our philosophy is steeped in the generations of advocacy, transformative thinking, love and self-determination that gives us the freedom from fear, low expectations, and isolation. We embrace and amplify this philosophy and reject the limitations society tries to place on blind people each and every time we ring our Freedom Bell!

Our centers work, our students succeed, and our philosophy transforms because of our shared story regardless of when we became blind. The analysis and critical thinking we cultivate through Structured Discovery, the high expectations we set, the communities we build, the safe and inclusive spaces we cultivate, the transformation we engender. It not only changes the lives of the individuals who attend our programs, but it changes the landscape for the blind and the communities where we live, work, contribute, and thrive!

The Federation remains invaluable in guiding us as we continue revolutionizing and shaping the next generation of adjustment to blindness training. Our shared philosophy on blindness was informed by Federationists who had an unshakeable belief in the inherent abilities of blind people. That positive philosophy serves as the heartbeat and cornerstone of everything we do in the Federation, including at our training centers.

Success of our NFB training centers is attributable to: 1) the importance of philosophy regardless of a person's individual learning style or experiences; 2) the sincere, unwavering belief in blind people and their abilities; and (3) the power of the ongoing connection with the NFB. For those contemplating training, please know that you start where you are, and we will meet you there; that blindness may feel overwhelming but it does not have to stay that way; that you will be challenged to grow but also supported in the process; that training will open doors; that blindness doesn't define you; that you are surrounded by people who care and by thousands who are there for you; that you are not alone; that we and the world need your ideas and contributions; that you can be successful, productive, and independent; that you do have choices about who you become. You are the author of your story, and the possibilities are limitless!

The journey I began in 1991 is not my journey alone, and it is not a unique story. Our several thousand graduates share this journey and story. They give the gift of our philosophy every day as they interact with their families, friends, colleagues, and communities. It is the greatest and most humbling honor and responsibility of my life that I am part of our shared story, and I'm so excited to be part of the journey as we write our next chapter together. Let our Freedom Bells ring! (Rang bell) Thank you!

I am so fortunate to work with dedicated colleagues here with me. I love Joanne and Julie and Jen. It is now my pleasure to introduce to you the director of BLIND Incorporated, Jennifer Kennedy. [Applause]

Jennifer KennedyJENNIFER KENNEDY: As you have heard from my colleagues, many of us have impacted the abilities within the rehabilitation field. For me, my journey in blindness began by not knowing anyone. At the age of fourteen, I decided it was no longer a journey that I felt the medical professionals could make. They couldn't change it. The only thing that could change was what my future would look like.

My family and I struggled to understand why. Why had this happened? What would my life be like? Who would marry a blind woman? What kind of work would she do?

I had no idea that when Carl Jacobsen called me in the summer of 2001, those dark clouds that had surrounded us for four years as we grieved vision loss were about to part. I entered the hotel in 2001 at the Philadelphia National Federation of the Blind annual convention as a scholarship winner. Never before had I seen so many blind people moving about happily, not being concerned about the tools they were using or where they were going. They were just out living. I couldn't figure it out. There were people who had less vision than me who were kicking my butt! They were finding their mentors in the audience with no problem. They were not hunting through the hotel to find the perfect lighting to read their large print agenda. How did I get to be that kind of blind person?

They also called themselves blind. It didn't matter how much vision you had; they were all blind people. I realized something: the hierarchy of sight, the idea that your value is based off of how much vision you had. I had internalized that in the three years that I was a blind person. I didn't know it, but I really believed that I would only be successful based on that residual vision. The people who called themselves blind with that residual vision did so proudly. How did I get to become that person?

Well, Pam already mentioned it: my training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. [Applause] I took a year off between my first and second year of undergrad and spent eight months walking through rainstorms similar to the one we had yesterday, suffering through handmade pasta, transcribing Michael J. Fox's very first autobiography, and walking seven miles for a hamburger down a little road we call I-20. I figured if I could do all of that, then crossing a college campus probably shouldn't be that hard.

I gave consideration as to what I would do next. I even considered moving to Louisiana and starting my college career over. But what would that mean? Did I really have the skills to continue as a blind person? I knew I couldn't do that, that I had to prove whether I really believed and could act on what I had learned. So, back to Kent State University in Ohio I went.

Going back out into the sighted world meant taking a risk. It meant I had to face the demons of not being able to keep up with the work. It also meant that I needed to leave my dorm room and not order pizza three nights a week as the prisoner that I had become.

Over the next four years I did indeed live the life I wanted as a college student. I stayed up late cramming for finals, and pouring over research notes so that I could finish my papers on time. I joined the Delta Zeta sorority and lived in a house with twenty-nine other women. If you've never lived with that many people, you should; there's endless numbers of people willing to take you to Taco Bell at two o'clock in the morning. [Laughter] And let us not forget the pivotal change of spending too many hours on this thing called the Facebook.

Throughout my college career, I also continued to immerse myself in involvement in the National Federation of the Blind. I spent summers out building NFB chapters in Maryland with Richie Flores and Sandy Halverson. I spent summers teaching at the Louisiana Center for the Blind Buddy and STEP programs. It was through teaching that I realized two things. First, I loved teaching. I loved the process of people learning, the excitement that they had. Second, I hated teaching technology and Braille. It was too monotonous. There wasn't enough creativity. I needed something to let me get up and move.

I was convinced though, as I was wrapping up my senior year in 2006 and 2007 that I had to be part of this movement. I was already part of the people's movement--the National Federation of the Blind--but I decided that the field of blindness rehabilitation was mine for the taking. Off to the Louisiana Tech program I went.

I want you to think about your very first cane. For many of us the cane that was prescribed was the appropriate cane based on your height and the hypotenuse to the ground by which mathematically your stride should fit. It was at a national convention that Derrick Williamson gave me my first NFB cane lesson and showed me how incredibly important this tool was. Remember, I knew that teaching Braille and technology weren't giving me that same jolt. But I knew the Louisiana Tech program was using this cane, and I had proven to myself over the many miles that I traveled that this cane was powerful, beautiful, and the taller the cane, the faster I could move. This meant I could keep up with my students who were taller than me, which is hard to do when you're five feet tall. It also meant I could wear whatever shoes I wanted at Washington Seminar because the heel size no longer mattered.

As I worked my way through that rigorous course, I was reminded of all the things that had happened and all the people who had made that college possible. I was joining a small crowd of trailblazers in 2007 once more. I was entering into a program that not only said that the hierarchy of sight was false; it didn't take vision to teach; it didn't take vision to be safe.
You could also build a high quality program with our Structured Discovery approach to learning through a university program. This, of course, was thanks in part to Joanne Wilson, Dr. Ruby Riles, and Mr. Omvig. [Applause]

Structured Discovery to me is a nonvisual approach to thinking about the world, gathering information, and a strategy for our students to evaluate the world and make their own decisions. It is not about how I perceive the world, how we as professionals prescribe that you do something. The Louisiana Tech program has grown many other professionals who are sitting among you today.

I run an NFB center, right, but that's not exactly how I got here. I felt that there were some things that I still needed to prove to myself, much like my journey in blindness training. Rather than going to apply for a job at a training center where Structured Discovery was the norm, I found a few fellow Federationists in Virginia who would take me on. Melody Roan, the director at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind, and Maurice Peret were my confidants in my first job. Because of Maurice's spirit and grip and some of his really bad jokes, we were able to keep the naysayers at bay. Nobody thought the blind guy would last. And heaven help us when it was two blind travel instructors running around the building! We made a great Bonnie and Clyde for a number of years, and thankfully we only had a handful of run-ins with the police.

I felt myself needing a change, and I knew that I had a lot to share. But I also knew that I was interested in other places and how they operated. Thus, I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, and worked for the Division of Services for the Blind. [Applause] Now, the state agency in Utah—mind you, while they were a little bit further ahead in their understanding of blindness—was just a little skeptical about a blind travel instructor. A gentleman by the name of Nick Schmittroth paved the way for me. Nick was one of our very own Louisiana Tech graduates. He had been challenged with a number of situations that I learned about after I took my job. This included a supervisor who refused to supervise him. That supervisor said, "Nope, I'm not going to do it. It's not safe." Your own boss doesn't even believe that you can do it. So he was required to report to what I believe was either an assistive technology person or someone with a slightly lower rank. He was given the hardest students that they had, those having multiple disabilities and language barriers. But Nick stuck with it. It is because of that, because of his commitment to what they were doing in Utah, that I believe I was called to go. You see, Nick's time among our rehabilitation professionals was cut short when he lost his battle with melanoma. I am today still the only recipient of the National Federation of the Blind scholarship in the name of Nicholas R. Schmittroth the Third. [Applause]

While I did not know Nick well, I have always felt the spirit that he and many others have had in their fights for us to be considered real rehabilitation professionals. Now, as the executive director of Blindness, Learning in New Dimensions, I am the first of our Louisiana Tech University graduates to run one of our own training centers. [Applause] While I did not come into this position with quite the same challenges and struggles that Joyce Scanlan did in the 1980s, I certainly feel that pressure to make sure that the training opportunities for the blind of Minnesota and the nation are always at the forefront of what we do.

Additionally, this organization is governed by blind people, run by blind people. I'd never worked at a place like that. In some ways it is a little bit similar to state government because I have seven bosses. However, these seven bosses are all sitting among us with the highest of expectations, a much more fearful meeting than I ever had working in the state agencies. This is an empowering thing to be thinking of: to be the blind speaking for ourselves thirty some years later in our training centers. Our centers are constantly challenged to address new ways, new thinking methodology, and still remain true to the confidence that we build today. After all, that's what we do here in the National Federation of the Blind. We challenge one another to examine our own beliefs, the angles by which we approach things, try to find ways to feel respected and welcomed among our community members, and find value in each and every member.

We must continue to develop the teaching techniques that are used by our blind brothers and sisters and our blind-at-heart members because we do it best. Whatever comes our way, we have risen to that challenge. This includes running training centers during the time of the COVID pandemic. The Louisiana Center for the Blind, the Colorado Center for the Blind, and BLIND Incorporated were the only training centers in the nation that were open for face-to-face instruction for a number of months. I cannot imagine being a director and having to have my staff for twelve, fourteen, or sixteen months working from home, and I'm so glad that the National Federation of the Blind believed that we, too, could operate safely in the time of the pandemic. [Applause]

We kept all of our employees. We did not furlough them, even when times were tough. We knew how important it was to maintain employment and a sense of purpose in a time when so many of us felt lost. Pam, Julie, and I had many calls going, "What are we doing? How do we handle this?" And it was comforting to know that we were all trying to figure this out together. After all, it's kind of scary when you're the new guy in the group.

We are required by our various state contracts to do things that are related to employment, and we always have. We looked at ways in which we could revamp our career programs so that they call attention to things like reasonable accommodation, sexual harassment, misconduct, diversity and inclusion, racism, building a more welcoming community, and understanding boundaries and consent, because that is what is required in the workplace and that is what is required of a National Federation of the Blind training center staff member. [Applause] I can tell you that with all of the work that we have done and the meetings that we have had with the directors across the nation of various blindness agencies, they too recognize how important this is to the success of employment for blind people.

I am often asked why BLIND Incorporated was not named the Minnesota Center for the Blind. In my research of this, I will offer you the following: Joyce Scanlan, our founder, thought hard about the name. She wanted "blind" to be the prominent word. Much like me and my understanding of what vision loss was, she wanted blindness to be the thing that was in your face, and it was a thing to be proud of. Structured Discovery really is exactly learning in a new dimension. So blindness learning in our new dimensions fits perfectly with the work that we do. We only fear the word blind because of what society has thought that it is. We only fear blindness because for many of us, myself included, it is the unknown. And it is only because of the community of members in this room that I believe and live out every day the conviction that blindness need not be the thing that defines you, and it is not the tragedy that society tells you it is. [Applause] I proudly describe myself as a blind person. I encourage our students to describe themselves as a blind person. And most importantly, I encourage all of my staff and students to participate in the National Federation of the Blind. It is because of each of you, both in person and now online, that our programs have the track record that they do. It is because of you that we continue to find people in all corners of the country and the positive stories to share with each other. It is because of you that for the last two and a half years I have been in this job, I am still sitting here today. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for believing in our training centers, and thank you for believing in all of the work that was done to get us here. [Applause]

MARK RICCOBONO: Let's hear it for our NFB training centers! [Applause] We will continue to shape them, and they will continue to shape us. Thank you to the leaders and founders of our centers for giving us this legacy that we can continue to build on.

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