'American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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Led by the Blind: Bringing Authenticity to Services for the Blind and Making Them Relevant to the Lives We Want to Live

by Bryan Bashin

Bryan BashinReprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 62, Number 8, August-September 2019

From the Editor: Bryan Bashin launched his professional life as a science writer, and later shifted to the field of rehabilitation. Currently he serves as the chief executive officer at the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind. He delivered this address on the last morning of the 2019 NFB National Convention.

Thank you, President Riccobono, thank you, distinguished guests, good morning, Federation family. Twenty-five years ago, a blind Federation cane travel instructor put a cane in my hand and taught me to believe in myself and the dignity of the blind. Fast forward twenty-five years, and I find myself leading a remarkable agency in charge of reinventing itself with that dignity in mind.

I want to talk with you about what happens when a large private agency starts hiring blind people at every level of management, and hiring people, blind and sighted, who know the truth about blindness.

Perhaps the way an agency is led and governed is revealed by talking about the people who work at our agency. A little more than ten years ago the number of LightHouse people attending convention was zero. Here are the names of those who are here this week: Scott Blanks, the director of our programs; Erin Lauridsen, the director of access tech; Amy Mason in our technology program; Debbie Worstman, tech trainer; Bobbi Pompey, teacher of life skills; Amber Sherrard, wellness; Jamey Gump, youth; Ann Kwong, transition, youth; Serena Olson, adult programs; Kate Williams, employment immersion; Wanda Pearson, employment; Christina Daniels, communications and the Holman Prize; Katt Jones, O&M; and from our MAD Lab, Greg Kehret, Caitlin O'Malior, and Maritza Calderon.

Oh yes, did you see one other person from the LightHouse that you may have heard of? We saw him on Sixty Minutes last January, Chris Downey, our board chair. He is my boss. His predecessor chair of the board was blind, and his successor is likely going to be blind.

These folks that I just mentioned are helping us be authentic. Yes, the LightHouse does the same core training as you could find at agencies around the country, but does it a little differently. We believe in the power of words. We don't call the people who study with us clients; we call them students. We've gotten rid of the ableist and insulting term for blindness that so-called professionals use: we never say vision loss.

We've had a camp in Napa for seventy years. For more than sixty of those years, blind people were not permitted to cook in the commercial kitchen. Last year our director of camp, Tony Fletcher, went into the kitchen for something and noticed there were seven people working in the kitchen; all seven were blind. We have twenty counselors who lead hundreds and hundreds of campers in a dozen sessions at our summer camp. Last year seventeen of those counselors were blind. Our board, under our management, designed our forty-thousand-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco; every square inch of it was designed with the blind in mind. It is a beautiful place, but much more beautiful is the fact that as a blind person you can control things there. The audiovisual system and the thermostats are fully accessible. We even have talking business caller ID.

We believe in the history we have, and we owe our predecessors a debt of gratitude. When you come and stay at the LightHouse, you'll notice that the rooms are named for people you may know: Blind Boss Chris Buckley, the San Francisco boss; Newel Perry; Isabelle Grant; Jacobus tenBroek.

We shatter some myths about blind people always being dependent. We have a blood drive that takes place several times a year where blind people roll up our sleeves and contribute back to the Red Cross. A few years ago we created the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition. We spent over a quarter of a million dollars making the dreams of blind people come to life. Last week Red Szell from the UK rode across ten miles of a bog in Scotland, swam across the boiling Atlantic, and climbed to the summit of a twenty-two-story sea stack. Last month Stacy Cervenka's Blind Travelers' Network went live, and I bet there may be one or two comments about the Mandalay Bay on that network pretty soon. In a couple of weeks Conchita Hernandez will hold the first ever all-Spanish blind family retreat in Jalisco in Mexico.

In making the hard decisions about who wins the Holman Prize, we have a distinguished international committee, and all of the members are blind. You may know a few of these judges: Anil Lewis, Gary Wunder, Katherine Webster, Brian Miller, Debbie Kent Stein, Chancey Fleet, and a new member still in training in Colorado, Holly Scott-Gardner.

While the name LightHouse may have suggested to you a giant factory with little blind leadership, our community and our authenticity now demand that we be more bold. What have we done? When nobody thought five years ago that this scrappy little startup could succeed, we invested $100,000 for an app that now has 2.5 million volunteers and 150,000 users, Be My Eyes.

When it was unheard of for a LightHouse to pursue blind civil rights, we sued Redbox and made sure that 30,000 Redboxes across the states are now accessible. When we switched to a new HR and payroll system at the LightHouse and found that it was inaccessible, we brought out the lawyers. We're talking with them now. When we finish and make that system accessible, the half million people who get their paychecks through ADP will have an accessible system.

When Goodwill in northern California wanted to work with the LightHouse, we said, "No, you have to reject the 14(c) subminimum wage of your parent organization." We challenged them, and their board of directors removed the 14(c) certification. I ask you, is your local private agency troublemaking enough?

When the experts said that seniors couldn't be taken to an immersive training program, sometimes at our camp, sometimes in San Francisco, we thought otherwise. We are now in our seventh year of "Changing Visions, Changing Life" retreats. In our eleven-story headquarters, we fired our cleaning company and decided that blind people should get the benefits of cleaning. Today five of the seven people who clean our building are blind or deaf.

Against skepticism, we put twenty-nine beds in our high-rise headquarters so that blind people could stay and connect and form community. Hundreds of students stay there every year. You may have seen some of them, the thirteen students who are here from the LightHouse's YES! (Youth Employment Series) program. Next week they're going to stay in the rooms and commute to their internships and jobs directly from the LightHouse.

In the San Francisco Pride Parade we marched 120 strong, the largest contingent we ever had in the largest Pride Parade in the United States.

We have a robust relationship with the big tech companies around San Francisco. For seven years now we've operated a scrappy tech salon, LightHouse Labs, led by Erin Lauridsen and assisted by people like Amy Mason, Jim Barbour, and Brian Buhrow.

But in a greater sense we are developing something precious and rare at the LightHouse—a 50/50 mix of blind and sighted people at all levels of management, working together, people who know the truth about blindness. We didn't do this because we are a wealthy organization. I submit to you that we became a wealthy organization precisely because of the authentic and bold steps that we in our community insist that we take.

I want to tell you a few things about our biggest benefactor, Donald Sirkin. When he was in his eighties, he was not an authentic blind person. Like so many seniors, he was ashamed and hid his own vision loss, as he would say. But he saw our messages, our blind positive messages, on our website, and he named us in his will in 2010. He followed our authentic message of living the lives we want, and when he revised his will in 2014, he named the LightHouse. We've discovered that blind authenticity pays, that fewer people give when they see maudlin messages about the plight of the blind. People respond to messages of hope and pride. Oh yes, about that bequest: it is the largest single bequest in the history of blindness in America, $130 million!

But in my heart, the biggest gift I ever received was each one of you. The only way I can repay that debt is to ensure that the United States has more agencies that are authentic and reflective of the blind community. Today the LightHouse has 140 employees in six locations. This September we're opening a new satellite location in Berkeley. We have eighty-two different and distinct programs. We're looking for cool blind people to run them, to manage them, to direct them at all levels of our organization. And may I remind you that we are especially looking for some NOMCs [orientation and mobility instructors with National Orientation and Mobility Certification]. We're going to continue to do strategic blindness investments in technology like Be My Eyes. We're going to continue to do our blind civil rights advocacy. We're going to go where underserved people who are blind need our help.

Last week the director of programs, Scott Blanks, went to California's Corcoran State Prison because there are blind people there, and not just one or two. How many blind people are in that prison? Would you believe there are eighty-five? It's practically an affiliate!

We want to expand our connections to people who have not been served, like the undocumented. We want to expand our TMAP program, which, on request, creates inexpensive tactile maps of the area surrounding any given street address. Did anybody get one of our tactile maps in the exhibit hall? We're proud of the Bolotin Award that we received last year for our tactile maps, and we are only going to grow it. These are tools blind people can use.

We're going to offer more immersive short-term courses over long weekends, such as how to use LinkedIn and how to do audio editing hands-on. We're going to continue to do media partnerships, particularly with National Public Radio. Look for more than thirty podcasts about the blind and broadcasts on NPR about that. Again, we're not talking about the plight of the blind but about the joy and the beauty of how we live our lives.

We want to raise the bar about traditional and often overlooked blindness institutions. Blind youth and young adults spend thousands of hours in blindness camps. There's never been any kind of gathering to raise the bar about that, so this October the LightHouse and CNIB ([Canadian National Institute for the Blind] in Canada are going to organize the first ever best practices in blind camps conference.

We're looking to expand partnerships so that we can offer more Holman Prizes. The Holman Prize for Blind Ambition just announced our 2019 blind awardees last night. Do you want to hear who they are? Computational chemist Mona Minkara has an ambitious goal to visit the public transit systems on six continents, and, like Anthony Bourdain, to blog and video how a blind person takes ordinary transit. Alieu Jaiteh, in The Gambia, will build a mentorship system of seventy blind people in the most rural parts of that nation. For the first time people will get the positive message of blindness in The Gambia. And Yuma Decaux in Queensland in Australia, a blind astronomer, has developed an app that can run on your iPhone or some other smartphone. It will take the data that our satellites are getting and sonify it so that blind people can play a role directly, as part of citizen science, and discover the next exoplanet.

There have always been blind people with self-confidence in California. Think of Newel Perry, Jacobus tenBroek, and all of those. We have not had an agency in California with those kinds of people at all levels of management until now. Take the aspirations of Jacobus tenBroek for our right to live in the world and expand them now to our right to influence our world.

If I can name a law, I will call it Bashin's Law, which says that the more money a blindness organization has, the fewer blind people run its board of directors or are in senior management. In California the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh largest agencies for the blind, apart from the LightHouse, are peopled with overwhelmingly sighted management from the top down. Nationally fewer than 10 percent of private agencies for the blind are led by blind people or management teams. In 2019 I ask you, is this managerial apartheid acceptable? [The audience responds with a resounding no!] Even the 660 independent living centers are mandated to have half of their management and half of their board of directors be people with disabilities. In California, though, one large private agency actually fought a bill in the California legislature, saying that it could not be mandated to find even 20 percent of its board of directors because it couldn't find qualified blind people in California.

The LightHouse now is at 50 percent blind and sighted parity on our board of directors, and in the next few months it is likely that we will codify that as a permanent part of our bylaws. It's time to take that disability refrain "nothing about us without us" and just make it simple: "nothing without us!"

Our authenticity is based on the understanding that blind people want to be actors and not passive people. We want to be subjects and not predicates in somebody else's sentence. We don't believe in an artificial schism between blind and sighted people working in our field. And we certainly don't need a divisive and outmoded organization like NAC (the National Accreditation Council on Services for the Blind) to tell us what's progressive and what's authentic. [cheers] In thirty years the LightHouse has not needed the services of NAC, and we never will. [Applause]

Our future and the future of private agencies lies in cultivating and not alienating sighted allies. They are essential to amplify our reach. Our goal, then, is to teach and engage and involve our wider community, a community that must learn from us with humility and respect.

It is now time for us in the Federation to take some larger strides, to expand our reach beyond our three training centers and the handful of commissions and state training centers we now influence. Our task is to light more flames of authenticity in places that call themselves lighthouses, societies, centers, or happy homes for the blind. Whether your local private agency is in the east or the west, north or south, or even in San Francisco, please join me in the new refrain, "Nothing without us, nothing without us, nothing without us." Thank you.

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