American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Convention 2020 NOPBC CONFERENCE
by Gabe Cazares
Introduction by Carlton Walker: When we give our Twig Awards, we talk about bending twigs to affect how trees will grow. Now we have the honor of hearing from one of the trees that our Twig Award recipients, Mark and Melissa Riccobono, have nurtured. Please welcome Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities for the city of Houston, Texas.
I'm very excited to be here this morning, although I wish I were not greeting all of you from the headquarters of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. I wish I were a mile and a half down the road at the Hilton Americas with three thousand of my best friends from around the country! But I'm delighted to join my Federation family virtually.
For those of you who don't know me, my name is Gabe Cazares. I have been a member of the Federation for ten years now, and I have had the good fortune of working closely with, being mentored by, and being personal friends with Mark and Melissa Riccobono. They are exceptional people who are committed to our organization and to our movement. They give of themselves to advance our priorities.
Talking to parents is one of my favorite activities. You all are pretty cool—don't tell the students I said that!
My parents were Mexican immigrants who came to the United States in the early nineties. I wish they had the opportunity to sit in a room like this and hear from blind people who found a way for themselves and who also committed themselves to making the experience of living as a blind person better for those who come after us. That commitment is at the heart of the National Federation of the Blind. You'll hear a lot this week that the National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. We'll remind you every day that we work to raise the expectations of blind people because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. It wasn't until I engaged with the Federation in a real way that I realized what we say is true. You can live the life you want. Blindness is not what holds you back.
For the next few minutes I'm going to share with you a little bit of my personal story. I want to start with the caveat that no one's story is the same as anyone else's. The bond that brings us together is our participation in the movement.
As Carlton said, I'm currently the director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities in the city of Houston. My boss is Mayor Sylvester Turner. We're the fourth largest city in the country. My responsibility is to oversee the timely and accessible delivery of services and programs to over 215,000 Houstonians with disabilities. When you take into account the number of people with disabilities who are undocumented in our region, the number rises to close to 600,000. I would not have the confidence to do this job on a daily basis if it weren't for the mentors and friends I found in the National Federation of the Blind.
Blindness was not new to my family. I grew up with hereditary glaucoma. My father was blind; my grandfather was blind; my older siblings have some degree of vision loss. The experience of not being able to see in the ordinary way—whatever that is—was not new when I met the National Federation of the Blind in 2010. What was new was a network of friends and mentors who were interested in pushing me further than I thought was possible. Before I met the National Federation of the Blind, for example, college was a word that was thrown around sometimes in my inner-city high school. But no one really sat down to explain to me what that meant, what obtaining a postsecondary education can do for you and your job opportunities, particularly as a person with a disability. No one explained to me how to apply for school or how to fill out a financial aid application. It was my blind friends in the National Federation of the Blind of Texas who worked with me every step of the way to make sure I got into college. They were some of the first people to invest in my future by awarding me a National Federation of the Blind of Texas scholarship to help fund my education.
It was also my friends in the National Federation of the Blind who told me some of the hard truths about my experience with blindness. My Federation family challenged me to strengthen my travel skills, my Braille reading skills, and my technology skills. As a high school hot-shot who knew it all—what eighteen-year-old doesn't know it all!—I thought I had what I needed to be successful in college. I didn't have any issues with the academics, but even so, I almost failed my first year of college. I could do the work, but I didn't have the blindness skills to help me successfully navigate my college campus, and I didn't have the confidence to advocate for myself.
Finally I hit rock bottom. I was convinced I would have to drop out. But my mentors in the National Federation of the Blind were there to help me pick myself up. They made sure I used that experience as a learning opportunity.
I enrolled as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in June of 2011. It was the best decision I have ever made in my life! I learned so much more than cane travel, Braille, and home management! I learned confidence. Confidence is a trait that no one, no circumstance, will ever be able to take away from you or your blind children.
At the Louisiana Center for the Blind I was exposed to fabulous role models such as Pam and Roland Allen and the rest of the staff. After I completed the curriculum at the center I went back to school. I graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and a minor in Spanish. Because of my involvement in our movement and the relationships I had built through my participation, President Riccobono granted me the privilege of going to Baltimore and joining the Government Affairs staff at our national center.
I had done some political work during college. I worked on campaigns at different levels, but I had no policy experience. Even with the confidence I had gained at the Louisiana Center, I didn't think I had the capacity to dive deep into policymaking, to understand the nitty-gritty of how laws get made. I didn't know how regulations are implemented so that blind people really can live the lives they want. But because of the mentorship I received from my Federation family, I participated in negotiations to push for accessibility in instructional materials. I worked on voting access. I worked on making sure that blind people and the needs of blind people are represented when we talk about things like immigration. I worked extensively on the legislative efforts to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty to facilitate international access to published works for the print disabled. Ultimately, because of the faith that my Federation family placed in me and my personal development, I was invited to interview for and accepted the position I now hold.
This sounds like a really good story with a happy ending. But let me tell you, I'm still writing my story. Because this is life, I expect that there will continue to be challenges. I take comfort in knowing that my participation in the movement, my friends and family in this organization, will always be in my corner to lift me up, to give me advice, to give me support, and to give me encouragement. That's what we're here to offer you this week.
Every year the national convention serves as an opportunity for me to reflect on what the Federation has given me. It allows me to recommit myself to make my contributions matter for the next generation. I'm very pleased that you're here with us this week. We would have received you with a Texas-sized welcome and breakfast tacos! But because you aren't here, I've had to eat the breakfast tacos myself.
I'm very glad you're here, and I hope that my story will help you understand the value of this organization. If you're not a member yet, let me invite you to join us. Together let's transform our dreams into reality. Thank you so much!