History of the National Association of Blind Students

By Michael Baillif

Editor's Note: The following speech was delivered by Michael Baillif at the annual meeting of the National Association of Blind Students held as part of the 1998 National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Michael Baillif was President of NABS from 1987 - 1991.

In a letter to a friend, John Lord Acton cautioned, "A word of advice to people thinking about writing history—don't!" Henry Ford's view of the subject was, "History is more or less bunk!"

With all due respect to Henry Ford, however, and mindful of Lord Acton's admonition, I will take my chances and address the history of the National Association of Blind Students. Before beginning that discussion, though, let me say that I am far more interested in the history that those of you in the room tonight will make, than about that which has come before. Toward this end, I would like to put the upcoming historical discussion in context by telling an updated and condensed version of a story that I told seven years ago in my last speech as president of NABS. I think this story is, if anything, more relevant and more important to NABS today than it was then. It goes like this.

Once long ago, there was a commune located high up in the mountains. In its golden days, it had been busy and prosperous. Now, however, it was stagnant and withering away.

One day, the head of the commune called in his top advisor, and said, "We've got to do something. This place is falling apart. No one is joining up, and the work is not getting done. We're basically going to Hell in a hand basket. It's those Generation X kids. They don't believe in anything. They don't have any commitment. They don't want to be part of anything. What do we do?

The advisor pondered the problem for a moment and replied, "I think I might have an idea. Let me see what I can do."

A few days later, as the advisor was strolling in the vineyard, she looked up into the sky and shouted, "Hallelujah!" When asked what she had seen, all the advisor would say was, "a vision, a vision. The chosen one is either among us now, or will be very soon."

The reports of the advisor's strange prophesy went far and wide over the countryside. People said, "the chosen one, the chosen one is there at that commune." Soon, sometimes one by one, sometimes in groups, people started appearing at the commune doors, seeking to join. Even some of the skeptical Generation X kids began coming around.

Another more subtle change occurred as well. People at the commune, both new and old, started looking at themselves in a new light and began treating others differently. A person would think, "is he the chosen one, or could it be her, or, good heavens, could it be me?" People looked at each other and at themselves and saw not only the good that currently existed, but also the potential for greatness that each person possessed. They took new pride in their duties and found a new joy in the commune.

To this day, the commune remains prosperous. Interestingly enough, though, the chosen one has not yet arrived, or perhaps the chosen one is there, but has decided to remain incognito. Only the advisor knows, and she is not talking.

I believe that you, and the person you're sitting next to, may be one of the chosen ones within our own organization. Within this group here tonight are the current and future leaders of NABS, and in large part, the future of the National Federation of the Blind. Given this perspective, here is a thumbnail sketch of the history of NABS, which will provide the context for the work, the challenges, and the opportunities that await you as the chosen ones.

The National Federation of the Blind Student Division, as it was then known, was organized in 1967, by a group of students so few in number that they could meet in a single hotel room. It was the first of our national divisions to be formed and was conceptualized very much as a Young Republicans or a Young Democrats type of entity.

Jim Gashel was elected as the first president and served until 1971. Dr. Maurer then took over and was the only three term president the division has had, serving until 1977. Peggy Elliot then succeeded Dr. Maurer.

The purpose behind the founding of the student division was two-fold. (1) To help recruit students into the larger organization, and (2) to help give students who might not otherwise have the opportunity, the chance to experience leadership positions within the organization. Judging by the division's early leaders, this latter goal was achieved very quickly.

In the early years of the student division, it undertook three principle activities that in many ways were representative of the focus that the division has maintained ever since. First, it sought to help blind students deal with the problems caused by paternalistic disabled student service offices. Second, the division published a student handbook which functioned as both a resource guide and how-to manual for blind students at all educational levels. And third, some members of the division went up to Canada and helped them develop an organization of Canadian blind students. A few years later, the division dove into a fourth issue, that being the test administration and validation policies of those entities administering gateway tests, such as the SAT and the LSAT.

Over the years, the student division has successfully addressed many of the subjects to which it has turned. Other battles have come and gone of their own accord and still other issues plague us to this day. Nevertheless, the student division has remained true to its essential mission: to train leaders and to help the organization grow.

One event, the significance of which should not be over-looked in this process, was the implementation in 1984 of the scholarship program as it now exists. When I became president in 1987, four of the five members of the student board had been scholarship winners. By 1989, all seven of us had come through the scholarship program.

During this period, that being the later 1980s and early to mid-1990s, the student division, which by now had become NABS, added a strong outreach component. Many social events such as parties and the Monte Carlo night were held during convention. Also, substantial emphasis was placed on organizing student chapters in state affiliates. At one point, student chapters existed in almost half of the affiliates around the country. Thus, up through the mid-1990s, NABS progressed, sometimes more quickly and sometimes more slowly in the means by which it helped develop leadership, helped advocate for the rights of blind students, and helped reach out to blind students, both in providing real life advise as to how to get things done, and in providing a social context that would bring blind students into the larger organization.

In a nutshell, this is the history of NABS through the mid- 1990s. The history of the late 1990s and beyond will be told in the future and will be determined by you, the chosen ones.

In the National Federation of the Blind, we desperately need a vital and energetic student division. We need students to go off and have raucous parties and do things that vaguely scandalize the rest of the organization. We need students to debate issues and to ask the questions that challenge us all and keep us from growing complacent. And we need students to be reaching out to other students in the way that only you can.

It is up to you to become leaders in the division and to ensure that it fulfills its role. Why should you do this? Because you have a unique opportunity to give to, and to receive from, the National Federation of the Blind.

Why do you think I am here this evening instead of in the bar, which I do not leave lightly. First, because I might say something useful. Granted, it's unlikely, but if I talk long enough, you never know, it could happen. Second, because I need and deeply value the reinvigoration I draw from this group. It stays with me throughout the convention and I carry it back with me for strength when I am alone in the day-to-day world. And third, because some of my best friends are right here.

This is the opportunity that you are offered, to give and to receive and to develop relationships that will last a lifetime. Those of you who have leadership in this division, exercise it. Those of you who don't seek it out and take it. Take the leadership of this division and make things happen. Take the leadership of this division and become the chosen ones. Take the leadership of this division and write a history of which you and this organization can be proud.

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