Significance of The 2024 Washington Seminar

Mark Riccobono gives a speech to a crowd during Washington Seminar

Significance of The 2024 Washington Seminar

By Mark Riccobono

The Constitution of the United States of America established a federal democratic republic. This is the foundation of our federal government. It is democratic because the people govern themselves—it is a republic because the government’s power is derived from its people. As our nation developed and strengthened its values under this Constitution, a deeply rooted bias came to drive policy and practice in our nation. This was not born from our nation but rather inherited through centuries of low expectations. This bias is rooted in the idea that the inability to see with your eyes means, without question, the inability to compete on terms of equality and contribute value to society. For the blind, “by the people” meant being done for the people until we organized and unified our voice in 1940 and declared we were taking back our right to equality, opportunity, security, and full participation in our society. To quote Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the brilliant scholar of the United States Constitution and founding President of our movement:

…we claim as our birthright, as our Constitutional guarantee and as an indivestible aspect of our nature the fundamental human right of self-expression, the right to speak for ourselves individually and collectively. Inseparably connected with this right is the right of common association. The principle of self-organization means self-guidance and self-control. To say that the blind can, should, and do lead the blind is only to say that they are their own counselors, that they stand on their own feet. In the control of their own lives, in the responsibility for their own programs, in the organized and consistent pursuit of objectives of their own choosing—in these alone lies the hope of the blind for economic independence, social integration, and emotional security.

As we begin the eighty-fourth year of our movement, we gather together to demonstrate that right of common association, that right to speak for ourselves individually and collectively. We aim not to merely emphasize the problems but to elevate the solutions. We come not to listen to the naysayers but to celebrate those enlightened allies on the Hill who welcome our authentic wisdom and who invite our contributions. We seek to discover more of these enlightened allies this week.

To those we meet who tell us our time has not yet come and our contributions must be delayed, we say that we are “the people,” this nation is ours as well, and we will no longer have our equality denied.

Our record of contributions and meaningful solutions as the organized blind movement can no longer be ignored. In fact, we believe it should be elevated and celebrated in a cultural institution that uses our stories to mobilize future generations to continue our advancement as blind people—that is the future Museum of the Blind People’s Movement.

Today we come to Washington, DC, on the eve of an important milestone. Tomorrow we will mark the twentieth anniversary of our opening the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. In that moment twenty years ago, we committed in a bold way not simply to share the ideas but to turn them into reality. We imagined the role the blind could play in society, we built it for ourselves, and, in the process, we tested how far we might go. If you want to talk about hope for our nation, consider that after twenty years we have not yet found the limits for blind people.

Imagine how different the world would be had we not taken those bold steps twenty years ago—or for that matter in any of the twenty-year periods going back to our founding in 1940. Without collective action by the blind, here are just a sampling of the things we would not have today:

  • Dynamic tools for capturing, converting, and relaying printed words and visual images into accessible nonvisual forms
  • A generation of programs, tools, and resources for raising expectations for the blind in science, technology, engineering, and math
  • Fully accessible systems that provide equality in casting private ballots independently in elections
  • Accelerated exploration of built-in accessibility systems from smartphones to self-driving vehicles
  • A worldwide treaty, led by the blind themselves, that drastically expanded the availability of accessible materials
  • University training, professional development, and peer-reviewed research led by the blind themselves and centering the real problems of blindness
  • And most importantly, the now deeply rooted expectation that we know who we are and we will never go back

We only pause for a brief moment to celebrate our success because we recognize our progress is not yet finished—we believe our nation must do even better. We have come to do our part by sharing our authentic wisdom with the elected representatives of the people.

Whether it is in equal access to the digital society, independent management of our own healthcare, or elimination of the financial disincentives that impede our economic advancement, the blind have come with solutions. While these are not the only solutions we offer, they are our most pressing concerns this week. We invite every elected representative in this nation to recognize the wisdom found in our blind community and to utilize that power as inspiration to build and strengthen the American society.

The National Federation of the Blind advances the lives of its members and all blind people in the United States. We know that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. Our collective power, determination, and diversity achieve the aspirations of all blind people.

Our movement also provides hope that our nation can continue to improve on the aspirations codified in the United States Constitution.

This is why we have come from every corner of the country.

This is why we accept our responsibilities as equal citizens in our nation.

This is why we have and will continue to invest so much to demonstrate what is possible.

This is the significance of the 2024 Washington Seminar of the National Federation of the Blind.