Dignity, Respect, and Determination: The Momentum of the Blind People's Movement

An Address Delivered by
Mark A. Riccobono, President
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Of the National Federation of the Blind
Orlando, Florida
July 8, 2024

I would like to be the first to welcome all the dignitaries of the organized blind movement here tonight. Yes, you; are you a dignitary? Those humble members among us are thinking, “No, not me.” The most driven advocates among us may be claiming this status without even considering what it means. Others may be saying, “I am not a blind person, so I am no dignitary in this crowd.” Still others among us may be feeling unworthy of the title as they are here for only the first time. 

As we gather tonight in this space we first created eighty-four years ago to consider the extent of our collective progress, I want to return to a basic aspect of our movement that may be taken for granted. This is the concept of dignity, and whether it is different for the blind than for the nonblind. Tonight, I declare that each of us, engaged in our shared reflections, are dignitaries of the organized blind movement. As dignitaries, we have a responsibility to examine our position, consider our progress, challenge our own assumptions, and recommit to being the “dignity we want in the world.” 

The civil rights, Latino, and farm labor leader, Cesar Chavez, said, "From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength." And Bernice King, lawyer and daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., noted, "You will encounter misguided people from time to time. That's part of life. The challenge is to educate them when you can, but always to keep your dignity and self-respect and persevere in your personal growth and development." While the philosopher, courageous line-breaker, and celebrated baseball star, Jackie Robinson observed, "The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity."

The concept of dignity has a complicated history intersecting with philosophy, politics, and religion. The root of the word we use today comes from the Latin term dignitas, which was a central aspect of the ancient Roman society. Dignitas has several overlapping meanings, including the intrinsic worth or value of a person, the social standing or rank of a person within a hierarchy, earned reputation or prestige, and the authority and influence that come from high social standing. The concept of dignity as a universal term, meaning the unearned status or worth of all persons, is sometimes credited as stabilizing due to its appearance in the opening sentence of the preamble of the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Today, this concept is often described as human dignity. I intend to simply use the word dignity to refer to humans as I have no interest in sparking debate about the dignity of blind people compared to the dignity of their guide dogs.

If we accept that dignity, the inherent worth of all persons, applies to blind people, then it is reasonable to accept that it cannot be taken from us. However, our experience also suggests two other truths. The first is that not all of us accept that dignity for the blind has the same value as dignity for the nonblind—at least the words and actions of individuals often communicate an inequality. The second is that often we, as blind people, struggle to resist the misunderstanding and second-class treatment in society, which, in turn, leads to our own doubt about our dignity.

In our movement, we know that blindness is not the characteristic that exclusively defines our future. We also know that the persistent misunderstandings we encounter, the undignified actions of others, and the artificial barriers throughout society threaten our dignity on a daily basis. Dignity may be inherent, but there is an inequality between how it is perceived and experienced in our lives. If we fail to resist second-class treatment, if we value the charity offered to us over fulfilling the responsibilities inherent in equal rights, and if we internalize the external low expectations, we risk devaluing our dignity, we move further from equality, and we sacrifice the progress we have made together. It is not enough for us to understand the dignity of being blind; we must teach the rest of society what we know. For just because we have our dignity does not mean we have realized full equality within society. While the mission may feel overwhelming, we continue to have the power and determination that comes from linking our hearts and minds in a movement that has made all the difference since 1940. Under no circumstances will our dignity again be taken from us, and under no circumstances will we permit our dignity to be undervalued. We know who we are, and our dignity is equal to others. In wearing our dignity with pride, we honor the dignity of others. We continue to recognize that we do not journey alone. We do not face the challenges by ourselves, and we do not have to be perfect in order to preserve our dignity. Our dignity comes from within, and it is valued, strengthened, and honored through the collective actions of individuals focused into a movement we share. We are the National Federation of the Blind.

Dignity is a fundamental concept within the philosophy of the Federation, but having our dignity affirmed in society has taken decades of hard work and sacrifice. It began by recognizing that dignity comes from taking control of our own lives, speaking and acting for ourselves, and using that self-determination to build a network of support. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founding President of the National Federation of the Blind, framed our early understanding of the dignity of blind people. Those ideas were radical in 1940 and continue to meet resistance even today. Dr. tenBroek was a widely celebrated scholar of the United States Constitution. It is no surprise that his concept of dignity was tightly bound to the ideals of equality, liberty, and the ability to direct one’s own actions.

As the second generation of dignitaries in our movement began to add to our shared wisdom, our concept of dignity was significantly challenged by the vision industrial complex. During this period of struggle, we demonstrated the dignity of blind people through training programs developed by the blind themselves. Kenneth Jernigan, the dynamic leader who was first elected as our President in 1968, led us through a period of aggressive external resistance to our self-determination. He also provided us with the historical understanding that the popular narrative about us does not reflect the true lived experience of blind people. By synthesizing the stories of blind people into logical patterns of thought and action, Dr. Jernigan articulated the nature of independence for the blind and its relationship to our dignity. 

In his speech, “The Nature of Independence,” Dr. Jernigan shares that independence—which is central to dignity—starts with our own internal attitudes about blindness, involves the development of a range of skills and resources needed to tackle the complexities of life, and requires the maturity to put all of these things together in the real world in a way that does not diminish our dignity or the dignity of others. While it is somewhat easy to summarize, it is much harder to put into practice in a society that largely undervalues the capabilities, contributions, and the continuum of human experience among blind people. 

With the third generation of our movement, we gathered significant momentum in defending our dignity in society. Furthermore, our high standards for equality increasingly created opportunities for us to partner with others and raised expectations for the disability community more broadly. A prime example is our leadership in steadily eliminating the legal practice of paying people with disabilities a lesser wage based only on a false assumption that these individuals give less to society than others. Yes, we must recognize that federal law does not yet fully acknowledge our dignity by guaranteeing us equal-pay protections. However, by eliminating the practice in a significant portion of this nation, we have defended the dignity of blind and other disabled individuals time and time again. Despite the historical record, even the most entrenched employers, who previously defended this discriminatory practice as part of the dignity of work, now celebrate joining us on the better side of history. Many more examples can be found in our legal victories, in our legislative accomplishments, in our community building work, and in our innovative programs—all undertaken with an unapologetic commitment to being blind centered and blind led.
With that as background, let us examine some of the components of dignity that require our daily attention as blind people. A fundamental building block of self-determination is autonomy. This requires establishing the pattern of thought and behavior that expects the individual to be in charge of their own decisions, including having real choices in those decisions. One of those components is the opportunity to fail, which can provide invaluable learning. However, when blind people exercise their autonomy, it frequently creates conflict with others. A fundamental misunderstanding is that the dignity of blind people requires the charity of others. More specifically, it requires the charity of any individual who possesses eyesight. When this pattern is learned by blind children from a very young age, it has the potential to limit much if not all of their life. When blindness comes to a person after decades of internalizing the historical misconceptions, it can significantly impede their progress toward living successfully in the world as a blind person. It takes real energy and emotional intelligence to overcome the perception that you have no autonomy or that you are somehow diminished or less deserving.

One example is that blind adults have the experience of being treated like they are still children. Most frequently this happens as an instinctual reaction in customer service situations. The individual encountering the blind person wants to know, “Who is your assigned companion?” This might be the person expected to be traveling with you, the person who should be helping you make a decision, or the person who should be available to manage your affairs. Sometimes these incidents are minor annoyances for blind people and opportunities for education. However, very often they are much more than that and become extremely stressful for us. When this treatment comes from our own family, it is always deeply painful. When these events are more than a minor annoyance or when they occur in a series of incidents together, they challenge the blind person’s resolve to be self-determined (and to hold back on the four-letter words). 

This is where preserving our dignity takes a measure of maturity and determination. The American healthcare system seems to be one prime example of an environment where our dignity is consistently devalued. During my recent annual physical, the medical attendant who did the intake with me concluded by instructing me on what I needed to do to get ready for the exam—this involved putting on the standard-issue paper gown. They then asked me if I needed their assistance getting undressed. Is this a question they ask all patients? Was there something about my clean dress shirt, tie, and slacks that raised concern? My quick analysis of the situation told me that this was a new employee who had little experience with blind people and that the question was not routine. As tempting as it was to respond with something snarky, I knew I would likely encounter this person again, and my snark would only serve to diminish the dignity of this person who seemed genuinely not to know better. With a forced smile I replied that I had been dressing myself for more than forty years and felt I had it under control. The attendant stopped and, to their credit, they admitted that it was a silly question to raise with me, but it is not always that easy. 

In May I took my daughter to the urgent care near our home. Her last visit there had been handled by my wife, Melissa, who also happens to be blind. Unbeknownst to me, during the check-in process they defaulted to sending the electronic check-in packet to Melissa’s mobile number. I have appreciated the mobile check-in process as it allows me to manage sensitive information from my smartphone without having to provide personal information verbally in the middle of the lobby. When I did not receive the expected text message, I shared with the receptionist that the packet went to my wife and, before I could ask to have the packet sent to my number, the receptionist asked if my wife would be more capable of completing the forms for me. I was already on edge because of my worry about my daughter, and I did not have the emotional energy to correct their misunderstanding and further delay my daughter getting the attention she needed. I took a deep breath and made a conscious choice in that instance not to be an ambassador of the blind, not to try to change the understanding in that moment, but to simply let my actions speak for themselves. I received the packet on my phone and jumped all of the hurdles needed to get my daughter examined by a physician as quickly as possible. Afterwards I reflected on the choices we have to make in order to maintain our dignity as blind people. One of the very difficult choices is when to simply make a difference by living our lives and when to consciously work to change the understanding of others. From my experience in the National Federation of the Blind, I knew in my heart that I did not have to overtly change someone else’s mind in order to maintain my own dignity. 

Much of the medical system does not give blind people a choice in the management of the care we seek for ourselves and our loved ones. Many healthcare providers require the completion of inaccessible paper forms, prescribe inaccessible home medical equipment, and offer discharge instructions with the assumption that someone else will be there to care for us. In many medical facilities, blind patients who are admitted for care will have a sign placed in their room, without their consent, that notes they are blind. Often that sign will indicate they are at greater risk for falling or require other special treatment. Eliminating all of these barriers rooted in historical misconceptions about us is part of the work we have yet to accomplish together, but they need not devalue our dignity unless we accept the narrative of the past. We have the autonomy to make our own decisions and direct our own actions. We have the freedom to push back when we need to or to simply live our lives without interference from others. 

Another aspect of dignity is choice, and I am confident all blind people can relate to having their choices limited. Some common areas where our choices are limited include career opportunities, access to adventurous activities like zip-lining and water skiing, the freedom to independently navigate everyday obstacles such as metal detectors, full engagement in group projects where our contributions are valuable and where we can lend a hand, various modes of transportation, and the option to decline unnecessary or unwanted accommodations. Lack of choices can devalue our dignity in the minds of others and can make us feel like our dignity is being taken away. 
Limited choice is found in the persistent access-to-information problem we face. In general, when traveling in the environment, the most efficient way for blind people to get information is to ask a person nearby. This tends to be a stranger who happens not to be blind. Frequently our questions are not answered but met with another question. In airports I will often ask, “What gate number is this?” To which I get a common reply, “Where are you trying to go?” or the more aggressive, “Can I help you get somewhere?” I generally choose not to reveal my destination in order to preserve my choices. 

Another example is access to menu information at unfamiliar restaurants. Without independent access to the menu, we must negotiate with wait staff who frequently limit our choices to, “What kind of food do you like?” How often do blind people simply choose something they know rather than exploring their choices because it is easier than demanding equal access to information? It is easy to say that no one can take our dignity, but it is harder to deal with the persistent absence of choice. 

Maintaining control over our own body is another area where our dignity is regularly threatened. Blind people are frequently handled without ever being given a choice in the interaction. If I were about to walk into something very dangerous, I hope someone would help me avoid it. However, so far I have never been viciously attacked by a shrub when my cane touched an outdoor planter. I have never had a glass door shatter when I tapped the bottom of the door and I reached for the handle. And I was never in danger of falling through the floor when standing in one place. Yet, in all of these instances, I have been grabbed, moved, or pulled without consent because someone else decided I needed help. In an instance where I may want some assistance, it would be considered inappropriate for me just to walk up to someone, grab their arm, and command them to take me somewhere. But the same standard for personal body space is not applied to those of us who are blind. This is where the choice to seek, select, direct, and reject help on our own terms is critical. This is why many blind people report feeling dignity the most when they go through a set of interactions without ever being grabbed by a stranger. 

One concept that often gets paired with dignity is respect. Where dignity is inherent, respect is earned or lost. Respect is influenced by our perception of a person’s worth or value. As blind people, if we believe in our inherent dignity, we must first respect ourselves enough not to compromise when people disrespect us. Then we must be prepared to give respect as a means of helping others recognize our dignity. With equal treatment comes equal responsibility. This, too, is much easier said than done.

One area where respect can be challenging is within our own community of blind people. Many of us are working through the journey of blindness. Thus, our actions are still strongly influenced by the misconceptions we have internalized about blind people. When a blind person who is still new on that journey takes an action or says something that feels like it takes away from our dignity, many of us react strongly. We need to challenge ourselves to take a step back and respect the fact that newly blind people are especially prone to defaulting to the conditioned vision-centered responses. 

Consider these examples. Have you ever been in a room full of blind people when someone says, “Is there a sighted person here?” or, the one I like better, “Can I borrow a pair of eyes?” I often jump in to note that I have eyes, though they do not work, and I am happy to help. My experience is that far more often than not, vision is not a true requirement for dealing with the concern of the moment. Considering the increasing availability of image recognition, I expect that small gap to narrow even further. Recently, one of my blind colleagues shared with me that, during a Braille technology training seminar in our building, a participant asked for a sighted person who could read the serial number of the device they were registering. My blind colleague walked over, read the Braille serial number off the bottom of the device, and went on their way. 

Do not get me wrong, it can be really difficult to deal with conditioned vision-centered responses, especially when they come from other blind people. For the record, dignity for the blind is inherent regardless of the details of an individual’s blindness. However, if we are going to uphold our inherent dignity, we need to offer respect and grace to those who are still on the journey of understanding. We must not forget that many of us came from that same place of misunderstanding and, thankfully, we were respected and provided with the grace to discover the value of our own dignity. The respect with which we handle these situations can significantly contribute to the shared value of our dignity. 

When nonblind allies demonstrate their understanding through their advocacy with us, we are shown respect, and our dignity is strengthened. For example, I feel respected when one of my nonblind colleagues reminds a presenter that purely visual cues are not meaningful and that explaining key aspects of a visual image may also benefit everyone. If we desire that level of respect from others, we must also be prepared to give it. My experience is that when we share a high level of respect, everyone benefits.

Our individual efforts to respectfully educate others about our dignity is all too often not enough. We must continue to have the courage to take the more forceful steps required to achieve our equality in society. This happens when our state affiliates object to the harmful actions of agencies within the vision industrial complex. It happens when we show up to defend the rights of blind parents and blind business owners. And it happens when we negotiate with public officials regarding needed protections in the law. Sometimes the forceful demand for our dignity requires personal sacrifice. A common example within our community is the forceful stand against the discrimination of rideshare drivers that many blind people have had to take. For some of us, the result has been being treated like criminals by law enforcement who defend the discriminatory actions of the drivers. Others of us have had to walk away from those situations because the risk of taking a stand was too great. This is where the strength of our community helps to uphold our dignity. Each of us can make a difference by pushing back on the harmful barriers and misconceptions we face. However, all of us are not in a position to push back all of the time. By combining our efforts into a movement, we have the best chance of reaching equality of dignity within society. 

Wearing our equality of dignity with pride requires us to honor the dignity of others. This was most powerfully articulated by our longest-serving President, Marc Maurer. As he led our movement into the twenty-first century, he demonstrated that central to dignity is heart and giving back. In one of his last banquet speeches as our President, he articulated the current and unshakeable status of our own dignity and the necessity to welcome the dignity of others. At our 2013 banquet he said:

One element of the misunderstanding about blindness is that we live in a sighted society. Although many sighted people live in our society, it is more accurate to say that the society in which we live belongs to all of us, and we belong to it. Because we belong in this society, we expect to be welcomed within it. Because others belong to this society, we expect to welcome them. We do not accept exclusion from any element of our culture. We belong within the political, economic, legal, educational, and scientific arenas. We belong in all elements of our society of every kind and description. We have helped to make it what it is, and it belongs to us. We cannot be (and we will not be) extracted from it. We give this society richness, depth, and a level of experience and understanding that cannot be had without us. Some may try to shoulder us aside into low-grade, shabby lives, but this is not enough. We own our freedom; we have power; and we know what to do with it. Our society belongs to us; we will not be shut out; we belong!

If dignity is inherent in us, we must recognize the dignity inherent in others. We must honor dignity even when ours is threatened, we must welcome the dignity of others even when we do not fully understand their experience, and we must earn respect for our dignity by sharing in the courtesy of giving. Dignity is inherent, but upholding it is a choice—a choice of self-determination and a choice of mutual respect. Upholding our dignity supports both the diversity and authenticity of our shared community—a dignified community of blind people who represent the full range of diverse characteristics including race, creed, color, religion, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, national origin, citizenship, marital status, age, genetic information, disability, and any other characteristics or intersectionality of characteristics.

The day-to-day struggle of overcoming misconceptions, low expectations, and artificial barriers can feel overwhelming. However, eighty-four years ago we took back our dignity, and we are still determined to achieve full equality. What gives us boundless hope for the future is the solidarity of dignity we have found in the National Federation of the Blind. We preserve our dignity by speaking and acting for ourselves. We enhance our dignity when we define the solutions to the problems we face, rather than waiting for the charity of others to do it for us. We strengthen our dignity through the support we give to the dignity of others. We share our dignity through the rich diversity within our community and by ensuring that all blind people can bring their full selves to our movement. Equality will come when we can link arms with our nonblind colleagues in recognition of the interlocking aspects of our shared human dignity. 

So is dignity for the blind different from dignity for the nonblind? “No,” is the firm answer from us, the dignitaries of our movement. Yet, our daily experience demonstrates that the understanding of others, no matter how well intentioned, provides an alternate answer. Our challenge is to hold tight to our shared understanding of dignity for the blind while we do the work of inviting the rest of society to find their place as dignitaries in the organized blind movement. We must guard against becoming angry and feeling powerless when misunderstanding threatens our dignity. By striving every day to live out the dignity that is rightfully ours as blind people and by holding firm to the bond of faith we share, each of us has the power to make a difference in changing the understanding of others. When you encounter moments when your dignity is respected, pause to acknowledge the progress. When you are confronted with low expectations, remember that the choices are yours, and your dignity cannot be taken. When you push back on those misconceptions and create understanding, feel proud of defending our dignity. And when you feel like you cannot push any more, when you are too tired of defending your rightful dignity, remember that you are not alone; all of the other dignitaries have your back.

My Federation family, let us be proud of the dignity we share. Centuries of misunderstanding created the narrative that we were not worthy of equality, but we organized and took back our dignity. Under no circumstances will our dignity again be taken from us, and under no circumstances will we permit our dignity to be undervalued. Every day we struggle against persistent low expectations, but we do so with hope and our authentic understanding that it is respectable to be blind. We know who we are, and our dignity is equal to others. In wearing our dignity with pride, we honor the dignity of others. We continue to recognize that we do not journey alone. We do not face the challenges by ourselves, and we do not have to be perfect in order to preserve our dignity. Our dignity comes from within, and it is valued, strengthened, and honored through the collective actions of individuals focused into a movement we share. But equality in society is not yet ours.

We deserve a world where every heart and mind know our understanding of dignity for the blind. The only way we can get to that future is together through the courage, determination, and creativity of a shared movement. This is the commitment to defend our dignity. This is the commitment we make to each other. This is the love, hope, and determination felt in our movement. This is the bond of faith that fuels our hope for our tomorrows. Let us go together to find those blind people who have not yet discovered the power of their dignity. Let us show that we belong in the world and that we make it better. Let us never again allow our dignity to be devalued. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.