An Address Delivered by
Mark A. Riccobono
National Federation of the Blind
July 4, 2023
During the past year, the warmth and strength of our blind people’s movement has been felt in increasing intensity throughout our nation. While our mission to achieve equality, opportunity, and security is rooted deeply in our souls, it is the commitment we make to work together, to have each other’s backs, that drives the collective heartbeat of our movement. As we gather to review our progress over the past year, we share our lived experiences and the motivation to pursue a better future as a family of blind people joined arm in arm in a march for independence. Deep in the heart of our movement, we are proud of our achievements and celebrate the thousands of blind people who are responsible for our victories. Together, we are the National Federation of the Blind.
Each year at this convention, our delegates elect those blind members who will represent our movement on our national board of directors. While this Convention remains the supreme authority of the organization, our board has the responsibility for managing the work of the movement during the other fifty-one weeks of the year. Coming out of the unprecedented period of isolation caused by the pandemic, our board was determined to move aggressively to build our community. Over the past year, we have undertaken a comprehensive strategic planning process that has included deep data collection from members and partners of the Federation. That work has been led by a steering committee that included a wide cross-section of members and staff from all levels of our organization. This diverse group of individuals was tasked with ensuring that our strategic development work represented the whole community of the Federation, including those we have yet to fully welcome into membership. This week we have made the final strategic plan publicly available. In the coming weeks, we will begin the work of implementing the key values and commitments of the plan. From our position of leadership, we deal with all matters affecting the blind in society, yet our time and resources are not infinite. The strategic plan ensures that our commitments are clearly tied to building capacity for the organization—developing a strong, coordinated, blind people’s movement. The single greatest factor in our success will continue to be the commitment that blind individuals bring to the work that we do. It is not enough for our leaders to be invested in the strategic direction of the organization—it has to be all of us together. It is not just that we believe in blind people—we are those people. This movement is the expression of our hopes and dreams for the future.
Dr. LaShawna Fant serves as president of the Jackson Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Mississippi. To further her dream of expanding awareness of the Federation, she proposed bringing the monthly Presidential Release Live event to her community for Blind Equality Achievement Month. In the weeks leading up to our event in Jackson, national news reports began giving focus to a local water crisis that Jackson residents had been enduring for many years. We know that when problems impact our communities, blind people are disproportionately impacted. While water distributions sites were being established, there were no accommodations to support those in the community, such as blind people, who could not drive to pick up water. In response, we mobilized help from the Federation family. Our National Association of Blind Merchants secured the delivery of seven hundred cases of water to Jackson, and LaShawna made a plan for us to personally distribute water to the homes of blind people in the community. As the water was graciously accepted at each visit, I was deeply moved by the personal stories of how important the National Federation of the Blind has been in creating community and hope for our members in Jackson. This is one example that demonstrates the power of our coordinated network. More importantly, it shows the love and support that lie deep in the heart of the Federation.
Membership capacity building happens through development of strong Federation state affiliates. This includes providing infrastructure support for managing corporate documents, fiscal responsibility, and maintaining important policies and practices like our commitment to the protection of youth in our programs.
One recent example of affiliate capacity building was our work to strengthen the National Federation of the Blind of Puerto Rico, which has been our fastest growing affiliate this year. This work is consistent with our efforts to reimagine and improve outreach and effective communication with the Spanish-speaking blind of our nation. Our board of directors has initiated the production of a Spanish version of the Braille Monitor, our monthly flagship publication, and we have begun working with our partners in the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults to begin plans for distribution of the Future Reflections magazine in Spanish. At the same time, we are building our capacity by combining the interpretation efforts of our blind members with the delivery of interpretation and translation through our national office. We are also improving the quality of our online tools, including Spanish-language content on NFB-NEWSLINE. Shortly before this convention, we established a corps of members to help with this effort that we call the Committee for the Advancement of Spanish-Speaking Advocates (CASA). This committee will make recommendations toward our continuous improvement of coordination, outreach, and engagement in this part of our community. We seek to ensure these blind people know this home is also their home. Estás profundamente en el corazón de la Federación con nosotras.
We continue to improve the process for onboarding and engaging members. Examples from this year include faster delivery of our new-member welcoming materials and initiating biannual listening sessions with new members to inform our strategies for engaging underrepresented voices within our community. Additionally, we continue to add features to our Member Management Module to assist chapters, divisions, and affiliates with local membership records. In the coming year, we will launch an online member profile feature allowing individual members to change their primary contact information, review their membership record, and access exclusive benefits for NFB members made available through our partners.
Thousands of informal and formal activities contribute to building our nationwide blind leadership network. Fifty years ago, Kenneth Jernigan held the first presidential leadership seminar—a tradition that we continue twice each year. Dr. Jernigan understood how critical it was to build leadership and plan for the transition between leaders in our blind people’s movement. The leaders from these seminars have expanded the reach and the depth of leadership within the movement. However, we do not have enough leaders to achieve all that we desire deep in the heart of the Federation. As a result, today I am announcing the establishment of the Kenneth Jernigan Leadership in Service Program of the National Federation of the Blind. This yearlong, intensive leadership experience is intended to expand the corps of blind people working in service of our mission to integrate the blind into society on terms of equality. This program will not only build new leaders; it will also raise the expectations of existing leaders. Our service in mentorship is required in this program. Our Kenneth Jernigan Leadership in Service Program will deeply root participants in the history of the organized blind movement, the philosophy born of our lived experience, and the network of community connections necessary to lead into the future. Participants in the program will have to dedicate time to in-person and virtual seminars and make a commitment to their leadership journey. More importantly, we want our future leaders to be central to the development of the leadership experience. Therefore, our first class, expected to start this fall, will serve as a test group to guide the structure and progression of the program in the future. This is not a replacement for existing leadership efforts. This is an additional program intended to accelerate our leadership development in service to our mission to improve the lives of blind people by fostering personal empowerment, coordinating nationwide advocacy, and building a network of collective achievement. More details will be available in the coming weeks about this new program supported by our Kenneth Jernigan Fund.
The members of the National Federation of the Blind are known for action and effectiveness. From helping newly blind people in our local communities to persuading members of the United States Congress to support our priorities, we continue to make a difference by breaking down barriers and creating opportunities for the blind of our nation. This year we returned in-person to our nation’s capital to advance legislation related to equal access to websites, mobile applications, and medical devices. We also seek to empower blind people to control their own economic security by eliminating harmful disincentives in the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, creating a new incentive for blind people to secure access technology, and taking the final steps to eliminate the discriminatory practice of permitting employers to pay blind people unequal wages. We bring the voice of the nation’s blind to policy issues as they come up in all branches of government. In the past year, this included commenting on the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles, advocating for an increased appropriation for the Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind Program, and urging the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to take action against discriminatory driver’s license requirements in employment screenings. A full report of our advocacy and policy work will be featured later in this convention. With certainty, our commitment to speak and act for ourselves is found deep in the heart of the Federation.
A persistent problem we face is the denial by rideshare drivers who refuse to transport us because of our guide dogs and, sometimes, even just because we are blind people. For years I have reported to you about our attempts to get sustained changes at these companies, as well as our growing frustration. Following last year’s convention where we passed resolutions calling out both Lyft and Uber, we redoubled our efforts to make progress. Over the course of several meetings with each company, we have slowly realized some progress in ensuring that guide dog users are treated fairly with dignity and respect, but there is still much work to do.
Denials are experienced by blind people daily, and, unfortunately, the media gives them little coverage, and the companies give little information about the results of our complaints. One recent high-profile incident involved Judge David Tatel, a senior judge at the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, being denied a ride with Lyft because of his guide dog. Judge Tatel’s experience was documented in The Washington Post on April 20, 2023. Another interesting incident happened in March 2023—interesting because I was there. Gary Wunder, editor of the Braille Monitor, and I were with our colleague, Danielle McCann, who uses a guide dog. We called an Uber to take us back to the national office after participating in an extremely positive meeting with Federation partners. The joy from the meeting ended when the Uber arrived. Within seconds of his arrival, the driver made it clear he would not take us because of the guide dog. He left his doors locked and spoke to us through the passenger window. Faced with this discrimination, we would not let him refuse this chance for education. I began recording a video on my phone while talking politely with the driver about his understanding of the Uber policy. He made it clear: he was not afraid of what Uber would do. Meanwhile, and I am not recommending this to you, Gary stood in front of the car. The driver attempted on a number of occasions to get Gary to stand down by using his car to push him out of the way. Gary stood strong in his resistance of the discrimination and was not hurt. Once I completed my conversation, we stood aside and let the driver leave. We sent the video and our account of the incident to Uber, and they took appropriate action. They have even, for the first time, sent a prominent executive to address our concerns at this convention. To Lyft and Uber we say that it should not take this extreme level of evidence or the profile of a federal judge to get your action on these issues. This is happening to blind people every day, and it must stop immediately. We demand that both of these companies uphold their responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and deliver equal treatment to our community. We will not stand down. We will use all the tools at our disposal to make this happen. We will continue to document the discrimination. We will report incidents to local law enforcement. We will demand that the United States Department of Justice use the full power of its authority to protect our people. We will even bring our guide dogs to your offices to disrupt your business if we must.
Similar problems are on the rise in airports across the nation where we have been encountering low expectations from officials of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the airlines. There is an increased trend of guide-dog users being accosted and, in some cases, denied boarding of their flight by airline personnel who refuse to transport their guide dog. Blind people have been using guide dogs in this country just about as long as commercial airline flights have been widely offered. There is no justification for the harassment, and we will not permit it to continue. In April, members of the National Federation of the Blind held a meeting with officials of the United States Department of Transportation to discuss our ongoing concerns and seek federal intervention. We expect to make meaningful progress during the coming year. Deep in the heart of the Federation is a determination to stand our ground for equal treatment—a determination that will not be driven from us.
The federal government can be an important factor in enforcing our rights, but the government itself systemically discriminates against us. The most glaring discrimination happens in the lack of implementation and enforcement of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology, including their public and internal systems, accessible to people with disabilities. Typically, when blind federal employees face barriers and file complaints, they go unaddressed for years and sometimes decades.
Joe Orozco, a leader from our Virginia affiliate, has been working as an intelligence analyst for the Federal Bureau of Investigation since 2012. Over his career he has observed his employer procure several technologies that are inaccessible to the blind. Joe needs to be able to efficiently use these technologies to maximize his contributions to the mission of the agency. He wants to take on the same challenging assignments and range of tasks available to others on his team. For years, he faithfully navigated the reasonable accommodations process and advocated tirelessly within his agency hoping that the government would meet both the spirit and the requirements of Section 508. After years of patience and unanswered administrative complaints, Joe courageously brought suit in federal court to order the agency to comply with the law.
The trial judge dismissed Joe’s case—echoing a series of flawed decisions from other trial court’s ruling that federal employees have no right to sue their federal employers under Section 508. With the support of the National Federation of the Blind, Joe stood his ground and appealed the decision. A panel of judges of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with our arguments and, in a landmark decision, reversed the trial judge. This sets a strong precedent reversing the tide of flawed opinions. We have reclaimed the right of blind and otherwise disabled federal employees and members of the public to directly sue federal agencies for their continued discrimination through use of inaccessible electronic information technology.
We are now mobilizing federal employees through our National Association of Blind Government Employees division and educating all people with disabilities about their rights under Section 508. For this year’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we held a training on the requirements of Section 508 in partnership with the United States Access Board. We hope that other disability rights organizations will leverage this important breakthrough and join with us in holding the government accountable. Deep in the heart of the Federation is the strength not simply to pass laws but to follow through in getting them enforced, no matter how long it takes.
While the National Federation of the Blind has been essential in making progress with the federal government, our coordination with our state affiliates gives us many more tools for change in society. Much of our effectiveness comes from our affiliates moving model legislation at the local level and creating innovative approaches that we can share across the country. While we have not yet eliminated the allowance of unequal pay for the blind at the federal level, in fifteen states we have secured legislation or promulgated regulations to phase out subminimum wages for people with disabilities. In two additional states we have secured a limited restriction on subminimum wages. This is only the beginning.
Deep in the heart of the Federation, we all feel the painful experience of discrimination against blind parents and caregivers based on outdated misconceptions. These attempts to break the bond of love between family members will only strengthen our resolve and the bond of faith we share together in this movement. Due to the structure of social service laws, protecting blind caregivers is a critical issue best addressed at the state level. We now have secured meaningful protections for the blind in twenty states, and we are prepared to make this a reality in our remaining thirty-two affiliates. In the meantime, we continue to help counteract the discrimination faced by individuals.
One example from the past year is Tiffany Green, a blind person in Maryland, who sought to be a foster parent. The department of social services in Baltimore City denied her initial application. Tiffany’s application demonstrated a significant amount of experience with children, and there was no credible reason why her application was denied other than the fact that she was blind. The Federation and Disability Rights Maryland stood by Ms. Green and convinced the department to change its decision. This is a victory for Tiffany, but also for any children that will benefit from her skilled care and love in the future. We will continue to stand with blind caregivers and fight the harmful discrimination they face.
Another critical area of action for us is protecting the fundamental right to vote privately and independently. We have been hopeful that federal voting legislation would present an opportunity to strengthen protections for the blind to have an equal, private and accessible voting experience, but no substantive movement by Congress has occurred. In the meantime, we have had an aggressive strategy of both litigation and advocacy work at the state level. During the 2020 federal elections, nearly half of America’s votes cast were by mail, and considerably more than half of the states in our union were not prepared to provide the blind with equal access in their absentee voting program. In coordination with other voting advocates, we have secured legislation to permit electronic delivery of ballots for people with disabilities in twenty-eight states. In an additional six states, their law achieves our ultimate goal of electronic delivery and return of ballots. We must continue to monitor the progress.
One example of our success this year comes from North Dakota, where their secretary of state had refused to implement the state’s new law allowing for accessible, electronic absentee voting. Our persistent advocacy has persuaded the current secretary of state to agree to implement the accessibility required by law. We will continue to provide oversight to ensure our equal access is no longer denied.
Another victory came in Bexar County, Texas, where we won a preliminary injunction requiring Bexar County to allow our three blind plaintiffs to electronically vote absentee in the 2022 general election. It is worth noting that the filing of this case was a significant motivator to the advocacy community and a wake-up call for the state legislature, which passed a bill to allow people with disabilities to use accessible electronic absentee ballots starting this September. Bexar County moved to use the new law as a basis to dismiss our case. In the meantime, the governor of Texas, a person with a disability himself, vetoed the bill. But shortly before this convention, the judge declared his intent to find that the county violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and scheduled a hearing for permanent injunction. In the last week we won the case on summary judgment. Due to our advocacy, blind people in Bexar County will be able to vote absentee using accessible electronic ballots privately and independently in future elections.
Deep in the heart of the Federation, we have the strength to do the work needed to transform our demand for equal treatment into reality.
Our quest for equal treatment touches all aspects of society. Consider the challenges faced by blind people within the prison industrial complex. The unacceptable low expectations for blind people are further exacerbated in the prison environment where no meaningful access is provided, no disability-centered rehabilitation training is offered, and no accountability exists with respect to the treatment of blind people. We are a movement that believes in rehabilitation and opportunity, but blind people must be given real access to those opportunities. The importance of our role with regard to the prison industrial complex is further emphasized by the statistics that demonstrate that marginalized communities are overrepresented in the prison population. Those blind people who have the least access to programs such as the public vocational rehabilitation system are more likely to be inside prisons where they are denied even the most basic access and dignity.
Leveraging our earlier success within the Maryland correctional system, we achieved a settlement on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado and blind prisoners in that state. Blind prisoners were denied any ability to read mail, write grievances, complete other forms, or take advantage of employment or educational opportunities. As a result of our settlement, blind prisoners in that state will now have the essential accessible technology they deserve to have a fair opportunity to take advantage of the employment and educational programs offered to all other prisoners. In another case, we have filed suit on behalf of seven blind prisoners and our Virginia affiliate challenging the Virginia Department of Corrections’ failure to provide accommodations and access technology to blind prisoners. We stand with blind people, behind bars and otherwise, who are denied a fair opportunity to rehabilitate themselves because of the unequal treatment of the discriminatory structures around them.
Equal access to educational opportunities is central in our mission. Since 2017, I have reported on our efforts to stop the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) from denying blind students those opportunities. Following a positive ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, our case returned to the district court for trial. Days before the trial, LACCD offered us a seven-figure settlement to walk away without any relief for blind students. They do not know what is deep in the heart of the Federation—we refused to sell out. I am happy to report that on May 26 a jury found that LACCD had violated the ADA—and did so in fourteen different ways. The jury found that LACCD intentionally discriminated through actions such as failing to give blind students accommodation letters in accessible formats and through their failure to maintain accessible technology such as websites, library resources, and educational software. The jury also awarded damages to the individual blind students. The finding that LACCD broadly violated the ADA now sets a strong foundation for asking the court to order LACCD to comply with the law. We will continue to press for equal access to education by the blind at LACCD, and we will use this victory to make equal access a first principle in all higher education institutions across our nation.
Our pursuit of equal access to employment opportunities also continues. We focus our resources on opportunities to bring relief through systemic change. One example is our continued advocacy with several blind employees who were denied pay while waiting for Amazon to provide reasonable accommodations. Our success includes monetary settlements for many of these individuals, as well as guiding Amazon in eliminating the systemic problems that have led to the discrimination. We are also working to organize Amazon’s current blind employees so they can provide support to each other. Our advocacy will both reduce discrimination and open new avenues for employment opportunities for the blind in Amazon’s extensive network of distribution centers across the nation.
Other examples of our employment advocacy range from investigating inaccessible applicant screening tools and the use of artificial intelligence to eliminate blind people from employment consideration, to supporting a blind teacher whose school district continues to make excuses regarding its failure to provide Braille instructional materials and its insistence that a companion is required for the teacher to travel in the school.
In the meantime, the greatest network of resources and employment opportunities for blind people continues to be the National Federation of the Blind. We produce important content through our Where the Blind Work webinar series. In addition, our specialized divisions continue to support blind jobseekers in a variety of career areas. With the leadership of the Federation’s employment committee, chaired by Jennifer Wenzel of Wisconsin, we are again offering a robust set of employment-boosting opportunities during this convention. Over the past year, including our 2022 convention, we hosted 77 employers and put 349 potential blind employees in front of them. It is worth emphasizing that one of those employers is the National Federation of the Blind, where we are also seeking talented people to join our staff team that works to advance the blind people’s movement. Let me take this occasion to thank the incredible paid staff of our movement.
Through our partnership with SmartJob, LLC, we supported a dozen aspiring blind entrepreneurs through the Ideas to Incubation Program managed by Synergies Work out of Atlanta, Georgia, providing intense instruction and one-on-one mentoring in business development. In addition, ninety-six of you responded to our call for blind people to join us in the five-week course “From Idea to Business.” This intensive course curriculum was delivered online and covered key topics related to business and venture readiness. Deep in the heart of the Federation, we seek innovative partnerships with those who share our belief in blind people in order to achieve all of our employment aspirations.
We raise expectations and build meaningful community connections through educational programs innovated by us for the next generation of blind people. Our mantra has been “if they will not teach them, we will teach them ourselves.” The teaching continues in our Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning Academy. Last summer we offered in-person programs in nine state affiliates and a three-week, in-home virtual edition with the theme of music, movement, and mathematics. 219 blind students benefited from this program with 94 of these being first timers to our program. More than one hundred individuals supported this work through instruction, coordination, mentoring, materials preparation, and logistics support like Zoom hosting. Our 2023 program is now underway and we expect the results to be even more impactful to blind students across the nation.
We now add a new mantra to our work, “if they are to teach them, we must teach them ourselves.” For far too long, programs to prepare teachers of blind students have been rooted in an outdated vision-centered model rather than an authentic approach centering the lived experience of the blind. We are dismantling the outdated systems by teaching the future teachers ourselves and grounding them in the blind people’s movement. We find that these teachers are hungry for the authenticity and support offered in our community. Consider this from one of the participants in our current program: “It has truly been a pleasure being a part of the Teachers of Tomorrow program. It has been phenomenal, and I want more. I also want to give back in other ways. As a blind individual, I received negative connotations about the NFB, but they were false. This program and these approaches are priceless…”
As our current cohort of teachers finishes the program at this convention, they begin their career as part of our blind-centered movement. We are their professional network, and, together, deep in the heart of our Federation, we work tirelessly to ensure that no blind child is left behind.
We are also planning for change in the future. Last year I announced our intention to establish the Museum of the Blind People’s Movement before the end of this decade. This bold initiative to establish a museum centered on blind people and providing a radical level of inclusion for all, is not as much about the past as it is about our future. We seek to preserve the authentic stories of blind people and our work together. During the past year, we have collected twenty-two new oral histories and our collection will grow in the coming year. We added important papers and artifacts to our archives including Dan Parker's motorcycle driven on the salt flats in Utah, personal papers and artifacts from Jim Omvig, fully digitized archival records from our Colorado affiliate, and papers from the Cambridge Chapter and Massachusetts affiliate preserved by David Ticchi. We are now building the solid foundation required for a credible museum effort. We have begun the concept design phase where the identification of themes and user experiences are being developed with a cross-section of blind people from our movement. Each of us is the key to success in this effort. We need your ideas, your dreams, and your help. You can send your ideas for our future museum and how you would like to help via email to [email protected]. In the meantime, we have been talking to blind people throughout the country and from around the world. This museum will be unlike anything we have ever dreamed of before, and it will be the most powerful tool we have ever built to positively impact the public image of blindness. It will require all of our imagination, and it will stretch us in new ways. Most certainly, we need to do all of the other core work of our movement in addition to this bold new initiative. In one quiet year of raising financial pledges for this effort, we have already secured commitments for more than $2.7 million. Our ultimate success will require much more. Our stories are important and centering them in a new way will accelerate the change we want in society. Together we will open new doors to understanding and bring new allies to our mission of equality.
There is much more progress in our work during the past year than I have time to cover in this brief report. We have not detailed our increased communications effort, including the dissemination of new video public service announcements, the establishment of a Federation community in the Mastodon fediverse, and progress on improving affiliate websites. We have not detailed the growth of NFB-NEWSLINE—providing free access to hundreds of publications using multiple delivery methods to over 125,000 blind subscribers. There is not time to cover our work to train Braille transcribers, to educate blind youth in science, to disseminate a teaching curriculum from our blind engineering grant from the National Science Foundation, and to provide access to a Nemeth Braille curriculum. If there was time, we would detail our distribution of thousands of free long white canes and hundreds of free tools for writing Braille, as well as our collaborative effort to give wings to the Monarch—a device to revolutionize the use of Braille and tactile graphics. We would also talk about our work to hold technology companies accountable for providing meaningful access to the blind, to train people on important technology related topics, and to evaluate products and give feedback from the lived experience of blind people. Without more time, we cannot detail our work to break down barriers at the Social Security Administration, secure accessible communication from healthcare entities in North Carolina, and ensure that public agencies in Iowa provide equal access to their application processes.
It would be impossible for us to take enough time to cover in adequate detail the true strength that lies deep in the heart of the Federation. That strength is the thousands of individual stories of blind people who, in the process of striving to live the lives they want, commit to working together to make the community better for everyone. You, the members of the National Federation of the Blind, are the strength, energy, ingenuity, and heart of this movement. Our success is a result of your actions to build our movement every day. Every time you answer a call from a newly blind person, help to plan a chapter meeting, contribute to our financing, take a moment to educate a public official, or talk about our priorities with someone at the bus stop—you are making a difference. Deep in my heart I am filled with hope, energy, love, and gratitude for what we share together deep in this movement. It is my greatest honor to serve you in this movement. While our progress has been good, I know that you expect our future to be even better. You have my full commitment to do what is needed to help us go the rest of the way to fulfilling our mission of equality. I cannot do this without each of you. I pledge to you my continued commitment to the work ahead, to the continuous improvement of our great organization, and to stand with you through whatever challenges we face in the future. I continue to be energized by the hope that radiates from the bond of faith we share deep in the heart of the Federation. Hold strong to that bond, and there is no dream that we will fail to make come true together.
My Federation family, this is my report for 2023. This is our progress in advancing our mission. This is the future we build for ourselves with love, hope, and determination. This is the blind people’s movement.