Transcript of October 12, 2022 Blind Equality Achievement Month Featuring President Riccobono Podcast

Melissa Riccobono: Hello and welcome to the Nation's Blind Podcast. I'm Melissa Riccobono and I'm here with?

Anil Lewis: Not Melissa Riccobono. This is Anil Lewis.

Melissa Riccobono: Hi Anil Lewis. How are you?

Anil Lewis: I'm here. I'm doing great. I'm your sidekick. 

Melissa Riccobono: You're my co-host. You're very important.

Anil Lewis: Wow, I appreciate that. Thank you. I'm the Anil to your Melissa.

Melissa Riccobono: Yes, absolutely. And I'm glad that's the only thing it has to be. (Both laugh) We are equal participants in this podcast.

Anil Lewis: With equal accountability in this podcast.

Melissa Riccobono: That's right.

Anil Lewis: Whether you love it or hate it. It's Melissa and Anil's fault.

Melissa Riccobono: So it's the month of October. How's October treating you so far? Have you had any, I don't know,
I love Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins. I'm sure there's other candy that you like. I know it's not Halloween yet, but how's October treating you so far?

Anil Lews: October is treating me fine. I'm trying to make sure that I focus on eating my candy in reasonable amounts, being a true diabetic. Well, not true, because I'm not insulin dependent and I don't want to get there, trying to make sure I eat my candy in moderation and the right kinds of candy. And who knew that sugar-free chocolates were still pretty good chocolates?

Melissa Riccobono: Oh, that's really good to know. And, you know, dark chocolate is a lot healthier than other kinds of chocolate, too.

Anil Lewis: Yes, this is true. 

Melissa Riccobono: Another pro-tip. 

Anil Lewis: And October is treating you well?

Melissa Riccobono: October is treating me well. It's a little chilly out there today, but I do always love fall. I was a cross-country runner in high school and fall was really when, you know, August and September, you sweated and you were really trying to get in shape. October was kind of when you were really starting to hit your stride and you'd have just these beautiful race days on these trails through the woods. And whenever I crunch through leaves, even though I don't run anymore, it brings me back to October in Wisconsin. And so I always do appreciate fall weather and when it gets cooler. And I always love when the leaves are falling. So, there you go.

Anil Lewis: Yeah, it's a great time of the year, the good season, and it's a great time to kind of mount a real strong initiative around blindness and blind people, don't you think? 

Melissa Riccobono: Yes. And that initiative is Blind Equality Achievement Month. We're really excited today to have none other than President Riccobono to join us and talk about Blind Equality Achievement Month.

How are you? 

Mark Riccobono: I'm doing great.

Melissa Riccobono: So what do you want listeners to know about blind equality achievement month?

Mark Riccobono: Well, Blind Equality Achievement Month is our focused time in the National Federation of the Blind, when we want our chapters and affiliates, members across the nation, to be very intentional about doing outreach in the community in new and dynamic ways, to really own the conversation about the capacity of blind people, the techniques that we use to be successful, demystifying blindness, but also to have honest conversations about the barriers that we still face as blind people. And unfortunately, a lot of times we are forced into public education just in trying to live our everyday lives. But this is our time when we get to really be intentional about planning activities on our terms, to share the messages we want the public to have.

Anil Lewis: Elaborate a little bit on the forced to educate, you know, in our day to day, I think that a lot of people kind of miss the fact that we kind of carry around that burden as blind people, as we're interacting with the general public that thinks that what we do is magical or supernatural.

Mark Riccobono: Yeah, you know, most blind people know the experience if you get out in the community, I mean, I just came back from Jackson, Mississippi, this past weekend where I was humbled to be working with our local chapter there. One of the activities was thanks to our National Association of Blind Merchants. We got water for our local members there who have been dealing with the water crisis and we went around and delivered water.

So here, I'm coming as a blind person to Jackson to contribute to the local community. But you know, the people I encounter, not our chapter members, but just in the day-to-day being there, you know, have low expectations. So I was at the airport yesterday and there's a lady, older lady, I could speculate how old, but she clearly had issues walking. We were at the gate there in Mississippi. You know, it's not a big airport first of all, the Jackson. And then secondly, you know, most boarding gates you encounter are the same. Most planes you get on are the same. It's not a difficult drill. They finally kind of talked her into getting a wheelchair to go down to the plane. But she kept saying, "I'm worried about this guy over here." 

Anil Lewis: Wow.

Mark Riccobono: And I'm thinking, I walked here fine, I'm going to get on fine. And so she, you know, had gotten on the plane ahead of me, obviously, because they assisted her down and all that. So finally, when I got on the plane and they were offering for me to sit in the front row, which I never do, because I like having my bag handy. And I went a few rows back and I heard her saying to someone else, "I think he must have a diagram of the plane, you know, because he knows exactly where he’s going." (Anil laughs in background) And I'm thinking, I could ask anybody without, you know, a picture.

When you get onto an airplane, what's, what direction do you turn, left or right? I mean, it's not complicated. So, you know, it's those kind of things where you're, you know, and in that case, I didn't really engage in the education because I wasn't going to necessarily change this person's mind. But in those situations, a lot of times you are educating, you know, at security. You know, first of all, I had been spotted when I got in the airport. So I was being trailed by a nice helpful Henry there from the airport. But I was at security. And first of all, and one of the security agents was talking to this person about, was the person going to go through security with me? And I said many times, I'm fine. I don't need any help. And you know, the guy who had been trailing me said, "Are you sure?" Well, yeah. I didn't ask for help. This guy was just following me. So then, you know, I'm talking about my cane, right? You know, I tell them there's no metal in this cane. I can take it through. There was a fairly new TSA person there. Now, fortunately, in that case, the person who was working the belt already knew what the rules were. And so she was the one that got to school him on the fact that I could walk through with my cane. But even after doing that, he still says, "Now put your hand out." So I put my hand out, I didn't know what he wanted. He grabs my hand and says, "Now I'm going to lead you through." It’s like, that’s why I have this cane here. (Melissa laughs, then sighs) So although he didn't, he knew he didn't have to, you know, take my cane away, he still wanted me to be guided through. So, you know, those kind of things are tiring and especially for me in travel, you know, can be very wearing on your patience.

Anil Lewis: Yeah. And we do that like almost every day that we're out there living in public. And so many of them are dealing with the stereotypes and the misconceptions that are so pervasive in society. And if we are ever going to be considered equals, we do have to take a little bit more ownership of educating people so that we can remove a lot of those uncertainties and really, truly that ignorance that exists and meet people where they are and bring them to where we want them to be. And I think that the Blind Equality Achievement Month is a time to really focus, you know, our energy in a collective fashion toward doing that education. 

Mark Riccobono: In a lot of situations like the travel ones I mentioned, I mean, they are opportunities for education, but they're also not great opportunities for education because you know, it really depends on the dynamics. And yes, you always can take the time to educate somebody. But, you know, sometimes it has to be a little confrontational. You know, when I'm treated like a piece of luggage it’s really, I'm not in a good position to educate, number one. And number two, when I'm pushing back on someone who what they really want to do is, you know, be my caretaker, they're probably not in a great position to be educated either, depending on who they are. So when we set up these intentional situations where, you know, education is the goal, people that are coming into it are also ready to have their mind opened up. And that's just harder to do. As much as we talk about, you know, how we should take those opportunities when we're out in public, you know, the people that we're trying to educate have to be ready to be educated. And, you know, I think we've all experienced as blind people, those individuals, that despite our best efforts, their minds aren't going to be changed. I've been telling the story, I was in a train station with my good friend Everette Bacon last month. We were traveling back from visiting Comcast and there was a person there who really insisted she had to put us on the elevator. And so in order to kind of make the point, I said, "See this guy over here? He climbed Mount Everest last week." 
And the lady said...

Anil: (Laughs) Listeners’ note: Everette Bacon never climbed Mount Everest.

Mark Riccobono: No, no, no. If he put his mind to it, he could, but he has no interest. But the lady said, "Oh, well,
that makes sense because you have a rope." And she went on and on. And this lady is worried about us going on an escalator, but she has, but she believed he could climb Mount Everest. Everette climbing Mount Everest. So her mind was made up, right? We tried our best. Put a little humor in there. And so here's the interesting thing. She insisted on sticking with us and trailing us again, and we weren't looking for that kind of assistance. But when we were standing on the platform waiting for the train, Everette did a very good job of talking with her. And this is someone that works in the train station, obviously encounters a lot of different people who do require different levels of assistance based on their experience. Right? So the woman was recounting for him a particular blind person who comes to the train station often,
who does, I, I gathered from the conversation, hasn't had great skills training, hasn't had those opportunities to really expand their horizons. And so it was a great opportunity for Everette then to educate her on how she could more appropriately approach people and not make assumptions based on her experience with this one other blind person, but offer appropriate assistance at the right time. And so that she wasn't overbearing. But, you know, it can be hard to have that much time with someone when you're just trying to get to where you want to go.

Melissa Riccobono: Yeah, I want to back up just a little bit about these educational opportunities because I love what you said about making them our own. It's always so much better when we can own it and make it what we want it to be. And I think events where we're talking to people or educating people about how we do things, those are super important. But I think it's also equally as important to just get out in the community and do things that everybody does to help
the community. Would you agree with that? And what kinds of events could people do in that vein for Blind Equality Achievement Month?

Mark Riccobono: You know, I know our Baltimore Chapter is going to be out at the Baltimore Running Festival, handing out water. Really has nothing to do with blind people except that they're going to be out in the community and visible and contributing to what has become, over the last decade in Baltimore, one of the biggest events around town. And so to have blind people supporting those with the guts to run a marathon, that's right Anil, guts to run a marathon right?

Anil Lewis: It does require guts. Yes.

Mark Riccobono: Okay, good, good. But, you know, other times I know that we've had chapters that will go out and do community service, whether it's at a food shelter or some other way of providing community service that's outside of the blindness field, but puts blind people in the center of, you know, serving food or passing things out to make it clear that blind people contribute to the community and aren't just takers. So that's another way of participating in just the fabric of the community, doing community cleanups or whatever it might be.

Anil Lewis: I love the fact that the examples that you're giving show blind people volunteering because it's just, you know, always seems that we're the beneficiaries of everybody else's benevolence. And I think that when we can demonstrate to everybody that we can put our shoulder to the wheel and contribute to society, we get closer and closer to that equality that we're trying to achieve.

Melissa Riccobono: I agree. And I think, too, if we can even little things like maybe putting something up on social media
about blind people that we know and the job they do, I mean, it doesn't have to be anything.

I mean, certainly you can point to Erik Weihenmayer who climbed Mount Everest or Debbie Kent Stein, who is a famous author or Stevie Wonder, who is a great musician. But I think just blind people, everyday blind people doing everyday things, you know, the more we can spotlight that and just help people understand that we are truly among them, this is not something that's very far away from them, that we're out there, we're living our lives, and we're just very much like them. We just happen to have eyes that don't work like theirs. 

Mark Riccobono: And that's why we want people to really use #BlindMonth for these positive posts. And I think it's increasingly important, you know, I think social media has provided a nice outlet for blind people to vent about the frustrating experiences that we have with the misconceptions in society. But I feel like I see a lot of those posts
throughout the year and fewer of those positive experiences where people are sharing examples of the capacity of blind people. And so much of social media has become about having a community to share the frustrating experiences we've had, so Blind Month, #BlindMonth really gives us that intentional opportunity to post those things we want people to know that aren't based on our frustration of the moment.

Melissa Riccobono: You know and I had two really good experiences just today when I was walking. I went to acupuncture and I was walking back and I heard a couple women talking to me from across the street and they were
saying, “Mothers, it's just down here." "No, it's not. It's over there." "Where is Mothers?" And I said, "Are you looking for Mother's?" And they said, "Yeah." And I said, "Well, you know, you're on Cross Street. Mothers is actually on Charles Street.

So just," I pointed I said, "go, go up this way and turn on the Charles Street and then you'll see." "Oh, thank you." And you know, it wasn't weird. I just, I heard what they needed. I knew where, what they were looking for was. And I gave them directions and they both said, "thank you." And then I came to another corner and a little child, I think it was a little boy, came and said, “Excuse me, ma'am, would you like to buy some chocolate?” And I was so sad. I had no cash on me.

Anil Lewis: Yes, please, yes little child. Do you take credit cards, little child? Venmo?

Melissa Riccobono: No, basically he couldn't. And I'm like, "what was what's it for?" "Well, they're a dollar a piece," and like, "I know, why are you selling them?" "For my school." And I was like, oh, I'm the worst person. But it was so cool because he did not have any fear about coming up to me with my cane. No thought of well, that person is blind, she can't buy. He was just out there selling his candy and I was so sad I couldn't buy from him, but I was so happy that he approached me just like any other person. So I think I'm going to write about that and use #BlindMonth on my Facebook account.

Anil Lewis: And if we can continue to sustain that, that's great because we grow that out of them, right? Because even as they get older and they get pervasively exposed to those stereotypes, I've seen people who are going around asking people for change, you know, homeless people asking for some money. And they get to me and they see my cane and they say, "Never mind." 

Melissa Riccobono: Yes, yes. Or I've tried to give, I've tried to give money. "Oh, no, no, no, no. I can't take this." It's like, yeah, yeah, yeah, you can.

Anil Lewis: Interested in your thoughts, I know that as an initiative, it's really focused about general education for the public. But I see some peripheral benefit to some blind individuals who, you know, may not have that part of the self-concept or have that confidence by participating in some of these activities that they get some benefit out of it as well.

Mark Riccobono: Yeah, I think it's a great opportunity for us to help create awareness amongst people who don't yet fully recognize that they are blind people, what's possible, or who don't realize that there are other ways to view themselves
and their role in the world. And I know for me that's what the National Federation of the Blind has done. I didn't know fully that I was a blind person, even though I've been legally blind since age five, until I really came across the Federation and went to the National Convention where people helped me understand it was respectable to be blind and got me to recognize how I was limiting my own sphere of things that I could do not because — well, I had convinced myself
that it wasn't because of blindness, but the truth is, it was. I just talked myself into, well, I don't do X because I don't like to do X, whatever it is, going to various places or going out after dark. You know, I had sincerely convinced myself that it had to do with my own enlightened awareness of my own needs and wants, even though the truth was it was because I was worried about what I was going to have to see or not in those situations. I was defining what was possible based on the limited vision that I had. And so when we come across people in these Blind Month activities, I think, these posts, it helps us invite people in to learn more about what's possible through the organized blind movement.

Melissa Riccobono: Agreed. Also get pride in themselves too or start to know that there are other ways that training, you know, it's not magic, it's training, it's skills, it's belief. It's gaining that confidence. It's making a lot of mistakes maybe before it all works out.

Anil Lewis: Yeah. I mean, that's the lived experience of everyone, right?

Mark Riccobono: Right. Absolutely. And I think it helps highlight the unique contributions that blind people can make
because of our lived experience.

And so, you know, we've been saying it's respectable to be blind for, I don't know, 40, 50, 60 years, maybe since 1940. And now we're seeing that come out more broadly with the term disability pride. But that's basically what we've been saying in terms of it's respectable to be blind.

Anil Lewis: Right.

Mark Riccobono: And it's not about being proud to be a blind person, but it's about not being ashamed to be a blind person and to recognize that that characteristic gives us value and that we belong in society. And so when we talk about Blind Equality Achievement Month, we really want to focus people's attention to the fact that blind people belong. And we still have some artificial barriers in society to knock down to make that possible. 

Anil Lewis: And where does a person go to get information about all of these wonderful activities that are taking place during #BlindMonth?

Mark Riccobono: Well, you can go to our website, where you can learn about the activities that have been submitted to us. And of course, you could submit your federation activities by sending an email to [email protected].

There's still time to get your activities on to our Blind Month page.

Melissa Riccobono: Oh, fun. 

Anil Lewis: Very nice.

Melissa Riccobono: Well, thank you so much for talking with us about Blind Equality Achievement Month. Is there anything else that you'd like us to know about it before we close?

Mark Riccobono: Well, just one other thing to contribute, and that is, you know, the work that we're doing is a team effort. And as we approach the end of the year and especially White Cane Awareness Day, we recognize there is more work to be done. And we're proud to have many partners helping us in that work. But specifically, our friends at the Vispero have doubled down on our efforts to support blind equality in this country. And so as we approach the end of the year, Vispero has offered us a matching gift. And so contributions that are made to the Federation during this time period will be matched by Vispero up to a certain amount. And we're really happy that as part of our Blind Equality Achievement Month activities, we can have contributions from donors doubled. And that means the dollars you put into our efforts will be doubled. And that allows us just to have twice as much impact for the things that we're doing. You know, whether it's helping to support our members in Jackson, Mississippi, or showing up later this month at a hearing where we're supporting a blind federal employee who is trying to get equal access from the federal agency that he works for. And the courts have said he doesn't have that right even though it's in the law. I mean, there's so many things and those dollars make a big difference. So if you're in a position to give an end of the year gift to the National Federation of the Blind, just know it will be doubled Thanks to our friends at Vispero.

Anil Lewis: Outstanding. So I'm ready for all these Blind Equality
Achievement Month activities, these #BlindMonth activities, and I hope that each
and every one of our listeners will actively participate as well, because, you know, that's the only way
we're really going to be able to get to the place where blind people can truly live the life we want. 

Melissa Riccobono: Absolutely. I can't wait to see what our listeners will put into the Blind Month hashtag. If you can, and you are posting because you heard it on the Nation's Blind, just let us know that. We'd love to know that.

Anil Lewis: And until next time, remember, you can live the life you want.

Melissa Riccobono: Blindness is not what holds you back.

Music with voiceover: We'd love your feedback. Email [email protected]. Or call 410-659-9314, extension 2444.