Presidential Release 536, March 2024 Full Transcript

This file is being provided in a rough-draft format. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings.

PAM ALLEN: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to our March Presidential Release. Thank you so much for being here with us tonight for a very special Presidential Release. President Riccobono, are you with us? 

MARK RICCOBONO: I am. How are you doing, Pam? 

PAM ALLEN: I'm great. How's everything in Baltimore? 

MARK RICCOBONO: Good. We missed you at the leadership seminar. Everybody says hello. 

PAM ALLEN: Hi, everybody! 
(Crowd cheering sound effect). 

PAM ALLEN: Yeah, we would love to be there. But it sounds like a very excellent group in the house tonight! 

MARK RICCOBONO: They're coming up. They're coming up. They're learning! 

(Crowd laughing and cheering). 

MARK RICCOBONO: Some things they haven't gotten down. You know what I'm talking about. 

PAM ALLEN: I know. I know it's gonna happen! 

MARK RICCOBONO: I know you do. But it's great to have the release. I had to do a little work after this, though. I have 500 more steps to get for my 60th day in a row, 10,000 steps 

PAM ALLEN: These impressive! That's awesome. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Hey, before we start, we should acknowledge, Pam, that I think, pretty confident, according to Marci Carpenter, we have listening live from the National Federation of the Blind of Washington Convention! 

PAM ALLEN: Woo hoo! 

MARK RICCOBONO: So welcome to the Washington Convention! 

(Cheering). 

PAM ALLEN: Yeah, I heard it's a really big group in Washington too. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Absolutely, record attendance. I told Marci, I always wanted to be in the sports bar. So if they could just turn me on in the sports bar, that would be great! 

(Laughter.)

PAM ALLEN: Well, it is a special day. Leap Day and everything too. 

MARK RICCOBONO: We didn't do the research, but this might be the first Leap Day Presidential Release ever. 

PAM ALLEN: That's awesome. 

MARK RICCOBONO: And a great lineup of songs. By the way, the first song, an AI-generated song from Danielle Frampton at our seminar. 

PAM ALLEN: Yay Danielle, LCB grad! 

MARK RICCOBONO: Yeah, LCB grad. And a number of jump songs. 

PAM ALLEN: Kermit and Van Halen is the same lineup are great. 

(Laughter.)

MARK RICCOBONO: And there are no good Leap Day songs. They're all horrible. We checked. 

PAM ALLEN: That's an opportunity, I think! 

MARK RICCOBONO: Yeah, even if it only gets one-fourth of the play that Mariah Carey's song gets!  All right, we get a lot of content.  Greetings, Federationists, today is February 29thth, 2024, and this is Presidential Release 536, live from Members Hall from National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute! 

(Cheering and applause) 

Happy Leap Day to everyone. It's not often you can say that on a presidential release. Might be the first time ever, not sure about that. But it is kind of a special day, and I have a lot to share on this release, so I'm going to just jump right in. The first is a reminder that March 31st is the deadline for our National Federation of the Blind scholarships. We should be promoting this program, the largest scholarship program for blind college students, and of course, it's not just the merit scholarships, but the connection with the National Federation of the Blind and the mentoring. We've got to get those scholarship applications in. Plenty of time to promote the scholarship opportunities in and around your affiliate to blind students. The website is scholarships.nfb.org, and we have just 31 days from today to get the scholarships in. 
So please connect with students to do that. 

Now, since we're talking about deadlines and planning and events, I wanted to remind all Federationists, because I haven't taken the opportunity yet this year, that when we're planning for events in the Federation, we would ask you to consult our diversity, equity, and inclusion calendar that can be found on our website. It gives you helpful information about important dates that may cause conflicts with certain religions or other holidays, and so that calendar is a five-year rolling calendar. It's available on our diversity page at our website, and it helps give you some guidance on avoiding days that might limit people's participation in Federation events. The calendar goes from 2024 to 2028, so it covers five years. And it allows us to plan ahead. 

Of course, I would encourage you always to first and foremost talk with members in the affiliate about dates that might pose a potential conflict. But this is a great resource put together and vetted by our diversity, equity, and inclusion committee.  You can find that at nfb.org/dei, and I'd encourage you to use it. Now, many, many things to talk about on this release, but the most important, and what we're going to spend our time on, is the 2024 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind! 

(Cheering and applause). 

Now, the convention is meaningful on many different levels. First and foremost, the convention is the supreme authority of the organization. The convention runs our national movement, sets policies, elects our board of directors, sets direction for the organization, and it is the largest concentration of the collective wisdom and authenticity of the blind community.  It's a tremendous opportunity to share ideas, best practices, and really to continue raising our expectations for ourselves. 

I know that for me, every convention brings something new. It brings a lift in spirit, in expectations. It broadens my perspective about where we can go and the heights that we can reach as blind people, and most importantly, it refuels my tank for the year ahead. I know that despite whatever discrimination, frustrations, condescending attitudes that I have experienced over the previous 51 weeks of the year, that it will all be erased by being at our national convention and getting that shot of hope that comes from our annual family reunion.  And most importantly, great things happen when we come together at convention. And our conventions are successful because of the work of literally hundreds of members, volunteers, our tremendous staff, who all come together and make the convention possible. 

So let me talk to you about a number of convention items here, as we kick off, I guess, the convention registration season! First of all, the theme for our 2024 convention is "Believe, Dream, Include, Lead, Champion". These are, of course, the brand values that were articulated in our strategic plan. So we decided that we would use it as the baseline for our 2024 convention, which will be held July 3rd through July 8th at the Rosen Center in sunny Orlando, Florida! 

The last time we were at the Rosen Center in 2015, we set a world record, the first time the Federation was designated as officially amazing!  Now, if you're tuned in to this live, congratulations, because you're going to get a sneak peek. So for those of you that are hearing this recorded at a chapter meeting later, just know that had you tuned in  live, you could have gotten this. But the sneak peek for release listeners is that although it's not March 1st, you can go to the website now and register for the convention. So you can get in early -- you can be participant number 1. You can go to the website and get registered and make sure you got your spot. Now, to do that, you're going to go to nfb.org/registration. Pretty simple! NFB.org/registration. 

Registration is still $25 when you register online. The banquet tickets are $75 when you buy your ticket online. Registration online in advance does give you the benefit of saving a few dollars compared to taking care of that business at the convention.  Online registration is open through May 31st. So you've got time. But why wait, right? You're going to come to the convention. And if you do run into any difficulties with our registration, or you have a question about the registration arrangements, you can send an email to convention registration -- all one word, [email protected]. Now, you should register. But it's not enough to register. You probably want a room to stay in. Rosen doesn't have a great lawn. 

(Laughter.)

So you want to stay at their wonderful hotel. It's a great hotel. And we have worked out another great deal with the Rosen property. If you haven't been there, their staff is top-notch. And it's a hotel we're staying at, and the ownership there is not just committed to excellence for all customers -- genuinely appreciates the mission and members of the National Federation of the Blind. So room rates are as follows. For singles and doubles, $129 a night. For triples and quads, the room rate is $139 a night. Now, that includes occupancy taxes and surcharges, which are an additional 13.5%. You can make your reservation by calling the hotel at 1-800-204-7234. That number, again, 1-800-204-7234. 

When you call, you should ask for the NFB convention block. The hotel will take a deposit of $146 to hold your reservation. That is required as part of our contract. I will say this many times tonight, probably, and you will hear it many times over the coming weeks. You can get this information and really, all convention information at our website, nfb.org/convention. You should book mark that. That's really the place to get all of the updates as we get closer to the convention. 

No, I do have a number of other convention details, important ones to share with you as we kick off this convention season and registration. The first is to talk about our 2024 convention ambassadors. As always, the NFB convention ambassadors will assist in making the 2024 convention a welcoming and empowering experience for all of our attendees. Ambassadors play an important role in sharing accurate information, providing access to information at key locations within the convention, and generally serving as a positive influence on the convention and solving problems.  If you have been to convention, you know who these people are! These are the folks that have served as talking signs, that have made sure that you know where the escalators are or where the doors to key meetings are, who have helped to give you directions to this and that place, and who have answered questions. And our ambassadors are all volunteer members who take on assignments to help all convention attendees, whether it's your first or your 50th convention, to have a great experience. 

This year, our ambassador committee are trying some new approaches, and we are creating a very simple application process for members to apply to serve as a convention ambassador and be part of the ambassador committee. Individuals will be appointed to the committee before the national convention, and you will receive information and training from our committee co-chairs, Dan Birk of Colorado, and Corb O'Connor. Hats off to them for a lot of great work that happens behind the scenes. You probably don't know it. They do a lot of work to get people places where they're needed. But they do need people. So please consider giving some of your time at the convention to be an ambassador. Now, you don't need to be an ambassador to help make the convention experience positive. Step one is be patient at the elevators, right? But there's many things you can do. But for those who are interested in stepping up, doing that little extra, being on call when we need people in certain places, especially at the front end of the convention, when everybody is checking in, or on banquet night or other key moments. Please consider applying. More details will be posted to our convention pages in the coming weeks. 

Now, some who may be hearing this are thinking, well, I've never been to the convention. What would I do? Why should I come? Well, I'm here to tell you, we do want you to come, and our Kenneth Jernigan Fund Committee wants to help make it possible for you to be at the convention, because our Kenneth Jernigan Fund, one of the things is does is provide financial support to make it possible for members to attend their very first convention. 
The first-timer program of the Kenneth Jernigan fund has been going, I guess it will be close to 25 years now. That's a lot of impact on helping elevate expectations for blind people. I particularly love interacting with our first timers, whether it's at the Rookie Roundup, coming across people in the hallways or exhibit halls, or having folks visit in the presidential suite. 2023, very first person to come by the presidential suite when the door swung open for the first time was a first-timer. So we'll see if that can happen this year. It's really great to get to know the first-timers and the ideas and energy that they bring to the convention. 

So to apply for funding from the Kenneth Jernigan Fund, applications are due on April 15th, and you must also reach out to your affiliate president for a letter of recommendation as part of your application. So April 15th is your deadline. Details and the online application form can be found -- you can probably guess it -- nfb.org/convention. Everything's there. I do encourage you to participate in the convention, and you will be able to find it on our convention page, also, our first-timers guide. I do also encourage our affiliates to continue to do the great work of connecting with our first-timers, making them welcome and helping them navigate, which, when it's your first time, can be kind of a crazy experience, and a little overwhelming. So this is where the affiliates are very helpful in making sure that everybody does feel welcome and connected when they walk into the convention. 

Now, I have a challenge for all of you. So, please, Kenneth Jernigan Fund Committee members, please don't listen to this part, but for the rest of you, I want you to make their decisions REALLY hard!  So get lots of applications in, and make the  work of the committee very difficult. Maybe we'll set a record for first-time attendees this convention. So thank you to the committee for their hard work on that. In previous releases, we've shared concerns that some of our members have about the travel advisories that have been issued about the state of Florida by other civil rights organizations. And tonight, as part of our convention kick-off, I'm here to give you an update on our commitment to make sure that we're doing everything we can to support the participation of members in our convention who may feel that the state of Florida is not safe and welcoming to them. 

So, tonight, we are launching the National Federation of the Blind Convention Ally Network, or CAN... get it, CAN, and it's because we CAN demonstrate our positive approach to share and uplift our members who might need the support of the Federation family in places like Florida. So the Convention Ally Network is a new program that we've put together, and I'm looking forward to how it's going to play out and what the results are and what it might teach us for future conventions. The goal of this network is to specifically help facilitate the participation in our convention, and to support those individuals who may feel unsafe because of the laws that have been adopted in the state of Florida. 

Now, you can sign up to be either a convention ally or someone who is receiving support from the Convention Ally Network. 

We need both individuals to sign up. So if you feel this would be helpful to you, please come to our nfb.org/convention and sign up on the form. And if you would like to be an ally and do what you can to make sure that those who may feel unsafe know that they have not just one person, but hundreds who have their back, but definitely an ally who is willing to be at their side when needed, please sign up. The form is really easy. I know because I filled out the form today myself. Submissions will be confidential, and there will be training for allies on how to make your part of the network and your allyship effective. 

The network is not intended to replace the great work that our affiliates already do to support first-time attendees and blind people, newly blind people in getting out and to the convention and learning to travel with a long white cane and that sort of thing. So all of the work of our affiliates and divisions and chapters to get people involved in the convention, and the experience still stands. This Convention Ally Network is specifically to help support those who want to be at the convention despite their concerns about safety because of laws in the state of Florida. Again, nfb.org/convention. I do hope you'll take a moment to become a Convention Ally, and sign up for support if you need it. 
That's a lot, right? 

Ha! Now, I have a number of announcements for some of our national divisions, and the first comes from the president of our Diabetes Action Network. 

DEBBIE: Hello, Federation family, this is Debbie Wonder, president of the Diabetes Action Network. I'm proud to share with you on behalf of the DAN board, our two day upcoming seminar, April 26th and 27, called "Knowledge is Sweet". It is two days of everything you want and need to know about the diabetes. You can find our registration form at nfbmo.org/dan, or you can call me for more information at 573-268-6989. Registration for the seminar is $100, but that covers two days of breakfast and lunch. And information you don't want to miss out on. It's at the St. Louis Airport Hilton in St. Louis, Missouri, April 26th and 27th. Hope to see you there 

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you to Debbie and the Diabetes Action Network for putting this together. Hope we can get people there from a number of affiliates across the country. Now how about an announcement from our student division? 
All right, nothing from the audience here, okay, great. I think they fell asleep. 

(Laughter.)

I won't tell you which students are in the audience. I won't call them out. But I do want to talk to you about the Midwest Student Seminar. 

(Deliberately loud cheering). 
(Laughter.)

That's happening Friday, March 22nd through Sunday, March 24, 2024, happening at the Holiday Inn Chicago, O'Hare, and this is a great opportunity for students to get together and to create community with our National Association of Blind Students, especially around navigating the complicated world of equal access in higher education. And learning to gain from the experience of students who have been there and have been fighting the battle, sharing the techniques that work, and of course, benefiting from the wisdom of the blind students community, connected into the National Federation of the Blind. 

So I do encourage students to join the annual Midwest Regional Seminar. And you can find information about the weekend at the website for the student division, which is nabslink.org. You have to register by March 15th. We will put the direct URL link to the registration form in the chat. It's a little more complicated than nabslink.org. So if you don't want to look for it in the chat, please just go to nabslink.org. 
If you have questions, you can direct all questions to the NABS treasurer, Hunter Keyster at [email protected]

I know the students always put together high-energy events, so I encourage you to get the word out to students in the Midwest. That event is coming up really quickly. Moving to another division, the Performing Arts Division, we put this announcement out last month, but it's important, and the deadline is coming up, so I wanted to give you one more promo from the performing arts division. Calling all creatives! Would you like to hone your song writing and lyric crafting skills? Do you want to contribute to new music for the National Federation of the Blind? Then please consider entering the 2024 Federation song contest. Submit your material by March 15, 2024, both music and lyrics are welcome. Top contestants will be invited to a song writing retreat in Baltimore this summer. All information can be found on our website, nfb-pad.org. 

MARK RICCOBONO: All right, get those future song submissions in. It's always great to have music to express the hopes, dreams, and concerns of the organized blind movement. We have a rich history going back a long ways of sharing song to celebrate and motivate our experiences. So I do encourage you to participate in that. All right, in the line of announcements and notes from our national divisions, I have one from our Guide Dog Users Division. As I noted, on the last Presidential Release, the Federation, in cooperation with our Guide Dog Users Division, filed a petition with the FAA to exempt blind passengers from any requirements to complete the attestation forms to travel by air with their guide dogs. 

We filed that on January 29th. That was after a number of meetings with government officials, sharing the stories of where blind people have been denied access to airlines because of difficulties where the airlines have implemented these forms or they have implemented inaccessible forms, barriers that have not existed before for guide dog users in independent travel on airlines. Shortly after we filed our petition, the Office of the Secretary of Transportation assigned authority for the petition and the docket away from the FAA, the Office of the Secretary took responsibility for it. And because of that, we think that we've got -- the petition itself has gotten very few comments because it's been difficult to find. So our Guide Dog Users Division, and I would amplify this as well, would like to urge all members, guide dog users and friends and supporters, to file comments on this petition in support of our request. And we'd ask you to do that as soon as possible. While there's currently no deadline for the comment period, we are not aware of any specific rule prohibiting the Office of the Secretary from closing the comment period at any time. So the sooner you can get your comments in in support of the petition, the better, especially if you have stories to share about how these forms have made it more difficult for individuals to fly with their guide dogs. 

The more comments that are there, the better. And so, would encourage you to mobilize individuals in your chapter and affiliate to help with that. We want to urge the Secretary to grant this petition as soon as possible. 
Now, again, finding this link on the government website is a little difficult! So the best way for you to get to the link to file your comments is by going to the NAGDU website -- nagdu.org -- and you can find the link for the regulations comments right on the NAGDU website. 

And I would encourage you to get your stories in soon. We will put the full link for the form in the chat for those that want to capture it from there. But otherwise you can get it from the NAGDU website. Thank you for your participation in that, and thank you for the leadership of our guide dog users division for helping to lead this effort. Let's see. I do have a legislative update from our Advocacy and Policy Group, and it reads as follows: 
Since the 2024 Washington Seminar barely a month ago, we have gained 57 new co-sponsors on our legislation! 

(Cheering and applause). 

Between both the House and the Senate. In the House, the Website and Software Applications Accessibility Act has gained 22 new co-sponsors. 

(Applause.)

Yeah! That brings that total up to 26 in the House. And the Medical Device Nonvisual Accessibility Act in the House has gained 24 new co-sponsors. 

(Applause.)

Bringing that total up to 72. 

And the House version of the Access Technology Affordability Act gained 10 new co-sponsors. 

(Applause.)

Bringing the total number up to... let's see... 84. In the Senate, the Access Technology Affordability Act gained 1 new co-sponsor, bringing that total up to 18. 
So please continue to keep the pressure on and urge members of Congress to get on these bills. 57 co-sponsors in a month is a great number. If we can duplicate that in March and April, we'll be well on the way to getting these bills moving in this Congress, and attached to vehicles that might help us get it over the line. So great work. Let's keep the momentum up. Know that there will be periods where members of Congress will be back in the home district. Don't neglect getting in front of them, finding an opportunity to get them committed to one of these bills. 

Now, besides the advocacy work we do on state and federal legislation, a lot of important advocacy happens at the tables in educational settings. Members of the Federation have led the way in helping to make sure that blind students have access to an equal education, and we've recently announced a new project called the IEP Advocacy Academy. Through this project, you can learn to serve as a stronger volunteer advocate at IEP meetings for blind or low-vision students. This training will help you gain an understanding of the education laws and assist you with techniques for helping to build a strong IEP for students to protect their rights to important skills like braille, and give you advocacy strategies so that you can empower the parents, the family at the table, to be a strong advocate as well. This is a project that's near and dear to my heart, having really gotten interested in educational advocacy because of my experience with the Federation and recognizing the kind of opportunities I didn't have because my family was not connected with those advocacy resources. 

So this is a great opportunity. The training is going to happen from May 30th to June 2nd here at our headquarters in Baltimore. You will want to apply soon, as the window is closing. You have to apply on our website, nfb.org. We're going to put the direct link, again, in the chat. But you can find it on our website. I think it's on our home page, actually, now. So you should be able to easily find it there. 
The deadline to apply for this program is March 21st. So a lot of deadlines coming due. If you're interested, this training will be free to those who are selected. This is only the first cohort. We're hoping to do more training in the future. But we would love for you to be part of it. 

Now, I guess going back to students, but maybe not just students, I want to remind you, we announced previously and talked about it in our Washington seminar, that we're offering internships for the summer of 2024. The deadline for our internship program is March 15th. And we are looking for individuals who want to come serve in an internship here at our national office, helping to carry out a number of programs. Who should apply? Well, we're seeking individuals with certain skill sets, especially those who are prepared to help with basic and advanced research skills and communication skills to help build the National Federation of the Blind. We're looking for individuals that can do research on the internet or analyze data, who can help make calls to blind people and build community, who can draft communications and do outreach activities. We will have specific projects for our interns to do. And of course, there's the benefit of working day to day alongside of leaders of the Federation who have deep experience. 

Our interns will also, as part of the experience, be with us at the national convention. So please get your application letter in to us by March 15th, and if you want more information, or have questions, please reach out to Anil Lewis here at our national office. Now, I did say there's a lot to talk about at this release, and this is a pretty fun announcement to make. Recently, our friends at HumanWare, who we've worked with now for well over 30 years, made a visit to the NFB Jernigan Institute to talk to us about the Museum of the Blind People's Movement. So here is a special Leap Day announcement! 

(Video). 

MARK RICCOBONO: Hello, I'm Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, and I'm here in our Jacobus tenBroek Research Library on Blindness at our headquarters, the Jernigan Institute, in Baltimore, Maryland, and I'm here with Peter Tusic from HumanWare. Peter, how's is going? 

PETER: I'm absolutely fantastic and fired up to be here, as usual. This isn't my first time here, this is awesome. 

MARK RICCOBONO: But there's always new stuff. In our library, we're always making new acquisitions so that we can preserve the history of the organized blind movement and elevate the stories of blind people, which are told in many different ways, Peter, behind us here, we have a piece of art called "Double-Jointed Doves". And if you want to put your hands on it here, 

PETER: This is neat. 

MARK RICCOBONO: We believe in tactile art, and this depicts a number of things, but is also symbolic because it has hands in it, and of course to do the work that we do in the Federation takes many hands, and to do the work we want to do in the future, like building the Museum of the Blind People's Movement, it's going to take many hands. 

PETER: Yeah, and I think for us, being that it will take many hands, at HumanWare, we're thrilled to be part of the museum and getting this museum going and off the ground, to be part of leaping into what we're going to hope is a very long, you know, long and honored tradition of this museum. And kind of getting it off the ground and getting everything moving! 
So we're thrilled to be one of those hands. 

MARK RICCOBONO: That's fantastic, Peter. What do you think? Let's leap into the future together. 

PETER: I'm all for it. On three... 1, 2, 3. 

(Both jump and appear in the parking garage). 

MARK RICCOBONO: We've both  leaped into the future. We're in the future location of the Museum of the Blind People's Movement. 

PETER: HumanWare is pledging $200,000 to the Museum of the Blind People's Movement. 

(People cheering in person). 

And we're elated to support the potential of the museum and this cause that the National Federation of the Blind is taking on. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Fantastic. Let's go build the Federation! 

Thank you! 

(National Federation of the Blind -- live the life you want). 

(End of video). 

MARK RICCOBONO: What a fantastic commitment from HumanWare. 

(Applause.)

You know, HumanWare is not a big company. It builds products on tight margins, and that commitment's really significant, and I think it reflects how deeply they believe in their customers, and how deeply they believe in the relationship with the National Federation of the Blind. So thank you to HumanWare, and please, when you come to the convention or when you come across your local HumanWare distributor at your state convention, make sure to thank them for this important commitment that they've made. It truly is awesome, and I think it's going to help us leap into the future, as we said. So, a little camera extra there, since we leapt from the third floor to the second floor of our building. It's my first stunt activity on camera, that was pretty cool! 

(Laughter.)

Peter and I -- it was all Peter's inspiration. I want to talk to you real quickly about our pre-authorized contribution program, on behalf of Marilyn Green, the chair of the program, the pre-authorized contribution program is a way for you to make a monthly contribution to the Federation to help us do the great work that we do. And I want to welcome the NFB of South Carolina's Computer Science and Technology Division, as well as the NFB of Colorado Blind Parents Division, for being the newest monthly chapter contributors to the PAC plan!  You can find more information at nfb.org/pac. 

Also, want to welcome to our Dream Makers Circle -- this is a community of individuals who have made a commitment to give an end-of-life gift to the National Federation of the Blind, whether it's including us in a will, listing us on an insurance policy. There's many ways to become part of the Dream Makers Circle. And I want to welcome Roger Burnett of Lavonia, Michigan, on being the newest member of our Dream Makers Circle. Thank you very much for that commitment to our shared future. 

I do have a number of Federation family notes that I regret to have to share with you on this release. In Maryland, I regret to inform you of the passing of Perry Blockstone, an active member of our Maryland and Baltimore area chapters. He passed away on February 12, 2024. Perry was an active member of our Seniors Division as well, and his passing was very unexpected and very sudden. Now, actually, we have a number of members, coincidentally that we lost on February 12th. Also on February 12th, from Maryland, we lost Steve Montgomery, a longtime member of our Central Maryland chapter, after a long illness. 

From Louisiana, Pam Allen shares that she is sad to share that Mariyam Jones, a dedicated member of the New Orleans chapter, passed away on February 12th. She was 84 years old. So please keep all of those individuals in your thoughts and prayers. But also, from Georgia, we've learned of the passing of Mr. William Gardner. In January. He was a long time member of the NFB chapter in Chatham County in Georgia, and he once served as the chapter president there. 
From Oregon, Kirk Wagner, who is the president of the Rose City chapter, reports the passing of Jerry Garafolo, who was a long time member of the Rose City chapter in Portland, Oregon. He passed away on Sunday, February 3, 2024, surrounded by family and friends. Of Jerry, it's shared that Jerry was an avid braille user, and could always be heard pounding away on his braille writer when he took calls on his land line. And he never missed a White Sox game on the radio. So keep Jerry in your thoughts and prayers. 

From Ohio, we've learned of the passing of Jim Sheets on February 9, 2024. Jim was a member of the Greater Akron chapter. It's noted that Jim's partner, Pat, is currently the chapter treasurer. 
From Washington, Marci Carpenter says that she's sad to report that Maria Bradford, a longtime member and leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, died on Saturday, February 10, 2024,. She, it's noted that she joined the Federation in 1973. She served as a chapter president and as an affiliate board member and officer over her time in the Federation. She had a very kind heart and was devoted to the work and mission of the Federation and its importance in the lives of blind people. 

Marci also reports the passing of Dominic Williams on December 4, 2023,, and says that Dominic was a member of our Clark County chapter. From Michigan, I'm really sorry to tell you of the passing of Pauline -- excuse me, Paulette Powell, who died earlier this week. Paulette was a dedicated and avid member of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan. She is, of course, the wife of Michael Powell, who is president emeritus in Michigan. I definitely urge you to keep Michael and all of the members who have been positively impacted by Paulette's contributions to the movement in your thoughts and prayers, and would encourage you to keep all of those members and their significant contributions to the movement in the Federation notes this month.  Pam, I think that's the long, lengthy list of things I had, so it's back to you. 

PAM ALLEN: Okay, thank you so much, President Riccobono. A lot happening in the National Federation of the Blind. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Oh, I'm tired! 

PAM ALLEN: I know, exactly! Well, we have some great questions coming up. I want to thank everyone who submitted questions, and if we don't have a chance to answer your question, our awesome communications team to follow up. 
We're going to take live questions from the audience! So our first question is coming from Madam President Lauren, president of the National Association of Blind Students. Lauren has a great question for you. 

LAUREN: Hi, everybody. President Riccobono, my question for you is, I personally am a huge education nerd and I know the Federation has a lot of great education programming. So my question is, what is your personal favorite education program? 

MARK RICCOBONO: Oh, that's a tough one. But I have to say that, you know, our Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning Academy is really significant for two reasons. One, it has grown out of the grassroots of the Federation. It didn't start from the national level. It started at an affiliate and was able to be grown into a national model. Secondly, it promotes services and skills that I didn't get as a kid. Third, my own daughters have gotten a step up on things I didn't have because of the BELL Academy. And so one of my great highlights every summer is to go read to the BELL Academy. I have some really fun stories from those experiences. So I gotta say the BELL Academy, because you know that so many great things are happening all over the country in these programs during the summer. Including Louisiana, right? Because Louisiana has been a leader. 

PAM ALLEN: Yeah, has two BELLs this summer. Can't wait. Awesome. Thank you, Lauren. That is a hard question! 

MARK RICCOBONO: Everybody wants you to pick a favorite! 

PAM ALLEN: I know, keeping you on your toes! 

MARK RICCOBONO: Which child is your favorite? You can't pick a favorite! 

(Laughter.)

PAM ALLEN: So our next question is from our treasurer of the National Association of Blind Students, Hunter. 

HUNTER: Hello, everybody. My question for you is -- I already know your favorite alignment for your baseball team, but my question is, with the brand refresh, what core value do you see yourself most aligned with at the current moment? 

MARK RICCOBONO: You know, I'm going to say "lead courageously". I think that, first of all, if you aren't aware of what our core values are, for our brand, they're listed in our strategic plan, which was published in last year's July Braille Monitor, so you can reacquaint yourself with those, and I think you'll find that they're reflected in the work that we do on a daily basis. Certainly should be in our chapter. 
Lead courageously. We are called to take a stand on issues which a lot of other people are willing to let go by the wayside, because they're not rooted in the hopes and dreams of blind people. They're not directed by blind people. The boards of other entities are not majority run by blind people. It's easy for them to let certain things pass because for them they're not pressing. But for us, they're pressing. So we often need to step out and take bold stances to protect our rights, to advance our rights, to elevate our status in society. And we really can't get there and lead courageously without the other core values -- collective action, believing in blind people, making our work inclusive. So -- but I think lead courageously would be my answer. 

PAM ALLEN: Thank you, Hunter. These are great. Following another of our student leaders, Kinshuk, has a question for you. 

KINSHUK: Mr. President, since the debut of your personal AI model at the 2023 national convention, I was wondering, what is the current status of it? Are there any updates to it? Also, on a more lighter note, I was wondering, can we expect our personal AI to run for office one day? 
(Laughter.)

MARK RICCOBONO: Well, not sure we want my AI or anybody else's to run for office, although considering the alternatives, maybe! 
(Laughter.)

But we have been working on the Mark AI, and we have had leaders of the Federation spending more time asking it questions. We haven't quite released the information out into the wild, but we will be soon. 
The cool thing about, you know, we hear a lot about artificial intelligence, but one of the things we like about the model of building an AI based on a leader of the Federation is that we can build an AI model that is truly based on the lived experience of blind people. And here's what I want to do with the Mark AI, is make it truly reflective of the community. So what I want to do when we go more public with the Mark AI is have blind people share their experiences. 
So that you'll be able to say that this is your experience, Kimchuk, and here's what you prefer as a blind person, here are the tools that you use, and you can tell the Mark AI that. But then that becomes a memory bloc of an experience of a blind person, the authentic expression of wisdom from a blind person, and we can put those hundreds of experiences together, just like we do with Federation leaders in real life, right? We share with each other, and, you know, as a blind person, I may not do X, Y, and Z, but if you say, can a blind person be a funeral director? Sure, I know one. Let me introduce you. 

So if we can get an AI that's really purely built on the experience of blind people, how cool is that, right? Because you can ask ChatGPT about blindness... where is it getting that data? It's not from blind people! 
So I think there's a lot of potential there. Great question. And we're going to need blind people to really influence where this technology goes. And then figure out how we use it to advance the understanding of blind people, you know, frankly, there are probably individuals who are not blind out there who have questions they're a little shy to ask an actual blind person. But they could ask an AI and use that to expand their understanding, and we could use that as a bring to get them engaging with real blind people, or consider someone who may be experiencing changing vision. If they could ask an AI of a blind person what the experience is like, ask those embarrassing questions that they really don't want to ask a person, but they're curious -- what is my future going to be like? That would be pretty cool. I hope you'll ask it questions as we open it up. 

PAM ALLEN: This leadership class -- it's going to be a great weekend! 

(Cheering). 

Great questions. I think we have time for one more question. We're ready to hear from Max. 

MAX: Mr. President, this is a very serious question that's been on my mind. 

What is your astrological sign, and how has it influenced you and your leadership? 

(Laughter.)

MARK RICCOBONO: Not a question you get every day! So, you know, I'm a Leo. And I was born in the year of the Dragon, 1976. This is the Year of the Dragon again. So how has it influenced me? Well, it's hard to say, because it is part of who I am, I guess. But, you know, what I think of is, I guess it feeds back to "lead courageously". That especially when people hear Year of the Dragon, you're supposed to, like, be tough, you know? But what it brings to mind for me is that in everything who we are, and whatever, however you understand who you are, if it's based on an astrological sign or something else, there's always two sides, right? There's the tough side, and there's the soft side. And so, you know, on one sense, when I think about being a Leo, being a Dragon, I think about being a driving leader, a desire to make a difference in the world. But for me, that's tempered by the soft side, is what really drives that. And that's something that the Federation has helped me understand, that lead courageously, what empowers that for me is the love that we share within this organization. It fuels, it fuels that desire to lead courageously. Right? 

It's not leading courageously in a military sense. It's leading courageously based on the love and commitment that we share in this community that we create of support, and that, giving us the strength to stand up against any obstacle that comes in our way. And so I think about that empowering the tough side of standing up to discrimination, or standing in front of an Uber so it doesn't go away! 
It's not necessarily tough guys. It's the love, the soft side, that's my best horoscope answer for the day. 

(Laughter.)
(Applause.)

And hats off to the Year of the Dragon, though! 

(Laughter.)

PAM ALLEN: Thank you for the great questions from our audience. That was wonderful. We appreciate everyone who has sent in questions through the Q&A feature or the chat or other channels. If we didn't have a chance, we'll make sure to respond to those. And thank you again so much. That's always a great part of our Presidential Release. 

Thank you so much for being with us tonight. Join us for the next Presidential Release on Wednesday, April 3rd, at 8:00 p.m. via Zoom, the Nations Blind Amazon channel. You can contact President Riccobono at 410-659-9314, or via email at [email protected]. Thank you, and I will turn it back to you, President Riccobono. 

MARK RICCOBONO: No, you can't do that. You've got to tell them where the Presidential Release is going to be! Are you keeping it a secret? 

PAM ALLEN: No, we're happy! 
(Laughter.)

MARK RICCOBONO: You should tell them. 

PAM ALLEN: I'm very happy to say we'll be broadcasting live from the Louisiana Center for the Blind. 

(Cheering). 

We'll be happy to welcome you and the teachers of tomorrow. We're very excited. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you. Looking very much forward to being with you in person and with the Federation family there in Rustin. That is what I have for this Presidential Release. We obviously have a lot happening. Of course we're in the midst of our 94th leadership seminar here at our national office. This week we've got teachers coming to our building along with the American Printing House for the Blind for the training on the new Monarch Tactile Display. A week or so after that, we'll be hosting our Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium. There are many spring conventions happening not just in Washington this weekend, but in many other places. So a lot of activity in the next month for us to be excited about as we gear up for our national convention. With that, I'll leave you with our customary endings. Let's go build the NFB. 

Oriana, you have jokes for leap year? Excellent. 

ORIANA: What happened to the frog's car when it broke down on the street? It got toed! (Toad) 

What do you call a frog with no behind legs? 

MELISSA: An easy meal? 

ORIANA: Un-hop-y. And why did the frog eat his homework? Because the teacher told him it was a piece of cake. 

The preceding message was brought to you by Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind. 410-659-9314, [email protected]. Follow President Riccobono on Mastodon, just follow President Mark Riccobono at social. Let's go build the National Federation of the Blind.