Choice, Exploration, and Resistance: The Road to Freedom for the Blind

An Address Delivered by
Mark A. Riccobono, President
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Of the National Federation of the Blind
Las Vegas, Nevada
July 12, 2019

Freedom: the quality or state of being free, such as the absence of constraint in choice or action. Freedom: a widely celebrated concept but one that is often taken for granted by those privileged to have the most of it. Freedom: a standard built upon the benefit of choice.

The poet Robert Frost wrote a number of works about choice. The most well-known is “The Road Not Taken” in which a choice is offered between two roads—one seemingly safer, but the other with more opportunities for adventure. The poem ends with these often-quoted lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sometimes the choices are this simple, while other times they are significantly more complex. Without thoughtful reflection we may find no true choices at all.

Frost wrote another poem about choice entitled, “The Armful,” which reads:

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns—
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

This evening we take a brief moment in our march to freedom to review the choices that are in front of us. We do so with the knowledge that we represent the most empowered blind people in the history of mankind. We have the greatest range of choices available to us because of the progress we have made over the past three-quarters of a century in the organized blind movement. Yet choices add complexity to our work. If we measure our freedom by comparing where we have been to where we are today, our current choices appear excellent. However, if our comparison uses where we want to be as our benchmark, our current choices are inadequate. If we believe equality is not yet ours, then we must make a conscious choice to continue our march to freedom. How does choice influence the freedom we seek as blind people, which choices are essential, and how do we take ownership of the choices for our future?

In the history of humanity the experience of the blind has largely not been characterized by the positive aspects associated with freedom. We have been constrained in choice and action, prevented from developing full independence, and exempted from participating in the responsibilities that come with the rights of freedom. For us no real choice existed. The future was thought to be determined. The systems were put in place to ensure that we were properly cared for by institutions. That was until a fundamental change altered the direction of our freedom. Blind people began to make choices for themselves and to align those choices to the freedom they wanted in the world. This change—like all revolutions—was neither an accident nor a certainty in outcome. It took hope, determination, and consistent choices to break the shackles and establish a new path. On November 16, 1940, Jacobus tenBroek—a blind scholar of the United States Constitution and the first President of the National Federation of the Blind—declared our intention to secure freedom for the blind by calling “for creating the machinery which will unify the action and concentrate the energies of the blind, for an instrument through which the blind of the nation can speak to Congress and the public in a voice that will be heard and command attention.” Since that declaration in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, we have made the choice to determine what freedom means. We the blind, with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and intersectionalities, have chosen to come together to create a choir of freedom. When we say let freedom ring, we mean let us build the National Federation of the Blind.

Our road to freedom is shaped by the choices that individual blind people make and how we bring those efforts together into a unified force. Each generation of our movement attempts to expand choices for the one that follows. Dr. tenBroek had a brilliant understanding of the law but struggled to secure employment at a university. Yet, his tenure at the University of California at Berkley was, among other things, a demonstration of progress. His own mentor, Dr. Newell Perry, graduated from the California School for the Blind and immediately dedicated himself to securing a doctorate of philosophy in mathematics with the goal of working at a university. Unable to secure employment in academia due to his blindness, Dr. Perry eventually made the choice to return to the California School for the Blind as an instructor, where he shaped the lives of dozens of future blind leaders by passing on the kernels of knowledge that became the basis for the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. While Dr. Perry faced great adversity with few choices, he did not allow his spirit to be broken. He consistently chose a path that brought him closer to freedom for the blind. The result was more choices for the blind of tenBroek’s generation.

Kenneth Jernigan was the second dynamic and long-term President of the National Federation of the Blind, but, before he knew the organization, he also was limited in his choices. He had thought that he might pursue the study of law in the early 1940s, but his rehabilitation counselor told him while he had the freedom to choose any course of study, the agency would not pay the costs for a blind person to study law. This type of choice is not far from the treatment modern-day rehabilitation clients receive. Dr. Jernigan later met the National Federation of the Blind and learned that, with the support of the Federation family, his choices could be different. He went on to build a brilliant career as a teacher and administrator of programs for the blind. He benefited from the choices made by the early marchers in our movement, thus allowing him to contribute by building the nation’s best blindness programs based on the understanding he gained through the National Federation of the Blind.

What is the understanding of the National Federation of the Blind? The fundamental building block is the development of a positive self-belief within the individual blind person. That self-belief system is guided by the body of knowledge collected and distilled into action by the members of our organization. Generally referred to as the Federation philosophy, it is the most misunderstood component of our march to freedom. We cannot adequately talk about choice unless we reflect on our philosophy about blindness.

Our philosophy is a collective understanding about the capacity of blind people and our place in society. While certain aspects of it have been documented in the Federation’s extensive publications, the understanding grows and evolves based upon blind people living their lives with confidence and sharing their experiences with others. Those who do not bother to examine our philosophy in detail portray it as an edict of commandments that the best blind people are expected to follow. While there are some guiding principles—such as understanding blindness as a characteristic that does not define an individual—it is not a list of things a blind person should or should not do. Our philosophy is also falsely portrayed as a path that only the highly skilled blind person can make actionable in their life. Based on the broad cross-section of blind people I know living this philosophy in their lives daily, I find no evidence that this is true. What is true is the more that people apply the Federation philosophy in their lives, the more choices they open for themselves. The Federation philosophy empowers us all with choices, and we strive for all blind individuals to enjoy the freedom of those choices.

To quote Dr. Jernigan from his speech entitled, “The Nature of Independence,” “Above all, independence means choices, and the power to make those choices stick. We are getting that power, and we intend to have more of it. That is why we have organized. That is why we have the National Federation of the Blind.”

If our philosophy is not merely a list of boxes to be checked and if it is a living body of knowledge, then consistent attention to our understanding is required for progress. This is why choosing to build a meaningful construction of blindness within ourselves remains one of the most important choices we can make. Do you make that conscious choice daily?

Before I met the National Federation of the Blind, I honestly believed that blindness did not play a major factor in my life because I pretended I was not a blind person. My self-belief was a result of years of conditioning that taught me to over-rely on the small amount of eyesight that I had. My actions were largely driven by what I could or could not see, but I rationalized my choices as though they had nothing to do with my blindness. I was faking it, and I was best at fooling myself. I told myself that I did not go places because I was uninterested in them, that I did not pursue work opportunities because they were beneath my standards for myself, and that I could do anything as long as I decided it was something I wanted to do. I believed that I was making a choice driven by my real desires.

Yet my choices were often uninformed, which further reinforced the low expectations I had internalized—a constant downward cycle. When I was a senior in high school, the teacher of blind students offered to teach me Braille if I wanted to learn it. The choice was mine. Why would I want to learn Braille, what would I do with it, and what benefit would it have in my life? Had I known to ask these questions, my choices would have been more clearly understood. Instead, I was permitted to make an uninformed choice that rejected a tool that would have expanded my options. My choice confirmed what I had been conditioned to believe—I was different from all of those other people who had no choice but to use Braille. I lived in a pattern of denial that gave me the illusion of freedom and independence.

When I met the National Federation of the Blind in the summer of 1996, it gave me hope for my future, but could what the Federation said about freedom for the blind be true in my life? I faced some difficult choices. The easy road was to adhere to the understanding I already possessed—it was comfortable, I had strategies to fake my way through, and I could avoid the fear of uncertainty. It was also easy to find examples in society to confirm that it was not respectable to be blind and that vision was a requirement for success. Absent the skills and the true understanding of blindness, justifying my low expectations was a well-worn path.

The harder road was the one I did not know, the one I observed the members of the National Federation of the Blind traveling. It offered possibilities, but exposure to the Federation philosophy would challenge me to rebuild my understanding. It would be uncomfortable, frustrating, and maybe even painful. The examples of why it was worth the effort were evident in the lives of Federationists. More importantly, they told me they would be with me on the journey, they would share in my ups and downs, and they would be there for as far as I chose to go.

Breaking my previous instincts and internalizing the elements of freedom found in the Federation philosophy has taken a lot of work. Actually, it continues to take effort every day. It is a journey, not a destination; a journey for which we have not yet found the limits. Previously I only had the perception of choice. When I made the real commitment to explore the collective understanding of the Federation in both my heart and mind, my choices began to grow exponentially. Each time I thought I had it figured out, the Federation has presented a new choice—another opportunity to raise the expectations for myself and for others. What makes all the difference in pursuing even greater freedom is the love, hope, and determination I share with my sisters and brothers in the National Federation of the Blind.

One of the people I have been blessed to share with in this movement is Marc Maurer, the longest-serving President of the National Federation of the Blind. He began to learn about choices as a student in Dr. Jernigan’s programs. Under Dr. Maurer’s leadership, choices for blind people expanded significantly, including the development of our NFB training centers and the establishment of the only research and training institute run by the blind—our Jernigan Institute in Baltimore. Shortly before we opened the doors of our institute, Dr. Maurer asked me to come develop educational programs for the Federation. By this time, I had a good understanding of what I could do as a blind person, but Dr. Maurer challenged me to recognize that there were more choices. In our programs at the institute we often teach blind people how to operate a chainsaw. We do so because it teaches some very valuable lessons about our internal beliefs and fears around blindness. When a class was offered, Dr. Maurer was the teacher. One day he subtly mentioned that we needed to find some more teachers. The choice was mine: learn to teach or find some other instructors. I was confident I could run the chainsaw safely—I had done so many times. Did I believe I could teach it safely and competently? I was very uncertain about taking that risk, but Dr. Maurer believed in me. Tonight, I am proud to say there are a number of people in this room who think fondly of their choice to take the chainsaw class under blindfold with me as the teacher. The National Federation of the Blind empowers us with choice, and choice is fundamental to freedom. That is why when we say let freedom ring, we mean let us build the National Federation of the Blind.

As many have mused, “Freedom cannot be granted. It must be taken,” and the challenge we face daily as blind people is to align our choices to the freedom we desire for blind people. Consider just one example, the airport. When a blind person steps into the airport they are faced with a choice—do I turn myself over to the hands of the assistance program personnel to be treated like a piece of luggage, or do I exercise my independence and encounter the choices ahead?

Let me pause to say that I do not offer these choices as right or wrong alternatives. I offer them to illustrate that the choices we make contribute to our freedom as defined by blind people or to our freedom as limited by the misunderstanding of others. If you have no blindness skills or know nothing of the Federation philosophy, you do not perceive you have any choice beyond using assistance. Just knowing that blind people navigate airports independently does not automatically give you the choice to do so either. You need to know something about the techniques and to be prepared to practice them—in the airport this means having enough time before your plane takes off. Furthermore, you need to develop enough experience to understand which techniques work best in which situations and when assistance is or is not useful. All of that takes creating choices for yourself and finding ways to exercise those choices. The goal is not perfection but rather working toward making an informed choice that works for you and is built upon, and contributes to, the diverse experience of thousands of other blind people.

There are hundreds of other choices that blind people face in the airport. At the security checkpoint: give over your cane and let the security staff push and pull you, or negotiate with them about the rules and what will best facilitate us moving with dignity through the process? After security: explore the amenities of the airport (free roaming blind people always attract attention), or settle in at the gate where we are not likely to be physically handled as much? At the gate: Answer the questions—what’s your name, who are you with, where are you going, can I see your boarding pass? Or employ some other strategy to avoid the harassment? Pre-board or board at the appointed time? On the airplane: Keep your cane with you or let them take it? And do you suffer the individual safety briefing that is forced upon you or vigorously decline it? In this last example, the airline personnel are almost certain to tell you: “We are required to do this for you.” In other words, you have no choice.

If our goal is freedom defined by our expectations, those being equal treatment and full participation, then the Federation philosophy encourages us to make choices that point us toward that goal. It does not dictate that we choose the same thing all of the time, but it does encourage us to move consistently toward the freedom we want to have. The alternative choice is to let others define what freedom means for us, and that is a choice that limits our future.

An important element of defining freedom on our terms is choosing to share our understanding of blindness with the general public. I grow weary of explaining why going up an escalator is not amazing and that my standing in one place does not mean I am lost, confused, or waiting for my sighted assistant to retrieve me. However, I try to remember that my choice—to respond with joy or anger—will contribute to how my freedom is determined. In the National Federation of the Blind, we know that educating the public sometimes means having the strength to firmly yet politely assert our equality. Despite our best efforts, this causes conflict. While we should not take every incident as an attack on our freedom, we should determine the boundaries for ourselves. For me, those boundaries are always triggered when a mysterious hand silently grabs me. Were it to prevent me from falling off a cliff or getting hit by a moving vehicle, I would most certainly greet it with a thank you. However, it is almost always the result of the perception of an unknown individual who is concerned that I am not going where they think I should or to prevent my cane, which is intended to find things, from touching some object in front of me. These situations often create an opportunity for further conversation about expectations, but occasionally my unwillingness to be treated like an object for public handling creates conflict. In the effort to educate the public, we can choose our approach, but we cannot choose how others will react to the freedom we seek for ourselves.

In our enthusiasm to define freedom for ourselves, we must continue to choose to meet other blind people where they are today. Our philosophy is not a box to be checked; it is a choice that requires exploration, support, and constant effort. In order for all blind people to enjoy the benefits of that choice, we must first help them and their families understand that the choice is available, then support them as they navigate the complexities of freedom. Reaching blind people from diverse backgrounds and with characteristics different from our own will challenge us to build new understanding into our philosophy. All of this will advance our march to freedom in the National Federation of the Blind. 

Once we have made the choice for ourselves we must ensure that the systems of our nation are consistent with the freedom we seek. We start with the premise that blind people are equal and, therefore, deserve equal treatment under the law. We also assert that we require equity within society to overcome the disadvantages of artificial barriers that bar us from full participation.

Consider the most fundamental activity within the American democracy—the right to vote. The Constitution of the United States did not originally define who was permitted to vote, leaving the determination to individual states. In general, this meant white males who owned property. Four of the amendments to the constitution clarify voting rights by stating that these rights cannot be denied or abridged based on certain characteristics: “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the 15th Amendment; “on account of sex,” the 19th Amendment; “by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax,” the 24th Amendment; and “on account of age” (for those who are eighteen years of age or older), the 26th Amendment.

The Constitution does not address voting by people with disabilities, and thus second-class systems of access have been implemented. Since 1940 the National Federation of the Blind has worked to eliminate these voting inequalities. We secured significant national gains with the enactment of the Help America Vote Act of 2002. This act ensured that the blind would cast their votes, “in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters,” through nonvisually accessible electronic voting machines. In the decade after the act was passed, our monitoring efforts recorded steady progress in the ability of blind people to vote privately and independently at public polling places. We then began to seek equal access to absentee voting. In the state of Maryland, the board of elections argued that blind people had equal access to a method of voting (physical polling locations), and that the law did not require equal access to all of the voting options. We argued that equal access means having an equal opportunity to choose from the same range of options as all other voters. The court upheld our definition of freedom, choice is now the standard of equality, and it is due to the collective action of the National Federation of the Blind.

Our progress is threatened as many states are now responding to concerns about security in voting by returning to printed paper ballots. This has caused the return of segregated voting systems for the blind, which are being justified with the claim that both accessibility and security cannot be achieved. We say that a nation that can put a man on the moon and that has the greatest resources for technological innovation in the world can certainly provide equal access to a secure voting system for all of its citizens. We will never again choose to permit our voting rights to be denied or abridged. We have the power to define freedom for ourselves, and we intend to make it reality. Even if it takes an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, we will have equality in the American democracy.

Education is another example of limited choices for the blind. When blind children come to the public classroom, they are automatically sent to a second-class system of education. While the sighted children receive books, the educators must convene a meeting to decide if the blind children should receive Braille books. While the sighted children are tested using the latest technologies, the team is forced to choose a second-class alternative for the blind because the technology is not accessible. While the sighted child may show up at the school and move about freely, the educators sometimes require blind children to use a specific type of cane—generally short and heavy—and frequently limit when and where the blind child may have that cane. Of course, this is just for the safety of the sighted children in the school. These constructs of equal education are neither free nor appropriate. The cost to blind children is their freedom and their right to equal opportunity. We say set our blind children free. The time has come for us to redefine free and appropriate education for the blind. We will no longer tolerate the slavery of special education systems. Let freedom ring, and let the National Federation of the Blind lead the way in offering the choices of the future.

The laws of the land tell us that we have the freedom to seek equal employment opportunities, yet our choices are not comparable to other Americans. We are not guaranteed the right to a minimum wage throughout the nation. We cannot apply for positions where the job applications use inaccessible screening tools. What choices do we have when we manage to secure a job where the workplace systems discriminate against those without vision? Many blind people are in jobs where they have no chance of advancement unless they choose to confront their employers regarding the discriminatory artificial barriers they face. Second-class treatment or unemployment—that is the definition of Hobson’s choice.

The rehabilitation systems are intended to provide equity in the process of getting people with disabilities into the workforce. Yet more and more blind people struggle to get access to quality training. The rehabilitation regulations, due to our efforts, require informed choice to ensure that blind people are provided adequate information about the training options available. However, the state agencies often tell us, “Here are all the choices, but remember we will only pay for the state’s preferred vendor.” No real choices are offered by the very system that is intended to enhance our independence; and if you are a blind person from certain racial or socioeconomic circumstances, you can expect to face additional challenges in accessing services.

Specialized employment programs for the blind have, after decades of advocacy by us, raised their wages and improved their working conditions to a point where they want us to know their jobs are good jobs. These programs argue that blind people choose to work in these positions over jobs with other employers as if all of those blind people had equal choices in the economy. When we suggest to these programs that they need to go further to advance equality for the blind, such as creating opportunities for blind people to supervise the programs not just work for them, they suggest that the choices are limited by federal regulations, not employer practices. We can either choose the paths designated by the employers or design our own future, and we choose freedom for the blind.

As observed in this convention, we are working closely with a diverse range of companies and organizations on partnerships to raise the expectations for the blind in this nation. Despite this progress, we have not yet advanced far enough on our road to freedom to avoid all conflicts. There are those who simply do not believe what we do about blindness. There are those who fear we are pushing too hard for change. There are those who believe that conflict is to be avoided at any cost. To these individuals, we say that we do not seek confrontation as a matter of course. We seek freedom for the blind as defined by our growing expectations for equality. When we can combine our efforts with others to build that future, we choose that path. However, if our freedom is in question, we are not afraid to choose confrontation if it is necessary to go the rest of the way to equality. For nearly eight decades we have committed to take freedom for ourselves, to own it, shape it, and strengthen it into a powerful force that allows all blind people to enjoy the full rights and responsibilities of our nation.

Our most important choice is the one we reaffirm here this evening. We choose to participate actively in the National Federation of the Blind. We do so because it makes a difference to us as individuals and to the community of blind people for whom we seek freedom. Some choose not to march with us. Some make that choice because they misunderstand what we represent. Others make that choice because they fear the conflict that might be required. Still others do not know that the choice is available to them or, if they do know, they do not understand what it will mean in their own lives. We welcome all blind people who have not yet found the freedom that comes from choosing to be a member of the National Federation of the Blind to join our family. We need you, and our experience is that you will benefit by being part of us.  We choose to leave the door open, and we seek new ways to reach more blind people to contribute to our freedom. We, who have already committed to our collective freedom, re-commit to sharing our understanding with everyone.

We know how the road to freedom is determined, and we have not yet found the limits of where that road will take us. Every day we have more choices than the day before because of the progress of the National Federation of the Blind. We pause in the road and reset our load knowing that we must make a conscience choice daily: settle for where we are or face the challenge of going the rest of the way. To rewrite the conclusion of Frost’s poem to describe the nature of our movement since 1940:

“Two freedoms diverge into the future, and we—
We chose the one to set the blind free,
And that has made all the difference.”

My Federation family, while progress offers choices, we must not forget that our most important choice is to continue our march together—that will make all the difference in our freedom. We choose to participate actively in the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind. We choose to speak for ourselves. We choose to raise expectations. We choose to share our understanding with the world. We choose to transform our dreams into reality. We choose to explore the limits. We choose what is essential for our equality, not what is easy. We choose, with love, hope, and determination, to let our freedom ring. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.