Language, Action, and Destiny: The Lived Experience of the Organized Blind Movement

An Address Delivered by
Mark A. Riccobono, President
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Of the National Federation of the Blind
Online (Baltimore, Maryland)
July 18, 2020

Tonight we connect through words. A word is a single, distinct, meaningful element of speech or writing. When used alone or in abundance, words form the expression of ideas and emotions. Whether spoken or written, words create vibrations that influence the very reality that surrounds us. Those vibrations transmit ideas, evoke emotions, influence thought patterns, and encourage action. Words are, therefore, the connection between thought and action. The vibrational qualities transmitted through words depend on their combination, their familiarity, and the means of delivery. The influence of words is amplified or diminished based upon the action or inaction that results. Over time, the meaning of words change and gain power from the underlying beliefs. 

English poet Lord Byron wrote, "But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think."

The writer and businesswoman Ingrid Bengis reflected, "For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Their articulation represents a complete, lived experience."

The thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi once said, "Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder."

Humanitarian Mother Teresa expressed that “kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless."

While drafting the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin observed that "words may show a man's wit, but actions his meaning."

Eight decades ago the first convention of the National Federation of the Blind was held in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. At the banquet of that constitutional convention, the Federation’s first President, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, made an address to the relatively small assembly. He closed his remarks with these simple yet powerful words, “it is necessary for the blind to organize themselves and their ideas upon a national basis, so that blind men the nation over may live in physical comfort, social dignity, and spiritual self-respect.” While today we choose different words, the society around us is changing at an accelerating pace, and our movement is exponentially more complex. The core belief shared by Dr. tenBroek nearly eighty years ago continues to be the motivation for us to come together at this banquet—that being the value of self-directed action by the blind. 

We gather together this evening in a manner that alters the familiar patterns, but with the same love, hope, and determination that has always called us to join together. Regardless of the unknowns that lay ahead, we come to the close of our eighth decade with the certainty that we have sustained a movement that stands as the single most important force for the blind anywhere in the world. We come together to recommit ourselves to our movement, to feel the heartbeat of our organization, and to gather the strength required to build our future. We are blind people connected from every corner of this great nation. We are blind people of different backgrounds, perspectives, and intersectionalities. We are blind people who recognize the power of unified action and concentrated energy. We are blind people who benefit from eight decades of hard work and sacrifice by departed generations of our movement. We are blind people committed to the value of giving back, to the opportunities that come from building together, to the strength found in welcoming new members, and to the urgency of resisting all efforts that threaten our progress. We are the National Federation of the Blind.

Mahatma Gandhi is credited with observing that “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

In the National Federation of the Blind, we have developed a distinct pattern of belief about blindness based upon our authentic lived experience being blind. We refer to this pattern of belief as Federation philosophy. As we put the philosophy into action, add new diverse perspectives, and influence the society around us, our understanding becomes even more meaningful. Our philosophy is further enhanced when we align our words and our actions to be consistent with our pattern of beliefs. We have consistently found that organizing ourselves and our ideas—as we have done using the Federation philosophy—is the most effective means for us to make steady progress toward our goal of integrating the blind into society on terms of equality. 

In contrast, we sometimes hear from administrators, counselors, teachers, and other individuals working in the blindness field that they do not adhere to a philosophy about blindness. We are told that they prefer not to “pick a side,” but rather “pick and choose from many different sources.” What do they mean when they use these words? The philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind has been shaped, over eighty years, by the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of diverse blind individuals. To be clear, when we say blind (a word we believe has power), we mean a functional definition that includes individuals with varying degrees of blindness. When a blindness professional says they cannot adopt the Federation philosophy, they are actually rejecting a shared understanding rooted in the lived experience of blind people. These professionals have a set of beliefs centered not on the experience of the blind, but rather on a belief that the non-blind experience is normal and that the essential element in that normality is eyesight. This is the vision-centered philosophy. That philosophy frequently underlies the words and actions of many non-blind individuals, who cannot have the lived experience of being blind, as well as blind individuals who have internalized the myth that vision is a requirement for success.

We can get an understanding of people’s underlying beliefs from the words they use. Last fall, Pam Allen, first-vice president of the National Federation of the Blind, was at a large gathering of leaders in the blindness field. During a session about the branding of agencies for the blind, the facilitator asked a serious question, “Should we continue to use the B word?” The tone of the question implied that blind is a four-letter word. As executive director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, Pam was the only blind person in the room who oversaw an agency directed by a board of blind individuals and offering services built upon the Federation philosophy. When no one else spoke up, Pam confidently explained that use of the word “blind” is not merely appropriate, it is essential to reflecting the belief that it is respectable to live and compete on terms of equality as a blind person. However, she was met with strong resistance and little support from the assembled crowd of agency administrators. This was not a philosophical discussion to explore the value of the word “blind” or shifting its meaning among the general public. This was a discussion about effectively marketing agencies serving the blind and enhancing their brand by excluding the B word. If Pam was not in that room or did not speak up, the assembled crowd would have once again affirmed its belief that vision is to be advanced while blind is to be avoided.

In contrast, the Library of Congress program for providing accessible reading materials to the blind has recently considered operational changes resulting from the United States ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty. Refreshing the brand, including the name, of the program was under review. Removing “blind” from the program’s name was discussed, but the library leadership effectively articulated the significance of the word and the importance of the underlying belief in blind people—the library’s primary audience. Why did the national library, unlike some other agencies in the blindness field, remain committed to using the B word? The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled is led by a blind woman, Karen Keninger, who believes deeply in the capacity and value of blind people. The library, like our movement, recognizes that the word “blind” is a positive attribute. 

As a class of blind people, all of us face artificial barriers and low expectations in society. Whether poor color contrast or unlabeled interactive controls, the failure to incorporate accessibility into web development affects all of us. When seeking employment, we are all held back by the low expectations. When seeking to vote in elections, we get equal access when we demonstrate that all of us have been disenfranchised from our rights. We use the word “blind” because we reject the outdated notion that blindness is a tragedy that limits the possibilities. For us, the word “blind” has power and meaning. For those who are vision centered, “blind” evokes fear and uncertainty. Language reflects belief, and we will not sell out our beliefs. We, the blind, follow our words with the action of living the lives we want. The result of our persistent and collective action is our shattering of the old meaning of blind and creating a new, stronger, authentic meaning.

In contrast, many professionals in the field emphasize words that center on vision. Behind their words are beliefs that hold us back. Some professionals truly believe that the words simply do not matter. Other professionals sincerely believe that, for the sake of their clients, they must only use the politically correct words. We reject these harmful assertions because we know that words do matter, that words are driven by beliefs, and that words create vibrations that lead to actions that will either help or hurt our march to freedom. Now is the time for a revolution of words in the field of blindness. Now is the time for the blind to advance our language of freedom.

Consider the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AERBVI). The association describes itself as “a professional membership organization dedicated exclusively to professionals who provide services to persons with vision loss.” While we do not protest the existence of a membership organization for professionals in the field, we do denounce their continued use of language centered on vision that emphasizes their separation from the pattern of thought found in the organized blind movement. 

AERBVI’s website features a page promoting opportunities to work in the field that is prominently titled, “Become a Vision Professional.” From first impression, the association makes it clear how they would like us to think about the field—vision is at the center. Listen for yourself; here is the opening paragraph from that page: “Vision professionals have the opportunity to make positive changes in another person’s life. There is a variety of professions in the vision community, a number of different types of working environments and employment options. Vision professionals work with public or private organizations, with children and adults, and with educational, medical, and rehabilitation professionals.” The page highlights career options such as teacher of students with visual impairments, which the professionals often shorten to simply vision teacher, or vision rehabilitation therapist, which, according to the page, is the modern term for rehabilitation teacher. What beliefs underlie the titles of vision teachers and vision therapists?

The language of seeing used by AERBVI exemplifies a fundamental disconnect among some professionals in the field of blindness that continues to hold us back as blind people. It is a systemic problem that stretches back before the founding of the National Federation of the Blind. It is a bias that pushed our earliest leaders to establish this movement in 1940. The vision-centered philosophy and its language of seeing perpetuate the false notion that blind people need to be counseled by therapists to operate in a visual world—with all of the limitations that are assumed to be inherent in not being able to see. From this has come the actions of building a professional system that trains vision professionals to help those with visual impairments to make optimal gains based first and foremost upon eyesight. Yet we continue to be told that the words do not matter and that the differences in perspective are in the past. We, the blind, know that the words do matter, and we intend to follow our language of freedom with actions to make change.

Tonight, we call on all professionals in the field to change their language to reflect the beliefs we want to find in our field. We encourage you to join with the leadership of our divisions for rehabilitation professionals and blindness education professionals in using the language of freedom cultivated by the organized blind movement. We are not impaired. We do not require therapy for our eyes. We appreciate that not all blindness is the same, but our experience tells us that all people living with blindness, as we say blind people, face the same set of low expectations in society that require action. Make a conscious decision to use our language of freedom, because it will cause you to evaluate your own beliefs. This consciousness will allow you to continue the process of cultivating your philosophy about blindness centered on the lived experience of the blind rather than on the hierarchy of seeing. If you undertake this exploration of understanding within the organized blind movement, we know you will be better able to make the positive changes in the world we sincerely believe you seek.

Change starts with each of us and, as blind people, we can best influence the professionals and the general public when we consistently use the language of freedom that reflects our shared beliefs. We cannot afford to acquiesce to the words that society feels more comfortable wrapping us in. We should not give into the notion that words do not matter. I frequently overhear blind people reflecting the language of seeing that is used in society rather than what is authentic to us. Braille and print materials can be just that, rather than special and normal. How many times have you been asked if you want the regular (meaning print) menu or the special copy? Did you reply with the language of seeing or the language of freedom? How many times have you heard blind people refer to the “vision teachers”? When I have inquired of my blind friends why they use this term, they sometimes tell me that they are following the lead of the professionals. Yet those same blind individuals are frustrated with the low expectations for blind people within the education system especially when it comes to Braille literacy. If we are to secure the future we want, we must recommit to our language of freedom.

In 1993 we passed a resolution at our convention rejecting politically correct language about blindness that declared, “We believe that it is respectable to be blind, and although we have no particular pride in the fact of our blindness, neither do we have any shame in it. To the extent that euphemisms are used to convey any other concept or image, we deplore such use.” At the time, nearly everyone in the disability community criticized us for this position. We have consistently maintained the language of freedom aligned with our high expectations based upon our shared beliefs. Fast forward to today where the disability community has widely adopted our perspective, which is broadly referred to as identity-first language. I raise this not to demonstrate that we were right but rather to point out that we now need to push harder. It is not enough for the professionals in our own field to say, “We will call you blind if you prefer that.” We need them to have a real understanding of why it is important. That starts with using our language of freedom rather than settling for what the non-blind population requires.

We continue to strengthen our own understanding when we are intentional about the words we choose. When I was still relatively new to the Federation philosophy, I heard someone use the term “human guide.” At the time, I only classified guides as being of two varieties: dog guides and sighted guides. The term human guide forced me to examine my underlying beliefs and their consistency with our shared philosophy. As a blind person, I have guided many people, both blind and sighted, and vision was not required nor used in my guiding. I had the realization that my classifications were rooted in vision-centered philosophy, not from my authentic experience as a blind person. Once my consciousness was raised, I started using words that strengthened and reflected our shared beliefs. However, we should be careful not to settle for simply using and hearing the right words. Consistent beliefs and actions are also critical to achieving our destiny.

Learning to speak the language of freedom for the blind is not enough. Ultimately, if beliefs are not consistent with the words, the action or the lack of action will expose the truth. Many agencies for the blind use words like independence, self-sufficiency, and live life to the fullest. Yet their actions prevent blind people from achieving that reality. Consider the fact that the National Federation of the Blind has largely eliminated the practice of paying subminimum wages to blind people in programs at agencies for the blind. After decades of resistance, the agencies enjoy telling us they no longer use the 14(c) exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, do those same agencies provide blind workers with pay comparable to non-blind individuals performing the same job, with unemployment payments when layoffs occur, and with training leading to opportunities for upward mobility within the organization? How often are those same agencies giving their blind employees pay stubs, health and safety materials, and organizational communications in a fully accessible format? Do they offer accessible websites, provide accessible descriptions of their photos in social media, and refuse to purchase technologies if they are not accessible to blind people? For most agencies, we know that the answers to these questions, and others we might consider posing, reflect low expectations inconsistent with the encouraging words they use. In fact, those nice words are used to court donors who are given to believe there is real action behind the words. We also know that the answers are inconsistent with the understanding of blindness we have in the National Federation of the Blind. 

One of the significant factors contributing to actions rooted in low expectations is the lack of blind board members and blind executives at agencies for the blind. While non-blind executives can internalize the understanding of blindness that we share in this movement, the fact remains that the severe lack of adequate representation by blind people in leadership positions directly results in little accountability and big inconsistency in the beliefs, words, and actions of agencies for the blind. Take, for example, Bryan Bashin, a blind person who serves as chief executive officer for the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind. A long-time member of our movement, Bryan spoke to our convention last year about his efforts to bring greater authenticity to the work of his agency. Bryan and I frequently discuss the challenges of attempting to work with agencies and executives whose actions perpetuate low expectations. Maybe you can relate to one of the many stories Bryan has shared with me. A couple of years ago at a meeting of blindness agency directors, Bryan was the only blind person in a group of leaders who ventured out to share dinner together. During their walk to the restaurant, it started to rain, and Bryan, being an experienced traveler, began to put on his raincoat. A non-blind agency director rushed over and, without warning, began helping Bryan. This act of public service included grabbing the strings to the hood of the coat and tightening them to make sure the hood would not come loose. In Bryan’s own words to me, “you know, as executives we’re prepared for million-dollar budget fights, HR issues, and last-minute press coverage. But nothing prepares one for the shocking realization that a CEO colleague thought you needed help tying up your jacket hood, far less the unanticipated personal invasion of ‘helping’ by touching one’s clothing without even asking. The profound symbolism of the do-good CEO being so oblivious of the paternalism inherent in his unbidden help—this symbolizes the work we have to do with agencies so removed from the people they serve that they don’t even think about the infantilizing nature of their actions.” In the moment, had Bryan too forcefully rebelled against this inappropriate action, he would have certainly been labelled as having an attitude or more likely as being “one of those militants.” More astonishing is the fact that none of the other non-blind agency executives said a word about the inappropriateness of the incident. Possibly they did not even find anything wrong with the situation. 

Change starts with each of us here tonight. As blind people, we can best raise the expectations of the agencies and the general public when we consciously use the language of freedom that reflects our shared beliefs and when we follow those words with consistent actions. The stronger the relationship of our beliefs, words, and actions, the greater the influence of the vibrations we create in society and the more powerful our habits and values. When we then unify our individual contributions into a movement of collective action, we determine the shape of our own destiny.

When blind youth come to our Federation educational programs, they often use the right words. They tell us that they can do anything and they want equal treatment. However, when asked how they do certain things, we frequently find that no action follows the words. As a result, we have built our Federation programs to focus on opportunities for blind people to perform the actions themselves, consistent with the beliefs and words we share.

Before I met the National Federation of the Blind, I too said the words but did not perform the actions. I was incapable of acting because, deep down, the beliefs I held were not ones of equality and opportunity, but rather disparity and anonymity. Finding blind mentors in the National Federation of the Blind, receiving guidance in evaluating my own beliefs, and being challenged to take action made all the difference. They taught me that I could direct my own future, and they shared with me everything they knew about living life as a blind person. I found that my destiny was rooted in, and being constrained by, my own misconceptions about blindness. My Federation family illuminated for me that belief alone is not enough. Words give power to the beliefs, and actions create the realization of those beliefs. At the same time, when we act on our words, we strengthen our beliefs. Yet I did not truly understand the power of self-directing the connections between beliefs, words, and actions until I committed to contributing to the work of the National Federation of the Blind. Only when I began freely sharing my understanding with other blind people and participating actively in our shared mission did I truly develop the habits and values required to fulfil my destiny or, to put it in the words of today’s Federation, to live the life I want.

What Dr. tenBroek understood during his time as our first leader; what Kenneth Jernigan, our second great President, demonstrated by building effective programs; what Dr. Marc Maurer, our longest serving President, taught us to feel in our hearts; and what we have confirmed through our coming together year after year; is when the beliefs, words, and actions of many are synthesized and applied in the same direction, the vibrations are unstoppable. With eighty years of experience, we now have no doubt that the community of action we have built in this movement is the most powerful force for raising expectations for the blind. We also know that we will only maintain that power if we continue to apply our hearts, minds, voices, and hands to the actions that will advance our organization. This will require each of us individually to consciously align our beliefs, words, and actions. It will also require us to recommit ourselves to the bond of faith we share in working together toward our destiny. We cannot wait for the vision therapists to do it for us. We cannot expect others to define our future. We cannot settle for only the right words. We must demand action, and it starts with each of us in this movement.

Let us recommit ourselves to the actions that are consistent with our beliefs and words. It is not enough to say we want respect in society. We must take the actions that demonstrate respect for others. We must take up our responsibilities as well as expect our equal rights. 

It is not enough to say we want full participation. We must take the actions to demonstrate how the artificial barriers in society hold us back. We must teach the corporations building inaccessible technology how to change their ways. We must hold accountable agencies for the blind where the words sound right but the beliefs and actions are wrong. We must not settle for the progress we have made but rather continue to expand the opportunities for full participation in society. 

It is not enough to say we have the courage to go the rest of the way on our road to freedom. We must stand in the face of adversity, make sacrifices, and support our Federation family members who put themselves on the line as examples to gain equality for all. 

It is not enough to say we value collective action. We must continue to welcome all blind people into our movement, teach them our shared understanding, and synthesize their perspectives into our philosophy and work. We must seek new ways to expand the active participation of a diverse range of blind people in our movement. We must do so without leaving any blind person behind. 

It is not enough to say we value democracy. We must actively train leaders who are prepared to carry out the expectations of our shared code of conduct and to represent the expressed will of our members. We must continue our commitment to explore challenging questions and turn those discussions into actions for change within and outside our movement. We must continue to elect a diverse set of blind people to lead this organization who reflect our values, and we must find ways to get blind people who share our philosophy elected to public offices. We must take the actions necessary to require agencies for the blind to be guided by substantive feedback from blind people in their governance structures, and we should discourage support for agencies where their words are not consistent with their beliefs and actions.

It is not enough to say we are a Federation family and that we put love into our movement. Our actions must continue to demonstrate the belief behind the words. This movement has become known for its generosity, its warmth, and its ability to change lives through personal connections. That is because we have not just used the words family and love; we have followed them with meaningful actions.

During this past year, we have experienced the best of what we mean when we use the words family and love. We have thrown open the doors of this movement; we have reached out to and supported blind people who most needed assistance during a worldwide pandemic; we have responded with force where our rights have been ignored; we have responded with love and solidarity to blind people who face systemic injustice because of their intersecting characteristics; we have dedicated hundreds of extra hours and thousands of unexpected dollars; and we have innovated new programs to address the most urgent needs. Some may say we did these things because the times demanded it. The members of the Federation know the truth. We did these things and more because we believe in blind people, we believe that blindness is not the characteristic that determines our future, we say what we believe, and we know that the words mean nothing without action. We remain fully committed to taking all of the bold actions required to go the rest of the way to freedom. The actions of this Federation are fueled by love, and love is the faith in each other that drives the actions that will fulfill our destiny.

While we cannot all be in the same place at the same time to celebrate our progress, we feel the love, hope, and determination that comes from what we share in this movement. More than words, we share the actions of freedom. More than words, we share the actions of equality. More than words, we share the actions of independence. More than words, we share the bond of family. More than words, we share the determination to go the rest of the way to our destiny.

My Federation family, in eighty years we have come further than our founding members could have imagined, and we are not yet done. At the beginning, all we had were the words to express our hopes and dreams. Today, we have the beliefs, the words, and the actions required to go all the way to our destiny. The vision-centered philosophy cannot stop us. The blindness agencies with the nice marketing materials reflecting the wrong beliefs and actions cannot stop us. The governments and corporations that expect us to wait for accessibility cannot stop us. The critics who fail to believe in our authentic understanding of blindness cannot stop us. Nothing will stop us as long as we continue to take ownership for speaking and acting for ourselves. Nothing will stop us as long as we continue to hold tight to the bond of faith we share. Nothing will stop us as long as we commit ourselves to the habits and values required to fulfill our destiny. We are the blind, unified in action, connected by our love for each other, and motivated by the future we intend to build. While we may temporarily be distanced from each other, we will never be divided. Let us believe as one movement. Let us speak with one voice. Let us act with one heart. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.