Spirit, Togetherness, and Service: The Signature of the Blind People's Movement

Mark A. Riccobono, President
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Of the National Federation of the Blind
New Orleans, Louisiana
July 10, 2022

Listen! Feel the energy! Let the understanding warm your heart! We are back; we are together again; in coming together we experience the collective heartbeat of our movement as blind people. 

David Whyte offers us the following in his poem entitled “Working Together”:

“We shape our self
to fit this world

and by the world
are shaped again.

The visible
and the invisible

working together
in common cause,

to produce
the miraculous.

I am thinking of the way
the intangible air

traveled at speed
round a shaped wing

holds our weight.

So may we, in this life

to those elements
we have yet to see

or imagine,
and look for the true

shape of our own self,
by forming it well

to the great
intangibles about us."

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted our ability to harness the power we have when we gather together in the organized blind movement. The intersecting social, economic, cultural, and philosophical challenges in our communities have been further heightened by the physical distancing that was a necessary response to the worldwide pandemic. Despite the uncertainty, the power of our ideas, the strength of our determination, and the wisdom of our collective lived experience continues to drive this unparalleled movement—a movement that serves as a space for us to come together. This is a space where equity and inclusion are valued; a space where respect and active participation are expected; a space where we believe in our own capacities to determine the future; a space from which we show the world that we belong. We are the National Federation of the Blind.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution."

Margaret Mead warned, "Never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals."

President Lyndon B. Johnson said that "there are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves."

Malcolm Forbes defined diversity as "the art of thinking independently together."

While Yoko Ono mused that "A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality." 

As humans, we seek to classify aspects of our world to create order and understanding. In general, a movement is defined as a group of people who share the same beliefs, ideas, or aims. Sociologists have classified movements often by the nature and extent of the change being sought. Examples of classifications include reform, revolutionary, reactionary, religious, and self-help movements. Others prefer classifications based on the area of concern that brings the movement together. Examples might include environmental, civil rights, anti-war, LGBTQ, and gun-control movements. One real issue with these classifications is that when a movement is shaped by a diverse group of people, it may not fit neatly into a single category. Especially if a movement is to be sustained, it must continue to be a living reflection of the people within that movement and their aspirations to cause change in the current society. For a movement to be successful, its targets for change must evolve or there will be no motivation for the people to take further action. The strength of the togetherness in a movement is measured by how well it reflects the values that are shared among the people of that movement.

With that in mind, what reflections can we make on the National Federation of the Blind—America's organized blind movement? Now in our ninth decade, we emerge again into local communities after a prolonged period of physical distancing. Who are we? Are we different from what we were before? What do we want to be? And how critical is our working together?

The societal patterns of thought about blindness were built into human consciousness many centuries before the founding of the National Federation of the Blind. Misconceptions about the impact of blindness on the physical, mental, emotional, and social capacity of humans had become an understood truth, much like the fact that the sun would rise and fall in a predictable place. Yet throughout all human existence there have been people living with blindness who have known the errors of these misconceptions. While not every blind person was able to overcome the internalization of these myths, many did find imaginative ways to rise above the social stigma and limited expectations in order to live meaningful lives. When opportunities for blind people to band together arose, the misconceptions shattered at an even greater pace. However, historically these opportunities to come together were created through institutional systems built for us, not by us—schools for the blind, sheltered employment settings, and even homes for the blind. While these institutions afforded us the opportunity to bond together, they also had the effect of reinforcing the very misconceptions that held us back. By the time we entered the twentieth-century, blind people were a long way from being recognized and respected as a class of capable citizens who deserve the equal rights and responsibilities of our nation.

Locally organized groups of blind people began to emerge across the country in the early 1900s. At the same time, our nation was maturing in its governmental structures and federal programs, which created new opportunities. Blind leaders across the country found ways to connect with each other to discuss these opportunities, strategize ways for blind people to gain equal access, and to dream about overcoming the persistent low expectations. Connecting was not as easy as sending a Tweet, posting to a Facebook group, or writing a blog post, but the value of sharing ideas, concerns, hopes, and dreams was as powerful as it is today. 

As changes in American society made the need for organizing on a national basis more important, a young blind scholar of the United States Constitution gave meaning, motivation, and voice to the need for a vehicle for collective action by the blind themselves. Jacobus tenBroek, blinded as a boy, had been shaped into a man of purpose by a determined blind mentor from the California School for the Blind. Dr. Newel Perry lived through the painful effects of unequal treatment and low expectations without a national organization of blind people to have his back. Motivated by Dr. Perry's high expectations, Jacobus tenBroek studied the law and found power in the roots of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution—protections resulting from the work of the abolitionist movement of the previous century. These blind men, mentor and mentee, shared a belief in self-determination that empowered representatives of seven state organizations of the blind to work together, resulting in the founding of the National Federation of the Blind in November 1940 and the election of Jacobus tenBroek as the first President of the organized blind movement.

An initial priority of our movement was to influence the development of policies for the newly established federal social security program—earning us an early classification as a reform movement. Alternatively, since one aim was to establish a basic level of support for blind people, it might have been equally accurate to say welfare movement. Still others might believe that the nature of blind people working together to support each other made it a self-help or self-determination movement. These classifications, and others we might consider, miss the unique and singularly powerful reason for the movement. No one else was to set the direction and priorities—only the blind. No one else was to speak for the movement—only the blind representatives elected by the blind. No other aspect was more critical than the reality that it was a blind people's movement. 

The nature of our work during the 1950s may have justified the classification of organizing movement. As we grew in participation and success, efforts to resist our movement emerged. This is similar to the resistance that most powerful movements have experienced. In the case of the blind people's movement, the resistance came out of institutionalized charity and low expectations. The idea that we should or could speak and act for ourselves was a direct contradiction to the narrative upon which many agencies for the blind had built their services. The resistance was so severe that, in the late 1950s, we needed to compel the United States Congress to consider bills to protect our right to organize—a right already widely enjoyed by other Americans. 

From our perspective today, some may find it difficult to imagine firm resistance to the basic idea that blind people can and will speak and act for ourselves. However, it still emerges in our daily lives today. How often in public does someone talk about you rather than to you or express surprise that you can manage your own affairs? What is the root of such treatment? I regularly encounter this myself. A couple of months ago, I was traveling with a non-blind colleague of mine for the Federation. Breakfast being essential to a long day of Federation business, we went to a local restaurant before our planned meeting with the local affiliate leadership. I ordered the local specialty of peach pancakes. When the plate arrived, the server firmly addressed my colleague by saying, "Now ma'am, what I want you to do is cut this up so that he gets a taste of all the flavors in every bite." Some people brush these experiences off as mere ignorance. However, they are an echo from previous centuries—a persistent obstacle that we must actively work to overcome. We must continue to speak and act for ourselves and to assert that it is normal and reasonable for us to do so. We must also be prepared to do our part to assist others when it is necessary. My non-blind colleague, who is an active participant in the blind people's movement, told the server that her plan was to enjoy her own food, knowing that help was not needed. We enjoyed our meal after shaking off the awkwardness of the situation, but I continued to wonder what negative impact that server might have on the experience of blind people in her community.

These experiences happen to us every day in traveling the streets, shopping in stores, participating in educational programs, attending religious services, performing our jobs, enjoying leisure activities, and exercising our rights and responsibilities in society. While we can have some positive influence on individuals when we address these low expectations, it is the wider movement of blind people working together that advances our status as a class of people. We belong, we have the right to speak and act for ourselves, and when we bring our individual efforts together, we make the world better for everyone. 

These low expectations persist as systemic problems. How often are agencies for the blind led by blind individuals who provide positive philosophical as well as administrative direction to their agency staff? How many boards of agencies for the blind have more than one blind person? How many are majority-controlled by the blind? How many times do agencies, technology developers, city planners, or employers consult with us in a meaningful way and incorporate our perspective prior to making significant plans? The answer to all these questions is rarely. When blind people are not a part of the leadership decisions made about us, rarely is there a departure from the vision-centered bias that continues to create obstacles for us. Without a doubt, we continue to need a movement to advance the idea that we speak and act for ourselves—and to transform that idea into reality. That movement is the National Federation of the Blind.

During the second and third decades of our movement, as America experienced a disruptive period of civil rights reform, we were rapidly raising expectations for the blind in education, rehabilitation, and employment. The blindness system responded to our efforts by using the institutional structures of the field to attempt to slow our progress. One example was the establishment of a system of accreditation for agencies serving the blind based on the misconceptions of the past. This effort did not include us in a meaningful way; thus, we pushed back using the effective strategies and tactics that characterized the civil rights movements of the time—aggressive organizing, wide dissemination of our message, and protesting in the streets. It was this period of our development that helped us to be known as a civil rights movement or, for those less friendly to us, a militant or radical movement. Regardless of the label chosen, the most important factor was that blind people determined for themselves what strategies and tactics would be used. 

Under the dynamic leadership of Kenneth Jernigan, our second long-term President, the period of the 1970s and early 1980s focused on growing the local structure and membership of the movement by finding new ways to bring blind people together. We began forming affinities between blind people through their positions as students, teachers, or workers in other professions. We established more regular training of leaders at the national level. We increased our communication channels. The result was more blind people finding our movement. Those people stayed because the Federation offered an authentic place where blind people could work together on terms of equality to advance our own future. They found a community that believed in blind people more than anywhere else in the world. Our movement was the space where the blind were the priority. 

As we worked through the 1980s, the maturity of our movement gave us the confidence to grow in new dimensions. For example, in 1983 we established the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children as a purposeful action to expand the impact of the blind people's movement. This was not the first attempt to incorporate families of blind children into our movement. From our earliest days, we provided both mentorship and advocacy for blind youth. We established Future Reflections—a publication for parents and educators sharing the lived experience of blind people. Our state affiliates held seminars for families and found ways to partner with schools for the blind. However, the establishment of this national division marked a significant new aspect to the blind people's movement. The division was permitted by the Federation to have a membership and president who were not blind. Had the movement gone soft? Had it abandoned its core values? Quite the opposite: the movement was now confident enough in its position as a blind-led movement to create mechanisms to encourage the participation of non-blind family members within our mission.

We are now approaching the forty-year milestone of parents of blind children benefiting from and contributing to the blind people's movement. The result has been a significant increase in the expectations for blind youth in America's educational system, an abundance of resources for families generated from our lived experience, and multiple generations of blind youth who have grown to be leaders in the blind people's movement. Yet even today, parents have to fight to have blind advocates attend their child's IEP meetings; very few blind people are serving as administrators in public education programs; many teacher training programs lack the philosophy of high expectations we share; and discrimination in employment continues based upon the misconception that the blind are not capable of safely supervising children. Despite the challenges, we persist in raising expectations. We now have our own extensive network of education programs, teacher training projects, and family outreach and support efforts. This is the result of working together. This is the uniqueness and power of the blind people's movement. This is the nature of the National Federation of the Blind.
Since the 1980s, our position of leadership in integrating the blind into society on terms of equality has been unmatched. These efforts were shaped by the imaginative leadership of Marc Maurer who gave more time and energy to the leadership of our movement than any President we have followed. During this time, we established model training centers in Louisiana, Colorado, and Minnesota, which remain the only training centers in the nation that operate within the blind people's movement. These centers provide the most comprehensive training available to blind individuals, allowing graduates to pursue their dreams, contribute to the wisdom of the movement, and expand the reach of our shared network. Furthermore, the leaders of these centers have an expectation that their blind graduates will share their perspectives to improve the training program for the future. NFB centers are built on the value that they are both accountable to blind people and contributing to the overall movement of blind people. It is a commitment of working together—give and take—that is rarely made by those operating at a distance from the blind people's movement.

Through our movement we have built programs and services to provide blind people with equal access to information, such as NFB NEWSLINE®, and to shape the laws to protect the twenty-first-century access needs of the blind. We have expanded our public education efforts through wide distribution of our message and have found imaginative projects to highlight the capacity of blind people. We have offered scholarships and employment opportunities. We have partnered in research projects, and we have even led our own. We have created reading machines, digital talking book players, and explored the development of innovative tactile interfaces. We have developed educational programs that have inspired blind people to be scientists, engineers, technology developers, mathematicians, or to pursue careers in other challenging fields. 

Through our advocacy we have established our movement as the voice of the nation's blind in the halls of power. We have shaped the copyright laws of the nation to include us, improved our access to voting, protected our ability to travel independently on the streets of America, and raised the awareness of Braille literacy. In local communities we have improved the protections for blind parents and caregivers, increased access to accessible technology, improved educational standards, and raised wages. Are we an educational movement, an access-to-information movement, a workers' movement, a public-awareness movement, or a government-reform movement? Frequently our efforts have benefited not only the blind but all people with disabilities—does that simply make it a part of the disability-rights movement? Knowing Federation members, there will be someone who can eloquently argue for any or all of the above, but there is no need for debate. In everything that matters, our effort has been developed, led, and executed by the blind. We are a movement representative of the blind people of our day, inclusive and responsive to the issues of our day, and ever adapting to the dynamic circumstances each new day presents. We are the National Federation of the Blind. 

In case you needed justification for why we commit to continually adapting our movement together, remember March of 2020. Our togetherness was challenged, our practices were disrupted, our systems were altered, but our spirit was never broken. This was not the first period when our movement marched forward in extreme adversity. However, the past two years have been different from any other our movement has endured. In a matter of weeks, our in-person conventions were cancelled, our chapter meetings were postponed, our access to public information and services were diminished, and our togetherness was disrupted. As individuals, we felt uncertain, scattered, and without the resources we needed. In many ways, we were not unlike the blind people of 1940. Think about it: in that brief moment, many among us experienced what our blind predecessors experienced before the establishment of the National Federation of the Blind. However, we had the advantage of decades of experience working together in the organized blind movement to draw upon as a resource in fueling our response. 

Remember what we, blind people, did in those early moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, because it is the signature of what we must continue to do. It reflects the best intangible qualities that are the foundation of the blind people's movement. We built a new form of our network. We quickly began connecting with each other in new ways. Blind person to blind person, we checked on each other, shared resources and ideas, applied our philosophy to unforeseen circumstances, challenged ourselves not to accept the status quo, and developed new opportunities for teaching each other. We continued to raise expectations every day in an America that seemed, at the time, completely unfamiliar to us. Except that I believe deep down it was all too familiar. 

The isolation, the uncertainty, the lack of information access, the inability to find transportation, the barriers to voting and other public services, and the fear of not knowing the techniques that would keep us safe are all things we have experienced before as blind people. These are symptoms of the deeply embedded misconception in our society that blindness exclusively defines and limits us. However, they are also echoes of where we have been in our personal journey with blindness. Many blind people were still working through their own understanding of blindness when the pandemic put everything on hold. Others of us had their confidence shaken by becoming disconnected and withdrawn. This evening we shake off the struggles and renew our work together. Our message to each other tonight is "You will be fine." You will be fine because we will work together. You will be fine because the National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we, together, raise the expectations of blind people because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back. The intangible bond we share in our movement is what lifts us up from the depths of loneliness to the joy of participation. Our bond of faith lifts us from the isolation of despair to the comprehension that we can build a brighter tomorrow. Our belief in one another lifts us to know that we can make our lives what we want them to be. Our shared commitment is the spirit of our movement that lifts all of us up. 

Tonight we gather to acknowledge the difficult period of setbacks we have experienced all over this nation. It has deeply affected us, blind and non-blind alike. It has triggered those deeply held misconceptions about the human experience that we have worked for decades to change. It has forever shaped our perspectives. 

This leaves us with the question "Are we different from what we were before?" Yes and no. Yes, because the society around us is different, and we must continue to operate within that society even as we seek to change it. As blind people, we seek to live in the world not apart from it. We are not immune from the broader trends in society; we live within them. Our movement of blind people represents all intersectionalities. 

Are we different from what we were before? In one real sense the answer is no, because our foundation continues to be a diversity of blind people working together in a movement to make a tomorrow full of greater opportunities.

Tonight we also join together to celebrate the spirit of support, action, love, and determination that has continued to sustain us in these times. Whether you are in this room tonight or participating virtually from anywhere else, this moment is one for celebrating the togetherness of the blind people's movement. For as challenging as our recent times have been, we know how much more challenging they would have been without the family that is the National Federation of the Blind. In coming together, we again affirm the truth—normal is our experience in the space we build and share together. Our working together is the single most powerful force for transforming our normal into the normal everywhere else in the world. The blind people's movement is our shield against those deeply held misconceptions invading our own consciousness and preventing us from realizing our dreams. In everything that matters, we have one another. No matter the distance, the span of time, or the disruptive forces, we can continue to choose progress together in our movement.

We can be certain that, as we emerge back into the world, there will continue to be great challenges in achieving our goals. There is still resistance in many places to the idea that blind people can and should speak and act for ourselves. There are still many entities in the blindness field that feel they know better than we do what would be meaningful to our future. The general public and government officials still operate on outdated misconceptions about how blindness limits our value and ability to participate fully. Many competing societal issues make it challenging for our message of independence, self-determination, and equal protection to be adequately addressed by those in power. All of this is made more complicated by living in a society that is increasingly polarized by people self-selecting into limited information channels.

Despite the challenges, tonight I am filled with hope, energy, and love by participating in the National Federation of the Blind, because my expectations are raised, my contributions make a difference to me and to others, and I can celebrate the realization of our dreams with my Federation family. This movement has made all the difference to me in what has, without a doubt, been the most challenging years of my life so far. I have observed people in this movement respond to the challenges of the past few years with a spirit that I wish we had observed more widely in other parts of our society. It is not that we are better than others in society, but rather that we have made an honest and deep commitment to working together. Even when it is imperfect and difficult, it is always together—blind people together. I honor tonight the difference this movement makes in our lives and show gratitude for the opportunity to share it with you. During the past year we have shared the pain of losing some of our closest Federation family members. Yet, in leaving us, they have asked us to remember that the most important tool we have for both progress and success is the bond of faith we share through the blind people's movement. 

So, are we a reform movement? A self-determination movement? An organizing movement? A civil-rights movement? An educational movement? Tonight we again declare with certainty that we are all of these and more. We, as the blind speaking for ourselves, are defined more by our collective action than by the form that action takes. We are not limited by any action, because we can and will use any tools at our disposal and the wisdom from our shared history to meet the challenges of the day. 

We are a one-of-a-kind movement: a movement where every-day blind people and our friends and family are blessed to make extraordinary contributions to our human experience; a movement fueled by the heart, strength, determination, and thoughtfulness shared between members; a movement built on our lived experience rather than the misconceptions about us. While our philosophy, our strategies, and our diversity give us strength, it is the intangible bond of faith we share that makes us unstoppable. Those who choose not to work together with us will use other terms to describe the shape of our movement, but we who make up the blind people's movement, with all our diverse characteristics, share the truth common in our individual stories. We celebrate the power of our march together, and we recommit ourselves to working together for an even better future. To repurpose the ending of David Whyte's poem, we come together to seek the true shape of our own self, by forming it well, to the great intangibles about us in the National Federation of the Blind.

My Federation family, the struggles we have endured since we last gathered in person were unprecedented, but together we remain unbroken. We continue to possess the collective wisdom, power, and determination to overcome all that stands in the way of our dreams. We have more to gain together than any time in our history, and, equally, we have more we will lose should we fail to work together. While we are far removed from the struggles that compelled us to first join together in 1940, in our hearts and minds we will never forget from where we have come. Progress has been ours because at every moment the movement has been ours. In everything that matters, the blind have made this movement all that it is. We have taken ownership of telling our story and determining our own future. We will continue to use all of the tools necessary to complete our march to freedom, but, most importantly, we will never be divided as a class of people committed to each other. The lesson in coming back together is to remember the spirit of how our movement worked together when the world was turned upside down. This is the commitment we make to each other. This is the love, hope, and determination felt in our movement. This is the bond of faith where coming together today makes us hopeful for our tomorrows. Let us go together to find the blind who have not yet shared our strength. Let us show that we belong in the world and make it better. Let us never be divided. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.