The Braille Monitor                                                                                               May, 2002

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Getting to Know the Federation

From the Editor: I recently received the following e-mail post to the NFBtalk listserv because the sender thought I would be interested in seeing how well the writer captured both the wonderful and the sometimes frustrating aspects of the National Convention. I agreed completely with the assessment and have reprinted it here as an encouragement to those who are sometimes impatient and tempted to behave inappropriately toward others at convention.

Dr. Jernigan always maintained that we are a people's movement, composed of a cross-section of the general population. He was certainly correct, but I for one would be pleased to find that members of the NFB were on the whole more courteous, friendly, and kind than the public in general. In fact this is probably true, but we can all benefit from a reminder of what impact our impatience and inconsiderateness can have on people who are new to our Federation family and still trying to find their way. Here are the reflections of one new member:

March 1, 2002

I have found the discussions about getting to know the Federation, its people, history, philosophy, achievements, and goals, etc., quite thought-provoking. They have set me thinking about how one does actually get to know an organization in that sense. I thought about how I got to know the Federation. Thinking about this has prompted this post.

I am originally from Australia, so, when I first visited America in 1995, I had never even heard of the Federation. There were some organized groups of blind people in Australia, but I had not had anything formal to do with any of them since at that time I saw them as fairly irrelevant to me and my life. I stayed and worked in the States for about a month back in 1995, so I went to the local Braille library and borrowed some leisure reading. I was attracted by a title, and quite by accident I borrowed a Kernel Book in Braille, published by a blindness group, the National Federation of the Blind. Out of curiosity I read it and was very impressed. During my remaining time in America I borrowed every Kernel Book I could, and finally, the day before I flew out, I subscribed to the Braille Monitor.

I had no contact with the NFB other than reading the Braille Monitor. When I came here to live in 1997, I was fascinated to realize that the activist blind movement had a real history here in America, and again I borrowed everything I could find from the Braille library. I read about Perry and tenBroek and Jernigan. I read about the conflict which led to the formation of the ACB. I read publications by agencies for the blind, histories of schools for the blind, and histories of codes of writing for the blind and the role of blind people in their development. I read more biographies of famous blind people in six months than I had read before in my entire life. Finally I contacted the NFB head office, and they kindly sent me Braille copies of all the speeches and articles they considered particularly representative of the movement. I read them and considered them from the perspective of an informed consumer.

By the time I decided to become active in a local chapter in late 1998, I knew the ideals of the movement and how they could work and how they could be employed by blind people to influence society, including blind people themselves. My time in the local chapter, before it dissolved, was wholly disappointing. I saw no value in factionalism. However, I was in no way discouraged, because I had a framework of thinking into which to fit this event. I concluded that the simplest answer would be to start a chapter in my own town. Due to unforeseen circumstances, this has not yet happened, but I have not given up this intention.

When I went to convention in 2000 (taking food for breakfast and a lunch snack with me for every day, and paying for the hotel with money borrowed from a friend), I was not disappointed. However, I was, I now realize, somewhat naively surprised. I met all sorts of people, quite a number of whom were rude and unpleasant. They shoved me in the crowds and whacked me with their canes. The dogs touched my hands with their wet, doggy noses. They talked in the general sessions, sometimes making it very difficult to hear. They shouted loudly near me, made heaps of noise in hotel rooms when I was trying to sleep, told me I should know where things were by now and that I should go on tours and learn a bit about American history, seeing I was now living here. They told me I should swim every day to lose weight (though I was then under‑weight), criticized the blindness organizations in Australia, stood around in large, unyielding groups blocking hallways. And a few were altogether too free with where they put their hands.

I don't need to go on. For I met a far larger number of absolutely wonderful people. They invited me to eat with them and insisted on paying. They politely directed me to sign‑up tables and Braille materials, patiently explained facilities (like the exhibit hall) and convention procedures, went with me to find the seating position of my state affiliate, included me in group outings and late‑night in‑room coffee chats, introduced me to their children and friends, swapped contact details with me, and even encouraged and assisted me in improving my cane technique when I criticized myself.

They insisted I attend the banquet and paid for my ticket and kidded me into going even though I protested that my dress was too informal, by reminding me that most people wouldn't notice. They helped me find innumerable, obscure little meeting rooms, restrooms, people, misplaced belongings, even American candy that I would like. They laughed with me as they helped me pack, carried my luggage, waited with me till my ride came, hugged me good‑bye, and have kept in contact with me since then. Alone on my veranda that first night after my first NFB convention, I realized how right my mum had always been when she'd say, "Don't complain, dear; it takes all sorts to make up the world." That was the way to understand my experience.

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