The Braille Monitor                                                                              August/September 2005


Innovation, Inspiration, and Influence:
The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute
Implements the Will of the Organized Blind

by Betsy Zaborowski

Betsy Zaborowski addresses the convention.
Betsy Zaborowski addresses the convention.

From the Editor: Immediately following the 2005 presidential report on Tuesday afternoon, July 5, Betsy Zaborowski, Psy.D., executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute, addressed the convention. Following is a report of what was said, beginning with President Maurer’s introduction:

The title of this next item is descriptive; it tells what we are doing. It also describes the approach we are taking. Betsy Zaborowski is the executive director responsible for all this activity. Sometimes she comes and tells me that I started out with not enough faith in her. And if I didn't have enough in the beginning, I have certainly changed my mind now. She has done extraordinary work. She has also had an extraordinary opportunity, which is to say that it is unusual when you get a chance to create what didn't exist, with the responsibility for defining what it should look like. It is also an extraordinary challenge because, when you get it all built, the other people involved may say, "Well that's not what I had in mind." So you face that task as well as the one to make something new. For a year and a half now she has done outstanding work with--as you have observed from all we've said today--the prospect of building even more outstanding work in the years to come. Here is Dr. Betsy Zaborowski.

“We know who we are, and we'll never go back”; “It is respectable to be blind”; “changing what it means to be blind”; “the voice of the nation's blind”; and “imagining a future full of opportunity”: powerful words--words that we have used for many, many years and words that have both personal and organizational meaning. Many of us remember the first time we were really able to internalize and own the statement, "It is respectable to be blind," right? And many of us have worked tirelessly to “change what it means to be blind” and move us into the next chapter of our development.

I am very pleased that I was given the gift of being a part of all this. By this I mean the gift that you all gave to me to work hard and to create some new and interesting things on behalf of us all. As we look at this past year and a half of the Jernigan Institute, I think it's well for us to take a few moments to reflect on those words, those phrases that I believe are the backbone of our philosophy. They are the foundation of everything that we do, including the Jernigan Institute.

So what is the purpose of this new institute? What is it all about? You know it's not the building. The building was the focal point of a capital campaign that launched us into a whole new chapter in our development. But the Institute is far more than the building. The building provides the framework. It gives us the opportunity to do things, but it is not the whole Institute. Neither is the Institute just the programs that you heard about in Dr. Maurer's wonderful presidential report and what I hope some of you read in the annual report of the Institute in the April Monitor. It is much more than that. The Institute is the expression of our collective leadership. It is the expression of where we have come from and how far we still have to go. We have taken over the leadership in the field of blindness. We do it in lots of ways--through advocacy, through education, through outreach, and through changing lives as we work with people one by one or in groups. We now take the leadership in lots of new ways through the Institute.

So what is the purpose of this facility if it's not just a building and not just a program? The Jernigan Institute is the center for innovation in the field of blindness. It's the first ever research and training facility developed and operated by an organization of blind people--that's us! [applause] The Institute is the center of innovation in areas such as education--our science academy. Who would have expected a group of blind high school students to launch a rocket? We expected it, didn't we, and it happened. Who would have expected that a group of blind people in partnership with some of this nation's most outstanding technologists would develop the first handheld reading machine for the blind? But we did, and we are.

We will continue to develop technology and expand the IBTC [International Braille and Technology Center] and increase the nonvisual certification for Web sites and train people in a state-of-the-art technology training lab. You know our training lab will be the only fully accessible one in the world--forty fully accessible work stations for the training of professionals and blind people. That will happen very soon.

We are also in the business of inspiring. Innovation is one thing; we are always innovating. We are always looking for a better solution to problems, but we also know that it’s motivation and inspiration that really change lives. We have been blessed with talented leaders and with literature that teaches us who we really are, not who society believes we are. So the Institute provides another chapter in that development. In the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute building in Baltimore, we have mounted over a hundred pictures of blind people throughout the Institute. Visitors who come to this facility admire these pictures, and they really help folks understand that we are a people of activity and adventure and fun. We go to baseball games, and we hold our grandchildren, and we ride elephants, and we do lots of things. But we are a diverse people. We are not just one stereotype or another. We are people determined to create our own destiny. That's inspiration, but that's only a small part. [applause]

This year we held the fourth annual seniors fair. I wish all of you could have been there. We had all kinds of resources, and seniors learned about the possibilities of living full and independent lives while learning how to do things nonvisually. But what is interesting is that, when we called these seniors afterward to get their feedback about what was the most important thing that happened that day, they commented that they were in an environment with lots of blind people. They were greeted by blind people when they came in, showing them where their seats were, teaching them things, serving lunch, giving speeches, and doing the whole program. Seniors understand more about who we are when we do that. Several of our members were there to learn how to do senior fairs in their own communities, and it's happening. Federationists are starting to do them in other places around the country. That's what we're about--inspiring ourselves, but also inspiring others.

Dr. Maurer mentioned some of our partnerships with Johns Hopkins University Engineering School and the Lions Vision Rehabilitation Research Center. So you can see we've been inspiring engineers. The young engineers at Hopkins who developed a prototype for a portable Brailler are going to be different now because they met us. They learned about some of our needs, and they learned about our technology, and, who knows, one of those young men might be the next Ray Kurzweil--at least we hope so.

Let me talk about the third term--innovation and inspiration are very important to us in what we're doing in the Institute and throughout our whole organization. But the third word that I'd like to put forward today is “influence.” We must influence those who have anything to do with blind people because we know what is right, what is the best route for us to go. One of the ways we have been influencing others, of course, is through our innovations and through our programs, but also through our partnerships. Through our relationships with the Lions Vision Rehabilitation Research Center at Johns Hopkins University and Dr. Bob Massof, who will be addressing us later in the convention, we have been partnering with multi-district twenty-two of the Lions Clubs to put together a community education program that will influence the minds and hearts of members of the Lions Clubs for years to come. This is just the beginning of what we hope to do with our educational efforts and our partnerships.

At this convention we are also partnering with a wonderful group of researchers headed by Dr. Steven Lockley from Harvard. Harvard-affiliated researchers are here to ask for our help with a study that one day may unlock a bit more of the mystery about prevention of breast cancer. Initial studies indicate that blind women have a lower incidence of breast cancer. We don't know exactly why, but here again we have a gift to give to the rest of the world, and Harvard University is helping us do that.

Another partnership that we are very excited about is with the Pennsylvania School of Optometry and our friends in the education arena. We are giving advice in helping with an enrichment program for fourteen Ph.D. students. As these students are exposed to our philosophy, beliefs, programs, and innovations, they will be different, better prepared to work with their university students. We hope to have a number of them in the first class of the National Center for Leadership in Visual Impairment with us next year at our convention.

Now we have taken a look at innovation, inspiration, and influence. We've reviewed some of the progress that we've made in the last year. We have lots more to do. We have recently written several large proposals for funding. If they are funded, they will propel us into lots of new endeavors that I hope to report on next year. But let's now reflect for a moment on how this institute really affects blind people back home in your communities as you are building chapters and doing outreach. In the innovation area, if we develop best practices and methods for teaching blind kids, a young blind person in your community will have a better chance of getting a teacher who is well educated in nonvisual methods of teaching science. We are gathering those resources, and we'll be disseminating them throughout the country. New methods of mentorship: a research study clearly indicates that our methods of reaching out and partnering successful blind adults with young blind people really works. This should eventually be adopted in other places. You will be able to use this information in your communities.

Technology--both very high-end technology like our portable reader--but also training. Our online courses offer training for people who can't physically come to Baltimore. Our publications have articles about technology and training, and they help everybody back home. Our seniors fairs--we've learned how to replicate them and make them more accessible around the country. So you can tell that lots of innovations will have an impact on the home front.

Inspiration--that blind people know where we want to go, that we have the know-how to run a research and training institute, that we can disseminate information about the initiatives and programs coming out of our Institute, and that we know what's best for us. We have developed a research agenda driven by our philosophy and know-how. This agenda will be disseminated to universities throughout the country. We can guide those fourteen Ph.D. students looking for dissertation topics toward meaningful research, research that really helps blind people and helps the general population understand our capabilities, not our deficits, which have so often been the focus of research in the past.

Influence--the benefits of influencing the Ph.D. students, the science teachers who will learn about our programs, the corporate leaders and the governmental officials who come to the Institute to learn about what we are doing: this benefits all of us throughout the country. But most of all the Institute is about the future. It's about changing things for tomorrow’s young people. This is why we often use the phrase, "Imagine a future full of opportunity." In closing, let me come back to those important phrases with which I began. Yes, “we do know who we are,” and “we do know where we are going.” “We are changing what it means to be blind,” and of course “it is respectable to be blind.” Now we are creating a future full of opportunity with imagination. Thank you. [applause]