Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2010

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Calling All Drivers: Advancing Leadership, Collective Action, and the Boundaries of Independence

by Mark A. Riccobono

Mark Riccobono delivers his convention speech.From the Editor: On Thursday, July 8, Mark Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute for the Blind, addressed the Convention. This is what he said:

To drive—a rite of passage anticipated by adolescents and marked by freedom, independence, and discovery. That is, unless you happen to be blind. If you grew up as a blind child, you have repeatedly heard about the freedom provided by driving and how your participation is impossible. If you are newly blind, you have surrendered your license to drive and with it the powerful feeling of independence that you felt behind the wheel. The kind offer to “let you drive” has been extended by family and friends, but the opportunity to press the pedals and turn the wheel at their direction in closed parking lots and barren fields provided no expansion of your horizons. But is driving truly impossible for you? Is vision the essential element for freedom and independence?

The dictionary tells us to drive is “to direct the motions and course of, to compel, to carry on or through energetically, or to give shape or impulse to.” The driver is the one directing the movement. To be effective, the driver must take responsibility for the elements being driven—whether a vehicle, an organization, or a system. To a great degree to drive is to lead. While driving an automobile is a privilege, driving in the broader sense is both a right and a responsibility.

Long before the advent of the automobile, it was widely accepted that the blind could not drive. Throughout history the blind have been designated passengers who need the charity of others to direct their actions and guide their futures. This presumption went unchallenged for centuries. That was until a small group of blind individuals resolved to abandon the designated passenger role and establish their right to drive. The vehicle built by that group of blind people was the National Federation of the Blind, and we have not stopped driving ever since.

For seventy years we have taken responsibility for our own future and mapped out new roads to travel. We have expanded the vehicle—growing the Federation in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico—and dispatched our drivers to hundreds of new destinations. But we were not content simply to drive; we wanted to test the limits of our capacity. We moved into the fast lane six years ago when we established the NFB Jernigan Institute—a new vehicle for our collective action intended to equip us with the tools necessary to win the race for independence. Through our leadership we have driven farther than was ever thought possible, but we are not yet out of fuel; we are the drivers; we are the National Federation of the Blind.

Our Jernigan Institute is the test track for building education, technologies, research, and resources, fueled by our hopes and dreams, moving us to new destinations of independence. Over the past year our progress has been swift, but the roads we have yet to travel are unpaved. We dare to drive where others have not even dreamed. My brothers and sisters, I ask, are you prepared to be drivers?

Before we consider the progress of our Jernigan Institute, I need to share a concern with you. For over a decade I have been working to improve the education of blind children. I take an interest in each young person and do all I can to improve opportunities for him or her. I drive the development of new educational initiatives with the fuel of hope that the experience of the next generation might be better than the educational struggles I faced. Yet I have to admit that I did not fully appreciate all that was at stake in helping teach and empower the next generation until the birth of my son Austin three years ago. Austin has taught me more than I had expected, and he has given me a deeper appreciation for the critical role of teachers, parents, and mentors—the drivers of our society.

Seven weeks ago my wife Melissa gave birth to our second child, Oriana. As blind parents we wonder what struggles we might face from medical personnel who carry misconceptions about the capability of the blind to parent. We are always prepared to provide kind but firm education about the methods we use. At one point during our stay in the hospital, Oriana was swept away to get the routine checkup from the resident pediatrician. I grew impatient after a while and headed to the nursery. I met the pediatrician, who began asking me how much I could see. I was ready for the conflict and determined that she would know vision had nothing to do with my ability to be a great dad. Then she surprised me by quickly switching lanes—she asked that we follow up with a pediatric ophthalmologist because Oriana’s eyes did not respond as expected.

In that moment my heart skipped a beat, and I had to strain physically to hide my concern. It was not the potential for vision loss that scared me. We know the National Federation of the Blind; we know the truth about blindness. What jolted me was the instant understanding that my daughter, for whom I had been able to imagine only limitless possibilities, might now be headed toward a second-class education system, lacking in innovation and featuring low expectations, a system that simply does not believe it is failing blind children because it does not expect excellence from them. We have worked so hard, yet the heartbreaking stories of years lost and opportunities missed keep coming, and in the future my daughter could be among them. The fear is overwhelming when I remember that my daughter is just one of the thousands of children for whom we need to break the oppressive system of second-class education. You have seen them in the halls of this convention exploring freedom of movement, you have met their parents and were touched by their tears, you have worked with the teachers who have had the passion knocked out of them by the poor systems they work in, and you know their stories because you have traveled down that lonely highway.

What we told our daughter that day in the hospital is the same message we in the National Federation of the Blind intend for all blind children and their families to hear in their hearts. We love you; we believe in your potential to move the world; your dreams are our hope for the future. Your education is our most important work, and we will not let you experience the same pattern of struggle. We are prepared to drive—we accept the risks and the responsibility—and no one can outrace us.

The dawn of a new horizon in the education of blind children has come. The National Federation of the Blind has brought new inspiration and imagination to the education system. Last year we offered the second NFB Youth Slam—the largest gathering of blind youth and blind mentors. We expanded our curriculum to new subjects, like forensics and architecture. We influenced a major university to think differently about the capacity of blind people. And, most important, we taught the young people how to drive their own future. The cheerful chants of the students as we marched down the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—after experiencing a hard summer downpour—were proof enough that the next generation will drive us farther than ever. This summer we will again have our Junior Science Academy, in which we teach the youngest of the budding blind scientists. We have already begun to stretch our imaginations to the next NFB Youth Slam in 2011, when we will further expand the opportunities. And we are in preparation for the longer journey of a total revolution in the education of blind children. What can we do next; where should we go; how can we get there more effectively? These are just some of the questions we need to answer in order to get to the next great destination on our journey for educational excellence.

This year we initiated the NFB Leadership and Advocacy in Washington Program to teach blind middle school students practical lessons of government and advocacy, empowering them to get in the driver’s seat. In the process we taught them about the historic struggles of the blind and about the strides we have made when we take charge of our own future. Twenty-five young blind students commanded attention on April 20, 2010, as they navigated the halls of the Congressional office buildings and drove their points home. And when some of them could not secure meetings with their members of Congress while in Washington, they persisted and made sure their voices were heard when they returned home. Government is an important vehicle for shaping society. We have accepted the responsibility of speaking for ourselves in the halls of power, and we are now teaching the next generation to do the same. These students are now better prepared to deal with obstacles in the road, and they will no longer allow the system to push them off course.

Fundamental to education is literacy. We continue to make strides in our quest for widespread Braille literacy, but we must keep our foot firmly on the accelerator. Our Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest continues to grow, with reach to over six hundred students from forty-seven states. We now offer a contest for blind adults in order to help encourage new Braille readers. We have initiated the Braille Pals Reading Club, offering families of young blind children ongoing exposure to Braille-related resources. Last summer we piloted a new Braille enrichment program that teaches Braille to blind children overlooked by the education system, and this year we are delivering the program in five states: Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. We have packaged a robust curriculum that is now available free of charge to any NFB affiliate that wants to accelerate Braille literacy in its local communities. We need to continue to spread literacy across the country and seek partnership with the best teachers of Braille we can find to help us. Where we cannot find great teachers, we will teach them ourselves—we are prepared to drive to the place where literacy for all blind children is no longer an academic debate but an academic assumption.

In the area of research conducted and published about the education and rehabilitation of the blind, we have until recently been distant subjects to be studied rather than equal partners. We are now driving research efforts and creating new vehicles for investigation and discourse. Last year we established a working group to examine how we might use research to tackle the Braille literacy crisis in America more effectively. Last month, in partnership with others, we held a two-day research conference focused on the current and future state of the art in Braille. We are not satisfied with the state of the art, and we are fed up with the question of whether or not Braille has value in the twenty-first century. With this conference we are shifting the focus of Braille research to investigations that will further illuminate how we can more effectively deliver information in a tactile form to a wide range of individuals and refute the negative assumptions that prevent innovation in Braille.

The blind have now shattered the traditional system of research in the field—a broken vehicle unable to deliver us to the many places we dream of going. The establishment of the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research gives the field a more powerful vehicle for advancing the freedom and independence of the blind. We invite all those who desire to help drive research on the real problems of blindness to be part of our movement. We are no longer willing to be passengers on the road to the future, and our journal is one more way we are driving toward a future full of opportunity.

The road we have traveled teaches us much about the future. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek was the first president of the Federation—he provided us with the essential pattern of thought that is the engine of the organization. In honor of Dr. tenBroek we have established a research library, where we are making the history of the blind available to all. Through our online catalog—the Blind Cat—anyone around the world can explore the rich historical resources being collected through the only research library owned and operated by the blind. The next phase of our work is to digitize our collections so they can be read via the Internet—helping advance the understanding of blindness all over the world. Similarly, to understand the past and build for the future, we continue achieving new milestones through our annual Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium. Through our efforts we are winning the race for independence.

Throughout this convention you have experienced the many strides we have made towards equal access to information and technology. But what about the road ahead, our Blind Driver Challenge--the intersection of our capacity as people who happen to be blind and the quest for technological innovation? I again ask, is driving truly impossible for you? Is vision the essential element for freedom and independence?

The evidence is clear that in many senses of the word the blind do drive. There remains that one real use of the word—to drive an automobile—that most still believe is impossible. Why? The answer is the same one that has been under the hood of all the great problems we have faced—the persistent notion that blindness is a tremendously disabling condition that diminishes our abilities and prescribes a limited range of freedoms. The assumption is that to drive is to see, but that has not been our experience. When the blind took responsibility for their own destiny, the boundaries of independence were expanded, and we have not yet found the limit to those horizons. The fact that we have not been permitted to drive automobiles has not prevented us from developing effective means for our own independence and freedom of movement. So why can’t we drive?

Our limitation has been, not the inability to see, but rather the lack of vision to imagine and build a system that has never been thought possible. We now know that, when we combine the experience of blind people with innovative engineers like those at Virginia Tech, we can demonstrate that vision is not the requirement for success it is assumed to be. Our NFB Blind Driver Challenge is the great race for technological innovation that will shatter misconceptions about the capacity of the blind and the perceived limits of technological innovation. Our quest parallels the space race of the 1960s. The technologies created to get the United States to the moon have had profound impact on our society. Likewise, the path of innovation required to meet the end goal of the Blind Driver Challenge will have tremendous spin-off benefits for the blind as well as the rest of society.

Why do we want to drive? Because our driving has always been the key to giving us freedom and independence. Driving has given us control of and changed the prospects for our own future. We have been driving for seventy years, and, if we do not keep driving, we will not keep faith with those who have dared to bring us this far. We want to drive because only we believe that we can. Our quest to drive an automobile is a quest to continue expanding leadership, collective action, and the boundaries of independence.

This is the quest of the National Federation of the Blind and our Jernigan Institute. This is our call for drivers. To the extent each of us is willing to assume the risk and prepared to shoulder the responsibility of driving, we will continue to accelerate our advancement as a movement. For Oriana and the thousands of blind children, we need to drive. Let’s go together, daring to drive where others have not dreamed.

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