Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2011

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The Spirit of the Journey: The Blind Driver Challenge and the Direction of Our Movement

by Mark A. Riccobono

Mark RiccobonoFrom the Editor: Late Wednesday afternoon, July 6, Mark Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute and the blind driver who made history at the Daytona International Speedway on January 29, 2011, came to the platform to place his accomplishment that day in perspective and challenge us all to continue our journey toward new understandings of freedom and independence. This is what he said:

It has often been said that success is a journey, not a destination. Equally true is the observation that independence is a journey not a destination. It is also worth noting that the essential element of the journey is the spirit with which it is undertaken. We in the National Federation of the Blind have undertaken a journey to expand the boundaries of independence. In the process we have had to grapple with the evolution of our own philosophy about blindness and the way it applies in the world around us. Without the journey, can the destination of independence ever be reached? With our experience can we define the characteristics of that end point? Within our journey have we arrived at our final stop?

Over the seven decades of the Federation we have established an empowering philosophy that articulates what we know to be the truth about blindness. By putting that philosophy into training programs and testing the limits of our beliefs about blindness, we have created a tremendous knowledge base about the possibilities for our own future. That knowledge base has always included some fundamental and pragmatic notions about blindness. We said that with proper training and opportunity the blind can compete on terms of equality with the sighted in any aspect of life, except for driving a car, of course. We confidently declared that the average blind person was able to perform the average job in the average career or calling, assuming that it was not driving a vehicle around. These are the things we said in the past, and they demonstrate our optimistic understanding of the possibilities and our pragmatism about the disadvantages of blindness. This is why some have felt the Blind Driver Challenge™ is a misguided effort that runs counter to our philosophy about blindness—after all we have achieved by finding alternatives to driving, and any difficulty we have in this area is a mere inconvenience. Is independence a destination we have reached, or is there more to the spirit of the journey?

What would happen if we drove beyond the comfortable zone where we believed our independence stopped? If we can begin to demonstrate that the practically impossible might practically be possible, it would shatter our understanding of the destination of independence and expand the limits to a new, undefined place. The power in this idea has been seen many times throughout history both within our movement and through the rest of society.

Take for example the mathematical laws of motion and the formulation of the law of universal gravitation that Isaac Newton codified in the seventeenth century. The Newtonian framework theorized that space and time are absolute, universal, and independent of motion of bodies in space. The science of centuries was constrained by Newtonian principles. Yet Albert Einstein dared to be imaginative and concluded that there was an alternate way to perceive the possibilities for time and space. He dared to innovate even though virtually nobody took his notion seriously. He went where his heart and mind took him rather than choosing the dogmatic approach of his scientific colleagues. Einstein’s persistence led to the establishment of the theory of relativity, founded on the idea that only relative motion can be measured. The consequences of this notion were profound and shattered the Newtonian conception of the world—both space and time are no longer absolutes.

The same is true for the classical absolutes of blindness. We have been shattering well-established concepts of blindness for seven decades. At the same time we have been refining the newly established patterns that we have created. We began by teaching ourselves to have high expectations and to go beyond the false limits of the classic view of blindness. We quickly began testing our own assumptions and learned that our own perceptions also had limitations that might not be true. We learned that, by challenging each other about our own independence, we would find new opportunities. This is the spirit of the journey.

We took a major leap forward when we established formal training programs based on our understanding of blindness. This tested the limits of what we knew about blindness, established a new confidence in our capacity to direct our own future, and created some vigorous dialogue about what it might mean. Those early students left the training programs and challenged the Federation’s notion of independence. As those students grew into leadership in the Federation, they established new programs that taught others the confidence and skills to further test the limits and, most important, fueled the spirit of the journey. Each generation of the Federation has passed to the next an empowering understanding of blindness as well as an obligation to keep pushing the limits. This is why, to keep faith with those who came before us, we imagined and built the NFB Jernigan Institute—the physical expression of our commitment to do the same for ourselves and future generations.

We have also learned that the journey is not entirely defined by what we do. Society continues to evolve, and advances in technology have changed the means of interaction with everyday systems and with each other—the final destination has not been achieved. We have been successful because we have embraced the spirit of the journey by testing the limits of our own independence within the evolving world around us. This is why we choose to undertake the development of new technologies that have the potential to expand our independence beyond where we thought was possible. This is why we insist that the technologies built today be built with access from the beginning. This is why we demand that the educational system be available to us to apply our unique talents to the acquisition of knowledge. This is why we are no longer willing to wait for somebody else to get around to us. We know well the spirit of the journey, and we intend to participate fully and lead in the drive to the future.

On January 29 I walked towards the starting line of the famed Daytona International Speedway. Surrounded by reporters, I shook hands with the president of the National Federation of the Blind and United States Congressman John Mica, who handed me a key. Nearby a Ford Escape equipped with nonvisual technologies was parked. At that moment I believed myself to be a successful person, who happened to be blind. I believed I understood the nature of independence. I believed that a defining aspect of my independence as a blind person was the degree to which I accepted the responsibility of being a driver rather than a passenger. Driver meant taking charge of my own life, internalizing the truth about blindness, and seeking the skills necessary for success. Later that day “driver” had an expanded meaning in my life.

I climbed into the vehicle, buckled my seatbelt, and attached the nonvisual interfaces I would use to receive information I needed to drive the car through 1.5 miles of the road course. As I sat in the driver’s seat waiting for the all clear to begin our historic drive, I knew that ten minutes later the world would be different. However, certain aspects of the experience I had not anticipated. Chief among these was the stream of dialogue for days and weeks afterward about what “Mark Riccobono” (or, if they were really intense, “Mark Anthony Riccobono”) did or did not do on the track at Daytona that sunny day in January.

During the weeks after the drive at Daytona, I spent considerable time talking with members of the media about the work of the National Federation of the Blind and the impact of our Blind Driver Challenge™. Meanwhile, listservs and other forums were hot with debate about how real the drive was and what it meant to us. “He could have easily memorized the track.” “Sure he could drive that route because he practiced on it; let’s get him in an unfamiliar place and see how he does.” “If this is so good, let’s take it out on the street and try it.” And “Google is already developing an autonomous car; I have a lot more faith in Google’s technology than I would in myself as a blind person.” It was hard to read some of the correspondence and not respond—after all, I was the Blind Driver, and I could set the record straight about what happened on the track at Daytona. Many Federationists did respond, and they did so with very thoughtful articulations of independence and the spirit of our journey.

There is something significant to be learned from the dialogue that persisted after the drive at Daytona. I do not mean the chatter from the skeptics that never wanted us to succeed in the first place. These are the people who sit on the sidelines and criticize the work of the Federation without putting their energy into making progress with us. For that group the criticism was about protecting their sideline status when we actually did something they never believed we could do. They will continue to find fault with this and most of the rest of what we do because they fail to have the imagination and energy to engage with us in the journey, even though they benefit from our efforts. I am thinking about the rest of us who have struggled to understand how this moment in history fits into our philosophy and shapes our progress. For us this is a continuation of the conversation we have been having for decades regarding the journey of independence. In fact I believe that the current dialogue is a demonstration of the strength of our movement and the unity of our purpose.

One of the compelling benefits of our Blind Driver Challenge™ demonstration is the wide reach of the media coverage and the positive images of blindness distributed all around the world. The image of blindness that we have gotten into the mainstream this year is some of the best work we have ever done to shatter misconceptions about the capacity of blind people. While we have changed the perceptions of millions—at least causing them to pause and take notice—I would contend that the most significant lesson is the change in our own thinking about the limits of independence and the direction of our future.

I now have the distinction of being “the blind driver,” and I have read what has been suggested about the meaning of that drive at Daytona. I reject much that has been speculated about our work and our motives. I have been in the middle of the project, and I have a great sense of what is fact and what is fiction. Just to set the record straight, Mark Anthony Riccobono did drive a car on the track at Daytona. I sat in the driver’s seat, pushed the accelerator, used information from the gloves on my hands to make decisions about how to maneuver the car, and reacted to static and dynamic obstacles in real time. I observed the reaction of the vehicle to my movement of the steering wheel, made adjustments, and monitored the surrounding environment. I drove the car safely while actively deciding to acknowledge or ignore spectators. This included ignoring spectators who yelled out false directions in an effort to shake my confidence in myself and the technology we had built—you have probably met some of those same people while traveling on the streets of your local community. I felt great joy when I drove past the four hundred members of the National Federation of the Blind who were cheering loudly as the car approached, and I applied the brake slightly and acknowledged the moment with a honk of the horn. I approached and successfully avoided boxes thrown out in front of the car. To avoid those boxes, I used new and old techniques that we have developed. The new nonvisual interfaces were used to gather information needed to make adjustments to the car’s direction. At the same time I listened for the change in the tire noise caused by coming close to and moving past an object—an old technique I learned from a blind cane travel instructor during training at the Colorado Center for the Blind. As I pushed on the accelerator and maneuvered the car past a van that was also driving on the track, I again honked the horn (this time without slowing down). I carefully guided the car through an opening in a line of barrels, brought the car to a stop, and shifted into park. Throughout the entire experience I sat in that car all alone, but, when I was done, our journey of independence had a new direction.

That drive did not make me more independent. That drive did not suddenly make it possible for thousands of blind people to achieve a greater level of independence—at least not immediately. However, that drive that we took together at Daytona is symbolic of the spirit of the journey that we have chosen to pursue. That drive shatters the comfortable understanding we thought we had about our own independence—an independence that some of us thought was a destination. Our drive at Daytona injected uncertainty into our journey—an uncertainty that will challenge us and the rest of society. If the challenge is met with the spirit of the journey, we are certain to stretch our imaginations farther and venture forward on roads yet untested.

I went through the same internal struggles regarding the Blind Driver Challenge™ project that have been expressed in conversations across the Federation over the past year. What does this mean, how does it fit in to where we want to go, what will the outcome be, and how will it advance our work? If we stopped asking these questions, we would be neglecting the spirit of the journey and failing to keep faith with the Federationists that have made these questions possible. My understanding began to crystallize as I observed and participated in the testing of the blind driver technology. Dr. Maurer started the pattern of thought that has brought the Blind Driver Challenge™ to life. We began with hardly anybody believing that he was serious. When it came time to start testing the technology on the road, he was at the front of the line prepared to test his own vision for the future. He was interested in what he could do with the technology as well as what others could do with it. Dr. Maurer challenges us, but he also expects that we will challenge him—this is how we advance our movement. This example challenged us to work hard, ask hard questions, and urge the engineers to make changes based on our experience with the technology. Our progress was accelerated by the spirit of the journey we observed in Dr. Maurer’s desire to test the limits of independence. While we started out believing that the destination was the goal, our blind driver work taught us that the journey is the essential element of our organization. We understood this well by the time we got to the cold day in January when Anil Lewis and I told the engineers that it was time for them to get out of the car. I will never forget the feeling of that first drive with the radio on, the windows down (even though it was the middle of January), and nobody else in the car. It did not matter if there was a particular destination for that drive or any drive that has happened since. History may note that there was once a blind driver at Daytona, but, if we continue to keep faith with the history of the Federation, the future record will mark that occasion as a first rather than an isolated incident—a beginning to a journey. Where do we want to go next? Let the spirit of the journey guide us.

The day after our drive at Daytona, my family and I prepared to go to breakfast. My son turned to me with love and sincerity and asked if I would drive today. I don’t know when the next family road trip will happen with me at the wheel. I do know that the Blind Driver Challenge™ has taught us more about the spirit of the journey than anything else we have experienced. I do know that, if we are not part of the team engineering tomorrow, then our participation in the future will only be an afterthought. I do know well the faith we must keep with each other in continuing to challenge ourselves to find new heights of independence. And I have witnessed that same understanding in Federationists across the country in the correspondence that has come since our drive at Daytona. My brothers and sisters, we have pledged to each other that we know who we are and that we will never go back. Let us now also promise to drive forward to the future and pass on the spirit of the journey.

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