Image of Peggy Elliott
Peggy Elliott

The Road to 2020
by Peggy Elliott

From the Editor: Peggy Elliott, Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind and President of the NFB of Iowa, is a long-time leader of the Federation. Among other assignments she has chaired the Scholarship Committee for fifteen years. She gave the keynote address at the 1998 Mid-Winter Conference conducted by the National Association of Blind Students in Washington, D.C. Her presentation was conversational and interactive, so the following text is an approximation of the speech in some places. But it is faithful to her ideas; this is what she said on Saturday morning, January 31, 1998:

I have a prediction to make: after we finish with all the millennialism and the year 2000 is under our belts, people will then begin to concentrate on the year 2020. You heard it here first. This morning I'm going to jump the gun a bit and talk to you about 2020 before anybody else does. The discussion may seem a little disjointed because there are several strands, but in the end I'll braid them together to get us from here to there.

The first strand is the blind community. Each of you has heard this phrase; many of you have used it; some of you actually think you are part of it or don't want to be. The blind community is a widely recognized concept, but what is it? From my point of view it is essentially the National Federation of the Blind. What comes to mind when we think of the NFB today? Let's name them. There's the Washington Seminar, the student division, NFB training centers, the National Convention, Job Opportunities for the Blind, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, NEWSLINE´┐Ż, America's Jobline´┐Ż, the International Braille and Technology Center, the National Center for the Blind, the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille, the Voice of the Diabetic, Kernel Books, Walking Alone and Marching Together, the Braille Monitor.

The list we have just assembled is interesting. With the exception of the National Convention and the Braille Monitor, virtually everything we named on that list began after 1980. The National Federation of the Blind was founded in 1940, but almost all the things that define the organization for us today were established after 1980. That is an important thing to think about, but we will leave it on the table for the moment and turn to something else.

I want to look back to when I joined the National Federation of the Blind, which I must say was prior to 1980. I remember what a wonderful feeling it was to meet other people who could articulate and were living the things I wanted to. I wasn't doing them yet, but I wanted to. I remember the rush it was to discover the place I belonged.

I also remember the second thing that happened to me. I lived in Iowa, which many of you know was the cradle of the modern Federation. People like Mr. Maurer, Mr. Gashel, Mrs. Walhof, and Mr. Omvig were chapter leaders at that time in Iowa. And, of course, Dr. Jernigan was the director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. After I found my feet, I looked around and discovered that everything was being done. With people like these around in chapter and state leadership, it seemed to me that everything was already being done. I wanted to be part of the Federation, but I didn't know what my role could be; I didn't know what I could do. I began not showing up for things.

I lived about twenty miles east of the nearest chapter when I was in college. As you can imagine, feeling the way I did, I didn't make a great effort to get to chapter meetings. In fact, I didn't go at all. I didn't drive; I would have had to take a bus; it was a hassle I didn't need. Another member of that chapter lived about thirty miles south, and he started calling me every month and telling me that he would be glad to swing by and pick me up. What was I supposed to say when this guy was hiring a driver and offering to come out of his way to pick me up before going to the meeting? Was I going to say that I was too busy when he was willing to make a tremendous effort to get me there? No, I grudgingly said that I would go.

When I got to the chapter meeting, the average age of the chapter members was about sixty. That was about three times my age at the time, and there were people there in their seventies and eighties. I remember thinking that this was not the Federation that I had thought was so wonderful. It wasn't the organization that I had joined; it wasn't doing the exciting things that Mr. Gashel and Mr. Omvig were doing. I got a call every month and went and chatted with people, but I clearly felt that I had nothing but blindness in common with those people. I remember one meeting in particular. The Federation was conducting a letter-writing campaign—I have no idea what it was about, probably Social Security, as a matter of fact. The friend who picked me up suggested that we take typewriters and paper and stamps and envelopes and help people write letters. I thought, "I'm a good writer and I can type. I can do this." I had a great time at that meeting helping people write letters or writing them for them. And I remember thinking what a wonderful thing it was that the chapter had me to help it do those letters.

I have to say now with a little perspective that I wouldn't have been there at all without that fellow who came and got me. And I wouldn't have thought to bring typewriters or planned ahead enough to get stamps. And on my own I wouldn't have had the patience to sit down with people and explain the issue and help them. I wouldn't have done any of it. I wasn't a gift to that chapter. At best I was doing what this guy was teaching me to do: to help chapter members do what they could do to contribute. In other words, he was simply helping me to do what he was helping the other members to do.

Eventually—and this was a great gift to me—I figured out that I was not a great gift to any chapter meeting to which I showed up. I needed to sit down and learn how to help. This guy was gently teaching me to do that. At about the same time I remember learning to call people I didn't know and talk to them about things I had no idea whether they would care about. I was very resistant to inviting people to come to events they might not want to. I also remember after making these calls going to the meetings and meeting some of the people I had called. Some of them didn't come, but some of them did. I discovered that they were delightful, interesting, good people.

I learned from all this. It may be boring to go to another meeting, to make a bunch of calls, to get into a car and travel half-way across the state. But there were people in my life who kept getting me there, who kept encouraging me, who kept asking me to do things again and again. I finally learned, thank God, that every time I went to a meeting or made a call a little more Federation work got done. But also, I began to find that each time I took part in these activities I was building the blind community inside myself. With a little piece here and a little piece there I began to discover things in common with people I had never met before. It wasn't just blindness I had in common with them; it was an aspiration to change the world. I also had something in common with the people who didn't aspire to change the world. I began to ask myself how I could help them to view things differently, come to feel about them the way I did. I first began to build the blind community within myself and then to help to build it among other blind people.

What I am talking about is not very mysterious. Churches do it all the time. Towns with a sense of community do it. It's what any close-knit group does. They talk and spend time together; they give their time and effort to find the common ground. But it starts inside each person.

I urge each one of you to think about where you are in helping to build the blind community. I have done my best—some days better than others—to build it. What have you done today? Have you gone to a chapter meeting with an average age of sixty? What have you done to get someone else there? What has each of us done to build our community? It isn't a static thing like a building that sits there completed when you have finished it. You have to build it every day, and you have to begin with yourself.

I was lucky when I came into the Federation. It was a long time ago, and there were a lot more of them than there were of me. In Iowa there were a lot of mentors. There were people piling on me—complaining, "Why aren't you doing this?"; "Why haven't we seen you?"; "Get going on this project." In so many ways these people were telling me that they wanted to be my mentors.

The National Federation of the Blind is different today from the way it was when I first joined. As young people today, there are a lot more of you than there are of us. That is wonderful, but you know what that leads to? Individual blind people are joining the movement without necessarily having the same kind of mentoring that I had. Each of you has a piece of the blind community inside you. You need to identify it and build it inside yourself and reach out and help build it beyond yourself in all kinds of ways. But I suggest that you need to identify your own mentors. Pick somebody in your state, somebody you like or admire, someone you can learn from; and start demanding their attention. If we are left to our own devices, we will talk to this one and talk to that one, but we won't give the consistent support you deserve. You must pick your own mentors and demand that you get mentored. That will work a lot better than hoping that someone will notice you. It will help us experienced Federationists focus our efforts on the people who can learn from us. That's part of community-building too.

So what is the National Federation of the Blind going to be like in 2020? There are two possibilities. One is that it will look just like it does today. The other is that there will be new ideas and new ways of doing things that we haven't thought of yet. During the first forty years of the Federation no one had yet thought of most of the things that we now think of as the very core of the NFB. In my opinion, if in 2020 the Federation looks exactly like it does today, we will have failed because we won't have come up with new ways of trying to achieve the goals we all believe in. And guess what: the people who are going to have to think up those new ideas—it's not me; it's you, the next generation of the National Federation of the Blind.

I know how and where most of the ideas that have become our core programs in recent years came from. I know the people who thought of them, and I could tell you how the ideas evolved. In every case the creator was someone who had taken the time to do the boring stuff, to make the calls, to go to the meetings, to find things in common with all sorts of people. Each of these ideas came from a person who was deeply a part of the blind community. It took the first forty or so years to build the community out of which those ideas came. I don't think it will take that long to develop the next set of ideas because I hope that many of us will continue to build that sense of community— to do the boring stuff, to build that framework. No one can walk into the Federation and say, "We need to do this, this, and this." For it isn't only what we need to do, but how it is best to do it, and the two go together. You won't know either what or how unless you take the time to do the boring stuff and discover that it isn't boring at all.

One more element is involved with getting us successfully to 2020. In assessing new ideas and finding the projects for the future, we must be very careful to use the National Federation of the Blind's framework of thought. As an individual I must take the responsibility and time to learn the skills I need to function efficiently as a blind person. I must learn Braille and practice. I need to learn to use the white cane and practice that, too. It isn't magic. It's like learning to swim; you can't read a book and know how to swim. You have to get into the water and do it. Mastering the skills of blindness is no different. It isn't enough to know conceptually that you need those skills and how to use the tools. You have to take the responsibility to practice until they are second nature. It's the same thing as building community; it doesn't happen unless you put in the work.

So the first thing is learning the skills, and the second is building the self-confidence to believe that the skills work and that you as a person really are equal. It's easy to say and hard to do. There is nothing for it but to go out and do it until you believe it deep down in your soul.

You must also learn how to communicate this understanding of yourself and your abilities to the people around you in a way that they don't know they are learning and you most certainly know you are teaching. This entails dealing with professors, employers, family members—all the people around you. You must learn to set the terms of the relationship and the balance of responsibility. There are sighted and blind ways of doing things. If you as a blind person try to do things in the sighted way, you aren't going to get them done or done effectively. But if you do things as a blind person and are comfortable with that and make others comfortable with it, then you're going to be fine. The responsibility, though, is yours. All this is standard, National Federation of the Blind boiler-plate language.

But here is the point: anywhere you go today you will hear that the Americans with Disabilities Act will take care of all that for you. In the old days, before the ADA, people would just tell us, "Well, you can't do that." It was pretty clear. Now you hear, "Of course you can do it, and we'll take care of providing all the reasonable accommodations we think you need. We'll reformat the world for you because of the Americans with Disabilities Act." It is the same message my generation received; it's nicer words but the same outcome. Those who wave the ADA around don't believe in you as a blind person. They believe that the world around you must be fixed in order for you to manage because otherwise you couldn't do anything worth doing. It's time that we in the National Federation of the Blind stripped away the myth that the Americans with Disabilities Act is going to fix us. If you haven't fixed yourself using those three principles (mastering skills, learning to have self-confidence, and dealing effectively with the world around you), then the ADA can only give you a job you didn't earn or give you a place you can't occupy. You have to do it for yourself. If you believe that the ADA will do it for you, you will have some kind of life, but it won't be the free and independent one I would wish for you.

Those are the three strands: building the blind community, developing the new ideas that will define the Federation, and recognizing the ADA as the biggest current lie. So what will the organization be like in 2020? There are people in this room today who will be my age in 2020; you'll have kids in college. You are the ones who will decide what kind of blind community we will have. I know what I want. What do you want? Is the Americans with Disabilities Act going to rule, or are we going to rule? What kind of Federation are we going to have in 2020? Will it look like what we have today, or will we have developed new ways of accomplishing our goals? I challenge each one of you to find those new ways. When I get here in 2020--and I intend to be here--you can tell me the answer.