Braille Monitor                                    April 2018

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NFB Philosophy: What It Is and What It Is Not

by Gary Wunder, Mark Riccobono, and Marc Maurer

From the Editor: In response to the article “Tax Deductions for the Blind: Are They Something We Deserve, and Should We Fight for Them?” published in the January 2018 issue, I received a most interesting question. Boiled down it is what is NFB Philosophy and are there things one must and must not do to follow it. What prompted the question was the letter that talked about a tax deduction for being blind and whether asking for this wasn’t as contradictory as asking to preboard an airplane. The writer who inquired wanted to know if it is an article of faith in the NFB philosophy that we will not preboard and wonders exactly what the NFB philosophy is.

My initial email to her said that I consider the NFB philosophy less a set of commandments and more like the application of the Golden Rule. My understanding of what we believe is that there is no list of thou shall and thou shalt not’s but instead a mindset that asks, “Is this something I need based on blindness? If it is, I will take it and advocate for it. If it is not, I will not borrow against the goodwill and public support that people feel about blind people. Instead, I will try to educate and will hope that I can bank some of those good intentions for things I really need.”

Not content with my own understanding and thinking that the thoughts of others might make an article worth publishing here, I wrote to four people asking if they wished to try defining the NFB philosophy. Two of them responded. It is no surprise that one of them was President Riccobono. As one might expect, the other was Immediate Past President Maurer. Here is what they said in response to my letter asking if they had thoughts to share. Neither believes that he has written the definitive word on our philosophy, and the door remains open for other thought-provoking articles on the subject:

From President Riccobono:

Dear Gary,

As you know from our telephone conversation, I wrote an extensive reply to you which I lost to a Microsoft gremlin. I have been eager to get back to this, so I took a few minutes at the question yesterday. There is definitely more that can be said on this topic, and I think there is at least one idea that did not come to mind in my rewrite today.

Exploring the question of what is the NFB philosophy and what elements of it are articles of faith is a good idea. I know that my friend Marc Maurer, who has taught me the nature and art of philosophy over the years, will have ideas about this topic. Let me give you the thinking of where my mind went since it strikes me that philosophy is the art of thinking about thinking.

The word philosophy comes from Latin and from the Greek word philosophia “love of wisdom.” Today it is often defined as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.” Philosophy is about creating understanding (wisdom) and then turning that understanding over to determine if it holds together. Sometimes it does not hold together because it is inconsistent (logic), and sometimes it does not hold together when tested in the real world. This summer I described philosophy as a “pattern of thought,” as that is how I have come to think about it, especially in the art of attempting to contribute to it in the form of banquet speeches.

In contrast, an article of faith is a “firmly held belief.” One can take something as an article of faith without having any philosophy of any type. In fact, I am certain we all know people who have firmly held beliefs based on some experience and not truly because they have reasoned through it systematically. I think I take certain things as articles of faith because of my experience with NFB philosophy. One is the idea that we, as blind people, are best suited to determine what is best for the blind. This comes from NFB philosophy, but I think I consider it an article of faith because I have observed it tested out in the world, and I know how it works better than the alternatives—both in my own life and for us as a movement. I think Dr. tenBroek held this belief, and he did so before we had a shared philosophy. Maybe he held this belief because he thought critically about blindness—which we now think of as NFB philosophy—or maybe he did because Dr. Perry instilled it in him.

This leads me to wonder where the individual comes into NFB philosophy. The Federation provides a pattern of thought, but it is up to us to think about it and apply it. I know that we have an extensive body of literature about blindness. On our website we define some of it as “philosophy.” That page can be found at This section incorporates by reference all of the banquet speeches. Does that body of literature constitute NFB philosophy? Most certainly there are pieces that are not mentioned. My friend Bill Meeker wrote an article that appeared in the Braille Monitor in December 1994 entitled “The Blind Table.” This article makes certain observations about where the blind get seated in restaurants. I consider it part of understanding our NFB philosophy in as much as it is an expression of how our pattern of thought teaches us to evaluate the world around us. I doubt many people remember or even notice the ideas Bill shares in that article, but I think it could be considered part of our pattern of thought. This raises the idea for me that our NFB philosophy gains strength as more people are learning about it and testing it.

Many times people simplify the critical thinking that the NFB philosophy challenges us to do by boiling it down into bite-sized rules. “Federationists never take preferential treatment because it is against our philosophy,” is one example. Another is “Real Federationists use rigid canes because they are proud to be blind.” The rules always cause trouble because they demonstrate more black and white than the NFB philosophy offers. When I was a student at the Colorado Center for the Blind, I found use of the rigid cane helped me focus on the skills I needed to learn, while enforcing the pattern of thought that I could direct my own movements and manage my own affairs. When I choose to use a telescoping cane today—I have both types in the corner of my office—I know it comes with the disadvantage that it might collapse. If I am running out of the office to meet a business associate who is picking me up to go to lunch, I will likely grab my telescoping cane as I am not sure what type of car they might have or what the arrangements will be at the restaurant. I have no trouble dealing with a straight cane, but I can make a choice. NFB philosophy tells me I should make the choice that makes sense for my independence and blending in. Other Federation members might make a different choice for a different reason, and it will be completely consistent with our philosophy. In other words, I think the pattern of thought often gets confused with the actions we take. In any philosophy, humans always struggle with the gaps between the idea and the action we take. Our philosophy urges us to continue examining ourselves just as many religious philosophies invite people to regularly ground themselves in being God-like—an extremely high standard by any measure.

Your email asks whether avoiding preboarding is an article of faith in the NFB philosophy. This is an interesting question. For me, NFB philosophy guides me to consider whether there are any artificial barriers in the boarding process that require me to be treated differently—I say no. NFB philosophy asks me to consider whether it is necessary for me to stand out as needing special treatment by preboarding—I again find myself saying no. NFB philosophy does not tell me what to do but leads me to a place that informs my decision. Recently I had the A1 boarding position on a Southwest flight. The only people that got on the plane before me were preboarders. Since I was at the front of the A line and very visible to the boarding attendant, he wanted me to preboard. Functionally there should have been no difference to him whether I preboarded or not as I was effectively boarding ahead of everyone else. He insisted that I preboard even after I told him “no thank you.” I wondered if having the back and forth with him was helpful. Once I successfully convinced him to drop it, a nearby passenger remarked to me that the gentlemen really did not trust that I knew my own capacity. I choose to board with the rest of the group because NFB philosophy generally leads my mind to a place where I think it is the best for me and for other blind people. It was not until I had the experience of being the first regular boarder on the plane that I truly realized how powerful that perception line is to others. If the idea of boarding with everyone else was not a firmly held belief before, it is now. Having said that, I think the NFB philosophy challenges me to consider preboarding and if there truly is a reason that I need it. I sometimes take this option when I have to walk out onto a noisy tarmac. The only times I do not are when I am with someone or when I have gotten to know someone in the boarding area that I feel comfortable asking to walk near me. I find it more consistent with NFB philosophy to ask to preboard or walk with someone than to boldly walk out into the noise and hope that someone grabs me and steers me in the right direction or yells loudly enough that I can hear them. I do not ask the person next to me unless we have already been engaged in conversation, because I think it might reinforce whatever misconceptions they already carry. That level of complexity in thinking has come with years of living the NFB philosophy every day. When I was a college student on my way to my first national convention, I would not have had that level of sophistication in my thinking. On my way back from my first national convention, I probably knew that many Federation members did not choose to preboard, but I did not understand why. When the airline put me in a room with twelve-year-old children, I began to understand it better. The pattern of thought is important, but the actual practice of it helps to make it real. The two build on each other. This developmental process is much of what Dr. Jernigan discusses in “The Nature of Independence.” This is also why our training centers are powerful and effective. They do not simply teach the skills, but they reinforce the pattern of thought, and they teach blind people how to evaluate the thought process.

The NFB philosophy also gets a bad reputation when individuals project it onto others. I think the NFB philosophy encourages me to share it with others, and I very badly want other blind people to know the freedom I know I get from this pattern of thought. Leaders of the Federation—this is definitely reflected in “The Nature of Independence”—challenge us to raise our expectations but also to be careful about how we challenge others to raise theirs. We all know of blind people who have pushed potential members of the Federation away because we presented NFB philosophy as a “thou shalt or you are not fit” sort of environment. I do not think that is inherent in NFB philosophy, but rather a problem with humans making a pattern of thought actionable. I think this is also the conflict that comes up related to our philosophy and use of a guide dog. We all know people who talk about the dog as the thinking entity. Yet our philosophy tells us that no matter the tool, the blind person should maintain the locus of control. Thus, the best handlers of guide dogs, in my opinion, are those who understand that the dog follows the person’s directions even if the dog is doing the physical leading. We know that this becomes controversial since some blind people understand this to be that NFB philosophy devalues dogs. In my mind, the NFB philosophy establishes a pattern of thought that gives you guidance on how to use the tools effectively.

The NFB philosophy is a pattern of thought that encourages us to explore the boundaries of what is possible. The NFB philosophy is the belief that we are the ones best suited to decide what works for us. The NFB philosophy is a living way of thinking and acting upon the world as blind people, and it evolves as more of us come to practice the patterns. If there are any articles of faith, they probably consist of blind people know what is best for blind people, blindness is not the characteristic that exclusively defines us, and we should strive every day to raise expectations for ourselves. Then again, we once took it as somewhat an article of faith that blind people could do anything except for drive and fly an airplane. Then we shattered the idea that driving was on the list. This might suggest that the only article of faith is the faith that we have in one another to continue testing the limits of our own future.

I am eager to hear what others have to share on this topic.

There you have President Riccobono’s thoughts on the subject. Here is what Dr. Maurer said in response to a similar request of him and the suggestion by President Riccobono that he might want to chime in:

Dear Gary:

Thanks for your email asking, “What is NFB philosophy?” I gather that this is the important piece of what you have written. I know that you are capable of answering the question, “Does NFB philosophy prohibit preboarding an airline?” The answer is that of course it does not. I have preboarded them myself, and I have boarded with everybody else. The important part of NFB philosophy is that I should decide when to do which.

Some of my friends have attempted to synthesize NFB philosophy in a list of principles. I remember reading one of these once and being asked by its author if any items had been omitted. I was busy at the time. Consequently, I only thought about the question very briefly. However, one item which had been omitted was that blind people working together can and should run an organization that synthesizes thought about blindness and assists in creating the kind of culture that welcomes blind people. I added this thought to the list, but I felt unsatisfied.

The philosophy of the NFB says that blind people have value and that we should act in such a way that we enhance that value and bring sighted people to recognize it. It also says that blind people can lead independent, joyous lives. It recommends that we behave in such a way that we increase the possibility that this is the experience of the blind. NFB philosophy says that in every meaningful way blind people are equal to sighted people. The implications of these statements suggest that blind people should be trained to pursue their own lives in ways that they find beneficial. It also urges that blind people take advantage of the training. It does not require blind people to take any certain training as an article of faith.

Hazel tenBroek was the wife of our founding President, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. She told me one time that the method for blind people to follow in ordering a steak in a restaurant in the 1940s and the 1950s was that those ordering the meat would routinely request that it be cut into bite-sized pieces in the kitchen before being served. At one point in my Federation experience I encountered a heated debate among Federation members about whether it was proper to have somebody else cut your meat for you. My own opinion is that if a blind person wants it done and can get it accomplished with a minimum of inconvenience, it is quite proper.

I was recently on a dinner cruise boat. Part of the festivity involved being served a lobster. I asked the waiter to manage getting the flesh from the claws and the tail for me. I was not alone. My sighted buddies were doing exactly the same thing. Neither they nor I felt diminished by the request. It was also evident that the waiter was quite familiar with the process. He must have done it hundreds if not thousands of times for diners on the boat.

How I live my life is my business. I reject being ordered to perform certain actions or be certain places because of my blindness. I also reject such orders for other nonimportant reasons. This is part of my NFB philosophy. If I am told to keep my hands out of a place because the electricity in it could shock or kill me, this seems sensible. If I am told to keep my hands out of a place because it is not suitable for blind people, this seems idiotic to me. How these principles are applied in life is a matter of judgment. I insist on my right to use my own judgment. This also is part of my NFB philosophy.

When I suggest that blind people learn Braille, I do so because I think it’s beneficial. When I suggest that blind people use long white canes, I do so because it’s beneficial. I have tried using a dog, but I’ve never given it enough time to evaluate it properly. I don’t have a strong opinion about the benefits of using dogs. However, I have a very strong opinion about the right of those who want to use them to be protected in this choice. Many of my colleagues have told me that using a dog is liberating for them. I want them to have the liberation, and I trust their judgment. Trusting the judgment and experience of other blind people who know enough to give me effective information is also a part of my NFB philosophy.

On the subject of the exemption in the tax code for the blind, it can be argued either way. As the world is built for the sighted (at least a lot of it), there are costs involved in managing as a blind person. It is possible that the tax code should recognize these and compensate. However, it is also possible to argue that although there are some costs for the blind that the sighted do not have to meet, the difference is not so great that it should be printed in every tax form in the land. I do not remember this argument being pursued on the convention floor. It has been discussed extensively off the convention floor from time to time, and the arguments are fierce. If the debate comes to the convention, I shall be interested in how it develops.

The NFB philosophy is quite clearly not a fixed set of principles that can never be modified. In one sense the National Federation of the Blind is the same today as it was in 1940 when it came into being. The idea at the time was that programs and policies about blindness must incorporate the view of blind people and that the Federation was the appropriate organization to represent the blind. Such remains as valid now as it was then. However, how we interpret and carry into effect the philosophy that is ours has changed.

There was a time in the Federation during which a fierce argument occurred about whether modifications to programs, buildings, and activities of living should not be made on behalf of the blind. This principle remains largely one in which we believe. However, with the digitization of virtually all methods of communication, access to information for the blind becomes as practical as it is for the sighted. We now believe that it is our right to have access to all information put into digital form. Although this is not a change in our fundamental beliefs, it does represent a change in emphasis.

At one time we thought and we said that print was not inherently available to us. The way to get at it was recorded matter, Braille, or a reader. Today we believe that we should have methods of getting such information that are not separate and distinct from the way sighted people get it. We have spent the last twenty years working to incorporate this thought into the minds of the developers of technology. We have not yet been universally successful, but our equality of access to information is greater today than it once was.

Undoubtedly there will be other changes in the emphasis that we give to the implementation of NFB philosophy. The fundamental element of our philosophy that will not change is that we in convention assembled will decide what we want our policies to be.

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