by Gary Wunder
Some of you will recall a man named Garrison Keillor who did a radio show for more than forty years called “A Prairie Home Companion.” In that weekly show he did a twenty-minute monologue about characters he developed in the small town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. When asked how he was able to do it every week year in and year out, Mr. Keillor credited his success to always having an opening line: “Well it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, my hometown.” His reasoning was that having captured the opening line, everything after that began to flow more easily. So it is each year that I wrestle with how to begin this roundup. Sometimes the themes are obvious: we’re approaching three-quarters of a century in service to blind people. Once our seventy-fifth anniversary was gone, we reached our seventy-sixth; the seventy-sixth and seventy-seventh are history. Now that it is our seventy-eighth, it seems all too soon to start counting up to eighty.
So was there a theme this year, something for which the 2018 National Convention will be remembered? I submit that there was, and that theme was raising expectations. The agenda loudly proclaimed it; the presentations consistently confirmed it, and the leadership of the National Federation of the Blind boldly promised it again and again through the actions reported and the promises made. Though the vast majority of us who do the work of the Federation are volunteers, we take the work seriously, for we know this is no game we play with the lives of blind people. As you read through this report, witness again and again what it means to raise expectations and how blind people working with blind people and those who are blind at heart are truly making a difference.
When you see an agenda that is sixty-two pages in print and 102 pages in Braille, you can be certain that blind people are involved in everything under the sun and are prepared to talk about how blindness plays a factor in it. If there is one document that speaks to the diverse interests of blind people, it is the convention agenda, and between its covers one could find more than 130 meetings before the gavel fell on the first day of session and another twenty-five held between the general sessions.
Our commitment to blind children is always evidenced through a large number of seminars and workshops aimed at helping parents see that their children have every chance to succeed. Both our convention agenda and the agenda of our National Organization of Parents of Blind Children show how active we are on so many fronts and how committed we are to seeing that our “future reflections” inherit a world even better than the one we occupy.
When the board meeting began on July 5, the room was filled with enthusiastic people who responded with a loud cheer to the falling of the gavel. All members of the board were present and answered enthusiastically to the roll call.
President Riccobono began by asking for a moment of silence in memory of those who died during the past year. He recognized thirty-six of our departed colleagues, and together we honored them and others who may not have been on the list with a reverent pause.
To help every member get the most out of the convention sessions, we offered Spanish translation and listening devices that can receive Spanish or English for those who need them. Conchita Hernandez announced these services in Spanish, and President Riccobono did the same in English. The listening devices were provided courtesy of the National Federation of the Blind Amateur Radio Division.
We stood to pledge our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and then to our Federation flag. Both of these pledges resounded throughout the hall and were recited with pride and reverence.
President Riccobono reviewed the current board of directors with those assembled. Members whose terms expire at the end of the 2018 Convention were President Mark Riccobono from Maryland; first vice president Pam Allen from Louisiana; second vice president Ron Brown from Indiana; secretary James Gashel from Hawaii; treasurer Jeannie Massay from Oklahoma; and board members Amy Buresh from Nebraska, Shawn Callaway from the District of Columbia, John Fritz from Wisconsin, Carla McQuillan from Oregon, Amy Ruell from Massachusetts, and Adelmo Vigil from New Mexico. Board members not up for reelection in 2018 are Denise Avant from Illinois, Everette Bacon from Utah, Norma Crosby from Texas, Ever Lee Hairston from California, Cathy Jackson from Kentucky, and Joe Ruffalo from New Jersey.
In addition to our distinguished board members and more than 1,500 people in the audience, we had the honor of being with Sarah Mosley, a woman attending her first national convention at age 101. The convention greeted her with warm applause.
The host affiliates for the 2018 Convention were Iowa, Florida, and Virginia. We were welcomed by each affiliate president, starting with the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, Tracy Soforenko. He urged that all of us be early for the next morning’s session because in the first thirty minutes the host affiliates had arranged for a first-rate welcome. He next introduced Denise Valkema, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida, who welcomed all of us to the host affiliates’ suite. She reminded us that there is no better way to mingle with old friends and make new ones. President Jerad Nylin from the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa invited all of us to a concert by the performer Apl.de.Ap, formerly of The Black Eyed Peas. Performers also included our own James Brown and Marion Gwizdala.
For some time now we have had an ongoing conflict with the Greyhound bus company because its website and smart phone apps have not been accessible. Given the extent to which blind people rely on Greyhound to get from city to city, this is no small inconvenience. After repeated attempts to talk with the company, we filed a lawsuit. But much to the relief of all parties, once we sat down together at a table, we found that we had more in common than we had separating us. Greyhound now understands the accessibility problems posed by its website and its smart phone apps. Thanks to the efforts of James Gashel and Timothy Elder, we now have a working relationship with Greyhound. Mr. Elder, an attorney with TRE Legal Practice, introduced Tricia Martinez, the senior vice president of legal affairs at Greyhound. She said that it is important for people to listen to the concerns of other people, and that Greyhound gets it: “Blind people deserve access to our services, and that includes our technology. [applause] You know, I’m going to be a little frank here: we are selfish; we want your business. We want to be the provider that gets you where you need to go, and we hope to do that in a way that helps you live the lives you want to live, including your independence. We are committed to partnering with the NFB to make sure you have equal access to our services, and that includes our website and our mobile app.”
President Riccobono observed that some partnerships are new while others are long-standing. An example of the latter is our working relationship with the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, and Immediate Past President Maurer was introduced to make some comments. He said that the Action Fund has long operated a library from California but that the library’s list of patrons does not justify keeping it open. Instead of operating a lending library, the Action Fund will give away its books to those who ask for them, and if they choose to pass them along to others when they no longer have need of them, the ShareBraille.org service will provide a mechanism for seeing that the books find a new home. This service can also be used for next year’s flea market of Braille books, so stay tuned for additional information.
We next turned our attention to the code of conduct passed by the board of directors, recently published in the Braille Monitor, and found in the convention agenda. The reason for the code of conduct is to put in writing the expectations we have long shared for the behavior of our members, our volunteers, and our guests when we work together on Federation business. As President Riccobono said, "The code of conduct confirms in writing what we have had as an expectation amongst our membership in terms of how we treat each other, how we view equality and equal treatment among the members, how we value diversity within our organization, and it sets out in writing how we will hold each other accountable to that conduct."
Jeannie Massay followed up this announcement by saying that any infraction of the code of conduct could be reported at any time during the convention, and she provided a phone number that would be continuously monitored for this purpose. She also said that we know that for a number of people the national convention of the Federation is the largest gathering of men and women they will be a part of during the year, and sometimes this experience of being among so many people can become overwhelming. For the first time we have implemented a quiet room where a person can step away for a minute. Someone will be in the room at all times, but it is a place where one can relax, get reoriented, and make plans to go out and interact with the crowd.
John Berggren was introduced as our convention coordinator, and he took the opportunity to remind people about the banquet exchange program. Buying a banquet ticket gets you a ticket to get into the ballroom, but you do not yet have a seat. In addition to the traditional meal, we offer a kosher meal or a vegetarian meal. He said that our convention agenda was available in Braille, print, and in three different electronic forms depending on the way you prefer to view it. He also announced our partnering with internet radio station 195 The Globe, and not only will it be streaming the convention, but it will be providing interviews and other information between convention sessions.
Everyone who came to the board meeting had a shared purpose, and that was to find out where the 2019 Convention would be held. Each time the upcoming convention was mentioned, people thought we had arrived at the great reveal, but, to the glee of President Riccobono and the groans of most of the audience, that announcement was held and was one of the concluding items of the board meeting.
President Riccobono observed that our agenda would bring Democratic members of Congress and Republican members of the administration to the dais, and he reminded us that we are known for the courtesy and respect that we give to all who come to visit with us. Sometimes our questions may be pointed and our message is often direct, but in all of our conduct we are unerringly polite, and this is a tradition we want and will preserve.
All throughout the convention we were active on social media with the hashtag #NFB18. A review of the tweets sent will reveal both the anticipation felt during the convention and reactions to the presentations made. Sometimes the very conciseness demanded by the character limitations of a tweet make a point more clearly than many words on the subject, and a review of this year's hashtag will prove to be quite worthwhile.
President Riccobono encouraged everyone to review the Braille Monitor, the Nation's Blind podcast, and our app for smart phones called NFB Connect. Although he likes all the ways in which we communicate, he has a particular fondness for the female host of the podcast. Be sure to check it out if you don't already know why. To offer a favorite convention memory that may well make the podcast, call 410-659-9314, extension 2444.
Public service announcements will be available soon after the convention for download, and some will be sent directly to radio stations. Two were previewed and excitedly received by the convention.
Although there are some parts of the country in which we enjoy a good relationship with the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), its attempts to revive NAC (National Accreditation Council for Blind and Low Vision Services) and its opposition to our implementing the National Reading Media Assessment to determine whether blind people should read Braille, print, or both has put a significant strain on our relationship. For this reason we are planning an AER strike, and Everette Bacon came to the microphone to address this. Because we want members of AER to really come to know and understand us, we will attend the conference they are holding late in July and will tell them who we are and our desire to engage in programs of collaboration rather than confrontation.
Carla McQuillan is the chairperson of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award Committee. Carla and her committee presented an award to a teacher who has been in the field for thirty-three years, and more about this award will be found elsewhere in this issue.
Given the tremendous progress we have made in making more Braille available and in increasing its instruction in schools and rehabilitation centers, the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille, a division of the National Federation of the Blind, has asked the board of directors to dissolve the division and reconstitute it as a committee. The request of the division was approved unanimously, and a committee will be appointed by the President. All divisions of the Federation will continue to support and use Braille, and our advocacy for the code and the people who need it will continue with vigor.
Much of the work of the Federation is done through committees, and anyone wishing to be on one should contact President Riccobono by sending an email to [email protected] or by calling him at 410-659-9314.
In the Federation we have a number of skilled and committed carpenters, but carpenters cannot work without tools. One of the most important tools we have is money. The SUN Fund (Shares Unlimited in the NFB) is a savings account which is to be used as a rainy day or emergency fund should financial circumstances require its use. Sandy Halverson coordinates raising money for this fund, and the state of Arizona is number one in giving to our savings program. Any gift we receive for this fund is an investment in a financially stable future for the National Federation of the Blind.
Scott LaBarre addressed the board meeting on the subject of the Preauthorized Contribution Program, PAC. He explained that the program is not for political fundraising but is the way we make predictable monthly contributions to our movement. It has long been our goal to hit a giving level of half a million dollars a year, and although we have sometimes reached monthly giving amounts that suggest we will do it, never have we been able to sustain it for a year. He hopes that this year will be the exception. At the board meeting we had annualized giving of $477,117.24.
Patti Chang talked with the board and the audience about our Vehicle Donation Program, which allows us to turn unwanted vehicles into cash for our programs. She said that we no longer take airplanes, but we do take cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, and almost anything that has wheels. To donate a vehicle people should call 855-659-9314. This is a good program, and we should work hard to promote it. One car donated last month from New Jersey helped us raise over $5,000.
GreenDrop is a program which takes gently used clothing, resells it, and generates money for the organization. For more information about this program and the states in which it operates, go to www.gogreendrop.com.
The Dream Makers Circle is a relatively new program that will allow us to make donations to the Federation upon our death. While no one is looking for your donation soon, all of us will die, and all of us have an interest in helping those who live on after us to live the lives they want. For more information about this program call Patti Chang at 410-659-9314, extension 2422.
At this convention the Kenneth Jernigan Fund celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Its purpose is to bring new people to the convention who have never attended before, and this year we gave more than sixty grants to help people experience the magic of our national convention.
The Blind Educator of the Year award was presented by Dr. Edward Bell, the chairman of the committee. His presentation and comments by the winner can be found elsewhere in this issue.
One of our longtime sponsors and a platinum sponsor for this year was HumanWare. For brief remarks the president of the company, Bruce Miles, was introduced. This is the thirtieth year in which HumanWare has been in business, and the company believes that an important ingredient in being able to serve blind people year after year is the long and productive relationship with the National Federation of the Blind. Although one organization is a nonprofit and the other a business, our missions are complementary: empowering people with vision loss to participate fully in society, to transform dreams into reality, and to help people live the lives they want. Another mission we share is to see that blind people have access to a quality education. The 30 percent employment rate or the 70 percent unemployment rate runs afoul of all the missions we share. For a few remarks, Mr. Miles introduced Mr. Peter Tucic, a man who has worked for HumanWare for three years and has been promoted to ambassador for blindness products at the company. He believes there are two problems we must address. The first one we are all familiar with: the lack of equal access to many cloud-based products that will allow us to get instant information in real-time and in Braille. The second issue is just as significant. It is convincing blind people that we must start at the bottom, take jobs we don't really want, learn in those jobs how to be productive and how to be good self-advocates, and eventually move to the place where we are doing what we would call our dream job. What many of us lack are introductory workplace skills, and it is only through focusing on these that we will narrow the gap between our education and gainful employment. To provide these introductory work skills, integrated with an understanding of how to use twenty-first century products in Braille, HumanWare has offered an internship to Christina Laddie, an eighteen-year-old from Colorado. She expressed her thanks for the award and for the opportunity to be at the convention.
For many of us the highlight of the board meeting is the introduction of our scholarship winners. Cayte Mendez is the chair of the National Federation of the Blind Scholarship Committee, and she came to introduce the class of thirty 2018 finalists. Her introductory remarks and the finalists’ remarks to the board of directors can be found elsewhere in this issue.
So impressed was the board by the 2018 scholarship class that Jeannie Massay made a motion to continue the program for another year. It was seconded and passed unanimously.
The National Federation of the Blind Performing Arts Division is chaired by Julie McGinnity, and as a service to convention goers, it offered to send a singing telegram to anyone at the convention. As an example, one was delivered to our President. It consisted simultaneously of the PAC song and “Don't Stop Believin’” by Journey.
Tracy Soforenko again took the stage, this time in his capacity as the chairman of the Jacobus tenBroek Memorial Fund. The tenBroek fund owns the building in which the National Federation of the Blind has space. It will be doing some significant renovations to the space the Federation occupies, including the creation of new sleeping rooms. The ones now used were created in 1981, and this upgrade will change the location and add other amenities that will make people even more comfortable at our facility. Chairman Soforenko asked that we help figure out ways to raise money for the fund and this renovation, and he asked that we give generously when donations are solicited during the convention.
Laura James, the eastern regional community relations manager for UPS, has been very involved in helping us during the years we have been in Orlando. She thanked the board for giving her time to make a presentation, and she said that while she is the regional community relations manager in most weeks, for this week she is simply one more UPS volunteer. UPS has been helping the Federation since 1992. She observed that most of the training that UPS members have gotten in how to work with blind people has come from three Federationists who themselves have worked for UPS. In addition to the generous and kind volunteer support UPS has provided over the years, it has also donated $115,000 to support the organization.
In addition to Laura, about two dozen UPS volunteers appeared with her. Elainna Moore has led the UPS effort to help the NFB for five of the last six years; she has worked for UPS for twenty-nine years, is an HR professional, and sometimes works twelve-hour days for the convention while at the same time continuing to perform her duties for the company. Elainna was presented with a crystal vase that says, "In grateful appreciation of five years to the NFB Community." President Riccobono said, "Thank you, Laura, congratulations to Elainna, and thank you to all of our UPS volunteers.”
Eve Hill is a person well known to the Federation because of her work with the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, and her extensive legal work for us at Brown, Goldstein & Levy. She was the next to come to the stage. Because of the importance of her comments, they will be found elsewhere as an article in this issue.
As the board meeting moved ever closer to conclusion, every member of the audience could feel the tension, but the calmest among us about reached the breaking point when the time for the great reveal found President Riccobono saying, "I am not prepared to announce today.” As the audience began to growl and roar, the President started over, "I am not prepared to announce today, but someone is prepared to make an announcement, so let's have the announcement.”
What followed was a taped presentation from Brad Garrett, the actor who starred as the brother in Everybody Loves Raymond and who also was the voice of the blowfish Bloat in Finding Nemo. After some discussion of his career, of the National Federation of the Blind, and of the conventions we hold, the great reveal came at last: our 2019 Convention will be in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the Mandalay Bay Resort. The convention will run from July 7 to July 12, and rates will be ninety-nine dollars for singles, doubles, triples, and quads. Some of us had to get this information secondhand, because the cheering proved to be louder than the name of the hotel. People were ecstatic, and the wait was over at last.
Pam Allen took the microphone in her capacity as chairman of the board. She said that people are excited about the 2019 Convention, but the 2018 Convention is still ahead and one which will live long in our memories. We had so many new convention attendees this year that we did not have enough ribbons for those who attended the Rookie Roundup. On that happy note and with an inspirational quotation from John Lennon, Pam concluded her report. The beautiful quotation she ended with was: A dream we dream alone is only a dream, but a dream we dream together becomes reality.
Immediately following the board meeting and the lively discussion about Mandalay Bay and Las Vegas, members gathered for a meeting of the sports and recreation division, the NFB deaf-blind division held a business meeting, the seniors division met to discuss an upcoming retreat, and the Diabetes Action Network held a seminar to learn about new accessible diabetes equipment coming to market and strategies for living well with diabetes. The National Association of Blind Lawyers met to discuss strategies for getting more people involved in the field and the work that must be done to advance our cause in the courts of our nation. The National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science met to discuss the ever-changing technology that so many of us rely on for work, at home, and more and more in our recreational pursuits. The performing arts division met to discuss how to break into the field of acting, the National Association of Blind Veterans held a welcoming reception with food and a cash bar for its members, the National Organization of Blind Educators discussed the techniques teachers use in their classrooms, and the National Association of Blind Merchants met to discuss defending the Randolph-Sheppard Program against ongoing attacks and new initiatives of the division including a women’s entrepreneur initiative. These and many more divisions will no doubt take advantage of the opportunity to discuss their meetings at greater length in this and future issues of the magazine throughout the fall. Whether you wanted to participate in sword fighting or work on meditation and mindfulness, there was something for you that happened on the afternoon and evening of July 5.
When the gavel fell on the morning of July 6, the 2018 National Convention was officially in order. After an invocation from Tom Anderson, who heads our communities of faith division, and a $100 door prize to recognize one lucky person who made it to convention on time, the welcoming ceremonies began. Chairman Tracy Soforenko welcomed to the stage a group from Sweet Adeline’s called “The Ladies.” This group was so good that it not only received applause at the end of each song but drew applause several times in the middle of particularly complicated arrangements superbly executed. This group was followed to the stage by quadruplets who formed the group called “Vintage Mix.” They concluded their three-song set with a tribute to veterans by singing “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy.”
The welcome ceremony ended with three moving presentations, each made by the presidents of our host affiliates of Florida, Iowa, and Virginia. These remarks can be heard by going to the convention highlights page found at https://archive.nfb.org/images/nfb/audio/2018_convention
Dwight Sayer is the president of the National Association of Blind Veterans. He took the stage to honor the brave men and women who had risked their lives for the freedoms we enjoy. He led the traditional ceremony in which veterans came across the stage, introduced themselves, and were given a special ribbon. We were honored to have in attendance a seven-member color guard and the incredible Impact of Orlando Drum and Bugle Corps. They marched through every aisle, serenading us with the rhythmic beat of drums that found the audience constantly applauding. We then recited the Pledge of Allegiance, immediately followed by the singing of the national anthem performed by Julie McGinnity of the performing arts division and Impact of Orlando.
The convention next moved to the roll call of states. Alaska received a cheer when its rejection of the payment of subminimum wages was announced. Arizona passed a blind parents bill of rights, and it was approved unanimously by the legislature. Colorado also passed a parental rights bill of which they are rightly proud. The Idaho affiliate was proud to have the director of the Idaho Commission for the Blind, and Illinois announced that at its next convention there will be a celebration of the affiliate’s fiftieth anniversary. In addition to its always impressive list of leaders in the Federation and throughout the field of blindness, Maryland was proud to announce that it is the first state in the nation to provide for civil penalties against those who sell inaccessible products to the state. Nebraska proudly reported that it too has had a parental rights bill signed into law, and so enthusiastic was the response by Federationists and others with disabilities that we overflowed the governor’s hearing room during the bill signing. New Mexico proudly announced that it has a totally accessible voting system, and the Virginia affiliate joyfully announced that it would next be holding its sixtieth annual convention. Washington state enthusiastically proclaimed that in Seattle the subminimum wage is no more. With all fifty-two affiliates having reported, the morning session adjourned.
Most people would say that two predictable highlights of every convention are the presidential report and the banquet speech. One starts the convention, the other ends it. When the afternoon session was called to order, the presidential report was the first order of business, and it did not disappoint. In the last year we have dreamed and planned for the future while tackling the problems of today. Whether it is conducting public education, raising the expectations of blind people, enforcing our civil rights through legal action, creating better public policy through service on boards and commissions, or working with companies to pioneer new technology or enhance that which exists, the National Federation of the Blind stands on the frontlines. We expect our President to guide and direct all of these efforts, and he does. He expects that in return we give our time, talent, treasure, and tremendous imagination to work with him, and we do. As he says, “Without you, there is no us.” All of this is found in the “2018 Presidential Report,” which is presented immediately following this roundup.
Currently we have ninety-five people who make up the Dream Maker's Circle, not including those who have asked to remain anonymous. Their names were read aloud to the convention, and it expressed its appreciation through cheers and applause.
3DPhotoWorks is a company most readers have heard about frequently in these pages, and the exhibit at the Newseum in Washington DC, gave many of us who attended the Washington Seminar a tremendous opportunity to feel the pictures that were featured in LIFE magazine and propelled its photographer, John Olson, into the public spotlight. He was the next person to come to the stage, and in his presentation he told the story of how 3DPhotoWorks came to be, about the role of the National Federation of the Blind in believing in his project and in helping him fund it, and about the importance of protecting one's lunch when attending a state convention. You can look for Mr. Olson's remarks to be printed in full in an upcoming issue.
One significant philosophical challenge we face today is determining how we will incorporate new technology into our lives and the lives of other blind people without compromising on the need to teach and to retain what we have long considered to be basic skills of blindness. In the presentation "Directing Big Data and Technological Innovation: Perspectives on the Importance of Leadership by the Blind,” Chancey Fleet brings both tremendous perspective and wise counsel. As we consider how to integrate the information we can acquire with our senses using low-tech techniques, while incorporating visual information that new technology brings through the use of artificial intelligence and visual interpreters, she offers that wonderful mix of philosophical integrity and a rich sense of technology for which she is so well known. As she says, "We can improvise with technology, perform our own access when we need to, and teach our fellows how that's done, but let's keep the beat of the drums of freedom, the careful cultivation of embodied skills that don't rely on technology but rely on our self-trust and self-respect.” Her remarks will appear in full elsewhere in this issue.
President Riccobono introduced what was to come next in this way: "Our next speaker describes his passions as ‘innovation, personal development, changing paradigms, people, and the adventures of life.’ Well, that sounds a lot like the National Federation of the Blind. His company has never presented at this convention before, but I suspect his company's product has been in many people's pockets: does anybody use Be My Eyes? [applause] Their work is authentically driven by the perspective of blind people, and here to talk with us about the blind and a new worldwide crowd for access to information is the CEO and cofounder of Be My Eyes. Here's Christian Erfurt.”
Mr. Erfurt described Be My Eyes and the collaboration that brought it about. He said that the service links blind people who need assistance with sighted volunteers. There are currently 86,000 blind users, 1.4 million sighted volunteers, that the service is available in 150 countries, and that assistance is offered in 180 languages. The service is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. “Our efforts were recently recognized by Google as we were given the best accessibility award by Google. [applause] But that means nothing compared to being here in front of you and having an opportunity for your feedback and to hear your applause. Thank you for that.” But Be My Eyes is more than a service for people helping people; it has greater ambitions. “One thing that I am very, very proud of with Be My Eyes is that the willingness to help one another is not only in some of us; it is in all of us, no matter your cultural background, your nationality, your religion—people are connecting globally every day and minimizing the gaps between us and them in terms of borders and religions, and realizing that we have one big global citizenship and that we should care more about each other.” [applause] Mr. Erfurt’s remarks will appear in an upcoming issue.
Undoubtedly the most significant force in social media is Facebook, and the director of global public policy for the company, Monica Desai, was our next presenter. In her remarks she said, "With respect to our ethos, our mission is to bring the world closer together, and that means everyone. Accessibility is a core part of that mission. Consider, for example, that on Facebook one in ten people use the zoom feature on the desktop browser, 20 percent of people increase the font size on iOS, and over 100,000 people use screen readers on desktop and mobile devices to use Facebook. We want to make it possible for anyone, regardless of ability, to access the information and connections that happen on Facebook.”
One of the projects Ms. Desai is most excited about is Facebook's automatic alternative text feature. It uses artificial intelligence to identify pictures and write captions, relying less on sighted users to do something that is unnatural (picture description), and making the process automated. The goal is not just to identify how many people there are in a photo and who they are but to say something significant about what is happening in the photo. The company is also excited about the navigation assistant that it designed specifically for screen readers using both the desktop and mobile devices. Facebook recognizes that one of the obstacles to accessibility is that few people know how to implement it because it is seldom part of the curriculum in computer science programs. Therefore the company is part of an industrywide initiative to change this and recently received an award for their work. Facebook also realizes that understanding accessibility requires hiring people with disabilities who rely on that accessibility. The remarks made by Ms. Desai will appear later in the fall.
President Riccobono introduced the next item on the agenda in this way: "Our next presentation comes from someone who is not a first-timer to the stage. This is the second time, and he also represents a technology that many in the room have dealt with, Aira. [applause] The Aira corporation has been very disruptive to the technology companies in the blindness field, and I think that's what the CEO intended—to be disruptive. They are very aggressively working on developing new services and a platform that is driven and directed by the hopes and dreams of blind people. By moving aggressively that sometimes means that they try some things; sometimes those things work, and sometimes they don't. As part of their commitment, they have done certain things like making this convention a place where you can try Aira out for free. … I believe there is great value in our working with technology startups and bringing our authentic experience to technology companies, and it is so much easier to do when they have a real, genuine interest in learning from us and incorporating our point of view into their products. I think the CEO of Aira has exhibited this. Last year he was in and around this convention under blindfold, traveling with a cane, not to show solidarity but to learn something. He has listened to many, many people at this convention and throughout the year, both the good and the bad, but he is prepared to innovate on behalf of blind people and to innovate with us. So here is the cofounder and CEO of Aira, a good friend of the National Federation of the Blind, Suman Kanuganti."
Suman began his remarks by saying, “I am delighted to be attending my fourth NFB convention [applause], an early July tradition that I plan to celebrate with all of you for years to come. … Aira is proud to be a part of the NFB family. Many of you have played a vital role in molding our company. I am grateful to President Mark Riccobono and all of you for being vital stakeholders, creating a platform to augment the ability of every human being on the planet by providing instant access to information anywhere at any time." This highly energetic and moving presentation will appear elsewhere in this issue.
At the conclusion of Mr. Kanuganti’s remarks, President Riccobono offered one more announcement prior to the close of the session. He said that the NFB is all about developing partnerships, and our latest partnership is with the Kellogg Corporation. Jessica Waller, the senior vice president of sales, said that more information about our partnership and the initiatives that are planned will be forthcoming in August. Like the NFB, the Kellogg Corporation believes strongly in education and will be working with us in this arena in the near future.
The last matter of the day was the announcement that the NFB and our National Organization of Parents of Blind Children gave away $10,000 of technology to blind children in memory of the late Megan Bening. Our hope is to do this again next year, and this can happen if we purchase a five-dollar angel pin from one of our blind children. For every five dollars in sold pins, a technology company in Virginia will make a matching donation.
The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Peters began the Saturday morning session with an invocation, and we then moved to the financial report read by President Riccobono. A review of our financials for 2017 shows that we had income that exceeded expenses by about $1 million. Given that we do not borrow money, this is a good figure. The more troubling figures are found in the first five months of 2018 in which we find ourselves with expenses exceeding income by about the same amount, $1 million. What this means is that we are active and successful in getting public support, but the need is ever present, and we must always regard seeking funding for our programs as a major priority in the work we do.
After a motivational PAC report from Scott LaBarre and the spirited roll call from our state affiliates and divisions to raise money for the tenBroek and general fund, we next moved to elections. Pam Allen was the chairman of the nominating committee, and she read the slate that the committee proposed.
We then moved to the election, and the name of Mark Riccobono was placed in nomination for President. He was elected by acclamation and said, “Thank you very much, my Federation family. It is truly the deepest honor to serve in the office of the President for this tremendous organization. I have to credit each and every one of you for the work that you do to make what we do look easy. Each and every one of us knows that it’s not easy, but what you do in supporting the leadership of this organization makes it practical for any of us to serve. So I’m humbled, honored, and inspired by the work that happens every day by people with big hearts in this organization. It wouldn’t be possible to serve in the office of the President, I don’t think, without the awesome support and leadership that Melissa Riccobono provides to this organization. [applause] I continue to pledge to do all that I can to build this organization in the good times and in the face of challenges. We are making tremendous progress, but there is so much more we can do. The beautiful thing is that it gets more fun every day—more fun every day. So thank you for the honor of serving; I will always do everything I can for this organization, and I love each and every one of you. Thank you.”
Pam Allen of Louisiana was nominated to fill the position of first vice president. She was enthusiastically reelected unanimously. She began her acceptance speech by saying: “Thank you, my Federation family, for this truly humbling honor. Mark Caine said that, ‘The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.’ In the National Federation of the Blind we refuse to be captives of low expectations, stereotypes about blindness, and unfulfilled dreams. We know that by coming together at our local chapters, in our affiliates and divisions, and here at this convention, we will be challenged to stretch ourselves and to accomplish more than we ever thought possible. In the National Federation of the Blind we know firsthand about the power of working together, the strength and the energy that we draw from the bonds of love and commitment that unite us. We know that our collective efforts bring about individual and systemic change and that change is life-giving and allows us to grow into someone and collectively something greater than we would ever have believed possible. Think about how different our lives would be today if those Federationists who met in 1940 had not taken a stand and joined together to organize, and imagine how different the lives of all blind people are and will continue to be because of the commitment we demonstrate. The work we do each day, whether it is talking with a new member, answering questions from a parent of a blind child or a senior losing vision, working to end discrimination, getting legislation passed to protect the rights of blind parents, the risks we take and the possibilities we imagine make our hopes and dreams a reality. We have been nurtured and mentored by our leaders: Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and Dr. Maurer, and now by President Riccobono, who shows us each day through his example and words what it truly means to be a leader. His love for us and unwavering dedication to this organization are unparalleled, and also the commitment of our First Lady Melissa, whose passion, wisdom, and never-ending commitment inspire us. Thank you to each of you and to the thousands of members listening online who live the lives they want each day and share our message of hope and empowerment, the heartbeat of our organization.
“Serving as your first vice president is truly a blessing, and I continue to learn from all of you every day. I’m inspired and motivated as I stand before you, and I pledge to all of you to keep fighting, keep pushing the envelope, keep serving and leading with love. Thank you, my Federation family, and especially my husband Roland, for your love, trust, and support. Together we stand, united we will not be defeated. Let’s go build the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you.”
The name of Ron Brown from Indiana was recommended by the committee for election to the office of second vice president, his nomination was seconded, and he was voted into the office unanimously. Ron told the convention it was an honor and a privilege to serve on the board, and he said that the other day someone asked him if he had lived his best destiny. In reflecting on the question, Ron has concluded that he is living it right now, and the reason is that the Federation gave him the tools to be successful and is now giving him the opportunity to give back.
The name of James Gashel from Hawaii was placed before the convention by the committee. He was elected to the office of secretary unanimously. Mr. Gashel said that he joined this movement in 1965 and the 2018 National Convention is his fifty-second. He said that though he is getting older, the vibrancy, the excitement, the energy, and the innovation of the National Federation of the Blind never gets old. He concluded by saying, “In rising to meet the challenge, I’m awfully impressed by the responsibility you think I can fulfill as one of the leaders of this organization, and the one thing I can definitely tell you is that in rising to meet this challenge, I will do everything in my power never to let you down.”
For the position of treasurer, the name of Jeannie Massay of Oklahoma was placed in nomination. She was elected unanimously, and she began by thanking the convention for the trust placed in her to lead in the organization. “All of this is very emotional. You know, we talk about changing lives, and I can tell you that the Federation changed the trajectory of my life. It is so important for us to find people where they are and help them get to where they want to be. That’s what we’re all about.”
The name of Amy Buresh from Nebraska was submitted for board position number one. She was elected by acclamation. Amy said: “My Federation brothers and sisters, it is a blessing and a privilege to stand here before you today. I recently read a quote that said that everything you do in your life to others comes back into your own. That is so true with the work we do here in the National Federation of the Blind. We come in lost, lonely, afraid, maybe frustrated, maybe held back, and tired of waiting for action from other people, and here we find friends, family, shoulders to cry on, to lean on, to stand upon as we strengthen ourselves and our movement. As John Holmes said, ‘There is no exercise better for the heart then reaching down and lifting people up.’ That is exactly what we do here each and every day.”
Shawn Callaway from Washington, DC was nominated to fill board position two. The convention agreed with the committee, and Shawn was elected by acclamation. Shawn began by thanking his wife and his daughter and by thanking God for their being in his life. He then offered a quote by Martin Luther King stressing the importance of equality for all men and women. He said that while our country has been slow to address some of the major civil rights issues that confront us, he believes that his work in the Federation has provided a model demonstrating that people of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and other diverse beliefs cannot only get along but can become trusted friends and mentors.
John Fritz from Wisconsin was nominated to fill board position three. John was elected by acclamation. John said that he came to the Federation as a scholarship winner and that this might give current finalists some idea of the future in store for them if they so choose. John thanked his wife Heather and all of his children for their support in doing the work that takes so much time, energy, and commitment from all of them.
For board position four the committee placed in nomination the name of Carla McQuillan from Oregon. She was elected by acclamation. Carla said that when she was first elected to the board in 1998, she was told by Dr. Jernigan that she was the youngest serving member of the board and the second youngest ever to have served. Though she is no longer the youngest member, she still brings tremendous energy to the work of the Federation because of the people in the organization who, through their example, continue to encourage and inspire her. Though she did not mention it, she is the inspiration for many of these people as well. She thanked her husband Lucas: “I am so blessed that I have someone who puts up with the likes of me every day, and he says he loves it. Thank you for your support, Lucas.” [applause]
The name of Amy Ruell of Massachusetts was submitted for board position number five. She was elected by acclamation. In thanking the convention for her reelection she said, “I want to thank all of you for your support, your mentorship, your kindness, and your forbearance because, as any of you who know me is aware, I speak my mind. It is good to be in an organization that allows for different opinions to be spoken and respected. I also want to say that from the first time I joined the Federation and was given the opportunity for leadership and the first gavel I received from the students, I have taken this on as a tremendous responsibility and commitment. Although the initial draw of the Federation was the work that we do in advocacy, what keeps me going when I’m tired and when I wonder whether I have enough energy is the knowledge that I, along with all of you, have the opportunity to help other people to achieve their goals, realize their dreams, and live the life they want. Thank you all, and let’s continue to build the National Federation of the Blind.”
For board position six, the final position to be filled this year, the nominating committee submitted the name of Adelmo Vigil of New Mexico. Margot Downey from New York was also nominated to fill this position. Both candidates made brief presentations as to why they believe they should be elected to the board, and after their speeches the vote was to seat Adelmo Vigil. After thanking the convention for his election, Adelmo said: “I can tell you that when I joined the Federation back in 1983, I was mentored by many of you. I felt very alone before I joined the National Federation of the Blind, but when I went to that first convention, I felt like all of us were family. Today I can tell you that the family continues to grow. I want to thank my wife Soledad for all the support that she has given to me throughout the years. [applause] I want to thank all of you because if it wasn’t for you, none of us would be here. I pledge to you that I will do everything that I can to continue to help all of us live the life we want. Thank you.”
At the conclusion of the election, President Riccobono said, “Thank you very much to all of the leaders serving on the national board of directors. It’s an honor to serve with you, and I look forward to the next year ahead. How about a door prize for our elected leadership?”
One of the most inspiring speeches of the convention was presented by Joanne Gabias, and it was entitled “What Does Blind Have to Do with It? The Right to Parent from a Sighted Daughter’s Perspective.” In making the introduction for this presentation, President Riccobono noted that some people will say, “Well, I hear what you’re saying, but how do the sighted children of blind parents feel about it?” Though we think we know how our children feel, we wonder what they would say if asked by someone other than us. Joanne Gabias gave a most moving presentation about what it was like for her and her brothers to be the children of blind parents, and it will appear elsewhere in this issue.
José Viera is the new executive director for the World Blind Union. He has extensive work in civil rights and comes well prepared for his new job. He began his presentation by talking about his first significant contact with the National Federation of the Blind, that being in 2016. He said that he and some of his friends were at first amazed and a bit put off by the talking human signs they found at the general assembly; they laughed among themselves. But after a time what they thought silly turned out to be something they found inspirational. These are the blind helping the blind, they said. We do not have to wait for other people to help us; we can help ourselves. He said that this is one of the most significant things they took away from the conference.
Mr. Viera said that if people with disabilities all came together to form a country, it would be the third largest in the world. What unites people with disabilities is that most of us live in poverty, that we have tremendous needs, and that we all share the desire to be productive and competitive. He believes that the World Blind Union, following the example of the National Federation of the Blind, can begin to change the world for blind people, and he pledged that the World Blind Union and the National Federation of the Blind would continue to work together to see that this is done. His remarks can be heard in full at https://archive.nfb.org/images/nfb/audio/
The afternoon session began with a presentation entitled “Leading with Conviction: Making Equality for People with Disabilities the Priority for the United States of America.” It was presented by Neil Romano who is the chairperson of the National Council on Disability. He has previously served as an assistant secretary in the United States Department of Labor under the George W. Bush administration, and he was appointed by Congress to serve in this capacity in 2015. He is now serving in his second term, and it is clear that we could not have a stronger advocate in support of abolishing section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act which permits the payment of subminimum wages to people with disabilities, including those who are blind. A copy of his remarks will appear in this magazine later in the fall.
The Honorable Darren Soto, who serves in the United States House of Representatives for the Ninth Congressional District of Florida came to the podium to speak on the topic “Raising Expectations for the Nation from Florida’s Ninth Congressional District.” Congressman Soto supports all of the issues that we support and have caused to be introduced in this legislative session, and his presentation is a testament to how committed he is to each of these. His remarks can be heard by going to https://archive.nfb.org/images/nfb/audio/2018_convention_highlights/july_7/
Passion is something we have in abundance in the Federation, but it is hard to think of anyone more visibly passionate than our executive director for advocacy and policy, John Paré. “A Record Year of Advocacy for the Blind of America: a Report from the Advocacy and Policy Department” was the topic on which he spoke, and indeed we have had a record year in terms of our accomplishments. His remarks will appear in an upcoming issue, as will a summary of those made by Scott LaBarre on the subject of the Marrakesh treaty and its ratification. At the end of the advocacy and policy report, President Riccobono said, “Thank you, John for going all the way for the blind of America, and thank you to our entire advocacy and policy team, both paid and unpaid. Without you we couldn’t get it done, so congratulations to all of us.”
Before moving to the next agenda item, President Riccobono took time to introduce our convention sponsors. Here is what he said: “I want to take a moment to acknowledge our sponsors here at this convention. First let me make a few comments. We have a record number of sponsors at this convention [applause], and I’ve been surprised that a few folks have said during the course of this convention ‘Well, I know you have to give so-and-so time; they are a sponsor.’ I encourage you to read our sponsorship material. We don’t sell time on the stage. You can’t get up here by paying; it doesn’t happen. [applause] We invite folks we think have something important to say, or who we want to say something important to, or both. Some of them happen to be sponsors, and even when they are sponsors we still tell them how it is if you’re a blind person. You can’t pay to speak at the National Federation of the Blind.
“I think the fact that we invite many of our sponsors to speak and/or the fact that we push on a number of our sponsors to get the work done that’s needed for blind people speaks to who we are. Some of the folks on this list of sponsors did not start out as our friends. In fact it took a long time for some of them to be our friends, but now they are our best friends because they know that we will work with them honestly and that we will not sell out blind people. Working together we are making a difference. We appreciate our sponsors. I know that they appreciate it when our members stop and thank them for sponsoring.
“This year we have seven Platinum sponsors. They are: Aira Tech Corp, Enhanced Vision/Freedom Scientific/Optelec, Google Inc., HumanWare, Microsoft Corporation, UPS, and Vanda Pharmaceuticals.
“Our Gold sponsors: Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP, HIMS Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Market Development Group Inc., Oracle, Target, and Uber.
“Our Silver sponsors: are Adobe, Amazon, AT&T, Automattic (WordPress.com), Facebook, Pearson, and Sprint.
“Bronze: Charter Communications, Delta, Educational Testing Service (ETS), Lyft, Monster Worldwide Inc., National Industries for the Blind, NReach, VitalSource Technologies, Waymo, and Wells Fargo.
“White cane: C&P - Chris Park Design, Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind, Duxbury Systems Inc., En-Vision America, Envision Inc., Federal Bureau of Investigation, LC Industries, McGraw-Hill, OrCam Technologies, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Scribd, and last but not least our good friend, TRE Legal Practice.”
Twenty resolutions were submitted for consideration by the convention. All of them were available for review on the website when they were passed by committee and then adopted or rejected by the convention. A full report of the resolutions and the text of those that passed can be found elsewhere in this issue.
After acting on the resolutions the afternoon session was adjourned. In the evening Amazon presented a showcase of the products it offers that are accessible. It also held what it called a Night at the Movies, which included popcorn and snacks. A workshop was held for members whose states are becoming vote-by-mail states, the goal being to provide members with the tools to advocate for accessibility. A seminar on Social Security and SSI was held to help people better understand eligibility criteria, the application process, reporting obligations, and situations in which people can work while receiving Social Security benefits. A seminar was held for Braille proofreaders, the need for Braille proofreading increasing as more Braille is made available. The annual NFB job fair was held to link employers who want to find blind people with blind job applicants. This session not only included meeting and greeting employers and job seekers but also it included a session on polishing a resumé, how to dress for success, and how to prepare oneself to talk with an employer.
Of course there was the traditional showcase of talent presented by the performing arts division as well as a friends of recovery meeting, not that the two are in any way related. This is the point where the reviewer, especially the president, probably questions the wisdom of the foregoing.
On what is sometimes called the longest day of the convention, President Riccobono brought the session to order and asked that David Stayer deliver the invocation.
The first program item of the morning was delivered by Nicky Gacos, the president of the National Association of Blind Merchants. He said that some businesses which once dominated corporate America no longer exist; some are traceable to other businesses that have replaced them, but some are also traceable to the fact that there are fewer people who want to buy in our country. We have systemic problems we must address. When he entered the program, there were 4,000 blind merchants. Now there are 1,839 of them. The average age of blind merchants is around sixty. We need young people. Some of the sites we have are attractive to other businesses, and either we mount a defense of the program or we lose out. But we have no intention of losing out, and as our National Association of Blind Merchants president makes clear, we have no intention of losing. To hear his delightfully humorous and moving remarks, go to https://archive.nfb.org/images/nfb/audio/2018_convention_highlights/july_8/am/
Our much beloved Anil Lewis came to the podium to address the topic "A Movement of Excellence Built upon Blind Experience: A Report from Our Jernigan Institute.” He began by explaining that we operate so many programs that it is impossible to cover them all in one presentation. He also modestly observed that he serves with people who are the real experts in many of these, and he has the wonderful job of coordinating their energy and talent.
Some of the most interesting work we do is with young people, and dramatic differences in attitudes and skills can be observed in the challenging environments we present. Anil notes that we give people opportunities that they don't normally have in their day-to-day lives or opportunities they are denied when their classmates have them. When we show them that something can be done and they next encounter a similar barrier, their response is "Slam that!" But as important as opportunity is, we also give students the chance to fail and to regard that failure as a learning opportunity and not an insurmountable barrier. For the student who got lost we teach proper problem-solving skills that will allow him or her to be successful and have a brighter future. This is us: building our movement of excellence on the successes of blind people.
We have recently completed a grant to make six science museums around the country nonvisually accessible. Based in part on our success, we have been awarded a second grant for the Spatial Ability and Blind Engineering Research (SABER) project. This project will focus on the complex mental manipulation of shapes and will involve engineering design from concept to tactile drafting to model construction.
Then there is our Center for Excellence in Nonvisual Access and the work we have done at the request of the New York City school system to help it make its systems accessible. The Jernigan Institute now has a research advisory council, and its job is to make sure that we are an active and vital part of all research that's going forward that may affect people who are blind.
Our executive director posed an interesting question to the audience. If we are asked to help with a project to develop a haptic windshield that will be placed in the back of a car and will let us see where we have been, should we become involved? When put to a vote, the audience was timid, and he thought this was good because there is no clear yes or no. Having a display of where we’ve been may not be a good idea, but being involved in the creation of a device that can give us a tactile representation of something we otherwise would not see is a good idea. Maybe it won’t be the back windshield of a vehicle; maybe it will be something we can place on our lap, and perhaps we will be able to control the focus of the thing it is that we want to touch. So the answer is that we work with the developers, encourage them, and direct them in ways that will be helpful to us.
In his last major item Anil discussed the career mentoring program we are now rolling out. In this program we go beyond connecting one mentor and one mentee. Our goal is to connect one mentee with many mentors, thereby increasing the richness of the mentee’s experience and helping to ensure that no one mentor feels overloaded by the responsibility he or she has undertaken.
Anil concluded by saying, "We must share our philosophy everywhere we go, and in everything we do we must be real to ourselves. In every place that we go and in every program that we operate, our philosophy must be the same. We must travel and wear different hats in so many different places, but in every place, regardless the hat, we are wearing it on our Federation head."
Carlton Anne Cook Walker is a familiar name to most Federationists. Most of us know her daughter Anna Catherine, but few of us know the story of Steve, Carlton, and Anna Catherine coming to the National Federation of the Blind and why. In a moving presentation Carlton explained how job one was saving her daughter’s life, that job two was learning that Anna Catherine is blind and figuring out that what she needed would not easily be gotten from the educational professionals who were to help her, and that job three was getting the training and associating with the right people to see that her daughter would have a chance at living the life she wants. Carlton’s presentation will be found in an upcoming issue of this magazine.
“Raising Expectations for Education and Rehabilitation: Creating Opportunities for the Blind through the United States Department of Education” was presented by the assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Johnny Collett. The secretary said that many of the conclusions he has arrived at about special education have come from his years of experience in many different capacities within education and human services. One of the things he has learned is that a number of agencies end up serving the same people even though they may have different relationships with them: one might call a person a student, one a client, one a patient, one a juvenile offender. The take away for him was that the agencies with which he has worked needed to coordinate so that they treated a person and not a symptom. They needed to focus not only on getting better separately as individual service providers but to consider how much better for the individual if they got better collaboratively. The result would most certainly be that collectively they would have an outcome greater than the sum of its parts. He said that service providers have to see the difficulties encountered by children not as problems with kids and families but as problems for our agencies to solve for our children. He believes that the problem is not that people don't work hard. If solving the problem for our children was just about working hard, we would already have solved it. He believes the answer is to be found in working differently and working collaboratively. Our work should be about preparing individuals, not protecting turf.
At the conclusion of his remarks, three questions were directed to Assistant Secretary Collett. A charitable characterization of his answers would be that they were a bit vague and general. A more straightforward characterization would be that they were a polite refusal to answer. It is not at all clear that the assistant secretary is prepared to be an advocate for integrated employment or that he is prepared to put pressure on the states to follow the law in making Braille the default reading medium for blind people and seeing that students get quality instruction in it. Courtesy and respect are absolutely essential in discussing contentious issues, but neither will serve as a real justification for evasion. Listening is essential, but it is not the same as engaging in real dialogue.
In a wonderful change of pace and mood, we were next treated to the item entitled “Playing Your Hand: A Blind Songwriter Doing What It Takes to Live the Life He Wants.” The presenter was JP Williams, a performer, songwriter, and accessibility technology professional who lives in Nashville. Fortunately Indiana, the state in which he was born, started him on the path to learning Braille at age four. When he was six, he and his parents moved to Texas. Even with all the talent this man brings to life, the educational system in Dallas said that because he was blind he was not teachable, and the agreement was that he would go through school and be given an attendance certificate. He and his parents did not know that this was unnecessarily limiting, and it wasn’t until his junior year of high school that he realized he was not accumulating the credits necessary to go to college. He transferred to the Tennessee School for the Blind, got his high school credits, went on to college, and graduated. Putting aside all of the misconceptions about compensatory senses and the blind having greater musical talent, the truth is that to make it in Nashville is tough, and blindness doesn’t make it one bit easier. But JP Williams has dared to follow his dreams, and the presentation that outlines how his life has gone so far will appear in an upcoming issue of this magazine.
We need more blind people on stage and on the big screen. Given that blind people represent a cross section of our society, it stands to reason that some of us want to be actors and that some of us have the talent to fulfill that dream. Marilee Talkington is a blind actor, writer, director, and activist. The presentation she gave was entitled “Authentically Blind on Stage and Screen: One Blind Actress Transforms Obstacles into Stepping Stones.” In her moving narrative she talked about how risky it is to dream, how difficult it is when those dreams don’t initially pan out, how much pressure there is to perform when one truly gets the opportunity, and the satisfaction that comes when one is successful and is challenged to do even more. Ms. Talkington’s spectacular performance that moved every person in the room at our 2018 National Convention will appear later in the fall.
Our morning session concluded with the presentation that was well worth delaying our lunch. It was entitled “Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities: A Blind Entrepreneur Breaks through Barriers Everywhere He Builds.” Its presenter started out as a childhood actor, graduated from Harvard at the age of nineteen with two degrees (one in mathematics and the other in computer science), became a lawyer, went on to work as a clerk for two Supreme Court justices, cofounded an internet startup, and now is an entrepreneur in central Florida running a company that does $150 million of business every year. Our presenter was Isaac Lidsky. He began by describing his career as a childhood actor and what it felt like at age thirteen to learn that he was going blind. He thought that he knew about blindness, and he harbored all of the fears and misconceptions that most people do. He described his transformation in thinking and explained that every day when he encounters people who have misconceptions about blindness, he makes himself remember how he felt and takes the opportunity to teach them the new reality that he understands and lives. His moving words will appear in full later this year.
To begin the final convention session before the annual banquet, President Riccobono introduced our next guest by saying: “Our first agenda item is ‘From Raising Wages to Defending the Right to Live in the World: A Champion for Disability Rights and Friend of the Blind.’ We have a gentleman who was born in Pennsylvania. He has distinguished himself through strong service both to our nation and as a champion for equality of opportunity. After a year of law school he was drafted into the United States Army in 1968, where he won several medals. He began his legal career in private practice in 1972 and eventually became the assistant district attorney in Erie County Pennsylvania in 1980. In 1982 he was first elected to the United States House of Representatives, and he won reelection six times. He was elected governor of the state of Pennsylvania in 1994, and he was reelected in 1998 with 50 percent of the vote. I told him that this crowd might rival his best campaign crowd. He has done many things, but after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush called upon him to manage the creation of the office of Homeland Security, and later he became the first department secretary. He has gone on to create advisory and consulting businesses, but probably if he wants you to know anything it is that in and amongst all the work he has done in public service, he’s most proud of being a family man. He comes to us as chairman of the National Organization on Disability, a position that he uses to champion equality of opportunity for all people with disabilities. Please welcome the Honorable Tom Ridge.”
Gov. Ridge spoke about the National Organization on Disability and its close working relationship with the National Federation of the Blind. He talked about the frustration of working with a population that experiences such a high rate of unemployment and how fatiguing it can be to keep up the good fight in the midst of all the bad news. He hastens to add that not all of the news is bad, and that an expanding economy finds employers looking for talent in places they have not traditionally looked. This is a sign of hope for people with disabilities. Governor Ridge’s remarks will appear in an upcoming issue.
“Aviation, Technology, and Law” was the next presentation presented by Immediate Past President Maurer, and it was enthusiastically received by the convention. In his remarks our director of legal policy discussed the law and its treatment of blind people. Too often we are viewed as the recipients of charity and government largess, people who should be grateful for any scraps we are thrown or any participation we are allowed to have. But we have moved beyond this place, and we have the right to make reasonable demands for access to information and the technology that delivers it. The aviation industry has been slow to acknowledge our needs in every aspect of travel from how we are treated before embarking, the way we are treated on flights, and even the way we are treated after disembarking. Dr. Maurer’s comments can be found later in this issue.
Following Immediate Past President Maurer to the stage was Blane Workie, the assistant general counsel in the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings for the United States Department of Transportation. Her remarks were entitled “Equal Access in Air Travel for the Blind: Raising Expectations from the United States Department of Transportation.” She said that while there are still a number of problems in the enforcement of the Air Carrier Access Act passed in 1986, the United States Department of Transportation is aggressively pursuing solutions to many of these that have been identified by blind and disabled passengers. Everything from kiosks to guide dogs was covered in her remarks, and they will be found in an upcoming issue.
James Gashel is the chairperson of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award Committee. This is the tenth year in which the National Federation of the Blind has made time on its agenda to present these awards, and we are proud to work with the Santa Barbara Foundation to see that deserving individuals and organizations are recognized. A report of the Bolotin presentation will be found elsewhere in this issue.
“Shaping Automotive Innovation for the Future: An Alliance with the Blind of America” was the next item on the agenda, and it was presented by Mitch Bainwol, the president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Mr. Bainwol commended the National Federation of the Blind for its pioneering work on the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act and said that no other organization has demonstrated the leadership and initiative that the Federation has demonstrated. This puts us in a good position to have influence as automakers, legislators, and regulators make the changes necessary to move from human driven vehicles to self-driving vehicles. Mr. Bainwol’s remarks will appear in an upcoming issue.
Mrs. Jernigan was invited to the stage to present the Kenneth Jernigan Award to Mitch Bainwol, and this presentation can be found elsewhere in this issue.
Scott LaBarre was invited to introduce our next guest, who has been very helpful in advancing the rights of blind people to information through his work with the United Nations and the World Intellectual Property Organization. Our presenter was Francis Gurry, and his remarks were entitled “No Borders to the World’s Knowledge: A Commitment to Accessibility for the Blind.” He began his address with these remarks: “Thank you very much, Scott. Dear friends: it really is a privilege to be with you. It’s a thrill to be at the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind, and I would say that it is one of the highlights of my career to be with you to jointly celebrate the conclusion of the Marrakesh treaty and the pending ratification of the Marrakesh treaty by the United States of America. [applause] I’d like to thank Mark Riccobono, the President of the NFB; Fred Schroeder, president of the World Blind Union; Scott LaBarre, your indomitable negotiator, who has really led the process of negotiation and compromise that resulted in the Marrakesh treaty.” Mr. Gurry went on to describe what the Marrakesh treaty would do for rich and poor countries alike, discussed the time required to get a treaty passed, and explained what a remarkable process it was that we were able to do this in four years. His remarks will appear in full later in the fall.
In every convention we always look forward to new people who take the stage, but we also rejoice when old friends come to celebrate with us. Such is the case when Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google Inc. takes the stage. This year his topic was “Artificial Intelligence and Authentic Experience: Remarks from an Innovation Partner of the Blind.” Having come to his first convention in 1975, the 2018 National Convention makes the forty-fourth he has attended. He began by talking about his love for the promotion of civil rights and that it began in his family long before when his grandmother started a school for girls in the 1880s. Ray was present for some of Dr. Martin Luther King’s marches, and one of the things that drew him to the National Federation of the Blind was our insistence on confronting many of the issues that face us as civil rights concerns rather than medical ones. He said that when he was shopping his idea for a reading machine to help the blind, he visited a number of organizations. They commended him on his effort, wished him well, and sent him on his way. It was only when he came to visit James Gashel in our Washington office that he was connected with people who not only wished him well but did something to make that wish come true in the way of funding, contacts, and expert blind engineers who could help in the design of the product. He said that this experience in his young life gave him a real appreciation for how products should be developed. Since then he has gone on to make major contributions in the fields of synthetic electronic music, speech recognition, and overall pattern recognition, the latter bringing significant advancements in the field of artificial intelligence since much of intelligence is pattern recognition. To listen to his remarks in full, go to https://archive.nfb.org/images/nfb/audio/2018_convention_highlights/july_8/
When the banquet convened at 7 p.m., we had a beautiful invocation by Ever Lee Hairston who was joined in an initial song of praise by Arietta Woods. Dr. Maurer was the master of ceremonies, and he had great fun giving away door prizes and made a friend every time a winner was found.
After drawing the winners who participated in building the Kenneth Jernigan Fund, we next heard from our PAC chairman Scott LaBarre. He said that we fell somewhat short of his goal of reaching half a million dollars in pledges, but that we were successful in raising our PAC pledges by $21,000, so we now have giving that totals $498,055. Certainly all of us hope that we can reach and exceed the half-million dollar mark through the generosity of those who will be attending our fall conventions.
After conducting some drawings from Federation divisions, sponsors, and exhibitors, Dr. Maurer introduced the head table and then introduced the President of the National Federation of the Blind, Mark Riccobono, to deliver the banquet address entitled “Authenticity, Diversity, and the Synergy of the Organized Blind.” In his address he focused on the tremendous role women have played in the creation and advancement of our movement despite the fact that blind women have traditionally had less opportunity to participate in and have a meaningful impact on the societies in which they have lived. President Riccobono’s address will appear elsewhere in this issue, and what a tribute it is to the women and the men who have given of their time, talent, and treasure to create the movement we have today.
In keeping with long-standing tradition, Ray Kurzweil was invited to the podium to make some remarks. He wondered aloud just what it was that he did wrong to have been assigned the role of making comments after the banquet speeches given to the National Federation of the Blind. He said that he particularly appreciated the highlighting of women in the history of the Federation given his own family’s commitment to the education of girls and women.
Mr. Kurzweil was followed to the microphone by First Vice President Pam Allen. Her purpose in taking the microphone was to present the global literacy award to Francis Gurry. Her remarks and those of the recipient will be found elsewhere in this issue.
Dr. Maurer took back the microphone, shifting for a moment from his service as master of ceremonies to the chairman of the Jacobus tenBroek Award Committee. He observed that when Dr. tenBroek started the work of founding the National Federation of the Blind, many people were of the opinion that blind people had no future. Creating an organization would not alter that, for adding zero to zero, no matter how many zeros you had, would still result in zero. But Dr. tenBroek knew differently, his own life and those of his intimates proclaiming that blind people did have a future, and more of them would have if they put their hearts and minds into the collective effort that could be marshaled by the creation of the National Federation of the Blind. Dr. Maurer’s presentation of the Jacobus tenBroek Award can be found elsewhere in this issue.
No banquet would be complete without the presentation of our thirty scholarship winners, and Cayte Mendez came to the stage to introduce all of them and then to reveal which awards they would each receive. Cayte’s presentation and the remarks made by the Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship winner will be found elsewhere in this issue.
After drawing several fantastic door prizes, the last of which being for $1,000, the 2018 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind was adjourned. Even after a long week of meetings and little sleep, we Federationists did not quietly sneak back to our rooms but instead took up the challenge of making the most of the next few hours that would let us wrap up our annual family reunion.
The 2018 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind became history when the gavel fell on the evening of July 8, but to consign it to the pages of history would be a mistake. Though the travelers are back home, the hotel space is being used by another group, and the luggage is most certainly unpacked, the real work of the convention has just begun. Now we internalize what was said, begin implementing the policies, and start the work of carrying out the many pledges and promises made to each other as we said goodbye for a time to the City of Orlando and the name Rosen, which has for almost a decade represented quality rooms and meeting space for the largest meeting of the blind in the world. When next July rolls around, even more of us will be found in Las Vegas, Nevada, but between now and then there is work to be done, members to be recruited, funds to be gathered, expectations to be raised, and lives to be changed for the better. This is our commitment, and this is our promise. We will make it come true because we are the National Federation of the Blind.