Braille Monitor                          December 2018

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The Federation Center

by Marc Maurer

Marc MaurerFrom the Editor: When the Federation began writing and speaking about the capability of blind people to work and to live as responsible members in society, members of the rehabilitation community were skeptical. The professionals rather publicly said, “Let these Federation people try working in the field, and they’ll soon see that their theories will inevitably collide with reality.”

So Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was sent to Iowa, one of the lowest ranked agencies then in the field of rehabilitation, and his job was to create a model agency for the blind based on the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. This he did, and when after two decades in Iowa he left what was then the Iowa Commission for the Blind, the Federation had to wrestle with the question of what role we would continue to play in rehabilitation. The reality of Iowa was there for all to see, but it wasn’t enough to have reshaped one or two agencies. In order to remain real to the public and to the blind people who needed services, the Federation had to maintain a positive presence in the field. How we would do that began a debate that would last almost a decade. We would have to provide service while at the same time not being so tied to service that we ceased to be a consumer organization and the primary voice for blind people.

In this article, Immediate Past President Maurer discusses the establishment of our NFB centers, their accomplishments, and what is required to be a Federation center. Here’s what he says:

A persistent question is what is required to constitute an NFB center. We have created three of these that are now about thirty years old. The first was in Ruston, Louisiana, where it continues to do business. Joanne Wilson, who was a student of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, had urgently wanted the National Federation of the Blind to start one, and she hoped she could be a part of the inspiration for it and perhaps one of the teachers. 

In 1984 at the national convention an extensive discussion occurred regarding a proposal that we establish a school for the blind. Nobody was conducting educational programs of high quality for blind children, and the shift from schools for the blind to the public school educational setting had put blind students into places in which adequate materials and trained teachers were mostly not available. We could run a school, and the quality would be better than any other system could produce. However, the counter argument asserted that the special role of the Federation was that of serving as a check and balance to programs for the blind not the entity that runs them. We could not adequately challenge our own blunders. Thus, we should advise and supervise programs for the blind, not be programs for the blind. The final decision was that we would not create a school for the blind.

This thought process prevailed as we approached the 1985 convention. We did not establish a national training center although Dr. Jernigan was sorely tempted by the idea. Consequently, Joanne Wilson created the Louisiana Center for the Blind. The creation of this center generated thoughts by members of the Federation in many other states that centers for the blind could be established in other places.

Diane McGeorge decided to start the Colorado Center for the Blind. Colorado had a building which could house the training center. The building had previously been used for a program that collected discarded Braille books and sent them to programs for the blind in other parts of the world. However, a training center was urgently needed, and the imperative would put the building to a better use.

Joyce Scanlan also decided that a training center was needed in Minnesota. She thought that the center would be regarded as the blind center, so she decided to name it, Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions, BLIND Inc. These then became the NFB training centers. They had been created under the banner of the Federation and with the energy and commitment of Federation leaders—all of them women. Discussion at the national level of the Federation determined that for these centers to be approved by the Federation and to receive support from the Federation, they must have a formal relationship with the Federation as a whole. Thus, each of the centers signed agreements with the Federation in which they acknowledged that they are subordinate corporations to the Federation and that policy decisions of the Federation are binding upon them.

All of this happened a long time ago, but the system of management remains in place. Further, the leadership of the Federation has been and continues to be a major factor in all of these centers. Beyond these observations, one more must be made. A director of state programs for the blind asked me once how we get the results that we do. I responded that I could explain but the director could not do it. I said, “Do you observe these people around you here this evening working the tasks for the gathering this weekend? (It was about six p.m.) The director responded, “Yes, but how do you get them to do it? I cannot get my staff to work after five o’clock.” We do the work because we want to get it done, not because it is a job. We love the challenge and the people we serve. We are responsible to the people who make up the Federation. I who have served as President know that if I do not do the work that has been given to me, somebody else will take the position I have once had. However, the thought of being replaced is not worrisome as much as the thought of disappointing my colleagues and friends. The Federation centers thrive because we care about our colleagues, and we have great faith in them. The love we have for each other and for the challenge of the work keeps us sharp and focused.

Part of the reason for our success is that we not only have tested methods of teaching, but we also accept the need to experiment with new techniques. Furthermore, we have a national and an international network of friends who have connections that give us opportunities that are not bound by state or national boundaries. Our village is bigger than any state government program can achieve without the national and international network that we have built.

A good many programs have claimed to be Federation centers. Are they? These elements are required for becoming a Federation center. First, it is necessary to acknowledge that the governing body of the center is the convention of the National Federation of the Blind and that policy decisions of the Federation are binding upon such centers. It is necessary to acknowledge that the corporation running the center is a subordinate corporation to the Federation. It is necessary that Federation leaders are a part of the governing daily activities of the center. It is necessary that the spirit of adventure of the Federation be an integrated element of the center. It is necessary that love for the participants and love for the challenges of integrating the blind into society be a vital element of the centers. That a center adheres to the practices pioneered by the Federation is not sufficient for membership in this exclusive group. Structured Discovery is a good thing, but using this method of approach does not a Federation center make.

More commentary could be made, but I believe this is adequate for determining whether a center is a Federation entity. Does the center accept that it is governed by the Federation? Can the Federation change its practices when it believes that they are not adequate? Can the Federation reorganize the center if it fails in the purpose the Federation believes it should follow? If the answer to any of these questions is no, the center is not a Federation center. Does this mean that the center in question is bad? No, of course not. The center must be judged on its merits. However, it is not a Federation center.

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