It Was A Great Birthday Party
by Jan Bailey
The 1995 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota was held over the weekend of October 13-15 at the Normandy Inn in downtown Minneapolis. This convention is noteworthy in that it celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the organization. Allen Harris, treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind and president of the NFB of Michigan, served as our national representative. The enthusiasm and energy of the convention was wonderfully high this year. Our traditional convention bake auction brought in well over $2,000. The Metro Chapter outdid itself in terms of the quantity and quality of door prizes, not to mention the most excellent hospitality which made Federationists from throughout the state feel welcome. We were also privileged to have a number of convention attendees from Canada.
Convention activities began early Friday afternoon with two seminars: one dealing with older blind persons and the other sponsored by the Minnesota Association of Blind Students (Mike Heilman, president). Later in the afternoon, there was an open meeting of chapter officers and State Board members. Early Friday evening--along with hospitality provided by the Metro Chapter‑‑there were meetings of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB) in Minnesota (Jennifer Dunnam, president) and the Resolutions Committee (chaired by Curtis Chong). To celebrate 75 years of accomplishment, NFB of Minnesota memorabilia was on sale during hospitality, and there was a fine display of historic materials depicting the struggle of blind Minnesotans to achieve first-class status in society.
Federationists got up bright and early Saturday morning to attend the open breakfast meeting of the Board of Directors of Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc. This breakfast has become a tradition at annual conventions of the NFB of Minnesota. BLIND, Inc. is the only private agency for the blind in Minnesota which regularly holds board meetings that are open to the public‑‑particularly to blind consumers.
The Saturday morning general business session began with some welcoming remarks from Peggy Chong, president of our Metro Chapter. Then President Scanlan introduced people who had come to the convention from other states such as Iowa and Wisconsin. She also introduced a delegation from various parts of Canada.
Scott LaBarre, formerly a board member of the NFB of Minnesota, then presented President Scanlan with a gift from the NFB of Colorado--a beautiful National Federation of the Blind Banner. Mr. LaBarre declared that the banner was meant to celebrate our accomplishments as a movement--both locally (75 years in Minnesota) and nationally.
President Scanlan thanked Mr. LaBarre for the fine gift. She observed that the day on which it was presented, October 14, was precisely one year after the Grand Opening of our new headquarters at 100 East 22nd Street in Minneapolis.
Peggy Chong, who has delved into our historical records with great persistence and enthusiasm, next presented a program item entitled "A Glimpse at the First Seventy-Five Years." She capsulized many of the events that helped to make the NFB of Minnesota into the strong, active, and proud organization that it is today. Here are some interesting facts:
* At previous conventions, the entire roll of the membership was read.
* The first convention of the organization (then the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind) took place on May 27, 1920.
* The membership dues at the founding of the organization were $1. They have remained at that level ever since.
* Braille was an issue of concern to the organization as early as 1926.
* Many leaders of the NFB of Minnesota today were once students who joined the organization in the early 1970's.
President Scanlan commented that in the 75-year history of the organization, we have never had a charter pulled or leaders expelled. This is something about which we can be tremendously proud, she said. We have been the very same organization as that which was created in 1920. President Scanlan then went on to talk about our accomplishments for the past year. All in all, we have had a very good year with many challenges and successes.
An employment panel was the next program item of the convention. Maureen Pranghofer talked about her business, Hidden Gifts, and how her training at BLIND, Inc. totally changed her attitude toward her blindness, enabling her to succeed in her own business. Pat Barrett, also a BLIND, Inc. graduate, talked about his job as a rehabilitation counselor/teacher at Services for the Blind.
We next heard a report from the Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The report was presented by Nancy Walton, head of the Library. The work on the new building is just about complete. Some new recording equipment will soon be installed. Interestingly enough, the Minnesota Regional Library has the highest Braille circulation of any regional library in the National Library Services system. Moreover, Minnesota has the fewest number of complaints referred to Washington. Ms. Walton expressed some concern about the library's future within the Minnesota Department of Children and Family Services. There is some confusion about the library's position within that department. To this date, the library does not yet know what its budget is. Despite these problems, the library continues providing service to consumers and conducting outreach efforts. Orders can now be sent to the library via fax or through the Internet.
President Scanlan explained to Ms. Walton that it would be helpful for the Library for the Blind to work cooperatively with the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation can act as a powerful force to help the Library get the money it needs. We helped the National Library Service to maintain its funding level; we felt that NLS was a true friend to the Federation. There is no reason why we could not maintain a similar relationship with the Minnesota Library, President Scanlan said.
Judy Sanders next presented a report on legislation. House File 1921, our Braille Competency Bill, has been introduced by Representative Mindy Greiling. Vision teachers are sure to oppose this legislation. We are committed to demonstrating the need for vision teachers who possess basic competence in Braille. The State Board of Teaching has already been instructed by the Senate to begin developing standards for Braille competency. A committee has been organized, and the National Federation of the Blind is represented on that committee.
Judy also reported that we are closely monitoring the proposed realignment of the Department of Economic Security. We must ensure that Services for the Blind is not subsumed into the Division of Rehabilitation Services.
Finally, Judy encouraged members to "get to know" their legislators. This is the best way to get them to pay attention to any issues that might be raised.
The Saturday afternoon session began with a report from Allen Harris, our National Representative. The history of the NFB of Minnesota exemplifies a cardinal principle of the Federation, he said. We never give up--not even in the face of defeat. Mr. Harris then went on to talk about our struggles in the Congress to protect the Federal Rehabilitation system. He said that people should not mistake our support for rehabilitation as an endorsement of the system; for in truth and in fact, the system is not working for people in many states. Mr. Harris then detailed current activities between the Federation and the Association of American Publishers. Of particular concern to us is our continued ability to obtain Braille and audio material when we need it without being delayed by copyright restrictions. Mr. Harris described other activities and accomplishments of the National Federation of the Blind. It is, he said, our organization--one in which we can continue to take great pride.
The convention next heard about the Store, operated by State Services for the Blind. This item was presented by Sam Berkowitz, the Store's director. Mr. Berkowitz said that the mission of the Store is to facilitate the independence of blind people by providing products that blind people find useful. He encouraged everyone to suggest new items that the store might carry. Sam is one of the few SSB employees who received a month's worth of training at BLIND, Inc.; he takes great pride in the training he received there.
Scott LaBarre, a former Minnesotan, NFBM Board member, and now an attorney working for the Colorado Center for the Blind, next discussed the cases he is handling for the National Federation of the Blind. In these cases, the fact that we have an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been helpful. Mr. LaBarre declared that for him, simply knowing that there are thousands of his blind brothers and sisters working together in the organized blind movement is a tremendous source of courage and inspiration.
The next program item dealt with the subject "Rehabilitation on a See-Saw." This was presented by Richard Davis, Assistant Commissioner, Services for the Blind. Mr. Davis updated the convention on the Communication Center director and CILS director positions. The Communication Center directorship has been filled by David Andrews, who comes from the International Braille and Technology Center of the National Federation of the Blind. The CILS director position is expected to be filled fairly soon, he said. SSB continues to battle the Veterans Administration, which seems bent upon installing vending machines to compete directly against Dennis Groshel, a blind vendor at the VA's St. Cloud facility. Mr. Davis also reviewed the sequence of events leading to the public meetings on privatizing the Radio Talking Book. Mr. Davis said that it is acknowledged nationwide that the National Federation of the Blind played a major role in saving rehabilitation. To add to the confusion, the American Foundation for the Blind has indicated an interest in organizing a task force to preserve independent agencies for the blind. No one has expressed any support for this idea, especially since a similar task force was organized earlier this year. It could be that the Foundation is trying to diminish the leadership position that the Federation played in this earlier task force. SSB has been working hard to ensure that Minnesota's move toward "one stop centers" does not subsume unique services to blind people.
Mr. Davis then turned to the subject of the "realignment" of the Minnesota Department of Economic Security (MDES). Responding to the likelihood of federal cutbacks, the Department has developed a plan to realign department-wide functions, he said. The MDES leadership team has developed a plan which is scheduled to go into effect on November 1. MDES would have branches instead of divisions. Each branch would be organized around a "business" function. There would be a Workforce Rehabilitation Branch headed by two assistant Commissioners, one in charge of Services for the Blind and the other in charge of other rehabilitation services. In other words, SSB is being placed into the same branch as DRS. This is the first step toward the merging of both agencies into one.
President Scanlan said that she had written a letter to R. Jane Brown, Commissioner of the Department of Economic Security, to request a meeting to discuss the issue. So far, no response has been forthcoming. It is certainly true, said President Scanlan, that the consumers were not consulted about this "realignment." Furthermore, the realignment has all the appearances of reorganization for its own sake. President Scanlan went on to say that the Department had not communicated with the House and Senate chairs of the Governmental Operations Committee about the realignment.
Mr. Davis said that R. Jane Brown had assured him that no merging of budgets or services would occur and that SSB would be left intact. There is some thought of sharing some administrative services to save money, he added.
Convention attendees were skeptical about the claim that no merging of services would occur. Where, it was asked, were the principles of total quality, which talk about doing what customers want? Why was the realignment kept so secret? Could we, the blind, really trust the Commissioner to do what was right for our programs and services?
Then, Resolution A-95-01 (printed at the end of this article) was read to the convention. It reaffirmed the organization's position that services to the blind can only be provided through an independent, separate, and identifiable agency for the blind with its own autonomous budget. It also called upon the Governor and the State Legislature to remove Services for the Blind from the Minnesota Department of Economic Security and to elevate the agency to a Department, reporting directly to the Governor and the Legislature. The resolution passed unanimously.
As always, the highlight of the convention was the banquet, which took place Saturday evening. Curtis Chong served as master of ceremonies. In continuation of our celebration of our seventy-five-year history, we heard an excellent audio history of the NFB of Minnesota. We heard live recordings of many historic leaders. We were thrilled to hear some recordings made during our struggle to reform the Minneapolis Society for the Blind as well as some of the PR we received at the height of our battle with the airlines. Peggy Chong, Metro Chapter President, presented an award for the chapter's essay contest to Pat Barrett. The keynote speech was presented by Allen Harris. It renewed our determination to forge ahead toward first-class status for the blind. After the banquet, Federationists stayed up late into the night, enjoying the Karaoke music.
Early Sunday morning, despite the lateness of the evening before, Federationists arrived ready for work. The first program item‑‑provocatively entitled "You're Over Fifty, Blind, and Still Independent"--was presented by Kathy Burnside, who serves as coordinator of the older-blind program at BLIND, Inc. As with everything else we do, a positive philosophy of blindness is woven into the program. The classes are always full, and there is a waiting list. The fact that more and more older people are viewing blindness in a positive light is a very real measure of the program's success.
The convention next heard from a number of Federationists who represent us on various community boards, committees, and organizations. These include:
* Jan Bailey, who serves on the Regional Library Advisory Committee;
* Peggy Chong, who serves on an advisory committee for the Minnesota Academy for the Blind and also as a Board member of the Cooperating Fund Drive;
* Curtis Chong, who chairs the Rehabilitation Advisory Council for the Blind;
* Chris Cuppett, who serves as a Board member of the Friends of the Communication Center;
* Tom Scanlan and Eric Smith, who serve on the task force to discuss privatization of the Radio Talking Book; and
* Maureen Pranghofer and Janet Lee, who serve on the Statewide Independent Living Committee.
The convention next held an election of officers and Board members. The following individuals were elected: Joyce Scanlan, President; Jan Bailey, Secretary; Chris Cuppett, to fill the Board position formerly held by Jenny Koch; and Janet Lee, who was re-elected to the Board.
Resolution A-95-02 (printed at the end of this article) was next presented to the convention. It commends Representative Mindy Greiling for introducing House File 1921, a bill requiring teachers of the blind to meet minimum Braille competency standards. It further calls upon vision teachers throughout Minnesota who teach Braille to blind children to stop opposing House File 1921 and to take the NLS Braille Competency Test to discover for themselves that it is indeed a valid measure of their ability to read and write Braille. The resolution was adopted unanimously.
The convention next heard from our chapters around the state. In general, our chapters are doing well, whether recruiting new members or raising funds. Whatever is done, we continue to maintain our character as a truly statewide organization of the blind.
Tom Scanlan then presented the Treasurer's report for the first half of our fiscal year: April 1 through September 30, 1995. The report was approved.
The convention next discussed the dues of the organization. Traditionally, we have always charged $1 per year for membership dues. After some discussion, it was moved, seconded, and passed unanimously to set the membership dues at $5 and that this take effect for the membership year beginning June 1, 1996.
President Scanlan then announced that we have scheduled the next annual convention to be held at the Holiday Inn in Rochester, Minnesota, from October 4-6, 1996.
This was truly a wonderful convention--one in which we can take tremendous pride. In keeping with our seventy-five year history, it is interesting to note that we had no less than three members present who joined the Federation in the 1930's. They are Joe DeBeer, Nellie Ask, and Marie Whitteker. As an organization, the NFB of Minnesota has had many victories in the past year as well as some challenges. The future looks bright, for we know that through our own organization, the National Federation of the Blind, we can control our own destiny as blind people.