Annual Convention 2017: President's Report
by Jennifer Dunnam
As always, I am pleased to be able to reflect with you about what this organization has been up to during the past year. This year, I will also take the opportunity to talk some about the past decade.
As we always do in the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, we have during the past year participated heavily in our national movement. Around sixteen Minnesotans attended the Washington Seminar this year, to make the case for our legislative proposals (the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act, the Access Technology Affordability Act, the NLS appropriation for refreshable braille displays, and the Marrakesh Treaty). We continued to work on these during the year, and we will keep working to get our congressional representatives and senators to cosponsor these bills.
On the state level, we started working on a number of issues in the legislature. Those who have been around a while know that it often takes many years to reach the outcomes we seek. We know that, and we are in it for the long haul. We began working on improving protections for the rights of blind parents, and that work will continue. A number of states have passed bills around the country, and we want ours to be added to that list sooner rather than later. We also worked on raising awareness about the impending shortage of teachers of blind students in Minnesota and plans to ensure blind children will get the quality education they need.
Sometimes, we set our agenda, but then things happen such that the needs around protecting the rights of blind people require us to spend our time and energy on different things from what we thought we would be doing. Two such things occurred this session. One was a major threat to the appropriation increase that we succeeded in getting last year for State Services for the Blind, so that seniors who are blind could receive the training and services they need to be independent. We worked hard on that for many years and got it done in 2016, but in this year's initial legislative proposals for the budget, that money was cut out. So, instead of doing things that may have been a little more fun, we were fighting to get that appropriation back into the budget. It took all session long, but by gosh, we got it done. This was an example of how the gains we make can never be viewed as permanent, and why we must remain vigilant.
Another matter that required our vigilance in this legislative session was ensuring that the protections provided by the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act were not weakened. We have talked some and will be talking more tomorrow about HR620, a national effort that would put the burden on a person with a disability to prove that the ADA had been violated rather than on business owners to follow the law that has been in existence for 27 years. This legislative proposal has come in response to a few unscrupulous attorneys around the country ginning up ADA violations, and it has been opposed vigorously by the NFB and many others. Here in Minnesota, we encountered our own state-level version of this terrible bill. We had heard that it was also going to include provisions that would have exempted internet commerce from being subject to state and federal regulations requiring accessibility. The bill this year ultimately did not include that, but it did include other objectionable provisions, and we worked with others and succeeded in holding that effort off for another year. It is certain to come back again, though, so we will need to continue to watch it. If any amusement can be had in this situation, we found some humor in the NFB being in the same room with the NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business), testifying on opposing sides of the same bill.
We did have some fun this year, however. Many of you will recall that until about 8 or 9 years ago, we held a monthly Saturday School, working with blind children in the metro area from ages 5 to 12. We have now started that up again, and it is called BLAST (Blindness Learning and Skills Training). You will note that this sounds like the name of another program of the National Federation of the Blind (a conference of the National Association of Blind Merchants), but this one is for kids, so when we talk about our BLAST program, we'll be sure to talk about it in conjunction with children and youth. The next session will take place October 28th, with Michell Gip coordinating and other great Federationists helping out.
We held a student seminar on April 1st, the "No Joke Student Seminar", which was a great way to get students together for good discussion and information. Later that same month, we put on a Possibilities Fair for Seniors; for the first time, it took place in Greater Minnesota, in Mankato. I am certain we will continue to try to hold these in various other places in the state, because seniors everywhere need our positive message, and we also need the help of seniors throughout Minnesota to be part of the work we do to protect the rights and improve the opportunities of blind people everywhere. This year we have two state scholarship winners at this convention, and one Minnesotan won a national scholarship at our national convention.
We have six steady chapters of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, all of whom have members here at this convention. Some of the chapters have been undergoing changes, and we are all pitching in to be sure the chapters have what they need to stay strong. Two new chapter presidents were recently elected—one in Central Minnesota (Bev Stavrum) and one in our Riverbend Chapter (Chris Murphy). Bev has been serving on the state board as well. We have been working with the Central Minnesota Chapter on membership recruiting and other activities for the chapter, and I know we will continue that work as well as with the Riverbend Chapter. Of course, we always want to bring in more members, but even a small group that is committed and actively working to get things done is very valuable to us all—there is no chapter too small. We need chapters everywhere, and we are so glad to have these good folks who are dedicated to staying organized and working together.
The resolutions that we pass at our state conventions are not simply "us talking to ourselves." They are the way that we let the world know the positions that we take about various issues—that is, what the blind people of this state believe, or won't accept, etc. We hash these things out at the convention and then state our position to any and all who want to know (or who need to know, whether they may want to or not). At last year's convention, we passed a resolution that had some things to say about the accessibility of technology procured by the state. In 2009, We were part of getting a law enacted to strengthen requirements for accessibility of software and hardware, front-end or behind-the-scenes, that is purchased by the state of Minnesota. The enforcement of that law and its resulting standards has been lacking at best. When we sent last year's resolution to the head of MN.IT, it caused a bit of a stir, resulting in a meeting with some of the key players there. They have re-organized the advisory committee that has been working on technology accessibility. As people working in state government can tell you, progress toward real results is slow indeed, but we will continue to work on this so that blind people can apply for jobs, get help from the help desk, and work at jobs here in the state of Minnesota. There is plenty of talk in state government about wanting to hire people with disabilities, but the nuts and bolts need to be working well before that can become a reality for those of us who are blind.
We are very fortunate in Minnesota to have many activities for transition-age youth, and we have our buddy program at BLIND, Inc. during the summers as well. The members of the NFB of Minnesota are always here and ready to volunteer to work in these programs for children and youth of all ages. Many of us who are more advanced in age know what a life-changing difference it would have made for us to have these kinds of activities in our youth, where we could meet blind adults living normal lives.
Internally, we have had a number of things going on as well. When there is a person who has quietly and efficiently done a great deal of work behind the scenes, and then that person is not able to do it anymore, we find ourselves needing to find new ways of getting the work done. I again have to hand it to Tom Scanlan who was instrumental in keeping up our infrastructure so that we could send out our convention and membership renewal mailings to members, our fund-raising mailings to donors, etc. As we have endeavored to keep these things running smoothly, apologies for any bumps in the road that we have encountered. For example, this year there were a few people that we sent letters saying that they had not paid their membership dues when they actually had; we have sorted that out, fortunately, and we are working to make things go better. Thank you to everyone for your patience.
We are beginning to make changes to our Web site, and we will be moving the content into the Drupal platform. Back in August, there was a Webmaster's training in Baltimore, to which we sent Corbb O'Connor, who will become our new webmaster. I will continue to do the updates to the web site until the switch to drupal, at which time I will be delighted to hand it off to Corbb who I know will do a great job.
Some may recall that a few years ago, we had a program in which we partnered with the Science Museum of Minnesota to bring blind youth and mentors from all over the region to the museum to learn about accessible STEM. The National Federation of the Blind has received another grant from the National Science Foundation, so that we will be doing similar work for the next five years. In three of those years, beginning in 2018, we will have these programs at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Stay tuned for more details.
As most of you know, although I intend to remain active and do all I can to help, I will not be a candidate for president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota this year. The coming transition has caused me to reflect on the last ten years that I have had the privilege to serve as president of this organization. I promise not to take us through an entire chronology of the past ten years, but there are a few things to highlight as I look back thankfully and joyfully on our growth and the things we have accomplished by working together.
Many changes have occurred in our world since the year 2007 when you first elected me to serve as president. For example, in 2007, we did not have iPhones—in fact, most of us who are blind did not have access to any type of smart phone or the many applications that we now use as an integral part of everyday life. Independent use of a flat touch screen was unthinkable. A portable print reading solution like the KNFB reader was just barely becoming available, and it cost thousands of dollars. Adoption of Unified English Braille in the United states had been rejected once years ago and was not up for discussion. Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, and the like had barely started, and most of us were not using them yet. It's tempting to wonder how we functioned, but of course we did. It was during this period that we gained the ability to vote privately and independently for the very first time, in 2008, using accessible voting technology for which we had worked for many years through the legislative process.
During the past ten years, in this state, we of the NFB of Minnesota identified the need for and executed five different protests. Several of these had to do with the unfair payment of subminimum wages to people with disabilities; a couple were in front of one of our senator's offices, and some were at Goodwill. We also had a protest in Rochester Minnesota during a convention, because of a movie called “Blindness” that played upon the worst fears and stereotypes about blindness.
In addition to our earlier-mentioned help with legislation on accessible technology in Minnesota, we worked very hard on and were instrumental in the passage of two major pieces of legislation affecting blind Minnesotans. Neither of them happened quickly; both involved years-long processes that were quite harrowing at some points, required active engagement and vigilance at every step, and were uncertain in their outcomes right up until the last moments.
First, in 2010, we celebrated the passage of legislation that required counselors who work at State Services for the Blind to undergo a minimum of six weeks in adjustment-to-blindness training with sleepshades. Counselors play a very powerful role in the lives of blind people who are going through the rehabilitation process, and without a firm foundation and positive beliefs about blindness, counselors are not equipped to help the people they counsel to overcome the societal barriers they will encounter. Before this legislation, there was no statutory requirement for blindness training at all; policies on training were completely based on the whims of whichever director may have happened to be in leadership at SSB at the time—and as many are well aware, there were some widely varying whims over the preceding decades. Our efforts to get improvements in this arena go back to a very long time ago, but even this particular language that was ultimately enacted into law took a very labyrinthine path.
Second, in 2016, we convinced the legislature to provide funding for training for seniors losing their vision, so that they can learn nonvisual techniques for living independently and can remain in their homes and communities. A drastic increase in the population of seniors has been on the horizon for some years now, with the aging of the "baby-boomers". Since aging often involves decreasing eyesight, without funding for adjustment-to-blindness training, the state would likely have been on the hook for much more expensive services for people believing that loss of sight required them to move to assisted care facilities or nursing homes. Now, seniors all over the state will have much better access to the kinds of services that will help them live the lives they want. Although the case for this appropriation seems obvious, this was another issue that took quite a few years and a lot of hard work from this organization before making it into the legislature's budget priorities.
During this ten-year period, we found ourselves in the position of needing to bring on new leadership for our training center, BLIND, Inc. I imagine we all agree we did a fantastic job on that one by bringing on Dan Wenzel who has provided excellent leadership. In 2011, the state government shut down because no budget was agreed upon by the deadline; some temporary funding was made available to continue with critical core functions of government. We testified before a Special Master judge and succeeded in getting adjustment-to-blindness training classified as a critical core function so that it was not stopped during the shut-down.
Of course, we had challenges during this past ten years. In March of 2011, we lost the beloved 30-plus-year president of our Central Minnesota chapter, Andy Virden, in a terrible automobile-related accident. We were very concerned to ensure that the investigation would not somehow be done lightly just because the pedestrian involved was an older blind man. It took us ten months to get the police report—with a great deal of pressure, letter-writing and phone calling from us, but they knew we were watching and that they could not simply gloss over it. Because of the groundwork Andy laid through his leadership, the chapter has continued, through various changes in leadership, and remains active.
There have been numerous cases in which individuals have needed our advocacy assistance: from college students needing our help to get access to their courses, to newly blinded people of all ages seeking a resource for information and hope, to parents fighting for proper education for their blind children, to people needing assistance to navigate the bureaucracy of rehab services, etc.
Since 2007 we have worked with three different directors of State Services for the Blind (providing input into the process of hiring two of them). We have held seminars for seniors, parents, and students; we have conducted technology trainings, workshops for teachers of blind students, spoken to children in public schools, and more. And of course, there have been twenty state-wide conventions, at which the attendance has continued to increase; at this convention, 130 people have registered.
Of course, there remains a long way to go so that we who are blind can gain proper education, literacy, employment, independence, full access to information, and more. Sometimes I think it would be wonderful if, in a hundred years from now, we would not need the National Federation of the Blind. However, given the fact that for the past nearly 100 years we definitely have needed the NFB, I do not tend to believe that the need will be alleviated by the year 2117. The specifics have definitely changed over the last century, but the need for us to strive to obtain and maintain our independence and integration into society has not. Therefore, we must be prepared to keep this organization living and growing and adapting for the next hundred years or for however long it is needed. I am grateful for all of the people who have worked so long and tirelessly to keep the NFB of Minnesota strong up to now. I know we will do that going forward for as long as it takes to improve opportunities for blind people. Thank you all so much for all of the work that we have done together, and for the part you will take in the exciting ways we will shape the future.