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Report for the Annual Convention

By Judy Sanders, Secretary

Were you at the Ramada Mall of America the first weekend of October of 2011 helping make history for the organized blind movement?  If not, here's what you missed!

Those taking advantage of discount prices through preregistration were able to pick up an agenda and meal tickets and be on their way.  They may have begun their afternoon in the exhibit/sales area where they could peruse offerings from the Low Vision Store where Steve Zent was available to demonstrate and answer questions about the latest in assistive technology. 

They might have purchased a massage from May Vang, a Thai massage therapist.  Massages were also available throughout the convention.

Many invested in a raffle ticket to try to win a MacBook Air or an Apple TV with proceeds supporting Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc.

Another gift item for sale was a cell phone case with profits headed for our Seniors Division.  These cases not only hold a cell phone — they work for your Victor Stream or any electronic player.

The NFB of Minnesota Seniors Division met with President Joyce Scanlan presiding.  Among other agenda items, seniors heard from Jan Bailey, a longtime counselor at State Services for the Blind (SSB) who now runs her own business as an instructor of blind adults in the nonvisual techniques that allow blind people to retain their independence.  Elections brought the following results: president, Joyce Scanlan; vice president, Harry Krueger; and secretary/treasurer, RoseAnn Faber.

Ryan Strunk ably chaired our resolutions committee.  The resolutions appear at the end of this article.

On Friday evening, there was the meeting of the Minnesota Association to Promote the Use of Braille under the leadership of Melody Wartenbee, president.  After adopting a new constitution, they elected the following officers: president, Melody Wartenbee; vice president, Amy Baron; and secretary/treasurer, Trudy Barrett.

President Jordan Richardson presided over the meeting of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students where they heard about services for students with disabilities, audio description and they listened to Cathy Jackson, our national representative.  Jordan will continue as president; Ann Naber, secretary; and Hannah Furney, treasurer.

After all the meetings, the day ended with hospitality hosted by our Metro chapter.  Snacks and socializing let everyone relax and get ready for the rest of the weekend.

President Jennifer Dunnam called the 91st annual convention to order promptly at 9:00 a.m. and Pat Barrett opened with an invocation.  Sheila Koenig, president of our Metro chapter, welcomed us and announced that the chapter would be hosting karaoke following the evening banquet.  Buddy Kahle, sometimes known as Brice Lennes, sang an original composition called "We're the same.”  His CD was for sale during the convention.  Charlotte Czarnecki, coordinator of our bake sale auction, went over the rules of the auction and sold our first items.  Several people served as auctioneers throughout the convention.  Bev Stavrum was taking responsibility for collecting people's bids and delivering the baked goods.

Jennifer acknowledged the behind-the-scenes work for this and many other conventions done by B. Hodgkiss-Castleman whose health is declining and was therefore unable to be with us.  We circulated a card to be signed by all present.

Jennifer challenged us to do four things while at the convention: meet someone new (there were lots of first-timers in attendance); learn something we didn't know; teach someone something that he/she did not know; and lastly, leave the convention with a task to perform that will benefit the organization.

We welcomed our national representative, Cathy Jackson, for her report.  Cathy is president of the NFB of Kentucky and a member of the national board of directors.  Cathy began by sharing her experience in witnessing the first blind driver to drive around the Daytona Speedway on January 29, 2011.  Many of us who could not be there in person shared the event through streaming on the Internet.  It was incredible to know that a blind person (Mark Riccobono) was actually traversing the racecourse and even passing another vehicle. 

We are updating the Home Appliance Accessibility Act to include standards for nonvisual access to home appliances and home medical equipment.

The Social Security Administration has announced the debut of the Benefit Offset National Demonstration (BOND) pilot program.  This program is much like legislation that we have sponsored; so while this test is in play we will not pursue our legislation.  We are hopeful that some of our members will be included in the project.

Congressman Cliff Stearns, a Republican from Florida, and Tom Bishop, a Democrat from New York, introduced H.R. 3086, a bill to phase out the certificates exempting paying the minimum to people with disabilities.  This would revoke Section 14C of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Other disabled groups are joining us in this fight.  Senator Al Franken serves on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee that will hear a Senate version of this bill. 

We will be seeking legislation that reinforces the idea that braille is the primary reading mode for blind students through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Cathy explained the benefits to the NFB's state affiliates and national organization that come through supporting the Imagination Fund.  We should register online and donations can be made directly online, or we can text the word blind to 85944 to make a $10 donation.

The NFB has a myriad of programs through the Jernigan Institute to strengthen recruitment of blind youth, parents and teachers to our movement.  These include such programs as YouthSlam where students study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the explorers program where parents learn to be their child's first cane travel instructor.

We are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the BRAILLE READERS ARE LEADERS contest that is now available for children and adults.  We are open to ideas that would make it more interesting.

The NFB tenBroek library is available to all of us online; we can use it to study all aspects of blindness.  International papers are going to be added to NFB-NEWSLINE® and we can express our preference for papers that might be of interest.  Many magazines and job listings are now available on NEWSLINE.

NFB and eBay have launched a cooperative project that allows blind persons to become owners of a business with their computer.

The dates for our upcoming Washington Seminar will be February 6-9, 2012.  Our national convention will be from June 30-July 5, 2012 in Dallas.

Cathy's report was followed by a drawing for the first of many door prizes given away throughout the convention.  Rob Hobson was a most popular person as keeper of the names to be drawn.

Richard Strong, director of State Services for the Blind, gave his usual informative update.  See his full remarks in the Winter 2012 issue.  Shawn Mayo asked what was being done about the inaccessibility of the new SWIFT (Statewide Integrated Financial Tools) computer system used for the State of Minnesota accounting and purchasing, or will blind people be excluded from employment that might require using this system?  Mr. Strong did not know about its accessibility but pledged to work with the appropriate people to make it so.

Kathy McGillivray asked if the SSB Communication Center is able to scan books for customers.  Mr. Strong said that the position to handle that task is currently vacant but will be a priority when someone is hired.

Kristen Oien, the Blind/Visually-Impaired Specialist in the Department of Education, was scheduled to speak with us.  She could not be present but sent written remarks that were read by Kathy McGillivray and are printed in the Winter 2012 issue.  Ms. Oien urged us to forward questions to her.  Jennifer suggested that we ask about the importance of braille in school districts where students are being given iPads for use in the classroom.  Improved access does not mean less braille.  Jan Bailey wanted to know how blind students are performing on the state's standardized tests.

Cindy Bennett spoke to us from the National Association of Blind Students (NABS).  She serves as its secretary and speaks throughout the Midwest.  She gave an example of NABS advocacy efforts; when professors were using iTunes for downloading material the NFB was able to use experiences of blind students to show its inaccessibility.  Because of these efforts, most of Apple's products are extremely accessible.  NABS provides a large network of advice to new blind students.  The division serves as a starting point for many future leaders.  She talked about their organizational structure and various ways to be involved.  She will be helping Minnesota students plan a seminar for the spring.

News From Our Library was presented by the director of the Minnesota Braille and Talking Book Library.  See her remarks in the Winter 2012 issue.  The digital program is growing rapidly.  While during the state-government shutdown the library could not send out books, patrons could download a book any time.

Ken Trebelhorn is employed as a technology specialist at the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind (MSAB).  He shared the latest news from the Academy.  The school has opened a house to be used by transition students to learn independent living skills.  Residents must either be employed or at a community college.  There are currently 53 students enrolled at the Academy with 30 of them living in the dorm.  Attendance has increased slightly because parents can now choose to send their children to the Academy without a referral from the local school district.

The school sponsored a white cane awareness day that Ken predicted would be a great success.  (Note: The walk took place on October 14th with over a dozen Federationists participating.)

The Academies for the Blind and Deaf are building a technology center on the Deaf campus.  It will teach everything from the latest in technology, to industrial arts and even have a culinary program where the students will run their own restaurant.  Shawn expressed concern that this might be a first step toward combining the two programs.  Ken said that he expressed the same fear and has been assured that there is no such plan.  We know that we must always be vigilant.

To speak out about transportation we heard from Chad McGuire.  This was his first NFB convention and we hope it will not be his last.  Chad is a member of the Metropolitan Council's Accessibility Committee and is a Master of Urban and Regional Planning candidate at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in the University of Minnesota.  Chad asked that we consider four numbers: 11, 18, 59 and 71.  His home is 11 miles from the Ramada; it takes 18 minutes to drive that distance; it takes 59 minutes by bus and 71% of employment opportunities are not on public transit.  We have our work cut out for us.  But what stronger advocates could there be than the NFB?

During our lunch break BLIND (Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions) held its annual consumer luncheon.  We had the pleasure of meeting current staff and students.

The first order of business in the afternoon was to see a film produced by Dan Bernstrom, one of the counselors in the summer youth program last year.  It showed shots of the students going through their everyday classes and activities.  We saw them learning to use their canes (sometimes rather hesitantly), working in home management and industrial arts and having fun on a roller coaster.  Charlene Guggisberg, coordinator of the youth program, then introduced two participants who appeared in the film: Anthony Reinhart and Joshua Xiong.  This program helped them know that someday they would be able to live away from home and lead a full life.  They said that their parents and teachers steered them toward the program and they found cane travel the most challenging.  They greatly enjoyed their trip to Florida.  They were able to tour Universal Studios.

Al Spooner reminded us to bring our checkbooks to the banquet where we would hear more about and be able to sign up for the PAC (Preauthorized Check Plan).

Jennifer reported on the aftermath of our informational protest of last summer at Senator Al Franken's office to gain his support on the elimination of subminimum wages for people with disabilities.  Since that time, Senator Franken has taken a tour of BLIND where he saw the potential for competitive employment.  His staff is working with us, and Anil Lewis in our national office, to further his understanding of the issue and we now have a House bill, as mentioned earlier by Cathy Jackson, H.R.3068.  At the time of the convention, we were just beginning to gather support in the House.  Other organizations for and of the disabled are beginning to join us in our fight.  One hundred four places in Minnesota hold certificates allowing them to pay below the minimum wage to disabled people.  We are fortunate that none of them is specifically open for blind individuals but this does not mean that there are not blind people involved at the other places.

We were asked to have a moment of silence for those members we lost in the past year.  We specifically mentioned Andy Virden, Walter Hybbert, Marcie Sawyer and Gordon Danuser.

Richard Davis, Assistant Director for Employment Services at BLIND and chair of the Employment Committee in the NFB, moderated a panel of people who are on the road to finding employment or who have already done so.  First, we met Michelle Jackson, a student at Centerpoint School of Massage Therapy.  Rather than specialize in a particular kind of therapy she is studying all of them.  She is required to take a lot of science in her coursework. 

Dwight Freeberg served as a mentor for the other two panelists.  He was having his first contact with us at this convention.  He and his wife own a beauty saloon and spa.  When they talked about being partners in business his wife insisted that he would not just manage the books he must bring in income.  That was when he decided to become a massage therapist.  Although this career is working for him, he warned us about falling prey to the idea that this is a career for all blind people.

May Vang is practicing Thai massage therapy.  May learned her craft while living in Laos.  When she came to this country, she not only had to learn English and blindness skills, she had to upgrade her skills to go into business.  She is just getting started and we were able to benefit from her skill at the convention.  Dick gave special recognition to Sharon Monthei who taught May English when she first came to BLIND.

Jennifer reported to us on successes during the last year and challenges for the future.  We were able to keep adjustment-to-blindness services open during the government shutdown in July.  We were instrumental in bringing about a higher visibility for SSB in the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) so that the Director of SSB reports directly to the Commissioner of DEED.  We have advocated for numerous individuals who have run into roadblocks at SSB in getting services to which they were entitled.  We are working to build relationships in the state legislature and with our Congressional delegation.  As an example, a group of us attended a town meeting sponsored by Congressman Chip Cravaack in the Eighth Congressional District.  We were encouraged to attend other town meetings.  We have changed the name of our move-a-thon to the "Walk for Opportunity.”  We celebrated our 30th walk with Alice Kalesh completing the route for the first time.  Alice is 84 years old and is a new member from the Central Minnesota Chapter.  Steve Jacobson completed his 30th walk.  He is the only one who can make that claim. 

In the future, we want to revive our conference-call meetings for members throughout the state who are not near a local chapter.  

We had three Minnesota teens who attended the NFB YouthSlam.  Jennifer also attended the YouthSlam as a staff member.  She learned that not only were the students stretched in their learning but Jennifer learned that she could coordinate a team of marshals who would be the talking signs that would help students get from place to place by themselves.  She talked about the techniques she used to learn the campus herself — a campus in Towson, Maryland and Jennifer living in Minneapolis.  (See Jennifer's column in the Fall 2011 issue of this publication).

Shawn Mayo, executive director of BLIND, introduced us to three students who talked about their experiences.  Nineteen-year-old Christopher Meyer came to us from Indiana, straight from high school.  One of the first things Chris learned before he came to Minnesota was how to speak up for himself with his rehabilitation agency to gain the right to come here.  He credits Al Spooner and Ron Brown, president of the NFB of Indiana with helping him work this out.  Since his training began, Chris has taken one trip home and gone with his family and a blind friend to Chicago.  He noticed a big difference between his ability and that of his blind friend.  The difference was that he has had the chance to learn and she has not. 

Sarah Lang, a Minnesotan, has been working on the first golf tournament to benefit BLIND.  Sarah became blind two years ago but kept her job in a restaurant and pretended to see.  That didn't work.  Sarah moved back home with her mother and stayed there for eight months.  She was afraid and embarrassed to go anywhere alone.  Finally, she was referred to SSB and taken on a tour of BLIND.  She immediately saw that there was hope for a different kind of life, and took a big step in enrolling for training.  During the first week, she cried every day; some from fear and some from being overwhelmed about how much she had to learn.  She is becoming the person she wants to be and knows she will go back to work and go anywhere she wants in life.

Cortnie Ryan, from Indiana, was educated as a blind child where she felt that much was lacking.  She was doted upon for accomplishing everyday tasks and now realizes it was not helpful.  She was told that she would not make it in college because of poor math skills.  Hearing about adjustment-to-blindness centers, she did some research and decided to come to Minnesota.  She told us about adventures in learning how to cook hamburgers and, while it was difficult, she knows she is on the right road.

Jennifer concluded the afternoon agenda calling our attention to three articles in The Braille Monitor from the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) regarding how braille must keep pace with changes that now appear in print literature.  BANA will seek our feedback about these changes.

The social hour preceding the banquet gave people further opportunity to invest in the various raffles that were to be drawn for that evening.  We had lots of time to catch up with old friends and meet the challenge of becoming acquainted with some new people.

Al Spooner served as Master of Ceremonies at the banquet where he called upon Kathy McGillivray for an invocation.  After introducing the head table and enjoying a sumptuous meal, Al asked those wanting to draw raffle winners to come forward.  First was the drawing from BLIND for the MacAir and Apple TV.  The winners were Wendy Lavoi and Joyce Scanlan respectively.  Ryan Strunk had the honor of selling the most tickets. 

The NFB of Minnesota is a member of Community Shares of Minnesota, a fundraising federation of socially responsible nonprofits.  Member organizations are required to help raise money for Community Shares; toward that end, we held a 50/50 raffle won by Tom TeBockhorst.

Jennifer Dunnam won the 50/50 raffle sponsored by our student division.

Charlene Guggisberg presented $75 to Chris Kuell from Connecticut as the winner of the essay contest sponsored by the Metro Chapter.  Emily Zitek won a drawing for $50 among the other entrants.  Charlene thanked the other judges, David Andrews and Deanna Langton.

Sheila Koenig, chair of the scholarship committee, presented two scholarships.  Kinsey Norton, awarded $1,000, is a student at St. Benedict’s in St. Joseph.  Kinsey hopes to work as a Foreign Service officer for the U.S. Department of State.

Alex Loch was the winner of an all-expense paid trip to our national convention in Orlando and a $1,500 scholarship.  He is studying physical therapy at St. Scholastica in Duluth. 

Sheila thanked her committee of Steve Jacobson, Ryan Strunk, Jan Bailey and Michele Gittens.

Kathy Jackson inspired us with a time-travel experience throughout her life where she learned to live as a Federationist long before she knew of the organization.  Her parents instilled in her the desire for independence and she learned to assert herself.  The older she became, the more obstacles she encountered and had to find ways to get around these.  Eventually her education led her to the Kentucky School for the Blind where she had her first lessons in discovering that the amount of sight one has is not the key to one's success.  She was destined to be a leader in the NFB.  She shared her experiences because she believes that our experiences parallel hers and each member has much to offer the organized blind movement. 

Al described the Preauthorized Check Plan (PAC) in which we contribute a monthly amount to our national treasury through automatic deductions from our checking account.  People were able to increase their current donation or start a new plan. 

The evening ended with some lively karaoke and more socializing.  We now know that many of our members have talent and others may want to keep their day jobs.  No matter which category one fell into everyone had fun.

Sunday morning came quickly and everyone was present and full of energy for our closing business session.  Jennifer announced that Parnell Diggs of South Carolina is running for Congress.  The NFB does not endorse political candidates, but individuals are welcome to contribute to his campaign.  We know how valuable it would be to have a blind person in Congress who understands the values that we share in the Federation.

Ryan Strunk came to the podium to read our proposed resolutions.  There were six of them. 

Resolution A11-01, finding employment with the help of State Services for the Blind, urged SSB to allow temporary employment while working to fulfill a long-term job goal and that a temporary job is not grounds for closing a case. 

Resolution A11-02 was not recommended to pass due to some mechanics in the writing of the resolution.  It was concerned with quiet cars and while we did not pass the resolution, the issue is of great concern to us.

Resolution A11-03 asks SSB to eliminate or reclassify a current counselor position that involves interpreting policy.  There was a technical amendment to the Resolution to insert the job title being referred to.

Resolution A11-04 calls upon employers in Minnesota who hold a certificate allowing payment of subminimum wages to people with disabilities to give them up and urges Congress to pass the Fair Wages for People with Disabilities Act of 2011 eliminating this exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

Resolution A11-05 deals with technology and SSB.  It condemns and deplores the red tape that SSB uses to determine when assistive technology will be provided and it asks the Director of SSB to establish policies that will truly assist the SSB customer seeking employment in obtaining needed technology.

Resolution A11-06 condemns and deplores the wholesale installation of audible pedestrian signals at intersections including those where blind people are unlikely to travel and urges using the media to bring to the attention of the public the waste of tax dollars.

Resolution A11-07 urged that the state comply with nonvisual access laws in making the new Statewide Integrated Financial Tools (SWIFT) usable by blind persons.  A technical amendment pointed out that Minnesota Management and Budget is responsible for this system.

All resolutions recommended by the committee passed unanimously and appear following this article.  Ryan thanked committee members Jan Bailey, Dick Davis, Shawn Mayo and Steve Decker who served as secretary to the committee.

After dealing with all the resolutions an in-depth discussion occurred regarding the education of the public on pedestrian safety and the white cane law.  A motion passed directing our president to appoint a committee to develop an education plan to deal with this issue. 

Election for state offices was as follows: president, Jennifer Dunnam; secretary, Judy Sanders; board members: Rob Hobson, Brice Samuelson and Sheila Koenig.  Charlene Guggisberg and Jan Bailey both chose not to seek reelection and were thanked for their service.  We know they will remain active in the organization.  Those whose terms will expire next year are vice president, Steve Jacobson; treasurer, Tom Scanlan; and board members Pat Barrett and Joyce Scanlan.

Chapter and division reports were given reaffirming that the NFB of Minnesota is active throughout the state with community awareness activities, fundraising and much more.

Tom Scanlan gave our treasurer's report showing that our income is down because of the economy affecting individual donations. 

It was appropriate that brainstorming about fundraising followed this report.  We have held our walk for 30 years with varying degrees of success.  Is it time to try something new?  Should we change the time of the walk?  Several alternatives were offered.  Whatever we choose to do it must be something that increases our income.  Jennifer planned to form a working group to explore these possibilities.

Several Federationists serve on advisory committees and boards.  Charlene Guggisberg and George Wurtzel serve on a board that advises the office for Blindness and Low Vision in the Department of Education.  They reported that Christine Oien, the director, seems to want to make changes in the special education system in the public schools.  It remains to be seen how much cooperation there will be with the rest of the group.

Jan Bailey serves on the advisory council to the State Academy for the Blind.  They are looking forward to their white-cane-awareness day where many Federationists will participate.  They are bringing in speakers who can help mentor students.  Jan represents not only the NFB on this committee but also the alumni.  Therefore, the NFB could appoint another representative.

Tom Scanlan is the NFB representative on the State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind advising State Services for the Blind.  Many other Federationists are active in making this Council work through serving as members and playing active roles on Council committees.  One of its accomplishments has been the development of a survey of SSB customers who receive adjustment-to-blindness services.  This survey has shown that BLIND is one of the most highly rated services available.  We were urged to attend council meetings.

Steve Jacobson reported on an employment summit held by several state entities to explore how to reduce the unemployment rate among people with disabilities.  Listening sessions preceded this summit with groups of disabled people to talk about what works and what does not work in gaining and retaining employment.  The summit was the means of sharing the results of these listening sessions.  They defined employment as competitive and paying at least the minimum wage.  We need to raise people's expectations about their employment opportunities.  The question was raised about what to do when disability groups do not agree.  Steve and Jennifer, who also attended, suggested that groups focus on areas of agreement and let individual groups handle the issues where there are differences.  Many wanted to know why the NFB is so successful at the state legislature. 

Tom reported that our bake sale brought in $2,626.  Many people's generosity meant that we could carry home wonderful baked goods and feel good about adding to our treasury.

The convention adjourned on that positive note.

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