Annual Convention Report
By Judy Sanders, Secretary
On the weekend of October 25, 2013 over 100 blind Minnesotans and their friends gathered at the Radisson Hotel in Bloomington for the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.
Registration opened Friday afternoon where people who pre-registered could pick up their agendas and meal tickets and others could register for the convention. Additional opportunities in the registration area included the availability to purchase Louis Braille Commemorative coins and, to benefit the NFBM Senior Division cell phone carriers. On display was the Cosmo, a new classroom friendly braillewriter that is quiet and easy to use. It can perform many functions including converting a document to be printed for the teacher to read what a student wrote.
Another demonstration featured a talking thermostat for homes to control heating and cooling equipment.
Students and their families were able to peruse and take material about financial aid for higher education from the U.S. Department of Education.
Our Resolutions committee, chaired by Ryan Strunk, met to discuss and make recommendations about proposed resolutions to be brought before the convention. All were welcome to make comments and suggestions.
Sharon Monthei and Chris Foster led a session to familiarize people with Apple products and their accessibility. They learned about the latest apps and tricks to take advantage of all the technology Apple has to offer.
The Minnesota Association of Blind Students (MABS) met to plan activities for the coming year. Among other presentations, Chelsea Duranleau and Albano Berberra shared their experiences in foreign travel; Ms. Duranleau studied in Spain and Mr. Berberra traveled through Europe playing his violin. The following officers were elected: president, Va’nasha Washington; first vice president, Hannah Furney; second vice president, Quinn Haberl; secretary, Chelsea Duranleau; and treasurer, Candace Chapman.
During the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille in Minnesota (NAPUB) meeting Jennifer Dunnam reported on the progress to implement the Unified English Braille Code (UEB). President Marc Maurer received a commitment from Ms. Dunnam, (who manages the braille program for the NFB) to produce our national convention agenda in UEB. This year’s officers are president Melody Wartenbee, vice president Ben Moser, and secretary/treasurer Trudy Barrett.
The evening ended with hospitality hosted by our Metro chapter. Lively conversation, a cash bar and delicious appetizers kept everyone entertained for several hours.
At conventions, Federationists demonstrate an enormous amount of energy; on Saturday, activities began at 7 a.m. and ended early Sunday morning! The early birds gathered for breakfast for a meeting of the NFB of Minnesota Senior Division. People heard an update from Ed Lecher, director of the Seniors Services Unit at State Services for the Blind (SSB). Joyce Scanlan, president of the division, reminded everyone about the cell phone carriers that the Division is selling to benefit its treasury. Jan Bailey was re-elected vice president with Mrs. Scanlan and Pam Provost serving the last year of their terms as president and secretary/treasurer respectively.
President Jennifer Dunnam called the opening general session to order at 9 a.m. After an invocation by Kathy McGillivray we were welcomed to the convention by Metro Chapter President Rob Hobson. A proclamation from Governor Mark Dayton was read by Helen Stevens declaring October as “Meet the Blind Month” in Minnesota.
In case we were feeling the need for relaxation, May Spooner offered a quiet massage in the back of the meeting room for a small fee, with all proceeds donated to the NFBM treasury. Pat Barrett, carrying a jingling piggy bank, reminded us about buying Louis Braille coins.
President Dunnam acknowledged those members who could not be with us because of illness. Get Well cards were being circulated for Dick Davis, Becky Bergman and Ron Mehnke. The NFBM has a list of 100 ways members can volunteer their time and skills to benefit the organization. Members were encouraged to sign up for particular tasks with Jan Bailey.
Every year a bake auction livens up our annual convention. Charlotte Czarnecki explained the rules of the auction and said that she would be drafting auctioneers from the audience. Tom Scanlan announced that for the first time we could pay for our auction items with a credit or debit card.
Door prizes were given away throughout the convention. Hannah Furney and Matt Langland drew names from those who had registered — all 108 of us.
We were pleased to welcome NFB President Marc Maurer and his wife, Patricia Maurer, to our convention. Dr. Maurer said that our national convention would take place from July 1-6 in Orlando at the Rosen Center. Each blind person plays an important role in making our national conventions the focal point for the success of the Federation. This is the convention where we blind people show our resolve, our commitment and our ability to control our own future. There are many who would make us their charity (not necessarily financially), but we show them how it is done when we are in charge. Hearing speakers from all over the world in the blindness field is impressive and informative, but the key to our accomplishments starts with the resolutions we pass. It is through our resolutions that we have made one of our top goals to eliminate subminimum wages for people with disabilities in the United States. This change will not come easily, but we will persist until this inequity is no more. The battle is being fought on more than one front, with two legislative efforts underway. HR831 would eliminate Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows payment of subminimum wages to people with disabilities. There is also a provision in the proposed reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act that would allow rehabilitation services to receive credit for placement at subminimum wages. We are opposing that part of the reauthorization. On the media front, Rock Center, a news magazine that appeared on NBC TV, ran an in-depth story about this issue that was quite favorable. We provided a lot of input.
In 2012, the NFB, along with many others, suffered losses in our fundraising. Therefore, this year we are initiating some new programs. We are opening some thrift stores on the east coast, and, if profitable, we could expand to other parts of the country. We are also starting a car donation program. Dr. Maurer asked Mrs. Maurer to come to the microphone to describe it. People can receive a tax write-off by donating their cars, boats, motorcycles or any other form of transit to us. It is up to us to spread the word; there is a lot of promotional material in the form of brochures and stickers. People can make a donation by calling 855-659-9314. The website is Carshelptheblind.org.
Mrs. Maurer suggests that we join her in putting a form message at the bottom of all our e-mails about the donation program.
Fred Schroeder, first vice president of the NFB and vice president of the World Blind Union, has been working on the ratification of international treaties that deal with making braille books available worldwide and will give other countries the same protection that we have in the U.S. through the ADA. We will need approval from the U.S. Senate for both these treaties.
All of these topics and more will be on the agenda for our Washington seminar.
Cynthia Bauerly, Deputy Commissioner of DEED (The Department of Employment and Economic Development), gave us brief remarks to let us know how much DEED values the work done by SSB. She expressed an awareness of the importance of a special unit of government devoted to services for blind and visually impaired people. She also acknowledged the three community rehabilitation programs (Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Vision Loss Resources and the Lighthouse for the Blind in Duluth. In addition, she praised the constant vigilance of consumer organizations in watching over our agency. Ms. Bauerly recognized each of the units of SSB and their accomplishments for 2012-13. She closed by expressing awe over the peanut butter cupcakes with fudge frosting from the bake auction.
Bauerly’s presentation was followed by remarks from Richard Strong, director of SSB. His entire speech will be printed in the next issue. Mr. Strong announced that after 31 years of service to this agency he would be retiring on December 2. President Dunnam said that Mr. Strong is leaving the agency in a better position than when he began his tenure as its director. Sharon Monthei asked about the difficulties in signing up immigrants who are not native English speakers for instruction in English through the program offered by BLIND. It is the only program specifically designed for blind students in the state. Strong suggested that contact be made with the minority outreach committee that is a part of the Minnesota Rehabilitation Council for the Blind for guidance. Many people took the time to thank Mr. Strong for his years of dedicated service.
Shawn Mayo, director of BLIND, Incorporated at the time of the convention, introduced us to three students who shared their stories about how training through this program is affecting their lives.
Albano Berberra was first introduced to a long, white cane as a six-year-old living in Greece. His father gave him the cane and told him that his job was to walk with it by himself. He thought his family was abandoning him — even though his dad was following him. He came to the U.S. while in middle school where he was once again urged to use a cane — but like many of us it did not yet stick. Before college, he had additional training at the Father Carroll Center but he was still not properly motivated. Now he is here at BLIND where he says that for the first time he is learning that he is responsible for himself; he is discovering that the only limits he has in his life are self-imposed. BLIND is unlocking his mind to what is possible.
Like Albano, Debbie Civil comes to us from the Bay state. Although she is a recent college graduate she describes herself as always having been very needy — constantly expecting her sister and others to take her everywhere. Her blind friend asked her why she thought some blind people could go anywhere by themselves and she could not. The two of them went shopping at a mall where Ms. Civil had a horrible experience running into things and generally becoming a real hazard. The next day she called BLIND and talked to Al Spooner. While she still had some misgivings she signed up to come here and has been making discoveries about herself ever since. She is slowly abandoning her neediness and is blossoming into a capable, competent woman.
Antonio Smith is from Brooklyn Park and is nicknamed Barry Sanders. He explained that his travel skills were much like that football player — run to the left, the right, goes back and gets nowhere. When he first came to training, he says that he could not find his way down the hall. Things are improving in all subject areas to the point where he is combining his classes with a part-time job.
All the students expressed gratitude for the partnership between the NFB and BLIND; they seemed to understand that all of us could keep giving back through the NFB.
In her closing remarks, Ms. Mayo thanked all current and former staff and students at the Center and members of the Federation for the confidence everyone has placed in her. Mayo is moving on at the end of the year to live in Des Moines, Iowa. While she found this a hard decision to make, she knows she is leaving BLIND with stable finances and a waiting list of students. Dunnam expressed for all of us the gratitude we feel for all that Mayo has given to this program and the NFB of Minnesota. While she will be missed here in Minnesota, we are certain that we will see her participating in our national movement. Although we are not in a hurry for Mayo to leave, the BLIND board of directors has actively begun the search for a new executive director with the right Federation philosophy. Dr. Maurer added his thanks and accolades for Mayo’s work and said that he planned to call on her to do Federation work wherever she lived.
Brad Harper, superintendent of the State Academies for the Deaf and Blind, and John Davis, director and principal of the State Academy for the Blind (MSAB) talked to us about the education of blind children at their school. Mr. Harper announced that Governor Dayton recently appointed Jan Bailey to the Academy’s Board of Governance; Ms. Bailey is replacing longtime board member Nadine Jacobson. Since Bailey was formerly a member of the Academy’s Site Council, an advisory body to the Academy, a vacancy will need to be filled.
There are currently 50 students enrolled on campus and 45 students in the outreach program where Academy instructors travel to the local school districts to provide instruction. During last year’s NFBM convention, Lieutenant Governor Yvonne Pretner-Solon spoke to our student division. Mr. Harper was present during that presentation and he brought to the attention of Mrs. Solon the need for speed bumps on Highway 298 so the students could cross safely traveling to the school’s running track. Solon, along with Representative Patti Fritz and Senator Vicki Jensen, were particularly helpful in getting the money for the speed bumps. The Academy recently sponsored a rally and walk in celebration of White Cane Safety Day on October 15. Many Federationists, students, and staff from BLIND came to the Capitol to participate in the event. The NFBM contributed money toward the cost of lunches for everyone and Steve Jacobson was a speaker at the rally.
Thanks to the Academy Foundation, a recording studio was built on campus. Students are writing and producing their own music including a song that they sang in honor of White Cane Safety Day. They plan to put the recording on YouTube. The school has also procured new technology and science equipment and made improvements in the playground.
Bob Raisbeck, chair of our PAC Plan effort, explained the mechanics of the Preauthorized Contribution Plan and said that we would be taking contributions at the banquet. This program allows automatic withdrawals from our bank accounts to be sent to our national treasury on a monthly basis.
Candace Chapman, treasurer of both the national and state student divisions, closed our morning session by talking about how she became involved in this movement. She was instrumental in starting the Mississippi student division and she hasn’t slowed down since. The national division has four standing committees; the first is membership. This committee holds monthly conference calls where students can discuss such concerns as dating, how to handle classroom work and advocacy efforts. The Slate committee produces their quarterly newsletter, The Student Slate. The Communications committee coordinates their social media outlets. And finally yet equally important is their fundraising committee. This committee not only helps their own division but it aids the state student divisions.
Over 80 Federationists joined the staff and students of BLIND for lunch where we could meet them in a more informal atmosphere. The crowd was bigger than expected forcing the hotel to extend seating into the lobby area.
We began our afternoon with “Good News from Our Library” presented by Catherine Durivage, director of the Minnesota Braille and Talking Book Library. Ms. Durivage brought us up to date on news from both our state library and the National Library Service. Her remarks will appear in the next issue. Beth Moline asked if there would ever be a digital player where we can change the battery ourselves instead of having to return the machine. Durivage was not aware of any plans to do so but she suggested that when we no longer get a charge greater than twelve hours it is time to switch to a new player. We can request a new machine from the Communication Center while we still have the old one; when it comes, we can return the old one. Tom TeBockhorst expressed appreciation for how quickly BARD (Braille and Recorded Downloads) is keeping up with new books. Durivage said that there is a limit to how many books BARD can add each month but she is glad to hear that there is at least one satisfied customer. Jan Bailey expressed concern that certain USB drives do not work on the NLS player. NLS has not issued a list of preferred brands; they recommend using the cartridges that are sold specifically for their machines. Dave Walle asked how long we could keep our magazine cartridges; weekly magazines should be returned within a week and monthly publications within the month. Downloads are available to upgrade digital players with the most current reading flexibility such as skipping between chapters or sections. Dunnam expressed appreciation for the ability to read braille through BARD with various devices. She asked if there are still plans to expand the eligibility criteria for who can be a library patron. She was referring to a proposal to expand the definition of disability for purposes of reading books from NLS. The NFB would be opposed to such an expansion. At this time, there is no move in Congress to change the eligibility criteria. Rob Hobson mentioned that he is having trouble logging into BARD; Durivage said that individual problems could be examined with a call to the library.
Jennifer Dunnam serves as the NFB representative on the Braille Authority of North America (BANA). She gave us an update on the transition to Unified English Braille (UEB). BANA has 17 member organizations and agencies on its board and several active committees. We are making a slow transition between the current braille code and the UEB. The transition is scheduled for completion by 2016. Dunnam reviewed some of the changes that will occur. Nine contractions are being eliminated and other inconsistencies are being resolved. The Nemeth Code will still be in use. Using the UEB will make it easier to produce computer translations into braille. Ben Moser asked if print color attributes can be identified in this new code, the answer is yes but only when necessary for understanding the material.
We next heard from the newly elected president of the MABS, Va’nasha Washington, whose topic was “Advocating to Serve.” Ms. Washington always wanted to open her own restaurant until she became blind. She assumed that dream was no longer possible; but her fortunes and dreams were revived when she enrolled as a student at BLIND. Dick Davis found a program for Washington in Minneapolis called Waithouse that teaches a curriculum called Safe Serve. They may be the experts on kitchen safety but she is showing them how a blind person can combine nonvisual techniques with their safety rules. She has determination, tenacity and patience in dealing with the staff and she is making it work. She realizes that she is setting an example with the hope that other blind students will be welcome there. Will future students know that they owe their opportunity for a culinary education at Waithouse to Washington and the NFB? Whether or not they are aware of this — we know it and that’s why we continue to work together for a future where we can all have equal chances.
To answer the question: “Can I make money through eBay?” we heard from Al Spooner. Several years ago, the NFB developed a partnership with eBay to make its site more accessible to blind sellers and buyers. A class was organized for prospective blind entrepreneurs who were making a trial run figuring out what worked and what didn’t. After the class, Spooner’s next task was to decide what he could sell. He found an old piece of equipment in his closet, downloaded a teaching manual for it and was surprised to sell it for $120. What started as a curiosity has turned out to be a part-time business. He acknowledges that some of eBay’s features are visual but a truly ambitious seller could hire an assistant and make it worthwhile. Spooner is selling men’s belts and wallets, and he just bought 700 neckties for resale. He spends about 25 hours a week on this and one month he made several thousand dollars.
Jan Bailey, chair of our membership committee, facilitated a discussion about how we can better retain current members and attract new ones. She started by examining why we joined and what makes us stay. Most people joined because someone else asked them. To keep members we must help everyone find their niche so that we are contributing to our success beyond just paying dues. That is why we have developed the list of 100 ways we can help. Bailey will be sending out e-mails with examples of items on the list. We were urged to sign up at any time. Some of us stay because we are in an environment where the expectations are high and we do not have to prove our independence. We stay because our friends are here. We see problems with society’s misconceptions about blindness and we know we are the only ones who can eliminate them. In recruiting new members we must always remember to talk to the blind people we know who are not yet members and share with them why we stay.
Steve Sawczyn regaled us with his “Adventures in India.” Many of us place limitations on ourselves that keep us from doing things that we would enjoy. Mr. Sawczyn thought he was a hotshot traveler when, at age 16, he took a trip to Germany as an exchange student. He was driven everywhere and did not have to make any decisions about where to go. As an adult, moving to Minnesota reminded him of how scary getting around could be. He came here to take a job with Target Corporation. Sawczyn was telling Randi Strunk, who works with him at Target, that he wished he could go to a Twins game at the new Target Field. He said that Mrs. Strunk gave him some very profound advice that he has never forgotten: She said, “Just go!” He did and had a wonderful time. Target sent some of its employees to India for particular projects and Sawczyn decided he would like to be one of those employees. While he had some concerns about whether he could do it, he followed Strunk’s formula and just went. He noticed that the people in India were amenable to learning what kind of assistance he might need; for instance, they did not take offense when he pointed out that he could feed himself. They did not seem overanxious when he wanted to go for a walk and they spoke directly to him instead of his companion. He was pleased that their assumption was always that he could do something even if they were curious about how he would do it.
His job with Target was not only to insure that their website was accessible to all users but he had to explain why this was an issue.
Our afternoon closed with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” to our president, Jennifer Dunnam.
During the social hour preceding the banquet people had their last chance to buy tickets for a 50/50 drawing where the winner would win half the pot of money. The other half will go to Community Shares Minnesota, a giving federation from which the NFBM benefits. It ended with $50 for the prize.
Following a social hour, MC Judy Sanders called the banquet to order. Pat Barrett gave the invocation followed throughout the evening with bake auction items and door prizes. Mrs. Maurer drew the winning number for the 50/50 drawing. Dana Ard, a Federationist from Idaho visiting our convention, took home the money.
Sheila Koenig made two presentations. First, as chair of the scholarship committee, she thanked the rest of her committee: Michele Gittens, Jan Bailey, Ryan Strunk and Steve Jacobson. She reminded us that these scholarships are possible because of our efforts in fundraising including our bake auction. Alex Loch is a previous scholarship winner from both the state affiliate and national organizations. Mr. Loch is a doctoral student in physical therapy at the College of St. Scholastica. He received a check for $1,500. Loch talked about his work and all its challenges. He is a new member of the Twin Ports Chapter in Duluth and he finds himself as its president. He says we have a small but motivated group. He thanked the Federation for supporting him in all his successes and picking him up from his failures.
Koenig then switched hats and made a presentation as a judge in the Metro chapter essay contest. The winner, who received $75, was Megan Bening for her essay entitled “Standing on My Own.” All other entrants had their names placed in a drawing for a $50 prize and that winner was James Oliver Smith.
President Dunnam presented Alex Loch with a new charter for the Twin Ports chapter in Duluth. This chapter has written its constitution and has elected officers. We look forward to great things from this energetic group of people.
The highlight of every banquet is the address given by our national representative. Dr. Maurer met our every expectation with his remarks. He began by talking about changes in leadership and expectations for the new leader. Maurer reviewed Joyce Scanlan’s role as our past president with her many contributions and accomplishments to our affiliate and this movement. He then told us about the time in our history when Mrs. Scanlan decided not to seek reelection to the presidency, and we elected Jennifer Dunnam. There were those who had doubts about what kind of president she would make. Some wondered whether Dr. Maurer could adequately replace Dr. Jernigan. These questions are inevitable with change. Few would argue that our movement is not as strong as ever. Maurer expressed the view that although their leadership styles are quite different Dunnam has proven herself as a strong, mature leader and there is a place for both leadership styles in this organization. Maurer went on to review much of our history and many of his own personal experiences factoring into many decisions he makes. We could relate to some of his stories; others were way beyond our imagining such as dreaming of being an engineer. By the end of his speech the audience was moved to work together to do whatever is necessary to increase opportunities for all blind people and to show others how we can work together to do so.
After being truly inspired, President Dunnam asked people to think about how we could contribute financially to our movement through the PAC plan that was explained earlier in the day. We heard from several people who started and/or increased their contributions.
After the banquet, several hearty souls shared fun and frivolity into the wee hours of the morning. Even with all the fun, everyone was present early Sunday morning.
Our business session began with more birthday singing — this time for Sharon Monthei.
President Dunnam reviewed our activities since our last convention. We participated in the NFB’s efforts to pressure Amazon to make their e-readers accessible to nonvisual users. Many of us wrote letters explaining this need; three Minnesotans traveled to Seattle to join Federationists outside Amazon’s headquarters to educate the public about this issue. We have made some progress but more must be done.
We continue to work on the national legislative front gathering sponsors for our various initiatives. The students held a highly successful seminar in April where students from Wisconsin joined them. We worked with SSB to help them improve in their hiring practices of blind employees. Positive results can be seen because in the last three months three blind people have been hired. They are working in the Communication Center; we continue to advocate for customers who are having problems with their counselors; one individual was asked to close his case because he had part-time employment. With our help, he refused and, after a few months he found a full-time job.
We needed to intervene on behalf of some English language learners whose counselors were dealing with the director of the English language school instead of the student. That practice has stopped and now the students are fully involved in making decisions about their services and instruction.
Eighty-seven Minnesotans attended the national convention in Orlando. People were not just in attendance but actively participated in all areas of the convention.
Not only did we raise much needed income from our Walk for Opportunity, but we also received publicity and there was a lot of enthusiasm from our host chapter in Rochester. We received a bequest from someone who has contributed to us for many years. This has enabled us to make a sizable contribution to our national treasury and we have accepted the responsibility of deciding how best to use the rest of it wisely and efficiently. Discussions are ongoing to ensure that we plan activities that can be sustained in the future when the bequest is spent. One possibility is to sponsor a BELL program (Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning) for young blind children. We may try for a seminar for seniors. There are endless possibilities and we will keep all options open.
We are in the final stages of publishing a pedestrian safety brochure designed to teach drivers about the importance of the white cane and dog guides. We have a list of drivers education schools where we can offer to speak to classes. Our affiliate has a history dating back to 1920 and much of it is captured on paper. We want to find a way to archive this history in a more permanent fashion so that we can also share it with our national archives. Our future is bright if all of us do our part. Dunnam thanked us for being a part of this movement and she considers it an honor to lead us.
Ryan Strunk presented five resolutions for our approval or rejection. The committee recommended do-pass on all of them. The text of the resolutions follows this report. The subject of each follows:
A13-01: regarding removal of Section 511 from the Workforce Reinvestment Act.
A13-02: regarding the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act.
A13-03: regarding MNSUR and accessibility to its website.
A13-04: regarding the TEACH Act.
A13-05: regarding services for seniors at SSB.
All resolutions passed unanimously. Mr. Strunk thanked his committee members: Steve Jacobson, Jan Bailey, Shawn Mayo and Helen Stevens.
Officers and board members serve two-year terms in our affiliate. Those up for election were the president, secretary and three board positions. The results were as follows: president, Jennifer Dunnam; secretary, Judy Sanders; board positions: Sheila Koenig, Brice Samuelson and Rob Hobson. Those with one more year to serve are vice president, Steve Jacobson; treasurer, Tom Scanlan; and board members Bev Stavrum and Pat Barrett.
Currently, our bylaws require a secret ballot for elections. Dunnam wanted to know if there is interest in amending the bylaws to begin with a voice vote and if it is uncertain, then vote by ballot. The consensus seemed to be to leave the bylaws as they are.
Tom Scanlan reported that our treasury has a surplus because of the large bequest. Without that, we would have had a deficit.
Many of our members serve on advisory committees to agencies that deal with blindness services. Jan Bailey is new to the Board of Governance so had no report.
Dunnam is the NFB representative on the Rehabilitation Council for the Blind advising SSB. All are welcomed and urged to attend the open meetings that occur the first Thursday of odd-numbered months and to take part in the active committee structure that support the council.
Melody Wartenbee reported on NAPUB activities that have been mentioned earlier in this article. Va’nasha Washington did the same for the students and Joyce Scanlan reported for the seniors.
Charlene Guggisberg reported for the Resource Center Advisory Council. Their focus is recruiting teachers and braillists for local school districts. There is a shortage of applicants.
Our chapters reported on a variety of activities including fundraising, distributing literature in the community and the Metro chapter sponsored a seminar on Social Security.
Tom Scanlan announced that we received $3,199 in the bake auction and May Spooner donated $114 from her massages.
The convention adjourned with good cheer and with promises of hard work in the coming year.