Future Reflections Convention 1992, Vol. 11 No. 5
SHIFTING BALANCES IN THE BLINDNESS FIELD
An Address Delivered by Kenneth Jernigan
National Federation of the Blind
At the Annual Convention
Charlotte, North Carolina
July 2, 1992
On Thursday morning, July 2, 1992, delegates to the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind listened attentively to a panel presentation devoted to an examination of the present and future structure of the blindness field. Participants were Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind; Mr. Carl Augusto, President and Executive Director of the American Foundation for the Blind; and Mr. Ritchie Geisel, President of Recording for the Blind. The texts of all three addresses as well as a summary of some of the discussion which followed the speeches, is published in the September-October, 1992 issue of the Braille Monitor. Here are Dr.Jernigan's remarks as he delivered them on July 2:
The German scientist Max Planck said: "A new truth usually doesn't triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." In more prosaic language I say that those who base their actions on yesterday's perceived truths (whether real or imagined) are poorly equipped to deal with today's realities and are likely to have much time for reflection in tomorrow's leisure of unemployment.
Today we are talking about the future of services for the blind. The fact that we are, along with the popularity and recurrence of the theme, means that there is a felt need and that there are problems. But we are talking about something more. We are talking about the shifting balances in the blindness system of this country. We are talking about the governmental and private agencies, blind consumers, and the relationship between consumers and professionals. In a broader sense we are talking about the very survival of the blindness field as we have known it.
The most notable thing about the blindness field is how different it is today from what it was twenty or thirty years ago. From the 1920's to the 1960's the unquestioned leader among the governmental and private agencies doing work with the blind in this country was the American Foundation for the Blind, and there was a reasonable amount of coherence and unity. As to the organized blind movement, the National Federation of the Blind didn't even exist until 1940, and it didn't become a major factor in the field for quite a few years after that. Today everything has changed. If what I am about to say is to do any good at all, it is absolutely essential that we deal with facts, not just wishes or claims or fantasies.
Let me begin with the American Foundation for the Blind. It was established in 1921, and its mission was fairly clear. It was to coordinate the efforts of the professionals in the blindness field throughout the country, help create and guide new agencies, do research, serve as a mechanism for resources and referrals, and generally act as a focal point for agency activities. Realistically viewed, most of those functions no longer exist as prime objectives.
In the 1920's the Foundation was instrumental in establishing and providing initial guidance to quite a number of state agencies. In Iowa, for instance, where I was formerly director, the American Foundation for the Blind worked in 1926 and 1927 with the state legislature and the school for the blind to establish the Iowa Commission for the Blind. It sent staff members to help get programs started and to find and train personnel. The same was true in a number of other states. That mission no longer exists. Today the state agencies are well established, and they don't now generally look to the Foundation for guidance; nor do they feel any particular loyalty to it. Rather, they look to their state-federal relationships, their own national organizations and committees, mechanisms within their state borders, and alliances with consumer organizations. This is not to criticize but simply to state facts.
In the twenties and thirties the American Foundation for the Blind, if not alone in the work, was certainly the principal leader in developing specialized tools and appliances for the blind: Braille watches, measuring devices, household aids, and the like. The Foundation also took the lead in developing the talking book machine, and for a time it was virtually the only organization producing talking book records. All of that has now changed. The Foundation is a relatively minor participant in the production and sale of specialized tools, aids, and appliances. It does not even sell or ship these from its own premises but relies on a catalog fulfillment company to do the work. If the Foundation were to go completely out of the specialized tools and appliances business today, there would scarcely be a ripple. The Foundation is, by no means, the principal manufacturer or distributor. That part of its original mission is now largely (and in the main, successfully) finished.
As to the production of talking book records, the Foundation still does it, but there would be no great problem to anybody but the Foundation if it ceased the activity. Others have now taken the lead in the field. Again, this is no criticism. In fact, quite the contrary. It emphasizes the success of the Foundation's pioneering effort.
The Foundation played a key role in helping design and pass some of the principal legislation which determined the direction of the blindness field and which still underpins many of the opportunities that we as blind people enjoy, but that was decades ago. The golden age of the Foundation's influence in shaping federal legislative and administrative policy was probably the 1930's and the early '40's when the Books for the Blind program of the Library of Congress was established, Title X (the Public Assistance for the Blind section of the Social Security Act) was adopted, the Randolph-Sheppard Act was passed, the Rehabilitation Act (Barden-La Follette, 1943) was amended to include the blind, and a whole new spate of other legislative and administrative policies came into being. Indeed, the Foundation did not single-handedly make these achievements, having at times to compromise with others in the field and even now and again failing altogether to get its own way--but few would argue that the Foundation was not at the center of the action or the dominant force.
That, however, was more than fifty years ago, and the 1990's bear little resemblance to the 1930's and '40's. Certainly the Foundation is no longer a controlling factor in legislative or executive decisions concerning the blind. We who are blind now speak for ourselves through our own organization, the National Federation of the Blind, and we are the most powerful force in such matters in Washington and the state capitals today. Of course, the governmental and private agencies for the blind still have a major presence in legislative and executive decisions concerning blindness, but they speak with many voices--and certainly with no dominance or central influence on the part of the Foundation. Again, I cannot emphasize too strongly that what I am saying is not meant as criticism but only as a recognition of fact.
The Second World War and the period immediately following brought a shift in emphasis for the Foundation. Because of the thousands of children who developed retrolental fibroplasia (today we would call it retinopathy of prematurity), there was a crisis in education. In California, for instance, where I was living at the time, there were in the early 1950's more than 1,200 young RLF children who were blind--and the residential school could handle only about 200. What was to be done? RLF had largely been conquered, and when the wave of hundreds of blind children had passed through the population, there was every reason to believe the number would return to normal. It made neither economic nor political sense for the state of California to build five or six new residential schools for the blind. It was simply not in the cards. At the same time the parents were not going to permit their blind children to stay at home and not have an education. The answer was obvious. They would have to be placed in the public schools in their local areas--which, incidentally, made the endless arguments (arguments often stimulated by the Foundation) about which environment is better for the education of a blind child, the residential or the public school, not only pointless but downright harmful and diversionary. Regardless of the quality of the training or the competence of the teachers, most of these children were necessarily going to be trained in the public schools in their home communities.
To its credit, the American Foundation for the Blind stepped into the breach. It had a major new mission, the establishment of university programs to train teachers of blind children, the recruitment of the teachers, the finding of teachers to teach the teachers, and the development of educational materials to make the process possible. Important as that mission was (and it was extremely important), it has long since passed. The university programs to train special education teachers for the blind are now completely mature. They demonstrate no special loyalty to the Foundation nor any evidence of following its leadership or asking it to coordinate their efforts. In fact, as adult children are wont to do, they often find themselves competing with the Foundation for money and leadership. Whatever else may be said for the loose national confederacy to which most of the university programs belong--that is, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER)--the organization is not now controlled or dominated by the American Foundation for the Blind. This is true despite the fact that the Foundation was instrumental in establishing many of the university programs and that in the 1970's it gave sizable amounts of money to the AER, which at the time was using another name.
As a natural concomitant of its work with the university programs, the Foundation began to organize and give direction to parents of blind children. In fact, a few years ago the Foundation was instrumental in organizing NAPVI (the National Association for Parents of the Visually Impaired). It provided a staff member to the organization, gave direction and leadership to it, and helped it set policy. Recently, however, the Hilton Foundation gave the Perkins School for the Blind a $15,000,000 grant, running over a five-year period; and Perkins effectively took control of NAPVI, giving it many tens of thousands of dollars, much more than the Foundation could possibly muster. The Foundation competed for the Hilton grant, but it lost--another sign of the shifting balances in the blindness field.
With respect to those shifting balances, there is still another factor. The Parents of Blind Children Division of the National Federation of the Blind is now probably the major force in the field. Certainly its magazine, Future Reflections, is the largest circulation publication for parents and educators of the blind, as well as the most influential. In any case the Foundation (to the extent that it has any part left to play in organizing and directing the activities of parents of blind children) is now only a minor participant.
Once more I repeat that I am not being critical. The American Foundation for the Blind filled a need with respect to the education of blind children and the counseling of their parents which could not have been filled by anybody else at the time and which absolutely demanded attention. It is simply that this part of the Foundation's mission has now been largely accomplished. There are those who would argue (in fact, I am one of them) that some of the Foundation's advice to the parents and many of its policy guidelines to the universities were custodial in nature, overly defensive about what was called professionalism, and more involved with complexity and prestige than common sense and the good of the child--but these criticisms must be viewed in context. When considered from the distance of the years and the magnitude of the task undertaken, the criticisms soften and take perspective. There was no viable alternative, and the Foundation did what it could with the knowledge it had and the resources it possessed. It deserves our appreciation, not our spleen.
The Second World War brought other changes besides those affecting the education of blind children. It moved the United States to the center of the stage in world affairs. Among other things, this meant that our country would take the leading role in helping other nations develop programs for the blind. The American Foundation for the Blind was the natural leader and coordinator.
It played a principal part in establishing the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, and in November of 1945 it took control of the American Braille Press for War and Civilian Blind and renamed it the AFOB (the American Foundation for Overseas Blind). The AFOB was technically a separate organization, but its board was almost identical to that of the Foundation. Throughout the world in the forties and fifties the Foundation was generally recognized as the leading force in the blindness field in the United States and as our chief spokesman in overseas matters.
All of that has now changed. In the late sixties and early seventies the AFOB went through an alteration. It changed its name to Helen Keller International, began to acquire a different board from that of the Foundation, and ultimately broke the ties almost completely. Then, in the changing climate of public opinion about overseas projects, Helen Keller International very nearly went bankrupt. It is now largely financed (and, therefore, in reality substantially controlled) by the U.S. government and spends the major part of its money (a sizable budget) in prevention of blindness projects in other countries. Meanwhile the American Foundation for the Blind no longer has preeminence in overseas activities.
In 1984 the International Federation of the Blind and the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind (the two major world organizations in the field) merged to become the World Blind Union. The North America/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union consists of organizations of and for the blind in Canada, the English-speaking nations of the Caribbean, and the United States, and is generally recognized by other countries as the principal mechanism for action affecting the blind in this part of the world--particularly, regarding overseas matters. The Foundation is a member of the regional structure, but it is certainly not dominant.
I have already alluded to the $15,000,000 grant which the Perkins School received from the Hilton Foundation. Some of this money is being spent inside the United States, but much of it is being used to develop projects and give aid overseas. With respect to dollars spent in overseas aid, Perkins is now a major factor--and with money goes influence. I think it is fair to say that (with the exception of providing a certain amount of professional literature) the American Foundation for the Blind does not today have any significant commitment, influence, or mission beyond the borders of this country. This is in no way to belittle or take away from the work which the Foundation did in this area in the past or the work which it may do in the future. It is simply to state facts as I believe them to be at present.
Let me turn next to NAC (the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped). In the 1960's the American Foundation for the Blind created COMSTAC (the Commission on Standards and Accreditation). It financed COMSTAC and provided it with an executive director. The objective was to establish for agencies in the blindness field a system of accreditation, which the Foundation hoped would come to be universally accepted, bringing influence to the Foundation and harmony to the field. The exact opposite occurred. After a brief existence, COMSTAC established NAC, which confidently announced that it would be completely self-supporting in no more than five or six years and that it would encompass most of the agencies.
What followed is a study in failure. NAC was never accepted by even as many as twenty percent of those that it wanted to accredit. Through the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties it bled the Foundation financially and politically, a black hole of controversy and cost. NAC has been the Foundation's Vietnam--and (as with America's Vietnam) disentanglement, admission of mistakes, and loss of face have been bitter medicine to swallow. My conversations with Foundation officials indicate that the Foundation has spent more than $9,000,000 on NAC. It has now stopped the expenditures, and NAC is in its death throes. Even so, the Foundation understandably finds it difficult to make a clean break and a public statement that the chapter of its Vietnam must be closed and left in the past.
In a number of discussions during the past few months, Carl Augusto (the recently appointed president and chief executive of the Foundation) has talked with me quite frankly about the condition and future of his organization. I gather from him that the Foundation's assets have dropped from a worth of about forty million dollars four or five years ago to a present value of something over twenty-four million and that the hemorrhaging (though slowing) continues. I also understand that the Foundation eliminated some twenty percent of its staff positions during 1991, making massive layoffs. In my opinion this does not mean that the Foundation will go bankrupt or cease to be a major participant in the affairs of the blind, nor do I think it would serve the best interests of the blind if such were the case. Rather, I think it means that the Foundation must redefine its mission, free itself from its Vietnam, and accept the realities of the present day.
As to redefining its mission, the Foundation has recently been working on the matter. Under date of January 15, 1992, Mr.Augusto sent me a letter concerning extensive planning sessions the Foundation conducted during 1990 and 1991, and along with the letter he enclosed a statement entitled the "AFB Mission." Here it is:
The mission of AFB is to enable persons who are blind or visually impaired to achieve equality of access and opportunity that will ensure freedom of choice in their lives. AFB accomplishes this mission by taking a national leadership role in the development and implementation of public policy and legislation, informational and educational programs, diversified products and quality services.
To advance this mission, AFB works to: develop and disseminate knowledge, programs, and products that can be used by professionals providing service to persons who are blind or visually impaired, by educational institutions, by legislators, by employers, and by others in a position to widen and improve equal access; to initiate or join with coalitions of other organizations, when appropriate, to accomplish specific goals or objectives; to promote the positive image of persons who are blind or visually impaired in the media and the community, and to provide a diversified and stable funding base for the organization to ensure ongoing support for the strategies and activities required.
The mission statement [the document continues] calls for AFB to move toward a more selective national leadership role in effecting the fundamental changes required to achieve equality of access and opportunity for persons who are blind or visually impaired. It defines AFB's national leadership role as an information broker, an agent of change, a leader, and innovator.
That is what Mr. Augusto sent me as the Foundation's new mission statement, and I can only say that I find it somewhat disappointing. It seems to me that it is too much couched in generalities and does not contain enough that is different from yesterday's largely finished activities. It announces almost no new initiatives, no specifics, and no clear direction for the future. Perhaps the Foundation will go back to the drawing board and further define its role and how it intends to achieve it. I hope that it will, for the blind and the blindness field need the Foundation--not a Foundation looking back to the past but the kind of creative organization of the formative years--vital, resilient, determined, and innovative.
It is a positive sign that the Foundation and the Federation have been working together with increasing closeness during the past decade. Bill Gallagher and I have become warm personal friends, and Carl Augusto shows an interest in continuing to strengthen the ties. He was at last year's convention and indicated a positive desire to speak on this year's program. These things would not have been possible twenty years ago.
In this discussion of shifting balances in the blindness field, why have I spent so much time on the American Foundation for the Blind? The answer is simple. The Foundation has played such a major part in the development of the blindness system in this country during the past seventy years that any meaningful discussion of where we are and where we are going must take it into account and give it significant emphasis.
But there are other forces to be considered. One of them is the AER (the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired). The AER resulted from a merger between the AAIB (American Association of Instructors for the Blind, which later changed its name to the Association for Education of the Visually Handicapped) and the AAWB (the American Association of Workers for the Blind). The AAIB was established in the middle of the last century, and the AAWB came into being in 1905. The merged organization (AER) was meant to encompass most of the professionals in work with the blind in both Canada and the United States. It has a large membership on paper and is potentially the leading force among the agency professionals—but the potential has never been realized, and there seems little likelihood that it will. The problem is that AER has almost no central authority. It is so loosely knit that in many ways it is an organization in name only. Its constituents show no prime loyalty to it and no ability to act in concert on tough questions and meaningful issues. It has many members but little influence, and it is likely to stay that way.
Let me illustrate. In the summer of 1988 at an AER convention in Montreal a number of us decided to try to see if we could pull the blindness field in Canada and the United States together for concerted action. Accordingly, the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort (JOE) was established. Those invited to attend as initial members (it was thought we might later expand the membership) were the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the Canadian Council of the Blind, the AER, the American Foundation for the Blind, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the American Council of the Blind, the Blinded Veterans Association, and the National Federation of the Blind. The first JOE meeting was held in March of 1989 at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore and was hosted by the National Federation of the Blind. All who were invited attended except the American Council of the Blind, which thereby emphasized and increased its growing isolation from the main stream of the blindness field.
Although the first JOE meeting spent much of its time smoothing tensions and establishing relationships, it dealt with substantive issues as well. One of these involved Braille literacy. After much discussion we unanimously agreed upon the language of a statement. Present as representatives of AER were its immediate past president, its then current president, and its president-elect--presumably the top leaders of the organization. Most of us left that meeting feeling that we had achieved a binding agreement. Yet, the AER board agonized, wanted to water down the statement, and ultimately rejected it.
At the second meeting of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort, which was held at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Toronto in November of 1990, the need to find a way to increase Braille literacy was further discussed. At the third JOE meeting, held at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York in January of this year, Braille literacy was again considered. Once more, AER was represented by its immediate past president, its current president, and its president-elect. After much discussion and refinement of language we unanimously agreed upon the following statement:
Recognizing that ongoing assessment and due process are requirements of the law, the members of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort endorse the principle that in planning the educational program for a blind or visually impaired child, these guidelines be followed:
- If reading and writing are to be taught and if the parent or parents and the decision makers for the school want the child to be taught Braille, this should be done.
- If reading and writing are to be taught and if the parent or parents and the decision makers for the school want print to be taught, this should be done.
- If the parent or parents and the decision makers for the school cannot agree, then both Braille and print should be taught.
This was the statement we agreed upon, and if it had been any milder, it would have been worthless. Also, remember that it had been discussed over a three-year period at three succeeding meetings and that top AER officials had participated throughout the process. Yet, under date of April 12, 1992, Dr. William Wiener, president of AER, sent a memorandum to the members of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort entitled "Recent JOE Agreements." Here is what he said:
As you may know, because AER is a membership organization, its Board of Directors requires that major policy decisions of the Association be reviewed by its duly elected representatives. Based on this policy, the officers of the Association that attended the last JOE meeting presented our agreements for confirmation by the Board of Directors. It is the purpose of this memorandum to report the decisions that were made.
In general the Board is supportive of the efforts of the JOE to discuss issues that affect blind people. Because our differences are sometimes great, it should not be viewed as negative when consensus is not reached. It is felt by the Board that honest discussions will result in an increased ability to understand each other and that agreement is not a required outcome.
The Board was appreciative of our efforts to reach consensus on the issue of Braille Literacy. After a lengthy discussion, however, the Board voted not to support our concluding agreement. The Board felt that the wording of the agreement left the statement open to different interpretations. A statement that can be viewed differently by different groups serves no useful purpose. The Board did, however, endorse that AER supports the goal that no child should ever find the implementation of legislation an obstacle to his or her best educational process. The JOE discussions on this issue have been useful as they have inspired the Board of AER to move ahead to define its own position on Braille Bills. As President, I have appointed an Ad Hoc Board Committee chaired by Toni Heinze to develop a statement that clearly defines our beliefs. It will not be "model legislation" but rather important points to be considered in formulating a position on any particular version of the Braille Bills. I believe this will be a useful tool as we move forward to insure that blind children and adults receive the best possible education and rehabilitation.
It is our goal to complete this task by our biennial meeting in Los Angeles. I will be sure to share this information with the Committee on JOE as soon as it has been approved by the AER Board.
There you have the AER memorandum--and there you also have, in AER's own language, the reason why it is not, and cannot be, the leader of the governmental and private agencies in this country or, for that matter, even a strong force in their conduct. The AER totally rejected the actions of its top leaders on what should have been almost a non-controversial issue, and even if the Board had approved, there is no reason to believe that the individual agencies and members of AER would have paid any attention or altered their policies in the slightest. Again I remind you that I am not criticizing. I am only stating facts as I see them and suggesting that those in the blindness field (all of us) must either avoid the world of fantasy and face reality or risk destruction.
Let me next turn to the ACB (the American Council of the Blind). It was formed in 1961 at the end of the NFB's civil war, partly from people who were expelled from our organization and partly from those who quit. It, too, has an identity crisis and a problem of mission. At first its goal seemed simple--hate the National Federation of the Blind and get revenge. But that was over thirty years ago, and a new generation has risen. Hate and negativism are poor materials for long-term building, and thoughts of revenge are mostly the dream of the weak and the solace of the dispossessed. At our conventions you will observe that the American Council of the Blind is rarely thought of or mentioned, but at their meetings the circumstances are different. We are frequently the topic of discussion and the subject of snide allusion.
As to mission, the Council has a growing problem. In the sixties and seventies, when the American Foundation for the Blind and some of the other agencies were in bitter conflict with us, the ACB was used as a buffer. When there was a hotly contested issue, the agencies could trot the Council out and say: "The Federation does not represent the blind. Here is another consumer organization, which agrees with us." In short, the Council served as a company union. But that was before the 1980's when the Federation and an increasing number of the agencies started drawing closer and working in partnership. As the process continues and accelerates today, the Council not only ceases to be an asset to the agencies as a company union but actually becomes an embarrassment and a liability. It does, that is, unless it is willing to change its stance and join with the rest of us in trying to build a new basis for positive partnership in the field. At a minimum this would mean stopping the pretense that it is the largest organization of the blind in the country (a claim which nobody, including its own members, takes seriously anyway) and ceasing the hate campaigns--in short, leaving fantasy and facing reality. The American Council of the Blind can be a real force for constructive action if it will, and we will gladly work with it if it takes that road.
There are, of course, numerous other organizations and agencies in the blindness field, but many of these have not taken a significant role in the politics of it. The Blinded Veterans Association, for instance, falls into this category. Comparatively small and generally respected, it has traditionally limited its activities to matters concerning veterans. The National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, the organization of residential schools, the organization of state vision consultants, the National Council of Private Agencies for the Blind, and a number of other such groups have been loosely associated and have generally not attempted to exert much influence outside their particular specialties--and even in those areas of specialty, they have largely been forums for discussion and exchange of information rather than rallying points for broad-based, united action. Obviously all of this can change, and there is a good deal of evidence that in some instances it will. The balances are shifting.
In addition to the groups I have mentioned, there are individual agencies which have a national constituency and scope of operation that potentially give them influence far beyond what they have ever developed or chosen to use. I think of the Hadley School for the Blind, Recording for the Blind, and the American Printing House for the Blind as prime examples. All three of these agencies are reaching out to play broader roles than they have ever attempted before, and their presence is being felt.
The Rehabilitation Services Administration and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress are also factors in the equation. They have broad constituencies and will necessarily play key roles in determining the nature and effectiveness of the blindness system in the years ahead. They will influence and be influenced by the coalitions which are built and the philosophies which are developed. With the leadership that they currently have, it seems clear that they will make positive contributions.
Then, there are the vendors of technology. They, too, are becoming an important part of the mix. Thirty years ago they did not exist, and such technology as we had came almost exclusively from the American Foundation for the Blind and the American Printing House for the Blind. Today the situation is totally different. There are an increasing number of commercial and nonprofit producers and distributors of both high and low tech items, and their influence is growing. Their products affect our lives, and their sales representatives and service personnel mingle with us on a continuing basis. Whether they want to or not (and, for that matter, whether either they or we like it or not), they will necessarily be a significant factor in the discussions and alliances that are shaping the future of the blindness system.
Of course, technology has brought major changes in the lives of the sighted just as it has in the lives of the blind, but there is a significant difference. When the sighted moved from medievalism to the industrial revolution, then to the automobile, the airplane, and later to the electronic age, they had 200 years to do it, and there was time for adjustment and acclimatization--but not so with us. Our move from medievalism to electronics has happened in less than thirty years, with all of the upheaval such compression brings. Yes, technology is changing our lives--and there are political as well as technological implications.
So the vendors and distributors of technology will play an important part in determining the course of the blindness system, and there are also others who will. Some of the agencies in New York and other parts of the country, for instance, now have financial resources (more than one of them with upwards of fifty million dollars) which far exceed those of the American Foundation for the Blind or the others I have mentioned. Will they choose to become factors in the national mix? They could--and some of them may. Perkins, for instance, (although possibly a little less wealthy than a few of the rest) is well financed and energetically led. Whether it will choose to raise its profile and whether that will be good or bad will turn entirely on its motives and actions.
Whatever all of this may prove, surely there can be no doubt about at least one thing. The blindness field in this country is in ferment, and the old alignments and power bases are gone, gone forever. New forces are emerging. New balances are being struck. Will this be good or bad, positive or negative? It depends on what choices we make, what wisdom we show, and how responsibly we act.
So far, I have talked about others. Let me now say a few words about us, about the National Federation of the Blind. What does the new reality mean for the Federation? Well, for one thing, it means that we must be careful not to get too big for our pants. We may be (and I think we unquestionably are) the strongest force in the affairs of the blind in this country today--but we are not the only force. There are others, and their views must be taken into account. If we make the mistakes of some of those who were leaders in the blindness field in the past, if we fail to reach out in cooperative good will, our momentum will slow. Our progress will stop. We do not want to boss or lord it over others. We know what that feels like. We have been treated that way too often ourselves to want to do it to anybody else.
But let nobody misunderstand what I am saying. We are just as determined as we always were, never again to be treated like second-class citizens or kept from having a say in our own destiny. We have had a bellyful of that--and we are strong enough to see that it doesn't happen again. We still have teeth, and we know how to use them.
The blindness system in our country today is seriously threatened. Unless it can pull itself together in true partnership (with all, or at least the major participants, working in mutual respect), it may very well perish. Budgets are tightening; the environment is deteriorating; population is rising; and resources are dwindling. In addition, other disability groups (once disorganized and invisible) are finding their voice and reaching for power. They are now a growing force to be reckoned with, and there is no turning back.
As we look ahead, the future is bright with promise. We as an organization are stronger than we have ever been, and we are prepared to work in partnership with any and all who are interested in helping the blind move toward opportunity, equality, and freedom. These are the things we want, and these are the things we intend to have--opportunity, equality, and freedom. A measure of our progress can be seen in the increasing number of governmental and private agencies and members of the public who are joining with us in common cause, but the real indicator of our progress is what is happening within us as blind people. By the thousands and tens of thousands we have gained confidence, determination, and self-respect--and no force on earth can turn us back. This is the meaning of all I have said. This is the message of the shifting balances in the blindness field. Let us join together, and we will make it come true!