Report On the Semiannual Convention

Report On the Semiannual Convention

By Judy Sanders, Secretary

A unique opportunity awaited recipients of the braille agenda for the 2013 semiannual convention of the NFB of Minnesota on May 18.  The agenda was in the Unified English Braille code recently adopted by the Braille Authority of North America.  Some people have dreaded this change thinking that we will have to learn a completely new system of reading.  We discovered that it was very easy to read and most of the changes were obvious.

Thanks to the NFB of Minnesota Senior Division, people enjoyed coffee and doughnuts while waiting for the morning business session to begin.  Cell phone carriers and Louis Braille coins were available for purchase.

Seats were at a premium when President Jennifer Dunnam called the convention to order.  Matt Langland was on hand to give away door prizes throughout the general session.

Ms. Dunnam reported a successful student seminar earlier in the year.  Plans are underway for all of us to work hard and play at our upcoming national convention in Orlando.  Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Incorporated will sponsor another karaoke night and we will staff a table in the exhibit hall where, among other things, we will sell the famous Minnesota Word Scramble.  Alex Loch, from Duluth, is to receive an NFB scholarship.

We have a committee that has designed a curriculum for driver’s education classes to teach future drivers about how blind people travel independently and safely. They have also written a brochure for drivers.

Our advocacy for customers at State Services for the Blind (SSB) continues.  We also have several members on the State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind and several people serve on Council committees.

Dunnam announced that we are receiving a large bequest from the Jane Rademacher estate.  This bequest is in excess of $400,000 and we will be presenting half of it to our national treasury.  We want to have in-depth discussion about how best to utilize the rest of the money to strengthen our organization and to be strong advocates for all blind Minnesotans.  People were encouraged to offer thoughts about how best to use this gift.

We heard an excerpt from the latest national presidential release that featured Anil Lewis asking for volunteers to help bolster our Imagination Fund, and he told us that our Fair Wages petition has over 2,500 signatures and we are just getting started!  This petition objects to a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows blind and otherwise disabled individuals to receive far less than the Federal minimum wage.

Va’nasha Washington serves as first vice president of our Minnesota Association of Blind Students.  She defines “student” as anyone who is learning something.  Therefore, she believes that there is a place in the division for all of us.  The students are planning a barbecue for the summer students who will be here for training.  She asks for our help in finding students who can learn about us.  She left the podium to go back to the kitchen where students were preparing our “academic lunch.”

Tom Scanlan, NFB of Minnesota treasurer, reported that we have a profit due to the large bequest mentioned earlier.  The convention approved his proposed budget for 2013-2014.  More financial information is available on our website:

E-books have become a popular method of reading in our society — and blind readers are in danger of missing this medium of enjoying books.  Steve Jacobson gave us background on this issue.  The most blatant abuser of nonvisual access to books is Amazon, producers of the Kindle E-reader.  Amazon has the capability to make its products accessible to blind readers, but it bowed to pressure from the Authors Guild who worried that their sales would suffer.  It should be noted that we have never asked for free books; we just want to be able to read them through audio format or braille displays.  Why focus on Amazon?  They are attempting to corner the market in schools and universities throughout the country with e-readers for students, and blind kids are left out.  Three Minnesotans joined Federationists from all over the country in Seattle in front of Amazon’s headquarters to express our concerns.  While this issue is not resolved, we have made progress.  Amazon announced the availability of an app for the iPhone that can be used to read their books.  It is not very accessible.

Richard Strong, director of Minnesota State Services for the Blind (SSB), began his remarks by expressing pleasure in speaking to the largest and most active organization of the blind in Minnesota.  He acknowledged that while we may not always agree, we have an open dialogue and he appreciates our forthrightness.

He introduced us to several new staff.  Carol Pankow is now the head of the Administrative Services Unit and was at our convention.  Sandra Wilson is the voice at the front desk and Samantha Fischer is Mr. Strong’s assistant.  Following Lyle Lundquist’s retirement, Ed Lecher is the new head of the Senior Services Unit.

Among other matters, Strong reported on the following:

  • The Senior Services Unit is exploring ways to serve an ever-growing population with less money.  They are working with the Humphrey Institute for ideas.
  • The Workforce Development Unit is hopeful of finding 100 blind customers jobs during this fiscal year.  As of this convention, they had 38 placements.
  • Anil Lewis, the NFB’s lead strategist on our Fair Wages initiative, will be the keynote speaker at SSB’s all-staff meeting in October.  He will talk about his experiences as a blind person and will run a small group session about the minimum wage issue.

We asked questions about the employment of blind people on staff.  Mr. Strong is anxious to increase the number of blind employees and urged us to continue to get the word out about openings.

Jan Bailey updated us on plans for our Walk for Opportunity.  We will have a new, easier route in Rochester with six checkpoints.  It was announced that Miss Bailey was appointed to the Board of Governors for the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind.

Helen Stevens gave us an update on legislative initiatives from the U.S. Congress.  The Space Available Act would allow disabled veterans to fly on military aircraft if space is available, just as can active-duty and retired personnel.  Disabled veterans have never been given this benefit because they are honorably discharged from service and do not retire.  As of our convention in May, there were 152 cosponsors in the House including Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Tim Walz, Colin Peterson and Eric Paulsen of Minnesota.  In the Senate, there are 12 cosponsors but neither Minnesotan had yet joined the list.  (Note: Since the convention, Senator Amy Klobuchar has become a cosponsor.)

HR 831, The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, will eliminate Section 14C of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows people with disabilities to be paid subminimum wages.  As of the convention, there were 35 cosponsors in the House, with Mr. Ellison as the only Minnesotan on the list.  The NFB has designed an online petition that people can sign to show support for this issue.  Ms. Stevens was available at lunch to facilitate signing for anyone upon request.

The Technology Education and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act is still waiting for introduction.  This would require colleges and universities to purchase technology that is usable nonvisually.

The convention elected Jennifer Dunnam as the delegate to our national convention with Steve Jacobson as our alternate delegate.

Some of the most inspiring moments at an NFB of Minnesota convention occur when we listen to the students from BLIND, Incorporated.  It is a reminder that the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind is not just words but can make a real difference to the lives of blind people.  Shawn Mayo, executive director of BLIND, introduced us to three students who told their stories.

Ms. Mayo began by announcing that the resident students would be moving to 410 6th Street SE in Minneapolis in the fall.  This neighborhood has many bus lines available to it and many restaurants and stores.

Juan Solis admitted that he used to be ashamed of being blind; he felt he was a burden to everyone around him.  He finally realized that he needed help which was what brought him to BLIND.  At first, it was overwhelming — getting up early and having a place to go.  But as time passed, he felt empowered with responsibility and self-respect.

Marie Kouthoofd was nearing the end of her training when she spoke to us.  She came from New York for her training because she wanted to live a more full life.  She found that as she was losing vision she was staying home more; she went to work and then came home.  She exemplifies the truth that it is one thing to know intellectually our philosophy but it is quite another thing to live it.  She will now be able to go back to her family in New York and hold her head high; she will go to work, and, if she chooses, she will not go straight home.  She is a spirited grandma who won’t be held down.

Mark Barlow has joined the BLIND staff as the new industrial arts instructor.  He is not blind and new to all this.  Mr. Barlow comes from a teaching background where he taught at a so-called nontraditional K-12 fine arts school.  While he loved what he did, he felt there was something missing.  He found that something when he came to BLIND — it was a school with a mission.  He hears the hopes of his students and he imagines how he can help bring those hopes to reality through the development of a strong curriculum.  He is proud to be a part of this program.

The tenBroek Fund exists to take care of expenses to maintain the National Center that houses Federation headquarters and the Jernigan Institute in Baltimore.  Each year we donate to this fund.  The NFB of Minnesota matches individual donations.  Members pledged $965, which our state treasury will match.

Ryan Strunk came forward to present an item titled “Out of the Comfort Zone.”  Mr. Strunk is studying improvisation at the Brave New Workshop where he
“stepped out of his comfort zone.”  He wanted to meet new people and try new things.  He is learning to express himself with visual actions, and he is pleased to report that his classmates understand what he is doing.  He urged us to undertake something that scares us a lot and conquer it.

Dick Davis came to the microphone to promote the sale of Louis Braille coins during lunch.  They make fine gifts, and could increase in value.  The NFB of Minnesota is selling these at their original prices.  Other outlets charge more.

Jean Furney, Hannah Furney’s mom, was available during lunch to display her tactile greeting cards.  She was looking for feedback on how we thought they might sell.

After consuming our “academic” lunch, Bob Raisbeck explained the Preauthorized Contribution Plan that enables anyone to donate to the national treasury by automatic regular withdrawal from a checking account.  He urged people to start new plans or increase existing ones.  This is a relatively painless way to give to our movement.

It was now time for everyone to break into small group sessions.  Below is a brief summary of each session reported by its organizer.

National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB) by Melody Wartenbee, president: Recreation was the order of the day for NAPUB.  A newly brailled game of “Apples to Apples” entertained all participants.  No winner was announced.

Social Justice in the Federation by Jennifer Dunnam: The National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota is a member of Community Shares of Minnesota (CSM), a network of organizations that connect, fund and raise awareness for community groups fighting for fairness and equality.  Community Shares is unique in that its member organizations focus on social justice, which is the addressing of the root causes of social problems rather than just working to alleviate the symptoms.  Federationists know that working to deal with the causes of discrimination, low expectations, and other problems associated with blindness has been integral to our purpose since our founding.  Members of Community Shares are required to conduct periodic assessments of their social justice work to ensure that the organization remains a good fit with CSM. 

As part of our assessment this year, we devoted one of our afternoon sessions at the semiannual convention to discussion to identify and clarify the social justice aspects of who we are, what we do, and how we do our work.  A reflective group of members gathered to discuss big-picture questions such as: “what things are absolutely essential for us to have in order to be who we are and to do what we do?” and “what would the world look like if the work of the National Federation of the Blind was all done?”  We also spent time brainstorming about future resources and specific activities to enhance our work.  Thoughts on the answers to these questions from the session (or at any other time, for that matter) will help us to ensure that our focus is where it needs to be in order to reach our goal of the complete integration of blind people into society.

Senior Division by Joyce Scanlan, president: Senior division members met in the NFB conference room of our building.  Mr. Ed Letcher, the new SSB Director of Senior Services, spoke of his goals for providing quality services to older blind Minnesotans.  Everyone was pleased to hear that Mr. Letcher seemed to support the group model of serving the population for which he is responsible.  The group model has a fine record of success in this state.  An extensive discussion period followed.

We spent our remaining time in demonstrating and passing around several items of adaptive equipment of interest to seniors.  Many devices are used by Jan Bailey in her teaching business and were helpful in confirming the belief that we share that independence and a good life can go on after loss of eyesight occurs.

Several members remained to engage in casual and friendly conversation following adjournment.

iPhone Seminar by Sharon Monthei: A seminar on iOS devices was led by Charlotte Czarnecki, Chris Foster, and Sharon Monthei.  We discussed the types of apps available, including the relative advantages of the iPhone and iPad.  There was great interest in this topic, some by iPhone users and some by people wanting to purchase an iOS device.  A list of accessible apps was available in braille to help people get a further idea of possible apps.  It included transit, GPS, reference, music, radio, and book apps.

Technology Fair by Steve Jacobson: After completing our work, we held an exhibit of various technologies.  People were able to get hands-on experience with braille note-takers, braille displays, iPads, iPhones, Android tablets, Victor Reader Stream and BookSense readers, and several laptops.  There was a good deal of interest in various keyboard options for iPhones and iPads.  Many felt that this was a very worthwhile activity that could have been extended another hour.

The day closed with a very efficient cleanup crew who put the building back in order.