By Jennifer Dunnam
I cannot resist starting out this column with a shout out to spring in Minnesota! Many of us thought it might never arrive, but it is finally, finally here, and with it plenty of news and activities in the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.
Following the retirement of Richard Strong in December as director of State Services for the Blind (SSB), there occurred a long process of recruiting and hiring a new director for our rehabilitation agency for the Blind in Minnesota. Because we believe it is critical for the SSB director to be able to set the right tone and support good decisions that affect people's lives, the NFB of Minnesota was involved all along the way, and we appreciated the fact that our involvement was welcomed by the management of SSB and the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Over the past decade or so, consumer organizations have been able to engage in the process of selecting the right leadership, but outside of that, SSB has not always met our suggestions and requests with open arms, so this is something we cannot take for granted as administrations change. We provided a list of criteria to use to help make the hiring decision, submitted suggestions for interview questions, observed interviews, and provided feedback. In mid-March, DEED announced that Carol Pankow, who had worked in leadership at SSB for the past couple of years and acting director in the interim, permanently fills the position. Carol has a long career in public service and rehabilitation, a common sense approach, and a strong belief in the capacity of blind people and the importance of good training as the foundation for rehabilitation. We look forward to good things from SSB under her leadership and, as always, will continue to let her know how things are going from the consumer perspective.
Fourteen Minnesotans attended the Washington seminar, and all participated in making the case for our bills to our representatives and senators. Here is the status of Minnesota members of Congress who are cosponsoring bills as of early April. It is good progress, but we need to continue to contact our legislators to urge them to get on board.
- HR831 Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act (bill to eliminate subminimum wages): Of the 77 cosponsors, one is from Minnesota, Representative Keith Ellison
- HR3505 Technology Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act: Of the 31 cosponsors, two are from Minnesota: Representative Keith Ellison and Representative Rick Nolan.
- The bill to permit veterans who were disabled during service to be eligible to travel on military aircraft as are retired members of the military got a good deal of support from Minnesotans (Senator Klobuchar and Representatives Ellison, McCollum, Walz, Peterson and Paulsen were cosponsors). Although this was not one of our primary issues during the Washington Seminar, work continues on this issue, and the strong support from legislators everywhere will no doubt see it into law soon.
March 11 was our Day at the Capitol in Minnesota. An enthusiastic and hardworking crowd gathered to inform our state senators and representatives about the need for legislation dealing with the following issues:
- Ensure that all working Minnesotans receive the minimum wage by removing disability-related exemptions in state contracts. A bill (HF3269) would prohibit contracting with entities that hold special certificates permitting the payment of subminimum wages to workers with disabilities. Although this bill is late in the session, it will be a very helpful tool as we work to build support on this issue. Thanks to all who worked and continue to work to make the case with our legislators on this and all of our issues. This work is important, both for the short term and for the long term.
- Ensure that seniors losing their vision can live independent lives in their communities by increasing resources for services to blind seniors through Minnesota State Services for the Blind.
- Improve opportunities for blind Minnesotans and others by increasing investment in public transportation.
We have worked over many years to make sure that blind citizens have the opportunity to vote privately and verify their votes via accessible voting machines. We have also worked to be sure that the new online voter registration system is also accessible to blind voters. We continue to give feedback to governmental and other purveyors of online content to let them know if their web sites present barriers to nonvisual use.
The National Federation of the Blind Imagination Fund provides support for the work of the Jernigan Institute and local Federation chapters and affiliates throughout the United States. The Imagination Fund is a way to ask our friends and acquaintances who are not already involved with the NFB to help. We now have a special page where we can send people we know from Minnesota to contribute. They can either
- visit this link app.mobilecause.com/public/social/10150 to make a donation, or
- text the word Minnesota to 71777; they will then receive a text message reply with a link to Minnesota's fundraising page where they can then view the progress and make a donation. Please help spread the word by sharing this on Facebook and Twitter and by telling everyone you know. Since we will be raising funds through our Walk for Opportunity coming up this summer and fall, now is a good time to focus on the NFB Imagination Fund.
We will hold a Possibilities Fair — a seminar just for seniors — on August 12, 2014, at the Radisson in Roseville. Please help spread the word to seniors who are losing vision and need to know that they can still live independent lives.
The Walk for Opportunity, our state's largest fund-raiser, will be in Rochester on September 6. The following weekend will be the Gala and other events hosted by BLIND Inc. and the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the building of the Charles Pillsbury mansion and to raise funds for the building and for our programs.
Mark your calendars. The 2014 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota will be in New Ulm October 30-31 and November 1. Our conventions include something for everyone, and we need everyone's help, so you won't want to miss it.
In other news, besides all of the many other ways that one can get the Braille Monitor, our monthly national magazine, it is now available via Podcast. Just search for "Braille Monitor" on iTunes or other podcast directories to subscribe.
Several cars have been donated from Minnesota in the vehicle donation program. Let's keep that up. www.nfb.org/vehicledonations
We now have a new program much like our Free White Cane program that offers free slates and styluses. The details are at nfb.org/free-slate-program.
I hope to see everyone at the semiannual convention on May 17 at our headquarters building in Minneapolis. Happy spring to all.