By Jennifer Dunnam
Eighty-seven Minnesotans attended our 76th annual national convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando. The convention, as always, was a wonderful way to deepen our connections with other Federationists and with the issues of our movement, to get our internal batteries charged, and to gain broader perspectives — not to mention to have fun getting some work done! The convention had many invigorating highlights, but the penultimate event, as it always is, was the banquet speech, delivered this year for the second time by our president, Mark Riccobono. Entitled "The Understanding of Fear and the Power of Progress" (https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/convent/banquet-speech-2016.html), the speech discussed various aspects of fear, its relationship to blindness, and finding the power at the other side of fear. For me, his discussion of some fears as hard-wired and some as conditioned called to mind some recent incidents.
About a year ago, an unidentified flying creature (possibly but not definitely a bat) got into my apartment and landed on my shoulder. I screamed, flung it away, and ran out of the apartment in terror, prepared to let this winged creature have whatever it wanted as long as it left me alone! Fortunately, I had the sense to enlist cooler heads to help me reclaim my abode. After a lengthy search involving several people, flashlights, and iPhone apps, the creature was found and escorted from the premises (although unfortunately for me, it was I who ultimately located the interloper by accidentally stepping on it causing it to make a loud sort of hissing sound!).
Not two months later, on my way home, a man walked behind me as I entered my apartment building. Suspecting I was actively being followed, I continued down the hallway past my own apartment door, headed for another exit, and was just opening the door to go out, when a pair of hands reached from behind me to try to take away my phone, which I was holding in my left hand. In that case I also screamed, but this time I fought furiously until he gave up and ran away empty-handed.
To this day, thinking about either of these incidents can evoke strong almost physical reactions in me — cringing, skin-crawling terror in the case of the creature, and snarling readiness for battle in the case of the failed phone thief. I don't completely understand why these two frightening events caused such opposite reactions, but they are definitely two sides of the very same coin.
In general society, we know that blindness is one of the things people fear the very most. When people who have lived much of their lives with full sight and then begin to find that they are losing significant amounts of vision, they are often terrified. There has been a general awareness for many years that there will be a major increase in people who have this experience, because of the aging of the "baby boomers.” We in the NFB of Minnesota, along with Minnesota State Services for the Blind (SSB), have been working to get our state government to see the wisdom of making more funding available now so that people can get training to unlearn the fear and continue to live full and independent lives in their own homes. Otherwise, the state will end up with much greater expense if people enter assisted living care or nursing homes because they are afraid and have no idea what else to do if they cannot see.
In this legislative session, only because of the kind of concerted effort on many fronts that we know how to make in the Federation, we have realized another tremendous success that will greatly improve opportunities for blind seniors in Minnesota. In the supplemental finance bill that passed the legislature in the last hours of the session, increased funding was included in the state appropriation for SSB, specifically designated for services to seniors. There will be $1,000,000 additional for the 2017 biennium, and a $500,000 increase for each year going forward after that. The Governor signed the bill into law on June 1. Each person in this organization who made a phone call, wrote a letter or sent a tweet, participated in a meeting to educate a legislator, stayed for long hours in committee meetings, and so many other things large and small that enable this organization to do its work has helped to improve opportunities for many blind people in this state. Of course, the work is not done. We have a good working relationship with State Services for the Blind — if we did not have a sense that the decision-makers understand that people need quality training rather than quick-fix solutions, we would have gone about this differently. Still, it remains important for us to stay informed about what the plans are and to provide the input from our collective experience to see that things go as they should.
Later in this issue, you will read about our recent semiannual convention, filled with information, inspiration, and fun because of the more than 100 members from all over our state who helped to make it so.
In other exciting news, May 19-21, our regional NFB STEM2U program took place, in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota. Elementary and high school students from many states in our area worked on accessible STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning at the museum and provided feedback to staff and educators about how the museum could be accessible to blind people. Everyone had a great time with this event, and we will hear more about it at our annual state convention.
That convention will be here before we know it. This year the convention will be earlier than in some years — September 30-October 2. Check our Web site www.nfbmn.org for information on room reservations and other details.
This year's Walk for Opportunity in Rochester to benefit this affiliate will take place on September 10. Mark your calendars and watch for more details so that you can be part of our largest (and some say most fun) statewide fundraiser!
And finally, here is your reminder to read our flagship publication of the national organization of which we are a vital part — the Braille Monitor. When questions arise about what the Federation is doing or should do about a given situation, the Monitor is full of the information and background that we need to be best situated to weigh in on those decisions. To borrow some recent words from the editor, Gary Wunder: "... the Monitor is published eleven times a year. It is available in Braille, print, and in narrated audio on a flash drive readable with an NLS player. It is available through email and as a podcast which one can find through iTunes. It is on the web as an HTML document and in Microsoft Word. It can also be read with human narration by article. To subscribe, send an email to email@example.com, telling Sonia the form in which you would like the publication. Please make sure she has your address, telephone number, email address, and the form in which you would like our publication. So whether you read Braille, print, like narrated audio, or prefer to do your reading with the voice provided by your screen reader, the Monitor is available to you. Whether you prefer your portable Victor Stream or HIMS product, the Monitor can go where you go. You can have the convenience of a DAISY book navigable article by article or the convenience of a podcast in which each issue comes to you when it is released."
As I write this, we in this country are living through such a difficult time of violence and distress. May this human race find the power to counteract the fear of all kinds, with acknowledgment and understanding of one another, with empathy, and especially with positive action. May our Federation spirit be part of the mix that helps us move forward, toward living the lives we want.