President's Column

President's Column

By: Ryan Strunk

(Editor’s Note: Our state President made the following remarks at our semiannual convention. In hearing such a stirring, inspiring presentation we are reminded of all the powerful ways we as blind people are moving forward to live the lives we want here in Minnesota.)

There is a humbling strength at the core of this organization. It’s a strength rooted in our bone-deep philosophy—the certainty that blindness will not hold us back—but it’s also in the heads and hearts and hands of everyone in this affiliate. Every time one of us helps someone in need, every time we write or call a legislator, every time we step out into our communities with poise and confidence, every meeting we attend, every social media post in support of blind people, every idea we share, brings us another step closer to our dream of true equality.

Let’s start there, in the knowledge that we are doing great things.

Thank you for everything you do every day.

Our organization, however, is more than just our individual actions. It is also the collective force we bring to bear whenever we set our minds to a task. In that spirit, I want to share with you some of the great things we have accomplished over the past seven months.

At our convention last year, we passed a resolution calling upon our legislators to oppose HR-620, the Americans with Disabilities Education and Reform Act. The bill, if passed, would substantially weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we were strongly opposed to it and the cosponsorship of representatives Emmer and Lewis.

We fought hard to defeat this bill at the Washington Seminar, at one point having quite the debate with Rep. Lewis’ legislative assistant, and when the call came out to contact our representatives, Minnesota represented en masse.

Unfortunately, however, support for the bill was stronger than we had hoped, and HR-620 passed in the house of representatives. The aforementioned representatives Lewis and Emmer voted in favor of the bill, as did Rep. Peterson.

While we’re unhappy about that vote—and we have every right to be—that isn’t the end of the story.

A few weeks later, Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois wrote a letter to her senate colleagues opposing the passage of HR-620. As soon as the letter was published, we sprang into action once more and urged senator Smith to sign onto the letter. (Senator Klobuchar had already done so.) Within days of our calls and emails, Senator Smith added her name to the list of senators opposed to HR-620.

With everything going on in Washington right now, we haven’t heard a whisper about a senate version of the ADA Education and Reform Act being written—which is just fine, but you can bet that if we do, we will be there to oppose it, and we will be there with the support of both of our senators because of the work we have already done.

Thank you, my fellow federationists.

We believe college students should have the ability to access their coursework in an accessible format, so we fought hard for the introduction of the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act—Aim High. We believe that assistive technology can serve as a vital tool in helping all blind people achieve independence, so we fought hard for the introduction of the Access Technology Affordability Act. At the Washington seminar, we spoke with our congressman and urged them to cosponsor these important pieces of legislation. I am pleased to report that representatives Nolan, Ellison, and Peterson have signed on to both these bills.

We appreciate their support, and we will not stop fighting until both Aim High and the Access Technology Affordability Act are passed.

Alex Loch ably led our legislative efforts, and I thank him for all his work, along with everyone else who traveled to Washington DC and helped bring about these changes.

In our organization, we focus on the rights of blind people and helping one another to live the lives we want, and we do that regardless of faith, race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, age, income level, or anything else people might try to use to divide us. In the NFB, we focus on blindness, and we understand that all blind people benefit from the work we do.

In addition, we know that our work requires decorum and poise from our leaders, and we understand that, in order to be effective, we must always represent ourselves well and treat others with respect.

I am pleased to announce that, at our April board meeting, the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota board of directors formally adopted a code of conduct which lays out these expectations and sets the standards our leaders will follow. We will carry ourselves professionally, we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment, and we will not discriminate against our fellow federationists.

I am pleased to be a part of an organization that values dignity, respect, and inclusion. Thank you, my fellow federationists, for making our organization a welcoming place for all blind Minnesotans.

We passed another resolution at our convention last year aimed at addressing the critical shortage of teachers of blind students in Minnesota. We know that a quality education in Braille, technology, orientation and mobility, and daily living skills is crucial to a student’s independence, and we do not want our students to suffer because there aren’t enough teachers to give them the skills they need.

In February, Minnesota federationists took to the halls of the state capitol to urge our legislators to introduce a bill which will help establish a university program to train and license teachers of blind students here in our state. Our initial contact was made on the house side by Steve Jacobson and Rocky Hart, who convinced Representative Ron Kresha to author the legislation. On the senate side, Senator Senjom, from the Rochester area, agreed to author our bill after an extremely positive meeting with our Rochester delegation and a follow-up from Steve Jacobson.

Unfortunately, we did hit a bit of a snag. The education department at the University of Minnesota is undergoing a restructuring, and they cannot take up our program at this time. However, we believe other Minnesota colleges will be interested, and our senate bill has been amended so that funding will be given to any Minnesota state college that will take up this important cause.

Our bill to study and establish a Teachers of the Blind and Visually Impaired licensure program in Minnesota has been amended, passed through a Senate committee, and is now a part of the Senate Education Omnibus bill SF3656. There is a similar omnibus bill in the House which does not contain Rep. Kresha’s language. Nevertheless, a conference committee has been appointed to resolve the differences, and it is possible that our language could be included in the House bill and become law. Because we have been unable to find a higher education partner, this bill now primarily provides a grant to an institution of higher education to "explore, design and plan" a program and then report back the annual cost of such a program.

This would be a smaller step than we hoped to take, but a positive step nevertheless. The education of blind children is of crucial importance, and we are pleased that our work is gaining traction.

I want to extend my sincere thanks to Rocky Hart and the Rochester chapter for helping to lay the groundwork, and to Steve, who has written numerous emails, taken part in hearings, and spent significant time at the state capitol to fight for this legislation.

Judy Sanders has also been hard at work to ensure that our ability to vote independently is preserved as counties across Minnesota work to update their voting machines. She too has met with legislators and legal aids, and she testified at a hearing to bring awareness to this issue.

At present, our legislation to update nonvisual voting machines with new ballots is stalled in the Senate. While HF3221 passed in the House by a vote of 124 to 1, We know the Senate has not yet voted on their version of the bill and that their version does not include our language.

While we do not yet know what will happen to our provision, we have been assured by the Secretary of State's office that they are working to find money to help replace old machines, and they will make sure we have the ability to vote independently in upcoming elections.

I also know that Judy will continue to determinedly pursue this issue, and that we have a whole host of federationists ready and willing to come to her aid when she calls.

Please join me in thanking Judy for all her hard work.

Some of our members, and some of the students at BLIND, Inc. use Metro Mobility to travel around the metro and surrounding areas. The service, however, has been plagued with numerous problems which we sought to address with a third resolution at last year’s convention.

Since then, Briley O’Connor has been working with the director of Metro Mobility to address blind passenger complaints, and I am pleased to report that she is making progress.

In the past, students with an area code from outside of the Twin Cities were unable to receive calls from Metro Mobility, resulting in them being placed on standby. This is no longer the case, and riders with cell phones from elsewhere in the country can now receive calls. In addition, we have been given access to a much more direct complaint process which eliminates multiple levels of bureaucracy. Finally, Metro Mobility would like to work directly with the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota to conduct in-person and video trainings to teach drivers how to interact with blind passengers.

We recognize there is still much work to be done, though, and to those of you in this room who use Metro Mobility, know that we have your back, and we will get you results. Thank you, Briley.

While we in Minnesota have a core of solid federationists, we also know that we can learn so much from our colleagues across the country. On the weekend of April 20, staff and students from BLIND, Inc. and members of our student division piled into a fifteen-passenger van and traveled to a joint student seminar in Chicago Illinois. There, with Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan, we exchanged ideas, networked, debated philosophy, and learned to salsa.

We set our students up for success when we equip them with the tools they need to compete on an even footing with their peers, and I have no doubt that everyone who attended is better for having done so.

I want to personally thank Cody Beardslee for all the work he did, both here in Minnesota and in his role as a member of the National association of Blind Students board, to make the seminar such an empowering experience.

Every day, we work in this organization to strengthen our movement and improve the lives of blind people, and we do so in so many ways. When members of our Rochester chapter throw their annual Christmas party and celebrate volunteer drivers, they strengthen transportation opportunities for all rural Minnesotans. When our Twin Ports chapter puts pedestrian safety fliers under drivers’ windshield wipers, they make life safer for blind pedestrians. When our Central Minnesota Chapter hosts the annual spaghetti dinner, they demonstrate the capabilities of blind people to members of the public. When our Metro Chapter holds its annual craft fair, people from all over the Twin Cities get to see the capabilities of blind artists. When our At Large Chapter discusses philosophy and technology, they provide a place of growth and a sense of empowerment to blind Minnesotans from across the state. When the members of our River Bend Chapter support one another, even with the physical distances between them, they show us a model of community that we can all learn from.

It has been a true honor to work with you as president over the past seven months. Thank you all for your ideas and your energy. Thank you all for your advice and your feedback. You inspire me to be better.

As we look toward October and beyond, I know that we will continue to be successful. We will make progress and change lives because of all of you who share your energy and determination. If you want work to do, there is work to be done. If you have a story to tell, I will find you a place for that story. If you have ideas, let’s work together to turn them into reality.

My brothers and sisters, thank you for all that you have done and all that you will do. Thank you for being part of the National Federation of the Blind.