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Reflections of The 1999 National Federation of The Blind Convention in Atlanta

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This is a compilation of excerpts from reports of people's impressions of the 1999 Atlanta convention of the National Federation of the Blind of the United States.

John Rae

During a question and answer session with Tom Johnson, President of CNN News Group, Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, (NFB), observed "The NFB is a civil rights movement." Thus, it seems entirely appropriate that the 1999 and 2000 NFB conventions were booked for Atlanta, Georgia, where the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and where he preached at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

The 1999 NFB Convention in Atlanta attracted 3,008 registrants, which was the second largest number in attendance to the 1997 convention in New Orleans, and this year's banquet established an all-time attendance record. Over 35 Canadians attended, along with participants from Japan, Singapore, Cyprus, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and South Africa. Since this was my sixth NFB Convention, I was already familiar with how the week's program would unfold. The first few days were taken up with many concurrent meetings of divisions, committees and other special interest groups which covered such topics as merchants, students, lawyers, educators, computer science specialists, dog guide users, parents of blind children, diabetics, public employees, and many more.

I attended the Writers' Division workshop, the Committee on Library Services and the Cultural Exchange and International Program Committee at which Dr. Maurer, who also serves as President of the North American-Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union reported on the NFB's international work during the past year. I also visited the exhibit hall and the sensory safari. The Sensory Safari provided an opportunity to touch a number of wilderness animals preserved through taxidermy. As co-editor of the Canadian Blind Monitor, I focused much of my time on making contacts with individuals who might contribute articles to future issues. I am hopeful we will receive submissions on blind persons teaching orientation and mobility, deaf-blind concerns, and the experiences of my South African roommate who piloted a 33-foot yacht solo from Durban, South Africa to Fremantle, Australia and lived to tell me many tales of his adventure.

The three and a half days of general sessions covered such topics as the President's Report of the past year's activities, rehabilitation, library services, specialised services for the blind, CNN, and a panel on the WBU and programs for the blind in several countries. The final day's business meeting covered financial matters, and a discussion of about 20 resolutions.

While in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King Memorial, and I found it to be a very moving experience. All of us who fight for justice and true equality have much to learn from the speeches and writings that Dr. King has left us.

Kimberley Brownlee

For me, one of the best parts about the Atlanta convention was meeting different people and learning how they address the obstacles presented by blindness. My roommate Robin Mandell taught me a great deal. For example, the first time I saw her walk into the bathroom of our hotel room without turning the light on I realised how easy it is to expect people to behave in certain ways. Robin showed me that she could function perfectly well in a way that is different from most people. She not only taught me some simple aspects of Braille, but explained to me how she uses a white cane to hear and feel the ground as she walks. She said that it is even possible to 'hear' doorways. I realised that I tend to use what limited vision I have, as a legally blind person, instead of using my other senses more efficiently as Robin does.

Another person I learned from during the week in Atlanta was Karoline Al-Koura, a Queen's Law student, who showed me what is involved in having a guide dog. I had not realised how strong the relationship is between blind people and their guide dogs. The subtlety of the communication between owners and their dogs was impressive. The professionalism of the 400 odd guide dogs at the convention was amazing. Another person who I appreciated meeting was a student from Florida named Eric, who, like me, has a form of ocular albinism. Since I have met very few people who have the same disability that I do, it was great to talk to him about how he addresses both albinism and being legally blind. He told me about various technologies that are available to legally blind people which I intend to make use of in the future.

The conference sessions were all very interesting. In particular I benefited from listening to Raymond Kurtzweil, an inventor who has done much to provide technological assistance for blind people. He made a number of fascinating predictions both about the direction technology will be taking in the next twenty years and how these changes will affect blind people. I was amazed at the number of inventions that Dr. Kurtzweil has developed that have become essential tools for blind people in recent years.

One event that I found particularly pertinent to my professional goals was the meeting of the Blind Lawyers Division. I found some of the speakers at this event very knowledgeable and informative. I learned about some of the cases of injustice that blind individuals have faced in recent years because of ignorance or discrimination on the part of the sighted community. Both the president of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division as well as the deans from two US Law schools spoke positively about the role of blind people in the legal profession. Finally, I enjoyed having the opportunity to see an American city that I had never visited before. While in Atlanta I toured the Martin Luther King, Jr. family home and memorial centre with Robin and Karoline. I learned that there is more to travelling than just 'seeing' things. Sounds, smells, etc. are equally important to experiencing other parts of the world. The convention was a very positive learning experience that I will always remember.

Mary Tenenbein

On July 1, 1999 an exciting new network was formed. Under the leadership of Donna Balaski, a low vision counsellor and the guidance of Marc Stracks, a resident in Family Medicine, a group of blind persons in the medical field assembled and formed a support network within the NFB. The intention was that the group would be officially formed by the year 2000 convention and to follow the basic philosophy and principles of the NFB. If you are in the medical profession and are blind or vision-impaired, this group would like to hear from you. If you are not in the field, but know someone who is, this group would like to hear from them as well. For more information, please contact Donna Balaski at 1201 W. Main Street, Suite 100, Waterbury, CT 06708. E-mail: dlb13@snet.het

Robin Mandell

Attending an NFB convention is an experience that for many reasons has had a dramatic impact on my life. Atlanta was my second NFB convention; my the first being the 1997 convention in New Orleans. Because this was my second convention, I was able to approach it with some knowledge of the NFB. This helped immensely for, as many of you know, an NFB convention can be a very overwhelming experience.

The exhibit hall is always one of my favourite aspects at an NFB convention. The number and diversity of materials, resources, and assorted appliances is inspiring and overwhelming. I picked up reams of Braille catalogues and brochures. Some of the new adaptive technologies displayed at the convention were just mind- boggling. The first division meeting I attended was the meeting of the association of blind students. Most of the speakers spoke on topics that were directly related to the NFB of the United States which was not altogether unexpected. However, I remember a similar meeting in New Orleans being much more interesting and informative for Canadians.

I also attended the Blind Writers' Division meeting. The atmosphere in the meeting was geared toward the individual. At the beginning of the meeting, the president, Tom Stevens, asked all present to introduce themselves and tell about their respective writing experiences. The two keynote speakers were very entertaining and informative. Dr. Patricia Morrow spoke about writing personal essays. The general themes of her talk were: the importance of remembering the difference between a personal and factual essay, the importance of using one's own unique voice in the essay, and the effectiveness of keeping the subject and form of the essay simple but unique. Jerry Whittle, the other speaker, discussed the writing of fiction. The one comment he made that really struck a chord in me was that in order to become better writers, it is necessary to read many books in written form, either Braille or print, rather than through electronic means.

The last meeting I would like to report on was the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU). The topic of this seminar was, "A Guide Dog in Your Life." As a cane-user who would one day like to work with a dog, I found the content of this meeting particularly interesting. The meeting started with introductions from representatives of many of the major U.S. guide dog schools. One particular trend I noticed was the tendency towards home training in which dog and owner are trained in the owner's home environment. Following the reports form the schools, various guide dog users spoke about their own experiences. Such subjects as how to know when you are ready for a dog; the benefits and drawbacks of having a dog; and the difference that dogs have made in people's lives. The point was stressed that anyone considering a dog should have good orientation and mobility skills. I look forward to further dealings with the NFB: AE and hope to be very much involved in its growth.

Colin McDonald

One of the things that impressed me most about the Atlanta convention was the fact that there was an exhibition hall. This was where many different businesses that specialise in adaptive technology were set up to display and sell their products. These companies included: Blazie Engineering, Henter-Joyce, American Printing House for the Blind, Arkenstone Inc, Kurzweil Educational Systems Inc, and the NFB Store.

This year's entire convention was devoted to the memory of the late Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who died last October. He was one of the driving forces of the NFB since about 1959. There were many speeches given in his honour. They described his life's achievements and all that he had done for the NFB. It seems that Dr. Jernigan was a person whom, when he put his mind to something, achieved his goal one way or another. The social part of the event was another highlight. I met and hung out with people from all over the U.S. There were several very cool places near and in the hotel. Coming from the Yukon Territory, many of the attractions of the city were exciting and new for me. For instance, close to the hotel, there was a Hard Rock Cafe and a Planet Hollywood restaurant. Both of those places I had never been to before, so this was an awesome experience.

In closing, I would like to reiterate that this convention and the whole experience in general have had a lasting impression on me. Not only did I learn about how other blind individuals have been successful in their endeavours, I have also learned more about what it means to be a blind student and individual. In Whitehorse, Yukon, I am the only blind student in the school system and one of the only few in my city. Therefore, being in a place where virtually everyone is either blind or vision impaired gave me a better understanding of mobility and general attitudes.

Robert Fenton

I would say that the Atlanta Convention was a very positive experience for me. I attended various general sessions at the convention covering topics such as the new digital process for recording talking books, rehabilitation services available to blind people, CNN's role in reporting news stories of importance to blind and vision-impaired people, CNN's attempts to make its services more accessible to blind people, rehabilitation and consumer group activities in foreign countries, and others.

I also had the opportunity to speak at the pre-convention session of the National Association of Blind Lawyers regarding the activities of the equivalent group in Canada. As many of you may know, there is a Canadian Association of Visually Impaired Lawyers which consists of approximately 50 lawyers, law students and judges from across the country. My talk at the convention related to the scheduling of an international conference for blind lawyers to take place some time in May of 2000. I am pleased to report that the National Association of Blind Lawyers is interested in co-sponsoring the event with the Canadian Association of Visually Impaired Lawyers and the American Blind Lawyers Association, ACB's lawyers' affiliate. I also took the opportunity in my speech to discuss the kinds of activities that NFB: AE was pursuing in Canada.

I also attended a session on active learning prepared by Dr. Neilson, a psychologist from Denmark. Dr. Neilson is one of the foremost authorities in the development and teaching of the theory of active learning to multiply-handicapped blind children. She presented an extensive body of literature and provided those who attended with a list of resources regarding the theory itself, its development and its various applications.

In addition to attending sessions, I spent a long time in the exhibit hall. I collected copies of virtually all of the handouts that were available, and will be providing them to national office.

Finally, I had a number of meetings with high-ranking officials from NFB state affiliates and members of consumer groups from other countries. John Rae and I attended a supper with representatives from NIVR in Japan and from the largest consumer group of blind people in Singapore. I also had the opportunity to meet with William Roland, a high-ranking official in the largest agency in South Africa which serves blind and vision-impaired people. Both Mr. Roland and Mr. Chuji Sashida, the representative from NIVR, have agreed to write articles for this publication. I have also made agreements with both individuals to share publications and to participate actively in co-ordinating efforts of programs of mutual interest to our respective constituents.