Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Clift Notes: Conventiontime

Fitness, Technology, and Renewing Your Federation Spirit

Unknown individual, Dr. Deborah Carter and Christina Clift

By Christina Clift
On July 10-16, 2017 more than 2500 people gathered in Orlando Florida for the 77th annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind.  Every year it’s an opportunity to meet up with old acquaintances and friends, learn about the latest innovations in technology, and renew the bonds of love, hope, and determination that fuel our movement. It’s simply six days of nonstop activity fueled by not enough rest, snatched meals, and organized chaos. 

The Tennessee affiliate was well represented with 20 individuals from across the state in attendance with the Memphis chapter represented by nine individuals, five of which were convention rookies.  While this would be a vacation at times, I was also there to work and represent the blind in Tennessee. 

My first stop in Orlando was at the hotel where upon checking in I discovered that the walk to the convention center which is connected by a restaurant filled causeway was about 1.75 miles round trip.  This would require waking up a bit earlier and quickly puzzling out the way to and from the elevator.  I’d already scoped out the ice machine which was luckily seven doors down from mine.  By this point I had already encountered the obstacles of potted plants, artfully arranged seating areas, a birdcage where the birds did not sing, and lots of people with long white canes or service animals.  The convention had arrived and I was ready to jump into the fray.

Event at the National Federation of the Blind

     The first place my rookie, Deborah, and I ventured to was Tobias Burgers and Brews to get dinner.  This meant traveling from our room to the end of the causeway that connects the hotel to the convention center.  We were fairly successful in navigating the way there using my memory from the year ago.  We weren’t too proud to ask a UPS volunteer for assistance along the way.  It is always interesting to observe how our rookies will react to convention; so far so good.

I found a great chicken pot pie with a flakey croissant crust, unctuous broth, chunks of chicken, vegetables and the side of mashed potatoes with bourbon bacon and cheddar cheese. The meal helped to fuel my explorations for the next few hours.

Deborah and I headed to the Rookie Round-up.  This is an event that orients any first-time attendees to what will happen during our convention.  Since I already knew all of this I left Deborah sitting in the audience and caught up with an old friend.  I wanted to see how Deborah would fend for herself when left without anyone to help her.  This is a trick pulled by all of the mentors at some point during the early days of convention, because we don’t want our mentees totally dependent on us. 

Deborah did well and finally found her way back to her room.  She asked for directions when needed and used her cane to navigate the hotel.     

“I was excited and looking forward to what the rest of the week would bring,” Deborah said after making it through her first day.

On Tuesday I sat in on a seminar presented by Amazon in which they discussed the accessibility of their current products including the Kindle, Echo, Amazon TV and Fire Stick.  Amazon’s products over the past few years have increased in accessibility for people who are blind with the addition of voice commands, voice view and of course the inclusion of Alexa.  Thousands of the Kindle e-books are accessible as well.  You can identify them if it says “screen reader supported.”  Meanwhile, Deborah was attending the NFB Job Fair and handing out resumes. 

My next stop that day was to visit the Exhibit Hall and Independence Market where I could play with all of the new technology.  My favorite item was the Aira glasses which provide instant access to information. Aira agents will provide real-time feedback to give customers information about the best route to travel to get where they need to go, assistance while shopping, during social events, out dining, and reading documents. 

I signed up on the basic plan and can’t wait to try them out.  The basic plan costs $89 a month and you will receive your Aira glasses, a hotspot, equipment insurance, and 200 minutes for the first three months and 100 minutes thereafter.  Anyone who refers someone who signs up will receive a free month of service and since I referred two people to sign up I will receive two months free.

But my greatest accomplishment that day was being able to travel to and from my room to the elevator with no wrong turns.

Wednesday was the only day during the week that I got to sleep until 9:00 and it felt wonderful.  I served in the hospitality suite for five hours since Tennessee was one of the state affiliates sponsoring this year’s convention.  While serving snacks and bottled drinks I got to meet members from across the country.  I met a member of the Springfield Massachusetts chapter and we talked about ways to keep blind youth engaged.  I met a transplanted Memphian living in Arizona.  We reminisced about his days at Booker T Washington and places he remembered growing up. 

Rookies from Colorado, Georgia, Alaska, and Hawaii asked questions too. Students came by who simply wanted to borrow our microwave to heat up their Raman noodles.  It was a time for answering questions, welcoming members who needed a snack, and making new friends like a lady for Georgia who sang solo for us while munching on a bag of Cheezits.

Meanwhile, Deborah was attending the Human Services Division meeting and learning about the fight to make electronic medical record software accessible for the blind. By the end of Wednesday everyone is giving thanks to the UPS volunteers who unfailingly helped us when we were lost, turned around, or in need of finding a place to sit while we eat lunch.

On Thursday we all gathered for General Session.  There’s nothing more exciting than when the gavel goes down and we are all seated by state.  The opening ceremony was kicked off by entertainment provided by a blind contestant from The Voice named Blessing Offor.  He was followed up with a celebration of freedom for our blind veterans.  Next up was Going through the Roll Call of States. 

It’s is always exciting because you get to hear what is happening in other states and who is serving as their delegates and alternate delegates. The list of 52 affiliates takes quite a while to get through.

After we came back from lunch we listened to the Presidential report from our current president Mark Riccobono. It highlighted our accomplishments over the past year and talked about our continued challenges.  Some of our remaining challenges are the right to parent as blind individuals, equal wages for people with disabilities, and access to affordable technology. The afternoon ended with a report from the World Blind Union, which reaffirmed their commitment to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Marrakesh Treaty.

On Friday we elected individuals to serve on our national board of directors. Winners included: Cathy Jackson from Kentucky, Adelmo Vigil from Illinois, Joseph Ruffalo from New Jersey, Norma Crosby from Texas, John Fritz from Wisconsin, and Ever Lee Hairston from California.

We also heard inspirational stories from people like Top Chef Season 3 winner Christina Ha, Jordan who ran across the United States in 56 days, and Jessica Beecham who will be competing in the Pike’s Peak Challenge later this year. 

We also passed 22 resolutions dealing with issues regarding access to kiosks, funding for public transportation, the Pedestrian Enhancement Safety Act, federal funding for the Library of Congress’s Libraries for the Blind, equal access to computer-adaptive tests, accessibility of major home appliances, and the commercialization of interstate rest areas.

Deborah stated after hearing all of the resolutions, “I was amazed at the scope of work the NFB is involved in and I still have so much to learn.”

If you’d like to read the entire list of resolutions passed you can click here: National Federation of the Blind Resolutions for 2017.

After a long day in general session some of our folks decided to play tourists and visit local malls.

“I learned how Uber and Lyft work and look forward to using them more to increase my independence in travel,” stated Evonne Johnson a rookie from Memphis. 

Saturday was all about technology with reports from VFO, Amazon, Aira, Microsoft, and Expedia.  Each speaker provided an update on the accessibility of their software as well as what new features would be introduced in the future. 

The tenth annual Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award were also presented to five  innovators and advocates who are helping blind people live the  lives they want. This year’s winners included: the American Bar Association for its commitment to making its resources and conferences fully accessible to its blind members. Dr. Paul Barlett of Cleveland Chiropractic College for his innovations in making complex medical diagrams and other materials accessible, and The NFB of Illinois for its Freedom Link Program which pairs blind youth with blind adult mentors to  participate in independent travel excursions and recreation activities in the Chicago area.

The final two awards were presented to documentary filmmakers. Ten thousand dollars was awarded to Rooted in Rights, a project of Disability Rights Washington, for its film Bottom Dollars, which exposes the pitfalls of sheltered subminimum-wage employment for people with disabilities, and profiles disabled workers who have obtained integrated and meaningful employment. A $15,000 award was presented to co-directors Sarah Ivy and Abigail Fuller for their documentary Do You Dream in Color?, which follows four blind teenagers as they seek to achieve their dreams in the face of low expectations and barriers in the education system.

When the gavel sounded at 5:00 PM Saturday evening all 2,500 well-trained Federationists did what we do every year, we stood up, turned around, and moved in order to clear the ballroom floor in three minutes so that the room could be readied for our banquet.  I had already left the ballroom since I was a marshal and would be responsible for loading people into their assigned elevators.  Controlled chaos at its best.  We had everyone up to their rooms by 5:35 and so I jumped onto the last elevator to get all dressed up for banquet.

The Banquet is always a time full of anticipation.  What will the president’s speech be about? Who will win the big raffles and door prizes? In my case my first thought is what will dinner be like?  Well, it was typical banquet food consisting of a spring salad, fillet mignon, mashed potatoes, broccoli and carrots.  Dessert was a trio of chocolate crème brûlée, lemon sponge cake, and pudding.  Dessert was the best part of my meal. 

Once we were fed, it was time for our annual banquet address.  President Riccobono presented a speech titled "Innovation, Blindness, and the Emerging Pattern of Thought.”  An inspiring speech which lasted more than 75 minutes, my rookies and I all managed to stay awake.  President Riccobono explored the place of technology in the lives of blind people and how it has changed over the generations.  You can read the speech on the web.  

President Riccobono speaking at the Convention

We were all a little disappointed when the gavel came down for the final time at 11:15 PM that evening, because it meant that convention had come to an end.  None of us won any of the raffles or $2,017 cash door prize either.  Some people ask me why I go to convention every year.  Well it’s for this reason: Often times a blind person can be the only one at a school, job, apartment complex, or church.  They often encounter barriers that they must overcome by themselves. But the convention reminds us in the words of former President Kenneth Jernigan:

“As blind individuals we often walk alone but in the NFB we march together.”

That is the power of the Federation, an organization of the blind speaking for ourselves. 

If you’d like to join us next year or want to learn more about who we are and what we do, call us at (901) 213-6270 or shoot us an e-mail at memphis@nfb-tn.org.