by Mark A. Riccobono
From the Editor: To present the last item on Friday afternoon’s agenda, Mark Riccobono was invited to discuss the ten years of progress he has observed at the Jernigan Institute. This was a significant challenge, made even more difficult because his was the name mentioned most by those speculating about who would be the next president of the National Federation of the Blind. His mission, therefore, was not only to talk about the Institute and his work there, but to explain what his job and his membership in the National Federation of the Blind had done to shape his character, build his confidence, and prepare him to occupy the most influential position in the affairs of the blind in the United States and the world. Here is what he said:
Today we come to acknowledge a milestone in our movement: ten years of progress in the Jernigan Institute of the National Federation of the Blind. One of the last projects Kenneth Jernigan undertook in his life was dreaming and planning for a research and training institute—a place where we could bring together our collective hopes, test our life experiences, and build new patterns of education that would be dramatically different from anything that had previously existed.
I never met Dr. Jernigan in the flesh. I came into the Federation as a college student in 1996, and in the two years that I had before his death, there were probably half a dozen times I should have taken the opportunity to introduce myself. I foolishly thought that I was not worth his time or that he had more pressing things to do than talk to me. Today I recognize the tremendous opportunity I lost, and I have tried not to repeat that mistake with others. Although I did not have the benefit of receiving Dr. Jernigan's mentorship firsthand, I have been educated by his writing, inspired by his voice, and influenced by his life's work.
In reflecting on the past ten years, I find myself wondering what he would think of what we have done and what I might say to him personally if I had that opportunity. Then it came to me that, while I might never know what he would say about the institute that bears his name, I certainly could tell him what we have done and what we dream of doing in the decades ahead. And so I have written him a letter that I would like to share with you this afternoon because it reflects the tremendous progress we have made and points to the work ahead on our journey together.
Dear Dr. Jernigan,
I wanted to write to you on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. I have had the honor of working there since day one, and for the past seven years I have served as executive director. I have felt the love, hope, and determination that have come out of our innovative programs—I have always thought of it as carrying your spirit forward to a new generation. I want to share with you what we have been doing in our Jernigan Institute and tell you how the work continues to shape my own development as a member of the National Federation of the Blind.
My first assignment at our Jernigan Institute was to build a new, dynamic, hands-on brand of science education for blind youth and have it ready for our first summer. I know that you loved science fiction, and you would have delighted in joining these young blind people in touring the Goddard Space Flight Center, talking to NASA engineers, and building and launching a rocket from Wallops Island. The significance of that first summer was, like your Iowa experiment, the way we put the Federation model to the test. We started with our own experience, which, for many of us, meant the experience of having been shut out of science. True to your example, we chose not to be victims with sad stories of exclusion, but rather victors, determined that what we were denied would serve as our inspiration to improve conditions for the next generation. We gathered outstanding blind educators, skilled blind scientists and engineers, subject matter experts in the areas we wanted to teach, and all of us dreamed about what we would do with our combined talents. This created a beautiful model for collaboration and innovation. We often had to teach ourselves before we could teach the blind teens. A number of dogfish sharks were dissected by blind mentors developing and perfecting their nonvisual techniques. That first summer was critical in educating the blind teachers that we did not have to be bound by the traditional models of education and that we could create something new and unprecedented. We knew immediately that the next task would be to use that experience to teach others how to do the same thing.
We made a commitment to Mrs. tenBroek to have a special space in our building to house Dr. tenBroek's personal and professional papers. We have dedicated over 17,000 square feet to our Jacobus tenBroek Research Library on Blindness. Dr. tenBroek's papers are well preserved, and we have developed tools for researchers to use so that they can discover his significant contributions to society. The library also contains your own papers, as well as the hundreds of books and periodicals that the organization has collected over the decades. We have digitized our print books and magazines, and we continue to grow our unique collection of the history and achievements of the blind. We are now focusing more energy on capturing and telling the story of blind people in writing, on video, and through other emerging media. Blind people are more a part of society than ever before, yet most people do not know a blind person. The walls of our institute are filled with pictures of blind people living the lives they want. We now need to take those images beyond our walls and use today's technology to distribute them around the world in order to create greater awareness about our organization and demonstrate the power of the blind in action.
In the early days of our institute, the majority of our time and resources were spent on specialized products for the blind. While we are still collecting and testing these, today a majority of our time and resources are spent on the same products our sighted friends are buying. This shift reflects both the higher expectations we have for our participation in the mainstream and our advanced experience with technology. We have set a new standard that demands that technology be built from the beginning with nonvisual access as one of the design considerations. Through our implementation of a web accessibility certification program, participation in the establishment of standards for digital content, and collaboration with key experts around the world, our NFB Jernigan Institute has been pivotal in bringing leadership and expertise to the technology industry.
A cornerstone of our technology program over the past decade has been our continued relationship with Ray Kurzweil. We jointly developed and commercialized a reading machine that could fit in a pocket and pioneered accessible ebook reading platforms that contributed significantly to the current revolution in ebooks. Ray Kurzweil is now the director of engineering at Google, and this has created an opportunity for us to work together on a new front—deeply embedding accessibility into the culture of one of the world's cutting-edge information technology companies, and facilitating dialogue about how we might combine our expertise to develop new accessible products that would be available to blind people at the same time they become available to the general public. This is just one of many technology partnerships we are pursuing.
I have heard you had a preference for traveling by car rather than by air. Well, we have now built technology that would allow you to be in the driver's seat. And the science fiction stories of vehicles that drive themselves are quickly becoming fact—some speculating that they may be on the market within five or six years. When we opened our institute, we began sharing the dream that, with the right combination of imaginative partners, we could create a car that a blind person could drive. We hoped that the challenge of building this technology would get people to think about blindness in new ways and motivate them to work on innovative approaches to nonvisual access that would go far beyond the act of driving a car safely. While it has done that, the most enriching part of this project has been what it has done to shape our own attitudes and expectations for ourselves as blind people. Our Blind Driver Challenge® has also given us the tools and increased credibility to sit at the same table with the engineers working on driverless vehicles so that we now can have influence in the nonvisual interfaces that will be built into these new modes of transportation.
We are capitalizing on the interfaces we built for driving a car by imagining how we might use them on a bicycle. As you well know, it is not the physical riding of the bike that is the problem for blind people, but rather avoiding all the obstacles in the way. Access to reliable and affordable transportation systems is still a significant barrier for the blind, and accessible bicycle technology may play a significant role in increasing our options to travel independently. Getting technology onto a bicycle is just one of the many dreams that have been circulating throughout our convention that we are now actively working to fulfill. Some things in the Federation do not change—we gather together, dream together, and work on transforming our dreams into reality.
Our organization is about changing the lives of blind people, and it has most certainly changed mine. I never thought of myself as a driver until I was called to lead the blind driver project for the Federation. In every way that matters, the Federation has taught me to be a driver rather than a passenger in my own life. The blind driver experience has totally transformed my approach to our work. I no longer know what the limits are for us, and I carry this sense of wonder, adventure, and limitless possibility to every new assignment that comes my way.
I should share just a few more things about education, since that is one of the primary assignments in which I have focused my energy and something in which you so deeply believed. During the summer of 2007, we decided we needed to take our programs for young people to the next level by bringing two hundred blind high school students to Baltimore and giving them the opportunity to work with blind mentors and instructors. Imagine taking the feeling you get when you walk into the convention hall and packing it into an entire week on a university campus. We put on the largest and most dynamic education program in the history of the blind—the NFB Youth Slam—and we have now done it several times. During the past decade, through our National Center for Blind Youth in Science initiative, we have taught: aerospace engineering, agriculture, architecture, art, biology, chemistry, civil engineering, computer science, cyber security, earth science, electrical engineering, forensics, genetics, geology, geoscience, human physiology, journalism, kinesiology, marine biology, mechanical engineering, mineralogy, nanoscience, neurolinguistics, paleontology, physics, psychology, recreational math, robotics, shark dissection, simple/complex machines, space science, and video description. In the process we have developed hundreds of future blind leaders and dozens of outstanding new partners.
Many of our programs have grown out of the work of our affiliates. In Maryland we started an initiative to teach Braille to blind children, and we coined the phrase "if they will not teach them, we will teach them ourselves." Since 2009 we have built that affiliate project into a national movement—Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning, or NFB BELL. This summer we will have thirty-four programs in twenty-three of our affiliates. That means that more than 150 blind children will receive direct Braille instruction this summer—and this is just one of a dozen Braille-related programs we conduct. We have also made substantial investments in the future of Braille-related technologies and tools to bring about the creation, editing, and dissemination of tactile and three-dimensional learning objects. With our continued leadership, imagination, and innovation, the next ten years are going to produce some of the most powerful Braille and tactile learning experiences in the history of the blind.
Dr. Jernigan, I know that much of your work was made possible because of your ability to effectively read and write. Your eloquent and concise description of the attitudes educators in your time held about Braille still ring true: "Jenny can read print, but Johnny must read Braille." To combat the bias against Braille, we have developed the only research-based assessment tool for determining the appropriate reading medium for blind children, and I can give personal testimony to its validity and importance. My daughter Oriana—who just turned four years old—is getting ready to go into pre-K in the Baltimore Public Schools. My wife Melissa and I were a little nervous about what type of reading and writing instruction would be recommended for her. A local teacher used the National Reading Media Assessment and determined that our daughter should be learning both Braille and print in school. We were already prepared to press for this instruction, but it was a relief to have evidence from the field to support our experience. I did not learn Braille when I was young, and my vision was worse than Oriana's when I was her age. Her path will be better than the one I took because of the progress made possible by the National Federation of the Blind, and for that I will always be grateful. Oriana is just one example of the many young people of this generation who will be shaped by and benefit from the programs built and disseminated from our Jernigan Institute.
It is my dream, but more than that, it is my commitment that the education programs of the Federation become so widespread that they touch every blind child as soon as their parents know their child is blind. What adventures will those children dream of pursuing when they never live a day without knowing the determination, the power, and the love of the National Federation of the Blind in their lives? This is what we are working on in our education programs, and I believe it is achievable during our next ten years.
Dr. Jernigan, there is much more to tell you, but I recognize that you probably already know what I have said to you and more. After all, your spirit has been part of our work this whole time, and your contributions to our movement continue to ring in the hearts of Federationists across the country. I am curious what you would say about our movement today. From my perspective the details of what we do have changed, the scope of our influence and program has grown, and the complexity of our work has increased, but, at its core, the heartbeat of the organization is the same as it has been since the founding of our movement. Recently, we have been expressing this core Federation feeling in these words: I am filled with hope, energy, and love by participating in the National Federation of the Blind because my expectations are raised, my contributions make a difference to me and to others, and I can celebrate the realization of my dreams with my Federation family.
There is one more thing I want to thank you for, and that is your recommendation that Marc Maurer, your friend and mentee, my friend and mentor, be the president of the National Federation of the Blind. He has been everything you expected him to be, and he has risen to every demand the Federation has placed on its president during the past twenty-eight years. Every day he exemplifies what it is to be a dreamer, a visionary, a leader. He has kept and has strengthened the bond of faith that we in the Federation have with one another. His energy and imagination have been given in full measure, but it is his demonstrated love for the Federation and the members who give it vitality that has forever sealed his place in our hearts. That we have made such tremendous progress through our Jernigan Institute is just one shining example of his leadership and his effort to build leadership in others.
Lately we have been talking a lot about transition and about Dr. Maurer's plan to focus his energy on passing the torch to a new generation of leaders—a generation of leaders who have benefited from the great joy he takes in building the National Federation of the Blind. We are now prepared to serve as his teachers wherever knowledge needs to be shared, his innovators when a new idea needs wings, his engineers when there are programs to develop, and his friends in the movement, always and forever. Although transition and change always create uncertainty, I believe we are ready to hold tight to that bond of faith and carry it forward in a way that will be worthy of the love that Dr. Maurer has put into his service to our movement. I know that I do not intend to let him down, and I am confident I can find thousands of other Federationists who feel the same way.
That is my report. I am sorry I did not take the opportunity to meet you in person, but my gratitude for what you have done for me and those I love knows no bounds. I hope that my own actions in our Federation are ones that you are proud to have happen in a building that carries your name. I close my letter with a quote from one of your speeches, a quote that I now reflect back to you as my recommitment to the mission of the National Federation of the Blind: "Yesterday and tomorrow meet in this present time, and we are the ones who have the responsibility. Our final climb up the stairs will not be easy, but we must make it. The stakes are too high and the alternatives too terrible to allow it to be otherwise . . . We will continue to climb. Our heritage demands it; our faith confirms it; our humanity requires it. Whatever the sacrifice, we will make it. Whatever the price, we will pay it."
Yours in the movement,
Mark A. Riccobono, Executive Director, Jernigan Institute
National Federation of the Blind
Those are some of my reflections on my ten years at the Jernigan Institute, and I hope that I have contributed as much to our movement during the past decade as the movement has contributed to my own development as a blind person. I know with certainty that what we have built, we have built together, and there are many great milestones yet to be achieved on our journey. In celebration of the tenth anniversary of our institute and the coming seventy-fifth anniversary of our movement, we reflect on the past with gratitude, we come to the present with firm resolve, and we prepare to build our own future with the determination, joy, and unbreakable bond of trust and love that will always mark the spirit of the National Federation of the Blind.
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