by Deb Cook Lewis, Paul Edwards and Zelda Gebhard
Sunday, July 5
The opening session of the 59th annual ACB conference and convention began with Dan Spoone, ACB president, welcoming everyone to the first-ever virtual convention of the American Council of the Blind and calling the meeting to order. Via video from the 2019 convention, the Buffalo Soldiers from Rochester, N.Y. presented the colors with audio description by Jo Lynn Bailey-Page. Kim Charlson and Jo Lynn Bailey-Page led conventioners in the Pledge of Allegiance. Jason Castonguay sang the national anthem. Michael Garrett, chair of the ACB Enterprises and Services board, gave the invocation. In her welcoming remarks, Janet Dickelman, convention chair, spoke of transition from the in-person to the virtual convention, “ACB – A Path to the Future.”
Dan Spoone and ACB executive director Eric Bridges presented the ACB annual address, “State of ACB.” Dan indicated that work of ACB is not done only by the membership, volunteers, and committee chairs, but also by its staff, led by Bridges. The mission statement remains the same as when the organization was founded 59 years ago. Dan highlighted the steering committees focused on the following nine areas: annual convention; advocacy; member services; information, referral and peer support program; scholarship and awards; Audio Description Project; public awareness; management; administration, and fundraising development. “2020 has provided us with a unique opportunity, one we will probably not have again.”
The board unanimously decided to take the health and safety of the membership first and cancel the physical convention. With the six core values of integrity, honesty, respect, collaboration, flexibility, and initiative, ACB started planning that resulted in a virtual convention with over 1,500 registrants, 250 hours of live content, and 108 breakout sessions on 5 ACB Radio channels; audio-described tour channel; 8 hours of exciting exhibits with 35 vendors participating; general sessions every morning and prime time shows each evening live on video, streamed to YouTube on Facebook. Eric said collaboration and flexibility have been put to the test and COVID-19 offered an opportunity to utilize the technology we have acquired over the last few years to its fullest.
In an effort to continue engagement with the members, community calls were started, providing a high level of engagement with members and non-members as well through a great variety of subjects, which has grown from 2 the first week to 50 or more per week. The public awareness steering committee supports all the other committees and will be starting a blog after convention. Eric declared, “Advocacy, that’s the spine of the organization. It’s what we are known for. It’s really what we have made our mark doing.”
COVID-19 presented an opportunity to deal with the issue of voting by mail with ACB working so we, as blind people, can vote independently. It also provided an opportunity to deepen a relationship with Be My Eyes. Staff has provided assistance since late April by taking calls Monday through Friday from noon to 3 p.m. Eastern. A new relationship also developed with Procter and Gamble, who recognized difficulties the blind and visually impaired community has purchasing products during the pandemic. ACB worked with six NIB agencies around the country to pack and deliver items to individuals. Dan said the scholarship committee has partnered with the American Foundation for the Blind to combine resources, which has increased the fund to over $80,000 and enables 21 scholarships to be given each year. Dan thanked the Audio Description Project for everything they have accomplished; the ADP website has 4,300 audio-described titles listed. ACB finances were described as stable thanks to the efforts of many. The two thrift stores were closed in March and reopened in May. We enrolled in the Payroll Protection Program, which enabled us to keep all ACB staff employed during this pandemic.
Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer for Microsoft, stressed that accessibility is important to Microsoft and drives continuing growth and improvements.
Next were the inductions of the 2020 life members: Sarah Harris, Tennessee; Roger Dennis, New York; Rachel Schroeder, Illinois; Paula Wiese, Kentucky; Art Cabanilla, Hawaii; and Jim Jirak, Nebraska.
Durward K. McDaniel (1915-1994), Oklahoma and Cathie Skivers (1925-2019), California were presented as ACB Angels.
Kenneth Semien Sr., chairman of the DKM Fund Committee, introduced the 2020 First-Timers: Merisa Musemic of Sterling Heights, Mich., and Sara Freeman Smith of Houston, Tex. Eric Bridges presented the 2020 ACB/JPMorgan Chase Leadership Fellows: Regina M. Brink of Sacramento, Calif.; Sajja Koirala of Honolulu, Hawaii; Meryl Ann Shecter of Windsor Mill, Md.; Koni Sims of Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Wanda Denise Williford, Trenton, N.J.
Opening session ended with the affiliate presidents answering roll call. Instead of concerns about credentials, affiliates shared a little about their work and accomplishments.
Monday, July 6
John Huffman, chair of the constitution and bylaws committee, explained that our virtual convention could not conduct elections or amend the constitution. He reminded us that there is a new resolutions process in place this year. Resolutions can be submitted until the end of convention. The committee will recommend whether the resolutions should pass and will send them on to staff for prioritization and feedback. Final resolutions will be presented to the board on Aug. 27 for consideration and approval.
Today’s Angel presentation celebrated the life of Johnny Granger, who was active in NIB agencies, and was also a tremendous friend and advocate. He worked in Alabama and Mississippi.
Cindy Hollis, ACB’s membership services coordinator, said she began a year ago by sending out a survey which got a 25 percent return, and she spoke to 100 leaders from our 65 affiliates at the leadership meeting. Cindy talked about the 3 “E”s: embrace, engage and empower, to which she added a fourth “E,” effort. After the pandemic started, she began holding a few calls. There were 13 in March, 88 in April, 160 in May, and 223 in June. Altogether 19,000 folks have attended those calls. The connections born with community events were strengthened when the “ACB Community” Facebook page was created three weeks ago. More than 700 people have signed up for this group.
Denise Colley introduced the scholarship committee and explained that through a partnership with the American Foundation for the Blind, ACB is now managing and awarding the scholarships formerly awarded by AFB. This has increased the overall size and scope of awards to $92,300 for 21 students. Each winner was interviewed in advance by a member of the scholarship committee; several interviews were played each day. We encourage you to download and listen to these presentations in the general sessions podcasts to learn about our scholarship recipients.
Penny Reeder presented the Vernon Henley Media Award to “Pick of the Litter,” the movie and the series. Dana Nachman and Mary Celenza, executive producers, accepted the award.
Karen Keninger, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, said patrons can now subscribe to any new series on all BARD platforms. When the next installment comes out, you receive an email notification and will find the book in your wish list. Recent legislation allows full implementation of the Marrakesh treaty, changes the NLS name to National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, and clarifies the category that includes people with reading disabilities as people with perceptual disabilities. Regulations implementing Marrakesh should be published in July. Thirty-seven libraries are participating in the books on demand project that distributes customized cartridges with up to 10 books. This allows all users to access digital books not produced originally on cartridge. The e-reader project expects to begin distribution of braille displays as part of a pilot project that will allow patrons to download and read braille books. NLS is also considering deployment of BARD through smart speakers such as Alexa and Google Home. Deb Trevino then presented Karen Keninger with the Robert S. Bray Award.
Martine Abel Williamson, treasurer of the World Blind Union, joined us live at 4:25 a.m. Tuesday morning (her time) from Auckland, New Zealand. Born in Namibia, brought up in South Africa, Martine attended a school for the blind in South Africa and graduated from the University of Pretoria with a degree in psychology and education. She moved to New Zealand in the mid-1990s, and taught braille and computer access. In 2012, Martine became involved in work on accessibility of the built environment and transportation resources. In 2016, she was elected treasurer of the WBU and now coordinates WBU’s response to human rights initiatives for people with disabilities and for women and girls. Among the union’s priorities are quiet cars, shared spaces specifically related to obstacles on sidewalks, autonomous vehicles, and barriers related to international travel for guide dog handlers. She noted that accessible interfaces must be created if the 258 million blind people in the world are not to be left out.
Tuesday, July 7
Today’s featured ACB Angels were Joel Bauer (1943–2018), Missouri, and Dee Wilmot Youngblut Clayton (1937–2020), North Carolina. Both individuals worked tirelessly for ACB and for their affiliates.
Claire Stanley, ACB’s advocacy and outreach specialist, told us all about the Information, Referral and Peer Support (IRPS) program. The information and referral component is just that — helping people connect with information and resources they need. ACB receives thousands of calls each month, and is gradually building a database to respond more quickly and efficiently. One challenge is keeping the information current and relevant. The peer support component connects callers with other people who can be resources and role models. As with the I&R, there is a need to identify the most commonly requested types of peer support. Claire invited people to contact her via email, firstname.lastname@example.org, with resources for IRPS or to suggest resource categories that should be included.
Dan Spoone and Ray Campbell took a moment to talk about the resolutions task force formed at the board meeting on July 3. Ray hopes to review the process for submitting resolutions, how to ensure they are relevant and understandable, and how to deliver the resolutions throughout the convention rather than all at once near the end. Send your suggestions to email@example.com.
Kirk Adams, president and CEO, American Foundation for the Blind, said AFB’s values are learning, impact, excellence and collaboration. Maintaining the Helen Keller Archives in collaboration with APH and working with ACB to expand the reach of AFB’s scholarship program are examples. AFB worked with ACB and 20 other organizations to research the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of blind people. They have also issued a study on the effects of distance learning on the K-12 education of blind children. AFB held a virtual leadership conference this year, which was pre-recorded and is available online. AFB has also started a leadership development program with 16 candidates and blind mentors. AFB plans to hold a centennial celebration next year.
Kim Charlson, ACB’s immediate past president, provided background information prior to the video presentation by Sen. Edward J. Markey. Sen. Markey introduced and co-authored the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which was signed into law by President Obama in 2010. Markey commented on the progress made to date and expectations for the future as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the CVAA. Kim then introduced Jeff Thom, chair of the ADP achievement awards subcommittee, who announced the winners. (For a list of the audio description award winners, go to https://acb.org/2020-AD-awards.) Finally, Joel Snyder, ADP’s director, summarized the project’s accomplishments over the past year.
Benjamin Shaberman, Senior Director of Scientific Outreach, Foundation Fighting Blindness, explained that the Foundation is the leading private funder of research for inherited retinal degenerative diseases such as RP, Usher syndrome, and age-related macular degeneration. Recently, many therapies have moved into clinical trials, and the Foundation’s portfolio has about 80 projects running worldwide. The first gene therapy related to degenerative retinal disease has been approved, which paves the way for further developments. Genetic testing is very important for people with inherited retinal disease and can often change the diagnosis. Physicians can go to www.blueprintgenetics.com to order a comprehensive screening panel at no cost. Genetic counseling at no cost is also available for those who have received their genetic results. The FFB maintains a patient registry at www.MyRetinaTracker.org, where individuals can upload data which is used for research and information. A benefit of the registry is being notified of clinical trials that are relevant to your situation.
Wednesday, July 8
Today’s Angel presentation featured Dick Seifert from Arkansas, who served on the ACB board and was active in Arkansas.
Janet Dickelman thanked the members of the convention committee and others, including ACB staff, who were indispensable in putting this extravaganza together. In 2021 we will be in Phoenix at the Hyatt July 23-30; in 2022 it’s Omaha, July 1-8; in 2023 we will go to Schaumburg at the Renaissance from June 30 to July 7.
Erin Jones, talking book narrator, American Printing House for the Blind, talked about words and pronunciation. She said how much use she made of various resources available to her at the printing house and praised the editors, who were of immense help in sorting out pronunciations. Erin indicated she really liked the variety of books she has been able to read. There were a lot of examples of pronunciation foibles that narrators must learn to control. Erin asked how you manage to laugh naturally while giving precisely the right number of “ha’s.” No singing is the rule, but have you ever tried just saying the words of “Happy Birthday?” “Being an NLS narrator has definitely shaped me and my language, and I would not change the experience for anything in the world.” Erin indicated that she started at NLS in 2001 and that Mitzi Friedlander was her mentor. She noted that among her favorite books were a biography of Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie and “A Sense of Wonder” by Anne Padget.
Julie Tye, president, Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired, stated that Hadley had just launched its new distance learning platform. “The old system was too pedagogical. We don’t teach kids; we help adults.” In particular, they found that older people were not coming to Hadley as they lost vision later in life. Now there are discussion groups and podcasts on daily living, technology, working and braille. Hadley offers a new approach to braille teaching with a series for visual learners of braille and a course for reading and writing. The old course took six to nine months and was seldom completed. Now people learn basic braille in a weekend. There are also more than 100 technology podcasts. Visit www.hadley.edu for more information.
Paul Edwards and Christopher Bell reflected on the impact of the ADA after 30 years. They contrasted the medical model with one based on social context; society has made choices, but people with disabilities can insist that others be made. The preamble of the ADA clearly identifies the many ways that society has intentionally discriminated against people with disabilities, and the law spells out how people with disabilities can gain inclusion. Training is important in narrowing the distance between people with and without disabilities. The ADA built upon earlier legislation that created mainstreaming. Because of these efforts, people with disabilities could no longer be separate and unequal. Most court decisions and amendments have extended the reach of the law and clarified its meaning. It is important for all of us to demand our rights by filing complaints.
Gabriel Lopez Kafati, president, noted that Blind Pride International is celebrating their 20th anniversary as an affiliate of ACB. Blind Pride is proud of its collaboration with ACB and looks forward to many years of effort together. Look for them online at www.blindlgbtpride.org.
Thursday, July 9
Marilyn Lutter (1938–2018) and James W. Peaco Jr. (1943–2016), both from the District of Columbia, were featured in today’s Angel presentations. Both were dynamic, dedicated members of ACB and their local affiliate in D.C.
Tony Stephens, ACB’s director of development, spoke about how giving to ACB is an investment in the future. The work that ACB does has a ripple effect around the world. Despite the year’s challenges, ACB has over $250,000 in corporate sponsorships and $150,000 raised by members and friends. The walk has raised over $80,000, the Forum raffle raised $21,000, the auction raised $33,000. ACB continues to build community, conduct advocacy activities, and expand its diversity. ACB’s corporate sponsors are invested in their relationship with us as well as their financial investment. ACB needs to find a touch point with the 4 million Americans who have significant vision loss, and is establishing a long-range communications plan to help with this. ACBVoices.org will be a new blog where we can share our experience with the world. The strategy is to expand corporate relationships and grants and to expand our footprint and relationships.
Elizabeth Leifel Ash, Senior Legal Counsel, CVS, announced the availability of Spoken Rx in the CVS app. This app reads an RFID sticker located on the bottom of the bottle, and will be fully implemented by end of 2021. The CVS application can also be accessed using Siri or Google Voice and is free of charge to CVS customers. Visit www.cvs.com/SpokenRX to learn which stores have it available.
David Trott gave the treasurer’s report. ACB’s 2019 audit indicated that ACB met all applicable requirements of generally accepted accounting practices. David gave a full report regarding ACB’s income and expenditures. Reports from Michael Garrett, chair of the ACBES board, and Dan Dillon, chair of the resource development committee, completed the day’s agenda.
Friday, July 10
Dan Spoone, Kim Charlson and Eric Bridges discussed the entrepreneurial operating system commonly called Traction. ACB is using this process to identify a common set of nomenclature and measurement to evaluate meetings and approaches to goals. Eric Bridges listed the eight members of the leadership team and indicated that ACB is currently working on six major projects. The team measures progress on each of those and consciously creates milestones toward which each project must move. Kim indicated that this system allows our limited staff resources to prioritize their efforts. This model can be used with ACB steering committees and other leaders as the team becomes more comfortable with it.
The two Angels for Friday were Carol McCarl from Oregon, former chair of the board of publications and editor of “Dialogue” magazine, and Patricia LaFrance Wolf from California, who was active in the state affiliate and Diabetics in Action.
Kelly Gasque, Katie Frederick and Deb Cook Lewis gave an update on ACB public awareness activities. Kelly described actions taken to communicate ACB’s response to the pandemic, the partnership with Be My Eyes, the new ACB Community Facebook page, Facebook Live to host specific events, and an update to ACB Link. A blog called ACB Voices will be launched where stories from ACB members will be posted. Anthony Corona has been a big part of this effort. Katie highlighted the number of podcasts now emerging that allow others to see what ACB is doing and that provide information for our members. Deb indicated that we are sensitive to the diverse skill levels and communication preferences of our members and try to meet the challenge of communicating using many modalities.
Lee Nasehi, president and CEO, VisionServe Alliance, explained that this alliance consists of non-profit organizations nationwide that deliver services to people who are blind and has recently expanded to include for-profit organizations with interest in the needs of our constituency. When it became clear that more effort was needed at the public policy level, Paul Schroeder was hired as a consultant to help the Alliance determine how best to navigate this arena. The group has also taken the lead in creating a monthly call of many national organizations and, since the pandemic started, a weekly call to focus on ideas for effective service delivery in this new environment. Lee urged people to check for information on their website, http://visionservealliance.org, and to send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eric Bridges and Dan Spoone updated the convention on ACB’s advisory board. Its members bring a range of specific expertise to ACB. There is the head of a management consulting firm, a fund-raising expert, a technology person, an expert on non-profits, an attorney, and a business development vice president for a large blindness-related company. The group is expected to meet again in October, but individuals from the advisory board work with ACB throughout the year.
Attendees then got to take a brief video tour of Rick Morin’s setup in Boston, where he has managed the general sessions and prime-time shows of the virtual convention.
Craig Meador, CEO, American Printing House for the Blind, reported that the Helen Keller Archive was transferred from AFB to APH last July. Construction is under way to create a permanent place for the exhibit. In partnership with Microsoft, APH worked on Code Jumper, a system to allow blind children to do coding for computer programs. The Connect Center will house all the web elements transferred from AFB in a single area. A new strategic plan was launched this year which changes the balance between services and products, with much higher emphasis on services. At the heart of the shift is the creation of “the Hive,” a new learning and teaching platform which launched earlier than expected because of the pandemic. In cooperation with other agencies in the field, daily virtual lessons were launched and a myriad of content was put online. A podcast called “Changemakers” was also launched. It became clear that people in other countries were using what APH created. When the school year ended, APH began a virtual summer camp, which is going on now. APH’s annual conference will be held virtually later this year.
Theresia Hout, owner operator of TL Vending from Caldwell, Idaho, described how difficult it was for her as a child to convince her parents and professionals that she was going blind. As a teenager she barrel-raced until people told her it wasn’t safe. She married at 17, graduated from high school, and had her first child at the age of 20. At 28 she found herself with no hearing but, luckily, she qualified for a cochlear implant. She is a Randolph-Sheppard vendor who has run a variety of facilities in the Caldwell area. Theresia entered college at age 48 and, in three years, earned her bachelor’s degree. About two months before graduation she was offered a scholarship toward a master’s degree in entrepreneurship, which she completed with a 4.0 average in 2015. Theresia is working on a memoir about living life with dual disabilities. She ended with a message from her grandmother: “There’s no mountain too high to climb, no cliff too hard to reach. Reach for the stars and follow your dreams and be the best that you can be!”
What a fitting wrap-up to a fabulous and unusually situated ACB convention!