How the Blind Advocate for Ourselves in Richmond

By John Bailey

Some of us were nervous. Several had canceled at the last minute because of safety concerns. In any case, we were here in Richmond, Virginia to do a very important job for the blind of Virginia and we were not going to be deterred.

Annually, the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia hosts an event called the ‘Richmond Seminar’. For this two-day event, the vision-impaired and their friends gather in the city of Richmond to advocate for the blind by scheduling meetings with our elected officials.

Coincidentally, this year, thousands of second amendment gun rights protesters were also going to be visiting the city. What concerned us was the fact that many of the protest leaders were telling their members to bring guns to the protest. The state government reacted by increasing building security and asking non-essential state government workers not to go to their offices during the protest.

Those who participate in the 'Richmond Seminar' are young, elder, employed, unemployed, sighted and blind, and as diverse as any other group of Virginians. On the first day of this event, (which was Martin Luther King Day), we all gathered a few miles away from the city to plan and rehearse what we would say to our Delegates and Senators the next day during our legislative appointments.

Here is an overview of the issues we discussed. Our first point was to approve a bit over $3,000,000 to be used to increase the number of applicants receiving blindness services from the state. It has been over 20 years since the budget for the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired had been increased. This meant that over time, higher expenses in overhead at the department meant fewer people per year were receiving services so that the department could keep within their budget. For example, current applicants for services must wait more than a year to get help with learning the new skills that would enable them to cook, travel, and find meaningful employment. Approving the budget increase would eliminate the waiting list.

Our second issue was one having to do with the lack of employment for the blind in the state. According to Frederick Schroeder, former head of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, it is simple to teach someone work skills. The challenge is finding an employer who is open to hiring someone who is blind. Currently, there is over a 70 percent unemployment rate for the workable vision impaired. We proposed that in the state government, if two job candidates are equal in talent and experience and one of them is handicapped, then they should be the one who gets hired. This is like hiring preferences given to veterans.

After our organizing meeting the first day, we stayed overnight in the Delta Hotel in Richmond. Many of us watched the local evening news because we were interested in what had transpired during the protests in the city. The gun-rights advocates were in several large groups totaling over 30,000. They had left after the protests without incident. This reassured us that tomorrow would go just fine in terms of personal safety. The Delta Hotel was ideal for our needs because it was just a mile or two from our legislators and the hotel has shuttle service there and back. We enjoyed our stay there.

The next morning, I got up extra early for the day's adventure. Washed, dressed, and fed, my group met at the front of the hotel at 7 am to board the shuttle to the Pocahontas Building. Previously, we met at the General Assembly building, but, because of renovations, the staff offices were being housed in the Pocahontas Building.

We divided up into teams. Ideally, at least one member of each team was a constituent of the Delegate or Senator we would be meeting with. Each group had made approximately 10 appointments which they had to visit by noon.

One of our first appointments was with Delegate Kenneth "Ken" Plum. Jacob Ham, the constituent, and I made a very circuitous route to his office finally introducing ourselves to his receptionist. The receptionist told us that the Delegate would see us shortly.

The legislative season for making laws and fixing them is a short two months. So, during those two months, our legislators are very busy meeting with lots of people who are given 15 minutes to make their cases.

We were led into Delegate Plum’s office where he immediately came out from behind his desk and joined us as we sat down on a couch. Plum pulled up a chair next to us and began talking to Jacob about where he lived in the area and discussed local events. After a few minutes, Jacob did a great presentation on our first issue. Delegate Plum agreed with the idea that DBVI should receive more money. Then, I gave my presentation on our second issue and the Delegate gave his support to that as well. We quickly posed for a photo and it was off to our next appointment.

The rest of the morning’s appointments went nearly the same way. If we were not able to visit a representative directly, we informed their Legislative Assistant about our concerns and which laws would help to resolve them.

We visited two long-time representatives of mine: State Senator Chapman "Chap" Petersen and Delegate David Bulova. Both listened to us and had great follow-up questions. For example, Delegate Bulova was concerned that giving the disabled a hiring preference would open the door to a ‘Christmas Tree’ effect. He explained that if Veterans and the disabled were given preference, would that soon be followed by other groups demanding the same preference?

We left the Pocahontas Building by navigating the temporary barriers put up by security to keep the earlier protesters from blocking entrances to the building. The hotel shuttle found us, and we were heading back to the Delta to pick up our stuff to continue our journey home.

I have been participating in the 'Richmond Seminar' for several years. Some things I have learned are:

Have at least one constituent with you. This ensures you have the legislator’s attention as you present your thoughts.

Be brief because they are busy. Make sure you can describe your issues concisely taking the least amount of time. If you talk too long, legislators will become distracted by taking glances at their clocks. They will be too polite to ask you to hurry up.

They are just people. Don’t be nervous talking to them. It is their job to listen and to try to make their constituents happy.

See you at the 'Richmond Seminar' next year!

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.