2020 Presidential Report

Before there was Zoom, the internet, telephones, or even the Postal Service, we needed ways to share messages and keep people connected. In ancient Israel, to mark the calendar, people needed to know when the new year began.
To mark the start of a new year in the fall, every community would build a bonfire on the top of a hill. On the first night of the new year, they would light the bonfire. Others would observe and lite the fire on their own hill. From community to community, each would know the start of a new beginning and celebrate the connection that kept them all together.

I want to start by acknowledging that this year has been hard. Like many of you, I have lost friends colleagues, and family to COVID-19. Some of you have lost jobs and businesses to the economic turmoil and others have lost their homes and communities to the natural disasters that seem to be a monthly occurrence. 2020 has shaken my positivity.
Fortunately, something has been my rock.
To paraphrase the rolling Stones song, We all need something we can lean on, and if you want it you can lean on the NFB.

This community has been the rock that has helped me through 2020.

This year, we can’t all be together in person. Yet, this morning, we are going to travel across Virginia to discuss the metaphorical fires burning to advance the blind across Virginia.

But first, what about Grit

Angela Duckworth studies the science of achievement. Why are some people phenomenal swimmers and others Olympians. What is the distinction between a top scientist and a transformative researcher who wins the Nobel Prize. Sure, you need some intelligence and talent, but is that sufficient and a predictor of achievement.
In her book, Grit, the power of passion and perseverance, she lays out stories to explain that breakthrough achievement requires a combination of passion and perseverance.
- Passion - A commitment to something that is not just vitally important, but it must be vitally important to you
- Perseverance - Being doggedly committed to that goal and being willing to fail, again and again , to achieve the result

How can we apply Grit to build success in our work together in the National Federation of the Blind. This afternoon, in the grit seminar, you will hear more examples of people overcoming obstacles to achieve different versions of personal success.

This morning, in Joanne Wilson’s session, perhaps you thought about the small moments that had a transformative effect on your life. That moment where you realized that you could truly believe in yourself because others believed in you. How can we pay that forward in new and innovative ways?

Let’s look at this past year by reframing GRIT as the Acronym Goals, resilience , Innovation and Together. I call this Federation GRIT.

As a membership organization of blind people focused on collective action, our goals feel simple
- Jobs
- Education
- Civil Rights
- Community

The how has changed over the years but the goals have remained the same.
Allow me to share some stories:
A) Jobs - Our chapters serve as the mechanisms for growing leaders. Brittany Ingram is a leader in our Fredericksburg chapter. Over the past year, she served as chapter President and was in our chapter leadership institute. She has pushed herself to grow and learn despite some personal challenges. Brittany is now moving from stay at home Mom to getting a job. She connected with John Bailey to develop her resume. She has been working with our affiliate to ghost write some of the promotional messages we have distributed to promote the convention. She is building the work experience she needs to enter the workforce by volunteering with the NFB. She is applying for jobs through connections she has made through her Federation family. This is just one example of where we come together as a family to support each other.
B) Education- This morning, you heard from Fred Schroeder about advocating for the education of blind children. Sandy Halverson, Nancy Yeager, and Beth Sellers have been helping families with individual education plans throughout the year. Our National Association of Blind Students have made resources available to students and families to help with virtual education access and I want to thank both NABS Past President Kathryn Webster and current President Trisha Kulkarni who you will hear from tomorrow. Our commitment to education is unparalleled and another example of how we empower families.
C) Civil Rights - I hope you have already voted. Perhaps, you used the new remote ballot marking tool Eve Hill talked about this morning. The NFB did the ground braking legal work to ensure you could. We reached out to the VA Board of Elections in September 2019, in April, May, June, and July to help the Virginia Board of Elections. We didn’t want to sue them, but they left us no other option. We reached out to organizations like the American Council of the Blind to ensure blindness organizations did not provide conflicting messages. We worked together to obtain a consent decree to implement a solution. We prepared guidance materials, conducted trainings with the Voting works vendor, and conducted trainings for members which were open to the public. If you have not voted yet and need to vote in person, we’d be glad to offer you a Lyft coupon to help you get to the polls. This is just one example of how we ensure our civil rights.
D) Engage in the Community- Louise Walch ran our 2020 BELL Academy In Home Edition program this summer. Additionally, Louise serves as one of the administrators for the blind parents connect Facebook group, which Is approaching 800 members worldwide and growing. Louise has been curating the content so you can search and find all postings related to specific topics such as home schooling, literacy, dress and grooming, car seats and strollers, feeding, attitudes about blindness, Keeping track of children, and transportation, to name a few.

I selected just a few examples of how we are achieving these goals in 2020. What should we be doing next? Well, that really depends on you.
We will focus on areas where members have demonstrated commitment to pursuing results. It is easy to complain. However, we need people to be accountable, to deliver results, and recruit fellow members and community partners to help meet the intended goal.


Achievement in life is more than intelligence and talent, it is dogged commitment to doing the right thing that brings you meaning.
To be a successful blind person, you inherently develop resilience.
Learning the alternative techniques takes persistence and a willingness to fail until you get it right.
Travel training probably means you will get lost before you successfully arrive at your destination.
Learning technology means there will be moments when you feel like giving up.
You need to be resilient to accomplish things others take for granted.
Angela Duckworth found that the People who succeed are people who fail and keep getting back up, again and again. As Duckworth says” It’s the sweat. It’s the getting up and dusting yourself off, despite the failures.”

In the national Federation of the Blind, we have certainly experienced struggles. Our persistence and willingness to work together to find solutions has made a real difference.

I am going to share one vitally important example, Access to COVID Health Info

COVID 19 is not going away. To be healthy, every state is providing information that is really useful. Unfortunately, Virginia dropped the ball. The COVID portal is totally inaccessible. The key information you need is not accessible.
In the hurry to make data visualization possible, the Virginia Department of Health forgot about providing information non visually.
Michael Kasey, Kandace Haney, and many others complained.
We learned that the Commonwealth had established a COVID web accessibility task force. I reached out on our behalf: in April, May, June, and July. We slowly escalated the concern.
After we sued Virginia for voting rights, the task force reached out. Then, the Virginia Department of Health reached out. Coincidence? I think Not.

Since late August, John Halverson, Jonathan Cohn and Peggy Fields have been working with the Department of Health to provide feedback on the web accessibility for the data visualizations on the dashboard. This is an ongoing effort and we will recognize this effort in a resolution tomorrow.
This is actually cutting edge work with tools that are just starting to implement accessibility. If you look at the COVID dashboard, it is getting better. We are on a path towards accessibility and it took the persistence and passion of our members to make it happen.


COVID forced us to get really creative.

A) Our Chapters Shifted Quickly to Virtual - Chapters brought in national leaders, ran great programming, and have had more people attend meetings over Zoom then ever before. I was truly amused when a friend called me to complain. There are too many virtual training opportunities and have fun. I can’t decide which to do. Ladies Night, crafters, voting, Family Feud, tech training. It’s just too much! I think it is a wonderful problem to have. I want to acknowledge the great work of Virginia DBVI to offer outstanding training throughout the past months and continuing into this Fall.

B) Our Project RISE program went virtual and was able to even better serve our students
35 students - In this past year, we had 35 students in the program
25 students had informational interviews
8 students had summer Work experiences
Magic is the mentoring between students and our current mentors: Joe, John, Mitch, Evelyn, Jacki Bruce, Julia Ford, Renee Valdez
Virtual Learning: In early March, we had to make the hard decision of shifting to virtual. One session gone virtual turned into now eight months of virtual mentorship and instruction. There were hidden blessings in this virtual transition, such as having students take on more leadership in activity execution, as well as diverse learning from folks across the country.
Examples: Job readiness seminar and a self-advocacy seminar
Both reaching further to new students across the state. The pandemic allowed and continues to allow us to promote our programming to more rural, less populated parts of Virginia as we recruit young students who will grow to be leaders in our affiliate and their communities.
Summer Experiences: Innovation with leveraging our RISE students who have career goals of being an educator or teacher of blind students, using our youth talent for navigating the world of virtual learning.
One student, Jacob Ham, interned at a newly found nonprofit called Peaces of Me, where he got to leverage his passion for audio editing to develop a podcast to spread awareness of their mission and vision of breaking down the stigma for all disabilities. This is a perfect example of one of our high school students making a difference nationally for what our Virginia youth can do. Jacob is a recent high school graduate and newly elected president of our student division.
Another student, Thinh Dang (pronounced Tin Dang), interned at a national medical supply company, where he worked on core business and office management skills, as well as social media and communications. There, he stood up a Youtube channel for the company, as well as developed the eCommerce web site for orders and advertising. He also managed the social media outreach for the company, increasing viewership and orders. This perfectly aligned to much of his course work and professional experience, setting him up for success in any communications, outreach, or managerial role in any career field.
our high school and college students need the community we have created and the influence of positive blind role models has never been more important.
Our program is thriving throughout Virginia and we welcome you to learn more. Tomorrow, you will hear from our students in this program. But I need to acknowledge our outstanding mentors and the leadership team of Kathryn Webster and Arielle Silverman. Kathryn is the dreamer who suggests all the things we can build and gets things done. Arielle makes certain everyone is aware of the plan because she asks the right questions.
C) BELL Academy In Home Edition - Speaking of the challenges of virtual learning, we turned chaos into opportunity for elementary students throughout VA through the BELL Academy In Home Edition. 25 Virginia students, 10% of the national total, had their summer brightened by this engaging virtual summer camp which brought Braille literacy, blindness skills, and our positive philosophy to every part of Virginia. Families were struggling, we delivered. Tomorrow, you will hear from our team. We built connections between students, their older mentors, the parents and connected everyone with the NFB.
Louise Walch, Julia Ford, and others were key. Joe Orozco, Kathryn Webster, and Rebecca Soforenko wrote the winning grant proposal that funded this program.
D) Our Chapter Leadership Institute, the first program of its kind in the nation, continues to innovate by pairing the best of leadership development, the support of our chapters, and dedication from mentors and participants. This program is expanding our leadership bench.
a. Jimmy Morris has gone on to become our scholarship chair and has done an outstanding job despite the challenges of this virtual environment.
b. Jacki Bruce is now our state’s very busy Zoom coordinator and has been nominated for a position on our affiliate board.
c. Jenny Blinsmon is handling our state’s help line, a service we hope to expand in future to better position the affiliate to respond to the most pressing questions from the community.
d. Patrick Johnson is responsible for insuring this year’s voting integrity and ease of use.
e. Christine Grassman has been instrumental in pushing forward with advocacy efforts to ensure equal voting rights for all Virginians with disabilities.
I asked the CLI program to create disruptions in the way we do things to prevent us from growing stagnant. I am glad to see they are living up to our expectations. Our coordinators, Joe Orozco and Domonique Lawless, have been instrumental in making this program a model for affiliates across the country. The more people we have to call upon, the more diverse our perspectives, and the less likely we are to lean too heavily on the same core group of individuals. It is this sort of diverse fervor and forward thinking that will make Virginia a study in innovative leadership.


We are fortunate in Virginia to have a tremendous talent pool in our affiliate. This convention is a testament to tapping that talent and I want to acknowledge the creative team that has made this possible. Across the convention, you will hear from over 300 people who are engaging in the discussion to build the National Federation of the blind. Hopefully, all of you are taking an opportunity to contribute in the breakout sessions throughout the convention. I’ve had the pleasure to listen to the interaction and I am inspired by your commitment to help each other. When I hear about social breakdowns, I am not seeing it in the National Federation of the Blind. Across age, race, religion, ethnicity,, geography, gender, sexual orientation, and economics, we come together in the national Federation of the Blind to advance the lives of all blind people.

Some people marvel at the dream team that makes things happen in our affiliate.
Sandy Halverson tells me when I am crazy
Mark Roane makes certain we keep the lights on and pay all our expenses
Uricka Harrison makes certain I consider different perspectives
Joe Orozco makes certain our operations and communications are top notch.
Sarah Patnaude makes sure the message gets out on multiple fronts.

I could not do any of this work without the love and support of my wife and children. My daughter Rebecca dedicated her summer to support the NFB. My wife Sharon and my other daughter Jessica dedicate time and creativity. How many calls? How many trial runs of speeches? How many hours is Dad distracted. I could not be more fortunate to have my supportive partner and children.

In every crisis, there will be those who succeed and those who fail. Success in 2020 might simply mean survival. However, with Federation Grit, maybe we can achieve more and thrive in a crisis. Maybe, we can impact the lives of blind people throughout the Commonwealth in new and transformative ways.
Our goals to achieve full equality for blind people drive our actions.
Our Resilience allows us to overcome the obstacles of low expectations that hold us back.
Our Innovation allows us to thrive and be a source of light even in difficult times.
And Together , our diverse community is the strength that enables us to achieve our dreams.

When we work together, we are a force that is unstoppable.

Our belief in the capabilities of blind people is the spark that lights, and it's the reason we come together. these sparks come together in communities throughout the country and across this great nation. From home to home, from chapter to chapter, from city to city, and throughout the commonwealth and across this country, these sparks come together, these sparks are the flames we use to forge our grit, our Federation grit. Join me in getting our message out to more people! Join us as we make it possible for blind people to live full, active, and productive lives.

we recognize that many of you have been long time Federation members, and through that, we are grateful. We ask maybe perhaps you could give a little more to our movement and help us move forward by your time and efforts in our activities. If you are new to our movement, I hope you experience the warmth that is our Federation family, and come up to the fire of our community.
We are the National Federation of the Blind, and I am proud of the work we have done, and I look forward to our future together. This is my affiliate presidential report, and we are so grateful you are here joining us in the National Federation of the Blind.

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