Guest: Christian Minkler
Topic: National Federation of the Blind
Published: April 11, 2021
Host: Welcome to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by the Western New York Independent Living (WNYIL) family of agencies, courtesy of the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service (NFRRS). Using this long format, we’ll be exploring the broader issues affecting the community of people with disabilities in discussions with knowledgeable individuals from a variety of organizations and backgrounds. We are delighted to have as our guest for today Christian Minkler, President of the Buffalo Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). We are your hosts Jillian Moss Smith and Ernest Churchwell. Welcome to the program, Chris.
Guest: Thank you very much.
Host: Over the years our listeners have heard the names of a number of organizations including the word blind, such as the American Foundation for the Blind, which is celebrating their centennial this year, and the one time, Blind Association of Western New York that has had a couple of name changes in recent decades. How is the NFB different from most other groups that serve the blind?
Guest: Well, the NFB is made up primarily of blind people. We have, of course, the word of and our title NFB. So, we were founded to by blind people in 1940 to address the needs of blind people. Our national President, the NFB Mark Riccobono is blind, all the state affiliate and chapter Presidents in the United States, from the NFB, are blind, so we're primarily, we do have some sighted members, but we're primarily blind people speaking for ourselves trying to address the needs of blind people. One thing we like to say is nothing about us without us, so we'd like to be consulted when developing technology and other things.
Host: Awesome. So, in November 1940, 16 blind people from seven states gathered at a hotel in Wilkes Barre, PA to draft a Constitution for the NFB. Having completely lost his sight by age 14, a young lawyer who was already accumulating academic honors and had organizing experience from helping from the California Council of the Blind, Jacobus tenBroek became the NFB’s first president. What concerns prompted the founders to form such an organization?
Guest: Well, back in 1940 in the years leading up to that there weren't a lot of opportunities for blind people. Today there are blind lawyers, blind teachers, blind social workers, a whole variety of blind musicians. But job opportunities for blind people were very limited in that time. Also, a lot of the agencies had a very custodial attitude towards blind people, and the NFB sought to have a greater role in blind people themselves trying to speak for themselves and have a voice in how services could be offered to them. So, Jacobus tenBroek, who, as you say was a lawyer and he was taught at Berkeley, CA for many years. He was the founding President, he was the President from 1940 to 1961, then stepped down for several years and came back as president in 1966 and until his death in 1968. He and his wife Hazel were great leaders in the NFB, and there's an excellent book called Walking Alone and Marching Together by Floyd Matson, which is about the history of the first 50 years of the NFB 1940 to 1990, and it is a very long book and part of the book is the text of speeches given by Jacobus tenBroek and Kenneth Jernigan, who's the second long term president of the NFB, it's a lot of the history in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Host: Okay, as you just mentioned, Kenneth Jernigan succeeded, Jacobus tenBroek as President, and baby boomers such as myself, may recall his many broadcasts, public service announcements made through the mid-1980s. Then his protege, Marc Maurer took over the role in the spotlight for the next 30 years. And as you also mentioned the current president is Mark Riccobono. These announcements that were on television at the time stressed service and were fairly low key. However, the NFB had gained a reputation in disability circles is a tough, two fisted advocate, the organization began having annual Washington DC advocacy seminars in 1973. What sort of issues warranted the organization's attention?
Guest: Well one of the issues was trying to get the sub minimum wage abolished. Many people with disabilities including blind people in the US were and continue to be paid less than the minimum wage. This was started in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act, and some businesses that employ blind people can get a certificate from the Secretary of Labor called 14 C's certificate, and they are permitted to pay people less than the minimum wage. So that this was an issue in the 70s and unfortunately continues to be an issue, but it's not as much so today because some states including Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont I know are three that no longer have sub minimum wages for people with disabilities, but there are many states that do. So, so this was one of the issues in fact, a new bill was just introduced this year, HR, 2373 in the US House of Representatives to phase out over the course of four years the 14 C certificates, which, as I say, allow businesses to pay people sub minimum wages.
Host: I guess the excuse at that the time given for those rules were that this wasn't really employment, this was rehabilitation.
Guest: Yes, and many times, employers will say that well this is, this is training and people will be in this job for a couple years but most the time, they stay in those jobs for many years and they don't transition to minimum wage or higher paid positions they stay in sub minimum wage jobs. In NY State, thankfully, there are no blindness agencies that have sub minimum wages anymore. But as I say in many states, this is still a practice.
Host: Wow. Well, coincidentally also in 1973 the Rehabilitation Act became law, containing section 504 barring disability-based discrimination in federally funded institutions. Perhaps feeling this potential can of worms that requiring this could open up, the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) dragged its feet in passing regulations that would provide enforcement teeth to the law. It was 1977’s widespread sit-ins by disability advocates, including NFB and HEW regional offices, about a month just in San Francisco that prompted HEW Chief Joseph Califanio to get off the dime and take action. Do other examples of activism come to mind?
Guest: Yes, for many years, NFB was active in fighting was called NAC, which was the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind, and this was a problem, and continues to be but not as much so. Because NAC had very poor standards for agencies serving the blind. And when there were, say allegations of abuse that they just continued to be accredited. So, this caused a lot of problems because they weren't these agencies serving the blind were not uniform, and high standards. And this is something that the NFB was involved in for many years, protesting at NAC headquarters, and in meetings. Kenneth Jernigan served on the NAC board for a short time, but his views were not being heard. So NAC is something very familiar to members of the NFB.
Host: Okay. It was also in 1977 that NFB teamed up with inventor Ray Kurzweil from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to consult on his reading machine for the blind, which combined 11 computers for optical character recognition of the printed word and speaking it aloud with synthesized speech, which with the early algorithms tend to result in some very interesting pronunciations I might say. More recently that was refined in the Kurzweil National Federation of the Blind reader, a digital camera/minicomputer combination that you can hold in your hand and take into a store, to read the labels of jars, cans and boxes aloud. NFB has gathered all kinds of technology into its International Braille and Technology Center near its Baltimore headquarters. What can you tell us about what can be found there?
Guest: It's actually in the Baltimore headquarters on the second floor. They have many types of computers, a whole variety of computers for blind people. There are scanners, there are Braille note takers, there are CCTVs, a whole variety of technology, it's a huge room. I encourage anyone who's in Baltimore and interested in technology for blind people to visit the center.
Host: Although not quite ready for primetime, some have called the creation of truly safe and proven autonomous or self-driving automobiles, the holy grail for blind people who wish to be independent. The website intelligent transportation.com reports that since 2017 NFB is again in the vanguard partnering with vehicle manufacturer Active and ride sharing company Lyft to provide consumer input in this development. In what other cutting-edge technology is the NFB participating?
Guest: Well two things. One is AI, artificial intelligence, and the NFB has been very active in helping develop artificial intelligence devices for blind people. There are various apps, one that I use frequently is called Be My Eyes, and it's a free service you can download it and contact a sighted volunteer and they can, you know, point your phone and they can describe what is there. I've went through a bunch of my CDs recently and the volunteer told me what was on the title of each one. Also seeing AI. There are what are called IRA glasses that some blind people use, Like in a store for example, and they can wear these glasses, and they connect to a sighted person and the sighted person can describe what is in the aisle, say the cereal aisle that they’re in, each row. For example, I was with a friend in Washington DC and she was using IRA and the volunteer was describing the buildings that we were walking by. There is a monthly fee for IRA, and the NFB has worked with some locations such as I know Wegmans, our local, our state President NFB, Mike Robinson worked with Wegmans so that they can go use IRA in Wegmans for free.
Host: Okay. For anyone who's just joined our program you're listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by WNYIL. Our guest is Christian Minkler, President of the Buffalo chapter of the NFB. We'll continue exploring the exciting work of his organization.
So let's turn our attention to a current legislative effort on the national level, a priority that the NFB is discussing with our Senators and Representatives is the Access Technology Affordability Act (ATAA) bills, S 212 in the Senate and HR 431 in the House of Representatives. How would this assist blind Americans with needs that can be addressed with the appropriate technology?
Guest: Access technology can be very expensive. Braille note paper can be $5,000. There are various types of technology and I know sometimes this can be covered by the Commission for the Blind. I'm a blind veteran so Veterans Department has paid for some of my technology, but in many states, it can be very difficult to get technology. So the ATAA would if it passes give a $2,000 tax refund to blind Americans who apply for it, to help purchase access technology, as you said this is S212, in the US House of Representatives and HR 431 two S 212 In the Senate, and HR 431 in the House of Representatives. As of yesterday when I went on congress.gov it had 15 co-sponsors in the Senate, and 71 in the House of Representatives, so we're trying to get more co-sponsors to hopefully get voted on some point.
Host: It's awesome.
Guest: I just want to say if, when blind people have this type of technology, it can lead to greater employment. And there's a very high unemployment rate for blind people in US.
Host: Wonderful. Even though polling places in NY State are equipped with accessible ballot marking devices that have spoken output through earbuds for privacy. Come to think of it, some of which were the subject of controversy after the last election when some people who didn't win, try to say there was tampering with them, there are still concerns about the blind voter casting an independent ballot on their own. How can the NFB’s National Center for non-visual election technology help address these concerns?
Guest: Well the NFB has had a voter hotline that they've run all day on election day in 2020, and I know we had it in 2016. And when blind people go to their polling site and have difficulty using the technology or the poll workers are having difficulty, they can call a number and get assistance to that that way. Also, we've been doing surveys to ask people blind people to fill out online to help inform our staff at our national center in Baltimore to try to address problems in the future.
Host: Well our region has the NFRRS on which our listeners are hearing us right now, all of NY State has NFB Newsline on which those with a free subscription can hear a synthesized voice read over 500 publications from around the world, breaking news, weather alerts, job listings, the local television lineup for the day and lots more. What can you tell us about Newsline, how it is funded, and is that a concern?
Guest: Newsline is a terrific service I use it every day, it, as you say, reads hundreds of newspapers and magazines. I read, USA Today and Buffalo News, New York Times, and the Braille Monitor which is a monthly publication that NFB publishes. It's synthesize voice that reads the articles and you can just press a button and skip forward to the next article or go back and read the article again, or go to a different section of the paper so I like that. And you can read weather bulletins and channel listings, different TV stations. It's funded differently in every state, in NY State it's funded by a grant from the Commission for the Blind, and we've had renewing grants for years. We're trying to get funding, continuous funding source from the Targeted Accessibility Fund which is a service that funds a relay service for the Deaf, and this is how it's funded in several other states, little more than a dozen other states, and that would not cause a tax free source of charge to phone. It can be accessed I listened to it over the phone, it can be also listened to on the Newsline app. So, but there's no out of pocket cost for listening to Newsline.
Host: Although the pandemic of the COVID-19 may have necessitated some changes in just how it's conducted the NFB still plans to have its national convention to be held in July. What can you tell us about it, and where can our listeners learn more online?
Guest: Yes. Like last year, due to the pandemic we're going to have a virtual convention this year, it'll be five days in July, July 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, and people can register at our national website which is nfb.org. There's no cost to register this year, when we've had in person, conventions, there is a cost, but it is free to register for the virtual convention. We ask the people that plan to participate do register, so we have a count of how many people are participating, also. So those are registered you will be eligible for a door prize if your name is called during the convention, and you can vote on the resolutions and elections to our national NFB board. So, I encourage people to go to nfb.org and there's a link to register for the convention and it only takes a couple minutes to register and you'll get a confirmation email after you register.
Host: Awesome. The NFB Buffalo chapter has an Outreach Center located in the Town of Tonawanda, that previously had been offered as a meeting space for recognized community groups that needed one until COVID-19 changed the game. What are the plans for this facility now?
Guest: Yes, our NFB Outreach Center we've had for two years, we moved in, in April of 2019 prior to that we met at the North Park Library and met at other libraries prior to that, we met at a restaurant at one point, but we've had the Outreach Center for two years. It is at 2175 Sheridan Dr. in Tonawanda, which is near the corner of Sheridan and Belmont, it's across the street from Jim’s Stakeout. We just had our first in person event in months this week, we had a movie night which was just had five people attended it was an audio described movie which is people not familiar with that you can play a movie and if the producers have included audio description, it's a person describing what is going on in the movie, it does not interrupt the dialogue but they're describing the actions and the scenery and so forth which is occurring to describe for blind people and they can enjoy the movie. We are having our chapter meetings virtually due to the pandemic, and we hope to have our chapter meetings in person in the near future at the Outreach Center.
Host: Very good. Something that the NFB has been concerned about in recent years is the degree to which Braille literacy has tended to fall in young people probably because of the availability of recording equipment, seem to be an easier way to communicate and capture information. What efforts is the NFB making to increase Braille literacy?
Guest: Well the NFB runs a Braille Readers are Leaders contest which encourages children to read Braille. Braille pages they keep track of the Braille pages, they have read, and they submit we have winners of Braille literacy and this encourages our blind children to read Braille. We also have, which we've had for several years now, the BELL Program, which is B-E-L-L, it stands for Braille Enrichment and Literacy and Learning, and many states including NY State run the BELL Program and this is a summer program that teaches Braille to children and also has various other activities and exposes blind children to several blind adults.
Host: Chris, it's our understanding that NFB is working with something most people are unfamiliar with which is tactile art, what sort of inroads are being made on this exciting new frontier?
Guest: Yes, this is something that NFB has been involved with for several years. At the 2018 Washington Seminar, John Olsen, who is a photographer, and years ago, worked for Life magazine and Stars and Stripes newspapers, which is a military newspaper, was photographed pictures in the Vietnam War. And he had a display at the 2018 Washington Seminar of his pictures, and these were tactical representations. And there have also been speakers at some of our conventions who've talked about their experiences working with tactile art, and the NFB has teamed up with Getty Images and Tactile Images to make tactile versions of pictures so this is a recent development that’s been very interesting.
Host: That's awesome. What other exciting aspects of the NFB locally or beyond, have we had to touch on?
Guest: Well, we have our state convention in addition to the national convention of NFB, each state has a state convention and we'll have our state convention in the fall of 2021, I don't have the dates for that but we have a state website and nfbny.org and that'll be more information will come in about that. We also through that state convention we have a scholarship program I have served on that scholarship committee for the state for many years, and people blind, college students can apply for a scholarship. If they are a resident of NY State and are enrolled in college, and are legally blind, so we award, typically three scholarships at our state's convention. It will be virtual as I say in the fall. So, and we also did our advocacy work in March. That again was virtual. And that was in Albany and we had issues that we were, you know, advocating for we'll talk about that in our next chapter meeting and that included the funding for Newsline and the blind person's right to parent act, and a couple of others.
Host: Now even though this is a relatively lengthy show I'm imagine that some of our listeners may still have questions about what NFB might be able to do for blind individuals they know or even those themselves, after all the blind are a substantial constituency of NFRRS. How can anyone interested contact you?
Guest: I’ll give you my phone number. My name is Chris Minkler and my phone number is 716-688-5849. That's 688-5849, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org Our next chapter meeting for April is Thursday, April 15, at 6:30 pm, and we're meeting virtually you can call in or join by zoom, and we typically meet the third Thursday of every month at 6:30 pm.
Host: Awesome. Chris, this has been very enlightening for us and our audience, thank you so much for coming in.
Guest: Thank you. I enjoyed it and we'd like to say at the NFB, you can live the life you want blindness is not what holds you back.
Host: That's great. Thank you.
Guest: Thank you.
Host: You've been listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth a program presented in the public interest by WNYIL family of agencies, courtesy of the NFRRS. Our guest has been Christian Minkler, President of the Buffalo chapter of the NFB.
This program features the song A Little Ditty on the Dance Floor by Jay Lang available under a Creative Commons Attribution noncommercial license.
We've been your hosts, Julian Moss Smith and Ernest Churchwell. If you wish to hear this program again, a couple of days after the on air broadcast, you can find a podcast on the NFRRS web page nfradioreading.org on the Programming tab under Bonus Programs and also on www.wnyil.org under Public Relations/Podcasts. Have a good week and be safe.