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Welcome to 267.. 2

Blindness Technology Pioneer David Holladay Has Died.. 2

Leah Gardner, President of Blind LGBT Pride International, Talks About Why They Aren’t Participating in the American Council of the Blind’s Convention.. 5

ACB President,Deb Cook Lewis, Responds to the Leah Gardner Interview and Discusses Questions of Intersectionality. 15

Closing and Contact Info.. 36




Welcome to 267


Voiceover: From Wellington, New Zealand, to the world, it’s Living Blindfully – living your best life with blindness or low vision. Here is your host, Jonathan Mosen.

This week: remembering a blindness technology legend, and trouble in ACB as its board declines to take a position on a rally organised by its LGBTQ plus affiliate. How should consumer organisations of the blind manage intersectionality in the highly polarised society of 2024?

Great to be back with you again. This is episode 267, and North American area code 267 belongs to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and some surrounding areas. Yeah, Philadelphia freedom. And I know we have quite a few people listening to us from the Philadelphia area, from the great state of Pennsylvania.

I had a great time speaking virtually, actually, at the banquet speaker at the Pennsylvania Council of the Blinds convention in 2021.

They’ve got a few area codes in Philadelphia. But if you happen to have a device that is using area code 267, well, a very special welcome to you, but to everybody in the Philadelphia area and surrounding districts.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing our virtual tour of Africa because country code 267 belongs to Botswana. And actually, I’ve got, hot off the press, some population data from Botswana that’s been gathered this year already in 2024. And there are about 2.7 million people in Botswana. If one of them is you, a very warm welcome to episode 267.


Blindness Technology Pioneer David Holladay Has Died

I want to start off by mentioning how saddened I was of the news of the death of blindness assistive technology pioneer, David Holladay.

Now, if you are of a certain age and you were an early adopter of technology, David’s name will be legendary to you. Some of you may not have heard of David.

What really encourages me is that while as a society, I think sometimes we’re a bit contemptuous of history, there is a lot of interest in assistive technology history out there. If I go to a blindness convention, or even sometimes if I’m just chatting away on mastodon or whatever, I encounter younger people who have this encyclopedic knowledge of main menu episodes [laughs] and various other things that chronicle some of this blindness history, and I’m heartened by that because it is important. We’ve come a long way, and I’ve talked in the past about some of the battles we’ve won in terms of accessibility and our needs being recognized.

But another reason why we’ve come a long way is because of the problem solvers, the lateral thinkers, the allies, the people who thought carefully about some of the challenges that we face in terms of using this technology when there were no official ways of working with it.

Later in David Holladay’s career, he had a package called Megadots. He eventually joined Duxbury Systems, and tirelessly worked to make Braille easier to translate and therefore, more abundant.

But I remember David Holladay with particular fondness and profound admiration for the work that he did for his company Raised Dot Computing and a product called BRAILLE-EDIT. Following multiple enhancements and significant speed improvements, it became BRAILLE-EDIT Express, and this was a piece of software that ran on the Apple II family.

As a teenager getting into computers and growing up in New Zealand, everything stopped when I received the Raised Dot Computing newsletter on cassette, in the mail, all the way from the United States (because we weren’t online then). We’re talking the mid 80s and beyond. So this cassette was my window to possibilities and innovation.

And when we were talking about the Raised Dot Computing newsletter on Mastodon, a number of us were discussing the fact that the Raised Dot Computing newsletter was something you probably wouldn’t see today. Because David Holladay was trying to make money from BRAILLE-EDIT and BRAILLE-EDIT Express, Raised Dot Computing was a commercial entity.

But the culture was very different back then. There was this kind of computer enthusiast mentality about everything. So of course, David Holladay and his wife Caryn Navy, who is blind, used the Raised Dot Computing newsletter to tell us about new things in the product, and we were excited about that. But he was also happy to publish user comparisons of other products that were in a similar field. He would give publicity to other products that were in a similar field if they released a new version of their software. It was a remarkable time, and what it means is that those Raised Dot Computing newsletters are a great chronicle of early accessible computing in the Apple II era. So it’s exciting for assistive technology history buffs to note that on the Duxbury Systems website, most of the text of those newsletters has in fact, survived.

Like many people, I had an Apple IIe. Some people had an Apple IIc. And I think it was an Apple IIPlus that BRAILLE-EDIT and BRAILLE-EDIT Express could run on. I had an Echo speech synthesizer, and my high school had a pretty well-resourced resource room because not only did we have that gear there, but we also had a VersaBraille, and quite often, I would get access to that VersaBraille. We’d connect that to the Apple IIe as well. So it was a bit slow and clunky, but we had Braille output all the way back in the mid 80s.

What David was able to do in such a constrained environment was just remarkable.

I mentioned on Mastodon the original floppy disks, and I mistakenly said that they were 360K floppies. Matt Campbell pointed out to me that actually, they were 140K per side. [laughs] I had completely forgotten that in those days, you could flip the disk over and write on both sides of the disk separately. So if you had a data disk with your documents on, you could write on side 1 of the disk as it were, and then you could also write on side 2. So not only did you have to remember what disk you had a document on. You could Braille label the disks if you were careful with that, or have some sort of system. But you also had to know whether the document you were trying to retrieve was on, side 1 or side 2.

And when we got a second disk drive, that did make things a lot easier because you could leave BRAILLE-EDIT in one drive, and have a data disk in drive 2. Otherwise, before that, you’d load BRAILLE-EDIT, you’d eject the disk, and you’d put your data disk in.

And on the RAM side, they started off with 64K (yes, K) of memory. So what David was able to achieve with BRAILLE-EDIT was stunningly good, given the resource constraints. David put truly powerful cutting edge word processing at the fingertips of blind people.

The BRAILLE-EDIT commands are still fresh in my mind. And for many people, it was kind of like a precursor to HTML because there was a logical syntax about those commands. It was really a kind of markup language. And what it meant was that you could proof your document.

So before BRAILLE-EDIT came along, and the VersaBraille, as a blind person, I would have to braille my work, and then type it out. We’d have these Olympus typewriters. The thing is, you could type away and not realize that something had gone wrong with the ribbon. Maybe the ribbon had run out, so you’d type your work and you’d not realize that it was illegible to the sighted teacher that you were handing it into.

And also, you couldn’t proof your work. You couldn’t read back what you’d written because you were typing on a piece of paper, and reading that back wasn’t accessible unless you had access to a very expensive Kurzweil reading machine. And I don’t recall what year we finally got that, but that wasn’t very practical for just proofing an essay that you were trying to write.

So when David came along with BRAILLE-EDIT and allowed you to write something down, and then read it back, and use word processing tools to change what you’d written and make amendments (particularly those of us who tended to type a bit quickly and make a few mistakes because we just wanted to get the words out), that was huge.

Some of the features like the global replace function paved the way for future products. He was thinking about those things, and coming up with concepts.

I would put David Holladay in the same category as Deane Blazie and Russell Smith, of course, and a number of others who were sighted allies who somehow, came into our world for a variety of reasons and just got what it was that we needed. They intrinsically understood, they listened, they engaged with us, and then they changed our lives. And we owe a great deal to those allies, and David Holladay specifically.

In fact, those of you who have been listening to this show for a while will recall that I actually wrongly thought that David was blind [laughs] because he just seemed to get it so intrinsically. And a listener corrected me and said, “No, David wasn’t blind. His wife Caryn Navy is blind.” And we send our deepest sympathies and best wishes to her at such a difficult time.

But David was a legend and a genius, and he will always rightfully have his special place in the history of our journey to independence and productivity. I’ll always remember his contribution with enormous gratitude. He made life better for blind people, and that’s a wonderful legacy to leave.

If you, like me, used any of David’s products through Raised Dot Computing like BRAILLE-EDIT and BRAILLE-EDIT Express or Megadots and you have some memories to share, then please feel free to do that. You can get in touch at, and attach an audio clip to an email if you like, if you want to let your voice be heard. Give people a break from mine. Or you can write the email down and I will read it. You can also give our listener line a call at 864-60-Mosen. That number is in the United States. 864-606-6736.

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Leah Gardner, President of Blind LGBT Pride International, Talks About Why They Aren’t Participating in the American Council of the Blind’s Convention

Purely by happenstance, the national conventions of both blindness consumer organizations in the United States are taking place in Florida this year.

Under the governorship of Ron DeSantis, Florida has adopted some measures that the LGBTQ+ community considers hostile and hateful. Both blindness organizations have been condemned by some of their LGBTQ+ members for choosing Florida under the circumstances.

Things have escalated markedly in the American Council of the Blind of late with its special interest affiliate, Blind LGBT Pride International or BPI for short, effectively boycotting the convention.

So what’s led to this, and why is a boycott necessary? I’m joined by BPI President Leah Gardner.

Jonathan: Hi, Leah. Thanks for coming on the show.

Leah: Hey, Jonathan. Thank you for inviting me.

Jonathan: Well, this is all a bit of an argy-bargy, isn’t it?

Leah: It definitely is. No question about it.

Jonathan: Right. Let’s start at the beginning, though. Tell me a bit about BPI, for those who aren’t familiar with it.

Leah: BPI is a special interest affiliate of the American Council of the Blind. We got our affiliation charter in 2000. So we’ve been a major affiliate in the parent organization for almost a quarter of a century now, unbelievably.

Originally, this affiliate was called BFLAG – Blind Friends of Lesbians and Gays. And I believe in 2010, we changed our title to Blind LGBT Pride International. We felt that it might represent the membership and our allies more effectively at that time.

We’d grown from a small organization to, at this point, we have about 150 members. I think we grew from a small assembly of people that were aiming to really try to gain more access to literature, to try to find some social venues within ACB, to try to get some of our particular intersectionality dealt with, to an organization that is incredibly advocacy-based now, particularly since 2016, and the political climate in this country changing drastically.

Jonathan: I remember vividly the BFLAG affiliate debate in 2000, on the convention floor and off, at that Louisville, Kentucky convention. And one of the things that was said at the time, and I imagine it is something that you still hear so I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to this, is that ACB is a blindness organization. Somebody’s sexual identity or gender identity has nothing to do with blindness. Why is there a need, they will say, for an affiliate like BPI in ACB at all?

Leah: You know, I think one of the main reasons for the formation of what is now called BPI is that all of us are blind, right? Blindness is a central characteristic of being affiliated with the American Council of the Blind. However, all of us possess different human traits – whether it’s color, sexuality, cultural traits. And when we walk into a room, we don’t just drop all of that at the door.

For instance, you know, I am a lesbian, I’m a woman, I’m totally blind, I have struggled with mental illness in my life. Those are all critical aspects of who I am. So when I walk into a meeting or I walk into a social situation, I can’t just remove one of those realities like I could a jacket. I have a leather jacket that when I wear that, I can remove that. Everything else is central to who I am as an individual. It’s not a piece of apparel that I can just easily take off. So a predominant reason for an affiliate like BPI is that blindness and these other fundamental aspects of our lives intersect.

You know, I think a lot of blind people who are also part of the GLBTQ+ community have trouble with employment if they are transgender. That’s sort of like a double reality, right? You’re not just dealing with being blind, and given that 70% unemployment rate. You may also be dealing with being a transgender individual who struggles on that level as well.

Being a woman, there is still a really low ceiling in terms of equal pay. That’s still an issue.

So if I’m blind, I’m going to have trouble with unemployment. Potentially, I may not be paid as much as a male. And on top of that, can I go to work and talk about my partner? So all of those attributes intersect with one another. And that’s what the core group of what was then BFLAG was advocating for in 1999, when the affiliate charter was put together.

Jonathan: Can we talk about Florida? We have an international audience, so there will be some people who are just not aware of the issues of concern around Florida and the LGBTQ+ community. What has happened there that has many people in the community so concerned?

Leah: Since Ron DeSantis was elected governor of Florida in 2018, a really stringent conservative legislative body was put in place. And unfortunately, the GLBTQ+ community is right in the target area for a lot of legislative efforts.

For instance, there was a law that was passed a few years ago, and it was labeled the Don’t Say Gay Bill where basically, not one word that could be interpreted as supporting LGBTQ+-affirmative relationships would be uttered in a classroom. And I believe that this started with middle school. There are attempts now to make that legislation, I believe, apply for K through 12.

And some people may say, “Why would sexual orientation be even discussed in a classroom?” Well, children have same-sex parents. They have trans parents. They have parents of all spectrums of the rainbow. So are children supposed to go into the class and have to refrain from talking about their parents, and their home lives, and what they did over the weekend?

In addition to that, there are a lot of draconian laws being passed in terms of punitive measures being taken for parents who want to assist their children in receiving gender-affirming health care. The bar for that in terms of age requirements for seeking that care is getting lower and lower under this legislature. There are new laws now which are being proposed by the governor that would make getting a state ID with one’s gender on it completely impossible.

And of course, there are the infamous bathroom laws. These measures are really becoming … They’re scary, potentially. And if somebody enters a bathroom that identifies with their gender and somebody else in that bathroom believes that that person doesn’t fit that gender identity, they can be reported to the police, they can be arrested for simply going to the bathroom.

And now, as of this coming summer, there are fines that can be issued to businesses that do not conform to that law. So even businesses that are safe, that are gender-affirming could be penalized if somebody complains about a person they feel doesn’t match the gender identity that they are enters the bathroom.

So I mean, these are major human rights violations. There are laws just in the upper double digits in Florida, all across the board. If you were a minority in the state of Florida, the governor and the legislature are trying to make life as difficult for you, as painful for you, and legally punitive as they possibly can.

Jonathan: From your perspective, is Florida the worst possible choice to have made?

Leah: No. It’s one of the worst choices to have made. There are at least 20 some odd states in this country that have either passed, or are in the process of trying to pass similar bills to those in Florida.

For elaboration, the convention is in Dallas, Texas next year. I would argue that Texas is even a worse location than Florida.

Jonathan: You mentioned that there are around 27 states with some objectionable laws from the LGBTQ+ community’s perspective in the United States now. That really narrows the field, right? I mean, it’s very difficult for these conventions to find a venue because obviously, it’s a highly price-sensitive issue. A lot of blind people don’t have a lot of money, so cost is a factor in terms of how cheaply can you get the hotels, how readily can you fly there. So the fares are cheap. If you’re only looking at, say, 23 states as viable, that does restrict the options considerably.

Leah: Well, let me go back, and let’s be clear about the American Council of the Blind.

The organization did not choose to hold these conventions in what have become really crisis states for people that are minorities. These contracts were signed, I believe, in 2018 or 2019 for both Jacksonville and for Dallas. At that time, the states hadn’t begun imposing these draconian measures. So I do want to make sure that that’s clear, that that’s on the table, that that was not the intent.

A clause was passed in 2014 at the ACB general session that anywhere that was chosen for the annual conference and convention, any city had to have an anti-discrimination ordinance. So that is something that was followed. I do want to make sure that it is understood that both Jacksonville and Dallas have an anti-discrimination ordinance. The really punitive measures had not been imposed.

So, you know, BPI understood that ACB hadn’t maliciously chosen to do this. And for that reason, we also understood that contractually, it would be completely completely cost-prohibitive for ACB to back out of the contracts for Jacksonville and for Dallas.

And that’s why going back to last summer, BPI was in agreement with ACB that we would encourage our members to attend the convention, but we wanted to make sure that we put together a human rights protest and a speaking demonstration, which made it completely evident that we abhorred the state as a whole, and their dehumanizing legislation and policies towards all minorities.

Jonathan: And you’re saying the ACB board originally agreed to that course of action?

Leah: The ACB board, they had a board meeting in October of last year in Jacksonville, and the co-chairs for our convention committee, Gabriel Lopez Kafati and Anthony Corona, made a report at that time to the president of ACB, Deb Cook Lewis, the interim executive director, Dan Spoon, and the board as a whole, as to what the sort of blueprint for the speaking demonstration would look like. And we also had made it clear from the very beginning that we would only encourage our members to attend, given safety concerns that we had, if we could host a demonstration.

We did not ask for any financial resources from ACB. What we did is we asked for their support in holding the rally, their support and their endorsement. And at that board meeting in October, it was made clear that BPI had that support and endorsement from our parent organization.

Jonathan: Can I just pick up on something? You talked about the safety concerns. So is it that your members actually feel unsafe about going to Florida? Or is it more that you don’t want your dollars to contribute to the economy of a state that has enacted legislation that you find so unpalatable?

Leah: Well, there’s two prongs there. We do actually have members that are, I don’t use this word lightly, we have members that are terrified to go to Florida under any circumstances, who weren’t planning to go to Jacksonville, even with the human rights demonstration being planned. I mean, we have members who are scared of being physically assaulted. They’re scared of being hauled out of the bathroom by police officers. They are scared of being in public and being verbally assaulted. That fear is real. I have numerous members who have expressed that to me repeatedly that they feel vulnerable. And one of the reasons we were gonna have this speaking demonstration is to really protect the rights of those who couldn’t go to Florida, who feel physically and emotionally vulnerable.

Now, we definitely have a lot of people who did not want to spend their money in Florida.

I do wanna say this. And one of the things that BPI advocated for is … Because the city of Jacksonville is progressive, it’s a really blue part of the state of Florida. We were definitely advocating that it would be a good part of the state to benefit from our economic stimulation, because that city is trying very hard to buck the yoke of Ron DeSantis and the current legislature. So this state as a whole is deep red, and there are a lot of places that we don’t want to stimulate the economy in any way.

However, we as an organization were trying to make the statement that, you know, we wanna support, financially, areas that are trying very hard to be progressive, to embrace human rights, to promote humanity for everybody.

Jonathan: What is the significance of ACB having originally endorsed the idea of having this protest? Why does it matter what they think if you’re able to do the protest on your own, for example, as an affiliate?

Leah: Well, we definitely found out why it matters so much.

What we wanted to do, as BPI, is have an all-inclusive human rights demonstration. I wanna make clear, this was not just meant as a gathering for the GLBTQ+ community. We wanted to incorporate all marginalized minorities.

ACB has affiliates such as BPI. And they also have committees, which are another part of the parent organization structure.

So we approached a couple of committees, number 1 being the Multicultural Affairs Committee, and the other one being ACB Women. We approached both of those committees and asked if they would help in terms of organizing the rally, assist with logistics for the rally, assist us in terms of finding speakers for our rally, try to promote it so that their members would attend and make the rally strong, very very loud, help us find speakers from all over the spectrum – so from the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, Equality Florida, and all civil rights, maybe the NAACP, so that it would not be construed as just a GLBTQ+ event.

Those committees talked about the possibility of forming a coalition with BPI, and they agreed to do this.

We had no problems whatsoever until January of this year, when there was a small meeting amidst some of the ACB board members and the leadership, Deb Cook Lewis and Dan Spoon, started feeling that there was a problem with ACB committees endorsing, supporting, and assisting with the logistics of our demonstration.

Committees are under a different rule structure than affiliates are. Affiliates are able to be autonomous. We’re a 501c3 organization. Committees are a little bit different, and there became this dividing line between what an affiliate can do and what a committee could do.

And so MCAC and ACB Women were basically informed that their members could attend, support, help organize the rally, but that both those committees could not add their names as coalition partners to the demonstration.

That was problematic in so many ways for us because, you know, it really made what we were doing seem much less powerful, and it made it sort of seem as if this was just a GLBTQ+ demonstration. As a 501c3 organization, BPI is under that umbrella, and so is ACB. You cannot campaign for a political candidate. You cannot demonstrate bias or endorse political candidates.

However, you can hold demonstrations, you can speak about political climates, and you can speak for human rights.

ACB decided that they felt like their 501c3 status would be at risk. At no time was BPI’s board ever contacted about these fears. I was certainly never called as BPI president. This honestly was a very abrupt and sudden change in direction.

Jonathan: Just to help all of our listeners keep up with this. A 501c3 is an American structure that essentially is a not-for-profit. You have certain tax status because of it, and it does restrict what you can do in terms of campaigning, right?

And it’s an election year. It’s a federal election year coming up. We’re in it now. And so obviously, there’s a lot of sensitivity.

And indeed, Ron DeSantis is a former Republican Party candidate for president who recently suspended his campaign.

So are they suggesting then that BPI’s own 501c3 status might be in jeopardy? But essentially, that’s a decision for BPI to determine. But that they have received some sort of advice at the national level that if they participate in this, it could put the organization in jeopardy in terms of 501c3 status?

Leah: That’s what ACB is contending. What they’re contending is they sought advice from their attorneys, and that they were informed that their status as a 501c3 could be adversely at risk.

Before they consulted the attorneys, I was never informed of this potential issue as BPI president. BPI should have had a few of our board members at that table when that legal consultation was conducted, but we only found out about this legal advice at a ACB public board meeting on January 30th. So this was something that was never communicated to us until after the fact.

And of course, when we discovered it shortly before that board meeting, we did our own research and consulted our own attorneys, and found that it was very clear-cut that what we were proposing with this speaking demonstration would, in no way, compromise either our 501c3 status or that of ACB’s. This was always billed as a human rights speaking event. I mean, having a disability, being blind, that immediately in and of itself is a minority status. So anything that is done in the state of Florida that impacts the GLBTQ+ community, women’s rights, erasing fundamental parts of US history, banning books, which is another legislative effort that is definitely in play in the state of Florida that affects the disability community as well.

Bookshare, which is a very popular reading conveyance for a lot of blind people, students are not able to receive a Bookshare subscription from schools, either elementary, middle school, high school, state universities, because there are certain books that are considered in the Bookshare library that are banned. And I’m talking about books like The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, a lot of minority representation, nonfiction and fiction books, books about Helen Keller. Bookshare is not available to a lot of blind students in Florida. That is an access issue which directly affects the visually impaired community.

Jonathan: Did the board in January take a vote to uphold the decision made by the smaller committee? Or was the board simply informed that this was the position?

Leah: Two things happened at the board meeting on January 30th.

Because of the questions about committees and their autonomy, there was a motion made that committees could not support as a whole body. They couldn’t form a coalition with another affiliate. The committees could not support or endorse an activity, or rally, or any kind of public demonstration, unless the parent organization did so.

So that motion passed, which means that BPI could no longer collaborate, coordinate with MCAC or ACB Women. Now, people from those committees on an individual level could participate in our events and help organize them. But the actual name of those organizations could not be on the announcements, or in the public representation for the events.

The second motion that was passed was that ACB, as a parent organization, would take no stance on the human rights demonstration and protest. So that basically means this was a retraction of ACB’s support and endorsement. They did not vote to object. They also did not vote to maintain support. This means that they have taken no stand at all, and that’s a direct reneging of their initial stand.

Jonathan: But I suppose, they may be caught between a rock and a hard place because now, they’ve got BPI very upset about the things that have gone down. But you could have equally had a situation where people who, say, have a fundamentalist Christian perspective on these issues might also have wanted to boycott the convention if ACB took a stance where they felt, look, this organization doesn’t speak for me. I’m a blind person. I want to have my say on blindness issues, and access issues, and all those things that ACB cares about. But if ACB takes an affirmative stance on these issues that I fundamentally morally object to, I feel like the organization no longer speaks for me.

Leah: You know, Jonathan, what I find questionable about that is that BPI has been promoting this demonstration since early fall, late summer of 2023. This decision by the ACB board was not enacted until January 30th. So let’s say from September to early January, there were no complaints officially, in terms of any large scale groups wanting to protest the fact that this demonstration was happening.

This came about when a few committees agreed to sign on as co-sponsors with BPI. Now, if there had been any kind of group concern, ACB did not approach us about any of that. We were never consulted, we were never informed.

And I do wanna be honest about this. I think in 2024, diversity, equity, and inclusion are fundamentally important.

I can’t think of one corporate company aside from ones that have made the fact that they have some pretty fundamentalist Christian or conservative goals in place, aside from those, you know, DEI is something that’s essential. It is essential to a lot of grant underwriters. It’s essential to corporations that give nonprofits money. These organizations want to know that any money that they are giving, whether it’s grants, whether it’s sponsorship, they want to know that the organization’s demographics are diverse.

I mean, I’ve worked for a couple of nonprofit organizations in my life, and on those grant forms in the past 20 years or so, there are a myriad of questions about the organization’s makeup, and demographic, and diversity.

I know a lot of people don’t like the phrase DEI. But in the world we live in, diversity is crucial. Inclusion is crucial. And if ACB wants to continue to grow, to thrive, to move further as a solvent, vital organization, that is something that ACB has got to be cognizant of. Because younger members, I would say, I’m 48, I would say members of Generation X, where I am, Generation Y, millennials, aren’t interested in blindness consumer organizations. What they are interested in is inclusivity and diversity. And if ACB wants to grow and maintain a base level of membership and grow, that’s something ACB has got to take note of. If they want grant money, if they want corporate sponsorship, this is something that they have got to be completely on board with and cognizant about.

Jonathan: It sounds like in your press release, you are asking others who consider themselves allies of the LGBTQ+ community to show some solidarity with BPI and not attend the convention either. Do you think that’ll happen?

Leah: I guess we’ll find out. I don’t wanna speak for other affiliates.

I will tell you that even since the press release came out, our website has been active with new members joining our organization.

I have fielded some emails from presidents of other affiliates who want to know more about this protest.

I don’t want to label it as a boycott. What we’re really doing is protesting the fact that the convention is being held in what we consider an unsafe state and an unsafe climate, and the fact that our parent organization reneged their stance and they’re no longer supporting and endorsing us.

Other affiliates can make their own decisions. Anyone that wants to attend convention as an individual, obviously, everybody has the freedom to do what they choose.

We’ll see. I know we’re getting, I’m getting a lot of traction from this press release from a lot of people in affiliate leadership positions who are thinking about how to proceed, and they have expressed not just empathy, but they’ve expressed support for what BPI is doing.

Jonathan: Since the January board meeting, have you tried to sort this out? And is there still a chance that it might be resolved in an amicable way?

Leah: We’ve had a 5-hour emergency membership meeting on Sunday, February 11th, and there were a number of different scenarios at that time that were contemplated. There were proposals to de-affiliate from ACB, there were proposals to continue on with our current relationship with the parent organization and move on with plans for the rally, and there were a few things in between.

The option that we chose was one of those middle-of-the-road scenarios. So we are not de-affiliating from ACB. We’re not separating from them. What we are doing is protesting ACB’s decision not to support and endorse us, and we’re protesting the unsafe conditions and political climate in Florida.

So we won’t be hosting any programming this summer. We, as an affiliate, will not be present at convention.

I haven’t heard anything from either Deb Cook Lewis or Dan Spoon since I sent the press release out on Monday, February 12th. I haven’t gotten any communication from them.

I have made it clear that I am ready, that the BPI board is amenable to taking a seat at the table and trying to find some way to work out this current crisis.

I have to be honest with you. I don’t see that taking shape before this summer.

BPI will re-evaluate where we stand with the parent organization next year at this time. Because as I mentioned earlier, next year’s conference and convention is in Dallas.

Jonathan: Between the board meeting in January and the 12th of February press release, did you make any attempt to initiate some dialogue with the president or executive director of ACB to try and sort this out before it… I guess the press release is the nuclear button, right?

Leah: Yeah, I suppose if you want to put it that way, I think the press release is the decisive action that BPI has taken given the current situation.

In that time period, the vice president of BPI, Anthony Corona, held a listening session on ACB media through his weekly Sunday program entitled Sunday Edition and invited everybody from ACB to not re-legislate what happened at the board meeting, but express their feelings. And at that time, Dan Spoon was on the program, shifted gears from his personal feelings to discussing ACB’s position which is that the decision was made by the board. It will not be retracted, it will not be changed.

A number of board members had reached out to BPI asserting their support just for us as an organization, but also telling us that they didn’t have the full story about the speaking demonstration, that they did not receive the full legal facts.

BPI tried to present our findings from our legal consultations at the January 30th board meeting. We were cut off.

A few board members have said subsequently, they would have liked to have heard what we had to say, and they’ve said that they were not given appropriate knowledge prior to the board meeting.

Now, I don’t know whether that would have changed their vote. However, it seems like the ACB leadership did not conduct due diligence prior to that board meeting, and that all the facts were not on the board.

So the message that we’ve received is that the decision has been made, there will be no re-evaluation. And I have not heard word one from either Dan Spoon or Deb Cook Lewis at this point, and I have made my email definitely widely known through various communication channels within ACB.


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ACB President,Deb Cook Lewis, Responds to the Leah Gardner Interview and Discusses Questions of Intersectionality

That’s the president of Blind LGBT Pride International, Leah Gardner.

And if you’d like to hear the ACB board meeting where this issue was debated for yourself, you can. ACB makes its business meetings available to everyone. You can subscribe to the ACB business podcast, available in all the podcast apps.

It is a lengthy discussion because not only was the BPI really debated, there was also a debate about one of the proposed ACB tours which was objected to by ACB’s Multicultural Affairs Committee. So a lot of talk about intersectionality there. It is a very long meeting, but a thought-provoking one. I listened to it after speaking with Leah, but before talking with my next guest.

She has served the American Council of the Blind in many capacities for decades, and she’s now its president. We’re joined by Deb Cook Lewis.

Jonathan: Deb, it’s great to talk with you. I’m so pleased you came on the podcast. Thank you.

Deb: Thank you so much, Jonathan, for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be here.

Jonathan: Before we discuss the complexities of this issue, do you dispute any of the facts that Leah Gardner outlined?

Deb: Yes, I do.

The first real concern that I have in one of the underlying issues of the whole discussion is whether or not there was ever an agreement or endorsement by the American Council of the Blind board of directors regarding the rally.

In July, shortly after the convention, we began to be approached by a number of people who were very concerned about whether ACB would really go to Jacksonville, given the political climate in Florida. And the issues raised were certainly the reproductive rights issue, the concern about LGBTQ+ individuals in general but particularly about the restroom usage issues that trans folks were experiencing, then just generally some of the feelings about other minority groups in Florida and other states. But Florida was where we were going, so that was an issue.

So I had letters, and phone calls, and everything, and I decided that we needed to take this to the board. So we did in August, and basically had the board review the conditions of our situation, which were that we had a contract that, if we got out of it, was going to cost us several hundred thousand dollars.

During the pandemic, organizations like us were able to negotiate with the hotels around those fees because no one was able to travel during the pandemic. But once the pandemic was over, hotels became pretty understandably 100% unforgiving about any such cancellations because they’re needing to now recover all their losses. And so we were not going to be able to opt out for any politically charged climates, or any other kinds of things. So whether we went to Florida and had a convention, or whether we just sent our money to Florida, we were going to be sending a lot of it there.

So I wanted the board to weigh in on this because I knew this was really sensitive to a lot of our members, and was not a decision that I would be empowered to make.

There are fairly few decisions as president that I’m actually independently empowered to make. They have to be substantiated by a lot of history.

So we had a board meeting to discuss this. We did get a unanimous vote from the board that we should proceed with our convention in Florida.

BPI expressed during that convention their concern about the safety of their members going to Florida, and asked ACB to do what it could to ensure safety of all of our convention attendees in the venues that we would have anything to do with, so our hotel and our tour venues. And so we definitely said, as part of that discussion on that night, that we would get an assurance from the hotel that they would not themselves be posing any threat or challenge to our members and choices that they might make in the hotel with respect to anything. That was legal and okay to do, you know. So basically that they would be a welcoming environment.

We already had, from the city of Jacksonville, the ordinances that they have passed and some other tourist information that suggests that, as Leah suggested, that Jacksonville is a pretty thriving place and pretty blue in a red environment, and that it was probably gonna be a very affirming place to go. Similarly to the kinds of things that NFB has done for their convention in Orlando, to assure their members that it’s as safe as we can make it environmentally.

And so at that meeting where we did make the commitment to talk to the hotel and to our tour venues, BPI did announce that it wanted to have a rally at the convention, and we basically said okay.

Now, what that means to us in saying okay is that as an affiliate, they are entitled to have things on our convention program. We don’t endorse or discredit the activities of any of our affiliates on our convention program. They plan their own programs. They request the time. If we have the time available for them and the space available for them, we give it to them or we negotiate it.

Affiliates can pay if they wanna do something off-site, which this rally would be. They can use our convention buses to do that at exactly the cost of the hours it would be. So if they need it for 3 hours or 4 hours, they don’t have to go and rent a bus for a day, or whatever. We have provided that, and routinely provide that to affiliates.

So we were comfortable, I think. I didn’t hear anyone from the board say that that wouldn’t be okay to do. So that is kind of where we left that.

So I would define that, by the way, at that point in time, as basically taking no position on the rally. We had not endorsed it. We had not said you can’t do it. In fact, we’d said you can do it and you can have it in our convention program. But it will be your event, and you can have it in our convention program and all of that.

Fast forwarding a little bit then to very end of September. In Jacksonville, when we had our board meeting, they said that they’d like to give a report on the work they had done regarding the rally because they had met with a number of people during that weekend while we were all in Jacksonville. It was not an agenda item, but certainly, we make time for our board members to report on things from their committees, or other things that are important. And so they did report on it, and I think they got a very favorable reception from people in the room, from the board, and from others.

I was aware that there were concerns on the board about this. Whether you mention a political name or not, there were definitely political ramifications to the rally, and there was some concern about it being part of our convention. But nobody had raised an actual objection formally to that. So it was continuing that this was the plan.

So that was where we left it. There were no secret meetings, there were no public meetings, there were no votes taken.

For us to have an endorsement for this as a formal event, especially with the nature of it being very different from the kinds of events that we would normally engage in, we would have needed a board validation for that, and we didn’t have one, and we hadn’t been asked to do one. Although, you know, a prominent BPI member is on the board. That might be where it would have kind of ended, and things would have gone forward, and they would have been on the convention program and used our resources, or not, and publicized it in the program, and we would have still been in a place of saying unofficially that we were taking no position.

But then, we learned that some of our committees had been asked to become co-sponsors. Well, there’s a significant difference between what our affiliates can do and what our committees can do.

And so our affiliates, of course, are independent entities. They are all incorporated under the US Internal Revenue Service processes for nonprofit entities. They all have their own independent tax status, etc, and they choose to affiliate with us and we choose to have them affiliate with us, and that’s basically the relationship.

We have a pretty hands-off relationship with our affiliates. We collaborate with them, but we do not direct them. We do not engage with them in much of what they do, unless they invite us to do so, for the most part. So we don’t have a really close relationship with that.

Our committees, on the other hand, are appointed to do the work of the organization. They are appointed. That is the difference. They have no independent status. They serve at will, and they have specific functions within the organization.

Some of them are external functions like advocacy. That would be a very external function, right? They’re engaged in all kinds of things of that nature. Our Information Access Committee has an external focus, primarily. We have many others that have an external focus. Our Audio Description Program, which is known worldwide for its work, has a very external focus.

But we also have committees that are more internally focused, and the major area of where that would be would be our Membership Services Committees. Both the Multicultural Affairs Committee and the ACB Women fall in that jurisdiction. So most of their mission is designed around helping the organization internally to create more opportunities for diversity, and to create more opportunities for women. And both have been very very successful in changing the landscape of the groups that they represent, and in helping the organization move forward in those areas, and helping those individuals move forward within the organization. They don’t have, by mission, an external focus particularly, but it isn’t that they could not be consulted or brought in on an external focus.

But normally, when we’re working with an affiliate, that affiliate would come and ask us to help them in some way. And then, we would figure out which committees, and maybe with their advice, which committees would be the most appropriate to do that, or perhaps even form a special committee.

Last year, when we did a rally in DC for accessible currency, we had a completely separate work group that we designed for that, that brought together some of the skills we thought we might need.

And we have not a great deal of experience rally-planning, but we sure learned a lot from that one. We learned that it can be very expensive when you’re doing the security and the planning. We learned also that you have to really manage the people who are going to speak at your rally.

We had women on the 20, for example, and we had to talk to them about the fact that you can’t talk about Andrew Jackson and your feelings about him, but you could talk about inclusivity if you want to be with us.

So when we found out that these 2 committees were interested in doing this, Dan Spoon, our interim executive director and former president and I met with the 2 committees to talk to them about this, and to express our concern to them that this was something the board would have to take action on, because committees can’t make those kinds of decisions for themselves. And they could certainly input into them, but that would be a position the board would need to take.

Again, we did not have any sort of subcommittee of the board deciding how this should turn out, or whatever. The only meetings that there were, Dan and I, as I said, met with these 2 committees. Both those committees have board members on them. I also talked with each board member. I think I reached all but one to talk about the different ramifications of what we were sort of facing here.

So we did several things on the 30th, in addition to the discussion of the tour, which, by the way, has generated almost as much interaction for me as president as the rally has. We have members leaving the organization. We have members who are angry. We have members who everything that you can imagine, and members who, of course, support.

So no matter what issue we take up, we always have people on all sides of the fence, and that’s maybe one of the great things about the organization.

So on the 30th, we did a few things. First, we kind of dealt with the tour issue. I was really proud of the board because they really did listen to the testimony there, and kind of work that through. And they came up with a different result than I initially expected they would. And I have no problem that that happened. That’s the democratic process. And I carried out their instruction immediately because that’s exactly what I am to do, and did.

So it got messier, of course, with the rally. I invited members of the committees, and I also invited Leah Gardner to come and talk to the board. I thought that would be the easiest way to kind of pick up public input, because it’s really hard in that kind of a long environment to be equitable and really get public input. Although, we did plenty on the list. So it wasn’t that we weren’t getting it, but I wanted to get it from the people who were the most impacted. And so we did get very good testimony from all of them, and they did that really well.

The first thing the board adopted was basically an affirmation statement, kind of determining where it sat on some basic principles of the organization that we might need to revisit periodically. There was nothing new in here, but just sort of a revisit.

And the first was that, although we recognized that all of our members come from a wide range of viewpoints, backgrounds, and diversities of the kind you recognize formally and the kinds you recognize informally, that really what we were coming together for and, if you will, holding hands across all of the aisles and boundaries was the issue of blindness. And the fact that that blindness, the B in our name, was kind of what held us together. And, you know, we didn’t say this in the statement, but in the supporting things to the statement, we talked about the fact that the B groups are the only ones really working on B issues, you know, NFB, ACB, BVA, you know, what have you of the consumer groups of blind people here in the US. Those are the people who care about blindness issues, and who bring them forward, regardless of all of the other diversity of members. So we needed to stand as firm as we could about this.

The second piece was acknowledging the autonomy of our affiliates, and knowing that our affiliates are able to take on issues that are more broad than the National, by virtue of their missions being somewhat different. And BPI’s is probably the most fabulous example of that because they do have a particular interest that goes beyond blindness, and that is unique to them, and that many of our members are sympathetic to whether they choose to be members of BPI or not.

And we have others as well. I mean, whether they’re just more social things like the Lions, you know, or whether they are advocating for Braille, or advocating for low vision, a lot of them tend to be sort of blindness-specific for their secondary issue, but there’s nothing that says they have to be.

And so, as I said, I think BPI has charted newer territory in that area, and it’s good.

Obviously, we have members, when BPI was formed, who didn’t like it, and we have members now who don’t like it. We’ll always have that. When you have people, that’s what you have.

But I think in general, our membership has embraced BPI and seen BPI as a major contributor. So that’s our affiliate relationship.

And then, as I’ve already explained about the committees, we said that the committees have a different role, and the committees are basically doing the work of ACB. So ACB is going to have to decide if this, right now, at this time, not forever permanent but right now, tonight, is this going to be our work?

So we passed that item with 2 negative votes. I believe we have 15 voting members. We had 14 present. So 12 to 2 on this statement of the mission and the roles of affiliates, and the roles of our committees.

And we set that up because now we needed to do the difficult work of deciding, “Does this rally, at this time, meet our mission?”

When we went to the discussion of the rally, there were 3 possible positions that we could take.

One would be to endorse the rally. And if we chose that position, we would need to go all-in. If this becomes our event, we would have to become an equal partner and manager of it because ACB has a great deal at stake when its name is involved in anything. So just like we had to carefully manage our involvement with our own currency rally, we would need to, here.

And of course, there would potentially be concern about the political ramifications, and the fact that we would be dealing with local players, not national players, so they wouldn’t be people that we already knew in some other format. So all of those things were potential concern. But we could. We could choose to support the rally.

And then the other thing we could do, of course, we could choose to be in opposition to the rally. And if you do that, then you have to take an active role in opposing it. And that would be very contrary to what we had been doing. And you know, I was hoping we wouldn’t go there. There is the potential for that, but I was hoping that we would not.

And then there was the third possibility, which is that we would take no position, which is the position we really had been taking up to that point. And we would still offer the same levels of support. And of course, our members would be free to participate in any way they wished. And we would not allow anyone to mistreat that participation, or hamper it in any way, if that became the case.

In talking about the consultation that Dan Spoon and I had from an attorney, basically, we met with an attorney who specializes in 501c3 work. She knows our organization quite well, and she specializes in this work. And I would argue that any attorney that anyone else talked to may or may not specialize in that work, but isn’t an attorney that is working with us, and knows our particular circumstances.

She did not say that we could not do this. I want to be very very clear about that. She said that there would be, certainly, ways you could.

You would need to be very careful because you could be under scrutiny. And she said that in the political environment that we’re in right now, scrutiny is much much tighter than it used to be.

And so even though the laws say well, as long as you’re not talking about candidates, you’re okay, the reality is, she said, you’re gonna get investigated. And if you’re talking about anything that is defined as something off your mission, … And our mission is pretty clearly stated as blindness.

Now obviously, we can change our mission. We didn’t choose to do it that night. But over time, the mission of ACB might change some, you know. That’s a possibility. But that night, we weren’t in any position to be able to do that, according to 12 of 14 of our board members.

So she was very concerned that the level of effort that it would take to protect our corporate assets, and protect our name, and protect our relationships, both with legislators (because we have legislative relationships on the left and the right side of the aisle). And so part of how we maintain those is to stay in our lane. If you don’t stay in your lane, you are gonna put some of those relationships at risk. So part of how we maintain them is to stay in our lane.

None of our corporate relationships are necessarily going to withdraw if we participate in this rally. But we have committed in our corporate relationships that we do B stuff. We do blind stuff, and that we would have to tie this pretty directly to blind stuff to keep ourselves in good credibility with all of our corporate partners.

ACB has more than 50 major corporate relationships that we are working with, plus our legislative activity on the Hill and around. And we use all of our allowed lobbying resources that the IRS allows us to do on our legislative imperatives and instruction that we have from our members about stuff we’re supposed to do. So we don’t have anything extra in the kitty.

We also have pretty limited staff. So if we’re going to support a rally, …

What we found last year was that the rally did end up costing us money. I know that BPI said we’re not asking you for any money. But if we came to this and we discovered it needed more security, or we discovered it needed something, we would have to put it up because that would be what would have to happen to be responsible. So we hadn’t been able to do any of that.

And so the board, there was only one vote negative, and that was to take no position on the rally. So really, the position that we were taking had not changed from the position that we had taken over the summer. And basically, we were continuing to take the same position that we’ve had all along. BPI saw that as a change of position.

Jonathan: Right. Okay. So that’s an exceptionally long answer. And I’d like to get into some of the weeds here.

Deb: Yeah, absolutely.

Jonathan: Will you personally attend the BPI rally?

Deb: I probably would not personally attend the rally, but that would be just totally my choice.

We had many many board members who have planned on attending the rally, and some staff who planned on attending the rally.

Some of my personal choices for not attending actually are my own physical situation. I’m just recovering from major surgery, and I will still be recovering from it in July. And the climate for me politically in Florida isn’t as big a concern as the climate for me weather-wise – the heat, and whether I’ll have the stamina to actually do something really like that.

But we had a number of people who were planning to go.

Jonathan: The reason why I was asking about whether you would attend the rally is I’m trying to get a gauge of whether you broadly support, or broadly do not support, as an individual, the things that BPI are concerned about that is causing them to protest. Where do you sit on the political spectrum?

Deb: Oh. I think I largely support many of the issues that they are concerned with. I can’t say if I support them all, but I certainly support their concern.

I heard deeply their concern about our environment. I heard all of that.

Jonathan: Okay. So your political views are not influencing this process, is what I’m assuming.

Deb: Well, again, my, … I don’t really, you know, I don’t get to vote. So the board votes.

I think there’s always an assumption that whoever’s in the top leadership role has more influence than they may have. [laughs] I’d like to go back to being a voting member sometimes, because my vote doesn’t count.

But on a personal level, I had no problem that BPI was going to have a rally, and I had no problem that they were going to have it in conjunction with our convention as one of their events.

Jonathan: Having been a National Consumer Organization president myself, your first resolution – the one where you reiterated that ACB has a process of determining the policy positions of the national body, made perfect sense to me. There’s a difference between a committee of the national organization and a separate entity that’s chosen to affiliate with ACB determining its own policies.

Deb: Yes.

Jonathan: The Multicultural Affairs Committee and the Women’s Committee, as you say, both wanted to show their solidarity for BPI by participating in the rally. I was curious why those committees aren’t both fully grown-up affiliates by now. And do you think that they will affiliate?

Deb: Oh, I think they might. I don’t think that Women actually will. Again, this is speculation, but I do think the MCAC group might. And you know, that’s one of the things that, as I said, ACB allows for.

Now, I hope that we don’t solve every problem we ever have by creating more affiliates, because I think that just dodges some of this.

But in a sense, it doesn’t. Because if you feel strongly that you have things that parallel blindness, and you believe that they are something that you want to do in tandem with that, then this may be the best way to do that.

We have close to 8,000 members. And I actually think that still, we have a large majority of those members. We may find out this summer, because there may be resolutions or other things. But we have, probably still really got, looking at our 65 affiliates, most of our members probably support the statement that we did make about the mission, and etc.

That’s what happened with our Next Generation group. They wanted to do some things that would relate to them in particular, that I don’t even think we necessarily would have had any problem with. But they just thought it would be better for them if they could become their own affiliate. And so they started as a committee, and became an affiliate. So it’s entirely possible, yes.

Jonathan: Clearly, in terms of 501c3 status, an organization like ACB cannot campaign for any individual political figure or party.

But you know, I just finished reading a 3-volume biography of Martin Luther King by Taylor Branch. It was incredible.

Now, Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Congress was responsible for some of the most consequential civil rights protests in American history, and it was a 501c3.

ACB itself, as you say, has marched in the past, the very recent past, on currency issues.

There doesn’t seem to be any real evidence that BPI is campaigning for a specific individual who might challenge DeSantis. So if ACB had wanted to, you could have participated in the rally without risk to the non-profit status. And I think you’ve conceded that it would have to be carefully managed.

So it seems like raising the 501c3 issue was kind of a red herring, and a way to scare people off and say let’s not do this.

Deb: Well, I don’t think that was at all the intent. We really had been advised that the level of work that it would take to protect the 501c3 status would make this a high-priority item, and the question of our mission in relation to that would potentially be of concern for our status. But I don’t think that we ever said that there was an immediate threat to our 501c3 status just for doing this.

The difference in the currency rally and this is the currency rally was very blindness-specific, and this was really not.

Even the Bookshare issue that comes into this (and I haven’t investigated this to the absolute wall), but I can’t find any evidence that students are actually being withheld the opportunity to use Bookshare or any other NLS.

Jonathan: But that’s interesting, because that’s clearly a blindness issue, isn’t it?

Deb: Yes, but I can’t find any evidence that it’s happening.

When I talked with the Florida affiliate, they didn’t have any information about that. And I have put in some requests to Bookshare, and they haven’t gotten back to me yet. But my sense of that is that this legislation, if you read it carefully, is very specific to books in libraries. It’s not about anything else, and it’s that the school has to want to do it. So if a set of parents in a district want to make it happen in that district, they can do that, but there isn’t any actual indication.

And I think we’d hear from Bookshare if Bookshare was concerned that students were being deprived because of being blind, that they were being deprived access to Bookshare. So I don’t think that that item has credibility, but I absolutely don’t have full evidence on that.

And were it the case, I’m not convinced that the rally would be the way to resolve it.

But I would sure want to see ACB do that if ACB chose to, through its Advocacy Services Committee. I would hope we would want to be involved in that.

But I’m not sure that’s real. Like I said, I don’t have definitive information on it.

Jonathan: But if it is real, then you would concede that that is in ACB’s lane because it’s affecting blind students?

Deb: Oh yeah, because it’s Bookshare. Yeah, because they’re specific to Bookshare. So I would certainly hope that ACB would see it that way, and I imagine it would, yeah, consistent with past, yeah.

Jonathan: You mentioned the corporate sponsors. This is something that concerns a lot of people these days, that ACB (and you’re not the only one) consumer organizations have sold their soul. And we can’t possibly do this because we might offend our sponsors. And that causes people to say, well, who is this organization actually for? Who drives it? That’s a very dangerous precedent to set, that we can’t do this thing because it’s going to upset the funders.

Deb: Absolutely. Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, I would agree that that would be a big problem.

So first of all, our funders are funding our mission. So they are not down to funding our individual activities, but they are funding our mission.

Jonathan: Can you expand on what the difference is? I mean, surely you drive your individual activities by what the mission is, right?

Deb: Yes, right. So the mission is about blind people. So if you can show that what you’re doing has a significant impact on blind people, that’s not just something that impacts everyone equally.

So for example, blind people benefit from clean air, but we haven’t engaged in environmental impact stuff too much in any of the consumers.

Jonathan: So this segues us into intersectionality, which is great. Why not, is my question to you.

I heard that comment in your little presentation to the board, and I thought to myself, climate change is a very real and serious issue, and it affects blind people uniquely because if you find yourself in a natural disaster and climate change is causing more and more of them, there are unique vulnerabilities as a blind person that could be literally life and death situations.

Why doesn’t ACB speak out on those issues? Because you can’t put blindness in a box, right?

Deb: Right, I agree with that.

So I think over time, ACB may. What I said kind of at the start of this is that where we were that night and today with what we have, it’s pretty difficult to determine how you make those course changes in a quick moment, and those could be costly to you.

But if you do them over time and you figure out where is that meaningful intersectionality, where should ACB prioritize where it does speak out on those intersectional issues, and where might it not? That’s going to be a sticky wicket to figure out, and it is something that I think that we will need to look at and should be looking at. And we are, I think, in a position to begin to do that. And so I’m not opposed to looking at that at all.

All I can work with is sort of where we are today, with what we have today. And so as our different committees are working forward and figuring out what it is that we might want to do differently and how might we want to go about that, that’s probably very much part of our future. I just don’t know what it’s going to look like yet, and I don’t know exactly how we’ll get there.

And I’m sure that there will be some rocky trails. We still have a membership that is largely older individuals, and may stay that way. Just looking at the population of people, aging is one of the major factors in blindness. So as long as that population, until that population turns over a little, our mission may move a little bit slowly.

But I do absolutely suspect that in 5 years, when you look at ACB, that we will look different than we do today. I’m not doubtful.

Jonathan: Right. Because there is a serious risk that with all of the social media tools, the campaigning tools that people have at their disposal, that consumer organizations will become increasingly irrelevant when it comes to advocacy. I mean, there’ll probably always be a place for blind people to get together. But if people feel marginalized, they’ve got other vehicles that they can use.

Deb: Absolutely.

Jonathan: Yeah, and this is the risk.

One thing that a more diverse consumer movement is teaching us is that being blind confronts us with unique civil rights struggles.

Deb: Yes.

Jonathan: Being a member of a disadvantaged group also creates civil rights struggles.

Deb: Absolutely.

Jonathan: And at times, those struggles dissolve into a kind of discrimination cocktail. [laughs]

Deb: Yeah. And how do you know which one is really?

Jonathan: Right. Because that discrimination cocktail creates unique issues for people who are blind and a member of the rainbow community, or blind and black, or blind and brown.

Deb: Sure. Right. Absolutely.

Jonathan: Can you imagine how demoralizing it must have felt when members of those communities heard ACB saying well, we’re not saying we don’t support you, but we’re not saying we do either.?

Deb: Well, you know, I can’t really address that because where ACB was, at that moment, is that we were not taking a position on this event.

Jonathan: Right. So there’s not support.

Deb: That does not mean…

Yeah, We did not take a position on this event. And the board could change that, but it’s not likely to. So it’s not that I’m preventing them from it. There were a couple people from the board who said they might like to. They counted up their votes, and they don’t have them. So it would be a horrible thing to revote this and still have the same vote. I mean, that would not help anybody.

So for the future, I mean, I think what we have to do is figure out how we can better dialog up front as these issues arise.

What made BPI assume, without the board taking a position, that the board was taking a position?

And again, what it was about was whether or not they could use ACB’s name to promote the event, not whether they could have the event. Most of ACB might turn out for it. But whether ACB’s name could be used. And that’s the thing the board needs to figure out. Where does ACB want its name viewed?

I think what made this harder was we can talk about it not being political all we want, but the fact that it was in Florida, the fact that there are laws passed in Florida, Jacksonville may be the exception to those, but there were items on this agenda that ACB has definitely not taken a position on. Specifically, things like women’s rights, the procreation rights thing. ACB has not taken a position on that. And if you were to put that to an ACB member vote, I don’t know that they would.

Jonathan: But do you not see that not taking a position is effectively a lack of support? Because what you’ve got is a bunch of people saying we’re blind people, too. We’re feeling discriminated against in these specific respects. And ACB is being an ostrich and essentially saying well, okay, you do your thing, but we’re going to stay silent on the matter. That hardly makes those people who feel that discrimination welcome, right?

Deb: Well, that’s what they have to decide. I mean, I’m sure any time we’re disagreed with, we don’t feel good. And ACB is an evolving organization. There’s definitely no question that there were no winners in this. ACB didn’t win, BPI didn’t win. Nobody came out ahead. And I feel that very very very strongly.

What I would like to see this be is an open dialog for the future, and to try to figure out how ACB should position itself so that it’s not doing it right at a board meeting, that it maybe looks at. Maybe the board would want to establish some kind of working group to think about how does ACB make these decisions in the future? Not so much what is ACB’s specific position?

I mean, we have members who feel, for example, entirely the opposite of BPI, and might want to have a rally in relation to that. Does this melt us down in terms of how we see the world, or how the world sees ACB if we’re taking both sides? Or is that a valued way to do it? Those are questions I don’t have the answers to.

Jonathan: America is an incredibly polarized country right now.

Deb: Yes, yes, yes.

Jonathan: When I was listening to the debate, I couldn’t help reflecting though that 60 years ago, there were a good number of Americans who used their Christian faith to justify segregation, a practice which any decent person now finds utterly repugnant.

Deb: Exactly, exactly.

Jonathan: So aren’t there times where leadership requires someone to say we defend everybody’s human rights unconditionally, no matter the consequences, even if our sponsors get upset with us? This is a moral issue. This is a human rights issue. And as the current president, that person is you to show that leadership.

Deb: Yeah, and ACB may decide to do that. That is not something I can individually do. That is something the board has to do.

Jonathan: But you can steer the ship, right? I mean, you mentioned that you talked to the board members. You’ve had those conversations ahead of the board meeting. You talked to BPI. You have a leadership role in terms of steering the ship.

Deb: You know, I want to think that I can provide some help and direction. And as I said, I am not un-in-favor, personally.

And from the standpoint of ACB itself, of ACB looking at this issue pretty thoroughly, and trying to figure out how does it want to carry itself over the next few years. And what I most want is a process for making decisions, because that’s what we lack. We know how to do what we’ve done, and that’s what we’ve been doing. But if we want this to look different, then our board needs to rise to that and think about how to do it in a way that does not put ACB … I believe there are probably ways to do this without putting ACB into too much jeopardy, etc., as long as we’re very clear ahead that that’s what we’re doing and where those lines are.

But I know that right now, until we can make those lines clear, you and I can talk about what any decent person ought to think and do, but I can tell you that they don’t all think that. That if we had to put some of these things to a vote, that might be catastrophic. So I don’t want to do that.

I want to try to propose and work through strategies that would get us to a better place for the future, so that this doesn’t just keep recurring, because it’s been painful for everyone.

We basically are in a place where we need to do some things differently. We need to think through how we go about them. We need to hear all of our members, not just the ones who are loud on our list but you know, in a better way, our members.

We really do have people who feel very strongly on all sides of this issue. So we have the BPI people, and others who are very very concerned that they felt abandoned. We have people at the other side of that who are feeling very threatened that they joined this organization to not have this organization do these other things that they don’t personally agree with. So we’ve got to figure out how to balance this so that everyone has an opportunity to be heard, but that ultimately we make some steps that acknowledge that times are a-changing, and that we need to figure out how to incorporate those changes.

Jonathan: There’s been debate in the past about the degree to which ACB should throw in its lot with the pan-disability movement. And I think it’s fair to say that ACB is probably slightly more sympathetic to the pan-disability movement than NFB has been historically, at least.

Could the same argument not be made with those seeking justice for people of color, or the rainbow community? All of us know the pain and frustration of discrimination. If blindness organizations took a wider human rights approach, might blind people not possibly benefit from allies from other disadvantaged communities who might collaborate on common human rights struggles?

Deb: Absolutely, very much, yeah. I mean, that would be one of the selling points.

Jonathan: Right, so that opportunity is lost right now.

Deb: Yeah. One of the things I would like to see us do, and this may not really address your issue. I’m not offering it as an avoidance of it. But one of the things that I have continuously heard people say is that our members don’t feel very accepted when they go to those other groups and try to participate. And I know I’ve heard this a lot from BPI who said they felt ostracized by some of the other, you know, LGBTQ groups.

I actually can share my own personal experience about when I came here to the red side of the state, and I decided I better join the blues. I went to some of the political meetings. It wasn’t very inclusive.

So one of the things that I’ve thought about a lot that would make these partnerships sort of valuable is, can we help any of these groups become more inclusive of our members who are part of, in some ways, most of us are part of some subsets. Some more perhaps marginalized or disadvantaged than others. But there are a bunch of subsets going on – whether it’s age, whether it’s color, whether it’s, you know, it’s gender issues. Whatever they are, there’s tons of stuff. So are you able to interact in all of those environments? And I think the answer has not been an unequivocable yes.

And so it’s one of the places where I think ACB could and should foray into this, which would be pretty mission-appropriate because then, you know, you’re talking about blind people needing to be able to better engage across these other aisles. And that would help you then learn where partnerships might make sense, and where common ground would exist on various issues of human rights, or civil rights, or what have you.

You know, it’s kind of like the old thing about if you want sidewalks in your area, you go find the mothers of bikers, you know, group that has the little kids riding their bikes who are getting run over because they have nowhere to put the bikes.

Jonathan: Exactly, strategic alliances.

Deb: Yeah. So there’s some strategic alliances that ought to happen. And I think that would be an easier, more palatable way for ACB’s larger membership.

Again, thinking about that bigger group of the 65 affiliates, that would be an easier way for them to see this because it doesn’t necessarily say we have to attack the mission, but it’s like, but can we view the mission from a different angle? And I have been thinking about that all the way through this because it’s like, how could we do that, for example, as an opening step that might be more palatable than simply saying well, we think these are the human rights and so, and someone else doesn’t, you know? It’s like no, let’s not debate that. Let’s just figure out how to, … We do agree that our members should be able to be, or blind people in general, whether there are members or not, should be included in what’s going on in the environment if they choose to be, whether we agree with it or not.

Jonathan: See, that answer of yours has put There’s a Place for Us from West Side Story in my head.

Deb: Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan: Because it really is concerning that the LGBTQ+ community is not always welcoming of disabled people who are among their number.

ACB is now giving the impression that it isn’t exactly welcoming when these people put their heads above the parapet, and object to discrimination taking place in a specific state. The mental anguish and distress that this community is under when it feels like no one wants them and no one wants to take their issues seriously must be absolutely immense, and it seems that ACB is contributing to that anguish.

Deb: Well, I don’t think it’s ACB’s intent to contribute to it. And I’m sure it does feel that ACB is. I would not wanna assume someone else’s feelings. I mean, that’s absolutely inappropriate.

What I will say is that ACB is trying not to just react issue by issue, and we need a plan. We need a way to figure out how to be planful, how to be thoughtful. And like I said, the thing I’ve kind of said to you is a little bit, my thought about where it maybe starts, you know, if we’re going to do this, we have to be planful way ahead if it’s gonna take our resources. Because although BPI said well, we didn’t want any money. But in reality, they were going to need quite a bit of support from ACB around making this an ACB-workable event in terms of taking care of ACB all the way across the board in it.

So we would need to think about that in a longer range, and whether the rally is the best way for ACB to be doing that. And I’m not sure if it is or isn’t. That really is a board decision.

But what I do think, and what I will continue to say is that this door should not be closed. And we need to continue to try to figure out all of the ways that we can respond to the needs of our members and that we can hear all of our members. And yes, certainly move the edges of the membership that are on either end of the spectrum toward the middle a little, because there’s some of that on both sides, you know.

Jonathan: So you don’t think there could have been a middle ground, which would have been a resolution that said, we wish BPI well with its rally, and simply left it at that?

Deb: We certainly could have done that, but I think that’s what we did with the no position, so I don’t think we’re agreeing about that.

Jonathan: Hmm. You think? I mean, some people feel like the no position thing is essentially, well, to be honest with you, a cowardice response in the view of some people.

Deb: Sure. Well, and that is their view.

I mean, like I said, we felt that taking that view would give us the ability to allow them to be in the program, to allow them to have the rally, to do that, and to do that in that way.

What they wanted was to be able to use our name in support of the rally, and that was not what the board voted.

We even thought about … Our advocacy steering committee thought about whether ACB should craft a human rights statement, something like NFB has done. We have to be our own, of course, but something along the lines of saying we do, in fact, support human rights, without really defining them specifically.

Jonathan: The UN might have some language that would help in that regard, right?

Deb: Oh, I’m sure. Absolutely, yeah.

And I think because there’s been so much polarization that I think they felt like at this time, this would probably be seen as disingenuous and token, and not well-received, and so they didn’t pursue it. But I think if they were asked to do so, I think they still would.

But it would not be so much about BPI, as much as it would be a statement that could definitely be read and shared and would be on our website that says no, we absolutely recognize that human rights are important, and that a piece of our contribution is to focus on blind people in that realm, with all the other intersectionalities.

And so I think we could, I know we could have done that. And I think that the board would buy that in a second, probably.

Jonathan: Would that not be an appropriate way to take the heat out of this issue, or at least make an honest attempt to? Because obviously, BPI has issued this release. A member of BPI sent it to me. That’s why we are talking now.

Clearly, there’s a lot of feeling on this. Would that be a kind of an olive branch to extend?

Deb:Well, like I said, that’s something that our advocacy steering committee has explored. And when I went back and asked them about it, they felt like the timing wasn’t right because they felt that things would be seen as pretty disingenuous.

I certainly don’t mind going back and offering it again, or to them as something they could do.

But I don’t know. At this stage, it would probably be great if BPI actually asked for it because then, I think people would feel like it was wanted.

But either way, I mean, we do need, I think as ACB, to make some type of human rights support statement. That’s the first piece you do.

And then, you think about, so how does that fit with the mission that we have, and the expectation that we have?

And then once you really know how you want to do that, I think it’s not such a problem to sell it to your constituents. As long as you’re clear about, here’s where we think we can go, and here’s what we think we can say and do.

And some people still will probably not think it’s enough. I mean, no matter what you do.

But there’s no question that, like I said, that times are different than they were. And I think the biggest barrier we have is the total polarization of our country. Whatever we do, half of our members are not gonna like it. That’s gonna be how that goes. So that leaves you sort of stuck sometimes, just like our Congress and others, because it’s like, how do you move off of that?

So I’m hoping that we can, and I’m hoping that we do. And it’s a personal commitment of mine.

I think one of the things that would help everyone is that there’s been some attacks on both sides. And I think I would call on everyone to stop the attacks and have conversation without judgment. Mistakes get made on all sides. And if learning happens, then it’s a very good thing.

Jonathan: And is there anything you would do differently if you had this process to do over?

Deb: You know, I’ve thought about that a lot. I thought we were being clear because this is the process that our board follows. And BPI has a member on the board, and many of the BPI members have been members for a long time. So the board processes are pretty familiar.

But I think I would try, since this has been a sensitive issue, that as soon as I realized that we had it on the table, to try to make sure that everyone came together so that whether people liked the outcome or not, they would at least be very clear about what it is probably in writing. And I think, you know, that would have helped us. And that’s different than the way we usually have done this. Like I said, we get dinged by our affiliates if we ask too many questions. So we’ve kind of learned from that too. You know, this street runs all the ways.

So basically though, I do think that at least for my part, I would want to really make sure that if we were using any of the same words that they had as close as we could to the same meaning, because I think that’s what sometimes happens in communication is things get interpreted, and I would want to make sure that those interpretations are correct.

Now, that doesn’t mean, like I said, that everybody’s going to like them. But if you do ensure that early, then it means that if you do want to try to negotiate any change, that you’ve got a better place to do that rather than when you’re under the gun.

We’re also going to do some training with our committees about their sort of committee charges, and kind of reminding people what those processes are so that when they do want to do something, that they bring it to us early and that we can think about it and try to figure it out.

The other piece of that is we have an affiliate expectations document. It was last revised in 2019. We will be looking at that again. It calls us to look at it every 5 years or so. Coincidentally, that’s right now. And so we want to look at how is it that we want the affiliates. Has that changed, or do we want to reinforce how affiliates come to us with things they want to do, and how do we process those? When do we say yeah, this really just, this is your purview, affiliate, go ahead and do it. And then we’re not stuck with taking sort of a no-position position because really, where we were on this was a lot better off, where there was just nothing, you know, happening except that they were going to be on the program. They still can be, if they change their mind. But we weren’t, we hadn’t taken an actual position, and I would have rather had, if we weren’t going to take one, I would have rather just had what we had going.

Jonathan: Reading the tea leaves, it does seem possible that BPI might leave ACB. What will you do to prevent that, assuming that you don’t want that cause of action to take place?

Deb: Well, you know, we don’t want that cause of action to take place.

We want to keep the dialog going. It really is a 2-sided piece.

I mean, I know that BPI is feeling hurt. But BPI is also exhibiting a lot of destructive behavior right now. So they may be losing some support from affiliates, and I would caution them to think about that as well.

Jonathan: Is that the media release that’s destructive, or is there more that you consider destructive?

Deb: No, no. I don’t think the media release has gotten as much traction as they might think.

And it’s been some both sides, but BPI has pretty well stimulated a lot of activity on our lists, a lot of anger.

The Sunday edition call created a lot of anger. I know that there are hurt feelings and anger, and I would just caution that, you know, it might be good to sort of step back from that, and just say okay. If we’re gonna stay in the organization, we need to figure out how to work with the organization and how to negotiate that, and to just come together and do that.

We’re starting a process in our leadership conference coming up in a couple of weeks. We have some people coming to us from the Roslyn and Jimmy Carter School of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, which is local to where we’ll be, and they’re gonna start working with us a little bit on how to manage some of these issues in a little bit better way, all the way around. So it’s not just how you’ll do different, it’s how we’ll do different if we choose to participate with that.

I also feel that we have some people on the other end of the spectrum who’ve been incredibly inappropriate, but I just keep telling everyone, you all don’t have to have the last word. You know, if we would just stop doing it, we could start doing something else.

I don’t want any of our affiliates to leave. Like I said, we’ve got people who are really stressed out about the tour thing, too. I’m not talking about that because it’s not relevant to this, but I can tell you that it’s every bit as big an issue.

Jonathan: Yes, and I feel like it would be disrespectful of me not to briefly mention this because as you said in your beginning statement, it wasn’t clear to me either that that resolution to withdraw the tour from ACB’s list of convention tours was going to pass. But in fact it did, and you expressed your view that it should not. You did not support that resolution.

If I look at the optics of this, I have to say I was very moved by Cheryl Cummings’ statement because she’s so articulate and measured, and I could hear the quiver in her voice.

Deb: Yeah, she is.

Jonathan: And I actually found it quite moving. I don’t know about anybody else, but it actually moved me to tears, listening to Cheryl talking about how disrespected that committee felt, having been asked specifically what they thought of this tour.

And then, the committee says don’t do this tour. We really have misgivings about it.

But the tour went ahead anyway, at least initially.

Deb: Yeah.

Jonathan: That’s the kind of paternalism that blind people are used to, right? I mean, we are so used to sighted people saying what’s best for us, and here we are.

I mean the optics, if that resolution had passed, the optics of a bunch of largely white people overriding your own Multicultural Affairs Committee and saying you know, even though you said it’s not okay, we still think it is, that would have been a horrible look.

Deb: Okay. So the question though that was asked of them, and I think I said this in the meeting and I don’t wanna do a whole thing on this, but the question that was asked of them, and the answer that came back were not connected. So the wrong question was asked, and a different answer came back, and there wasn’t a good interpretation of that. And that was when I was out on my medical foray for 8 weeks, and I missed some of this.

So basically, what the convention committee asked them was not whether they wanted to have the tour, but whether they wanted to be the organization that, well, sponsored is the word they use, but sponsoring implies money or something, and there’s no money here, but that they would be the endorser of the tour. And they said no, we don’t want you to have the tour, but that hadn’t been the question, so the convention committee missed the answer. And so the MCAC said, we’d really like you to have this other tour, and so the convention committee added it, too. And so there was no intended malice on either side.

And when I chose to take my position, I didn’t take my position based on whether I thought we should have the tour or not. I took my position based on the fact that some position needed to be taken, and then the board could vote it up or down.

I actually didn’t know going into the meeting how the board would vote. As I heard the testimony as well, I was pretty sure the vote would be contrary to what I had brought to the board, but it wasn’t contrary for me personally. I didn’t have an investment one way or the other, real personally in this, as much as to try to hear the intent of our convention committee, and to try to hear the concern of our MCAC committee, and others.

The biggest issue about the people who object to the tour change is not about whether MCAC wanted it differently or not, but about whether we were abdicating responsibility, and would that be a permanent abdication? Would now MCAC be responsible for deciding what cultural tours we have?

And the answer is well, I don’t think we’ve decided that. So there needs to be a lot better collaboration there, and I need to make sure that happens and that people are asking and answering the right questions, and that they’re hearing each other when they do because I believe the convention committee, had they really heard the answer correctly, I believe they would have withdrawn the tour themselves. They didn’t. And so I supported them as a committee, but I had no problem at all with the decision that the board made, and doesn’t matter whether I do or not, but I didn’t have any problem with the decision.

But I’ve had plenty of heat, and I can tell you, we have a number of people who are challenging their affiliates that they want to know if they can be part of their affiliate without being part of the national, because the national is, you know, abdicating these things.

So our members definitely have a lot to say about everything. And that’s why, part of why, if we are going to make a change in how we handle requests like the rally, that we need to think through how we do it in a way that won’t backfire and won’t go as badly as this one kind of has.

So I absolutely am interested in that happening, but I don’t think it’s just an all-or-nothing either direction. I think it’s about trying to figure out what really works, what can ACB actually do with the resources it has, how can it protect its assets but still meet the needs of an increasing number of its members, and how can we support that diversity. And I truly want to do that.

Jonathan: The moral of the story is that intersectionality is really complex, and it’s not going away anytime soon, is it? So it’s something that all organizations are going to confront. [laughs]

Deb: Yes. I totally agree with all that. And I’m okay that it’s not going away. I mean, I’ve somehow been made out to be the villain in this in many ways, and by all sides. And it’s truly not the intent.

But what I do want ACB to do is to have some level of consistency so that we’re not reactive, so that we can be proactive, and so that we can have a better future. And I, like I said, I want that very much.

Jonathan: Well, can I close by saying, I know that ACB’s got its own media. I know that very well. So you didn’t have to come on to independent blindness media and perhaps face some tight questions.

Deb: [laughs]

Jonathan: So I really appreciate that you did. It’s been a very interesting dialog. And I found this whole issue as I’ve looked into it incredibly thought-provoking. And it’s not easy. And I’m sure the dialogue will continue. So thank you so much for devoting so much time to this. I really do appreciate it, and I’m sure our listeners do, too.

Deb: Thank you so much, Jonathan. I really appreciate this opportunity. It definitely is a complex issue, and there is more to come. And that’s what I really do like about ACB is ACB doesn’t shut this stuff down. We sometimes need to process it. But it’s not done.


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Closing and Contact Info

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