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Jonathan Mosen: I’m Jonathan Mosen. This is Mosen At Large. The show that’s got the blind community talking. The entire episode this week is devoted to an interview with National Federation of the Blind President, Mark Riccobono. The interview is indexed by Chapter two so you can skip between the topics we cover and you’ll also find that list in the show notes.
Jonathan: Founded in 1940, the National Federation of the Blind is famous worldwide for its advocacy on blindness issues. Whether it’s in a Congressional Committee Room, a courtroom or a room full of blind people seeking solidarity and encouragement, it’s changed perceptions of both blind and sighted people alike about blindness and the place of blind people in the world.
The NFB has become not just an advocate, but a provider of blindness rehabilitation services. Its history hasn’t been without controversy, tensions about democratic processes culminated in a group within the federation crossing the street to a neighboring hotel from the NFB convention in 1961 to form the American Council of the Blind. Some remain skeptical today about how democratic the federation truly is.
Recently, the federation has been shaken to its core, as it seeks to come to terms with historic and current sexual misconduct. Since 2014, its President has been Mark Riccobono. Raised in Wisconsin, his sight deteriorated over time. He earned a degree in Business Administration, majoring in marketing and minoring in economics. He joins me from NFB’s headquarters in Baltimore. Mark, I really appreciate you coming on the podcast. It’s good to talk with you.
Mark Riccobono: Thank you, Jonathan. It’s an honor to be here.
Jonathan: Having someone with your background at the helm, it’s a bit of a departure for NFB, isn’t it? Because you didn’t come up through that blindness system, you didn’t attend a school for the blind.
Mark: That is true. My experience was in the public schools, [chuckles] as much as that was experience in the blindness system. I didn’t really get a lot of services in the public schools. I mostly was able to pass under the radar. I definitely did not have a strong connection to other blind people really, until I got into high school is when I started to know there were other people who– I didn’t think of myself as a blind person, so at that time, who couldn’t see like me. [chuckles]
Jonathan: Obviously that mentoring thing is really important in terms of understanding what you might become. I also wonder if you feel that the system failed you, that you should’ve been educated as a blind student rather than a low-vision student from a much earlier age.
Mark: Oh, without a doubt. I have aniridia and glaucoma. I was diagnosed as legally blind at age five. Even going into kindergarten, I clearly had a progressive eye condition. I would’ve definitely benefited from learning non-visual techniques at the same time I was utilizing the remaining vision I had. I’ve had to work really hard to make that up, but what I can’t make up are all of the experiences where I didn’t really have equal access to learning.
I just had to memorize stuff. When you’re flat out just memorizing, you’re really memorizing to get through a test and you’re not assimilating knowledge in the same way. I couldn’t effectively take my own notes, I couldn’t effectively read, so many things that could have, I want to say easily been avoided had I even gotten a very basic level of services. Even when I got to high school and I happened to choose the high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that specialized in business.
It just so happened that that high school had a resource room for blind students. You would’ve thought I would’ve gotten better services from the professionals, but I really didn’t, to the point when I was a senior in high school, that’s when I first got to know there was a National Federation of the Blind because the Wisconsin affiliate of the Federation was advocating for a Braille bill to raise the standards for teachers and their accountability in teaching Braille.
It was at that time that the teacher in the resource room said, “We could teach you Braille if you want to learn it.” Now, as a senior in high school, I had two study halls. I thought about it for half a second, couldn’t come up with a reason why I would want to learn Braille and so I went on my way. I didn’t even know why I would want to learn Braille. It wasn’t until I met members of the National Federation of the Blind a number of years earlier, and they explained to me in very plain language, why I would want to learn Braille. I’ve never looked back ever since.
Jonathan: It took you until college to get to learning Braille, is that correct?
Mark: Yes. I was halfway through college and I hit a wall. I couldn’t really compete. Through the luck of finding other blind people in Madison, Wisconsin, the first person I met happened to be a Braille instructor. I learned Braille during the summer that I turned 21. I say, I would’ve learned Braille faster, except it was the summer I turned 21, but [chuckles] I took a Braille lesson once a week. I practiced in between and the code was easy, just building fluency and speed from there. I just had to read and use it and read and speak it. That’s what I’ve done.
Jonathan: I still remember one of the very earliest NFB videos that I saw in the 1990’s, where Barbara Pierce was talking about that she didn’t learn Braille until she was– I think she said in her 40’s, if I’m remembering correctly. Her child, that she was trying to read a bedtime story to got so grumpy with her for holding this book so close to her face and slowly trying to read the story. That was the thing that motivated her to finally learn Braille. It continues to be a problem, doesn’t it? That blind people are being deprived of literacy.
Mark: Yes. The vision centered bias really is so strong and we’ve made a lot of progress, definitely in the 1990’s and into the early part of this century, we’ve been able to move a lot of things forward, but certainly in the United States, the education system still defaults to print. We have made some great progress in really advancing the idea that children can be very competent dual-media users using both print and Braille, but even in that process, Braille has to truly be supported and emphasized because of course print is everywhere and print is always encouraged and Braille is almost universally discouraged.
It’s like, “We’re sorry, but we have to teach you Braille.” There’s a lot of work to do. In the federation, I’m very proud of the work that we have done to spearhead. We teach Braille on an annual basis to hundreds of blind children across the country, through our Braille enrichment for literacy and learning project. We’re continuing to innovate in that space, but it’s not fast enough. There are kids everyday that should be getting this instruction. Every year that goes by that they don’t get Braille, is just another hurdle that they have to jump later in life.
Jonathan: I know that from time to time, you listen to this podcast and you’ve commented to me that you hear things said sometimes about NFB and you’re sitting there and I can imagine how that is. You might be yelling at your phone, or thinking, “I can offer an alternative perspective.” As we go through this, I do want to ask you some questions that I see on social media or hear from my listeners and give you a chance to answer those.
I want to start with this question about the number of members that NFB has. Since I became aware of the Federation and that was in the 1980’s, it’s been stuck at this magic 50,000 member mark. That’s always said. Is that a true statement still? If so, is there any auditing that confirms those numbers?
Mark: That’s a great question. Membership is an interesting thing to count. We have been making renewed efforts in the last few years to more strongly track our active members at the national level. Certainly, that is a very verifiable number. Being a membership organization, we have a lot of people who have an affinity to what the federation does. They’re supportive of what the federation does. They may not have paid the dues in a local chapter in the last year. In that technical sense, they don’t count as a member, but they’re still interested in the success of the organization.
You don’t hear us use the 50,000 figure as much, mostly because we have an interesting time counting membership because our impact is so much broader than membership. If you just consider the NFB-Newsline system, which we make freely available to all blind people, regardless of membership status. With well over 100,000 active users using that service on a daily basis, what counts as membership? Those technically aren’t members because it’s not active work in our organization.
We’ve used the 50,000 member number, a lot of times. We don’t use it as much today. What I would say though, is we have a lot of confidence in our positioning as the largest representative of blind individuals in this nation. We take very seriously from a leadership level, our role in representing all blind people, whether they’re members or not. We drive this home with leaders, with our staff that our role is to represent all blind people of all different backgrounds, of all different skill levels in what we do.
You see a lot of that diversity reflected in our membership, but it’s also aspirational that we need to do better and continue to make sure we’re representing all blind people.
Jonathan: NFB-Newsline is an outstanding service and it’s provided a lot of access to information for people, but I would have to observe that there are a lot of ACB leaders who use that too and people who’ve chosen not to affiliate with the federation who might not appreciate thinking that by virtue of using it, you might in any context, consider them a member of the Federation.
Mark: I didn’t mean to imply that we count them as a member, we don’t, but we do consider them a constituent of services that we provide and therefore their voice is important. Now, it doesn’t mean that we necessarily prioritize their voice in determining say, who gets elected to office in our organization but again, we take very seriously this notion of trying to be the voice of the nation’s blind and representing all perspectives.
Membership for us is though about active participation in the federation somewhere. That can sometimes be a difficult thing to count because we have people who are very active in supporting work that we do, but again, they haven’t paid dues to a local chapter in the last year. I have full confidence in our positioning, but this is why you also, I think, have not heard us using the 50,000 member number for some time.
Jonathan: The mandate question for a consumer organization is a really challenging one, isn’t it? Because if someone has chosen, it may have been a conscious choice not to pay their dues, not to turn up to chapter meetings, can any consumer organization, not just the federation claim a mandate to speak for that person?
Mark: That is an interesting question. Can we claim a mandate to speak for them? No. We’re made up of those who make an active choice to be part of the blind movement that we have created in the National Federation of the Blind. However, we think that those perspectives are important. We think of all blind people as perspective members. We would hope that any blind person would want to get in and help.
One of the things that we do as an organization, when we decide to become a member is that we give up to some degree, a little bit of our individual interest in making a commitment to the will of the majority of the group. We make a commitment to working together. That I think speaks to, we have to also be open to the perspectives, the ideas of people who aren’t part of the movement currently, because that may add value to where we go in the future.
We certainly, first and foremost, speak for our members, but I think it’s important that we hold to the value that even in doing that, we may be setting policies, helping to drive the country in a direction that will impact people who aren’t our members. In some ways, we have an obligation to have an awareness of what those people are thinking and feeling.
Jonathan: This is a very interesting point you make. Given your degree, you’ll forgive me for using the term “value-add” because I think it’s appropriate here. You are NFB President at a time where volunteerism is on the wane, anyone can be an advocate. They can start an online petition. They can cause something to go viral, they can make a lot of noise. What place then does a consumer advocacy organization like NFB have today? How if at all, does it need to change in the social media era, because as you say to some degree, you’re giving up that little bit of autonomy, aren’t you?
Mark: You are, that’s part of the give and take. We know that at the end of the day, we are stronger together and yes, efforts can go viral. You can make things happen on scale using social media, but to sustain those efforts over a period of time, what does that is relationships. Relationships between people, the real sharing of ideas, dreams, support that happens in a movement like ours.
I think the challenge in that for us as we seek to what the future is, is to recognize that active participation looks different for different people. I think there was a time when the real active participation could be measured by how many chapter meetings did you go to in a year and how many letters did you send to Congress, but we have made progress as blind people. We are victims of our own success.
There are more blind people active in the community, engaged in meaningful employment, that means just the basic level of time they have available to contribute to the movement is less. We have to be flexible and aware of that and make sure that we’re continuing to utilize the effort that people can put in and that we’re not valuing it based on quantity or some arbitrary notion that might actually keep people from participating because they feel like they corner of the world is not valuable.
The other thing I’d say though is that by bringing things to scale, we can create resources for advocacy that just an individual would have a very hard time doing. If you look at– we’ve created self-advocacy tool kits that people can use in their own individual efforts, but then they know that they have an organization that will have their back even when those individual efforts fail.
Jonathan: In terms of that time commitment, obviously, it is enormous for you. Is the Presidency a paid position at NFB?
Mark: It is not. None of our board members are paid. The constitution does not prohibit board members from being paid, but we have never paid any of the elected leaders of the federation at the national level.
Jonathan: How do you get by given that this must be your full-time job and more?
Mark: I definitely spend a lot of hours in the week on it. I serve as Executive Director of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, that’s my paid day job. The American Action Fund is a charitable organization that’s been around since 1919. It has a number of distinctions. One of them is that its largest program is to provide free Braille books to just over 1,000 blind children on a monthly basis.
It’s the largest free Braille book program in the United States. The Action Fund is a partner of the Federation in a number of projects and so it does grant me time to work on the Federation, but it is quite demanding because both of these things require a lot of attention.
Jonathan: America right now is highly politicized and it’s highly polarized. You’ve faced criticism from some NFB members who’ve said that NFB has gone too far out of its lane, that NFB used to be a place where advancing the security, equality and opportunity of blind people was its only consideration, but I’ve heard it said that you are advancing a left-wing agenda. Some conservatives feel that NFB isn’t a place they can call home anymore. Do they have a point?
Mark: I don’t think so. I think that we are operating a movement within society. The important thing is that we as blind people determine where we want to go and how we want to get there. That continues to be true for our organization. We also have to recognize that we have matured as a movement to a point where we do need to think critically about where intersecting characteristics provide enlightenment, understanding, perspectives that help us in our own movement.
Just to give an example, we fought for a long time for blind people to be certified to teach travel to other blind people. The professionalism of the blindness field rejected this idea for a long time and we had to fight that uphill battle. Now that battle’s not done in a lot of places, but where are the disparities in blind people who teach travel? I happen to be a White American and if I was going to go out and teach travel to a blind person, I’m quite certain that a police officer is not going to stop me and wonder why I’m walking alone with some young person teaching them travel, but that is a real experience that my blind brothers and sisters who are Black, who teach travel have had.
We have to recognize that our common bond is blindness and that is our role in the world as an organization is to work on behalf of blind people, but we can’t simply ignore those disparities. Now, I think where it gets challenging is people feel like we may be adopting somebody else’s agenda. I have not observed that in the federation. The federation is very determined that it sets the pace for itself.
As you say, we do live in a very, very polarized society and so everything gets taken to the extreme. Just to stick with this example, after the killing of George Floyd, we talked a lot, our board about, do we need to say something? I personally was really quite shaken by this, especially because I’ve been a champion for our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. We decided to make a statement of solidarity in June of 2020.
We put the hashtag at the end, Black Lives Matter. It’s the only time we’ve used the hashtag although I guess I did use it that year in the Presidential report, but we used the hashtag and I got dozens of letters about how the federation has supported Black Lives Matter, the organization. Well, that’s just not true. We haven’t. We’ve done nothing with the organization Black Lives Matter.
We used a hashtag to amplify our message of solidarity to members of our organization that we’re really hurting because of these very societal efforts. For us, it’s about recognizing that if we simply bury our head in the sand and say, we’re blind people, not our problem, our organization will be done faster than anything else we could do to kill it and that will not help any blind person. In fact, I would argue it’d hurt all blind people.
Jonathan: You’ve just concluded your eighth convention as President, that’s gone fast, and two of those have been virtual. Social media posts would suggest that there have been concerning numbers of COVID cases to come from that convention. In retrospect, was it a mistake to go back to being in person this year.
Mark: Was it a mistake? Not at all. No. We, I think, took the strongest precautions, depended on people to make their own choices about what they needed to do for them. Universally, people have been thrilled by being able to get together in person even people who yes, got COVID did they get it at the convention or did they get it from flying? We can debate these things.
Look, the timing stinks, the BA.5 variant, not great timing. Had we had this convention in May, completely different. I think we did the right thing by testing everybody and having people produce a negative test. We can quarterback it and say, there are things we should have thought about doing, but at the end of the day, I think we did about as good as we could. If anybody actually has the true formula of how people stay away from the virus, I would challenge them because it’s puzzling to me the people that got COVID, the people that didn’t get COVID.
I think one real factor there is that we also have a lot of people just in general in society who haven’t been out and about in two years. I think that made them more susceptible in some ways to getting COVID, but universally, even amongst people who got COVID, the convention was energizing, rewarding and I’ve heard many people say, “I’d do it again even if I knew I was going to get COVID.”
Jonathan: Do you have any data, even anecdotal data about the percentage of attendees who got COVID?
Mark: We don’t because we didn’t really try to track that. Certainly especially at the tail end of the convention, there was an uptick in COVID. It’s interesting, because at the end of conventions, there’s always a core of people who get colds and that sort of thing. I think it’s the nature of being together in a hotel for that period of time. It just so happens that COVID, I think is the flavor of the year. We don’t have real hard data on that.
Jonathan: Obviously, there is some hope that there might be some hybrid option that continues into the future and this, I guess, takes me on to questions of democracy. If NFB is truly to be the voice of the nation’s blind and that’s a tagline that the organization likes to use, active engagement with as many blind people as possible is obviously critical. Most people are unemployed, there’s a cost of living crisis on right now, people are finding it hard to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, NFB is frequently criticized for being autocratic. Your critics contend that a lot of control rests in the hands of state affiliates, meaning that all the national leadership has to do is manipulate a small number of key positions. Why not just bust the whole thing open and create a truly democratic hybrid convention where you can vote in person or online and every member gets one vote, so every federationist’s voice is equal?
Mark: Well, I think the why not is I think the convention hasn’t determined yet that that’s what it wants to do.
Jonathan: That’s chicken and egg, right? Because the state affiliates wouldn’t surrender that.
Mark: Maybe, but on the other hand, the convention has to make that determination. That’s just the way our organization is set up. We can always debate what is the right degree of democracy. We had 2,400 plus people at the in-person convention. In our virtual conventions, we had members eligible to vote in the virtual conventions. We never had 2,400 active members registered to vote at the virtual conventions and when you consider participation in the virtual convention, not all of the people who were eligible to vote, actively participated in the votes.
I guess it depends on how you how you slice it. At the end of the day, we provide a lot of support through our affiliates, through the national organization to help people get to the convention as well. I think it’s still an emerging conversation. The organization, the convention can change the nature of the organization, but we’ve also arrived at the delegate model from our history and from a history where for some time, the minority was able to stop the real business of the organization by bringing motions that they knew were going to fail, but that ran out the clock on business meetings.
I think what’s most important from my perspective, is that we continue to foster an environment that does promote active participation and helps members know that their voice and their vote is important. Where is that going to go in the future? Well, I can’t say I know, but I think our organization, our board did not feel like it was in a position to tell the convention what that future should look like.
It was up to the convention to decide that and yes, to some extent you could say that’s self perpetuating, but I think the members get to decide that and that’s the system we have and that’s what at least I feel bound to follow.
Jonathan: You’ve offered some clarification around that 50,000 member number. I accept that, but let’s say it’s even half that, let’s say it’s 25,000 or even less, no matter what number you pick, getting 2,500 to 3,000 people at a convention is not only a tiny subset of the entire NFB membership, it’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the blind population of the United States.
Mark: Sure, and I concede that and that’s where our organization has chosen a delegate style of representation at the convention. It’s locally driven just like the United States Congress, although I would say our convention is more productive than the United States Congress. The local folks elect a delegate and the delegate is supposed to represent their interests, not just the interests of people at the convention, but all of the members locally who elected them.
That is a form of democracy. Some people don’t see it that way because they try to compare us to a nation. We’re not a nation, we’re an organization. People don’t have an automatic right to vote in our organization. It’s a privilege extended to those who make a conscious decision to be members.
Jonathan: Let’s talk more about that, because NFB has among its membership some of the most capable blind people in the United States and yet there hasn’t been a seriously contested national election at NFB in many years. One would think that in 2014, when a 28-year Presidency concluded, that was a good time for the NFB to consider the future that it wanted for itself and for there to have been a robust contest of ideas, a range of alternative futures to contemplate. That just did not happen.
Mark: It did not happen, but there was plenty of discussion I can tell you, about folks who might consider running. Anybody who has spent serious time around members of the federation will never believe that it’s simply a mindless group that goes in one direction. There is vigorous discussion, debate, disagreement about policies, directions and I think the challenge of the leadership is to continue to be guided by all of those perspectives and find a common ground.
I set as my goal on a yearly basis to talk to more blind people, listen to more blind people than anybody else. Those discussions and debates are happening, but we’ve also at the same time, valued stability in leadership, knowing that we have to continue to make progress. That is a challenge in that getting people to recognize there are many, many roles to play in our organization and not everybody wants to be President, I could tell you that, but helping people find a place where they make a difference and recognizing that it is about a team, it’s not about an individual.
That’s been one of my core values forever. If you look at the video of me when I had the assignment of driving the blind driver challenge car at Daytona, you’ll see the video where I without planning, when I pass the stands of NFP members, talked about the team. I think that’s one of the reasons you don’t see that. We really foster in our national leaders the idea that it’s about a team.
I’m not sure that challenge in leadership is in and of itself a demonstration of health in the organization, but to your point, I think it’s where we need to continue to foster the discussion about these alternative futures. Those conversations are happening all the time.
Jonathan: It does seem extraordinary. You are right. I’ve met some very feisty opinionated federationists hence my question. It just seems really there’s some systemic failure going on when after 28 years of one President, there’s only one candidate to replace him.
Mark: Well, I would say there were a number of viable candidates. I think amongst us, we knew who each other were and I think amongst each of us, we had a commitment that we were going to support one person. Only one person could be President, that’s just the way it goes. There’s multiple ways you can view that. The challenging part is that again, when we agree to have an organization, we’re agreeing to give up a little bit of our own ego to be part of this ecosystem.
I said at the convention this year, and I don’t take it lightly. The convention decides whether I continue to serve. I can tell you that my biggest fear is being the one, the person, the reason that our movement fails. I recognize that probably not one person could do that anymore because we have a lot of depth and I think the rest of the national board would take action before that happened, but I worry about that.
I said at the convention this year, that whether or not I get to do this role is up to the convention. Whatever the convention decides, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to continue to be part of this movement because I know from my real experience, the difference it makes and there is no other force that’s making that difference in this way for blind people. I don’t know, I think it’s a culture.
I think we have to be careful as I think your question points to, we have to be careful that the culture of stability that we’ve created doesn’t set up a system that shuts people out, that continues to evolve, but that also helps us continue to get the work done. I think that’s where the diversity of voices become important. If a diversity of voices feel this is the system that works, that helps advance their interest, then it should continue and if it doesn’t, then it won’t.
Jonathan: Because there’s a perception that the immediate past President chose his successor and without intending to be disrespectful, that’s very Soviet-style behavior. I heard it said before you assumed the Presidency, some time before, that you would be the next President of NFB and that the word was being put about that you were going to be the next President of NFB. For a long time before that, of course, it was Fred Schroder and we’ll talk about that a bit later. When did you know that you were the chosen one as it were, that you were the one that Marc Maurer wanted to succeed him into the Presidency?
Mark: In our organization, we teach leaders that your most important job is to determine who is going to keep the effort going after you. You can’t simply say, “I’m done.” And walk away. That part of service to the movement is making sure that there is a transition to a next leader. I joined the Federation in 1996 and I think if not 1996, it was not long after that that hanging about with students, people were speculating, I wonder who’s going to be the next President. Who’s going to do this?
That speculation happens all the time because we do teach our leaders that it’s their job to find their successor, that that’s probably their most important job. We all knew this. Leaders of the federation who were all contenders to be President of this organization for the next generation, knew this. I went to Marc Maurer in about 2010 and said, when we’re looking at who the next leader of this organization is going to be, I want to be on the list.
I did that because I was concerned about some other people who were saying they wanted to be on the list and I just thought they were a poor choice for our movement. I didn’t give a thought after that. You say, well, when did I know? Well, my role was to go work on building the federation and I took on any assignment that came my way. I came back from an FDA hearing in November of 2013 and Beth Braun who still works in my office today, said Dr. Maurer would like to talk to you.
That wasn’t unusual, so I went over to the Office of the President and he said, “Now do you still want to be President?” I said well, Yes. Are you okay? You sick? Is there something going on? I will tell you I was astonished because that was the furthest thing from my mind. I’ll also tell you that I have said this throughout my career. I was naïve enough to think I could do the job and didn’t really fully comprehend. I don’t think you can fully comprehend all of the details of it until you’re in it, but I said yes.
He said that he was going to tell the National Board that’s where he wanted to place his support. Sure, people have speculated. People are always speculating. We just had– we brought on four new board members before the convention, there’s always, people are playing who’s going to be on the board? Who’s going to be off? Who’s qualified? Which is great. People should be thinking about who are the best candidates.
I can tell you that I never viewed myself as “the air apparent”. Maybe it was obvious to other people. What I knew is that I was in for the long haul. I was prepared to support other people in the Presidency, I wasn’t really thinking about that we were going to have a new president in 2014 because my focus has been on the movement. I think we had to be careful that speculation really suggests that there is a positive message being sent by a leader about what’s going to happen.
I can tell you that for years, many of us knew we were being tested by the President to see how we would react to assignments, what we would do in situations, how we would treat other people and I think those are all valuable tools for finding out who really has the qualities to be in the leadership. I think part of that is who can support other leaders and help elevate other leaders as well as advance their own interests.
Jonathan: Once you had Marc Maurer’s support after that 2013 meeting, it was inevitable then, wasn’t it?
Mark: I wouldn’t say that. At least I didn’t have that attitude. I had conversations with many people. I certainly had people who said, “What are you going to offer?” I had conversations with folks who said, “We just can’t hand this to somebody, we should challenge it.” I went to those people and said, hey, I want you to be part of this leadership team. Maybe it looked inevitable and of course, it’s easy to say that because it came out that way, but I certainly never felt that way.
Jonathan: Those processes can exclude rank and file members, though, can’t they? If influential leaders in the federation are having those discussions behind closed doors as it were, then those who are perhaps less connected with the organization, but care about who their President is, may feel that they really haven’t had a say in that process?
Mark: Potentially, if they’re really behind closed doors, but we have an expectation that our leaders are out front and engaging with people. Again, you see this at the national convention. We have the Presidential suite and anybody can come by, anybody can walk into the Presidential suite when it’s open and it chat with the President. Now, it’s hard to get to everybody. How well we do at executing it, we can debate, but the ethic is that everyday members have access.
I can tell you, I talk to blind people almost every day who are like, “I’m astonished you answered the phone.” I value and I have noticed this and what I observed in Mark Maurer is the members have to have access to the leaders. Sometimes we get affiliate leaders who say, “No, don’t call the national President about this. It’s really not something.” And I tell people, if any affiliate leader tells you you can’t call me, first thing you should do is call me because that’s a red flag. The door is open.
Jonathan: Let me ask you a couple of questions about perceived conflicts of interest and these come up sometimes on social media and other places, how they influence some people’s attitudes towards the federation. NFB formed a view a long time ago now that no one was better to provide the services that blind people need than the organized blind themselves.
NFB has established training centers. You’ve got the Colorado Center for the Blind, the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and Blind Inc in Minnesota. It’s said that these centers are affiliated with NFB. What does that mean in terms of the NFB’s control over, for example, the setting of policies and the appointing of leadership at those centers?
Mark: A couple of things. First of all, those are model programs. The idea was to stimulate amongst other programs for the blind, a high standard, to raise the expectations not to take over every single aspect of the field, but to be a demonstration of best practices, how it could be done at a very excellent level. Our three model training centers, and there’s no magic that there’s three, it’s just that in the 1980s, we had three dynamic blind women who organically at the same time, were thinking, “Hey, we should start a training center here in our respective states.”
Some of that thinking came out of a debate that happened on the floor of the convention about rehabilitation services, about having those services driven by consumers. Also, there was a debate about whether there should be a training center here at the national headquarters of the federation. That last idea was one the convention ultimately was not in favor of, but these three women Joanne Wilson, Joyce Scanlon and Diane McGeorge, really independently came to, “We should start a program driven by blind people here.”
Those programs came into existence. Each of those entities were created in their respective states with their own boards of directors. They made a commitment to operate within the context of supporting the National Federation of the Blind. In the early 1990s, the National Federation of the Blind signed a memorandum of understanding with those training centers to say that they had the right to use the name National Federation of the Blind in exchange for being bound by the policies of the organization.
If the Federation is against paying minimum wages to blind people, the training centers aren’t permitted to pay sub-minimum wages to blind people even if it’s legal for them to do so. Things like that. That was a very conscious decision by the boards of those entities because they were giving up to some degree, some of their policy decisions to the national convention.
The federation does not put money into the training centers, each of them have to raise their own funds. The Federation coordinates with those training centers, but they operate very independently and there have been conversations over the years about other training centers, but other training centers have not made the commitment to be bound by the decisions of the national convention.
It’s an affiliation much like our state affiliates have independent boards that are elected locally. They’re bound to the practices of the federation by being affiliated with the federation.
Jonathan: If you or the Board of Directors deemed it appropriate that one of those directors for any reason be dismissed and replaced, does the board have the power to do that?
Mark: The National Federation of the Blind board does not have the authority to remove a staff member at one of those training centers. Now, certainly, the federation’s board would have a lot of influence with the board of one of our training centers, if the federation’s board either found evidence of information that would be appropriate to lead to dismissal or even a vote of no confidence from the NFBs board would send quite a message, I think, to the training center’s board.
Ultimately, the training center would have to make that decision. Now the federation could say, “Okay, well, if you’re not willing to do that, we’re going to pull our affiliation and you can no longer use the name and the brand and National Federation of the Blind.”
Jonathan: I introduced this line of questioning by talking about conflicts of interest. And where I’m going with this is, do you think that having those centers affiliated with NFB compromises NFB as an authentic consumer voice, because if a blind person has a complaint about a blindness service, but the service is essentially under the auspices of the very organization that’s supposed to stand up for them, how can they expect impartial advocacy?
Mark: I don’t think there’s a conflict of interest in that the balance is still the consumer organization. That’s really the important part of what we do. Again, the members of the federation would drive those changes if and when they want to see them in the training centers. Now, I get calls about people that are unhappy with the training centers from time to time.
As a matter of fact, I have a call later this week from someone that has some complaint to lodge. Now, it’s not for me to mediate that, so I don’t know what the content of the conversation is going to be, but if I have concerns about that, I’m certainly going to tell the person that they have to take that to the training center board, and I will help facilitate it to make sure they can do that.
The training centers are a very, very important part of what we do, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small part of what we do. It’s not a conflict in that those centers know to their core that they’re responsive to the organized blind movement. They have to be. I think the question then is, when concerns come up, are they effectively handled so that the people who feel like they had a concern, feel like they had a fair hearing. That happens both at the center level and can happen through the federation’s code of conduct process.
Jonathan: We’ll circle back on all of that in a moment. The other conflict of interest question I have for you is that the NFB’s work obviously has to be funded and one way that you do that is that you offer a range of sponsorship packages for convention. Some critics have said that NFB has become so corporate that convention sponsorships, and some advocacy initiatives as well that are ultimately settled with donations to NFB, have compromised the purity, if you will, of NFB as a consumer voice. They say that human nature means you can’t help but be aware of sponsorship when you are considering whether to take action on an issue.
Now, to give you a specific example, they cite Google’s chain dragging on various accessibility issues, including talk back and brail HID when compared to Apple, but they claim that Google gets far less scrutiny at NFB conventions than Apple because Google’s a sponsor. If these sponsors are paying the piper, do they get to call the tune?
Mark: No. I would refer you to the sponsors. You should ask them that question. [laughs] There are many notable examples where we have had very, very strong resolutions about sponsors and I have had many, many angry conversations with sponsors at our conventions when there’s a resolution about them. The message is always the same. Our members get to call the shots and it’s great that you’re here, it’s great that you have decided to participate, but the members decide where the priorities are.
How do you move an organization like Google, Microsoft, Apple? We could debate all day about that. That’s been very challenging. If you look at the sponsorships related to the convention, it’s a very small part of our funding. I don’t think it has compromised at all, the work that we have done. In fact, I think it’s given us greater credibility with a number of our sponsors to recognize that we’re serious, that we want to work collaboratively, but were also willing to tell it how it is.
I’ll give you an example. There was a sponsor in 2019 that we had had many conversations with and we had a very strongly reworded resolution and they were hopping mad about it. They wanted a meeting with me in the Presidential suite about the resolution. They said, “I thought we were working together. How could you do this?” I said, the fact of the matter is your products stink and blind people think so and they’re tired of it and you haven’t gotten it done. We don’t know if the resolution’s going to pass, but this is what my constituents are saying and my obligation is to these constituents.
That resolution and that conversation turned that entity around. Now, they’re not across the line by any stretch of the imagination, but they have got it. They thought coming to the convention was enough I think to some degree, but when they were still getting hit over the head because they just weren’t really incorporating accessibility into their work and when that resolution came, it moved them in a big way.
That’s just one example. I think if we were compromising, we would not be seeing some of the successes that we’ve had. Now, maybe it’s easy to blame NFB for all the areas where we still have more to do, but I think it’s been effective to have people at our conventions and people recognize– we’ve gotten people to recognize that being at the convention and in the midst of blind people does help them in their work.
Jonathan: What would you say to those who say, yes, but the thing is you’ve got resolutions on the books condemning and deploring Apple, who in most people’s opinions are streets ahead in terms of smartphone accessibility, but very little on Google.
Mark: I would say I don’t think we have scores of resolutions condemning and deploring.
Jonathan: A couple, I think.
Mark: Yes. I think the question is a little bit blown out of proportion since the convention debated resolutions about Apple many times and the convention defeated them. It took a while for the convention to actually pass a resolution regarding Apple that targeted it, but Braille access with Apple, still an issue.
Jonathan: Are you talking to them about that or are they talking to you? Because Apple is a notoriously secretive company. There are so many blind people who want to be constructive and help, but Apple won’t engage. What’s that like for you?
Mark: We do our best. I want to be careful not to– we have a number of strong relationships. None of these companies is moving as fast as we would like. Hey, I’ll call out Google too. There was a meeting in my conference room right over here next to where I am with Google about Braille access. I got up from the meeting, I came into my office, I grabbed the pictures of my two daughters who are both blind. I came in, I slammed them on the table and I said I’m tired of talking to you guys about Braille.
These girls are growing up and it’s going to be too late for them if you don’t get something done. All of these companies have work to do. If anybody has the magic solution of how we can get them to do it faster, you can call me at (410) 659-9314. I’ll be the first to implement your solution. Yes, we’re talking to these companies, but this is why we need a continued drumbeat and why we need to coordinate on pounding on these guys and each of them has their own cultures that it takes a slightly different approach.
Speaking of Google, when we really got the attention of Google is when we had a meeting with Alan Eustace in Mountain View. They were putting on this nice dog and pony show and our blind director of access technology said, “Now just show me how to turn on that device without looking at it.” Nobody could do it except one person at Google who knew the contortionist move you had to make to turn it on. I don’t know. I think all of these concerns come out of our frustration as individuals that none of these companies is moving fast enough.
Jonathan: Given its topicality and importance, I do want to spend some time with you talking about the matter of sexual misconduct or harassment at NFB and as best I can, I want to articulate a range of perspectives that I’ve seen online about the subject so that we can learn what you think and what NFB is doing. In doing that, I do need to declare an interest in that I am a survivor of physical and psychological abuse by a teacher at a school for the blind.
This is quite real for me at the moment because I’ve just given public evidence at a commission hearing in New Zealand on this subject. It would be unrealistic for me not to be influenced in my line of questioning by my own life experience as a survivor. Can I confirm that you do accept all the findings of the special committee’s interim and final reports relating to the subject?
Mark: First of all, Jonathan, let me say, I appreciate your being open and vulnerable with sharing your own life experience. I appreciate that. Do I accept all of the findings of the special committee? I have confidence in the work that the special committee did. I think their work was thorough. I think it was exceedingly difficult. It’s exceedingly difficult to go back into history.
I think they did the best job that they could and I think based on the information they had, they sassed out for the national board, all of the things that we needed to know in order to move the organization forward. I guess that’s yes.
Jonathan: You agree then that as stated in the report, Fred Schroeder and I quote, “Engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of decades.” And it continues, “Although the committee does not know the exact number of instances, the committee reasonably finds that there were many. Multiple women were traumatized by him.” The special committee found that your predecessor learned of allegations about Fred Schroeder, but he put the reputation of the federation ahead of justice for victims.
Once you became President and more allegations were made, you confronted Dr. Schroeder and obtained his resignation from the board of the Virginia affiliate. He was President of that in fact, but he continued to speak at the conventions.
He was spoken about with high regard, and he was even supported in his ultimately successful candidacy for President of the World Blind Union, despite the fact that one would think it would be reasonable to believe that in doing so, you might have been putting women at risk given what you knew. Doesn’t all of that represent a serious lack of judgment?
Mark: Let me walk a real fine line because our ethic has been not to talk publicly about any specific allegations out of respect.
Jonathan: I understand, but the committee has talked about this one, which is why I raise it.
Mark: Absolutely. I just want to put that out there. Lack of judgment is the question that you have raised and you have framed that particular situation as Mark Riccobono having information about multiple allegations at the time that I dealt with this situation in 2014. The committee report does not say that and that is not factual. I knew about an incident and I think we need to be careful to take the totality of the committee’s report, which was to look deep, look hard, look thoroughly at the history and judge what individuals knew at a moment in time based on what might be known today.
Your question was about judgment. Well, I have a lot of confidence in some of the decisions that I made based on the information that I had it and when I had it. There are certainly other things that when I look back on them today, from the understanding that I have built through the grace of learning from literally dozens, hundreds of survivors that I certainly would do differently.
The thing I would challenge to what you said is, if I had had a true and honest belief that individuals were potentially being in harm’s way, no, I would not have taken some of the actions that I did. I also made decisions based on not having complete information and that’s a really, really hard thing for me to resolve in my own heart and I have been criticized thoroughly in social media because in apologizing, I’ve also talked about the real effect when I sit and think about my own girls that have I taken actions that may have been inadvertently put them or other people in situations where they could’ve been harmed.
That’s really hard. It’s not as hard as– and I don’t mean to compare it to any experience of a survivor, but I think we have to be careful about putting the totality of the information we have today on leaders who didn’t have all of that data at the time.
Jonathan: If you have one incident that was serious enough to warrant resignations from the board of NFB and an affiliate, is it then appropriate though, even based on that one incident that warranted those resignations to continue to speak highly of that individual, to continue to invite them onto the platform at the convention, given the reason for those resignations?
Mark: It’s a fair question. I think the answer, the truth is more complicated than that. It’s hard to make comparisons. Well, I guess the thing I would say is, if I had to do it over that wouldn’t have been something I would’ve done.
Jonathan: When someone is expelled for a period due to breaches of the code of conduct, there are apparently conditions once that exclusion period has expired under which someone might be readmitted to the federation. I couldn’t find any information about what those conditions are. Are you in a position to elaborate on that?
Mark: Sure. Those conditions– well, first of all, if someone is expelled, I guess technically there’s potentially a path back to the organization, but the idea is that they’re permanently gone from the organization.
Jonathan: That’s interesting because I read terms like expelled for a five-year period and I would’ve thought that suspended in that context would’ve been a better choice of words.
Mark: Suspended would be the term we would use for five years. Now, whether people use the correct terms in describing it, but the conditions depend on the circumstances. They’re generally outlined in the disciplinary letter that’s issued by the board. The important thing is that it’s not an automatic switch. We have adopted internal procedures that first of all, depending on the nature of the violation, the original disciplinary letter might put conditions on it.
For example, it might say that an individual needs to demonstrate that they have gotten counseling, or taken training on sexual misconduct or that sort of thing. That’s an example. If an individual who has been suspended wishes to be a member after their suspension period is over, they have to apply to be a member through the National Office of the President. They cannot apply locally. They must apply through the office of the President.
At that time and only at that time, because we consider them not to be a member until the time that they apply. We won’t notify them, “Hey, your time is up. You can apply.” It’s up to them to decide to apply. If they apply, we will initiate procedures that will include trying to verify any conditions that were put on them to complete. We will reach out to the individuals who were originally impacted to get a statement of interest from them and see if they have any additional information.
We will do some work to see if there have been any other incidents that have happened during the suspension period that we weren’t aware of and that will be considered as a record that the board will then consider their application for membership back into the organization. Since that has never happened yet, we haven’t tested that system, but that’s the outline of it. It really does depend on the case.
Even in that case, there are a number of situations where even if they’re readmitted to the federation, they will permanently have other conditions. For example, there are a number of people who have been suspended, that if they are ever readmitted to the federation, they will never be permitted to work in programs with youth in the federation.
Jonathan: There could potentially be some tension if you get a survivor or multiple survivors who say, “Hell no.” You’ve got information or the board has information that says, “Actually this person has genuinely sought to rehabilitate, to try and turn over a new leaf. Everybody needs a second chance.” How do you resolve that?
Mark: I think we’re going to find out how we resolve it. I don’t think there’s a simple answer there. I think these are real decisions that an organization has to make. They’re not easy decisions even within society. The thing is, we have to have a degree of nuance and in fact, we’ve heard from a number of survivors that they want there to be processes that genuinely help people rehabilitate themselves.
We can debate how effective that is and those are questions that the broader society hasn’t even answered. That’s one of the reasons that some people aren’t seeking to be on the national board, because they don’t want to have to have the responsibility of looking at all these things and making these decisions. These are not simple, straightforward situations. They’re very difficult to sort through.
Jonathan: We had a discussion earlier about the potential conflict of interest that might occur when you have an advocacy organization also providing services. And an open letter from survivors makes the point that one of the reasons some are reluctant to come forward is out of fear that if they complain about their abuse at NFB centers, NFB won’t be there for them when they need advocacy.
That risk is further compounded by the fact that at a time when redress and closure needs to occur, you have a director of one of the training centers as your first Vice President. Now there are multiple and serious allegations relating to sexual abuse at NFB centers. There has been one arrest, indeed the groundswell initiated by a survivor’s story and the marching together hashtag came about as the result of sexual misconduct towards a trainee at the Louisiana Center for the Blind of which your first Vice President is the director. Surely it’s not sustainable at the moment to have one person do both of those roles.
Mark: I’m not sure what the basis is for your saying, it’s not sustainable.
Jonathan: My basis is that if you’ve got complaints about one of the NFB centers and ultimately the board of directors may have to deal with matters pertaining to that, you’ve got someone who has that fundamental conflict of interest that they’re a director of the center. Theoretically speaking. There may be an occasion when they may have some responsibility for action or lack of action and there they are in those two conflicting roles.
Mark: There’s not a conflict in that. Let’s just say, we’re talking about Pam Allen.
Jonathan: Well sure, but I’m talking about a principle rather than casting aspersions on an individual.
Mark: Sure. Yes, but the process we have guards against that. There’s two aspects to that. One is the federation aspect, one is the Louisiana Center aspect. On the Louisiana Center aspect, the federation will coordinate with the Chair of the Board of that center and the training center has an independent investigator that it uses for allegations and incidents and it will initiate a process of investigating a claim.
Independent of that, the federation’s independent investigator would do that same analysis regarding federation membership and those two things would happen independently. We have very good systems for those things to happen independently and that’s appropriate. Now, it would be inappropriate if a training center director had a role to play in that investigation, but our processes would never allow that, because it would never come to that member of the board.
The first thing that happens when we’re investigating, the federation is investigating a code of conduct report is our council and independent investigator will look at potential conflicts. For example, if it had to do with me, I would never be brought into the loop of that, except for obviously to address any allegations that would be initiated with another officer of the federation.
By the way, with all of the allegations that have been made about the Louisiana Center for the Blind, during the time that the special committee was going on and even today, we have chosen not to involve Pam Allen in any code of conduct investigations by the federations, simply for the perceived conflict of interest.
Jonathan: We’ve seen in other organizations where they’ve tackled these issues that closure and healing occurs when there’s a change of personnel. Given that there have been incidents reported at these NFB training centers, is it not appropriate to say it’s time for new directors at those centers as a mark of goodwill to survivors who really feel aggrieved? That it feels like no one in leadership has been held to account for things that have scarred them for life?
Mark: Well, that’s a complicated question. I can tell you that the special committee dug deep into these matters that each of the boards of the training centers have dug deep into these matters. None of them have decided that an immediate change of leadership is warranted or required. I don’t think I’m at liberty to say what actions they have or have not taken beyond that.
I have complete confidence that had the NFB board and/or the boards of any of those training centers determined that immediate removal of one of the leaders was necessary, that would have happened. In fact, in the last year we have learned information that did lead to the immediate removal of personnel at the training centers.
Jonathan: What kind of input should survivors expect to have in that question?
Mark: I think survivors should continue to expect that their voice will be heard. Let’s just start with the federation. Our blind survivor group, our code of conduct feedback process and certainly any of our national board members are open prepared to continue to have those conversations. I know that to be true of the boards at each of our training centers as well, and I know that a number of the training center boards have had those conversations with survivors who have come to have those conversations about their concerns.
Obviously that’s very individual, that’s very difficult and our goal has been to try to set up as many avenues to make it clear to survivors that we want a safe space where those conversations can happen. That’s also in fact, why our board took the positive step of recommending to the convention the establishment of the safe fund, so that we had a positive form of providing support to individuals who have been harmed.
Jonathan: The objective of that safe fund, is that primarily rehabilitative or is there also a compensatory element to this as well?
Mark: Rehabilitation. The fund is specifically targeted at providing therapy services to individuals in the form of reimbursement or direct payment to providers based on, they’re being harmed by someone in the organization. Establishment of that fund is meant to be a continued commitment of the organization, not simply backwards facing, but really was intended to be a forward facing positive component of our commitment to our safety and support efforts.
Jonathan: Is it correct that there are now multiple lawsuits around these issues and that it is possible that as a result of those, NFB may be required to compensate some survivors who are part of that legal action? That could be quite an expensive process.
Mark: The National Federation of the Blind has not been served papers for any lawsuit in this area.
Jonathan: You are obviously aware based on a previous comment that you made of social media. I do want to ask you directly about your own position, because there’s a lot of talk about this out there. Some survivors have described your response to this unfolding crisis as reactive and tepid and they claim that you’ve been dragged step by painful step along this journey.
You didn’t offer an apology until the marching together hashtag went viral and the brand was being damaged. Some said that they don’t believe that they’ll get closure until you yourself are no longer President. Is your own resignation the best contribution that you can make to the healing that needs to occur in the federation?
Mark: I have been told by survivors it is not. We can debate the timelines, we can debate the facts. I have chosen not to get into a point per point rebuttal with survivors in social media. I don’t think it’s appropriate, I don’t think it’s helpful to healing. I’m willing to account for and own my own actions and in fact, I’ve said many, many times, I wish I had the understanding then that I have today.
I’m grateful for the survivors that have shared with me to help me understand things that I didn’t understand in this process. That’s number one. Number two, I have offered my resignation. I told the board in December 2020, that I was prepared if they felt it was appropriate to get out of the way so that this organization could continue to do what it needed to do. The board said they didn’t think it was appropriate, we needed to do more work to understand the issues.
It created a special committee, which was given complete access including to all of my emails, some of which have been partially put into social media, but the special committee had all of my emails and I would actually challenge the idea that I have been dragged into this. Have I moved fast enough? No, definitely not. 100%, I get it. I have been slow on the uptake on some things, but there are people who will tell you that starting in the fall of 2014, I was talking to people about, how do we put in procedures that help us better address these things?
Now, did it take a long time to get to the code of conduct? Well, sure it did. It took another couple years, but starting in early 2015, I was talking to people about it. Starting in early 2017, we were starting to put the components together of the code of conduct. I don’t care who takes credit for it. I don’t need credit for it. I have come to peace with my own actions. I admit that my actions haven’t been fast enough, but I have talked to dozens and dozens of survivors. I have thanked them for what they have taught me. I’ve tried to be a champion for them.
There are survivors who brought themselves to New Orleans just to say that they were supporting the work that I have been doing. That is an honor and a blessing that I can never repay. That is also a bond of trust that I take very seriously. Social media is not going to change that for me. I know the hearts of those survivors and I know that the work that I’m doing is making a difference to them.
I’ll be the first to get out of the way if it starts to be harmful. I wish I could heal all of the missteps I’ve made on this journey. I went to the blind survivor group at the convention and I told them, it’s taken a long time for me to get it through my head that I can’t fix it. I can’t fix what happened and it’s not my job to fix it, but I can help prevent it in the future and I can help do something stronger about it when it does happen.
That’s the best commitment I can make. I have heard from survivors that they want me to stay and do this work. That’s an honor that I take seriously, I’ll be happy to resign if they start to feel like I’m doing the wrong thing, but that’s not the message that I have gotten.
Jonathan: What is your assessment of just how widespread sexual misconduct is in the federation? Is it a few bad apples? Is it rampant?
Mark: That’s a complicated question. [laughs] I think it’s reflective of sexual misconduct in society. What I would say is, I don’t think the federation is worse than other parts of society. I do think we have work to do and we have been doing this work to help leaders and members understand how power dynamics and the close knit environment we have within our organization may set up circumstances for misconduct to happen and how we put safeguards in place to make sure that we fully investigate matters with as little bias as possible to make sure that we’re taking action in all of these cases.
When you look at the special committee reports and the numbers and you think about the thousands of personal interactions that happen across the organization, it’s hard to say that the problem is rampant. However, putting a label on it means that we’re making a judgment. The fact of the matter is that it happens at all is too much. We have a responsibility to look at it and look at what we can do to prevent it, to educate people and to help create healing.
I guess the other thing I’d say is in December, 2020, when the social media blitz was on and even at that time, there was mixed information. I said one very strong thing to our internal team and to our board. We have nothing to hide. We have been doing this work, we have been making this commitment and we are going to look in every corner and we’re going to find what we can and we’re going to make the improvements that we can, but we are leaning into this situation.
The reason that the federation was able to respond as quickly as we did, is not because we were reactive, the true narrative is we were already prepared to do a number of things. We brought on an external investigator for cases of sexual misconduct in January of 2021. We already had that on the road map. It’s true, I had wondered and others had, do we need an external person to do this? Can’t we deal with our own matters ourselves.
We had already made the determination earlier in 2020 that yes, we do need an external person to do this. That’s why we were able to flip that switch so fast. I don’t think ramp is the right term, but if people want to use that, I think it’s okay. We did a cultural assessment in 2021 to create a baseline. Certainly shows that there are things we should be concerned about and in two years or so, when we rerun that assessment, I sure hope that it’s better.
If it’s not I think it’s a valid question to see who else we need to get to do this work. I guess I’d leave it at, I don’t want to put a label on it. It’s too much regardless of how you label it.
Jonathan: It’s interesting that you’ve done that cultural assessment, because thinking about some of the things that we’ve already discussed, the lack of contested elections, the power concentration in a handful of people, some might say that the sexual misconduct problems that you’ve had to deal with are a byproduct of an unhealthy and democratic culture. Is the fundamental culture at NFB just toxic and needing a reboot.
Mark: I don’t believe so, but I’m proudly biased. [laughs] I also think that we continue to advance the idea that we need to be open to looking at evolving all of the work that we do, that we can’t be so loving of what has worked in the past, that we’re not willing to do something different. I would also argue that the culture has been changing in the organization over a long period of time.
Well, frankly, since 1940. The question always is does it change fast enough or in an organization that’s very much driven from the local up to the national? How easy is it to impact change in local communities? These are all questions that we grapple with. I think the culture has been continuing to evolve and change and I think it will into the future.
Jonathan: Survivors clearly have to be heard and they’ve got to have justice. Jim Gashel, a former NFB board member, he’s a former director of governmental affairs and a very much respected contributor to the federation for well over 50 years, said that the NFB has created a kangaroo court. I know that he was concerned about the outsourcing if you will of some of this process.
Sadly, it has been known for vindictive people to fire off a post on social media, accusing someone of this behavior simply as an attempt to damage someone’s reputation. How are you ensuring that the vital work of getting justice for genuine survivors doesn’t result in collateral damage where innocent people are accused of things they didn’t do thus scarring them for life.
Mark: Our process that we have built with our external investigator takes a very deep independent look at all of these things. We’re very careful about maintaining the confidentiality within that process, to make sure that actions and statements aren’t being publicly made until the real record is known. I think the power of whether it’s working or not is the survivors who have been seeing the progress and have said they are witnessing the change and they have gotten in to help the balance of making sure that we don’t presume someone is guilty, but also that we take immediate action when we need to.
By the way, we have done that a number of times with employees and members. We’ve removed them from situations while investigations were going on. If it was clear and based on the recommendation of our external investigator that we needed to do that to minimize the potential of harm or the perceived potential of additional harm while an investigation was going on.
Jonathan: I suppose there is really nothing you can practically do if somebody sends a tweet saying stuff, which later is proven not to be correct and inspired through vindictiveness. It’s just out there, it’s keyboard warrior behavior.
Mark: That’s interesting. The National Board has struggled with this. If someone is using their position within the Federation and social media, and they’re clearly conflating those things, then we think we have some ability to take action and certainly attacking members of the federation outside of the organization, which social media would be, that is because for disciplinary action.
I think this is something we’re still grappling with. How does social media play into the contemporary work of our organization. I think that’s going to continue to evolve and it is unfortunate that– I know I feel this for myself. Again a lot of things have been said about me, have been said about my family, about my own true feelings about my daughters have been said in social media.
I have taken the stance, I have told other federation leaders you want to defend me, do not feed the trolls. There’s no win. I understand you know who I am and you know my heart, don’t feel like you have to defend me. It’s better for us just to continue to do the work and let the work speak for itself.
Jonathan: The open letter on sexual misconduct and abuse experience through programs of the National Federation of the Blind and National Blindness Professional Certification Board, that is a long one, makes some points beyond sexual misconduct. This goes to this cultural discussion that we were having, the heart of what is known as Federation Philosophy. You felt welcomed and inspired when you found the federation and many people worldwide have felt inspired by the confidence and the competence with which many who apply the NFB philosophy make their way in the world.
Others perhaps because of their disposition or maybe an additional impairment feel that the NFB philosophy validates a right way to be blind and that it’s tough if you don’t make the grade in NFB’s eyes. They feel that it’s not particularly inclusive of people with multiple impairments and that it was devised for an America that no longer exists. You must be giving a lot of thought to how NFB can be more inclusive while also not losing its soul, if you will.
Mark: I’ll tell you Jonathan, my last 20 years have been spent most of the time in education. The Federation Philosophy applies developmentally to people with additional disabilities. I think the problem is people look to the end product, but it’s about the developmental process and then the techniques that are used along the way. We all probably have learning to do in that regard.
Again, it’s reflective of a broader society where, sure people apply labels. I have heard forever that if you’re someone that has a little bit of vision in the federation, you’re looked down upon. Now I have seen that happen and I have tried to correct people on it. No, just because this person is not a Braille reader, doesn’t make them inferior. Maybe they never had the opportunity to get Braille which was my experience.
Let’s not cast a judgment based on the decision they’ve had to make. Yes, we’re always thinking about this. Many leaders of the federation have worked on how do we devise techniques. I can tell you one of the things I’ve done is teach people at our national headquarters how to run a chainsaw as a blind person. I’ve taught multiple people who use a wheelchair and who have CP how to use the chainsaw.
Now the techniques, very different with different supports, but I worked on giving them maximum control. No one taught me how to do that. I just applied the philosophy and the respect of learning from them what techniques are going to work for them. I don’t know, Federation Philosophy, sometimes people put it in this box and they make it this super thing. I still see myself as trying to achieve the aspirational goals of the philosophy.
My wife and I just went to Europe. When you go to a place like Italy where you don’t know the language, you had to exercise Federation Philosophy in a different way. I’m used to doing that in a place where I know how to negotiate with people. I got grabbed a lot more than I would really like to and I would not tolerate in the US. On the other hand, I had to make some decisions to get to where I wanted to go. Did I compromise my “Federation Philosophy”? Not for me because I’m comfortable.
Did I use sight of guide techniques at times that I wouldn’t in the US? Sure. It wasn’t because I was a blind person, it was because I didn’t have the language tools to compete. I don’t know. Sometimes we get caught up in the philosophy rather than the practical. I think that the goal should be to teach all federation members that we should all be working to improve ourselves and we should be helping everybody get there even if it’s a different path.
Jonathan: I want to start to wrap by talking about some of the things that you’re doing at the moment, and the President’s Report at convention highlights the key things that the federation has been working on and also signaling some priorities for the coming year. You always mentioned specific individuals that you’ve helped and they’ve faced discrimination. There are all sorts of stories of how the NFB has come to the rescue.
It got me curious reading your report this year, does the NFB get more requests for help than it can meet? If that happens, how do you determine which ones you’ll take up?
Mark: It’s a great question. Way more requests than we can meet. There’s a lot of barriers, a lot of discrimination and our first line of defense is to help people help themselves. We try to give people resources to do their own self-advocacy, to support them in that, support them at the local level. When it comes to legal cases, bringing demand letters, we really look for situations that are going to benefit the class of blind people not just one person or that are going to set a precedent that would be helpful.
There are other cases which are more nuanced and important like a big one is when someone is threatening to take a baby or has taken a baby away from blind parents. It’s hard not to get involved in those cases even though in a lot of cases it is really only going to benefit that one family. We have to assess, can we be successful. Unfortunately, even with some of the blind parent cases, we really can’t take them because of the complexities of the situation, the individuals involved, it’s really hard.
There’s a lot of thought that goes into it and planning. The legal cases that we take on are something that I’m directly involved in making the call on because we do have such limited resources. We’re really looking at cases that are going to help raise the expectations for all blind people.
Jonathan: When I hear of these cases where children have been taken from capable blind parents, it just creates an emotion. I think it must do for any parent. It’s very deep, isn’t it? It’s just the most horrific thing that you can think of happening.
Mark: Yes. Very hard calls to get and it’s really heartbreaking when there are situations where there’s very little we can do because something’s gone wrong. The system’s stacked against people. Frankly, I just get angry that any blind person has to be put in these situations. I know there was something that my wife and I worried about. Of course, we knew about the federation, we had the federation. We knew that if we got into a situation that was going to be there, but even just the threat of it happening is anxiety-producing.
Jonathan: Accessible COVID tests. That’s been occupying a bit of your time. What’s your assessment of the accessible COVID test available to blind Americans right now?
Mark: The government test that is being distributed from a loom is good. It’s pretty good. They definitely have made some improvements based on our early feedback to them. The early part of this year. It’s not perfect and especially not perfect because it still requires a smartphone. Obviously, that’s not satisfactory. The government’s gotten the message and NIH has really taken this on as a challenge.
Obviously, they should have built accessibility in earlier, they should’ve planned for it, but I’m really happy that we got the attention of the administration and the federation is known in a lot of places for being the one that’s going to bring the lawsuit, the demand letter. From the beginning, we said to the administration, “Look you didn’t get this right. We want to help you get it right going forward because we recognized that COVID testing was going to forever change independent access to in-home testing for blind people.”
I’m really proud that we’ve gotten the powers that be to work on this and it’s going to lead to so many great things in the future. Pregnancy tests, testing for flu, STDs, you name it. Blind people are going to have better access to tests in their own privacy of their own homes. It’s still a lot of work to do and there’s still a lot of techniques to be worked out, but we have some of the best scientists and technology commercialization folks working on this at the federal level.
It’s really exciting. When blind people get to take these tests in their homes independently, it’s really quite a freedom.
Jonathan: How far away are you do you think from a smart phoneless accessible test?
Mark: That’s a great question. I don’t know how long it’s going to be. I think that understanding may emerge in the next couple of months as the NIH does its work. It’s really only spun up in the last three months, so it’s still early to tell.
Jonathan: NFB and other organizations have done critical work on safeguarding the rights of blind people to cast a secret ballot in elections. What’s the state of play in terms of the degree to which that job is done now? Are there still parts of the United States where blind people are not guaranteed a secret ballot?
Mark: Pretty much everywhere. Voting’s a mess in the US. It’s so controversial. We’ve done great in some places and when you think about Hawaii, Colorado, where blind people can vote independently, both they can fill out an independent ballot electronically and actually submit it electronically. They have access to going into a polling place to vote if they want, so the full range of options.
In most places, at best blind people have access to one form of voting and typically, that would be going into a polling place. Not the range of options that other people had. When you get down to voting in local elections, forget it. Very few places have equal access to voting in local elections. We still have a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how accessibility and security play together.
Nobody seems to bulk at the fact that you can vote in a federal election from the International Space Station, but when you talk about a blind person submitting a vote electronically, it’s like, “Oh my God, you’re going to make all elections have security problems until the end of time.” I don’t get it. Actually, I do get it because astronauts are more important than blind people.
We have a lot of work to do. We’re not letting up. We have made a great amount of progress in the last two years, but there’s still a ton of work to be done. We were hoping that there would be federal legislation that would help us make progress. It’s clear Congress isn’t going to do that, so we’re going state by state to make this happen.
Jonathan: In your report, you mentioned NFB support for a new website and mobile applications accessibility act. What would that do that the ADA does not? I know you’ve been waiting for DOJ to come out with these regulations for Yonks. Is this frustration over that? Or is it something that you could actually amend the ADA to fix?
Mark: We could amend the ADA to fix, although we already think that the ADA applies, the problem is the courts haven’t always gotten it right. A lot of people in disability rights area have been nervous about doing anything that appears to open up the ADA for fear that we will lose ground. This bill that we’re advancing, and by the way, we’ve built a coalition, everybody in the blindness field is behind this. It’s great to see everybody getting behind this effort, will really set a standard in law that websites and mobile applications must be accessible to blind people.
Now, yes, we believe the ADA already covers that, but the problem is we don’t have enough resources to keep suing people over it. We want it to be the standard in law. We think that this bill now has really the supports from even the original authors of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We’re referring to this as ADA 3.0, look to the future and we think it’s going to build upon the work that the ADA has done.
We thought we would get this done through regulations. It didn’t happen. It’s not really on the horizon for happening. We probably waited too long as it is, so we’re going to try to pound this home. I think what you will see in the US is the number of individuals and organizations really working together on this bill is going to make a tremendous difference.
Jonathan: Even if you do get this one over the line, enforcement once the act is passed is going to be critical, isn’t it?
Mark: It is going to be critical and of course, giving people the tools to do this right. We know who the big offenders are. The major platform providers that provide systems for small businesses to easily build websites. If they were building accessibility in the small businesses would have accessible websites. There’s a lot of things that need to be done to bring this to scale, but the problem is a lot of the oxygen is being taken up by people complaining that there’s too many click by lawsuits in this, because there are lawyers who are exploiting this to make a quick buck and the law will create better incentives for there to be best practices, resources, training, getting this into more degree programs where future computer science majors know that accessibility is the standard of the day.
Jonathan: One thing that caught my attention in your report was the concept of this blindness museum. Tell me about that vision.
Mark: The Museum of the Blind People’s Movement is really an expression of our need to take things to the next level in terms of public awareness. We continue to face the problem that blindness is feared, the capacity of blind people is not understood and we continue to face persistent low expectations because of that. Our goal is to bring together a cultural institution that celebrates the individual stories of blind people and elevates how those stories have come together into a movement for blind people.
We want to create the most accessible inclusive museum anywhere in the world and to use that as a platform for truly shifting public attitudes about blindness, the capacity of blind people, the contributions that blind people can make, the training that blind people need. It’s a bold idea and we’re calling on all blind people to be part of this, not just members of our organization. We want this museum to belong to all blind people, to reflect the important role that blind people play in society.
Different than say the museum at the American printing house for the blind, that really focuses on educational tools and products that have been used in rehabilitation. We want to bring the individual stories of blind people to a central point and use that online and through traveling exhibits to really raise the public awareness and we think there’ll be so many spin-off benefits to that in terms of employment, education, awareness and even helping blind people get connected with resources for their own rehabilitation.
Jonathan: Do you think ACB might join that project?
Mark: I would love it if they did. I have offered to the ACB President that we would love to host their historical archives. We have 20,000 plus square feet of archive space already for stuff we’ve been conducting since 1940. It’s secure, it’s climate controlled. We’d love to help preserve that for ACB. I haven’t gotten any answer on that, but our goal is to continue to invite everybody in. We can’t control if people decide they want to be involved or not.
Jonathan: Speaking of ACB, there has of course been a lot of generational change since a group of blind people crossed the street, and we’re circling back to where we began, to form the American Council of the Blind. Can you see a day when there is one blindness consumer organization in the United States again?
Mark: The crystal ball question. What I can say is that I think it’s going to take a lot of effort on a lot of people to give up some historical bias about the organizations that we have. There are those that would argue there’s value in having multiple organizations that people have choice. I guess I hesitate to be the one who says there has to be one organization.
Jonathan: But you probably get congressmen saying, why can’t you blind people just get along, don’t you?
Mark: It does happen from time to time, but I think less than it used to. I know that– well, let’s demystify some things. The NFB and the ACB leaders talk all the time. People think we don’t talk to each other. We do coordinate. We try not to step on each other. Now it doesn’t mean we always agree and by the way, this is not new. This has happened for decades.
I guess what I would say is, I can only speak to the priorities of the National Federation of the Blind and our priority is to work every day to represent the broadest, most diverse group of blind people possible. We think that’s reflected in our membership, but we don’t think we’re done yet. We’d love anybody to come be part of our organization, but we also think that our members get to decide what our organization does and that that’s important.
We try not to step on the work of other organizations unless they’re making a direct attack on us. If that means that in the future, we end up at a place where there’s a single organization, great. If not, I think we’re going to continue to do the work that we do. I think we spend too much time thinking about the differences rather than figuring out how we work to advance the common interest of blind people.
Jonathan: You proposed a joint convention, I guess, as a confidence building measure. Is that going anywhere?
Mark: [laughs] I have proposed that. I think the first time the NFB proposed this to the ACB was the 1980s. I did propose it to Dan Spoon in my first meeting with him. I haven’t heard anything back on it. We’re still open to the idea, but we haven’t pressed it. We figure we made the offer, we’d be willing to explore it, but at some point, if it doesn’t spark an interest, we’re not going to spend our energy thinking about it.
Jonathan: You have led the federation through some turbulent times and we’ve discussed a lot of that frankly, today. What keeps you going? What gets you up in the morning?
Mark: The people of the movement and having been at our in-person convention and again, talking to dozens and dozens of blind people and hearing their stories and the change that they want to help make in society and the value of being able to work together with people. I said at the convention, I wish that the rest of America would have reflected some of the working together that we saw in this movement in the early days of COVID.
Rather than being divided, people came together in uncertain times. People sacrificed their time, their resources, to help people get groceries who needed groceries, or to find a ride to get to a COVID test, so different than what we’ve seen elsewhere in society. It’s a blessing every day to be part of a movement like that. It really is. Sometimes I think, “Man, I’m honored to be a blind person because at least I know there’s a group that wants to work in common cause.” And I wish we saw that elsewhere.
It’s the people, the stories, the people observing, especially now over 20 plus years, students that I had the opportunity to help in my education work or through mentoring, That the difference they’re making, whether it’s Jordyn Castor at Apple or someone else who’s running their own company, so many people and the honor of getting to know them. I’m sure it’s like what you experience with your audience and the contributions they make to the work that you do every day.
Jonathan: You became NFB President as a young man. You were in your late 30s, so I guess you could conceivably go well beyond 28 years. Do you have a feel at this stage for how long you would like to retain the Presidency?
Mark: I don’t. I’m not trying to set any records. I do try to take it year by year. I’m willing to serve for some time to come. I just turned 46. I’m certainly willing to serve into my 60s. I think it would be presumptive to say that that’s going to happen. There are a lot of factors in that. What’s important to me is the vitality and growth of this movement. I can tell you– well, I would say, people who know me would tell you I’m my biggest critic and I know that my friends will tell me if my effectiveness has run out.
I think I’ll recognize it myself, but if I don’t, my friends will tell me and I again will be the first to say, I’m prepared to get out of the way so that this movement can continue. I don’t know. On the other hand, I would have never imagined 20 years ago that I would get an assignment to drive a car at the Daytona International Speedway. Every day is a new adventure in some regards and I don’t want to be so egotistical as to say that I’m going to be able to continue the pace of making progress that I think my record shows over the last eight years.
Jonathan: Mark Riccobono, it’s been a long and detailed and frank conversation and I appreciate you giving us some time today. Thanks for coming on the podcast.
Mark: It’s been my pleasure, Jonathan. I appreciate the work that you do in illuminating issues that impact blind people and I would encourage people to reach out to me through social media, on Twitter, @Riccobono, or find me on Facebook or send me an email at Office of the President@nfb.org. I get a lot of email, but I do my best to connect with people. Again, I really value being able to hear the diverse perspectives of blind people and I’ll keep listening to your podcast, Jonathan, to get some perspective as well.
Jonathan: I appreciate that. Thank you. I’d love to hear from you, so if you have any comments you want to contribute to the show, drop me an email written down or with an audio attachment to Jonathan, J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N@mushroomfm.com. If you’d rather call in, use the listener line number in the United States. 864-606-6736
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