President's Message: Why We Do What We Do

by Mitch Pomerantz

As I approach the final few months of my six years as president of the American Council of the Blind, I thought I would share some personal observations regarding what motivates those of us who devote so much of our lives to advocating on behalf of people who are blind and visually impaired.  Partly, I am doing this because I am contemplating what amounts to the next phase of my life: what road do I want to travel once my daily presidential responsibilities are behind me, especially the question of how involved I'll be in the overall leadership of the organization.  Obviously, I will continue serving on the board of directors as ACB's immediate past president for as long as my successor remains in office; no more than an additional six years.
Of greater importance, however, is the desire to convey to those of you reading this just how vitally necessary our work continues to be at a time where so many in society are turning away from collective action.  If you doubt this, let me suggest that you read a book published in 2000 by a political scientist, Robert D. Putnam, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," which documents the decades-long decline in the civic engagement of Americans.  In it, Putnam, through the use of extensive survey data, demonstrates that activities such as joining and participating in membership organizations, attending community meetings and events, signing petitions, running for political office, etc., have trended significantly downward since the mid-20th century.  Putnam also cites a number of causes for this trend and suggests possible ways of re-engaging citizens to become more involved in local, state and national affairs.
My personal epiphany happened in 1972 while working on a paper surveying law school entrance policies toward people with disabilities as part of my master's degree in political science.  I interviewed a number of law-school admissions deans throughout California including Fred Slaughter, dean at the UCLA Law School.  An African-American, Slaughter discussed his personal experiences as a part of the civil rights movement.  It occurred to me during that conversation that "the handicapped," to use the vernacular of the day, are a legitimate minority group just as surely as any ethnic minority advocating for their rights during that turbulent era of our nation's history.  From there, it was a relatively short step to becoming a charter member of the Los Angeles City Mayor's Council for the Handicapped, and finally, to joining the NFB.
When I became a member of ACB in 1984, I learned early on what a truly democratic, grass-roots organization we are.  Being able to speak my mind freely without fear of reprisal from those at the top was a wonderful and refreshing change, particularly for someone as outspoken as I've always been and remain to this day.  To the specific point of this column, it also meant and continues to mean that when we as ACB members decide to advocate for a particular issue, we make the conscious decision because we honestly believe in that issue and not because someone in authority has demanded that we do so.  A member who chooses to actively support a national ACB initiative or a state or local issue must believe both that such an initiative is vital to their interests, and that their efforts are worth the time and energy required for ultimate success.
Perhaps as the result of having two degrees in political science and an abiding belief - even after over 40 years in the advocacy trenches - that positive change can still happen given sufficient effort and persistence, I do what I do because the alternative strikes me as especially unpalatable.  I am neither prepared to see the programs and services our predecessors fought to have established disappear due to benign neglect, nor cede the advocacy arena to those who oppose specialized programs and services for the blind or believe in that proverbial one-size-fits-all approach to their provision.  Those of us who work in the trenches, I strongly believe, share my point of view despite the sacrifices we've made to fight the good fight.
Notwithstanding the above, I hardly consider myself to be either an idealist or particularly altruistic.  What I get out of my advocacy work is personal satisfaction in knowing that during my presidency, I've seen three significant pieces of legislation signed into law; played a part in the expansion of ACB's influence both nationally and in the international blindness arena; and observed the membership support measures to strengthen the organization's democratic process and fundraising activities.  These are concrete, measurable objectives which would not have happened without the hard work and active involvement of our membership and staff.
During this most contentious political and economic period in decades, some among us have told me that they don't think that what we do has had much of an impact on their lives, or indicated that the effort is just too difficult or stressful for them to pursue.  To the former group I request you to consider the following: whether requiring hybrid vehicles traveling the same streets you cross to make a distinguishable sound is important to your ultimate safety; whether mandating audio description be provided weekly by the major networks is unnecessary to your viewing enjoyment; or whether participating in the development of best practices for pharmacies to offer accessible prescription drug label information serves no practical purpose.  To the latter group I urge you to consider the alternatives cited previously: the disappearance of categorical programs and services for the blind entirely, or the provision of those programs and services by individuals who believe there is only one right way to be blind.
For me personally, while I fully intend to take a large step back in the organization, I think I know myself well enough to say that I'll always be an advocate in some way, shape or form.  While I intend to pursue other interests over the next several years, working to achieve something positive on behalf of this community is a very difficult habit to break.  I sincerely hope that an ever-increasing number of us will also acquire that habit.