by Mitch Pomerantz
In a column some years back I wrote about my standard response to comments from Congressional aides when visiting Capitol Hill during ACB's legislative seminar, to wit: "I just had a visit from another organization of the blind and they have a different position on the issues you are talking about. Why can't the two organizations get together and come to us with a unified position?" My response to such queries is short and to the point: "With all due respect, we will probably get together as soon as all Democrats and all Republicans do so." I can't think of an instance where that response didn't turn on the proverbial light bulb in the mind of the staffer in question.
I suspect that the overwhelming majority of blind and visually impaired non-members of ACB and NFB have asked the same question and I know with certainty (because I've heard it) that many of our members have raised that question themselves. Given the fact that people classified as legally blind comprise something approaching 1 percent of the U.S. population - hence considered a low-incidence disability - doesn't it make sense for the leadership of the two major national consumer advocacy organizations to put aside our differences and work toward a merger?
Before attempting to offer a rational answer, I want to muse for a few paragraphs on the state of American politics in 2013. I do so from the perspective of someone who, for nearly 20 years, has chosen not to affiliate with either major party, or any of the minor political parties for that matter. Prior to the mid-'90s, I was registered (at different times of course) as a Democrat and a Republican. In the late '80s, I even attended a couple of state party conventions here in California. I have closely followed politics since my teen years and majored in political science in college. I say that not to put myself up as an expert on the subject, but only to emphasize the point that I've done a lot of observing of the political scene over the decades and have developed some fairly strong opinions about how things get done, or don't, in our nation.
One of America's founding principles was the notion of the importance of the individual. The first 10 amendments to our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, set forth very clearly our rights as individual citizens. And while our culture has always valued, perhaps even glorified the individual - the cowboys of the Old West, trail-blazing explorers, heroes of our various wars, and entrepreneurs throughout our history - over the intervening 200-plus years of that history, those with similar interests recognized the necessity of banding together to form groups in order to advocate for their particular interests. When I was studying political science, the textbooks talked about America as a "pluralistic nation"; that is, a nation where many competing interests advocated on the local, state and national levels for that group's particular position. Hence, what we see today are many organizations with similar goals, but with differing notions of how to accomplish those goals. Why, for example, do we have so many service organizations today: Lions (of which I'm a member), Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.? These outstanding organizations are, to some extent, competing for members and perhaps offering similar services in their communities. While not a perfect analogy for the subject at hand, I hope you get the point: there are many entities heading toward the same destination on different roads.
So, would all of us be better off if there was but one national organization of the blind? My strong hunch is that most people, blind or sighted, would immediately answer in the affirmative. They would say: "Of course, with one voice speaking for us, we could achieve far more than we have to date with two often contentiously competing voices, especially in a time of ever-shrinking resources." But what makes us think that with one organization, we'd be speaking with one voice? Consider the infighting we periodically witness in the two major parties. What about the frustrating gridlock we've observed in both houses of Congress for the past several years?
The so-called "civil war" fought within the Federation which led to a group of longtime leaders and members walking out and founding the American Council of the Blind in 1961 offers an illustration of why "the blind" could no more speak with one voice than today's Congress.
While much was accomplished during the 1940s and '50s when there was only one organization of the blind and even into the 1960s following the split, given the nature of the discourse preceding that momentous event, I doubt seriously that one single organization of the blind would have been very successful under the circumstances. The leaders and rank-and-file membership at the time (and to a significant degree today) had and have extremely different ideas about a whole range of issues. Should the organization be governed from the top by a strong president, or by the grassroots membership? What is the overall importance of blindness in the lives of those who are blind: is it a mere nuisance or a significant disability? To what extent should accommodations such as accessible pedestrian signals and video description be advocacy priorities. I could go on, but I think it's clear that within the community of people who are blind and visually impaired, there truly are strongly held ideological positions which argue against one overarching blindness organization and one so-called philosophy of blindness.
As I conclude a more than 20-year period of active leadership in ACB, I honestly believe that I will not see a unified blindness organization in my lifetime. I also sincerely question the efficacy of having such an organization representing all of us simply because I don't think it's possible. That doesn't mean we won't work together to advocate for issues on which both organizations agree; we have done so many times and will continue doing so when the occasion arises. However, just as ACB believes in and values the principle of choice and eschews the notion of one-size-fits-all, we should also recognize the reality that blind people, like the society in which we live, hold disparate views about the issues which affect us on a daily basis. That is what this nation is all about, and that is why we in ACB uphold and champion democracy, both for this nation and for our organization.