by Mitch Pomerantz
It is said that travel is broadening; presumably meaning that experiencing different cultures and ways of thinking can affect one's perspective on life and circumstances. That can certainly be said of Donna's and my nearly week-long attendance at the Seventh General Assembly of the World Blind Union in Geneva, Switzerland. Along with trying to summarize some of what transpired at the WBU, I also want to offer some impressions and observations of our visit to a major European city.
We arrived in Geneva Saturday afternoon, August 16th, although the conference itself ran from Monday the 18th through Friday the 22nd. Organizers had volunteers at the airport to help attendees get from the jetway through baggage claim and out to our free shuttle to the Eden Hotel, where we stayed. That was great, because going to and from the hotel and the International Conference Center involved a 15- to 20-franc cab ride. Using public transit would have required two buses and a transfer at the train station, so that really wasn't an option.
Prior to the commencement of the WBU General Assembly, the well- attended Fourth Women's Forum was held on Saturday and Sunday. The situation facing blind women -- particularly in the Third World -- is very difficult: extreme poverty, the absence of basic education and medical care, and a lack of equality and respect were some of the topics under discussion. Several resolutions came out of the Women's Forum and were approved by the General Assembly.
It must be noted that ACB had the only U.S. delegate at the forum in the person of our secretary, Marlaina Lieberg. The forum was streamed live on ACB Radio thanks to the capable efforts of Chrissie Cochrane. Once Marlaina's responsibilities concluded at the Women's Forum, she teamed up with Chrissie to stream the entire WBU conference. I also want to acknowledge newly elected WBU President, Maryanne Diamond, for securing funding from her employer, Vision Australia, to stream the Women's Forum and WBU General Assembly.
Chris Gray and I served as ACB's two voting delegates and were joined by close to 350 other delegates from 119 countries. In addition, 200 or more non-voting observers and assistants filled the ballroom at the conference center. Proceedings were simultaneously translated into and from English, Spanish and French, the three official languages of the WBU, and relayed via individual headphones. As with ACB convention sessions, WBU plenary sessions are chaired by its elected officers.
We heard from numerous speakers who discussed the activities of the six regions comprising the World Blind Union, "best practices" as described by various national representatives, and the accomplishments of the WBU itself during the previous four years. Topics included: A Program for Incorporating the Blind Population into the Workforce (Argentina); Reaching All Blind Children with Education (Vietnam); and Reconstruction of the National Organization of the Blind in Iraq. Of particular note was WBU's establishment of a permanent office and the hiring of a full-time chief executive officer, Dr. Penny Hartin.
The conference theme, "Changing What It Means to be Blind: Taking Our Place in the World," was clear acknowledgement of the influence that the National Federation of the Blind has had on the WBU. In fact, one of Tuesday's keynote speakers was NFB president Marc Maurer. It became apparent to me as I listened to his presentation that ACB must become far more involved in the work of the WBU in the years to come if we are to demonstrate to the rest of the world that we, too, have a valuable message and role to play.
ACB did influence the proceedings through a resolution I drafted concerning the growing impact that quiet cars will have on the independent travel of blind and visually impaired people worldwide. It was approved with amendments by the North America/Caribbean Region and forwarded to WBU's resolutions committee. While substantially rewritten by the committee, the resolution was passed unanimously by the general assembly.
One of the topics covered during the week was the recently ratified United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This document, which the United States has yet to endorse, stipulates the basic rights to which all blind and visually impaired people should be entitled, and the responsibilities all nations must assume toward those citizens.
Along those lines, on Tuesday we had lunch with two delegates from Mozambique, a nation on the northeastern border of South Africa. The female representative is affiliated with a school for the blind located in a rural area. She described the nearly impossible conditions under which the teachers must function: chronic shortages of slates and styli, braille paper and books, not to mention canes of any kind. I told them that upon my return to the states, I would begin the process of seeing what could be done to aid this school.
On a closing note, in Geneva (and presumably throughout Switzerland) there are no laws protecting the rights of guide dog handlers. On at least one occasion that I know of, Chris had to persuade a cab driver to give him, Marvelena and her guide dog a ride. This was surprising given that most European nations are considered socially progressive and that Switzerland borders Germany, the birthplace of the trained guide dog.
That's it for now. Take care.