As I've done for the previous two years, the next (three in this case) president's columns will be taken from the report given to the membership on Sunday evening of the ACB national conference and convention. For those of you who were not there or unable to listen via ACB Radio, I trust that my remarks will fill you in adequately on our activities since the 2009 convention.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is once again an honor and a privilege to stand before you, the members of the American Council of the Blind, to highlight some of our activities since the 2009 convention in Orlando. This year's gathering marks ACB's 49th annual national conference and convention -- as we are calling it -- and I'll explain the reasons for this change shortly. Approximately 2,000 of us are here in Phoenix, Ariz., to again demonstrate the wisdom and foresight of ACB's founders in establishing a truly democratic, grass-roots national organization of blind and visually impaired people; in my opinion, the only such organization in our nation today.
This will be my third report as ACB president and in many respects, the past year has been our most successful since my election in 2007. In other respects, however, this has been a difficult year for ACB and certainly for blind people everywhere in the country. Of necessity, I am compelled to comment upon those challenges facing all of us as well.
Before going further, let me briefly explain the board's thinking behind adding the word "conference" to the official designation for our annual gathering. First, "convention" has taken on a somewhat negative meaning in recent years, thanks in large part to our two major political party conventions. "Conference," on the other hand, has a more positive meaning in the minds of most people, as in a serious meeting of people interested in a set of issues. Our intent in making this change, and in proposing an amendment to the constitution which you will have the opportunity to consider later this week, is to attract more professionals in the field of blindness to this gathering, as well as to obtain sponsors willing to offer financial support to ACB. In the spirit of this organization, you will have the final say as to whether this change is temporary or permanent.
As we approach what I consider to be the final months of the first decade of the 21st century, blind and visually impaired people face daunting and unprecedented challenges to life as we've experienced it for the past two generations or so. Many would argue that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, "the blind" are, with some exceptions, viewed as being part of the lower socioeconomic stratum of society. Perhaps a shakeup in the existing order wouldn't be such a bad thing. Unfortunately, the changes I'm foreseeing spell tougher, not easier, times for us. If you doubt this, if it sounds overly dramatic, then let me outline some of those challenges, both to blind and visually impaired people generally, and to the membership of ACB specifically. I will also mention some of the activities we have undertaken over the past year to address those challenges.
As I see it, the challenges facing all of us fall within the categories of education, rehabilitation, employment, transportation and access to information. Two additional issues -- fundraising and membership development -- relate directly to the future viability and growth of the American Council of the Blind. We are addressing many of these challenges extremely well; others require more effort and commitment.
In the area of education, we are experiencing an unprecedentedly low rate of braille literacy, estimated at around 10 percent among blind children. We are seeing the closure and/or consolidation of a growing number of schools for the blind around the country; most recently in Iowa where the residential school is being converted to a resource center, with the acquiescence of the Iowa Department for the Blind and the NFB of Iowa. We are seeing a growing shortage of qualified teachers of the visually impaired and the elimination of teacher preparation programs around the country. Compounding this shortage is the national stampede to mainstream all children with disabilities. If these trends continue, how will future generations of blind children become proficient in braille and the other skills they need to be contributing members of society? The answer is: they won't!
This past year I established a schools for the blind task force, ably chaired by Ray Campbell. That task force conducted a very successful training at the presidents' meeting in February and will be holding another valuable session this week. It may be that this group will need to expand its activities in order to address the other issues adversely affecting the education of blind children.
Like death and taxes, rehabilitation and employment are inevitable concerns for us. Regarding rehabilitation, there are two serious issues facing us today: maintaining existing separate state agencies, departments or commissions for the blind; and counteracting NFB influence over those separate entities (something about which I've commented on at some length in previous reports to you). The ongoing economic crisis affecting most states is offered as justification for the consolidation trend. The National Governors' Association has released a document calling for the elimination of all small, separate agencies and commissions in order to cut costs within state governments. Ladies and gentlemen, those are our programs the governors are talking about!
Regarding the issue of NFB influence, I will mention here that earlier this year, Melanie Brunson and I met on a couple of occasions with the new Commissioner for the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Lynnae Ruttledge. She also attended and spoke at our presidents' meeting. I believe it's safe to say that everyone who heard her remarks came away with the feeling that Ms. Ruttledge will deal with us fairly and equitably and that she wants to work collaboratively with ACB.
Employment, or the lack thereof, continues to be an ongoing concern. Two weeks from tomorrow, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most of the so-called disability experts believe that the overall unemployment rate for us has actually increased since 1990.
This past year has seen ACB working closely with the Blind Entrepreneurs' Alliance and our own Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America to address serious attacks on the blind priority and to expand employment opportunities within the vending program. We are also joining with National Industries for the Blind to counter efforts from the broader disability community to eliminate NIB- and NISH-operated facilities which are misperceived as sheltered workshops. Until the day comes when qualified blind and visually impaired persons can be assured that they will receive equal consideration with their sighted peers in the hiring process, ACB must do everything in our power to maintain and grow both the Randolph-Sheppard and NIB programs.
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