The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is an organization of blind people in the United States. It is the oldest and most likely largest national organization to be led by blind people. Its national headquarters are in Baltimore, Maryland.
The philosophy that the organization has developed over almost seven decades, known as the positive philosophy of blindness, holds that, though blindness is commonly held to be a tragedy, it need not be. Given effective training and equal opportunity, blind people can compete on terms of equality with their sighted peers. The organization’s former President Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was fond of saying, "We who are blind are pretty much like you. We have our share of both geniuses and jerks, but most of us somewhere between, ordinary people living ordinary lives." NFB members, who refer to themselves as “Federationists,” hold themselves and each other to high standards of accomplishment, and they encourage and support each other in an informal network much like an extended family. The NFB works to propagate its philosophy by educating and recruiting new members, by working to educate the general public, and by interacting with legislators and policy makers at the local, state, and national levels. The positions of the National Federation of the Blind on specific issues are determined by its national convention, which meets once annually and typically has between 2,500 and 3,000 delegates from the organization’s affiliates in the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The policy positions of the NFB take the form of resolutions, which are voted upon by the entire convention. Like a union, the convention is subsidized by the organization making it cheap to those attending, but its program is not published in advance and non-NFB activities are prohibited during its main meetings. Its logo is called the whosit and consists of an outline of a walking person with a cane, the NFB cane being long and considered by the words of its leadership to confer first class citizenship on users which can never be attained by guide dog users.
In 1940 sixteen people gathered in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to develop a constitution that would unite organizations of blind people in seven states (California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) in a national federation that would serve as a vehicle for collective action to improve the prospects of the nation’s blind citizens. Historically such organizing efforts had resulted in blind people’s eventual loss of internal political power, resulting in a shift in the organization’s goals and focus to priorities held by sighted members. For this reason the NFB’s founders did what they could to ensure that blind people would always retain control of the organization.
The founder and president of the NFB for its first twenty years was Dr. Jacobus tenBroek (1911-1968), a professor, lawyer and constitutional scholar. The NFB’s first logo was a circle with the words “Security, Equality, and Opportunity” forming a triangle at the center of the circle. This expressed the pressing needs and demands of the fledgling organization. TenBroek led early battles to obtain a modest stipend for blind people so they could live independently (security), equal access to jobs in the Civil Service and elsewhere where blind candidates had been prohibited from applying (opportunity), and equal access to housing, transportation, and places of public accommodation (equality). The NFB grew and expanded during these early years, and this sudden assertiveness on the part of their hitherto passive, grateful clients made the agencies in the field of work with the blind extremely nervous.
Because of pressure exerted from within and differences of opinion about whether the organization should be a loose confederacy of strong state affiliates or a unified federal structure with state affiliates and local chapters (which is the way the current federation is organized), the NFB split into two groups in 1961. Those who left the NFB united to form the American Council of the Blind (ACB), an organization that continues to exist today.
Jacobus tenBroek, who had served as president of the NFB for 20 years, resigned due to these problems, and was succeeded by John Taylor, who was succeeded by Russell Kletzing the following year, but tenBroek became president again in 1966. The NFB gradually replaced the handful of affiliates that had left, and by the 1970s it had regained its momentum. When Jacobus tenBroek died in 1968, he was succeeded in the presidency by Kenneth Jernigan, who served as president for most of the period until 1986 and who continued to be a much loved blind leader, teacher, and thinker with an international reputation until his death in 1998. Marc Maurer, a young lawyer who had been mentored by Jernigan, was elected president in 1986 and has served as President since then.
In 1978 he led the organization in establishing its national headquarters at 1800 Johnson Street in Baltimore, Maryland. Gradually the group remodeled and occupied the four floors of a block-long building, which they named the National Center for the Blind. The NFB broke ground in October 2001 for a twenty-million-dollar research and training institute now located adjacent to the National Center. The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute opened for business in January 2004. Continuing to exert its influence, the NFB has taken over Braille Transcriber Certification from the Library of Congress , will receive up to $10 million from a US coin honoring Louis Braille and works to influence state training programs for the blind to require use of the cane and prohibit use of guide dogs.
One of the most significant contributions the NFB has made to the blindness field and the organization’s effort to “change what it means to be blind” has been its literature and publications. Both Jacobus tenBroek and Kenneth Jernigan were notable authors and speakers. A number of their speeches and the annual banquet addresses of the NFB’s current president Marc Maurer (1986 - present) can be found on the NFB’s Web site. In celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, the NFB published an exhaustive history of its first fifty years, Walking Alone and Marching Together: A History of the Organized Blind Movement in the United States. The group has also published a series of thirty small compilations of first-person articles written by blind people intended to demonstrate what it is like to be blind. The NFB uses these Kernel Books in its public education efforts. The texts of these books are also available on the NFB Web site.
The organization also publishes several magazines. Since 1957 it has produced a monthly general-interest magazine called the Braille Monitor. All issues of this publication since 1987 are archived on the NFB Website. Future Reflections is a quarterly magazine for parents and teachers of blind children. It was established in 1981, and issues beginning in 1991 are available on the Web site.
Since one of the most frequent ramifications of diabetes is vision loss, the NFB publishes a quarterly tabloid-format magazine called Voice of the Diabetic, issues of which are also archived on the Web site beginning with the year 1995.
On 10/01/2004 the NFB began publishing a blog called Voice Of The Nations Blind. The blog is available on the organizations web site under publications.
The NFB is estimated to have about 50,000 active members and thousands more sympathisers. Membership is open to both blind and sighted. All officers of the organization and its affiliates must be blind, except for the leaders of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and its state affiliates.
The NFB currently has affiliates in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and these affiliates are divided into local chapters. Affiliates and chapters pledge to remain loyal to the federal organizations, but also carry on many independent activities in support of it. The affiliates, chapters and the federal organization periodically have elections for officers. The positions are president, first vice president, second vice president, secretary, treasurer and several board members. The NFB also has dozens of groups for people with special interests, such as the National Association of Blind Students, the National Association of Blind Lawyers, The National Association of Blind Merchants and the National Association of the blind in Communities of Faith, to name some of the larger groups. Some of these groups also have state affiliates.
Since 1945, the NFB has held a convention every year in a major American city, usually early in the month of July. As of 2005, it is estimated that between 2000 and 3000 people attend these conventions. In 2002, 2003 and 2005 the convention was held at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky but it is highly unusual for the conventions to be held so often in a particular city. The 2006 convention was held in Dallas, Texas, and the 2007 convention was held in Atlanta, Georgia. At the 2007 convention, on the morning of July 3, over 1000 NFB members marched two miles from the Marriott Marquis Hotel to the Olympic Park in what was known as the March for Independence. It was led by Congressman John Lewis. The March for Independence was held again the following year in Dallas, Texas. Money raised from the march went to the Imagination fund, which will support NFB programs and grants.
Each state also has its own affiliate convention sometime during the year. At the national convention, which lasts a week, there are many speakers who speak about the struggles and triumphs of blind people, and more recently, the availability of technology for blind people has been a common topic. The various special interest groups also have meetings and elect their officers, and the president gives his presidential report and a speech at the banquet, in which he reports the progress of blind people in general that year and what successes and failures the organization has had. tenBroek, Jernigan and Maurer have all been widely praised for their banquet speeches, which are often considered to be a highlight of the convention. The national convention also has elections for officers and board members, in which the selections of the nominating committee have been elected unanimously in recent years, and the convention passes resolutions about the policies of the organizations, which often provoke some debate. The state conventions, which usually last two to three days, also have resolutions and elections, which are often more contentious than at the national level.
Since the NFB’s contention that average blind people can do the average job in the average place of business and do it as well as their sighted neighbors is predicated on the understanding that they have received effective blindness training, the organization has always striven to improve the quality of blindness rehabilitation in the United States. The NFB developed a line of very light long white canes to enhance effective travel and has always urged that students be taught to travel, not simply by memorizing specific routes, but by practicing going unfamiliar places using the long cane and even wearing blindfolds, called sleep shades, if they have any residual vision. The NFB contends that students who have been trained using this method become confident, independent travelers who don’t need to return for more training if they lose more sight. Though the NFB supports the use of guide dogs and some of its members use them, it believes that all blind people should know how to use canes.
The NFB advocates teaching Braille to both children and adults who cannot read print efficiently and comfortably. This position has provoked opposition from some agencies and school districts who believe that only children who are totally or almost totally blind should need to learn Braille. According to the National Center for Health Statistics National Health Interview Survey, the United States currently has 93,600 legally blind school-age children. Of these only about 5,500 are being taught Braille. Some of these students can read print effectively; some are multiply impaired and cannot learn to read at all; but the NFB believes that many more than the six percent of the blind children currently learning to read Braille could be taught to read if parents and educators were committed to doing so. An even smaller percentage of adults losing vision are encouraged to learn Braille. The NFB maintains that these adults are functionally illiterate when they are no longer able to read print effectively and Braille instruction has not been made available to them.
In the mid eighties the NFB established three adult training centers: the Louisiana Center for the Blind (Ruston, Louisiana) the Colorado Center for the Blind (Littleton, Colorado), and Blindness Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc., (Minneapolis, Minnesota. These facilities have now trained hundreds of blind adults to travel confidently, read Braille, use computers with screen-access programs, cook, and use power tools. These centers also have summer programs for teenagers. The NFB strongly believes that blind people should be more involved in working with and teaching each other, and the training centers are largely staffed by blind people.
The foundation of this instruction and the component that makes training at an NFB center uniquely successful is the steady effort to help students develop a healthy attitude about blindness and about themselves as blind people. The NFB has said that the goal is that students come to recognize and combat both the bigotry of lowered expectations and the blatant discrimination based on presumed incompetence that they face everywhere they turn in their home communities. Some state rehabilitation agencies are beginning to pattern their rehabilitation programs on the NFB-center model.
One of the NFB's most controversial beliefs is that people who have a small amount of vision should be considered to be blind, and they discourage the use of terms such as "low vision", "visually challenged" or "visually impaired". In education, the NFB has tried to help blind students to be motivated to be just as responsible as sighted students and for teachers to treat blind people fairly.
Federation philosophy holds that blindness should not be used as an excuse for insisting that the world be remade for the convenience of blind people. Sometimes providing reasonable access does demand modifications in infrastructure, but if such changes are not necessary, then blind people should not expect them to be made.
For example, the NFB has argued that, though blind people would obviously find it convenient to use currency in which the bills of different denominations are tactilely distinguishable from each other, they can and do successfully use U.S. currency every day. For this reason the NFB recently opposed the ACB’s law suit against the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which seeks tactile changes in the design of U.S. paper money. The ACB has argued that denominations of foreign currencies are easily distinguishable by touch. In contrast, the NFB argues that the methods of tactile identification in use in other countries are not particularly effective or efficient and that the burden of making changes to accommodate such tactile features is likely to be particularly heavy for any business with cash registers or vending machines.
The NFB also differs from the ACB and other advocates over the need for audible pedestrian signals at street intersections. Though blind travelers at some complex intersections can benefit from the installation of audible pedestrian signals, the NFB believes that, by and large, trained blind people are safer when they can hear the traffic pattern itself. NFB members maintain that those who demand the costly installation of these audible signals at every intersection very seldom or never travel independently, regardless of the presence of audible traffic signals.
The NFB has also taken a position contrary to that of other advocacy groups on the need for audio description for television programming. Many blind people enjoy audio description during passages without dialogue in films and television programs. However, in many of these the plot can be followed from the dialogue and sound effects. Therefore the NFB has urged that audio description for entertainment programming be voluntary, not mandatory. However, the NFB believes that the Federal Communications Commission should require printed information that scrolls across television screens, such as emergency news and weather information and print information in advertising, to be transmitted audibly also in digitized speech.
Although the NFB opposes some accommodations that are perceived to benefit the blind, the organization clearly holds that some forms of access to visual information must be made mandatory. The organization strongly advocates for the right of blind people to have access to information on the Web. This requires some conscious planning in the creation of Web sites, like including text tags on graphics that text-to-speech screen-access programs used by the blind can read. According to the NFB and other accessibility advocates and consultants, these changes are not expensive to build in during the creation of a Web site. The NFB points out that the Internet has become an integral component of the educational system, the employment environment, and home setting. The NFB is now suing Target to require the retailer to make its site usable by blind shoppers.
The NFB also contends that access to computer applications used in the workplace is essential in order for blind people to be productive members of society. For this reason the organization has brought suit against the state of Texas to enforce a state law requiring that all applications used by state employees be fully accessible to the blind and others with disabilities.
The NFB is also trying to negotiate with automobile manufacturers to add a bit of sound to the engines of hybrid and electric vehicles when they are traveling silently on electric power. The NFB contends that all pedestrians are at risk from these cars, but blind travelers, who depend on traffic noise to determine when it is safe to cross streets and driveways, are particularly vulnerable.
The NFB is also concerned about flat panel displays on appliances, office equipment, vending machines, and other technology. These displays present barriers to blind people and others who cannot read the panels for whatever reason. The NFB is trying to work with manufacturers to make these control panels tactilely distinguishable.
Perhaps one of the most important goals of the NFB is to make books accessible, either in Braille, on recordings or electronically, particularly for children and college students.
The NFB has independently developed new technology to improve the lives of blind Americans. Since the mid nineties it has sponsored a free digitized newspaper-reading service by phone called NFB-NEWSLINE®. Those who qualify for the service by virtue of blindness or other difficulties reading print can make free calls to read five magazines, more than 240 newspapers (some in Spanish), the Associated Press and UPI wire service feeds, and TV listings anywhere in the country. Information about this free service is available on the NFB Web site. The NFB has also developed partnership with databases of books for blind people such as the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in the Library of Congress, Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, and Bookshare.org.
Very recently the NFB has partnered with Kurzweil Educational Systems, a company founded by noted inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, to develop a completely portable reading machine: the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader. A digital camera takes a picture of the printed material to be read, and an attached personal digital assistant (PDA) reads the text aloud. The text is also stored as a text file, which can be saved and moved to a computer or portable notetaker so that it can be sent to a Braille embosser (sometimes called a Braille printer) or read on a paperless Braille display.
The National Federation of the Blind continues to work to provide hope to people losing vision by offering personal, individualized support and assistance. This support is largely provided through the organization’s local chapters and state affiliates. NFB-Link facilitates connections between those who need specific types of blindness-connected advice and volunteers willing to reach out to them. At the same time, through the programs and projects of the National Center for the Blind and the NFB Jernigan Institute, the organization works to articulate the hopes and dreams of blind people and to solve the problems and challenges that still face them in the twenty-first century. The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind pulls together for easy comparison all the Braille and speech-access technology available today. The Jernigan Institute is working to open the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions to blind students. The Jernigan Institute is also developing programs that will assist seniors losing vision to adjust to the loss and continue to live independently. The NFB works on all of these fronts and more in order to achieve its stated goal of achieving security, opportunity, and equality for all blind Americans.
The NFB has critics both within the organized blind movement (particularly the American Council of the Blind) and among government agencies working with blind people such as vision teachers and vocational rehab departments, as well as blind people who are skeptical of blindness organizations in general. Though most critics acknowledge that the NFB's lobbying, litigation and public relations activities have aided in the advancements that have taken place for the blind in the twentieth century, such as more career and educational opportunities, they feel that its "radicalism and militancy" can also cause problems for blind people. One of the most controversial lawsuits by the NFB was against several airlines and the federal government during the 1980s when airlines refused to let blind people sit in exit rows of airplanes. The NFB believed that this was discrimination, while others had concerns that blind people might not be able to handle an emergency as well as sighted people. Another initiative taken by the NFB was the introduction of a new style of cane in the 1970s which does not fold up like most other canes for blind people. The NFB believes that this cane does a better job at giving blind travelers information about their environment, but others are concerned that the cane gets in the way when it needs to be put away. The NFB also believes that a non-folding cane is an important tool for the blind individual to become comfortable with their blindness. By carrying a cane which cannot be hidden away, they are telling the world "I am blind". The NFB strongly believes that it is respectable to be blind, and they believe that use of the long white cane helps individuals to become comfortable with the fact of their blindness. There is also concern about whether the NFB expects blind people to do things that blind people are not generally expected to know how to do, which leads the NFB to encourage blind people to decline many forms of assistance.
Another concern is the ongoing dispute with the American Council of the Blind. It is speculated that this problem has driven some blind people away from both groups. Finally, it is speculated that the NFB sometimes appears to be almost like a cult because of the great enthusiasm shown at convention and the dominance of Maurer, who has never been seriously challenged for reelection, over the organizations, as well as the perception that the NFB's late ex-presidents tenBroek and Jernigan are overly revered almost like divine figures.
Despite these criticisms, the NFB remains noted for its ability to inspire blind people and make a tough opposition against anyone who is against its key principles, and it is said to be continuously growing.
The NFB is a participant in the World Blind Union and maintains strong relationships with various groups of blind people in other countries. There is a similar organization known as the National Federation of the Blind] in the United Kingdom.