by Melanie Brunson
(Editor’s Note: To hear the audio version of Melanie’s report, visit http://acbradio.org/acbconvention2015 and choose the Wednesday general session.)
Most readers of “The ACB Braille Forum” have probably heard by now that I have decided to leave my position as ACB’s executive director at the end of September. That means that this article will reach you just before I leave. I hope you will indulge me for a few minutes while I share some thoughts with you about some of the events that have stood out in my mind as highlights of our work together over the past few years. I also want to take a moment or two to thank all of the other people in our offices and our contract personnel who have worked so diligently to help me do the tasks you ask your paid staff to do. Many of these thoughts were shared with the ACB convention attendees in July during my report to the convention in Dallas, so much of what follows is taken from that report.
The year since our conference and convention in Las Vegas has been a good year in the ACB offices. Before I talk about the events of the past year, I want to take a few minutes to acknowledge the outstanding people that work with me in both of ACB’s offices. First, I hope all of you have an opportunity to meet our newest employee, Kelly Gasque. Judging by the applause I just heard, I think many of you already have. She joined our staff in March and has really become a tremendous asset to ACB. Eric Bridges and I have told her she can’t leave. She is stuck with us. Thank you, Kelly. And speaking of Eric, the longer I work with Eric, the more impressed I am by his passion for advocacy, his commitment to ACB, and his intellectual agility. Eric is one of the most thoughtful and creative people I know, and we are very fortunate to have him as a member of ACB and a part of our staff. The other person who is vital to the functioning of our office and our organization is of course our editor, Sharon Lovering. Sharon is in many ways the voice of ACB, both on our telephones and through each issue of the Forum. Sharon is always upbeat and always ready to lend a hand on any project. When Francine Patterson resigned at the end of last year, it took awhile to find Kelly, our administrative staff person, and so when it came time for midyear, Sharon helped Eric and me get all of the materials ready while she was still working on membership lists and “The ACB Braille Forum.” We have a great team in the Arlington office.
And we have another great team in our office in Brooklyn Center, Minn., headed by Lane Waters. Lane, Nancy Becker, Lori Sarff and Dee Theien are superb stewards of an amazing amount of detail about ACB, its members, its donors, its financial assets, and its activities. I have yet to come across a challenge these folks can’t tackle with efficiency, accuracy, and timeliness. In fact, they also took on extra work this past February to help us with the midyear meetings. Nancy Becker even took on a snowstorm so that she could join Lane in Washington and help us with registration during the midyear meetings. I’m sure all of you who attended know how much of a help that was to the rest of us because of the great way that registration was handled, and once again, at this convention, the Minnesota office staff has demonstrated the attention to detail and commitment to a professional, high-caliber performance in their operation of the convention registration office. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tremendously dedicated and talented staff who care deeply about ACB, its work and its members. Please join me in thanking them for another year of great work.
There’s another group of people who contribute greatly to the success of work done by both ACB’s staff and volunteers, and don’t get acknowledged nearly as often as they should. These are people like Larry Turnbull, who directs ACB Radio and keeps all of our computer networks and servers running smoothly; Annette Carter, who administers our web site; Joel Snyder, who directs our Audio Description Project; and Fred Brack, who administers that project’s web site; Tom Tobin, our development director; and Jo Steigerwald, who has written numerous grant proposals for ACB during the past two years. All of these people have demonstrated repeatedly that their work for ACB isn’t just a job to them; it’s a labor of love. I want to thank each of them for sharing so much of their talent and themselves with ACB.
One of the things that I’ve had conversations with several staff members about this past year is how frequently we leave home in the morning thinking, “The day ahead will be pretty routine and uneventful, and it’ll be a great day to catch up on all the ordinary office work” only to have that routine shattered totally by unforeseen events. One example of that happened earlier this year. Eric got a phone call from a reporter that totally changed the course of his day, to some extent mine, and even to some extent Kim Charlson’s. The reporter wanted a comment from ACB about a news story that none of us had yet heard. The story was that a blind child who was about 8 years old had been disciplined for allegedly hitting another child with his white cane while on a school bus. The discipline that the school principal had decided to impose was to take the child’s cane away and give him a pool noodle in its place. You know those long foam rubber things that are usually very brightly colored but are also pretty flexible and I would guess, as a former cane user, not particularly useful for the sort of things you would use a cane for. Later the principal said that the child only had to use the pool noodle while sitting on the bus, but was allowed to have his cane while actually walking around. But that fact, if it was true, was not evident at the time the story was broadcast all over the Internet and on morning TV news programs. When we received the call we all started reading those various accounts of the story, and Eric gave comments to the reporter, after which he and Kim and I conferred about a statement.
ACB issued a press release, which was posted on our web site and social media. This was a great opportunity to tell the news media and the general public about both the purpose for which white canes are used by people with visual impairments and their value to the user, both of which had led us to the conclusion that the punishment that was issued to this particular child was greatly out of proportion to the nature of the offense that he had allegedly committed. Very few other children would be required to give up their means of independence for engaging in the conduct that he had engaged in. That does not justify the conduct; what we said was it is simply that the punishment that was issued to him should be appropriate to the offense that was committed. That afternoon, the school principal issued a statement to the press announcing that the child’s white cane had been returned to him, and that he would be able to use it during school and while traveling to and from school. I don’t know how large or small a part we had in bringing about that decision, but if we had done nothing, I do know we would have had no part. So I like to think we helped that child regain his independence and his dignity. We’ve seen many other instances throughout the past year where we have had an opportunity to influence, for good, the lives of other people in both small and large matters. Some of those opportunities are still ongoing, and the results are yet to be determined. It is that sort of occurrence that has made all of our lives so exciting and so rewarding as part of your staff, and I’ve had a lot of occasions over the last few weeks to think of similar instances that have occurred during my entire time with ACB.
As most of you probably know by now, this is the last time I will stand here and report to ACB during a convention as your executive director. On June 3rd I announced that I will be leaving ACB’s staff at the end of September. I don’t have any detailed plans just yet, except that one thing I know for certain is that regardless of whatever else I do, I will continue to do something that involves advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities, and the issues that ACB in particular has been involved in. I can’t stop that. I believe in inclusion of people with all disabilities in all parts of our society. I believe in the dignity of each life. I believe that each person has a right to help shape his or her own destiny, and I believe that in order to do that we all need choices and we all need the same choices that people without disabilities have, and I want to continue to work to make that a reality. I hope to do that work by staying where I am in the Washington, D.C. area and am looking for an opportunity to do that, but if I don’t find it there, my husband and I may hit the road in our recreational vehicle, see the country a bit, and look for other opportunities to help the cause in other parts of the country. In any case, I expect to have some interesting adventures as I enter into a new chapter of my life.
As I have thought about this approaching new chapter, I have also thought back over the last 17 years that I’ve worked for ACB. I recall the first time that I reported to a convention as your executive director in the summer of 2004. And I remember making reference to a famous statement that was made by Sen. Robert Kennedy when he was running for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in 1968. That statement went something like, “Some men see things as they are and ask why. We dream things as they ought to be, and ask ‘why not.’” I noted that one of the things I liked about being a part of ACB was that we’re not afraid to be among those who ask “why not.” Little did I know what amazing results our willingness to ask that question would bring forth over the next 17 years. When the federal court in Washington, D.C., said the Federal Communications Commission could not mandate audio description on television, ACB asked “why not?,” and the eventual result was the passage of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. When states and local governments around the country started saying there was no way they could provide people who have visual impairments with ballots that were just as private, independent and verifiable as those cast by voters who have vision, we asked “why not?,” and we kept asking “why not?” until we saw the passage of the Help America Vote Act and its being signed into law by the President. When the Social Security Administration said they couldn’t send letters to people who can’t read print in alternate formats that they could read, we asked “why not?” and the result was a court order requiring them to do exactly that. And when the United States Department of the Treasury wouldn’t even talk to us about ways to design bank notes in a manner that would enable people with visual impairments to tell which denomination of bank note they were holding in their hand without assistance, we asked “why not?” and so did several judges of the federal court system, both at the district and appellate court levels. And now we’ve seen the first step toward provision of meaningful access to bank notes in the launch of the money reader distribution program during our convention in 2014, and we’ve just been told that we could have accessible currency by 2020.
These are just a few examples of some incredible things I’ve gotten to see ACB accomplish during my time as your executive director. Sometimes we were fortunate to be a part of some tremendous coalitions that helped us make these things happen, such as the COAT coalition that wrote the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act and shepherded it through the legislative process. But sometimes we’ve gone out on limbs pretty much on our own and asked “why not?” and advocated for what was right until we got results. It is that kind of tenacity, commitment and just plain love for doing the right thing that I’ve seen demonstrated throughout this organization over and over again. I’m not just talking about staff now. I’m talking about all of you, those in this room and those listening on the radio and those who can’t be here at all. From the phone calls concerning tenants of apartment buildings who come home with their first guide dog all excited and ready to go only to find a notice from their landlord saying there will now be extra charges added to their rent because of the presence of the dog, and the help that many of you have given to those people, to the calls to Congressional offices you have made seeking support for legislation, we’ve gotten results because many of you have joined with us and been willing to help bring our message to people all over the country and around the world who needed to hear it. That’s what has kept me here for so long. As I prepare to leave my professional role in ACB, I want to thank each of you for all that you have done. Staff can only do so much. But all of you have a role to play that is just as vital to ACB’s future as anything we do in the offices. And I just want to say thank you for every bit of it. It has been a tremendous privilege to know so many people as friends and to work with so many of you as advocates. I cherish the memories, and I will always consider this an incredible experience. So thank you for every part you’ve played in making the time that I’ve spent at ACB the incredible privilege it has been for me. Thank you!
Chris Gray presents Melanie Brunson a bottle of Vom Fass olive oil while Mitch Pomerantz, rear center, watches.