Membership in the National Federation of the Blind: Equality, Opportunity, and Security through Collective Action
by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: Our elected President assumes responsibility for an incredible number of tasks, one of them overseeing our program to recruit, grow, and nourish our membership. It is obvious that President Riccobono sees this as a major priority, and here is what he says about his coming to the organization and what we must do to ensure that others keep coming:
One of the most important titles I have been able to put next to my name is member, National Federation of the Blind. I first became a member in 1996, and I cannot imagine a day in my life when I will decide to no longer be a member of this great organization. As I travel the country talking to people about the work of our movement, certain predictable questions come up including but not limited to: what does it mean to be a member; how do I join; and what are the benefits of membership? More often than not, I find that people have not joined because of misconceptions about membership in our organized blind movement. I also find that the idea of “membership” in an organization takes on different meanings depending on your background and perspective. In this article I will attempt to share with you what membership in the National Federation of the Blind means to me and what I believe we, collectively, hope it means for each of our present and future members. If you are not yet a member, this article is an invitation to explore joining us and an opportunity to create understanding about who we are and why we need you to be in our family. If you are already a member, I hope this article speaks to your experience in our movement and contributes to your growth as a leader. If you are not sure whether you are or are not a member, I hope this clears things up and encourages you to make your membership status definitive.
What Do We Mean by Membership?
It is important to begin with some organizational basics related to membership. Let us start by talking about what membership in our organization is not. I grew up in the 1980s when the Members Only brand emerged in the United States. It was a cool thing to have something that sported the name “Members Only,” and we sought opportunities to create social circles for ourselves that we considered “members only” regardless of whether you owned any of the merchandise. For example, in elementary school my friends and I had a Ghostbusters Club (based on the 1984 movie) where we could easily limit the participants since there just were not many characters in the movie. We created our own rules and expectations for participation—sometimes driven by the movie but often with our own agreed-upon alterations—and we had a good time. However, the goal was not to bring other people into our club. In fact, we liked that it was a closed membership. We were already friends and our “members only” club strengthened our bond. This notion of membership is much different from what I have found in the National Federation of the Blind over the past twenty years. In our organization we believe in an open membership policy where all are welcome to be considered for membership and, with only a few exceptions, our meetings are open to non-members to observe even if they cannot vote on matters of importance—only Federation members can determine its policies and elect its leaders. While only members of the Federation have certain rights and privileges within the organization, we hope to have as many blind people as possible join with us in our mission to improve the lives of all blind people.
Open membership means that we do not put significant qualifiers on being a member of our organization. It is worth talking about the handful of qualifiers we do have for membership.
To begin, you have to want to be a member, and you need to pay dues to a chapter, division, affiliate, or the national organization. Our goal is not simply to sign people up for the membership roll; we seek members who want to actively participate.
In general, another qualifier is that the majority of our members have to be blind. On a nationwide basis better than 90 percent of our members are. Thus, on a national basis, we do not need to worry about sighted individuals joining and taking over our organization. However, at the local level this sometimes becomes a problem when a small chapter starts inviting many sighted people to be members. The constitution of the National Federation of the Blind and every entity under the Federation requires a majority of the membership be blind. By blind, we mean a functional definition of blindness as Kenneth Jernigan so eloquently described it decades ago in his speech “A Definition of Blindness.” One major exception to this policy is our National Organization of Parents of Blind Children—one of our national special interest divisions—where a majority of the members in that specific division need not be blind. In fact, that division includes the vast majority of the Federation’s sighted members, but it is not the exclusive place where sighted people participate actively as members. I list this as a membership qualifier because we are, first and foremost, an organization of blind people, led by blind people, and directed by blind people. While we are on the topic, you cannot be elected to our national board of directors unless you are blind.
A final qualifier is that an individual must be prepared to uphold the standards we expect from each other in this organization. The standards of membership and for leaders of our organization are set by Federation members themselves. They are articulated in our Code of Conduct (https://www.nfb.org/about-us/history-and-governance/code-conduct). Essentially, we come together through the common bond of blindness to serve as a vehicle for collective action by the blind. We seek to treat each other with dignity and respect, and we value an atmosphere free from discrimination and harassment of any type. It is worth noting that those seeking to be leaders of this organization have additional responsibilities above those of everyday members. While all members of the organization are asked to support the policies and programs of the Federation—see the Federation pledge at the end of this article—leaders of the organization are expected to implement the policies and programs. This means that leaders need to take actions consistent with the organization’s policies and that leaders should not commit themselves to organizations that actively work against the Federation.
In short, the membership of the National Federation of the Blind is the class of individuals, a majority of whom are required to be blind, who pay dues to the organization at the local, state, or national level (joining at the local and/or state level gives you automatic membership in the national organization).
The mechanics of qualifying to be a member of the National Federation of the Blind are truly that easy. However, the process of understanding the power of membership in this organization and coming to be an active participant in the decision-making process of it often feels much more daunting to new members. This is why we have recently initiated an onboarding process for new members to welcome people into our organization and assist with navigating the things that long-time members like me take for granted today.
This Week—Join the Twitter Chat Regarding the ADA:
Join us on Twitter on Wednesday, August 12, at 2:00 p.m. eastern for our Twitter chat focused on the ADA. This will be a continuation of our panel discussion, “Leveraging the ADA,” that took place during the #NFB20 National Convention. For more updates and information, follow us on Twitter at @NFB_Voice. Access the Twitter chat questions that will be discussed.
The NFB is investigating the accessibility of GoDaddy’s website building, hosting, and domain registration services. If you have used or tried to use GoDaddy’s services, the NFB needs to hear from you. Please contact Valerie Yingling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-659-9314, extension 2440.
New Blog Post—Tech Review: The Mantis Q40 Braille Display from APH:
The Mantis Q40 is a new forty-cell refreshable Braille display sold by the American Printing House for the Blind. Learn about the general specifications, assessment, and more on the Voice of the Nation’s Blind Blog.
Free White Cane Program—Share with New Contacts:
The National Federation of the Blind believes that no blind person should be without a white cane, regardless of their ability to pay for it. The Free White Cane Program is available for any blind individual in the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Also learn about choosing a cane size and cane travel training. Share the Free White Cane Program.
Dates to Keep in Mind:
- September 1: Presidential Release LIVE, 8:00 p.m. eastern
- September 13: Open-House Gathering call, 4:00 p.m. eastern
- October 1: Presidential Release LIVE, 8:00 p.m. eastern
- October: Meet the Blind Month
- November 1: Presidential Release LIVE, 8:00 p.m. eastern
- December 1: Presidential Release LIVE, 8:00 p.m. eastern
- December 9: Open-House Gathering call, 8:00 p.m. eastern
- February 8, 2021: Washington Seminar Great Gathering-In
The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.