by Mark A. Riccobono
From the Editor: One of the most challenging pieces to write is a final goodbye to those we love, admire, revere, and respect. When we take on this task, we give our mortal best, and no matter how hard we try, we are never satisfied that we have drawn the real picture of the human life that so thrilled us, spoke to our hearts, and made us feel uniquely blessed by a special friend and loved one. What follows is an article about just such a special person. It is a reflection of her keen mind, her inquiring spirit, her heart that extended itself in the service of others, and the heart of the man who has tried to put it all down for us. Here is President Riccobono’s tribute to a person whose loss we mourn and whose soul we were glad to have among us:
This article is about one of us, but in so many ways it is about all of us who are proud to be members of the National Federation of the Blind. In sharing her story, it is my hope that you get a sense of the beautiful person who touched so many members of the National Federation of the Blind. It is a difficult task because there really is not enough space to write the words that can capture who she was to us and how she contributed to our movement—not to mention her contributions beyond the Federation family. I certainly cannot capture my twenty years of knowing her and growing together in this organization. This is why I say this article is also about all of us.
The members of this organization have a bond of faith that we share from generation to generation. We receive the gift that previous generations of the Federation have given to us, and we have the joy of securing it and passing it to a future generation and, if we are lucky, observing what we do together with that gift. When you come to understand what membership in this movement really means, you understand the bond that we share with each other and the opportunities that come from sharing in the advancement of blind people. This also means a real sadness when we lose one of our Federation family, especially someone who was only thirty-six years old. Let this article be a tribute but also a legacy that urges each of us to dig a little deeper in our hearts and dedicate ourselves more firmly to that bond of faith for all of the wonderful things that happen when we work together to turn dreams into reality.
Rachel Amelia Olivero was born on September 22, 1982, and by all accounts her personality and talents began emerging as soon as she began to walk and talk. It did not really matter that she was blind because she had a natural way of getting the information she wanted, and she always had a sense of what she wanted.
I first observed Rachel when she testified at a hearing at the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped in 1999. I had been elected president of the National Federation of the Blind of Wisconsin about six months earlier, and improving the educational services for blind children was a top priority for our affiliate. I joined the National Federation of the Blind three years earlier, and the members of the Federation blessed me with an understanding of the truth about blindness—that it was not a tragedy—and they also blessed me with a network of resources and people that were there for me at every step in my journey. I was still really figuring it out for myself, but I knew the difference in my life between before the Federation and after it, and I wanted every blind student in Wisconsin to have the gift I had been given. When I listened to Rachel testify to the panel of state legislators and public representatives, I was impressed with her poise, but I recognized myself in what she said. She was settling for lower expectations, she was fooling herself that she had it all figured out, and she was faking it the rest of the way. I knew it because I had lived it, and I wanted to help.
I was fortunate that a year later I landed in a position where I could share the gift of the Federation with Rachel and all of the other students at the school because I was hired to direct the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which included the residential school. Rachel knew what she wanted, and it was clear when I showed up that she wanted to contribute to the technology infrastructure of the school. She also wanted to know how I did what I did as a blind person. A natural mentoring relationship formed, and my wife Melissa and I began to answer her questions about how we did things and the advocacy work of the Federation.
Melissa and I found that inviting students into our home was a good way to provide mentoring without having it feel like teaching. We had a number of opportunities to do this, and Rachel was often part of the crowd. One time that sticks out is when I attempted to teach a couple of students how to cook over a charcoal fire. The cooking was not the only part of the teaching experience because you had to prepare something to cook. I taught the students how to form hamburger patties out of raw meat. I then left them to form them in whatever way they wanted. The cooking went very well, but Rachel had prepared very spherical hamburgers. I think they were probably the best grilled meatballs I have ever had, and we often laughed about the experience. It did not take long before she was passing on the ideas and techniques that we shared with her in true Federation fashion, although I do not think she ever was eager to teach someone how to make hamburgers.
Rachel became a part-time employee at the school for the blind, providing technology support. She often knew the technology better than the full-time staff, and she was persistent in finding answers to questions she could not answer. She knew that I was eager to increase our technology infrastructure, so she frequently shared new product announcements or ideas about things we could do. It was always fun to consider the future, and I always learned from her in these conversations. Once in a while I would know about something before she would, and I always delighted when I could find a technology nugget to pass on to her, even if it was a rare occasion. Somewhere in this back and forth mentoring there began to emerge a mutual admiration and friendship.
Rachel decided to join the Federation near the time of our national convention in Philadelphia. This was a good opportunity for me to help her to understand how to be an independent traveler. She was interested in the idea that we were going to travel through the airport without assistance, but then I informed her we were also going to do so under sleepshades. I had received training at the Colorado Center for the Blind, and I understood the power of having confidence in your heart and your mind that vision is not a requirement for success. I wanted her to recognize that she was over-relying on an unreliable sense—her eyesight. When Rachel was internalizing a conversation, she would stop talking and really sit with an idea in her own mind. I had many more opportunities to fly with Rachel, but our flight to that national convention was the quietest trip we ever took together. Rachel completely absorbed the experience of traveling the airport under sleepshades, and she carried the spirit of structured discovery through the rest of the convention. Although she never received formal training at an NFB training center, she committed herself to improving her own skills on a daily basis and stretching herself to try new things. She later started mentoring others with what she had learned.
Rachel quickly began to apply her talents to the building of the National Federation of the Blind. She urged our affiliate to buy its own sound equipment for conventions, researched the appropriate equipment at an affordable price, and volunteered to manage sound at our events. She was not interested in being the only one that could use the equipment, so she looked for members who were interested in learning how to help with the sound and shared her expertise with them.
Rachel was a great advocate for our legislative initiatives by always bringing a unique perspective to whatever the issue was that we were tackling. She quickly emerged as a leader in our affiliate and was elected to our board where she provided valuable insights and always volunteered to do what was needed, often before the need was identified.
Her love for technology and gadgets was known by anyone who spent about ten minutes with her. She always had an interesting device before the rest of us did, and this meant that I, too, was interested in having gadgets—even if I did not seek them out as aggressively as she did. Her gadgets were handy. There was the time we drove from Janesville, Wisconsin, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to take a contingent of Federationists to a protest that our Minnesota affiliate was holding in front of a state agency. It was a long trip, especially since we went up and back in one day. However, the tunes that Rachel’s new music device provided from the back of the van gave us all the entertainment and laughs we needed to make the time fly past.
It was in that same year that Rachel and I invented a new holiday. We got together on the day after Christmas and spent some time at a mall on the south side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each of us found a new gadget to purchase, although today I do not remember what thing we thought was missing from our Christmas cheer that we just had to have. Rachel was a very giving person, and I often encouraged her to make sure she was looking out for herself—for that matter she did the same for me. After securing our new stuff, we decided that our technology trek should become an annual tradition to be celebrated every December 26. We christened the holiday New Gadget Day. If it was convenient, we celebrated this holiday together by going out to get gadgets. Over the years we were generally not together on New Gadget Day, so we would exchange the customary greetings of the day—Happy New Gadget Day—followed by a discussion of what new gadget was on our list. One or both of us did not always make a purchase on the holiday but simply used the day to plan a gadget purchase. With the rise of internet shopping, going out was less important. Yet, we maintained the tradition mostly among ourselves and a small handful of loved ones who came across our strange celebration. Now I am opening up the holiday to the entire Federation so that it does not get lost. The important lesson that I took from Rachel related to this day was that giving generously is important, but you have to allow a little space to give to yourself in order to effectively contribute to others.
Rachel began making her own mark on the Federation at our national convention in 2002 when she was a national scholarship winner. She did not take the money and run. She found her places to contribute at the convention. She became central to the Amateur Radio Division and could often be found at the table for distributing listening devices or helping with important marshalling assignments. With certainty, most Federationists were kindly yet firmly marshalled into the right elevator queue before banquet by Rachel.
After Melissa and I moved to Baltimore, Rachel often showed up and stayed at our house. It was always like having a member of the family come to visit, and it unfailingly resulted in creating new memories and laughing about the adventures we had in the past. Rachel moved to Baltimore in 2007 to be an access technology specialist at the NFB Jernigan Institute, and she stayed with us while she searched for an apartment. Her stay overlapped with our son Austin’s first birthday. Rachel was always afraid she was going to break one of our children, but she loved them as strongly as any member of our family, and she was an important part of their village of support. However, not everything she did to help worked out. She offered to use her camcorder to capture Austin’s first birthday. As blind parents, we love reliving the memory of that occasion, but apparently sighted viewers of the tape get tired of looking at the walls of our living and dining rooms. Knowing Rachel, after that experience she went off and figured out how to effectively shoot video as a blind person, and I would not be surprised if she taught her techniques to others.
While we are on the topic, we thought she was finally getting comfortable with children when our daughter Oriana was born. Rachel really enjoyed holding baby Oriana, but we figured out it was mostly because Rachel was telling her about their joint quest to take over the world together. It was a classic example of Rachel’s sense of humor and her snarky attitude all wrapped up into one. So far Oriana has not revealed what the evil plans were and, for our sake, I am hoping she has forgotten them, although I am sure Rachel’s love will continue to be a strong memory in her heart.
In 2012 Rachel moved to Nebraska and began working on accessibility for Humana. We were sad that she was not nearby, but she always made sure we kept in touch. When I was elected President of the National Federation of the Blind, Rachel was one of the first people who came to the stage after the banquet to say she had my back. I held her to that when I called her a few months later and told her that we very much needed her in Baltimore to help direct our internal technology efforts at our national headquarters. This is when my relationship with Rachel, which had moved from mentor to friend, advanced from friend to partner. Rachel and I anticipated each other’s moves and what might be needed. Whether it was playing cards against another pair of opponents at lunch or meeting with executives at Google or Amazon, Rachel and I shared the joy of working together to advance the work of the Federation. She was much sharper at multi-tasking than I was, so she would often complete action items that came up during a meeting while we were still heavily in discussion, and she never missed a beat in the conversation. As President I could count on her wise counsel and dedication to seeing the job through to the end. As a friend, I could count on her sharing the truth with me—those things I wanted to hear and those I needed to hear from a friend—and I knew that I could give her the same feedback because we trusted each other.
Her move back to Baltimore at the beginning of 2015 marked an important event in the circle of mentoring within the Federation and for Rachel personally. For our movement, her return to Baltimore was essential to the transition we experienced in the office of the president. I was getting on-the-job training in how to lead this tremendous organization, and I knew that accelerating our technology infrastructure was critical to what we hope to achieve. Executive Director for Operations John Berggren, who had overseen our technology efforts, had many new things on his plate in addition to technology, and we needed to build a core of internal managers at our national office for the next generation of our work. Rachel stepped into that, bringing a tremendous amount of skill and a deep understanding of the heartbeat of our organization. More importantly, she was willing to challenge herself to tackle the big job in front of us. Having her voice in the mix of planning new initiatives for our organization was critical to the things we have done over the past four years.
Even as her responsibilities at the national office increased, she found time to provide mentoring to the next generation. One of her final weekends was spent with our NFB of Maryland mentoring program.
Like all leaders of the Federation, Rachel shaped us, and she was shaped by us. When she left Baltimore the first time, she said the last thing she wanted to do was management. Partly she came back because she knew she could push herself further, and the Federation was where she wanted to devote her energy and imagination. It was the Federation that taught her how to go beyond where she perceived her limits to be. Like so many of us, Rachel thought she knew who she was, but she had suffered under low expectations for so long that it took time and experience for her to really find herself and exhibit the confidence to live the life she wanted. She found that confidence and that direction during the last four years. More importantly, when she found it, she shared it with others in the Federation. She spent countless hours reaching out to people, encouraging them, passing on what she had learned from the Federation philosophy, and loving them into the Federation family. In the process, she continued to grow from every experience she had in teaching others, and in the same way, I grew from being blessed by the opportunity to mentor her, become her friend, and eventually her partner in raising expectations and building our movement.
Even more powerfully, Rachel had an impact in the broader software developer and accessibility communities, and I doubt she ever really knew how deep it was. When news of her death spread to the Drupal open source community, they immediately began compiling an article about Rachel’s impact on accessibility and improving the overall Drupal platform. Dozens of notes have come to us about feedback she had provided that fixed bugs in mobile applications, improved major processes for managing accessibility in corporations, and everything in between. In providing all of this feedback, she always shared the message that she was one blind person and that if developers really wanted to understand equal access for the blind, they needed to work with the National Federation of the Blind, where they could meet thousands of blind people. In many ways, Rachel was allowed to find her own voice because of her membership in the National Federation of the Blind.
We have only explored a fraction of who Rachel was to us as a movement and to me as her mentor, friend, and colleague for the past twenty years. Rachel became who she was through the personal relationships and dedicated service she provided to the organization. She, like our strongest long-term members, opened her heart to our movement and shared herself with others. The members of the Federation have benefited from that, whether they knew Rachel personally or through people she mentored or through the systems she helped us build. It is humbling to me that I could play a small role in her journey to being able to live the life she wanted. Then again, I am humbled that members of the Federation have done and continue to do the same for me. I stick with the Federation because I know that I am not done learning and that the real changes in my life come from the continued effort to share the gift of the Federation with others.Rachel Olivero is one of the people I think of when I hear the question of what it means to be a member of the National Federation of the Blind. In closing I must relay one of our shared moments that always makes me smile. My first national convention as President was 2015, and I decided that we should attempt to set a Guinness World Record for the largest umbrella mosaic ever. I was on stage during the morning of the record attempt. Rachel was in her element providing logistical support, especially helping people who needed medical attention. This was often how Rachel and I worked together—I was on stage, and she was making things happen behind the scenes. At the peak moment, I did the countdown, and 2,480 umbrellas opened in unison—setting the world record and making us all officially amazing according the Guinness tagline. Except Rachel did not raise an umbrella. She had been helping someone who was dealing with a medical issue, and she was near the ambulance when the countdown started. This was outside of the qualified area, and there was no time for her to get into the mosaic. I only learned what happened after the convention, and I was sad that she had not been included in this historic event. Rachel wasn’t; she was proud that she did what was needed for the team. Some of us were designated as officially amazing that day, but in the hearts of those who knew Rachel, she already had that title. She was not amazing because she was blind, but rather she was amazing because she did not let blindness stand between her and her dreams. She wore the title of “Member, National Federation of the Blind” with pride and confidence and did so in a way that was authentic to her own personality. She shared everything she had with as many people as she could find. I believe that Rachel gave all that she could in the time she was with us, and very few of us can make that claim. When asked who Rachel Olivero was, what comes to mind is that she was everything that makes membership in the National Federation of the Blind meaningful.