Braille Monitor                                                                                                 August/September 2004

(back) (next) (contents)

The Jernigan Institute, Our Challenge for the Future

by Betsy Zaborowski

Dr. Betsy Zaborowski
Dr. Betsy Zaborowski

From the Editor: Friday afternoon, July 2, NFB Jernigan Institute Executive Director Dr. Betsy Zaborowski reported on the plans and programs of the Institute. This is what she said:

In 1999 we began the capital campaign to build what we now know as the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. After a process of thoughtful design by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, creative giving by thousands of members of the National Federation of the Blind and friends, and the diligent management of the entire process by President Marc Maurer, we have now created the first research and training facility designed and operated by an organization of blind people. This is truly revolutionary, the first time in the history of the blind that we, blind people ourselves, will direct the focus of research and programs, guaranteeing that best practices really do result from the research and that our collective practical knowledge is reflected throughout.

It has been a remarkable journey, but one that has only just begun. Up to this point many of us have thought of the Jernigan Institute as a large $19.5-million building, but it is much more. The Institute is our chance to move our philosophy to the next level. The Institute is all about attitudes and imagination. It will take form in the impressive building at our national headquarters, but it will also take shape through the activities that we all can implement in our local communities. In the Institute we will develop many innovations that we will all have to work hard to have adopted in our local areas. Therefore the success of the Jernigan Institute is a shared responsibility.

Now we are challenged to build the programs and activities of the Jernigan Institute--programs and activities that truly address the real problems of blind people and incorporate our collective knowledge and experience. These initiatives will include programs that cultivate the development of innovative technology, educational programs, employment strategies, and research useful to blind people of today and into the future.

This will all be accomplished with our continued collective effort. Who would have predicted in 1940 that, as a new century began, the organized blind of America would be poised to revolutionize this society's image of blind people forever. The purpose of the National Federation of the Blind has always been to serve as a vehicle for self-organization among blind people so that we could reach our goal of full opportunity and involvement in all aspects of our society. Now we are challenged to move this purpose to a new dimension--to lead in ways never undertaken before.

In order to expand our horizons, we need to stimulate creative minds and engage broader audiences: engineers, scientists, educators, medical professionals, parents of blind children, rehabilitation professionals, elder care workers, and many others. We need to build the infrastructure of this new Jernigan Institute. That infrastructure includes hiring and training highly qualified staff, equipping the facility with needed technology, and developing and operating our first projects--in other words, launching this venture.

At the conclusion of our session this afternoon, you will receive a copy of the new Jernigan Institute brochure. Here we outline the goals and objectives and organizational structure for the next five years of the development of the Institute. This structure has evolved directly from discussions with you, our members and our elected leadership. What will make this new Institute truly revolutionary will be the continued involvement of all of us. Some will contribute with ideas, others with contacts with potential partners or sources of financial contributions, while others will help spread the word about our programs and initiatives.

 We have already started educational and technology programs within the Institute. In addition to those you will hear more about later in the agenda, I am pleased to announce that we recently learned that we will be receiving a grant from NASA Goddard which will enable us to assemble a group of NASA scientists and engineers, who with university researchers will in accordance with our guidance develop the protocol for the development needed to create the first nonvisual user interface for a vehicle that blind people will operate someday. We anticipate that this will launch us into a new venture certain to result in a variety of technology breakthroughs.

Some inquire, why a vehicle for the blind? Many asked in the sixties, why the moon? Just as early space travel led to the development of many useful technologies, the research and development we will coordinate with our NASA and university friends will have many applications for the blind. As we learn how to present information nonvisually about our surroundings in real time, advances in mobility aids and other information dissemination technologies may result.

Later this afternoon you will hear from Dr. Ray Johnson, senior executive vice president of SAIC, one of this nation’s largest engineering firms, thanks to our wonderful friend John Frances Mergen, chief scientist for Verizon. Dr. Johnson, who leads SAIC’s very successful self-propelled vehicle project in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, will share with us his thoughts on the potential for technology useful for all of us.

At this convention GPS ambassadors are exposing many of us to the advances in global positioning technology. Already VisuAide and Pulse Data  have GPS products, and others will launch new applications in the near future. Many of us will not purchase this technology now, but we all should know about it, so don’t miss the presentation tomorrow by Franck Boynton of Navtech, this country’s foremost GPS company.

Education in many forms is a high priority for the Institute, especially educating professionals working with the blind. We all should be proud of the first technology conference held at the Institute, in partnership with the Mississippi State University Research and Rehabilitation Center on low vision and blindness. At the Institute this past April over one hundred technology specialists from throughout the country learned about the latest in technology useful for the blind.

As a result of the success of that training conference, we have been approached by the low vision section of AER, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, to coordinate and conduct a workshop for professionals working with individuals with low vision. You may ask, “low vision?” We are an organization of blind people, right? And who better to conduct a workshop on the benefits of nonvisual technology and techniques for those with some vision? This conference will be held in the Institute, November 4 and 5, and is entitled “Bridge to Total Efficiency: A Pragmatic Approach to Visual and Nonvisual Technology.” This bridge will be different; it will be built on the collective knowledge of blind people--not simply some experts overly focused on vision.

I am proud to say that, along with our growing partnership with Louisiana Tech University, we are collaborating with the Whiting School of Engineering Science and Math Outreach Center of Johns Hopkins University and the Lions Vision Rehabilitation and Research Center of Wilmer Eye Institute. Also at this convention we have another partner, Dr. Jonathon Lazar, professor in the computer science department of Towson State University. Dr. Lazar and his graduate students are here conducting an efficiency study which we hope will prove that blind people are as efficient with technology as sighted people if given the chance.

Assisting seniors who are losing vision is a high priority of the Federation. Thus programs for seniors are an important part of our five-year plan. This past May we held our third annual seniors fair. Over 300 seniors losing vision attended along with many professionals working with these seniors. Leaders from several of our affiliates interested in improving services for seniors also attended, and we all shared what we have learned about how to do more for these members of the greatest generation. This coming year we will secure funding to move forward with a number of programs designed to assist seniors throughout the country.

We have formed advisory working groups with a focus on our science camp, early childhood education, online courses, and technology. These groups combine expertise from our membership, our professional staff, and individuals from outside our organization representing fields such as telecommunications, engineering research, law, education, and business.

When I think about what makes our organization so powerful, a number of factors come to mind: determination, tenacity, advocacy, unity, and, most important, our love of our cause and of each other. I know that under the leadership of our committed president, dedicated board, and active membership we will stand up to the challenge. It is an exciting time of imagination, a time that can stretch us to the stars if we are willing to be focused, patient, determined, and ever ready to teach others, give more than we thought we could, and love one another from a place of respect. I pledge to you my energy and optimism, and I ask you to join with me as we imagine and create a future full of opportunity.

(back) (next) (contents)