Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2007

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Education, Influence, and Inspiration: The Effect
of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute

by Betsy Zaborowski

Dr. Betsy ZaborowskiFrom the Editor: Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, who has addressed the last three conventions as the executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute, came to the podium Tuesday afternoon, July 3, following President Maurer’s announcement that she was stepping aside from that position and will assume other duties as she is able. Though she has been fighting cancer aggressively since the end of February and is still engaged in that battle, she made clear to her audience that her commitment to the NFB and the Institute programs she has directed is as strong as ever. This is what she said:

Fellow Federationists, your prayers, your support, your best wishes have brought me here, and I thank you. I am very blessed in so many ways, but to serve as the first executive director of the Jernigan Institute has been a remarkable privilege and gift. And to work with the people that have come our way in the last three and a half years has been a very, very special gift. In thinking about what to talk about today, I reflected on the words that we used as we were first developing the Institute. Remember we used this phrase, “We have dreamed, we have planned, we have built, and we will now create a future full of opportunity.” I say to you we are doing that. We have done that, and we’ve done it through innovation, through influence, and through inspiration.

The Institute is not simply a group of programs, it is a reflection of the heart of the National Federation of the Blind. We have made great progress in the last three and a half years. Let me review quickly what has happened in three-and-a-half years. First of all, before that we raised twenty million dollars in record time, and we established the first research and training institute of cutting-edge innovations in the field of blindness developed and operated by an organization of blind people. This has never happened before; we did it. We all did it. Over 19,000 people, foundations and corporations, the state of Maryland, and the federal government contributed to that capital campaign. We didn’t have a highfalutin, high status individual chairing our campaign; we had the president of the National Federation of the Blind, President Marc Maurer, chairing that campaign.

So we built this fabulous building, and then we began to develop the programs. Let’s reflect on some of that. You heard a lot about it in President Maurer’s report. In the area of technology we continue to expand the work of the International Braille and Technology Center. We installed all of the accessible voting machines in our National Center. The HAVA project has been going on for three years. We’ve focused on consumer electronics by developing the first Accessible Home Showcase, now adjacent to the IBTC in the Center and with a presence on our Web site, helping us understand where we can find accessible appliances. Our nonvisual access Web certification continues to expand. Our work with NLS and the digital Talking Book--it was the National Federation of the Blind that did the testing to develop the Talking Book machine that is going to come out of NLS. And of course the development of the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader would not have happened without our input.

Our access technology team led by Anne Taylor consults with all kinds of technology companies, both access technology and regular technology. They come to us all the time, as well as researchers, and all kinds of other folks working in this field. We have established and fully equipped the first fully accessible technology training lab, now available in the Institute. This will lead to all kinds of training efforts in the future. We have eighteen fully accessible work stations thanks to a lot of our sponsors and access technology companies. The Jacobus tenBroek Library is now furnished. Remember the grand opening? It was a great big room with about twenty restaurants in it. Now it’s full of thousands of books in Braille and print.

We also have displays. We have a growing number of displays that help people who come to visit our Center understand the real issues of blindness. We also have our new Independence Market, located in the library. It’s a real state-of-the-art gift shop, which displays all our aids and appliances, but also our literature in a browsing room, where you can simply pick up any of our free literature.

We also are categorizing and archiving the tenBroek papers and planning this law symposium that you heard about in the presidential report. There are so many things going on in our library, it’s hard to even measure. But our library director Dawn Stitzel has been an incredible asset to our organization, and I want to thank her for her leadership. We will soon be establishing the very first fully accessible library management system that will be accessible both from the user and the staff side, another first that the Jernigan Institute will bring.
Our outreach department is an exciting department, always creating new and innovative things. Our Imagination Fund is supported through the staff of our outreach department. They are also responsible for our senior fair. Jerry Lazarus has done a wonderful job with our senior fairs over the last few years. Our celebration has become an annual event with attendance of over five hundred every year. Meet the Blind Month with hundreds and hundreds of activities all over the country that you all make work very successfully. And more and more outreach efforts will continue.

Of course our education department, what a shining star! Mark Riccobono has led the development of some of the most exciting education innovations that the field of blindness has seen in a very long time. Our Science Academy: who would have dreamed that for three years in a row a group of blind high school students mentored by blind adults would launch a rocket with the help of NASA engineers? Our science portal,, is a growing resource for teachers, for educators, for parents, and for blind youth to learn about science, technology, engineering, and math. That will only continue to be a stronger and stronger resource.

Our model transition programs, headed up by Mary Jo Thorpe, have taught us how to reach out to high school students and help them get ready for the world of higher education and employment. The career fair that we have done for the last couple of years is beginning to be replicated in other states around the country. And of course what’s coming up at the end of July will be a real cornerstone. Two hundred blind kids and seventy blind mentors marching all over the campus of Johns Hopkins University: they’ll never be the same!
I also want to commend Jennifer Dunham and her work with our Braille transcribing and proofreading program. In just a few months look at the progress that has been done with that program.

So what is the Institute really? What is this Jernigan Institute that we have developed? I say to you all that it is an extension of the work of the National Federation of the Blind. The mission of the Institute is the same as the mission of the National Federation of the Blind. We have said our mission and our purpose in lots of ways, but all of us understand that the real mission of this organization is to change lives. And that is what we do. We do that in the Institute, but we do it in every activity back in your home states. They are all connected. For example, at the Science Academy we change lives of young teenagers who didn’t think they could take calculus, so they couldn’t dare to dream to be a NASA engineer. But they go through our experience, and they say, “Ah, I can take calculus. I can be a NASA engineer.” The same thing happens when you set up a seminar for blind kids in your home community connected with your state convention, and they see blind mentors, and they talk with blind people, and the parents and the kids understand that, “Yes, I can do it. Yes, I can reach out. Yes, I can use my full potential.”

The seniors who come to our senior fairs--we call them up after the senior fair, and we ask them. “What’s the most important thing you got out of it?” They learn about their resources and they learn about all kinds of things. But they say, “The most important thing is that we saw blind people moving around and doing things, and we were inspired that we too can do things.” It can happen at any age, and you can do it in your own communities. The Federation goes to talk to seniors, and we inspire, and we make sure that they know what can happen.

The Independence Market offers all kinds of aids and appliances and resources and literature, and we answer the phone hundreds and hundreds of times every day. But you too in your local community do what the Institute does when you give a person a piece of literature, when you tell them what the Independence Market has to offer and you give them the phone number so that they can order their first cane. It’s the same; we’re all working on changing lives.

The library inspires people when people come to visit because it’s an exciting place. But when you sit next to a person on an airplane and you tell them about the National Federation of the Blind and what our philosophy is and what our mission is, you too also inspire and change lives. It’s all connected. It’s all the same. We are the Federation family forever.

We are now in a time of transition. As Dr. Maurer mentioned, I will be stepping down as executive director of the Jernigan Institute. Marc Riccobono will be taking over, and I have the utmost confidence in this young man. When I became ill in March, it happened very suddenly, and I had to be away from work. Mark took over supervising all the people, running the programs, and he was knee-deep in planning this Youth Slam at the same time. I kept calling him saying, “How are you doing? Are the balls all in the air?” And he said, “Yeah, none of them are rolling down the hallways yet.” We’re getting it all done. He has wonderful management skills, a wonderful spirit, and a great history in this organization, and he will be a wonderful asset.

As you all know, I am a clinical psychologist by profession, so occasionally I like to refer to the field of psychology. There has recently been an emphasis on a new field called positive psychology. It talks about the ingredients for happiness and fulfillment in life.

Researchers have talked about three different ways of living your life. You can have a pleasant life. You can have an engaged life. Or you can have a meaningful life. When you are a part of the National Federation of the Blind, we know which one is going to make the difference for us. All the research in the world shows that people who have a strong sense of meaning and purpose and dedication to something bigger than themselves have a higher level of happiness, contentment, and purpose. I have shared that, and I thank you for that. I want to ask you to join with me as I move into new roles in the Federation with optimism and as I continue with you to have a meaningful life. Thank you. [applause]

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