Future Reflections         Convention Report 2008

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NOPBC Honors Barbara Cheadle for Twenty-Three Years of Service

Sometime around mid-morning at the June 29, 2008, NOPBC Annual Parents Seminar in Dallas, Carol Castellano, first vice president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, took the microphone to make a surprise presentation to Barbara Cheadle who, after twenty-three years as president of NOPBC, had announced in 2007 that she would not be seeking re-election. Here is what Castellano said, followed by comments from Barbara Cheadle:

Carol Castellano  Photo courtesy of Bobby CunninghamCarol Castellano
You are here as a part of the best, the premier, the most progressive parents’ organization in the country. It’s an exciting place to be; it’s really where the action is. So many of us return year after year--at first we come to find help for our own child, and then we stay and we make a commitment to help others. This organization is unique. We were not founded, supported, or run by professionals in the field. We were founded in partnership with the real experts on blindness: the members of the National Federation of the Blind. No other parent organization enjoys the benefits of this unique structure. We, and our children, can call upon the experience of 50,000 blind people across the country who become our mentors, our role models, and our friends. And our children have an organization that they can grow into. I am so proud of this organization and so proud to be a part of it.

NOPBC is an agent for change in our society. We change the lives of individual families and children, and we move beyond individuals to make changes in the system. Twenty-five years ago, expectations were far lower for blind children and opportunities fewer. NOPBC raised the bar and raised the expectations of parents and teachers and of the blind kids themselves everywhere. Instead of being doomed to dependence, illiteracy, and helplessness, our kids learn a “can do” attitude and find out that it’s okay to be blind. NOPBC works to get laws passed to safeguard our children’s right to a full education and an independent future. We fought for their right to learn Braille and to get textbooks on time, and we led the campaign to get canes in the hands of young kids. This kind of parent advocacy simply was not available before this organization came into existence. This organization insists on equal access for our kids. We insist on their getting the opportunity to learn blindness skills that can make them independent. And we don’t take no for an answer.

Over the past twenty-five years, we’ve grown and grown. Our projects to enhance the use of Braille have become the subject of academic research. Our magazine is read by thousands across the country. Our legislative initiatives touch the lives of every blind child. And we have such a great organization because of the people in it, and that means you. NOPBC is strong because of the leadership, commitment, dedication, advocacy, and passion of its members. And there’s no one who embodies that passion and commitment more than the person I’m going to speak about for a few moments.

When my daughter Serena was a baby, twenty-four years ago, a hospital social worker gave me some literature from the NFB, along with the usual dire warning about its militancy and radical nature. As soon as I got home, I called and was put through to Barbara Cheadle. And thus began one of the most important and cherished relationships of my life.

Through the first five years of Serena’s life, Barbara gave me advice and encouragement about bringing up a blind baby, as well as a new way to look at blindness, and the possibilities that the future might hold for my daughter. Barbara also put me in touch with the Federation leaders in my state. When Serena entered kindergarten and first grade in our local public school, our troubles began. We were confronted with the powerful plague of ignorance, fear, and prejudice. In June of 1990, I frantically called Barbara, desperately needing the facts on the law and what we could really expect from teachers, special services, and our young blind daughter. Barbara’s response was to fly me down to the convention--and it was here in Dallas that year--so that I could talk to Doris Willoughby, Ruby Ryles, and other Federationists who would have answers for me, and who could provide ammunition with which we could fight for Serena’s rights. I couldn’t believe that someone who hadn’t even met us would make such an effort to help my family.

And now, nineteen conventions later, I’m still here. I think Barbara got her money’s worth out of me. So we find out that Barbara is not only a caring, concerned person; she is also a sly fox. In the early nineties, NOPBC was holding seminars in different regions of the country. I hungrily read about them in Future Reflections. And one day I called Barbara and asked her when she would be bringing a seminar to the New York/New Jersey area. She said, “Well, why don’t you go ahead and put one on?” So here we see another of Barbara’s characteristics. She has the ability to empower others and nurture and bring out their talents. And when we think about the fact that she got me to do her work, we also realize that she is very smart.

Over the years, Barbara and I became colleagues in the cause. Barbara is wonderful to work with. I have so enjoyed our many hours of discussing, brainstorming, analyzing, and making plans. Barbara is truly generous of spirit. She always made me feel that my thoughts were worthwhile, and I have never heard her speak of anyone with anything but appreciation and respect. If you’ve ever worked with Barbara, it’s not long before you discover that she knows everything. She knows Federation history, the positions we’ve taken on every issue since time immemorial, and everybody who’s anybody in the blindness field. Barbara has been the face, the words, and the voice of NOPBC virtually since our beginning. She has been a strong, steady, tireless advocate for blind kids. I don’t know anyone who has affected the lives of blind children more. So many of us in this room can say that we owe the success of our blind children to the loving support, wise counsel, knowledge and information, patient encouragement, and kindness and understanding of my friend, Barbara Cheadle.

And Barb, we have a little presentation to make for you. Now in all the years that Barbara’s been running seminars and meetings, she was missing one tool. The tool was a gavel. This is a token of our gratitude and appreciation of your years. I’m going to describe it: it’s a rosewood base and the inscription says, “Barbara Cheadle, President NOPBC 1985-2008,” and it has Mr. Whozit on it. And the gavel itself is a rosewood gavel with a brass wrapping around it. And now I present to you: Barbara Cheadle.

Barbara Cheadle
Barbara (left) shows off her new rosewood gavel to the delight of Carol (right) and the audience. Photo courtesy of Bobby CunninghamSo where’s the coffin? The only time people say this many good things about you is at a funeral. I do not believe this. [pause, emotion]

I want to share one story with you. Some of you may have read it, but maybe not because it’s a story I wrote in one of my early articles in Future Reflections.

My son Chaz, who’s blind, is now thirty-years-old, married, has a job, his own life, and his own friends. He’s out on his own and actually plans and prepares Mother’s Day and Father’s Day for us, without any prompting. That’s when you know that they’re really grown up.

But when we adopted Chaz, we were already members of the Federation. We had blind friends. And Chaz is, in the terminology of the day, a high partial. So I guess [I thought] that maybe he wouldn’t really encounter as much of the discrimination and problems as those who were totally blind. Within the first year I learned differently. I was at that time working for the American Red Cross. And we had a [job] opening come up. I had talked to my supervisor about blindness and blind people, and he seemed very open-minded. So I thought, “Wow, this might be a good chance to get a blind guy a job.” I didn’t have anyone in mind, but I thought, “Wow, if we could put out the word that there was a job opening, and they’re open to hiring a blind person, wouldn’t that be great?”

So I went to my supervisor, and he said, “Well that job now comes under the purview of someone else,” and named a colleague of mine. So I went to talk to her. I was absolutely dumbfounded. She listened politely to me, and then told me that a blind person couldn’t do this job. So I said, “Well you know, blindness is--people have different degrees of vision and still be blind. You might even have someone who would read print or some print. They [blind people] have lots of different ways of doing things. Surely you would be open-minded to someone.” She said, “No. No. No. No, they’d have to drive.” I said, “We have volunteers with the Red Cross who do driving.”

Well it turns out that her husband was legally blind, had some vision, didn’t drive, and was a helpless, hopeless kind of person. And, you know, the only thing I could think of was my beautiful, wonderful, three-year-old boy being twenty or sixteen or seventeen and trying to get a job, and to not even [pause, emotion]--not even get in the front door for an interview. I went to the bathroom and I locked the door and I cried.

But that was the day--that was the day--that I knew that I had to do more than simply what I needed to do to make him independent--you know, get Braille for him and a cane--we had all that and role models (we were already members). But to change the broader public attitudes required being a part of an organization like this--and the NFB--and developing a parents’ division (this was pre-parent division, it was even pre-Future Reflections). And it all happened because I realized that if we didn’t change public attitudes and laws, then my son could be the most competent blind person in the world, and he still might not have a job or opportunities.

So, that obsession stayed with me--as you can see thirty years later. I am not going away, mind you. I’m stepping down as president because now is the time when our parents’ division is at its strongest, when we have more leaders and more coming on. When we have a wonderful woman here who’s ready and eager and has the passion and the philosophy to step forward to take on the responsibility. That person--Carrie Gilmer, sitting next to me, whom I whole-heartedly support--will have lots of other experienced leaders and new leaders coming on to help carry on for the next twenty-five years. So, thank you very much--all of you. I’m not going away, but it is time for the new leadership to come on and to make the transition. Thank you very much.

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