Future Reflections       Fall 2014       FEATURE

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Taking Control and Becoming a Driver of My Life

by Mark Riccobono

Reprinted from the Braille Monitor, Volume 57, Number 5, May 2014

Mark Riccobono stands at the convention podium.From the Editor: At the 2014 convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Mark Riccobono was elected to serve as the Federation's next president. This article, based on a banquet address he delivered at the 2014 convention of the NFB of Missouri, introduces the readers of Future Reflections to President Mark Riccobono's life and philosophy.

It is a little daunting to think about what to say and how to talk about the journey that we've been on together, where we might be going, what our dreams might look like, and how to illuminate some of the tremendous things that have been shared at this convention. Many who are here have the spirit of the Federation--that's what I've felt. I invite you to open your heart to the conversation tonight, whether this is your first time or your fifty-second time, to be open to the idea that there might be something more for us to do, something more for us to learn, and to share this space that we've created for each other this evening. While you open your heart to that, I want to ask you a very important question and request that you reflect upon it: are you a driver or a passenger? And, not just are you a driver or a passenger in your own life, but are you a driver or a passenger in the National Federation of the Blind?

In August of 1996 the president of the National Federation of the Blind wrote a letter that said in part, "I think the first thing you should do is learn about the organization. Then I think you should teach everyone else about it. While you are telling others what we have already done, remember that there are many things to do that we have not tried. In other words, all of the nifty ideas have not yet been thought up."

School Days

I have an eye condition called aniridia, which led to my having glaucoma. When I was five years old, I was diagnosed as legally blind. My parents did not know what that meant. They're both good Midwestern folk from the great state of Wisconsin. They went to high school, but neither of them went to college. They didn't know anything about blindness; they didn't know what to think about blindness; they didn't even know what legal blindness meant. But what they knew without question was the value of giving me that good old-fashioned, Midwestern encouragement: encouragement to get out there and do stuff as best I could.

As kids we're not drivers; we're passengers. We do the things that people expect us to do. If you're a blind kid, you look to your sighted family members and to the professionals to be the ones to teach you about driving your own life. But the fact of the matter is that, while other kids were learning to drive in their own lives, I wasn't. Whether I knew it or not, I was blind, and over time I was being taught to be a passenger.

I could recount hundreds of experiences like the one I'm going to share with you now. I went to the elementary school in my neighborhood; it was six or seven blocks from my house. Starting in first grade, I walked to school every day. In third grade I had my first orientation and mobility evaluation. The professional took me out in the neighborhood and walked me around. I seemed to do pretty well, so she said there was nothing to recommend and left. Of course, I'd been walking that same route every day for two or three years. There was no challenge. That was no test of whether I had capacity to go beyond. I was allowed to pass.

In fourth grade we read worksheets that were mimeographed. Mimeograph was a terrible way for anybody to make a copy, and it was hard for anyone to try to read it. It was faded blue ink that even sighted people couldn't read very easily. If they had trouble with it, I certainly couldn't read it! But I had a teacher who had a degree in teaching blind students, and she came by to serve as my reader. That was what she did. She didn't teach me any techniques for operating as a blind person; she was just my reader.

By fifth grade I could no longer read the large-print books that I'd started using in third grade. No one told me that there might be a different way to do my reading, so I turned to the magnification I had. The only magnification device I owned was a monocular. It was meant for distance viewing, not for looking at things close in. But, if you twist it all the way in so that you get to the setting that's meant to look at the closest stuff, you can actually read books with it. It's not very comfortable, it doesn't look very good, and certainly it is not very fast, but that's what I had, so that's what I used. I used it because I knew that, if you were a Midwestern kid, part of a Midwestern family, you had to work hard. You had to read, and you had to compete, and this was the only way I knew how to do that. No one ever suggested there was a better way. I was a passenger.

By sixth grade you're thinking about certain things (like girls). Particularly in the area of being athletic, you want to look impressive. I remember we had a football drill that we were supposed to run. The teacher/coach said we were supposed to run a U-shaped pattern, and when we got to the peak of the U, we were to catch the football.

Now I understood what a U was--no problem. I understood that there would be a football hurtling toward me that I should put my hands up and try to catch--no problem. Knowing I should compete, I ran. I put my hands up, knowing that I had no chance in the world of catching that football. When I missed that ball, the kids made fun of me. Even with my best efforts to compete, I failed, and I must have looked oh so silly!

The gym teacher felt bad for me. He sat me down and tried to make me feel better. He said, "Look, it's going to be okay. Someday you're going to get contacts, and everything's going to be much better for you." What I understood was that, until something changed and I could have normal vision, I had to be content to be a passenger.

A Seat in the Back

I went to a very rough middle school, so being a passenger was actually a good thing. The passengers often sit in the back of the room. Not much was expected of people in the back. Admittedly, the people in the back of the room with me were not the smartest in the group. But they were my buddies, the people who were just getting by--the passengers--not the ones in the front of the room who were driving their lives.

Once in a while a worksheet would be assigned, and I'd have my buddies help me fill it out. I couldn't fill it out on my own, and experience taught me that I had to use any technique I could just to get by. So we did those sheets. My buddies read, I understood and interpreted, and we all got by! We passed, but we were not driving our lives.

In science class, one of the things we were supposed to do at the beginning of each class period was to copy down what was on the board. It wasn't great education, but that's what we had to do. I wasn't going to do it, because I'd have to go right up to the board. I'd get one of my friends in the back of the room to write everything down for me. I don't know what good that did for him or for me, but we followed the rules and wrote what was on that faraway board. Then for the remainder of the class we'd fold a piece of paper into a triangle and flick it back and forth, playing paper football. We'd do that for hours. We didn't learn a lot of science, but I wasn't causing any trouble, and I was passing, getting by as a passenger.

At this point in my life I didn't know there was another blind person in the world. I didn't know I was a blind person. I didn't know what the possibilities were for a kid who couldn't see very well, but I knew I was passing, getting by, and being a passenger.

Debates and Ball Games

In Milwaukee at that time, all the high schools had specializations, something that made them stand out from other schools in the area. I went to all the events where they tried to pitch you on their school. I was kind of interested in the broadcast school because I really loved baseball. I loved listening to the greatest baseball announcer in the world, Bob Uecker. I thought that learning to be a broadcaster might be cool. Then I went to the presentation about the high school that specialized in business, where they showed high school students running their own businesses. I thought, "Yeah, there we go: money! Hey, I can do that. I can think up things to sell, and I can run my own business."

So I chose to go to that high school, and it just so happened that it had a resource room for blind students. I didn't know what a resource room was. There was a teacher there who had retinitis pigmentosa (RP), but he wasn't really a blind guy, either--I mean, he read Braille, but he read it with his eyes. He wasn't much of a mentor. Frankly, by that point I had been pretty successful at getting by, even if I had to work my head off to do it, and even if the results were barely good enough to pass.

I didn't identify with the other kids there who were blind. I could see more than they could, and therefore I was better than they were. I did not understand that what was holding me back was the same thing that was holding them back. I'm ashamed to admit it today, but I didn't think I was one of them. Yet, in every life activity, just like them, I was being taught to be a passenger.

I joined the debate team in my first year of high school, and I did pretty well. A debate starts with an eight-minute speech. I was the man for this, because I could memorize my speeches. I was paired up with a guy from the football team. He would say stuff that I'd have to try to fix later, but I couldn't read any notes. That made coming up with a comprehensive defense or a rebuttal much more difficult than making the opening argument.

Now the second year came around, and I went back to be a part of the team. The debate coach came to me after a while, and he was concerned. He said, "Well, have you memorized the speech?"

I said, "No, not yet, I'm working on it. I'm a little busier than I was last year."

He said, "How are you going to participate if you haven't memorized the speech?"

I said, "I don't know."

He said, "Well, I don't think you can be on the team anymore." I never went back. I didn't know there might be a solution out there that would let me be a fully participating part of that team. I was a passenger.

Again, I love baseball. So let me tell you about the time I decided that the best job for me was to be an usher at County Stadium. I went down there, I signed myself up, and they interviewed me. They seemed to think I had something to offer, so they hired me.

I didn't think of myself as a blind person, but I did let them know that I didn't see very well. It happened to be close to the end of the season, and at that time the Green Bay Packers played three of their home games in Milwaukee. I signed up to be an usher at one of the games. It was 1992, the Packers versus the Eagles, Brett Favre's first game, and I was working the bleachers. Oh, the bleachers! That's not the coolest place to be, but I was there, I was at the game, and I was working.

I had this technique--I couldn't read their tickets, but I knew the layout of the section where I was working. I knew the seat numbers. So when a fan came to be seated, I would ask, "What does your ticket say? Where are you supposed to be?" They'd tell me, and I'd point. Sometimes I'd have to turn around to point to their section. Because I didn't see very well, one time I turned, didn't see the folks that were in my periphery, and hit a tray a guy was carrying. This is October in Wisconsin, and he was carrying hot chocolate. He wasn't too happy with me, and I wasn't too happy either. After that experience I decided I didn't like being an usher, that I never really wanted that job anyway. I quit.

Reaching Out

I graduated from high school; they gave me a fold-up cane for graduating— congratulations! I didn't know what I was supposed to do with it or why I even had it, but I took it to the University of Wisconsin. I figured it probably wasn't a good idea to fall down stairs in front of coeds, so I took it to orientation. But when I actually got to school, I folded it up and put it in the corner, and that was where it stayed. I wasn't blind, and I certainly didn't want other people to think I was.

Why did I go to college? Because that was what people did. My grades were just good enough, I was smart enough, and I had great techniques for just getting by. But I had to work three times as hard as everybody else. I didn't go to parties because I had to study, I had to read. I didn't read with Braille; I often listened to textbooks on cassettes. I had human note-takers in my classes because I couldn't take my own notes, but then I would have to struggle to read the notes they had written. It was 1994, and the Internet was only five years old. We still used DOS, and only a few people were talking about something called Windows 3.

I survived my first two semesters of college, but by the time I got to my sophomore year, I was falling apart. I had a long-term relationship that was coming to an end because I didn't have a good concept of who I was. I almost failed a class because I didn't have access to the material, and I didn't know how to get it. I was at the end of my rope.

I thought I was the only person in the world dealing with such problems. But I knew there had to be something more. So I reached out. I came across a blind guy in Madison, Wisconsin. He said, "You know, I live here, and I'd be happy to meet with you."

I said, "Great, let's meet at this place," a place on State Street in Madison. I picked it because I knew where it was. This was key for me. If I knew where it was, I was okay. We had to meet during the day, of course, because that was easier for me, too. I couldn't see anything at night.

Mark Riccobono; his wife, Melissa; and their children, Austin, Oriana, and Elizabeth enjoy an outing at LEGOLAND®.So I was standing outside--I got there really early (that was one of my strategies), and down the street came this tapping. This guy whipped by me and went right into the place. I'm like, "Hey, I'm right here." How did he miss me? It turns out he was a totally blind guy!

That was the first time I knew there might be something different, might be something I didn't know about functioning competently as a fellow who was blind. Here was a guy who was driving his own life. He was making his own decisions. He didn't hesitate when I said, "Well, why don't we meet here?" I don't know if he knew the place or not, whether he was familiar with it or just had enough confidence to know he could find it.

He told me about the National Federation of the Blind. He said they had national scholarships and state scholarships and local scholarships. I signed up to try to get a scholarship from the NFB. Darned if they didn't call and say, "We're going to give you one, and you need to get on a plane and come to Anaheim, California." Now where did I put that cane?

I was supposed to get on an airplane by myself. They acted as if this was normal, no big deal, just what a guy needed to do to get his scholarship. So I went to Anaheim, California, and I showed up at this big old hotel. Blind people were driving their own lives, and I was filled with hope and determination and energy for the first time in a long time. Blind people were making decisions; they were doing the things they wanted to do; they were talking about how to make changes in the world so that they could do more of the things they wanted and needed to do. I wanted that, too, but wanting was just the first step.

I had to get a blind person to read me the Braille convention agenda. I had to get a blind person to tell me which way to go. I wanted to be the one to decide which way to go, but I had to get a blind person with a cane to show me. I met people who didn't know me, but the very first thing they said to me, every single time, was, "You can do better, and I'll help you."

I went out with the president of the student division. It was 106 degrees, it was Anaheim, California, and he says, "Oh, we're late getting back. We'll have to run back to the hotel."

So we ran back, me trying to use this cane that I didn't have confidence in as a walking tool, let alone a tool I could use to run with. We were running, though it was 106 degrees out. Beg off, say I couldn't do it? No way! I'm from Midwestern people, and I was learning that I could run toward challenges and not away from them. Those steps, those hot, frightening steps, led me to a bigger step: one that would change my life forever.

A Letter to the President

At that convention I decided that there might be something different here. I had hope for the first time in a long time. It had always been there, but it was buried oh so deep. I went home and wrote a letter to the president of the National Federation of the Blind, and darn it if he didn't write me back. I was impressed--I didn't expect that. In that letter Dr. Maurer said, in so many words, "You can drive, and I'll teach you how to do it. But you need to help me. You need to participate in this thing and teach me something. All of us have something to teach one another, and this is the best way to learn." I've taken his lesson to heart ever since.

In 1996 I was kind of like a sixteen-year-old with the keys to Dad's Mustang and a hot date. I really didn't have the experience or training to know what I was getting into. But man, I felt freedom like never before! I started to read our literature, trying to understand what it was that was different. I could read it, but what I had to decide was whether I believed it. It is respectable to be blind! That was not what I thought before that convention. If it was respectable to be blind, I had a new lease on life. Life was something different from what my experience had taught me.

"It is respectable to be blind." Six words, but what do they mean? For me they mean what Dr. tenBroek called "the faith we have in each other." At our twenty-fifth anniversary, Dr. tenBroek called it "a faith that could move mountains and mount movements." It is respectable to be blind and compete on terms of equality. Dr. Jernigan helped us understand that the characteristic of blindness is not what defines us. If we get training, we can compete on terms of equality.

I learned that, to be a driver, you also need to teach. I started teaching other people what I had learned, as fast as I could learn it. That put me on a journey that continues even today.

When I was twenty-two years old, I was elected president of the NFB of Wisconsin. I started giving back, started figuring out how to build stuff. But every step of the way I kept running into an interesting problem: I was getting more than I was giving. It seemed unfair, so I'd try to give more, but still I'd get more back than I gave. Finally I decided this was a truth I needed to learn about the world, the truth that those who give are those who receive.

Acting on this, I started to advocate for blind kids. I didn't know anything about the education of blind children except that they deserved better than the dumpy experience I had had in school. It turned out that this experience gave me strength and passion, and it turned out I also had a talent for telling people what to do.

Crazy Ideas

With my passion to make things better for kids, my commitment to see that they would travel a different road, I was hired to direct the Wisconsin Center for the Blind. I brought some pretty crazy ideas to that venture. At twenty-four, and with the radical ideas I brought, I got some push-back from people at that place who had different ideas about blindness. Day in and day out I heard messages such as, "We don't really think these kids need to carry canes," and "We don't really think these kids who can see some need Braille," and "We don't really think these kids can learn to take notes on their own," and "We don't really think it's reasonable to expect that kids go through the lunch line and carry their own trays." You can bet I needed the energy I got from my brothers and sisters in the Federation so I could keep saying, "Yes, they need to use canes; yes, they need to learn Braille; yes, they can make decisions on their own. Those decisions will make all the difference in determining whether they are the actors or the audience, the spectators or the participants, the passengers somebody drives or the drivers who set their own direction and take control of their lives." I relied on my friends in the Federation to keep me grounded, to remind me that I wasn't crazy. They pushed me so that I came to understand that the space we create in the Federation is reality.

You've got to make decisions when you're fighting those fights out there, and sometimes you're faced with tough ones. There was a special education administrator in the northern part of the state of Wisconsin--his name was Ed, so I fondly called him "Special Ed." He put out a memo that said, "Thou shall not teach Braille more than X number of hours in a week to a kid." Now, this is against the federal law. But he knew people at the state department of education, the very people I worked for, and they didn't say anything to contradict him. In fact, they gave him an award!

I decided I couldn't take it. I had to be a driver, even if it meant personal risk for me. I started talking to folks--this kid who was only twenty-six! When I started talking to legislators and others in positions of power, that didn't make me a popular guy with my bosses. They didn't have enough on me to fire me, but they certainly wanted to muzzle me. I had to decide between hanging onto a secure job that would require me to moderate my views and let those responsible do the driving, or living my life working to bring about a different future for blind children and blind adults. It was a future that almost passed me by and might never be a reality for other blind people unless I decided to act.

The Leading Question

When I came to meet with the president of the National Federation of the Blind, he asked me an interesting question. He said, "What do you want to do with your life?"

I thought to myself, "You know, I'm so used to following the path that I've never really decided what I want to do." With some trepidation I told him that I'd like to come work for the National Federation of the Blind. I was honored that he hired me shortly before we opened the Jernigan Institute ten years ago, and I'm celebrating the completion of my tenth year working for the organization.

When I showed up at the National Center, I didn't know what I was going to do. But I found plenty of work, stayed busy, and felt like I was part of a team that shared the same game plan. We opened the Jernigan Institute early in 2004, and we had some interesting displays there. One of the displays was a car that a blind person could drive. I thought, "That's a cool hook. Dr. Maurer has done it; he's figured out how we can hook the engineers. He's managed to give a little something for the public relations folks. It's not very realistic, but it's great; it'll give our members something to talk about." I thought it was a gimmick.

Into the Driver's Seat

One day in 2007 I came into work, having been working hard on education programs for a long time, and I was called into a meeting. Dr. Maurer said, "We're going to make some changes. Dr. Zaborowski, who has been the executive director of our institute, has cancer, and she's leaving. Mark is going to be our new executive director."

I thought to myself, "Well, this is good to know: I wasn't really asked if I wanted to do that." But I started working on programs that were a little broader than the ones I had been working on. One day I got a telephone call from Virginia Tech. They said, "Hey, we saw that you want to work on a car that a blind person can drive. We'd like to talk with you about it."

I thought, "Oh, I have to go sell this idea now." Full disclosure--I didn't really believe in it that much. I said, "Okay, I'll come talk to you about it."

I was sitting in a room with these engineers at Virginia Tech, and they were saying, "We work on vehicles that drive themselves, and we can just put you in the back seat, push a button, and we're done."

You and I know that's not actually what we had in mind. I got up and started pacing around, letting them know that we weren't interested in being passengers. What we wanted was to drive. We wanted to have technology that gave us enough information to allow us to make the decisions real drivers make. Here I was, trying to motivate them by talking the talk, and part of me was asking myself, "Why am I doing this? I don't really believe in it. It's a hook; it's a fine PR thing; it's somewhere out there in the future, but this is 2008."

They listened to what I had to say, gave it some thought, and said, "Okay, well, it's a little harder than we thought. But we'll work on it."

We got a prototype. I went down to see it, and I thought, "This is kind of nifty; let's take it to the Youth Slam in 2009 and see what happens. We'll put it in front of a bunch of blind kids, see what they do with it."

We put the car in a parking lot with these blind kids who had, decade after decade, been told that they couldn't drive. What do you know, they loved it! They lit up, and they said, "We need this today! When can we get this project done? This will open up opportunities for us; it can change our lives."

I thought to myself, "There is something to be learned here, and these kids are teaching me about it."

Dr. Maurer said, "Mark, go to Virginia Tech and get them to tell you when they can build a real car."

They said, "Well, twenty-two months or so."

I said, "Great. Now our first public demonstration is at Daytona in eighteen months."

"Look," they said, "we said twenty-two months."

"I know, but our first public demonstration is at Daytona in eighteen months." So we decided to go down to Daytona in July of 2010 to announce to the world that we were going to drive a car on the Daytona International Speedway, and we hadn't even built the car!

This wasn't the only thing going on in my life. My son Austin was born in 2006, and my daughter Oriana was born about a month before the 2010 convention. We're there in the hospital, ready to take her home, and as they were checking her out, they said, "Well, here she is. Now, on Monday we want you to go see a pediatric ophthalmologist. Her eyes don't respond as you would expect."

My heart stopped. I felt sick deep inside--not because of blindness (I knew what to do about that). No, what shook my world was remembering that feeling of being a passenger, that second-class feeling I lived with in the education system. I'd been working on education for a while, but right then I felt fear--fear for my child. I said to myself, "Not my daughter! We're not doing this again!" This was the day when I recommitted myself in a new way to this organization. As you parents know, it gets personal when it's your child, your family, your responsibility.

The Blind Driver Challenge™

I showed up at the convention in 2010 and worked on publicizing the Blind Driver Challenge. People were talking about it. Some were excited, some were skeptical. Some saw in it the makings of a brighter future; a few saw it as a futile waste of time and money.

After the convention Dr. Maurer said, "We need some blind people who are going to drive this car. Who wants to drive?"

Who wants to drive? Well, I believed I wanted to drive!

Dr. Maurer was very clear. "This will not be a political decision. The best driver drives at Daytona. We need the best representative of the National Federation of the Blind in that car."

We were out there in December on a track in Virginia, testing this stuff out, and Dr. Maurer was out there. I was thinking to myself that this was stupid. This was Dr. Maurer's idea. "He's our president. Of course he should drive; we should throw this contest. I didn't even believe in this when we started." As I thought about whether to throw the contest or do my best, I reflected on that very first letter that Dr. Maurer had sent me in 1996. I decided I had no choice. If I threw that contest, I wouldn't have been keeping faith with that bond of trust, the trust that I would do my best, that everyone there would do their best, and that we'd show our best in Daytona. In pushing Dr. Maurer, we helped push this organization, and we pushed each other. We would do it with love and respect and with each of us giving our best, not just to be the driver of the car, but to be the driver of our own lives.

So with all my love and respect for Dr. Maurer, the man who dreamed this up, dared to commit to it, and dared to stake his and our reputation on what the blind could do if we put our minds and hearts into it, I went out there and I whooped him. Don't tell him I said that! You know, that's what he wanted, the best from all of us, and that's what we gave him. In fact he was happy to be whooped, because that's what we're working on.

I worked on this technology, and it was hard and involved very long hours. We spent a lot of time standing out in the snow while the engineers were fixing stuff. We sometimes wondered just what we were getting ourselves into.

Anil Lewis and I spent a lot of time together on this. We were the two finalists in the contests to see who would drive the car. One of the things we wanted to do at Daytona was a passing maneuver. We knew it would be impressive if we not only could drive around the track, but could pass another vehicle. So one day we kicked these sighted engineers out of the car, and I was working on this--it was the first time I was going to do a pass. I was driving along and I rolled the windows down so that I could hear when the car was next to me. I was passing them on the left. I heard when I was just about passing them, and I honked the horn. The sighted graduate students were all going, "Oooh, how--ooooh, how did he know? He honked the horn at the right time."

Sometimes your blind buddies give you away. They know the techniques of blindness. So my friend Anil ruined it. He said, "He's driving with the windows down." They still didn't get it. He told them about being able to hear the reflection and the noise from the car I was passing, and that this would tell me when I had passed and should honk.

Daytona Speedway

Finally, on Friday, January 28, we showed up. We were driving in a parking lot, and were just goofing off because it was the day before the demonstration. We got everything down; we were ready to go. The graduate students and the undergraduate students from Virginia Tech were there, and we were giving them rides around the parking lot.

The President and the First Lady of the Federation showed up, and I was going to be their chauffeur. I suddenly realized that Dr. Maurer had never ridden in the car with a blind person. Then my family showed up, and we took our first family road trip around the parking lot! Let me tell you--it's a lot harder to strap those darn car seats in than it is to drive!

Austin would like me to tell you that he really liked driving through the puddle. There was a big puddle in this parking lot; we had to drive through it every time around, and that was his favorite part.

The skeptics who don't care much for the Federation or who lack the capacity to dream would say, "Who cares? It's a parking lot." But they wouldn't say that about Kitty Hawk, and they wouldn't say it about that first footprint on the moon. They don't understand the love and the bond of faith that we share in this organization.

People always ask me, "Were you nervous at Daytona?" and what I tell them is this. We had to get there very early on Saturday morning, and we were sitting around and sitting around, and finally I said, "We have to go see the Federationists. Where are they? I've got to see them!"

We walked over from the pits, and we found four hundred blind folks hanging out at Daytona. Whatever nervousness I felt immediately disappeared. I had the same feeling you get at convention, the feeling that together we can do anything--anything! I was honored to be one of the people who would make history that day, not only for the four hundred, but for all of those who worked so hard to make this day a reality.

Bonds of Faith

When I showed up at the finish line at Daytona and stepped out of the car, people asked, "Now, what do you have to say? You've got to say something." But there was nothing to say that was equal to what we did together. They were looking for words about a car and about technology. How could I explain in a memorable quote or a sound bite they would understand that my concept of blindness had been exploded forever? I didn't know what the limits are for us anymore. I knew my future would be different, and I knew that I would never again be a passenger. I resolved to be a driver for my life and for the National Federation of the Blind. I realized that the limits are only what we make of them, that it was my responsibility to be a driver and to fuel this organization.

I also recognize that driving isn't just a one-person job. The dreaming, the science, the testing will require all of us. On a more personal level, I realized that in my life, driving can't be a one-person job either. The members of the National Federation of the Blind have always been part of it. I've been learning to be a driver since I met the organization, and I will continue to learn as long as I live.

When a guy named Dan Parker, a member of ours from Georgia, called up and said, "Hey, I'd like to drive a motorcycle," I kind of thought he was crazy. I thought that maybe he was trying to regain or hold onto his former racing career as a sighted guy. But I believed it was possible. So we supported him, and we've now had a blind guy drive a motorcycle on the Salt Flats in Utah.

I'm here to tell you tonight that there are people in this organization who can teach you stuff. I'm here to tell you our President, Marc Maurer, taught me how to drive. He started in August 1996 when he wrote me that first letter.

Last fall he said he wasn't going to run for the Federation presidency this year. He asked me if I wanted to be president. I told him that I did, that as long as he wasn't willing to continue in the driver's seat, I wanted to do it. I know nothing better to do than to be a driver in this organization, and I was honored when Dr. Maurer gave me his endorsement for the presidency.

If the Federation sees fit to elect me this summer, I will pledge to be the best driver I can be for this organization. I'm prepared to accept the bond of faith that our presidency requires. But I hope that all of you understand that this bond also binds you. It binds you to be a driver in our organization, because I can't be the last blind driver. This organization is bigger than any one person, and it's fitting that we call it "a vehicle for collective action." You have to be willing as well to grab that steering wheel of faith and drive, because this organization is about us.

I appreciate the tremendous driving going on here in Missouri, and I have been inspired by the speeches and the discussions that have occurred here today. It gives me comfort and faith to know that together we can drive into the future. You have and are the spirit of the Federation, the determination, the hope, and the love that created it and that today we share. Let's grab that steering wheel of faith together and drive ourselves toward the future that is promised to us if together with love, hope, and determination we work to transform dreams into reality.

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