Today is Monday, April 27, 2020, which would have been our first full day together in Albuquerque, New Mexico for our CEO-Focused Summit. I was feeling sentimental over the weekend – grieving for what might have been.

View the photos from the Atlanta conference

But I awoke today in Winter Park, FL to what I consider to be THE perfect morning. Low 60’s, sunny blue skies, low humidity, a gentle breeze and birds singing. Beautiful and peaceful. I drank my Nespresso coffee while sitting on my back patio, watched the squirrels eating a few seeds that fell from the birdfeeder in the backyard and gave thanks for the opportunity to slow down and breathe. Inhale – exhale. I can hear my Pilates instructor’s voice in my head: breathe in through your nose . . . and out through your mouth. . .  (I miss her too.) 

There has not been enough of these moments during work hours over the last few weeks – we have been busier than ever. But the mornings and evenings – and the weekends – have been lovely. Lovelier than usual. Until recently, some of that was lost on me because I was preoccupied with worrying about things that have not yet happened. 

I have always been a purpose-filled person and for me that meant being fixed on the future – what comes next. What do I need to be doing to assure that next thing happens? I like to be in control – or feel like I was. And anxiety for me came primarily from feeling I had lost that control. So admittedly, I have been anxious for months. 

This pandemic experience has removed much of that control I used to think I had. I am reminded that the only thing I really have control over are my thoughts, words and actions. And it is much more difficult to predict the future in the current economy.  So, what can I do?  

First, I can breathe; express and feel grateful for the many things that are genuinely good in my life.  Secondly, I can trade fear for curiosity and get excited about doing things differently. Many of the things we are doing now out of necessity are ideas we explored and discussed over many years but may never have moved forward – until we had no other choice. I actually like change – there are so many opportunities for that right now. Thirdly, I can choose to remain positive and help my colleagues, friends and family do the same.  We will survive. We have the ability to figure all of this out. I know we will. 

Breathe in through your nose – long and deep – and out through your mouth. And next year, in Albuquerque! 

Present by Sassy Outwater-Wright, MAB Community Services

(Left) Lee Nasehi, Bryan Bashin, Sassy Outwater-Wright, and John Mitchell (right) posing with Bryans award at the Atlanta conference
(Left) Lee Nasehi, Bryan Bashin, Sassy Outwater-Wright, and John Mitchell (right) presenting Bryan Bashin with the Excellence in Leadership Award at the Atlanta conference 2019.

“The leaders who effect the most transformative change are those who, by their example, support the work of those around them, encourage exploration, and invite in diverse voices and topics of inclusion before, not after, decisions are made.

I am a woman. I am a blind woman who is neurodivergent. I am an LGBTQ person. I grew up in an Arab-American household as a Muslim-American. I am a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. I wear all these labels concurrently and many others. I sit in a position of executive leadership at my organization. I am there because my board and my superiors believed in me and believed that lived experience and intersectionality are powerful leadership qualities for better serving our constituents. I got to my position because I watched and learned from another blind leader and drew strength and courage from watching his organization in action.

How often do we get to look up to the corner offices and see those like us, with all their identifiers, reflecting who we are and the barriers we face, living intersectionality alongside us every day? I spent a long time fearing that my lived experience as many intersecting things would keep me from leadership or wouldn’t make me into a good leader. I’d been through too much, I’d tell myself, intersectionality wasn’t a required skill on a cover letter or job application. Then I read about the programs and services at the lighthouse for the Blind of San Francisco, and I changed my mind, and saw myself as a leader, because someone far away who didn’t know me put in the work necessary to ensure people like me were included in their programs.

Bryan Bashin has led the Lighthouse for the blind of San Francisco California for the past nine years. Those VSA members who attended the New Orleans conference two years ago may remember pausing as a group to grieve with the absent Mr. Bashin as he led his organization through a tragic time: Enchanted Hills Camp, an iconic place in the blind community, burned in the California wildfires. The Lighthouse, under Bryan’s leadership,  has since begun to rebuild Enchanted Hills, ensuring that the new camp buildings are accessible to and inclusive of as many people as possible who need a beautiful, natural place to learn and retreat. In addition to this, Bryan has worked to ensure inclusion at every level of the lighthouse:

  • ind leadership  at lighthouse over  his  tenure has increased measurably.  Not only half the Board of Directors, but half of the c-suite are blind.  There are blind people working in nontraditional jobs, such as HR, janitor, and Development.
  • Largest-ever contingent of more than 100 in San Francisco’s Pride Parade
  • Camp counselors went from 17 sighted and 3 blind to 17 blind and 3 sighted.
  • No NIB employee earns less than $16.50 per hour to start.
  • Lighthouse serves  undocumented blind people with no questions asked.
  • The Holman Prize has been awarded to blind people on four continents of all backgrounds.

In the past 25 years, it is safe to say that if you are a blind person on this planet, you have been affected by Bryan’s work, commitment to this community, and leadership within it. Bryan’s is a quiet leadership committed to the civil and human rights of blind and visually impaired people all over the globe. He works most often behind the scenes in a style of leadership that supports those working alongside him; he brings people forward who do not otherwise have a voice in public policy, and brings organizations and people together to break down barriers and confront stigmas that have kept minority groups within the blindness community away from services they need.

I did not know Bryan personally when I interviewed to become the executive director of my organization. I only knew that Bryan’s org was one of the few–if not the only organization at that time in our community–creating programs and services to include sexual assault survivors, LGBTQ+ individuals,  and many others. I didn’t receive services from the Lighthouse, but knowing the work was being done was enough to give me hope. The Lighthouse’s programming gave me the courage to believe I had a place and a voice in the blindness community, that I had value and intrinsic worth to this community, and that I could do a lot to change things, and build the inclusive world I want to be a part of in my daily life as a director and as a person with disabilities. Knowing an organization had committed to serving people like me was enough to push me to step forward, say loudly to my company that I was qualified and could do this job, and they chose me to lead.

A good leader inspires by example and nothing else. Bryan’s commitment to letting his programs and the services of his organization speak for themselves sets a loud and clear directive to all of us leaders: we need to commit to this community as a whole, see more lived experience and intersectionality in leadership, and see more inclusive programming and services wherever we look. My hope is that Bryan’s work reminds all of us to ask who is not at our table and may that goad us each into building the programs and policies necessary to put them there and let them lead.”

“There is lots of work to be done, and together we can do it.”

181 leaders in the blindness and low vision field attended VisionServe’s Executive Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia this past November. This figure sets a record high attendance for any of our conferences and included representatives from 75 VisionServe member organizations (61% of VisionServe’s total membership).

Attendees came to hear about the latest developments, participate in discussions, and network with other leaders in the field. Admittedly, some were initially both skeptical and curious about the new format for this year’s event which was held as an Open Space Technology meeting. But judging from attendees’ feedback, the unanimous response was that people felt tremendously engaged by the opportunity for their voice to be heard as opposed to being “talked to.”

a man and a woman having fun at the welcome reception“There needs to be greater focus on coming together with a unified message,” said one post-conference survey respondent. “This will help us with soliciting support from donors and legislators. We need to standardize services in the collection of information to show outcomes. We need more opportunities like this for the entire alphabet soup to come to the same table and discuss issues so we can move forward as one united front.”

Having a diverse blend of representatives (the ”alphabet soup”) from the multitude of organizations serving the blind and visually impaired brought a lot of excitement to the conference’s break-out discussions. Attendees included representatives from agencies providing direct services, dog guide schools, state agencies, schools for the Blind (including higher ed institutions that train future personnel), foundations funding initiatives in the field, and vendors specializing in technologies to improve everyday life for people living with blindness and low vision.

1 man talks into a microphone at a discussion groupFunding from The Gibney Family Foundation allowed leaders from an additional 15 non-member organizations to attend the conference. This was all part of VisionServe’s plan to ensure that all voices in our field would be represented.

Discussion topics were wide-ranging from public policy, distance learning, braille literacy, AT equipment, accreditation and certification, early intervention, employment opportunities and challenges, outcome measurement and service data collection, blinded veterans, nonprofit sustainability and transportation issues.

Magnifier display
A magnifier displayed in the exhibit hall at the ELC (photo credit: Candace Wheeler)

VisionServe Alliance was also featured in “A Closer Look with Rose Scott” on WABE, the local NPR affiliate, who interviewed several attendees about the using technology to improve their lives living with blindness and low vision. Sharon Giovinazzo, President of World Services for the Blind in Arkansas, modeled several pieces of technology to the radio show host, including: her OrCam MyEye device recognizing faces; an app on her phone audibly reading the text on a business card; and her digital braille reader.

Another session called “Tech Tools” featured hands-on demonstrations of the latest technology for people who are blind or visually impaired from Aira, OrCam and Vispero.

a woman trying a braille variable display
Neva Fairchild tries a braille variable display tool during Sunday’s Tech Tools session

Some attendees noted that they were surprised to connect with leaders from other states dealing with similar problems. And they took things a step further, coming up with key action items and contacts at other agencies willing to work with them on these issues. “The key is solidarity on all issues. Nationally we are all dealing with the same problems,” remarked one participant.

two dog guides sniffing noses
Everyone (Dog Guides too) enjoyed making new friends!

Thank you to everyone who came to this “tremendous opportunity to network and learn on a professional and personal level.”

More information will be coming soon. Check back in with us for more details.

Tampa Bay

Hotel Information:

Westin Tampa Waterside Hotel
(813) 229-5000

November 1-4

Tampa, FL

https://visionservealliance.org/conferences/

BVA will be celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and hosting the 2020 National Convention in Washington, D.C. Stay tuned on their website, Bulletin, and Newsletter for more information in the coming months.

August 17 – 21

Washington, DC

At the Washington Seminar, members of the National Federation of the Blind convene to learn about and advocate for legislative initiatives that will improve the lives of blind Americans.

NFB members give a standing ovation during the 2018 Washington Seminar.

Approximately three legislative initiatives are chosen for priority attention each year. These initiatives, which form the NFB’s legislative agenda, are based on the official positions of the NFB adopted at the national convention and can address concerns related to civil rights, educational programs and services, rehabilitation of the blind for competitive employment, the operation of vending facilities by blind persons on public property, specialized library services for the blind, the organization and funding of federal programs, Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income programs, and other timely topics.

February 10-13

Washington, DC

https://www.nfb.org/programs-services/advocacy/washington-seminar

Planning for the 2020 ACB Conference and Convention is already well underway and will be held in Schaumburg, IL, at the Renaissance Hotel, from Friday July 3rd through Friday July 10th. Schaumburg is a northwest suburb of Chicago; O’Hare International Airport is 17 miles east and Midway International Airport is 37 miles southeast of Schaumburg.

July 3-10

Schaumburg, IL

https://acbconvention.org/

Gateway to Community”

Join the community of VRTs, Orientation and Mobility Specialists, TVIs, LVTs, advocates, scholars, policymakers, and other  professionals for the AER International Conference 2020. The conference will feature dynamic keynote speakers, global leaders and world class presenters covering a range of topics of critical importance to the field. Earn CE hours and make career changing connections! It is continuing education at its best. Whether you need CE hours for ACVREP, CEUs for CRC, professional development hours for other certifications or simply want to expand your contacts and knowledge base, this is a great conference for you. 

July 22-26

St. Louis, MO