National Federation of the Blind (United States)

National Federation of the Blind (United States)
NFB Logo

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is an organization of blind people in the United States. It is the oldest and largest organization led by blind people in the United States.[1][2] Its national headquarters are in Baltimore, Maryland.



Anyone, blind or sighted is permitted to join the NFB but a majority of members in its local chapters state affiliates and nationwide divisions must be blind, as must its officers and board members at every level with exception of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. This structure is intended to insure that the organization is run by blind people and reflects the collective views of its blind members, the NFB refers to itself as “the voice of the nation’s blind.”

The philosophy of the organization is;

The real problem of blindness is not the lack of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information which exist. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness is only a physical nuisance.

The organization’s former President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, was fond of saying, "We who are blind are pretty much like you. We have our share of both geniuses and jerks, but most of us somewhere between, ordinary people living ordinary lives."[citation needed] NFB members, who refer to themselves as “Federationists,” hold themselves and each other to high standards of accomplishment, and they encourage and support each other in an informal network much like an extended family. The NFB works to promulgate its philosophy by educating and recruiting new members, working to educate the general public, and interacting with legislators and policy makers at the local, state, and national levels. The positions of the National Federation of the Blind on specific issues are determined by its national convention, which meets once annually and typically has between 2,500 and 3,000 delegates from the organization’s affiliates in the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.[citation needed] The policy positions of the NFB take the form of resolutions, which are voted upon by the entire convention.[3] Like a union, the convention is subsidized by the organization making it affordable to those attending. The agenda of the National Convention is published on-line prior to its Convention. Its logo is called the whosit and consists of an outline of a walking person with a white cane.

The NFB-style white cane is longer than most in order to allow the blind person to use a more natural walking position with their arms at their sides, rather than extended in front of them. The added length also allows the blind person to walk more quickly by giving more advanced information. In addition, the lighter weight of the fiberglass and carbon fiber canes, coupled with the metal tip, provides more information than the heavier aluminum style canes with plastic tips. Federation members view the long white cane as a tool of independence and self-determination, rather than one of helplessness and dependency, as it provides greater mobility to the blind.

Though detractors of the National Federation of the Blind assert that the NFB is anti guide dog,[who?] the NFB has a large, active division dedicated to educating the public about the use of guide dogs, while promoting and fostering effective handling of guide dogs by its members. The National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU) is one of the largest and fastest growing divisions of the Federation.[citation needed]

Though some may point to the October 1995 issue of the NFB's publication - The Braille monitor - as evidence of the group's disdain of guide dogs, this issue contained opinion pieces from both sides of the issue in response to concerns from some members. Such open discussions on this and other issues are credited for the high level of competency in the skills of blindness among NFB members.[4]

Organizational history

The National Federation of the Blind headquarters and Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, Maryland

In 1940 sixteen people met in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to develop a constitution that would unite organizations of blind people in seven states (California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) in a national federation that would serve as a vehicle for collective action to improve the prospects of the nation’s blind citizens. Historically such organizing efforts had resulted in blind people’s eventual loss of internal political power, resulting in a shift in the organization’s goals and focus to priorities held by sighted members. For this reason the NFB’s founders did what they could to ensure that blind people would always retain control of the organization.

The founder and president of the NFB for its first twenty years was Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, a professor, lawyer and constitutional scholar.[5] The NFB’s first logo was a circle with the words “Security, Equality, and Opportunity” forming a triangle at the center of the circle. This expressed the pressing needs and demands of the fledgling organization. TenBroek led early battles to obtain a modest stipend for blind people so they could live independently (security), equal access to jobs in the Civil Service and elsewhere where blind candidates had been prohibited from applying (opportunity), and equal access to housing, transportation, and places of public accommodation (equality). The NFB grew and expanded during these early years, and this sudden assertiveness on the part of their hitherto passive, grateful clients made the agencies in the field of work with the blind extremely nervous.

Because of pressure exerted from within and differences of opinion about whether the organization should be a loose confederacy of strong state affiliates or a unified federal structure with state affiliates and local chapters (which is the way the current federation is organized), the NFB split into two groups in 1961. Those who left the NFB united to form the American Council of the Blind (ACB), an organization that continues to exist today.

Jacobus tenBroek, who had served as president of the NFB for 20 years, resigned due to these problems, and was succeeded by John Taylor, who was succeeded by Russell Kletzing the following year, but tenBroek became president again in 1966. The NFB gradually replaced the handful of affiliates that had left, and by the 1970s it had regained its momentum. When Jacobus tenBroek died in 1968, he was succeeded in the presidency by Kenneth Jernigan, who served as president for most of the period until 1986 and who continued to be a much loved blind leader, teacher, and thinker with an international reputation until his death in 1998. Marc Maurer, a young lawyer who had been mentored by Jernigan, was elected president in 1986 and has served as President since then.

In 1978 he led the organization in establishing its national headquarters at 1800 Johnson Street in Baltimore, Maryland. Gradually the group remodeled and occupied the four floors of a block-long building, which they named the National Center for the Blind. The NFB broke ground in October 2001 for a twenty-million-dollar research and training institute now located adjacent to the National Center. The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute opened for business in January 2004. Continuing to exert its influence, the NFB has taken over Braille Transcriber Certification from the Library of Congress [6], will receive up to $10 million from a US coin honoring Louis Braille [7] and works to influence state training programs for the blind to require training in the use of the white cane.[8]

NFB publications

The NFB published an exhaustive history of its first fifty years, Walking Alone and Marching Together: A History of the Organized Blind Movement in the United States. The group has also published a series of thirty small compilations of first-person articles written by blind people intended to demonstrate what it is like to be blind. The NFB uses these Kernel Books in its public education efforts.

The organization also publishes several magazines. Since 1957 it has produced a monthly general-interest magazine called the Braille Monitor. Future Reflections is a quarterly magazine for parents and teachers of blind children. It was established in 1981, and issues beginning in 1991 are available on the Web site.

Since one of the most frequent ramifications of diabetes is vision loss, the NFB publishes a quarterly tabloid-format magazine called Voice of the Diabetic.[9]

Membership, governing structure and subsidiary organizations

The NFB is estimated to have about 50,000 active members and thousands more sympathisers.[citation needed] Membership is open to both blind and sighted. All officers of the organization and its affiliates must be blind, except for the leaders of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children.[citation needed]

The NFB currently has affiliates in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and these affiliates are divided into local chapters. Affiliates and chapters pledge to support the national organization while carrying on many independent activities in support of it. The affiliates, chapters and the national organization periodically have elections for officers. The positions are president, first vice president, second vice president, secretary, treasurer and several board members. The NFB also has dozens of groups for people with special interests, such as the National Association of Blind Students, the National Association of Blind Lawyers, The National Association of Blind Merchants the National Association of the blind in Communities of Faith, and the National Association of Guide Dog Users, to name some of the larger groups. Some of these groups, such as the National Association of Guide Dog Users, also have state affiliates.

Since 1945, the NFB has held a convention every year in a major American city, usually early in the month of July. As of 2005, it is estimated that between 2000 and 3000 people attend these conventions. In 2002, 2003 and 2005 the convention was held at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky but it is highly unusual for the conventions to be held so often in a particular city. The 2006 convention was held in Dallas, Texas, and the 2007 convention was held in Atlanta, Georgia. At the 2007 convention, on the morning of July 3, over 1000 NFB members marched two miles from the Marriott Marquis Hotel to the Olympic Park in what was known as the March for Independence. It was led by Congressman John Lewis. The March for Independence was held again the following year in Dallas, Texas. Money raised from the march went to the Imagination fund, which will support NFB programs and grants.

Each state also has its own affiliate convention sometime during the year. At the national convention, which lasts a week, there are many speakers who speak about the struggles and triumphs of blind people, and more recently, the availability of technology for blind people has been a common topic. The various special interest groups also have meetings and elect their officers, and the president gives his presidential report and a speech at the banquet, in which he reports the progress of blind people in general that year and what successes and failures the organization has had. tenBroek, Jernigan and Maurer have all been widely praised for their banquet speeches, which are often considered to be a highlight of the convention. The national convention also has elections for officers and board members, in which the selections of the nominating committee have been elected unanimously in recent years, and the convention passes resolutions about the policies of the organizations, which often provoke some debate. The state conventions, which usually last two to three days, also have resolutions and elections, which are often more contentious than at the national level.


The NFB awards scholarships to 30 blind college students each year in recognition of achievement by blind scholars. [10]


The NFB’s contention is that an average blind people can do the average job in the average place of business and do it as well as their sighted neighbors. To achieve this end the NFB strives to provide effective blindness training at several sites in the United States which require a residency of about 12 to 14 months.[citation needed] Spouses and children of the blind are not permitted to live with the blind student during this time of intense training. Family involvement in rehabilitation is limited and discouraged.[citation needed] The NFB has developed and requires the students in its rehabilitation programs to use only their own line of lightweight long white non-folding canes. The purported purpose is to enhance effective travel coupled with the use of dark sleep shades for total occlusion during the intense year long training schedule. The object of simulating total blindness according to various articles and opinions published in the Braille Monitor (an NFB Publication) is to prepare the student for such a time when they might become totally blind. Some medical professionals hold the opinion that such total occlusion practice actually exacerbates the deterioration of sight in those who might still have a remainder of limited or partial sight. The NFB has always stressed that the blind citizen is to be taught to travel, not simply by memorizing specific routes, but by practicing going unfamiliar places using the long cane and even wearing blindfolds, called sleep shades, if they have any residual vision. The NFB contends that students who have been trained using this method become confident, independent travelers who don’t need to return for more training if they lose more sight. Though the NFB officially supports the use of guide dogs (and some of its members use them) the NFB believes that all blind people should know how to use canes and in practice strongly discourages the use of guide dogs as a sign of weakness and a lack of independence in the user of this tool.[citation needed]

The NFB advocates teaching Braille to both children and adults who cannot read print efficiently and comfortably. This position has provoked opposition from some agencies and school districts who believe that only children who are totally or almost totally blind should need to learn Braille.[who?] According to the National Center for Health Statistics National Health Interview Survey, the United States currently has 93,600 legally blind school-age children. Of these only about 5,500 are being taught Braille.[citation needed] Some of these students can read print effectively; some are multiply impaired and cannot learn to read at all; but the NFB believes that many more than the six percent of the blind children currently learning to read Braille could be taught to read if parents and educators were committed to doing so. An even smaller percentage of adults losing vision are encouraged to learn Braille.[citation needed] The NFB maintains that these adults are functionally illiterate when they are no longer able to read print effectively and Braille instruction has not been made available to them. Some graduates of NFB rehabilitation programs report that after losing their sight in mid-life they were discouraged by those who never experienced sight not to continue visualizing their surroundings or loved ones despite medical opinions to the contrary.[who?]

The foundation of this instruction and the component that its founders feels makes training at an NFB center uniquely successful is the steady effort to help students develop a healthy attitude about blindness and about themselves as blind people. The NFB encourages an ongoing attitude of independence and strongly encourages and steers intimate, intense and ongoing involvement with local and national chapters long after rehabilitation has been achieved. Participants are encouraged to see the National Federation as their new family oftentimes to the exclusion and frustration of the original biological family and/or marriage partner. NFB centers offer no training to the family and spouses of children of the blind adult when family members are sighted.[citation needed]

The NFB has said that the goal is that students come to recognize and combat both the bigotry of lowered expectations and the blatant discrimination based on presumed incompetence that they face everywhere they turn in their home communities.[when?] Some state rehabilitation agencies are beginning to pattern their rehabilitation programs on the NFB-center model.[who?] The NFB publishes stories both nationally and locally on a regular basis which report new members relishing the NFB model as an opportunity to turn the tables on the sighted world to make them feel like the outsiders, aiming to exclude sighted citizens from involvement. Both the rehabilitation centers and ongoing monthly and annual meetings and conferences continue to ask blind members for their loyalty to the goals of the group including some political lobbying as needed.[citation needed]

Other beliefs about blindness

In the NFB, it is said that "the real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information that exist."[11] The NFB strives to help blind persons achieve self-confidence and self-respect through collective action by the organized blind speaking for the blind. Through a variety of programs and self-advocacy, the NFB educates the public that the blind are normal individuals who can compete on terms of equality.[12] The NFB works to remove misconceptions and lack of information about blindness through education and creation of imaginative solutions to enable full integration of blind people into society.[13]

Achieving access

Federation philosophy holds that blindness should not be used as an excuse for insisting that the world be remade for the convenience of blind people. Sometimes providing reasonable access does demand modifications in infrastructure, but if such changes are not necessary, then blind people should not expect them to be made.

For example, the NFB has argued that, though blind people would obviously find it convenient to use currency in which the bills of different denominations are tactilely distinguishable from each other, they can and do successfully use U.S. currency every day. For this reason the NFB recently opposed the ACB’s law suit against the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which seeks tactile changes in the design of U.S. paper money. The ACB has argued that denominations of foreign currencies are easily distinguishable by touch. In contrast, the NFB argues that the methods of tactile identification in use in other countries are not particularly effective or efficient and that the burden of making changes to accommodate such tactile features is likely to be particularly heavy for any business with cash registers or vending machines.

The NFB also differs from the ACB and other advocates over the need for audible pedestrian signals at street intersections. Though blind travelers at some complex intersections can benefit from the installation of audible pedestrian signals, the NFB believes that, by and large, trained blind people are safer when they can hear the traffic pattern itself. NFB members maintain that those who demand the costly installation of these audible signals at every intersection very seldom or never travel independently, regardless of the presence of audible traffic signals.

The NFB has also taken a position contrary to that of other advocacy groups on the need for audio description for television programming. Many blind people enjoy audio description during passages without dialogue in films and television programs. However, in many of these the plot can be followed from the dialogue and sound effects. Therefore the NFB has urged that audio description for entertainment programming be voluntary, not mandatory. However, the NFB believes that the Federal Communications Commission should require printed information that scrolls across television screens, such as emergency news and weather information and print information in advertising, to be transmitted audibly also in digitized speech.

Although the NFB opposes some accommodations that are perceived to benefit the blind, the organization clearly holds that some forms of access to visual information must be made mandatory. The organization strongly advocates for the right of blind people to have access to information on the Web. This requires some conscious planning in the creation of Web sites, like including text tags on graphics that text-to-speech screen-access programs used by the blind can read. According to the NFB and other accessibility advocates and consultants, these changes are not expensive to build in during the creation of a Web site. The NFB points out that the Internet has become an integral component of the educational system, the employment environment, and home setting. The NFB is now suing Target to require the retailer to make its site usable by blind shoppers.

The NFB also contends that access to computer applications used in the workplace is essential in order for blind people to be productive members of society. For this reason the organization has brought suit against the state of Texas to enforce a state law requiring that all applications used by state employees be fully accessible to the blind and others with disabilities.

The NFB is also trying to negotiate with automobile manufacturers to add a bit of sound to the engines of hybrid and electric vehicles when they are traveling silently on electric power. The NFB contends that all pedestrians are at risk from these cars, but blind travelers, who depend on traffic noise to determine when it is safe to cross streets and driveways, are particularly vulnerable.

The NFB is also concerned about flat panel displays on appliances, office equipment, vending machines, and other technology. These displays present barriers to blind people and others who cannot read the panels for whatever reason. The NFB is trying to work with manufacturers to make these control panels tactilely distinguishable.

Perhaps one of the most important goals of the NFB is to make books accessible, either in Braille, on recordings or electronically, particularly for children and college students.


In 1977 NFB directed the final field trials of the first reading machine, developed by Kurzweil. The machine weighed 80lb and cost US$50,000 the machine used 50 bits per word and could store 750,000 bits of information. It used a camera to scan 15 characters per second and was programed with the rules that govern spoken English. From this it produced the word with a synthetic voice.[14]

NFB has partnered with Kurzweil Educational Systems, a company founded by noted inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, to develop a completely portable reading machine: the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader. A digital camera takes a picture of the printed material to be read, and an attached personal digital assistant (PDA) reads the text aloud. The text is also stored as a text file, which can be saved and moved to a computer or portable notetaker so that it can be sent to a Braille embosser (sometimes called a Braille printer) or read on a paperless Braille display.[15][16]

Controversy and criticism

The NFB has critics both within the organized blind movement (particularly the American Council of the Blind) and among government agencies working with blind people such as vision teachers and vocational rehab departments, as well as blind people who are skeptical of blindness organizations in general.[citation needed] Though most critics[who?] acknowledge that the NFB's lobbying, litigation and public relations activities have aided in the advancements that have taken place for the blind in the twentieth century, such as more career and educational opportunities, they feel that its "radicalism and militancy" can also cause problems for blind people. The NFB has strongly opposed rules that restrict airline seats near exits to sighted passengers, arguing that the rules are discriminatory and that blind people might outperform sighted ones in a smoke-filled airplane cabin.[17] Another initiative taken by the NFB was the introduction of a new style of white cane in the 1970s which does not fold up like most other canes for blind people. The NFB believes that this cane does a better job at giving blind travelers information about their environment, but others are concerned that the cane gets in the way when it needs to be put away. The NFB also believes that a non-folding cane is an important tool for the blind individual to become comfortable with their blindness. By carrying a cane which cannot be hidden away, they are telling the world "I am blind". The NFB strongly believes that it is respectable to be blind, and they believe that use of the long white cane helps individuals to become comfortable with the fact of their blindness. There is also concern about whether the NFB expects blind people to do things that blind people are not generally expected to know how to do, which leads the NFB to encourage blind people to decline many forms of assistance.

Outside the United States

The NFB is a participant in the World Blind Union and maintains strong relationships with various groups of blind people in other countries. There is a similar organization known as the National Federation of the Blind in the United Kingdom.

See also


  1. ^ President of the National Federation of the Blind Addresses Staff at Library of Congress
  2. ^ In Other Words...When Vision Is an Issue. . . Communicating With Patients Who Are Visually Impaired
  3. ^ National Convention Resolutions
  4. ^ October 1995 Braille Monitor
  5. ^ "Prominent blind scholar Jacobus tenBroek to speak here". Prescott Evening Courier. November 2, 1960. 
  6. ^ NLS: General information about Braille
  7. ^ U.S. House Passes Braille Commemorative Coin Bill
  8. ^ Eye On Dbs
  9. ^ Publications
  10. ^ National Federation of the Blind Announces 2010 Scholarship Program Winners
  11. ^ What Is the National Federation of the Blind
  12. ^ Purpose of the NFB
  13. ^ Mission Statement
  14. ^ "Machine reads to the blind". Eugene Register=Guard. January 12, 1977. 
  15. ^ Readers
  16. ^ Reader History
  17. ^ Strict Rules Imposed for Sitting in Airline Exit Rows

External links

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