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Members of Largest Blind-Led Org in US Call for Moving 2024 Conference From FL

An open letter signed by National Federation of the Blind members and allies cited safety concerns for LGBTQ+ attendees.

More than 200 blind and low-vision people have signed an open letter requesting that the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) relocate their recently announced 2024 national convention from Orlando, Florida, citing concerns for the safety of LGBTQ+ attendees.

The federation, founded in 1940, is the oldest and largest organization by and for blind people in the United States. The national conference normally attracts thousands of attendees from all over the country. In addition to sharing resources and information for the blind community, members vote on leadership and set the organization’s priorities for the coming year.

“The time for dialogue without action has passed. We are calling for tangible, immediate changes that would ensure a future where the NFB fully supports and advocates for its LGBTQ+ members. No organization that claims to fight for the rights of blind people can afford to overlook the interwoven tenets of human rights for all,” the letter states.

Monica Wegner is secretary for San Francisco’s National Federation of the Blind chapter and one of the co-authors of the open letter. She and a group of LGBTQ+ friends and allies first started discussing their concerns in 2022 after the NFB announced the 2023 national convention would be hosted in Houston at a time of record anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation being proposed in Texas.

She did not expect it was possible to change the location for 2023 when she first reached out to the NFB’s president, Mark Riccobono, in April. But she had hoped that some action could be taken for the next conference.

“It became clear that there were words being said but there was no concrete action being taken by the NFB. And so I pulled together a group of queer folks, people that were interested in advocating for this issue — about 14 or 15 of us,” Wegner told The 19th.

Not all of the group members are current members of NFB, although all were involved at some point.

“There are queer folks that have walked away from the NFB over the years,” she said.

D. Dyer, one of the co-authors of the letter, walked away from NFB in 2020 in the wake of a sweeping child sex abuse scandal in which survivors accused leadership of ignoring decades of sexual violence and misconduct. The organization has taken steps to address the problem, but Dyer does not feel that those steps have gone far enough.

Dyer was born blind and has been involved since she was a child. She normally lives in Jacksonville, Florida, but is temporarily living in Oakland, California.

“What keeps bringing me back to involvement [with NFB] is that there are some really great people in the organization. There are people doing great work. I have a commitment to those people,” Dyer said.

The National Federation of the Blind’s current position is that it is not possible, practical or affordable to pull out of the contract and relocate the conference. Conference locations are usually selected years in advance.

“Our board has looked at whether we could cancel this contract and has decided it’s not something that is feasible for us to do,” Christopher Danielsen, director of public relations for NFB, told The 19th.

Danielsen said that the consequences for NFB are not only financial. It is difficult to find a suitable conference location for approximately 2,500 blind attendees. There are specific logistical concerns that make locating the right venue time consuming.

“I can say in light of concerns about certain states, for the time being, we are not signing any new contracts,” Danielsen said.

In response to the letter, NFB’s board of directors also released a statement promising to “work closely with other civil rights organizations to ensure that our convention is a safe place for all our members and friends.”

Both Dyer and Wegner are skeptical that NFB is capable of adequately protecting LGBTQ+ conference attendees.

“How do you make a place like Florida safe, where you can be denied medical care on religious objection? How do you make an airport bathroom safe? You can’t,” Wegner said.

Dyer also pointed to the NAACP’s recent travel advisory for Florida as evidence of the state’s potential hostility to Black conference attendees.

“You’re not gonna see ‘Whites only’ signs outside. But if you walk into certain places where you will only see White people there … you will be noticed. You will not necessarily be treated well. As someone who is Black and is from Florida, I know where those places are. I have the benefit of familiarity. Someone coming from another state will have no idea where those places are,” Dyer said.

The 19th spoke with Nadine Smith of Equality Florida about the actionability of NFB’s statement and whether it is possible for the organization to protect LGBTQ+ attendees. Earlier this year, Equality Florida released a travel advisory cautioning LGBTQ+ people against visiting the state.

“The reason Equality Florida issued the travel advisory is that we were inundated with questions from individuals thinking about traveling. And it was impossible to answer. Everyone has a unique set of circumstances they need to evaluate,” Smith said.

The purpose of the advisory, according to Smith, is to allow people, including conference organizers, to evaluate their own risk profiles.

“There are conferences that have canceled as they look at the legal landscape that [Gov. Ron] DeSantis turned upside down. And there are those who have chosen specifically to come to Florida to make a statement, to criticize those policies, to stand in solidarity, to put resources into the fight here. Our message has been that we can’t decide that for you. Those are the choices that conferences are struggling with,” she said.

Smith noted that there are steps that conference venues can take to improve LGBTQ+ attendee safety, as they are private businesses and face fewer legal restrictions. However, those actions cannot legally extend to places like airports.

“These laws are statewide. They can’t be ignored,” Smith said.

In addition to requesting that NFB relocate its 2024 conference, the open letter also calls for full remote participation for attendees as a potential alternative to relocation. That way, members who do not feel safe attending in person could still have their views represented.

General sessions are currently live streamed. NFB members can choose not to attend the conference in Florida. However, if they do not attend in person, they also cede their ability to vote.

Voting remotely is technically feasible. During the height of the pandemic, when the conference could not be held in person, NFB members voted by phone.

“With the streaming [NFB] currently provides, you do not, as a virtual participant, get the ability to vote or the ability to speak. The ability to vote is key for us,” Wegner said.

Danielsen said that there are currently no plans for NFB to add remote voting to the conference in 2024, although the board may be open to the possibility.

“There are constitutional requirements that have to do with how we take votes. … There may be issues in our constitution that we have to work through,” Danielsen said.

Still, Dyer and the other signees believe it is possible for the National Federation of the Blind to change course.

“I would really love to see the organization commit to taking care of all of its people,” Dyer said.

Originally published by The 19th

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More than 200 blind and low-vision people have signed an open letter requesting that the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) relocate their recently announced 2024 national convention from Orlando, Florida, citing concerns for the safety of LGBTQ+ attendees.

The federation, founded in 1940, is the oldest and largest organization by and for blind people in the United States. The national conference normally attracts thousands of attendees from all over the country. In addition to sharing resources and information for the blind community, members vote on leadership and set the organization’s priorities for the coming year.

“The time for dialogue without action has passed. We are calling for tangible, immediate changes that would ensure a future where the NFB fully supports and advocates for its LGBTQ+ members. No organization that claims to fight for the rights of blind people can afford to overlook the interwoven tenets of human rights for all,” the letter states.

Monica Wegner is secretary for San Francisco’s National Federation of the Blind chapter and one of the co-authors of the open letter. She and a group of LGBTQ+ friends and allies first started discussing their concerns in 2022 after the NFB announced the 2023 national convention would be hosted in Houston at a time of record anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation being proposed in Texas.

She did not expect it was possible to change the location for 2023 when she first reached out to the NFB’s president, Mark Riccobono, in April. But she had hoped that some action could be taken for the next conference.

“It became clear that there were words being said but there was no concrete action being taken by the NFB. And so I pulled together a group of queer folks, people that were interested in advocating for this issue — about 14 or 15 of us,” Wegner told The 19th.

Not all of the group members are current members of NFB, although all were involved at some point.

“There are queer folks that have walked away from the NFB over the years,” she said.

D. Dyer, one of the co-authors of the letter, walked away from NFB in 2020 in the wake of a sweeping child sex abuse scandal in which survivors accused leadership of ignoring decades of sexual violence and misconduct. The organization has taken steps to address the problem, but Dyer does not feel that those steps have gone far enough.

Dyer was born blind and has been involved since she was a child. She normally lives in Jacksonville, Florida, but is temporarily living in Oakland, California.

“What keeps bringing me back to involvement [with NFB] is that there are some really great people in the organization. There are people doing great work. I have a commitment to those people,” Dyer said.

The National Federation of the Blind’s current position is that it is not possible, practical or affordable to pull out of the contract and relocate the conference. Conference locations are usually selected years in advance.

“Our board has looked at whether we could cancel this contract and has decided it’s not something that is feasible for us to do,” Christopher Danielsen, director of public relations for NFB, told The 19th.

Danielsen said that the consequences for NFB are not only financial. It is difficult to find a suitable conference location for approximately 2,500 blind attendees. There are specific logistical concerns that make locating the right venue time consuming.

“I can say in light of concerns about certain states, for the time being, we are not signing any new contracts,” Danielsen said.

In response to the letter, NFB’s board of directors also released a statement promising to “work closely with other civil rights organizations to ensure that our convention is a safe place for all our members and friends.”

Both Dyer and Wegner are skeptical that NFB is capable of adequately protecting LGBTQ+ conference attendees.

“How do you make a place like Florida safe, where you can be denied medical care on religious objection? How do you make an airport bathroom safe? You can’t,” Wegner said.

Dyer also pointed to the NAACP’s recent travel advisory for Florida as evidence of the state’s potential hostility to Black conference attendees.

“You’re not gonna see ‘Whites only’ signs outside. But if you walk into certain places where you will only see White people there … you will be noticed. You will not necessarily be treated well. As someone who is Black and is from Florida, I know where those places are. I have the benefit of familiarity. Someone coming from another state will have no idea where those places are,” Dyer said.

The 19th spoke with Nadine Smith of Equality Florida about the actionability of NFB’s statement and whether it is possible for the organization to protect LGBTQ+ attendees. Earlier this year, Equality Florida released a travel advisory cautioning LGBTQ+ people against visiting the state.

“The reason Equality Florida issued the travel advisory is that we were inundated with questions from individuals thinking about traveling. And it was impossible to answer. Everyone has a unique set of circumstances they need to evaluate,” Smith said.

The purpose of the advisory, according to Smith, is to allow people, including conference organizers, to evaluate their own risk profiles.

“There are conferences that have canceled as they look at the legal landscape that [Gov. Ron] DeSantis turned upside down. And there are those who have chosen specifically to come to Florida to make a statement, to criticize those policies, to stand in solidarity, to put resources into the fight here. Our message has been that we can’t decide that for you. Those are the choices that conferences are struggling with,” she said.

Smith noted that there are steps that conference venues can take to improve LGBTQ+ attendee safety, as they are private businesses and face fewer legal restrictions. However, those actions cannot legally extend to places like airports.

“These laws are statewide. They can’t be ignored,” Smith said.

In addition to requesting that NFB relocate its 2024 conference, the open letter also calls for full remote participation for attendees as a potential alternative to relocation. That way, members who do not feel safe attending in person could still have their views represented.

General sessions are currently live streamed. NFB members can choose not to attend the conference in Florida. However, if they do not attend in person, they also cede their ability to vote.

Voting remotely is technically feasible. During the height of the pandemic, when the conference could not be held in person, NFB members voted by phone.

“With the streaming [NFB] currently provides, you do not, as a virtual participant, get the ability to vote or the ability to speak. The ability to vote is key for us,” Wegner said.

Danielsen said that there are currently no plans for NFB to add remote voting to the conference in 2024, although the board may be open to the possibility.

“There are constitutional requirements that have to do with how we take votes. … There may be issues in our constitution that we have to work through,” Danielsen said.

Still, Dyer and the other signees believe it is possible for the National Federation of the Blind to change course.

“I would really love to see the organization commit to taking care of all of its people,” Dyer said.

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