By Jacqueline Wissinger, PCB Secretary
Our PCB conference was held this year at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Harrisburg, PA, from October 20-23, 2016. The conference was called to order by our President, Sue Lichtenfels at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday. This was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the invocation led by me in the role of Chaplin. Sue began by introducing the theme of the conference, which was “Forging New and Improved Relationships” and by warmly welcoming the Maryland affiliate, with whom we have forged a new relationship. She went on to say that this conference theme must be our focus for the next few years. She said if we are going to remain true to our mission, we must have the courage to address our shortcomings, to build on our strengths, and to try new things. Both membership and conference attendance are dropping, and we must find ways to reach out and include more people. Sue discussed rebranding and redefining our membership. Our name change must not limit other’s perceptions of what we are and what we do, as The Pennsylvania Council of the Blind does. We welcome those who live beyond Pennsylvania and those of all vision levels. She also stated that for many dues payers, membership doesn’t mean what it used to. “We are going to take a hard look at the concept of membership,” she added. “In this tech savvy world, membership as we know it, is foreign to many people.” She thanked the members of PCB for donating their time, talents and treasures to the organization, with a special thanks to our past president, Tony Swartz for making her transition into the presidency a seamless one. She concluded with the statement: “I hope none of us within PCB are vision impaired about the great future ahead for this organization.”
Our next speaker was Joe Strechay, Director of the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS), who spoke of his passion for independence and employment. He spoke about the importance of doing everything possible to enable those with disabilities to be as independent as possible in their jobs as well as in their homes and how the advances in technology were going a long way to make this happen. He sees Pennsylvania as an innovative state. Passage of the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act sends the message to employers that people with disabilities are problem solvers, which makes them excellent potential employees. The goal of BBVS is that every high school graduate should have some pre-employment experience at the conclusion of his schooling. He said that students are 2.5 times more likely to be working if they have this pre-employment experience. When asked about what BBVS was doing to serve newly blinded persons who have been experiencing long waiting times before receiving services, he mentioned a stronger recruitment for Orientation and Mobility Instructors and that there were also paid internships which would reduce the waiting time.
Tom Burgunder, representing the Parliamentary Team, was next up with the first reading of the proposed bylaw amendments. The first group of changes were considered non-substantive changes and consisted of the addition of apostrophes where there were none. The substantive changes dealt with how members’ names should be submitted to PCB and also how dues should be paid. A list of names should be presented to the office by an officer of a chapter or a special interest affiliate, and dues should be paid directly to the office rather than to the treasurer of PCB by the treasurer of a chapter or a special interest affiliate. The term member at large has been changed to at large member. All dues are to be paid directly to the PCB office. Special interest affiliates must maintain a membership of 10 members and must hold all functions in compliance with PCB’s physical accessibilities standards. The last amendment deals with making changes to the bylaws and makes certain that the appropriate people are made aware of the proposed amendments at the appropriate time.
Our next presenter was Johana Swanson from Vanda Pharmaceuticals, who turned the remainder of her time over to Dr. Alli Amaad for a discussion on Non 24 Sleep Wake Disorder. Vanda Pharmaceuticals was a Platinum sponsor of our conference this year. A person who has Non 24 Sleep Wake Disorder is most often, but not always, totally blind and cannot rely on light to adjust his/her biological clock. Day can become night, and night can become day. It was very interesting to me to learn that there have been at least 2 fully sighted people who have been diagnosed with this condition.
The Thursday night activity was the Perception Game, which was sponsored by the Golden Triangle chapter and was a lot of fun.
Conference attendees had a choice of 2 activities on Friday morning: an Audio Darts tournament and a showing of the movie “The Martian” with audio description included and a discussion conducted by Joel Snider.
The afternoon session began at 2:00 with a presentation by Brian Roach entitled “Scam School.” Mr. Roach discussed the top 3 scams that are currently being perpetrated, and of course, all of them are designed to get our money. The third most prevalent one is the lottery scam, wherein a person receives notification by phone or by mail that he has won a lottery. In order to receive this prize, one must pay taxes and fees up front. He told us that scams are designed to either make us very happy or to scare us to death, and we must pay money either to make it happen or not to make it happen. The second one is the computer tech one. A person calls you and tells you there is something wrong with your computer. The number 1 scam is the IRS threat scam most scams come by phone, and he warned us: “do not engage them.” He let us know that our information is out there and is available to anyone with the right price. If we give our information to anyone, we are to make sure that we demand to know why they need it. I thought this was an excellent presentation.
Thomas Reid gave a presentation on indoor navigation. He discussed first, how this technology can impact our lives; second, empowering ourselves as consumers and third, adoption of the software. Indoor navigation allows us access to information that we all need whether we are sighted or blind. He gave us examples of several different companies and the software that they produce. He said that the main goal is access and accessibility. Unfortunately the indoor navigation was not installed in the hotel and we were not able to have the workshop that was planned. Tom said that he would be sending out email addresses where we could express our disappointment and encouraged us to make our voices heard.
Jule Ann Lieberman, the Affiliate and Membership Relations Team Leader next introduced the scholarship winners. There were 3 student winners and 1 nonstudent scholarship winner. Sue next announced the formation of the Keystone Chapter of the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind and read the list of the charter members. We warmly welcomed our first time attendees and the Keystone Chapter to our organization.
Friday night’s activity was the PCB auction. There were many great prizes, enthusiastic bidding and much laughter.
The Saturday Morning session was conducted by Jule Ann Lieberman, our First Vice-President and began with the report of the Advocacy and Governmental Affairs Team presented by Joe Wassermann. Joe stated that the AGA Team needed support from everyone and reported that because of the support of PCB, OVR was able to get an appropriation of five million dollars which released matching federal funds. This was the first time in six or eight years that anything like this has happened. They also received an increase of two million dollars in 2016 and 2017. He stated that this would not have happened without calls to legislators. Two other items that the AGA team is keeping track of are the speed with which services are being provided by BBVS and the Shared Ride Advisory Committees. They are urging at least one member of each chapter to serve on each of these committees. Joe discussed the election and urged us to be aware of what the candidates were saying with regards to persons with disabilities. Members of the AGA team sent a series of questions regarding this matter to various candidates, but unfortunately received no response. He told us that the Pennsylvania legislature has established a task force to review voting machines with an eye to possibly replacing them since they are over ten years old. We want to make sure that these new machines are completely accessible and that poll workers are trained in their use. We have someone on that committee. He again encouraged us to contact our own legislators and said that members of the AGA team, as they did last year, would be willing to assist those who needed it to write the necessary letters.
Tony Stephens, the Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs for ACB next spoke to us on Crafting your Story. Tony told us that story telling is a very important part of advocacy. He continued by stating that stories have always been a part of human history. He said that stories move people even when the outcome seems illogical. He mentioned several things that are happening in Washington: The Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, (he congratulated us on our progress in this area), the Cogswell Macy Act, The Medicare Low Vision Exclusion Act, and also in the area of transportation issues driverless cars, Uber and taxi cab issues with service animals, etc. Good stories influence people and get votes. He said: “We all have stories, and they’re all the values that resonate.” He said that we can always get fact sheets and statistics, but we need the stories.
Our next presenter was Andrew Chepaitis from ELIA Technologies. He spoke to us about a tactile alphabet which has been designed for those who are physically unable to learn Braille. This alphabet is patterned after the Roman alphabet and encloses the letters in a frame. He told us that studies have shown that it is easier for those who have lost their vision as adults to learn this alphabet than Braille because they are already familiar with it. The technology that the company is using will also be able to produce graphics as well as letters, which would be very useful in the field of education and employment as well. Mr. Chepaitis provided us with examples of the alphabet, and it was interesting to examine them for myself.
The next portion of our program was presented by the Vision Loss Resource Team and was entitled “Adjusting to Vision Loss.” It was facilitated by Lisa Salinger, who introduced our 3 speakers, who addressed the question “In your position, how can you help me identify and reach my goals for a better life?” The speakers were Angelina Cruise, a social worker with BBVS, Elaine Hendricks, an orientation and mobility instructor and Michael Riley, a rehab teacher, also with BBVS. The main focus of this discussion was to help clients to set and reach goals which would help them to gain a greater degree of independence.
Dr. Andre Watson was our next presenter. He spoke to us on Misperceptions, what are they, and how do they impact our lives? He informed us that there are many misconceptions about blindness: that we are vulnerable, lost or in the dark about many things. People in PCB are overcoming them every day. He talked about the 4 I’s that are important for each of us to have. The first one is being independent, being free to call our own shots. The second is identity, finding out who we are and what we are good at by forging relationships with others. The third is insight, learning how to see what you see when you close your eyes. The last one is having an indomitable spirit; You never give up. I found this presentation to be very entertaining and insightful.
The afternoon session was devoted to team reports and the election of board members.
Team Reports: Communications: The report was given by Sue Lichtenfels. This team has been working on rebranding and discussing what message PCB would like to communicate to the outside world about our organization. The Philmore system is up and running and was launched on July 1st. We’ve had more than 150 calls into the system. The team has published 3 issues of The PCB Advocate and is working with the Fund Development Team on the new funding stream project called AccessiDocs to get a website up and develop a marketing plan.
Affiliate and Membership Relations: The team worked on providing scholarships for the conference, distributing 3 student and 1 nonstudent scholarship. They are also making sure that all of their documents are in order so that the transfer of leadership to the next team leader can be handled smoothly.
Education and Employment: Albert Pietrolungo presented this report. Through some advocacy efforts, the team has been able to encourage Civil Service to make the test more accessible so that some have been able to take the test. The team is also working with the AGA Team to advocate for passage of HR3535, The Cogswell and Macy Act and is working on a podcast as to the importance of supporting this bill. They are also putting together a presentation for next year’s conference in Pittsburgh.
Finance: Michael Zaken reported that the team is trying to generate more growth. They are consulting with Greg Knight, our financial advisor, and all is going well. The travel and expense policy was updated. A financial and expenditure policy was also developed for the office and the organization to follow. They are planning to restructure the budget to reflect a more businesslike approach. This will also help in obtaining grants.
Fund Development: Tony Swartz reported that the work of this team has been divided into 4 areas: the sale of current PCB merchandise, annual fund raising projects, the development of potential fund raising streams and partnership opportunities. Two formats for the cookbook have been created: the DAISY 3 and the BRF files. In June, a contract was negotiated with Blind Mice Mart for the sale of the DAISY 3. PCB realized a profit from the sale of the calendar raffle tickets of $5,265.68. The live auction netted $3,870.00, $300.00 of which will be returned to the Maryland affiliate. Tony thanked everyone for participating in this event. There were 5 corporate sponsorships this year, 2 platinum, 1 silver and 2 bronze. The prototype of a board game, Cross 4, was developed as a product for future merchandising. AccessiDocs, a new audio Daisy document service was developed and is now being used to produce The PCB Advocate and the conference materials. It has also been successfully field tested with 1 customer. Tony feels that this project could be developed into a significant and constant source of income for PCB. We are now a recipient of Amazon Smile and have received $20 to date. Tony encouraged everyone to choose PCB as a charitable recipient when doing our shopping on Amazon. We are also receiving a little over $300 a quarter from the MMS program. This is a way to contribute to ACB and PCB
Information Access: Sue stated that the team has been focusing on helping others to learn what their rights are, especially in the health care environment. An article with regard to this was published in the summer edition of The PCB Advocate, and a podcast will also be available soon. A document dealing with best care practices toward those who are visually impaired has also been prepared and will be distributed to health care providers. The team also produced the Braille materials for this year’s conference and is also working on a document produced by the AGA team.
Organizational Development: Cathy Long presented this report in lieu of Sherri Crum, who is the team leader. This team is collecting documents from every area of PCB in order to help the organization to run more smoothly. The records are fairly complete in the areas of Conference Programming and Planning, Fund Development and Affiliate and Member Relations. There are still some gaps, and the team still has a lot of work ahead.
Parliamentary: Carla Hayes reported that several amendments to the bylaws had been proposed and that there had been no substantive resolutions for this year. They also produced several articles for The PCB Advocate regarding deadlines for bylaws and resolutions, the bylaws process and crafting effective resolutions. One of their goals for next year is to appoint a parliamentarian for the conference. They are collecting samples of bylaws and resolutions as guides to those who may be working on this in the future. Carla offered the help of the Parliamentary Team to any chapter who may need assistance in preparing bylaws.
Technology Access: Lisa Salinger presented the report for this team. The team has been working with the office in Harrisburg to streamline procedures and to make backups happen so that our data is secure. They are also working on a podcast, which should be available soon.
Vision Loss Resource: The report was given by Lisa Salinger. The team has compiled a list of resources to be given to the office to inform those who are new to sight loss about where they can find useful and helpful information that will essentially help them get their lives back. They prepared the morning presentation and invited various vision related facilities to attend this conference.
Sue discussed the iDevice project. We have received four applications, and two devices with blindness related apps have been sent out to those who do not have them, and two others are in the process.
Michael Zaken next presented the budget. A motion was made and seconded to accept it, and it passed.
Tom Burgunder next presented the changes to the bylaws, and motions were made to accept the changes as prepared by the Parliamentary team and they all passed. For details on the proposed bylaw changes, please see the summer edition of The PCB Advocate.
Election: There were four open board positions and four nominees on the slate. The nominees were Thomas Burgunder, Mary Ann Grignon, Christine Hunsinger and Patricia Russell. Andre Watson was also nominated from the floor but declined the nomination. All nominees were elected by acclamation. Tony administered the oath of obligation. We congratulate our new board members and welcome them to the board.
The banquet was held on Saturday evening in the Grand ballroom. Before the awards presentation Sue took a moment to extend a heartfelt thank you to Doug Hunsinger for the many years that he took care of all of the audio for the conferences. This was going to be Doug’s last year to do the audio, and we all stood and gave him a round of applause for all of his great work.
Awards Presentation: Jule Ann Lieberman presented the Leroy and Mary Price Membership awards. The Hank Bloomberg Chapter received an honorable mention. The Luzerne Chapter received the award for the largest net gain in membership for a small chapter, and the Philadelphia Regional Chapter received the award for the greatest net gain in members for a large chapter. This was the first time in about 5 years that there have been any recipients for this membership award. The service awards were next presented. The 2 Lifetime Achievement Award recipients were Joseph McCloskey and William Rhinesmith. The distinguished service awards were presented to Patricia Russell and Cathy Long.
Our keynote speaker for the evening was Tony Stephens, Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs for ACB. Tony told us that we are all advocates from birth, when we cry for the first-time. He shared some of his own story and encouraged us to continue telling our own stories. ACB is very interested in cultivating stories and in making them known.
The festivities continued with our After Hours Speak Easy, wherein we were all treated to a sampling of talents from some of our own members. The program consisted of musical selections, comedy and a dramatic reading. I enjoyed this event very much, and it was a privilege for me to be a part of it.
Our Sunday business meeting began with the necrology report, which indicated that seven of our members had passed away during the past year.
Thomas Reid began the report of the Conference Program and Planning Team by again thanking Doug Hunsinger for all of his great work in taking care of the audio for the conference, and Doug surprised us by saying that he would be willing to continue this work, if he didn’t have to carry the equipment, and he also offered to buy Studio, which is the new software he is using for PCB. Thank you, so much Doug, from all of us. He asked for feedback on the conference and even gave his phone number so that we could contact him. Tom thanked the Maryland Affiliate for attending the conference and continued by thanking all of those who participated in any way to make this conference the great event that it was. He especially thanked the staff of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, who went out of their way to be kind and courteous. Tom encouraged us to work on our attendance of the sessions, especially the Saturday morning one. We had one hundred sixteen registered for the conference this year and fourteen first-timers. The conference will be held next year from October 26-29 in Pittsburgh, at the Double Tree Hotel with a room rate of $99 plus tax. This will be reduced to $89 plus tax for PCB members because of the 50 50 room rate raffle. The theme for next year is: “Designing Our Future.”
Carla Hayes next presented the two courtesy resolutions, which passed.
The president’s Q and A was next. Sue asked for ideas for presentations for next year’s conference, and several suggestions were offered. She also wondered if we should set up a separate email list to discuss some of these topics and ideas. She also asked each table to come up with two sentences to describe why our organization would be attractive to families with children with vision loss, young people or people new to vision loss, and we were also to come up with a name, all that in five minutes. Several interesting ideas were expressed. Sue concluded by asking all of us to think about where we could fit into PCB’s leadership and what team we might join and how we might help our organization to grow.
Sue thanked everyone involved in the conference for making it, “I think, one of the best ever that we’ve had with regard to content and entertainment.”
I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. For me, it was the best conference I’ve ever attended.