By Jackie Wissinger, Secretary
This year’s PCB conference was held once again at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Pittsburgh from Thursday, October 18th through Sunday, October 21st. It’s always a pleasure for me to return to the city where I attended school and where many precious and lifelong friendships were formed. This year was certainly no exception. Hopefully this brief summary of events will encourage those of you who were not able to attend this year’s conference to make every effort to join us in Harrisburg in 2019.
This year’s conference was streamed on ACB Radio, which afforded opportunities for others to participate, especially in our PCB auction. Audio archives of many conference events including the Saturday evening play are available for listening at pcb1.org/2018conferenceaudio.
The first session began at 7:00 on Thursday evening and was called to order by our president, Sue Lichtenfels. This was followed by the pledge of allegiance to the flag and an invocation led by Jackie Wissinger.
The theme of our conference this year was “Sowing the Seeds of Success.” Sue expanded on this theme by stating that those of us who are blind are no different from those who are sighted in our desire to be successful. She asked, “But what determines whether we will be successful?” She compared success to a plant, both of which require optimal conditions in which to grow. She continued, “The seeds to success are the positive internal attributes we possess grafted with the positive external influencing factors. How well we nurture these seeds will determine our life’s landscape.” She pointed out that for those with vision loss, “independence is the most important seed to possess.” Just as sunlight, fertile soil and water are crucial external factors in growing a garden, external factors such as where we live, who we know, finances, positive role models and others determine how successful we may be. “The greatest fertilizer for success is opportunity.” She compared PCB to a greenhouse which provides “an ideal climate where independence and opportunity thrive.” She compared independence and opportunity with the magic beans in the story of “Jack in the Bean Stalk,” stating that “These are our magic seeds to success.” She concluded, “With independence and opportunity we too can climb to the clouds.” I thought this was an excellent address, and I would encourage you all to listen to it in full on the PCB website.
Our next speaker was a representative from Carnegie Mellon University who spoke to us about using robots in order to help those with disabilities. He discussed 3 types of robots and their proposed uses. The first was a receptionist robot, which would not replace a human being, but which could be used in cases when facilities could not afford to hire a person. These robots are stationary and could be used to interface with other robots. The next robot was a mobile robot and would be designed to lead a person to a desired destination. This is not meant to replace a cane or a guide dog, however. The third type of robot is a small handheld device and could be used in helping with directions. I am not a techie, but it’s fascinating to me to think about the research that is going on out there to benefit mankind.
The reading of the proposed bylaw amendments was next on the agenda, presented by John Luttenberger from the Parliamentary Team. This was followed by a presentation by George Holliday, the PCB Fund Development Leader entitled “Providing a Fertile Future for PCB” where George introduced the concept of planned giving and its many options.
Quizzo was the name of the game for Thursday night’s festivities. Five teams competed as we all increased our knowledge and enjoyed some laughs in this fun game of trivia.
The exhibits opened on Friday morning, and this year there were 30 tables to peruse. Three voting machines were also available for demonstration, and we were all encouraged to take advantage of this great opportunity. Besides the exhibit hall, there were three activities on the menu for Friday morning. We could participate in the Audio Darts Tournament, tour the John Heinz History Center or attend the Vision Works Expo presented by PCB and the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS).
The Friday afternoon session of the conference was opened by our treasurer, Michael Zaken because our president was directing the rehearsal of the play which was to be performed after the banquet on Saturday evening. The first speaker was Diana Fishlock, a representative from the PA Department of Treasury, who spoke to us about the PA ABLE Savings Program. ABLE stands for Achieving a Better Life Experience. The program was signed into law in 2014 and has been running in PA for about a year and a half. It provides for those who have disabilities to save for qualified disability expenses without being penalized by the income and resource requirements of any federal means tested benefits, with some exceptions for SSI. A person on SSI could have up to $100,000 in an account, and if the amount exceeded this amount, the SSI benefits would be suspended for a time. Medical coverage would continue though, and the person would not have to reapply for SSI. She pointed out that there are state and federal tax benefits in the ABLE accounts and that a person can have only one ABLE account. There are no federal or state taxes on the money in an ABLE account or when it is withdrawn for qualified disability expenses. A person who is not on SSI can grow an ABLE account to over $500,000. She discussed the program quite thoroughly and told us that all this information could be found on the website, which is paable.gov. The phone number to call is 855-529-2253.
Our next speaker was Paula Reed Ward, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Paula has written a book entitled Death by Cyanide which is available on BARD. She is very passionate about her work. She loves “delving into peoples’ lives, learning what it is that makes them tick.” She related some advice that she had been given by a mentor. He told her to develop a thicker skin. But it was her opinion that it was her sensitivity that enabled her to do a better job. She shared with us several stories which stuck out with her during her 21 years of reporting the news. These stories ranged from preventing 26 dogs from being euthanized and their subsequent adoption to bringing together a police department and several churches in a joint effort to curb the rising rate of homicides in a major city through the Victory Over Violence movement. She told us that she sees her job as a mixture of various professions: psychology, English, investigation and the law. She told us that she realized very early in her career what a powerful effect a newspaper can have on those who read it, which she illustrated very clearly in the stories that she shared with us.
Don Ciccone next updated us on the news from the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Don was excited to tell us that the library is now offering multiple title cartridges. This is due to a new piece of duplicating equipment called the Gutenberg, which can reproduce 20 cartridges at a time with multiple books on them. There are also plans for a digital player with the capability of downloading books directly from the BARD site. He also told us about Braille and tactile early literacy kits, which can be used by blind and sighted children. This is to encourage Braille and tactile learning. A sign language interpreter can also be involved in these learning sessions for the purpose of sighted, blind and deaf children together in an atmosphere of mutual learning. The library has also been doing an outreach program to other libraries in the state. It is always good to have Don Ciccone at our conference and to learn about what is in store for those of us who love to read.
There were 2 concurrent break-out sessions at the conclusion of the Friday afternoon general session. The first was a presentation by Lisa Salinger, who compared and demonstrated the Braille Me and the Orbit Reader, which are 2 affordable Braille displays. The second was a discussion among PCB’s guide dog users to provide feedback on the formation of a new affiliate, PA Guide Dog Users and Supporters (PAGDUS).
Of course, our conference would not be complete without the PCB auction, which occurred on Friday evening. The bidding was lively, and as in previous years those who wanted to were able to participate by phone.
Jule Ann Lieberman conducted the Saturday morning conference session, which began with presentations from corporate representatives from Aira and OrCam. Aira uses “live sighted assistants;” whereas OrCam uses “artificial vision technology.” The representative from OrCam demonstrated the device, which has the ability to read money and documents, distinguish colors, and provide some facial recognition. It can be activated by voice, gestures and by a pressure sensitive strip. The representative from Aira told us that Aira is a blend of assistive technology and a live assistant. The company made arrangements for all conference goers to use Aira free of charge, and we were also informed that Wegman stores now provide free access to Aira in all their stores. He listed at least 3 advantages to Aira. This service can increase efficiency, enabling one to perform tasks with greater speed and effectiveness. It is also for the explorer. Agents can describe surroundings as fully as needed. Also, Aira is for the doer, assisting clients to perform such tasks as the assembling of furniture to a variety of craft projects. Aira can be accessed via smart phones or Aira glasses. It is also possible to communicate with Aira agents via text as well. Both OrCam and Aira were demonstrated, and a lively question and answer period occurred
Our next speaker was Joanna King from the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University. This segment was presented by the Vision Loss Resource Team. She began with an activity in which we were divided into teams and were asked to decide what the 3 most important items would be that we would take with us should be need to evacuate quickly. She squashed 5 misconceptions that people have regarding preparing for emergencies. I will just mention them and tell you that according to Joanna, they are not true. First: Most emergencies are short-lived. Second: I will never have to deal with an emergency where I live. Third: Many emergencies cannot be prepared for. 4: Preparing is too expensive and takes too much time. 5: I’ll be viewed as paranoid if I prepare. Another myth she busted is, “I can always call 911.” She told us that it really comes down to the fact that we are all responsible for the welfare of ourselves and for our families. She said that only 39% of American adults have developed emergency plans. She gave us 3 rules to follow in being prepared: make an emergency plan, be ready to both shelter in place and grab a go kit and be informed. She had some very good information for us. There was too much to review in this short report. She gave us handouts, and the entire session is archived on the PCB website.
Next up was a presentation by Chris Hunsinger and Joe Wassermann from the Advocacy Team. They discussed how services from BBVS and other blindness and rehab services might be improved. Should BBVS and OVR be combined or remain separate entities was asked among other questions. Joe pointed out that we should be represented when it comes time for that decision to be made. Since the population of elderly blind is growing, concern was expressed as to how their needs would be met. Chris pointed out that this was an issue which affects our entire organization, not just our advocacy teams. Chris asked us to get in touch with the Advocacy Team and to present our ideas about this issue because it affects all of us. A discussion followed. It was felt that a document should be composed stating our position in this matter, and then we need to seek out legislators who would fight for our position and bring our ideas to pass. Joe challenged chapters to, in the next 4 to 6 months, invite state legislators to a chapter meeting so members can express their needs and feedback on this important issue.
Over lunch, the Organizational Development Team offered the “Lead and Learn” presentation. Sherri Crum facilitated the discussion while Cathy Long, Jackie Wissinger, and Rodger Simmons shared sample tips and tools from the new leadership development section on the PCB website. It was emphasized that for guidance on either individual, chapter, or community leadership resources, members should visit pcb1.org/leadershipdevelopment.
Our business session was held on Saturday afternoon. It began with team reports. Advocacy: Chris Hunsinger informed us that the Advocacy and Governmental Affairs Team and the Education and Employment Team were combined. They have been tracking legislation, both state and federal that will affect our organization, and she encouraged all of us to contact our representatives as well. She reported that the “Advocacy for All” discussion calls were not generating as much member attendance as she had hoped. She expressed concern that the topics for the calls had not generated enough interest. She asked for ideas so that the calls could be tailored to match the interests of the group. The calls have ranged from paratransit to deafblind issues and the summer program for children offered by BBVS at the Overbrook School in Philadelphia. Next year the team will be concentrating on the BBVS OVR issue. John Horst next presented the Community Affairs report. He is in contact with several boards and committees and keeps abreast of issues throughout the state which will affect the blindness community. He related that the most meaningful part of the work that he does is the receiving of calls in the office from those who are blind or who are suffering vision loss or from their families and trying to meet their needs. He is also very much involved with the PAB through his involvement on its board.
Communications: Sue presented this report. The team has created a new promotional document entitled “Igniting Independence.” Using the words Self-confidence, Peer Support, Accessibility, Resources and Knowledge, (SPARK), along with the new peer registration form, the team has fashioned a framework to explain many aspects of PCB. Bob Lichtenfels and Rose Martin are very active with Facebook and Twitter, and Ed Facemyer uploads this material to the information line. The number for the information line is: 773-572-6314. In collaboration with the Membership team, Sue and Mary Ann Grignon created the Getting to Know Us guide. She informed us that the deadline for the winter edition of The PCB Advocate submissions is November 20.
Fund Development: This report was given by George Holliday, who encouraged us to keep track of our volunteer hours which we will need as we prepare to do some grant writing. He informed us that every volunteer hour contributed to PCB work is valued as a $24.14 in-kind donation. The calendar raffle was a success, but he said that we need more chapters to be involved. The Monthly Monetary Support program is still going on, and George encouraged all of us to get involved. He reminded us about the Planned Giving Program and said that we would hear more about it in the future. We will be learning about how families, friends and those outside of PCB can get involved. He thanked all the members of the team and especially Tony for all his hard work on the auction. Tony informed us that the final figures on the auction were in. We made a profit of $3,300. He thanked everyone who worked so hard on the auction and expressed the hope that next year’s profits would be better. Tony continued with a report on Accessidocs. The team has produced several documents including 4 issues of The PCB Advocate, the Getting to Know Us member guide, Welcome to NVDA and other smaller documents. There are 2 new members of the team, Ed Facemyer and Marty Mathews. There have been 2 promotional articles for this service, one in an issue of The ACB Braille Forum and one in the Lehigh Valley Center for Vision Loss’ newsletter. Tony stated that we need more volunteers to work on the team and a marketing team and a marketing strategy for the effort to succeed. He asked us to consider whether this project is worth our time and effort and that any ideas might be emailed to: email@example.com.
Membership: Mary Ann thanked the members of the team. This team has been reaching out to members of the blindness community who have requested assistance. Along with the Communications Team, they created the Getting to Know Us guide. These 2 teams also developed the document entitled “Membership Is a FLAME” and have promoted it on an open house call, in our newsletter, and on our leadership development page. The Membership Development Team has reached out to those who have not registered and have tried very hard not to lose members. They have facilitated the formation of the PA Guide Dog Users and Supporters group. Team members have hosted discussion calls every month. She expressed concern that the past couple of discussion calls have not been well attended. She strongly encouraged us to fill out the membership registration form so that the needs and interests of the members can be met. She made herself available to help anyone who hadn’t completed this form to do so. Mary Anne also introduced the 5 scholarship winners.
Organizational Development: Sherri Crum presented this report. She stated that the main task of the Organizational Development Team during the past year was to get the leadership development section of the website up and running. Though much has been done, there is still much more to do, and Sherri reported that the team is continuing to work on this project. The website is pcb1.org/leadershipdevelopment. The website contains material for developing personal, chapter, and community leadership skills. She encouraged all of us to check out the website often and to let the team know if we have any suggestions of content that should be added. She thanked the team for their efforts.
Technology Access: Jule Anne Lieberman reported that the team is researching various alternatives for conference calling and web meetings. They are also working on getting information to the website. Their goal is to make sure that information is transmitted smoothly to the members and the community.
Vision Loss Resource Team: Jule Ann also presented this report. She also asked for suggestions for topics for the discussion calls. The team has created a document to be distributed mainly to care givers of those with vision loss.
Michael Zaken next presented the treasurer’s report. A motion was made to accept it, and it was seconded and passed.
Carla Hayes next read Resolution 2018-01, which is our only substantive resolution, which calls for every effort to be made “to ensure that Pennsylvania citizens who are blind or visually impaired are afforded every opportunity to cast an independent private ballot both in person and through absentee procedures prior to the 2020 election.” This resolution also calls for demonstrations of all voting machine so that those who are blind or visually impaired can provide feedback regarding these machines prior to the certification. Those who certify any machine which is not fully accessible will be found in violation of the ADA. This also applies to absentee ballot proceedings as well.
John Luttenberger next read the second reading of the proposed bylaw amendments. These proposed amendments were published in the fall edition of The PCB Advocate, and I will not discuss them here. Motions were made and seconded to accept these proposed changes and were passed.
Tony next presented the slate of candidates for the Board of Directors. There were 5 positions open and the nominees were as follows: Mary Ann Grignon, Cathy Long, Suzanne Erb, Rose Martin and to fill a one-year position, May Davis. Sue explained the procedure should we need to use the ballots. Should this be the case, each chapter would get 2 delegates if there were 2 chapter members in the room. These delegate votes would be added to the other votes, and the majority would win. All 5 candidates were elected to the board by acclamation. Tony thanked the members of the nominating team and then administered the Pledge of Obligation to the new board members. George suggested a round of applause for Sue for all the wonderful work she has done as our president, and we all gladly joined him.
The banquet and award ceremony were held on Saturday evening. Four awards were presented, two of them by phone, one was present at the banquet and the other was not able to attend. John Horst first presented the John Horst Champion of Independence to Elaine Welch, the former CEO of the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind. Jule Ann next presented the PCB Community Impact Award to Microsoft Corporation. TheReImage Leadership Award was next presented to May Davis by Tony Swartz. Michael Zaken presented our last award, The PCB Peer Excellence Award to Carla Hayes.
Our Saturday evening festivities concluded with the presentation of an original play entitled Bag It Up, written by our multi-talented president, Sue Lichtenfels. I had the privilege of playing a role in this play, and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fun! If you missed it, please go to the website and give it a listen. You’ll be glad you did.
Our Sunday business meeting began with the necrology report. Five of our members have passed away since our last conference.
Tom Burgunder next presented the Conference Planning Team report. He thanked the team members and listed their individual contributions. He said that we had a dynamic group and added that we are looking for new members. Next year’s conference will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Harrisburg. We have a two-year contract with this hotel. He related to us that the format of next year’s conference will be similar to this year’s event. More details are to follow. Tom closed by focusing on the volunteers, which, he said, were “really spectacular this year.” This year’s volunteers were from Lions and Rotary Clubs, the Friendship Group and the Jehovah Witnesses. He asked for a motion that courtesy resolutions be sent to these organizations along with those that we always pass and send out. A motion to this effect was made, seconded and passed.
Carla Hayes next read the 3 resolutions including the substantive one on voting accessibility and the two standard courtesy resolutions. Motions were made and seconded to pass each of these resolutions, and they passed without discussion.
Our Q and A portion of the meeting was next. Sue asked for feedback from the group on the voting machines. The responses were varied and positive for the most part. She asked that all feedback be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. She then asked the members of the chapters if they knew where their bylaws were and challenged them to find them and to update them. She next asked for feedback and/or questions from us. Regarding leadership transitions, it was noted that chapter leaders should pass on all pertinent documents to those that follow them. The question was asked if anyone had heard of Charles Bonnet Syndrome. This is a type of visual release hallucination suffered by the partially sighted or blind. It was felt by one of our members that those suffering from this condition were in great need of some advocacy efforts. Sue next turned to a discussion of the PCB Organizational open house calls. Should they be continued? Are they useful? There were only positive comments on the calls and commendations for those who planned them. Mike Gravatt suggested that text messages could be used to remind people of the discussion calls, and he will bring this plan to the next board meeting. Sue reminded us of the toll-free number for the discussion calls. It is: 844-844-0414. Sue next asked for ideas for topics for the Advocacy for All calls. It was suggested that the Charles Bonnet Syndrome could be a good topic. A self-advocacy workshop was suggested and a discussion on protection for guide dog users.
A discussion was held about the membership form. How can we get more members to complete it? Is it too invasive? It was suggested that it could be termed a “Needs-Meeting Survey”. It was pointed out that part of the form is optional. Mary Ann stressed that if there are objections to the form that we are to let her know what they are. It was stressed many times that PCB wants to meet the needs of the members, but we need to know what those needs are. It was also pointed out that filling out the form only needed to be done once.
The question was asked: “When did we stop praying to God?” Sue responded that this occurred several years ago when there were comments from members who believed in other gods or who did not believe in God. We want each member to feel free to worship or not to worship as he or she chooses.
Sue concluded by thanking everyone for attending the conference, for all of the sponsors and the volunteers. She is looking forward to conference next year in Harrisburg, a sentiment with which I heartily agree. After the door prizes, the conference was adjourned for another year.