By Jacqueline Wissinger, PCB Secretary
This year’s PCB Conference and Convention was unlike any other in the history of our organization. It was held from Wednesday, October 21 through Sunday, October 25. “Where was the location?” you might ask. I would answer, “Anywhere you could have a secure internet or phone connection.” That’s right. Our conference was a completely virtual event this year. Due to the COVID-19 virus, we were unable to have an in-person conference this year. Thanks to the hard work of our techies in PCB, Michael Zaken, Doug Hunsinger and others along with some expert help from a team from ACB, PCB rocketed off into cyberspace for a never to be forgotten conference and convention. There was a wide selection of events from which to choose, from doggy massage to kitchen tips to technology advice and a social for first time attendees to the conference and friends. We even had three movies with audio description and two virtual tours. Events were available to spark the interest of everyone. Our virtual exhibit hall offerings, as well as the general sessions, were broadcast on ACB Radio Live Event. Since this conference is being archived and will be available on our PCB website, (www.pcb1.org <http://www.pcb1.org>), and also on our Information Line, I will not even attempt to cover five days of events in detail, but will encourage you to check out the conference for yourselves and relive the fun.
Our conference began with a welcome by our president, Chris Hunsinger, the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, led by children from the Darby Woods School in Ohio, and the invocation by our chaplain, Jacqueline Wissinger.
Our theme for this conference was Bridging the Distance and was discussed quite ably by Chris in her President’s address. She told us that Pittsburgh is a “city of bridges,” boasting 446 of them, which is three more than Venice. Bridges are anything which helps us get from one side to another. They can be people, ideas or physical bridges. Distance can be physical or conceptual. Bridges can take time and effort to build, but with effort, they can be used for the betterment of all. She pointed out that all of the presentations in this conference are bridges to something which will benefit all of us. She expressed the hope that this conference would be a bridge to knowledge and to everything that is about building bridges.
Next was the necrology service presented by our chaplain, Jacqueline Wissinger. Sadly, two of our peers have passed away since our conference last year.
A discussion and demonstration from members of the Vision Loss Resource Team followed, featuring some of their favorite AI devices and how they can help us to bridge the distance. These devices were used to aid in shopping, playing games, setting timers and alarms, as well as many other ways to make life more interesting and fun.
Next up was a presentation of the Peer Engagement Team featuring Will and Mary Ann Grignon on Tips & Tricks of Public Speaking. This was a lively discussion filled with too many points to enumerate here. But I will mention a few of them. We must arrive early and be familiar with our venue. Good posture is important. Look up not down. Hand gestures can be very useful, but they must be “purposeful.” Make sure that your Braille is accessible and in order. If you are using a device such as a Braille Note or Braille Sense, make sure that it is charged and working properly and ready to go. Finally, Will told us to practice, be pithy, know your opening line, smile, and have fun.
John Luttenberger, from the Parliamentary Team, presented the first reading of the Proposed Bylaws amendments. They can be found in the fall edition of The PCB Advocate.
Door prizes and announcements concluded each session of the conference, and then the fun began. After hours festivities were planned for each night. On Wednesday it was Make the Improv-able Possible, which tested our acting ability and made us all laugh. Thursday was game night with Trivia with a Twist. Friday night we had the opportunity to virtually meet several famous characters as some of our peers presented their renditions of people we would all like to meet. Cookie Monster and Elmo from Sesame Street were there as well as others. On Saturday night we all had the opportunity to be social butterflies and flit among four chat rooms, which were hosted by some of our peers. They included the Tech Tavern, the Current Events Cantina, the Catch-up Café and the Sports Bar. Something was available to suit just about every taste.
The general session Thursday evening began with a review of all of the fund development item offerings available for sale during the conference by Mary Ann Grignon. This was followed by the first reading of the proposed resolutions by Carla Hayes.
Our next speaker was Rod Alcidonis, who was recently hired as the Director of BBVS. He stated that the number of blind people who were unemployed was “unacceptable” and that it was his goal to reduce those statistics. He told us that if anything can be done “to get blind people employed, I want to push it.” The acquiring of braille and technology skills is very high on his list of qualifications. We are hoping for good things in the future from BBVS.
We were next treated to a presentation by Sue Lichtenfels concerning satire and humor and how it can be used to affect changes in our perceptions of issues. She discussed how comedy can be used as a “bridge to awareness” concerning blindness issues in particular. She stated, “Bringing about awareness isn’t about dumping knowledge in someone’s lap. It’s about moving them to think and act in a new way.” She discussed sit-coms and how they “have provided us with a safe place to reevaluate our perceptions of the world.” She entertained us with examples of how humor has been used to bring about our awareness of some of today’s most controversial issues. She said that nonprofit organizations should adopt this “entertainment education model” to bring about changes. Laughter works better than a lecture and is more easily shared and will reach more people via digital media than traditional media. We must be able to work with the changing times in order to bring the world’s perception of blindness out of the darkness and into the light.
Dr. Paul Ruvolo next discussed the work he is involved in at Olin College. He has created an app which deals with augmented reality for indoor navigation. The object of augmented reality, he explained, is “trying to get virtual content to mingle with the physical world on an electronic device.” It is designed for a smart phone and can be used to record indoor and outdoor routes, but the camera must be facing out at all times. This app does not require GPS and can be used indoors. The app is called Clew and is free and will remain so. Clew has numerous aspects in the app, which made for an interesting presentation.
Dr. Ruvolo has also developed technology in the form of a game for teaching blind children to use a cane. His ultimate goal is to develop a better way to teach children mobility and to become more familiar with their surroundings.
Friday was a day of breakout sessions, workshops, and presentations from representatives from the offices of our two state senators, and a recorded message from one of our senators. Hal Duncan, a representative from Senator Patrick Toomey’s office joined us for a discussion on autonomous vehicles. Concern was expressed that blind people who would be driving these vehicles would be considered drivers and not passengers and that the vehicles would need to be made completely accessible to them. The licensing of drivers of these cars was also brought up. The issue of quiet cars was also mentioned. Mr. Duncan expressed his willingness to be in touch with ACB or anyone else including insurance companies to discuss these matters.
Later, we heard a recorded message from Senator Bob Casey concerning disabilities. He told us that as of 2018 there were approximately 155,000 Pennsylvanians who were blind or who had vision impairment. Just over 44 percent of the people in that group were employed. He was dissatisfied with that number and told us that his bill, Senate Bill 255, The Disability Employment Incentive Act, would provide tax credits to those employers who hired persons with disabilities, and would provide that the workplace, both physical and online, would be accessible. He also discussed Senate Bill 3206; The Accessible Voting Act that provides voting to be accessible and private for everyone. Michael Gamel-McCormick, a representative from Senator Casey’s office was also available to discuss several Senate bills and to answer questions. He spoke about the Senator’s support for the complete accessibility of autonomous vehicles and for the Cogswell Macey Act.
Melissa Carney, our new Director of Outreach and Engagement, spoke to us on Friday evening. She shared with us her story and how she was able to bridge the distances in her life as the only blind student in her small town and in her school district. For her, horseback riding was the key to redefining who she was. She was able to see herself “as a person who happened to horseback ride and who happened to have a disability.” She shared with us her story of her fight against discrimination from a college professor and how it strengthened her. She learned that “Every victory is not just a victory for myself but for my community.” Through all of her experiences, she has learned “that the roots of accessibility lie in community growth, compassion and perseverance.” It was a very inspiring and encouraging presentation.
The Technology Access Team next presented Keeping Healthy through Technology. Jule Ann Lieberman discussed two topics. How Do We Know What is Wrong with Us and Visiting with Your Doctor Using Technology. She informed us of a website, WebMD, which can be used to get a general idea of the problem, and then we can arrange a virtual appointment with our doctor. She said that there are several telemedicine platforms which are chosen by the medical provider. She advised us to find a quiet place for the visit with the doctor and to make sure there is no ambient noise during the appointment. She said that the Technology Team is happy to help anyone with questions concerning using technology in this area. Kelsey Nicolay discussed the app My Chart, which enables one to check test results, communicate with your doctor and do the things you would normally do on the phone. She demonstrated the app quite thoroughly.
Rebecca Holland, who is a pastor in the United Methodist Church and serves two churches in Altoona, Pennsylvania, next shared her story with us. “Rebecca was born with a complicated eye condition that caused her to be visually impaired.” She had planned to become a music teacher of children; “however, systemic ableism at the university level prevented her from achieving this goal.” She stated, “I’m a very strong believer in the fact that we, as members of the blindness community, can start to build bridges by sharing our stories with others.” However, it took her a long time to get to that point. She was unable to reach her goal of becoming a music teacher and finally obtained her certification as an English teacher, but it was a “long and arduous journey.” As she shared with us her story, I could feel her pain as she struggled to overcome the challenges in her life and her joy as she was able to overcome them and become the person that she is today. She stated, “Life takes different detours than we would expect, and I think the beauty can be in the detour, and that the beauty is in the journey and not necessarily in the destination.” She has written two books, and the third one is in the publication process. She had found herself to be “the protagonist in my own story. I find myself empowered once more.” She stated, “Your stories matter, and it’s our stories that bring us together. It’s our stories and the personal element that lots of times inspires people to make changes.”
Saturday morning began with a presentation from Marty Shultz, who is the creator of the Blindfold games for iPhones and iPads. What began as just fun and games has morphed into a company which produces educational games for children. For example, Battleship is a good way to teach the concept of a grid, and three-dimensional tick-tack-toe is also a good way to teach about three-dimensional grids. In discussions with teachers who were using the games, he found that the games were helping children improve in three areas. First, they were learning orientation and mobility and to use fine motor skills. Second, playing the games was used as rewards for finishing assignments. Third, the children were learning good leadership skills.
Megan Angelo, the author of Followers, spoke to us. She told us that the thing that makes her book “relatable to anybody is that all of us have found ways to use technology to make up that difference between what our lives actually look like and what we would like them to look like.” She spoke of the pandemic, and of how one of the benefits of it has been to free her from some of the restraints and rules of the past. She has been able to disconnect from social media and to redefine herself. This was a reflective presentation and provided food for thought.
We heard a presentation from four of our own PCB dads, Bob Lichtenfels, Andre Watson, Thomas Reid and Donald Buie, who shared with us some of their expert parenting advice. They discussed some of the challenges they have faced as blind fathers. The consensus seemed to be that challenges are simply a part of life and by working together we can get through them. They discussed the adjustments they have had to make because of COVID-19. They discussed the racial tension that is so prevalent in our society today and how they are dealing with it in their own families. I could feel the great love that these dads have for their children, their desire to protect them, and to help them to learn and grow into adults who will make the world a better place in which to live.
Dr. Mona Minkara, the 2019 Holman Prize Winner, addressed us concerning her YouTube travel show, “Planes, Trains and Canes.” She began her journey as a judge for the Holman Prize and eventually applied for and won the prize for herself. She traveled alone to five cities independently using only public transportation. She was accompanied by a woman who operated the camera, but for all intents and purposes, they traveled separately. The cities were Johannesburg, London, Istanbul, Singapore and Tokyo. She felt empowered when she traveled from Atlanta to Johannesburg. In Istanbul she “discovered the power of human connection.” She continued, “The reality is we don’t need eyesight to really connect with the world around us. We can connect through other ways.” In Tokyo she “was in accessible heaven.” She told us that she learned a lot about herself and that she learned to feel “comfortable with getting lost.” She “learned what real mental freedom was because it really is a state of mind.”
Saturday afternoon was devoted to our PCB Business meeting. Team reports were first on the agenda, as follows:
Suzanne Erb reported for the Advocacy Team. The team has been very active regarding the issue of voting rights and also in advocating for the providing of services to older blind persons.
Sue Lichtenfels next reported for the Communications Team. The information line is working well. The toll-free number for this line can be obtained by calling the PCB toll-free number. The team is striving diligently to make information available to all peers in PCB. She reported that Will Grignon will be assuming the position of editor of The PCB Advocate in January, and she reminded us that all articles are due on the 20th of November. They are looking forward to a redesigned web site in the beginning of the New Year.
Tom Burgunder presented his final report for the Conference Planning Team. He was pleased with the conference, thanked the team members and told us that Sue and Bob Lichtenfels would be the team leaders beginning in the New Year.
Mary Ann Grignon presented the Fund Development Team report. The team has been involved in several projects this year: namely, Loving Touch Connection, the calendar raffle, the MMS program, the promotion of AccessiDocs, and more. With the AccessiDocs invoice, which was developed by Tony Swartz, it is hoped that the benefits of this program will be more easily promoted. She said that a great deal of work and planning went into the virtual auction, which was slated for the following day. Other projects are planned for the next year. Whether they will be community-based or virtual will depend on the COVID-19 situation.
William Grignon next presented the Peer Engagement Team Report. He encouraged peers to choose a team on which to serve and to get involved with PCB. This team has been very busy this year despite COVID-19, reaching out to peers and chapters through monthly discussion calls and assisting with chapter matters. They revised several membership documents, which are available on the website and much more. He reported that we had 27 first time attendees at the conference this year. Plans for next year include the creation of a Peer Engagement page on the PCB website, two training workshops, and more. He also informed us that the awards would be distributed at the virtual banquet that evening.
The Technology Access Team report was next presented by Jule Ann Lieberman and Michael Zaken. The team has been very involved in getting Zoom up and running for our conference as well as finding a new platform for our listservs, which must be completed by December 15. They are also very much involved in the change from a physical office to a virtual office.
Jule Ann presented the Vision Loss Team Report. The team concentrated on their Tips for VIPs, which are available on the Information Line. They conducted a discussion call on using devices to help manage medications, which was well attended.
Michael Zaken presented the budget. A motion was made and seconded to accept the budget and it was passed.
John Luttenberger read the proposed bylaw amendments. The first of these contained the provision which would allow the board to act in the case of extraordinary circumstances with a majority of 75 percent. Tony Swartz spoke in opposition to the amendment, pointing out that PCB is a peer driven organization and not one run from the top down and that if it were passed in its present form that we, as an organization of peers would be giving up a great deal in permitting the board alone to make such important decisions. He felt that sufficient safeguards could be built into the amendment, and to that end, made a motion to table the amendment and to return it to the Parliamentary Team for the addition of the safeguards. Will Grignon stated that the proposed amendment contained the necessary provisions but added that he was not going to oppose the motion. After a lengthy discussion, the motion to table the proposed amendment and return it to the Parliamentary Team for alteration was passed. The second bylaw amendment was passed. The third proposed amendment regarding board approval concerning the determination of issues related to technology was returned to the Parliamentary Team for further consideration. The four remaining proposed amendments to the bylaws were passed. See the fall issue of The PCB Advocate for a more thorough reading of these amendments.
Carla Hayes read the resolutions. The first resolution, 20-02, was written to encourage Humanware to begin manufacturing the Braille Note Apex and to continue supporting it. There was some discussion; and while sympathy for this point of view was expressed, the consensus was that it was not a good idea to encourage a company which had already stopped manufacturing this item and moved on to another product to begin producing something that was already obsolete. A motion was made and seconded to accept this resolution, but it did not pass. The next two resolutions were courtesy resolutions. The first one expressed thanks and commendation to the board and to the Conference and Convention Planning Team, and the second was to be used as a template to be sent out to any others in succeeding conferences that had been instrumental in making the conference a success. Motions were made and seconded to accept these resolutions and were passed.
George Holliday next presented the slate of nominees for the four positions which were up for election for a two-year term. They were as follows: Suzanne Erb, William Grignon, Cathy Long, and Sandy Marsiglia. Suzanne, William, and Cathy were all elected to the board by acclamation. John Anderson was also nominated to run for the last board position; and because there was a tie, a delegate count had to be taken. A discussion ensued as to whether or not the delegates should have been appointed by the chapters and their names recorded before the election because some delegates had not been appointed beforehand. A motion was made to accept the delegates from Lehigh Valley, and a friendly amendment was added to accept all delegates whether or not they had been previously appointed. The motion passed. Sandy won the delegate count and is now a member of the board. The Pledge of Obligation was administered by Sue Lichtenfels, and the board members were congratulated. A motion was made and seconded to adjourn the Business Meeting.
The virtual banquet began Saturday evening with the presentation of awards. The presenters were introduced by Will Grignon. The John A. Horst Champion of Independence Award was presented by Rose Martin to Sister Margaret Fleming (Sister Meg) for her work with blind and visually impaired children at St. Lucy’s Day School. The Community Impact Award was presented by Will Grignon to Marilyn Egan for her work in “making the arts so much more accessible and therefore meaningful. Marilyn is an outreach coordinator and the Education Director for Pittsburgh Opera.” She made sure that programs were available in braille and large print, and also that audio descriptions were available. TheReImage Award was presented by Mary Ann Grignon to Thomas Reid. “Thomas Reid coined the phrase, can’t stop, won’t stop. He infused PCB with energy, creativity and insight to move our organization forward with a new image, TheReImage.” The Peer Excellence Award was presented by Sue Lichtenfels to Tony Swartz. “Tony has given his time tirelessly, his talent freely, his financial gifts generously and his leadership wisely to PCB.” This award has been renamed and is now The Anthony B. Swartz Peer Excellence Award.
Shauna Jatho, a nurse educator from Vanda Pharmaceuticals, next spoke to us about Non-24 Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder. She related that the three most common symptoms of Non-24 are “difficulty falling asleep at night, difficulty getting a full night’s sleep, or difficulty staying awake during the day.” Those who are blind or visually impaired have little or no light perception, which is needed by the brain to inform us whether it is day or night. Non-24 is different from other sleep disorders because it is cyclical. There may be times when there are no symptoms. She said, “There is help out there.”
Our next speaker was Claire Stanley, the Advocacy and Outreach Specialist in the national ACB Office. She discussed several areas where advocacy is needed. Discussed first was the access to education. Both blind children and parents are finding that all of the technology being used for education purposes is not accessible to them. Secondly, she discussed the equal right to voting. She stated that ACB has a partnership with other disability rights advocacy organizations to ensure that people are aware of their rights where voting is concerned. Their website is ncavoting.org. The third area she discussed is advocacy to health care and wellness. This provides for accessibility in the telehealth platforms or in the relaxing of some HIPPA policies or privacy laws so that phones can be used. She mentioned several other areas of advocacy in the medical field. One was transportation services. She is working with The Consortium on Citizens with Disabilities to make sure that the cuts in transportation services will not remain in effect after COVID-19. She mentioned the Accessibility Technology Bill which would provide funding for technology “so that we can have equal access to our society.” She told us that the legislative seminar will happen, but it will be a virtual one.
The PCB virtual auction was held on Sunday afternoon and was a great success. The auction netted $3,809.14. This was one of the best auctions that we have had.
So, we have come to the end of another exciting conference. A virtual conference cannot compete with the camaraderie of an in-person event. I wouldn’t have thought it could be done, but thanks to the energy, imagination and hard work of many people, the PCB Conference and Convention of 2020 will be remembered as another great success.