By Thomas Reid, Former President
As many probably already know, the Monroe County Council of the Blind (MCCB) has been dissolved and is no longer a chapter of the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind (PCB). The following are some of my thoughts on its dissolution. Additionally and more importantly, some recollections including some things that went wrong as well as our many contributions.
In 2006, eleven members of what was then the newly formed Monroe County Council of the Blind attended our first PCB convention. Among that group of energetic first timers was a small sample representing the various demographic segments in blindness. It included those newly adjusting to vision loss, those with vision loss since birth, seniors, and sighted spouses or parents. Other demographic groups were represented as well including multiple ethnicities, genders, visual acuities, additional disabilities and more. Yet, we all bonded over a shared experience and a desire for more information. The eleven individuals who made their way to Lancaster for that first convention were just a portion of the chapter they were representing. That chapter began with even more excitement and energy than was on display during that weekend in 2006.
The shared experience of vision loss brought several of the founding members of MCCB together. During a support group meeting sponsored by the local association for the blind, similarly minded individuals wanted the conversation to be more optimistic. We wanted to focus on how we could resolve problems as opposed to participating in a “pity party”.
After several of us exchanged ideas via email, considering ways we could help others impacted by vision loss, we were offered another suggestion. Our support group leader, already a member of the Lehigh Valley Council of the Blind recommended we start a PCB chapter in Monroe County. The timing was perfect. We were discussing multiple ideas on how we could work within the community on things like accessible pedestrian signals and more. We were also experiencing some philosophical differences between the management of the local blindness service organization and its customers. Gathered around the Reid family dining room table, eating empanadas and drinking hot mulled cider on a cold December day, seven of us and one via telephone, met to form the group.
Before June 2006 we would have over twenty members and would have already raised close to $1,000. We gained coverage from local media including print and television in order to help spread the word. The goal wasn’t just to talk about the existence of the organization; we wanted to challenge the image of blindness. During that time we found members who would help grow the organization in many ways including a local psychologist, a legal secretary, and others who brought valuable energy, skills and contacts to the group.
Over time, we began to add value for people with vision loss in our local community.
We started an exercise program at the local YMCA specifically for people with vision loss. The one thing that I’d change today, is to market that program to those with other disabilities outside of MCCB. At the time many of us felt it should be a benefit of membership.
After several weeks of the programs existence with mixed attendance I remember over hearing a conversation at the YMCA. A woman was explaining that some member of her family who was blind and lived in New Jersey didn’t have any accessible activities in her local town. She was so pleased to see how Stroudsburg appeared to be different. She mentioned the accessible pedestrian signals and the exercise program at the YMCA. While we realize that’s not much accessibility compared to what’s available in more urban areas, the truth is it was a great start. It was one of those times where I felt proud of the work we were doing and the impact we were having on the community.
The impact was even greater on the membership. I watched how many of us began challenging ourselves to go after goals that may have once appeared impossible. The size or complexity of the goal wasn’t important. More of us were gaining a confidence that we had either never had before or thought we had lost along with our vision. We watched as some re-kindled a love of hobbies they once believed to be inaccessible. Others made the decision to seek employment.
For every success we had a failure. Not every event was widely attended. Along the way like any organization we had differences in opinions. We settled on decisions like a council and moved forward. We attempted to learn from our mistakes.
Only three years after attending our first convention, we were hosts for PCB’s convention in Monroe County. This didn’t come easy. Lots of PCB members were against traveling to the Poconos, but attendance and spirits were high during that fall weekend in 2009.
Unfortunately, over the years, we lost members for various reasons; some died, moved away, or found jobs. Others may have lost interest or had a different idea of where the organization should focus its energy. Throughout the years, we remained committed to operating as an advocacy organization. Not everyone in the group felt that should be the main objective. We tried to create more social opportunities, but the support for such events never materialized.
We made considerable attempts at addressing the issues that I refer to as “the usual suspects”; transportation, no computer access, and finances. However, telephone based meetings, free group transportation and other attempts to circumvent the problems did not produce the desired outcome. For several years we watched as membership dwindled down and only a small fraction could be considered active. The leadership was left to just a few and others in the membership never expressed an interest in stepping into these roles.
Finally, we made an assessment of the value of the relationship. We had to consider:
• Is it worth keeping a chapter alive simply for the sake of existing?
• Are we doing harm to the organization and its value by keeping it around even though it is not active?
• Will continuing the organization impact personal relationships and limit other opportunities?
After multiple attempts to revitalize the organization and even re-create its overall objective; in June 2016, the remaining members of MCCB met to approve its dissolution. In December all funds from MCCB were distributed to PCB. The organization requested that the donated funds be earmarked for specific projects that are aligned with the interest and spirit of MCCB.
• Conference Scholarship for those new to vision loss: As mentioned, the PCB Convention was for most of us who attended a memorable and formative experience. It offered a chance to learn about blindness issues and gave us an opportunity to network with others from around the state. It would only be right that funds once raised by the organization would help those who find themselves in a similar circumstance.
• TheReImage: With so many of the original founders of the organization being new to vision loss. We were clear about how we were being perceived differently not only in society but by our family and friends as well. Combatting the misinformation and stereotypes has always been a part of our organizational objective.
As someone who spent most years in at least one of the organization’s leadership positions, I can truly say dissolving the group was a difficult decision. For those of us who were willing to accept it, MCCB provided so much opportunity that was otherwise not available; a chance to not only, make a contribution to something that directly impacted our lives, but our entire community as well. Through the activities and demands of running the group, we could work on all types of skills including organizing, writing, public speaking and more. Like any family, we have our fair share of inside jokes and memories that will always bring a smile to the face of those in the know.
Our impact extended further than our chapter. We are proud to know that MCCB has made an impact on the state organization. We hear it from those in chapters throughout the state during the conference. Yes, we had the reputation of being the rowdy bunch! This was definitely true! We were always respectful, but we never thought we should fit some one’s expectation of how we should act, even when some of the more senior PCB members suggested we should follow their lead.
What they failed to realize is that we were truly celebrating what we found in PCB; A home, a place where we don’t feel alone or different; a place where we are not judged for our vision loss. This is the place where we could use our white cane and hold our head up proud, even if our O&M skills were not yet up to par. We could hold our menus right up to our faces and did not have to worry about being judged. No longer did asking for help feel shameful or embarrassing. PCB is a place where a totally blind person would be asked to help rather than if he wanted help. Attending the conference empowered us!
Similarly, MCCB empowered all who came into contact with the organization. Through events like our Education & Awareness Program, we effectively talked about vision loss and immediately changed our audience’s perception and concept of our capabilities. At our Low Vision Forums individuals and families new to vision loss learned of the real possibilities and walked away with a more optimistic outlook on their future. These meetings, events, and celebrations to those unfamiliar with vision loss and our group didn’t fit the stereotype of what was expected coming from a blindness organization. Following any of our events, it was common and soon expected to hear, “I didn’t expect you all would be so lively and fun.”
Our efforts remain intact. They are seen in our local library which now offers an accessible computer station and on the Monroe County streets where accessible pedestrian signals aid disabled travelers. We believe our efforts also improved the image that some in our community now have of people with vision loss. Yes, the organization is no longer in existence, but we definitely left our mark.