I want to reach out and tell you of my experiences at the recent 2019 National convention of the National Federation of the Blind. For me it was a great opportunity to again be part of the @Aira experience and to be with over 3,300 blind people to discuss the issues facing blind and low vision people today.
I had the chance to catch up with many friends and colleagues. One of my relatively new favorite friends is @EricBurton. I met Eric last year through Aira. For years, after losing his eyesight Eric sat on a couch believing that his life was a thing of the past. When he discovered #Aira everything changed.
It is a beautiful thing to see Eric blossom and evolve into a productive and quite incredible testimony to the fact that, as Mark Riccobono the president of the National Federation of the Blind says, “Blindness is not what holds you back”. Check out Eric’s web site at http://www.elburton.com. He is an inspiration to us all.
I arrived at the convention site, the @Mandalay Bay Resort inn Las Vegas, on Friday, July 5. I had heard that this hotel was huge and extremely complex to navigate. Huge, yes? Difficult to Navigate, at first yes, but it got easier as the week progressed. For me, walking around this monstrous hotel was made significantly through #Aira and the great agents who had been prepped to assist Aira explorers in our adventures around the hotel and convention center.
After unpacking and feeding my guide dog Alamo he and I were off to dinner. Picture the scene. We walked across the hotel, through the casino and finally found our way to the restaurant I chose, about as far away from my room as I could get. Who knew? Aira made the trip possible and so I settled in for some pizza at the restaurant, A Slice of Vegas. So, there I was sitting at 8:31PM when my seat began to wiggle around and then move fairly violently. Right you are, the Vegas part of the California earthquake. I was in the middle of a large open area with no place to go, so I sat out the shaking. What a way to start the #NFB convention. The rest of the evening was calm compared to that experience and requires no more mention except that we made it back to the room safe and sound.
On Saturday, July 6, I caught up with friends including @Celia Black, publicist for Ray Kurzweil and a wonderful friend who has also helped me in the past with several projects. Celia was one of the people who accompanied me when Roselle, my fifth guide dog, posthumously won the first @American Humane Association Hero Dog award in 2011.
I spent a good part of Saturday simply roaming the hotel with Aira. I came early expressly for this purpose. Based on past experiences I thought that the hotel maps would not be enough to give Aira agents all they needed to give us the visual interpretation we needed to move about sufficiently and successfully. Of course, wandering about also gave me the opportunity to try more of the 25 restaurants the hotel offered.
On Saturday evening I and friends including the president of #NAGDU, @Marion Gwizdala, traveled to the Las Vegas location of my favorite BBQ restaurant, #Virgil’s BBQ. Every time I go to New York City Virgil’s is a must stop. Virgil’s in Las Vegas is just as good as the mother ship in NY City. We returned to the hotel and then it was off to a concert. The Acapella group #Pentatonix, was performing at the Mandalay Bay that evening. Although Alamo and I were placed near one of the speakers and thus we experienced an extremely loud concert the music was wonderful. Alamo stayed awake during the entire three-hour event probably due to the loudness of the music, but he didn’t seem to mind much.
Sunday was a day of more walking and exploring. I noticed that as my time at the hotel went on agents were getting better at identifying landmarks. I felt at a bit of a disadvantage over my normal Aira experience as usually I would use the Aira Horizon smart glasses which give agents a wider and better view of surroundings. Due to some technical issues with my Horizon controller that powered the glasses I had to use only my iPhone and its camera until Monday when I received a replacement unit. It was probably better in some ways that I could only use the phone camera as most people would only have phone access. Aira had arranged for the hotel complex to be an #AiraAccess location which meant that anyone could download and use the Aira app and service free of charge throughout the convention.
By Sunday night most all of the Aira team had arrived and we met to strategize about the week’s activities.
Sunday was what is called at these conventions Seminar Day. Many outside companies as well as several divisions within the Federation hold informative seminars about products and to provide Federation members useful information on a variety of subjects. For example, #NAGDU held a seminar about guide dogs covering a wide range of topics.
On Monday it was all hands-on deck as the exhibit hall opened at 9AM. Aira elected to be the elite sponsor for the entire convention and Aira certainly lived up to an elite reputation. The booth was mobbed with people wanting to know more about the product as well as those who needed help in signing up for the service. This was Aira’s second convention since at the same time as our convention Aira was a part of the convention of the #ACB, American Council of the Blind. A different team attended that convention.
While exhibiting was the main event for Aira there were again several committee and division meetings where Aira representatives spoke. During the day and into the evening the Aira team conducted several special presentations discussing a number of topics including Aira and education as well as using Aira on the job. We wrapped up Monday around 9:30PM. What a day!
But wait, there is much more. By 8:30AM on Tuesday we were back in the exhibit hall showing Aira, signing up new explorers and guests and helping folks have a good Aira convention experience. Again, there were meetings to attend and speak about Aira. I personally had five meetings to visit on Tuesday. What an experience. Really, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Tuesday evening saw me at my last presentation at the business meeting of #NAGDU. I was there to discuss Aira, but also it was at this meeting that I retired as vice president of the guide dog users division. It was a good 11-year ride, but it was good to see the beginnings of a change in the leadership of the organization. Although I no longer am VP I intend to be just as involved as I can.
After my Aira presentation it was off to a special Aira party for explorers, staff and guests. The party was held off site at the head quarters of #ZAPPOS. I missed most of the events, but I got there in time to do a little partying. Just after I arrived, I was greeted by Aira’s founder and my friend @Suman Kanuganti. #Suman and his co-founder, Larry Bock, first invited me to be a part of Aira in March of 2015. Suman is one of the most innovative and sharpest people I have met. He is a true visionary and he makes me proud to be a part of this company. In June, Suman hired a new CEO, @Michael Randall who we all look forward to seeing grow Aira in ways we, and probably he, has yet to imagine. I did not to get Randall that evening, but we did meet the next day. The party broke up around 9:30 and we all made our ways back to the hotel.
For me Wednesday began with a meeting with Michael Randall. I had heard him speak at Aira company meetings, but this was our first in-person get together. Michael, like Suman is a visionary, but they present in different ways. Michael is a sales guy through and through. In many ways our experiences mirror each other, and I think our sales philosophies are quite similar. I look forward to working with him.
The convention held its first general session Wednesday morning. All states introduced their delegates and announced when, if the info was available, the dates and locations of their local conventions.
At noon it was back to the exhibit hall until the plenary session reconvened at 2PM. This afternoon session is one of the highlights of the convention as it is where the president gives his report on the past year’s activities and efforts of the Federation. As President Riccobono reported on various law cases and other activities everyone who was in the room, all 3,300 of us, got a real look into the concept of civil rights for the blind. This report shows in the most graphic way possible why the blind organized those 79 long years ago and we learned just how far we must travel to acquire true inclusion for blind persons.
Wednesday saw me in another Aira presentation to an NFB committee. Then back to help at the evening exhibit hall. Then it was off to dinner and then bed.
Thursday was the highlight day for Aira. The general plenary session started at 9AM with a presentation by @Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer for #Microsoft. Mr. Smith’s talk was informational, enlightening and motivating as he discussed Microsoft’s views on Inclusion and as he tied in Microsoft’s views with various blindness-related historical events.
When Suman first asked me what I thought about the timing of Brad Smith’s address I pointed out that since Suman was to talk right after Brad, he, Suman, couldn’t have a better warm-up act. (No pressure, right?) After Brad Smith came Suman. He did not disappoint. He spoke articulately and confidently as he described Aira, where we came from and where we are going. Suman announced new Aira initiatives including implementing a tier of free Aira service which will begin in the Fall. Details are still pending. From my perspective as a public speaker Suman lived up to the elite sponsor reputation, we all expected.
After the morning session it was off to our last exhibit hall session. At 1:45 exhibits were over, and it was back to the convention general sessions. I am not going into detail about the speakers as you can find more information on the NFB web site, www.nfb.org. Also, you can subscribe to the Federation’s magazine, the Braille Monitor. The September will provide a full report on the convention and it also will present the texts or recordings of many of the presentations depending on whether you choose to receive the print, Braille or recorded edition of the Monitor.
For me, Thursday evening began with participating in a survey session conducted by JP Morgan Chase. Then it was off to meet representatives from Spectrum TV. Then it was off to dinner with my friend @Celia Black and her sister Susan at, you guessed it, Virgil’s.
Friday, July 12, was the last day of the convention. Lots of presentations which ended promptly at 5PM. The last event of the convention is the banquet held in the evening of the last day. The highlight is always the keynote address delivered by the president. Mark’s address as the many addresses of presidents before him, is the philosophical high point. He challenged us and talked to us about the choices we make as blind people. I hope you will subscribe to the Braille Monitor or visit the NFB web site in a few weeks where you will be able to see a video of Mark Riccobono’s talk.
AT nearly 11PM a long week of convention activities ended. Again, while this article is a bit long, I want to give you just a flavor of the week. I hope all who read this will be intrigued enough to learn more about @Aira and the @NFB. The two organizations have built a good partnership over the past four and a half years. I trust that it will continue well into the future.
I know I have not named nearly enough of my friends who I saw during this convention week. I value each of them and look forward to seeing them next year and beyond. If I have one thought with which to end this it comes from my book, Thunder Dog and the section entitled Guide Dog Wisdom. The second entry in this section states in part, “Don’t let your sight get in the way of your vision”. It probably goes without saying that I also could say “don’t let your lack of eyesight get in the way of your vision”. As blind people we can #livetheliveswe want. Blindness indeed is not what holds us back.