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Judgment about NFB, training centers, unfair and unhelpful

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Dear Editor,

I was motivated to write this because I don’t think some of the judgment about the NFB and it’s training centers, including LCB, has been fair or helpful to survivors. I’m a survivor of a sexual assault at a non-NFB training center, and I have also been the victim of sexual misconduct by a member of the NFB at a chapter meeting and state convention in a state without an NFB training center. I think it is important that readers and the public hear from other voices different from the ones who try to sensationalize our trauma to sell papers. I’m grateful that the Leader has mostly tried to report facts and information in a fair way and asked its readers to suspend judgment. But I think it is important for readers to also hear the perspective of survivors like me.

I think it is time for both the members of NFB and the communities in which they live, including the communities where the NFB training centers are, to stand up and support the NFB. I think that supporting survivors and supporting the NFB are not inconsistent with each other. That support can be letters to leaders or the press, financial contributions, or just a smile and “thanks for what you do” to staff and leaders. I think we should put our focus on the perpetrators and get justice for survivors by making sure that the justice system holds

them accountable. I think we need to get involved in organizations other than NFB and make changes from within. I think we need to demand that other organizations like the American Council of the Blind and non-NFB training centers make changes in their programs and process that follow NFB’s lead. I have not been involved in the NFB for a while, but I have been

watching the last year or so. As a survivor, I can say that I believe NFB is committed to survivors like me and that I would be as safe as I could be at NFB events and activities. I think NFB is trying to do right by me and those of us who have had the misfortune to have to take on the title of “survivor.”

The NFB has 50,000 members right now. Of course, the number of people affiliated with it over its 80-year history are way more than that. Then there are the people that are not members but who are in NFB spaces like state agency employees, family of members, and so forth. I’d guess we’re talking about maybe more like 100,000 to 200,000 people affiliated with the NFB in the last 30 or 40 years.

The Special Committee Report said there were 9 incidents brought in the Code of Conduct process before 2021 and another 73 incidents filed after January of this year for a total of 82 complaints involving sexual misconduct. The Report also says that these complaints involved incidents that took place over many years, not just in the last year. The Interim Report says that some of the incidents took place 40 years ago, so we can infer that the 82 complaints took place over the period 1981 to now, and we don’t know how many are newer complaints and how many are older ones. This is important to remember, because context is important. The NFB doesn’t seem to be a place where there are clusters of recent incidents. The complaint process is just catching up to incidents that happened over a long period of time.

If we look at the percentage of cases filed compared with the number of people involved with NFB, we’re looking at .16 of one percent using the 50,000 number and .04 of 1% if we use the 200,000 number. And that doesn’t account for the percentage of cases that the report says weren’t substantiated. Similarly, the Report said there were more than 9,000 students of NFB training centers in the last decade alone. I would estimate that there are between 25,000 and 30,000 students since the training centers began in 1985. If we guess there were 50 allegations, that is something like 0.17 of 1% of program participants who raised an incident of sexual misconduct. Of course, even one incident of misconduct is too many, and for those people who experienced sexual misconduct these numbers don’t take away from their pain. But it is just wrong to say that NFB has a systemic problem with sexual misconduct given these numbers.

The Special Committee Report also says that the types of allegations range from inappropriate text messages to unwanted touching to sexual assault. We don’t know how many incidents involve which sort of behavior. But we do know that sexual misconduct is a problem in society. We know that 1 in five women in society experience attempted or completed rape. We know that 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime. We know that 43% of men have experienced sexual harassment or assault. This data comes from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and can be found at https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics.

The world has a systemic problem with sexual misconduct. NFB is no different from the rest of the world. The problems NFB experiences are the same ones every other organization, school, and employer faces, including people who hurt others.

One frustration I’ve felt as a survivor is that so much of the attention has been put on people different from the perpetrators. The NFB leaders who are being criticized aren’t the ones who sexually assaulted me or the other people in the 82 incidents. Why aren’t we focusing our attention and criticism on the people who did the sexual harassment and assault?

I’ve been, until now, taking a wait and see approach to the NFB response to the allegations. I’ve also been having a hard time as people, including some reporters, irresponsibly and with their own agendas shove this in my face again and again, which makes me relive my trauma again and again. But with the release of the Special Committee Report, it is time for me to take a position and decide what I think about the NFB response.

I think NFB has done what our community needs for us to support and trust it again. I think NFB, and its training centers, have gone above and beyond what other entities have done to ensure our safety and support. I think they’ve done this because they care about us, not because they think it’ll help them in the court of public opinion.

If you look at NFB’s efforts, they’ve been many. First, they apologized as leaders for not doing enough to prevent misconduct. They didn’t even know the extent of any misconduct when they apologized in December 2020, but they took responsibility. Then they created support teams in the Survivor Task Force to help survivors.

They created a fund for mental health support for survivors. They revamped the Code of Conduct process and communicated how it works in lots of ways. They lifted the statute of limitations on filing complaints so people could file anything that happened at any time. They hired an independent investigator to handle the complaints. They added a Special Committee to investigate the organization and its centers and they gave that team freedom and space to be open with the findings of that investigation. They worked with RAINN, and RAINN wouldn’t ever work with an entity that wasn’t focused on survivor support. They trained their elected leaders and committed to continue training them in the future. They put the plan for how to improve in this area in the hands of the membership rather than closing ranks as leaders to protect themselves.

The training centers like LCB participated in everything the NFB did and more. They published on their websites everything they’ve done on sexual misconduct, which is a lot. They haven’t been as vocal about their efforts as the NFB national organization, but anyone paying attention can tell how hard the centers have been working on these efforts.

The NFB started some of its work on preventing sexual misconduct years ago with the Code of Conduct process. Many other similar organizations still don't have a Code of Conduct process or any efforts for survivors. If you look at the Special Committee Interim Report, the person who the report identifies as standing up to stop one powerful perpetrator from continuing to victimize women after decades of him doing so is the Director of LCB. How many dozens of people has she protected through her actions on that issue alone?

Another thing that people don’t think about is how hard it must be for the staff and students of the NFB centers. While the world has a microscope on them, these other non-NFB centers and organizations like the American Council of the Blind and state-run training centers are just going about their business and doing nothing to deal with sexual misconduct that is happening in their organizations. But the NFB center staff are worried about their students and former students who they care about. They’re worried about their jobs. They’re worried about if the people in the community are judging them whenever they go buy groceries or buy a cup of coffee. They’re worried if another article will come out that criticizes them or their colleagues. It must be really hard to work at an NFB center right now. The blind community needs these people at these centers though, because without them, blind people wouldn’t gain independence or be productive in society.

That’s not right. These people work for these centers because they believe in the abilities of blind people. They could make so much more money doing this for a state agency or in the private sector, or they could do something else entirely. They work at a residential center, so they get to know the students in a more meaningful way, which means they hurt for those who are hurting. They have to show up every day for their students knowing that they are being judged, while the perpetrators themselves are just living their lives without scrutiny.

The students who go to these centers have this one chance to get the training they need. They need this training so they can learn skills and philosophy to be independent, productive members of the community. Instead of being able to focus on this though, they are bombarded with outside scrutiny and judgment. They’re told their learning environment is unsafe by people who aren’t in that environment. They’re being taught by staff who are under attack 24/7. This isn’t fair to them.

These training centers are really important to the community. They bring jobs and business and people to buy houses and pay taxes. They give back in community participation and engagement but also in diversifying the community. Places like Ruston and Littleton become the models for inclusion. I wish the community would remember that when thinking about these training centers. I wish anyone reading this would think about the positive experiences they’ve had with these training centers and their employees and let their own experiences guide them in how they think about the centers now.

Sincerely,

Michelle Kelly

Survivor