Since I had not been in the ACB loop regarding the World Blind Union (WBU) for a number of years, I was genuinely curious as to its present image and operations when I was asked last fall to serve as the representative for the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA), an international organizational member of the WBU, at the WBU quadrennial general assembly in Cape Town, South Africa, in December of 2004. In my position as national representative of ACB in 1984, I had been honored by being asked by the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind to draft the resolution which merged that organization and the International Federation of the Blind into the World Blind Union. It was also my pleasure to preside over the meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at which the resolution was adopted by the predecessor organizations. Although I had attended WBU meetings thereafter, I was not well acquainted with activities and concerns in more recent years.
I was not eligible to represent ACB at the 2004 general assembly because the WBU constitution bars an international representative from also representing a national member organization such as ACB, so ACB, which did not intend to send a representative for financial reasons, gave its voting proxy to Dr. Tuck Tinsley, executive director of the American Printing House for the Blind. That meant that Dr. Tinsley cast ACB's official vote on all matters requiring a written ballot (such as elections and proposed amendments to the constitution) and, although he was not required to do so, he did discuss many issues with me and obtain my input before casting his vote.
The WBU is an international advocacy and consultative organization made up primarily of international organizational members (such as the International Federation of Library Associations and Helen Keller Worldwide) and national members (such as the USA or Canada) whose number of votes is based on population, with no nation having more than six votes. National organizations of and for the blind (such as ACB and the American Foundation for the Blind in the USA) are national members within each country and all of the countries are arranged in loose regional organizations (such as the European region or the North America-Caribbean region). One of the basic purposes of the WBU is to serve as the worldwide voice of and on blindness and low vision when dealing with other worldwide organizations such as the United Nations, World Health Organization and International Labor Organization. Its international assembly takes place every four years, although its national and regional affiliates meet much more often to discuss timely issues and concerns. Many committees also function during each four-year period researching and preparing positions, reports and/or proposed resolutions on a wide range of important issues (such as the rights of women, youth, employment training, voting rights, transportation, etc.).
At the assembly in Cape Town there were approximately 350 official delegates present plus many official and unofficial observers from approximately 85 nations. Most of the proceedings were broadcast worldwide by ACB Radio, whose director and volunteer assistant conducted many timely interviews and were otherwise very visible to the attendees. Proceedings were conducted primarily in English with simultaneous translation made available via earphones in several languages (such as French and Spanish). Business was conducted slowly (by American standards, anyway) in order to give all listeners an opportunity to hear the translations and to respond. Many committee reports were given and discussed at length, and in some cases served as the basis for resolutions that were adopted by the assembly.
In this article I shall not attempt to summarize or even mention all of the issues that were discussed other than to comment that many related to basic issues we take for granted in the USA -- such as the importance of braille and the World Braille Council, the inclusion of braille in the action program of UNESCO, the needs of blind children, international copyrights and publishers, the birthplace of Louis Braille as a world heritage site and the right of blind women to marry and bear children. One full day was used (or wasted, in the opinion of many), discussing a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the WBU president to serve more than one four-year term. The proposal failed in the first of several issues decided by highly structured and secure secret ballots.
During the elections, Dr. William Rowland of South Africa was elected president, Ms. Maryanne Diamond of Australia as first vice president, Mr. Enrique Perez of Spain as secretary general, and Dr. Susan Spungin of the USA as treasurer (after a spirited campaign). The assembly was covered widely by the South African media and was inspired by an address by the Honorable Thabo Mbike, president of the Republic of South Africa. The assembly was conducted in a modern convention center, was well served by many dedicated volunteers, and was itself an outstanding opportunity for the world blindness community to exchange information and agree upon objectives. Outgoing president Ms. Kicki Nordstrom of Sweden began her statutory duties as immediate past president upon conclusion of the assembly. During the coming quadrennium the executive committee will decide whether the 2008 assembly will be in Bangkok, Thailand, Glasgow, Scotland, or Geneva, Switzerland.
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