When I am asked to describe the essence of the American Council of the Blind in a sentence, my usual response is to say that ACB is a consumer advocacy organization of blind and visually impaired people. Many would argue that there are far better and more descriptive one-sentence summations of what our organization is all about, but it is the one I tend to use. Key to this description is the notion that ACB advocates, or speaks on behalf of, its members at all levels of government: local, state, and national.
In my October column, I quoted that wonderful old expression: "All politics is local," first uttered by former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas "Tip" O'Neill. I used it in the context of encouraging our members to participate in meetings of local government entities and in so doing, to promote our involvement in the American Council of the Blind. I feel strongly about the need for us to be more vocal about our membership in ACB, as I hope was clear from my message.
Having said that, however, I must devote the remainder of this column to the necessity for ACB to show a strong presence on Capitol Hill beyond that provided on a regular basis by our outstanding director of advocacy and governmental affairs, Eric Bridges. There are two reasons for this and I want to remark on each of them in turn.
First, having significant numbers of members on the Hill and having at least one blind or visually impaired person stop in at individual Congressional offices helps the national organization, not to mention your own local advocacy efforts. Doing so demonstrates that ACB has a constituency outside the Beltway, something which is very important to legislators. It's called "showing the flag," and it's a necessary part of the advocacy process. As we all know, in the halls of power the two most important "coins of the realm" are money and numbers. The latter translates directly into votes. Since ACB doesn't have the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to influence our representatives, we must gain their attention with hundreds of constituents trooping up and down those halls of power.
Visiting your representative's D.C. office is also essential to your advocacy work at home. At the recent convention of the California Council of the Blind, some discussion took place over the number of members to be sent by the affiliate to the ACB legislative seminar. At least one individual commented to the effect that visiting the Hill wasn't all that important if chapter members regularly went to their local district offices to meet with Congresspersons and/or staff. Yes, and no!
My personal experience -- as well as the experience of many others with whom I have spoken -- has been that both are vitally necessary. While Capitol Hill and district office staffs communicate regularly, they do so on a global basis. Speaking with someone at your representative's local office may not get you a meeting with your member of Congress or even a key staffer in Washington, D.C. This is especially true for those of us residing in large urban areas of the country where there are many more competing interests seeking the time and attention of that representative. Nearly all Hill appointments are made via fax or e-mail directly to the representative's staff member responsible for scheduling. Being on a first- name basis with one of your Congressperson's legislative aides doesn't guarantee you an appointment with his/her health and welfare deputy in Washington. And yes, I know there are exceptions to this general rule; there always are. It is my belief that a visit to Capitol Hill actually makes it easier to gain entrance to your district office, rather than the other way around.
The second reason for bringing numbers of ACB members to Washington at least annually is to let our elected representatives know that there are two national blindness organizations with differing, often dramatically so, viewpoints concerning what blind and visually impaired people believe is important. A lot of legislators are unhappy finding out that we have differing opinions on issues. We've all heard that old refrain: "Those NFB folks think ... why can't the two groups get together and agree upon one position?" When I'm confronted with this comment, I simply and calmly point out that Congress is comprised of both Democrats and Republicans and it would be great if the two parties could sit down together more frequently and reach consensus on key issues. That response almost always gets the light bulb turned on and I can then explain ACB's position on the issues under discussion. If you don't think presenting our perspective is particularly important, I ask you to recall your reaction the last time a government official -- at any level -- responded to your request to consider taking some action by commenting that those folks in the other organization tell me blind people don't need whatever it was you were asking for.
For these reasons, I believe that the ACB legislative seminar is one of the most valuable activities in which the organization engages. By the time you read this, plans for our 2008 seminar will have been announced. At this writing, we have a date and a possible venue. We are planning a lively, interactive program which will benefit veteran attendees and first-timers alike. I urge all presidents to consider sending a minimum of one member from your state or special-interest affiliate to what I expect will be ACB's biggest and best "Hill-climb" ever. Please join me in Washington, and have a joyful holiday season.
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