Giving Tuesday: Get inspired to give back by learning more about Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind

GreenDrop is proud to support the National Federation of the Blind

GreenDrop is proud to support the National Federation of the Blind

Today marks the third annual Giving Tuesday, which, for those that aren’t familiar with the initiative, is celebrated on the Tuesday following Black Friday and Cyber Monday to promote well-being and charitable giving. The concept is very simple — get together with your family, friends, and your community and give back in any way you can in celebration of generosity.

One of our partner charities, The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), is supporting the concept of Giving Tuesday by sharing its efforts on social media using the hashtags #NFB, #DefyExpectations, and #GivingTuesday. It is also holding a Leadership Challenge where leaders of the NFB are reaching out to their connections, both business and personal, and asking them to help the NFB reach its #GivingTuesday goal of 750 donations. The NFB is also hosting a free event, the Winter Block Party, at its headquarters in Baltimore from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on December 2, #GivingTuesday. You can find out more by visiting the Giving Tuesday page on our website.

To inspire our readers to support the work of the NFB on Giving Tuesday and the rest of the year, we sat down with Mark Riccobono, president of the NFB, to give you a closer look at the organization.

GreenDrop: Tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do at the NFB.

Mark: As you know, I serve as the President of the National Federation of the Blind. As such, I am the chief executive of the organization serving a two-year term, before being up for re-election. Because our presidents are elected, they have a lot of accountability and responsibility in terms of representing the hopes and dreams of blind people across the country, which makes our organization entirely unique.

I grew up in Wisconsin and was diagnosed at the age of five as being legally blind. I struggled within the education system and its lack of tools and techniques that blind people can use to compete on a level playing field with the sighted.

GreenDrop: How so?

Mark: The primary tool I’m referring to is Braille, and the recognition that Braille is equivalent to print for blind people. From my experience, I’ve found there is a misconception that Braille is another language. However, it’s not; blind people using Braille are reading English. It’s simply a code.

Because there’s such a bias for print, even if a child can see just a little bit, they are often pigeon-holed into trying to use print predominantly. In my case, I couldn’t read even the largest print books by the 5th grade, so I spent a lot of time memorizing materials just to get by. But, if I had access to Braille and the ability to read and write my own notes, read them back to myself and read Braille books, I would have synthesized knowledge a lot better, and be a much faster Braille reader today.

I went on to attend the University of Wisconsin and earned a business degree. There, I got involved in educational leadership because I knew a lot about the problems that exist when it comes to the education of blind children. After I got started doing advocacy work there, I was ultimately hired to run an agency for blind children in the State of Wisconsin.

As a result of my background, I spend a lot of time as president of the National Federation of the Blind working to make sure that blind people — blind children in particular — have better access to Braille today than I had. Less than 10 percent of blind children are receiving Braille instruction in schools, and that means their future is potentially very limited.

That is just one example of what makes what we do at the NFB truly powerful — I’m motivated on a daily basis because I’m impacted by the issues and concerns that impact blind people.

GreenDrop: This position clearly means a lot to you, personally.

Mark: Yes. I was also going to say I have a wife who also happens to be blind and does a lot of volunteer work for the National Federation of the Blind as a leader in our Maryland affiliate. We also have three children, a son and two daughters. My daughters both have the same eye condition that I have.

GreenDrop: How did you originally get involved with the NFB?

Mark: The National Federation of the Blind offers 30 collegiate scholarships at the national level every year, and many more throughout all of our state affiliates. I was fortunate to receive a merit scholarship through the NFB’s affiliate in Wisconsin. That scholarship helped me pay for the technology and other expenses I needed to study and do well.

These scholarships are unique to our organizations because we do not dictate how blind students utilize these scholarships once they’ve earned them. They simply need to show us that they are in school at the time of the scholarship, and then they are free to use it in a way they most need it, whether it be for books, a Braille embosser, or any other piece of technology.

Another one of the requirements to receive the scholarship is to attend our national convention, which again, is the largest gathering of blind people anywhere in the world on an annual basis. The convention that I attended fueled my interest in working on behalf of the NFB and blind people across the country.

GreenDrop: What are some of the biggest obstacles that blind people have to overcome today?

Mark: The first and most persistent obstacle that blind people face is the low expectations that the average person might have about blindness. Those low expectations come from a long-ingrained notion in society that blindness equals a lack of capacity; blindness equals darkness which means fear, which means a lack of something.

The NFB helps people understand the truth about blindness by telling the stories of blind people being parents, grandparents, engineers, teachers, doctors, and more. Blind people well, it comes back to our tag line: living the life they want. When we show the public that blind people can live their dreams and that they are out there doing just that, it helps change their attitude about what’s possible.

GreenDrop: You mentioned earlier that there is a myth out there that Braille is a language, when in fact it’s a code. Are there any other myths you want to touch on or clear up?

Mark: Well, readers might want to look at the “Courtesy Rules of Blindness,” section on our website as a primer for how to interact with a blind family member, friend, co-worker, etc. The most common thing we know of is that people tend to talk more loudly to blind people — so knowing that blindness does not equal being deaf is important. On the other hand though, it is also a myth that blind people have sharper hearing and other senses. Simply not true. Another myth is that all blind people need someone to take care of them, when they are perfectly capable of being self-sufficient. You can combat this myth by following this rule of thumb for interacting with a blind person: speak to them directly, and not to a sighted person they are with.

GreenDrop: How can our readers get further involved with the National Federation of the Blind?

Mark: A great place to start would be to sign up for our e-newsletter and start to get to know our organization and educating themselves on the truth about blindness.

We’re a volunteer organization. We’re largely a membership organization of blind people but we have many, many, many sighted members who participate actively in our mission and who believe in it and who contribute to it. People can get involved in our local chapters and they can get involved in our advocacy efforts, or they can get involved with helping to find more blind people in the community. They can help boost attendance for chapter meetings so they can connect to blind people. Getting involved in the grassroots of our organization is a great way of finding out how you can help.

GreenDrop: That sounds great. Thanks, Mark, for being here with us today!

Be sure to check back to the blog for updates on the NFB.