Advocacy group for the blind apologizes for allegations of sexual misconduct

An organization that lobbies for the rights of blind people has formed a…

Advocacy group for the blind apologizes for allegations of sexual misconduct
Advocacy group for the blind apologizes for allegations of sexual misconduct 1

Justin Wm. Moyer
 |  Washington Post

An organization that lobbies for the rights of blind people has formed a task force and hired an outside consultant after apologizing for allegations of sexual misconduct in its programs, which surfaced in an open letter last month.

The letter was sent to the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, a Louisiana-based organization that certifies instructors for the blind. It includes hundreds of signatures from people the letter describes as “victims, survivors, and witnesses of sexual and psychological abuse at programs, conventions, and blindness rehabilitation centers . . . and their allies and supporters.”

The letter calls for an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations and the institution of new policies by Aug. 31 to prevent misconduct, among other demands. Advocates said they were motivated to come forward amid a movement to shine a light on sexual assault.

“We are writing this open letter to urge action to be taken to reduce and eliminate the widespread instances of emotional/psychological abuse, sexual assault/harassment, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and all other forms of abuse within these agencies,” the letter said.

In a speech this month, National Federation of the Blind president Mark Riccobono said the organization has partnered with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network “to assist us in furthering a safe, inclusive and welcoming culture free of sexual misconduct.”

RAINN will help the organization create a mandatory sexual misconduct training program and review its code of conduct, Riccobono said, as the federation launches a “survivor-led task force” to “implement a sustainable, positive culture change.”

The National Federation of the Blind is the oldest and largest nationwide organization of blind Americans, according to its website. Founded in 1940, it works to expand blind people’s access to the ballot and paperwork for federal disability benefits, among other initiatives.

Riccobono, who apologized in a Dec. 16 letter for the federation’s handling of sexual misconduct, said in an interview that the organization “wanted to be very aggressive and bring in as many experts as we can.” The task force will not investigate individual complaints, he said, but did not rule out providing financial assistance to those who have endured misconduct.

“The survivors are going to lead this and guide us on this,” he said. “I’m completely open.”

Sarah Meyer, a member of the task force, said the effort would “amplify survivor voices.”

RAINN confirmed the partnership with the federation but declined additional comment.

The National Blindness Professional Certification Board said it is reviewing its code of ethics to ensure the highest standards for professional behavior.

“We have proactively encouraged anyone with knowledge of any professional we certify who may have behaved inappropriately to contact us so that we can gather all relevant information and take the necessary actions,” the board said in a statement. “We remain committed to ensuring that those we certify conduct themselves both professionally and ethically.”

Stacy Cervenka, a 40-year-old consultant for a Nebraska state rehabilitation agency who helped to write the letter, said advocates were concerned the National Federation of the Blind “will not address rooting out the many past offenders and those who have covered acts of sexual misconduct for years.” She said she was sexually assaulted at federation events in 2000 and 2008.

“It’s important and necessary to put new systems and policies in place, but there is a lot of distrust,” she said.

Danielle Montour, a 23-year-old assistive technology specialist from Texas who signed the letter, said in an interview with The Washington Post that she was raped in a Boston hotel room in 2012 at a federation-affiliated student seminar when she was 15.

Montour, who was blinded during infancy by the rare cancer bilateral retinoblastoma, said she grew up in New Hampshire with few blind peers. She fought with her parents, who were concerned about her safety, to attend the Boston conference.

“It was my first opportunity to meet an organized group of blind people” in an academic setting, she said. “I was really excited.”

Montour said her assailant was a 19-year-old fellow student who had more functional vision and whom she was asked to mentor during the conference, even though he was older. She said she reported the rape to the federation and to law enforcement in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but nothing was done, and her assailant still attends federation events.

Federation spokesman Chris Danielsen declined to comment on specific allegations. Boston police said they do not release complaints involving victims of sexual assault, while New Hampshire state police, citing privacy concerns, said they could not confirm the existence of the report.

Montour said society views blind people as asexual “cherubs” – people who are routinely touched by strangers who want to help them navigate the world when, often, they need no such help. Partly for this reason, Montour said, the blind community does not get sufficient sex education, particularly about consent.

“We’re taught our bodies are not just our property,” she said. “If that’s how it is in public, imagine how it is when it comes to sex and people aren’t educated.”

Other sexual misconduct allegations were linked to federation training centers, which teach students life skills like Braille, home economics and use of the organization’s signature long white canes, which can improve blind people’s ability to travel without assistance. The centers, which host months-long programs, are known for a strict philosophy that challenges students to become independent.

In an interview, Maria Salazar, 25, who also signed the letter, said she moved from Los Angeles to Littleton, Colo., in 2019 to join a training center. She was born blind, she said, and also has poor hearing in one ear and a kidney problem that has left her on dialysis for seven years. She wanted to improve her mobility and learn to live in her own apartment.

“I can take care of myself at the very least,” she said. “I don’t see blindness as a problem – as a reason not to do something.”

At the program’s conclusion she sought to stay in Colorado, where she thought she had a better chance of getting a kidney transplant. She said the training center pressured her to move out of its housing and into an apartment with another student – a middle-aged man who raped her in November, she said.

Salazar reported the incident to police. Littleton police declined to release a report or other details, citing the nature of the complaint.

Riccobono, who attended the Colorado center 21 years ago, said the centers “are committed to protecting blind people.” He added: “The boards of those centers are committed to making sure that the environment is challenging and safe and healthy.”

Now living with her parents in Los Angeles, Salazar said she is waiting for her federal coronavirus stimulus payment to she can return to Colorado.

“Everything is just a disaster, honestly,” she said. “I’m just hoping that something good can happen.”

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