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Critics Say Blind Organization is Ignoring Its Historic Mission

October 24, 2003
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A group that historically has served blind Jews is being accused of discrimination by a new Jewish blind group.

The founders of the new National Federation of the Blind in Judaism are saying that JBI International, formerly called the Jewish Braille Institute, has strayed from its mission of providing religious material to its members.

At issue is how best to serve the blind community — there are an estimated 200,000-250,000 severely visually impaired Jews in the United States — and, indeed, whether an organization for the blind should serve visually impaired people who don’t know Braille.

JBI International has been a resource for blind Jews since 1931, providing tools for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, prayer books and educational materials to blind and visually impaired children and adults.

The organization has an annual budget of about $3 million, all from private donations.

At an emotional news conference last week, members of the National Federation — which has about 50 dues-paying members — laid out their charges against JBI International.

They complained about the donation of JBI’s 70,000-volume Braille library to the Library of Congress, instances in which JBI allegedly failed to provide Bar or Bat Mitzvah materials to children who requested them and the prioritization of recorded material over Braille literature.

When JBI gave away its Braille library, “no one was asked,” said Buffa Hanse, a federation activist who teaches Braille at the Kentucky Department for the Blind. “We were not asked to work in partnership. That’s what we want, because that’s what we can give.”

At the Oct. 15 news conference, critics also charged that JBI effectively forced blind executives off the organization’s board — and that, as a result, blind members’ needs and concerns are being ignored.

Ed Lewinson, who had served on the board for 30 years, quit together with a colleague in March 2003. “We were not forced off,” Lewinson said, but “under the circumstances we felt we had to” step down.

Currently, five out of JBI’s 48 board members are blind.

Under the leadership of executive vice president Ellen Isler, who took over the organization in 2000, “JBI has gone from being a consumer-friendly organization to one that reflects the stereotypes and condescension with which we, as blind people, must contend all our lives,” Lewinson wrote in a resignation letter.

JBI rejects the charges as “unfounded” and “unconscionable.”

“Nothing has changed in our service to Braille readers,” Isler said.

As for the donation of its library to the Library of Congress, JBI insists that it is replacing Braille prayer books that are out of date.

“We had books in storage that were not called upon. They were just sitting there, and the Library of Congress said they would be willing to take them and store them for free,” said Barbara Friedman, JBI’s president.

The move allowed JBI, a small organization that often is strapped for money, to preserve Braille literature more efficiently and effectively, she said.

Members of the federation also say JBI officials showed their apathy toward the blind community by removing the word “Braille” from the group’s name.

JBI officials insist they changed their name to more accurately represent their constituents’ international scope.

JBI cites statistics that undergird the group’s shift of priorities away from Braille materials and toward recorded materials. The organization currently has only 238 regular subscribers and 534 occasional subscribers to Braille materials — as compared with around 9,000 people who use recorded tapes and compact discs.

Board member Arlene Gordon, who has been involved in JBI’s changes, said many members are happy with JBI’s direction. Having lost her sight at age 45, Gordon does not rely on Braille but enjoys the recorded materials.

“There are plenty of blind people who are represented and whose voices are heard,” she said. “I know mine has been.”

The debate may boil down to the question of which constituents are JBI’s priority — the blind community it has worked with for years or the growing number of visually impaired elderly who do not consider themselves blind but still benefit from JBI’s services.

Because people are living longer and because of the baby-boom generation, the number of visually impaired people is growing, Isler said.

JBI is “expanding outreach efforts to seniors losing their vision, whose numbers are growing exponentially,” she said.

Federation members say they feel jilted. They probably will not seek legal recourse, but they still want to make their voices heard, said federation chairman Harold Snider, who wrote to Friedman in August 2003 requesting a meeting.

Though no meeting ever took place, Isler says Friedman answered the letter in a “polite and appropriate way.”

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