In recent days, the following articles have been published concerning the subject of sexual misconduct within the National Federation of the Blind. With apologies to the Washington Post and the Des Moines Register, and in the interest of the blindness community at large, I am circumventing their pay walls by posting the text of both articles here on my blog for your perusal.
From the Washington Post:
Advocacy group for the blind apologizes for allegations of sexual misconduct
Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, in an online speech Jan. 4. (National Federation of the Blind)
Justin Wm. Moyer
Jan. 15, 2021 at 8:14 a.m. CST
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.”
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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.”
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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.”
Justin Wm. Moyer
Justin Wm. Moyer is a breaking news reporter for The Washington Post. After a long stint as a contributing writer at the Washington City Paper, he came to The Post in 2008, becoming an editor in Outlook and for the Morning Mix, The Post’s overnight team. He became a reporter in 2015.Follow
End of article.
From the Des Moines Register:
When Katy Olsen was 20, she won her first scholarship to attend a national convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando, Florida.
The opportunity — afforded to students across the country who excel in academics, community involvement and leadership — meant she would be in the running for a college scholarship ranging from $3,000 to $12,000 and a chance to represent Iowa in the nation’s oldest and largest organization serving blind Americans.
But beginning that week in 2016, the Madrid, Iowa, native said she experienced something similar to what many other blind and low-vision women have come forward to say happened after they became involved with the nationwide nonprofit.
It began with a new friend and mentor she’d met the year before becoming increasingly controlling and touchy, making her feel uncomfortable. The longtime member, Jerad Nylin, would become president of Iowa’s affiliate of National Federation of the Blind later that October.
“He constantly reminded me that I would not be at the convention as a finalist if it wasn’t for him, because he was the one who pushed me to apply for it,” said Olsen, who won a $5,000 scholarship that year.
Olsen said she rejected Nylin’s advances and attempts to kiss her at another national federation seminar in Washington, D.C., in 2017. And she tried to avoid him at the federation’s next national convention in Orlando the same year — until Nylin asked her to come to his hotel room one night to meet some new friends.
After they left, she said, Nylin pressured her to stay and assaulted her, “pushing me back, kissing me, trying to put his hand down my pants,” she said.
Other incidents — groping and touching at times when other blind people in their presence couldn’t be aware — would happen at other gatherings over the next two years, she said.
Olsen filed a complaint with the organization in 2018. She also discussed with Iowa federation leaders in 2019 uncomfortable behavior by Michael Harvey, an older federation member and co-worker at the Iowa Department for the Blind, although she did not file a formal complaint. She said he got too close to her and touched her during a department gathering the same year.
Harvey, the subject of other complaints from female employees, was fired in March 2020, state records show.
“But that time in the hotel room was the time I felt the most attacked,” Olsen said.
Nylin, who did not return phone and Facebook messages seeking comment, voluntarily resigned his position as head of the Iowa affiliate in November 2018, after a three-person panel assembled by the national federation investigated Olsen’s formal code-of-conduct complaint.
His membership in the national federation was suspended, and he was told to refrain from contacting Olsen, according to the letter national federation President Mark Riccobono sent to Olsen outlining the panel’s decision.
“He has been advised that if further credible complaints arise, he may be subject to expulsion from the organization if the complaints are verified,” Riccobono wrote.
Olsen, a former University of Iowa student and youth counselor at the Iowa Department for the Blind who now attends college in Ruston, Lousiana, has since learned of numerous recent allegations of sexual misconduct in connection with the National Federation of the Blind, its affiliated training and rehabilitation programs, and its state affiliates, including the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.
Emboldened by the MeToo movement, blind women across the country, who have relied on the federation’s advocacy, funding, programming and services to have more independent lives, have taken to Facebook and Twitter to report their encounters of sexual assault, groping and sexual harassment, using #MarchingTogether.
Amid the disclosures, a group of more than 500 survivors and supporters signed an open letter in December demanding action from the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and the National Blindness Professionals Certification Board in Ruston.
The letter said those who have come forward have suffered retaliation, alienation and “serious damage to personal and professional relationships and reputations.”
Stacy Cervenka, a Lincoln, Nebraska, public policy expert for the blind and member of the national federation until 2018, helped circulate the open letter after she said leaders at the national organization, including Riccobono, failed to address widespread reports of problems more than two years ago.
Married to a supervisor at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind, Cervenka became involved after she said a man who had been fired twice for sexual misconduct received promotions despite being reported to the National Blindness Professionals Certification Board.
Since then, Cervenka said, she has collected dozens of stories of rape, groping, harassment and assault from women who attended federation training centers, conventions and other events.
The stories have led to ongoing discussions on social media about how little has changed over a period of decades in an insular community where federation-sponsored conventions, training programs and gatherings are focal points of socialization for young blind and low-vision people.
Members have complained that men have received little training or guidance on sexual behavior, while women have been encouraged to be passive or silent about widespread groping, harassment or even rape. Many have commented on Facebook about the difficulty of trying to expose deeply rooted problems within a member-led organization that so many people rely on. Others have lashed out at those who have spoken up in support of women who have told their stories.
“I honestly thought that things would be handled if victims would just tell leaders and tell training center directors.,” Cervenka wrote on her Facebook page. “… I came to know that leadership at the highest levels of NFB knew that this was a huge problem.”
‘I’m hoping to see justice for survivors’
The widespread allegations also have created a firestorm of controversy for a national advocacy and watchdog nonprofit that has sued universities, retailers, software companies and other organizations for discriminatory practices on behalf of blind and low-vision Americans.
Cervenka said she wants the organization to stop burying accusations from women, weed out abusers who remain in the federation’s ranks and take meaningful steps to stop sexual misconduct.
“I’m hoping to see justice for survivors,” she said. “I’m hoping those who have perpetrated abuse will be relieved of their positions. I’m hoping those in national leadership will face consequences for all the covering up and the silencing.”
Last month, Riccobono wrote a long letter of apology to the federation’s membership, saying he had made many mistakes and accepted responsibility.
“I am profoundly sorry that anyone has been harmed by experiences in our movement,” he wrote. “As a husband, father of three children, and leader who tries to live by a strong set of ethical values, I hurt for the survivors, and I deeply regret that I have made mistakes along the way.”
Riccobono said the campaign to expose sexual misconduct prompted the national federation this month to form a task force of survivors and engage a national anti-sexual violence organization to train its membership and rework its code of conduct. The organization also is working to enhance its reporting practices and training.
But Cervenka, Olsen and other women say the organization and its affiliates continue to retain members who have been accused of sexual assault and other misconduct, including some in leadership roles.
Nylin, who lives in Iowa City, was reinstated at the Iowa affiliate last year after a year’s probation and was invited to serve on a state nominating committee to elect new board members.
Olsen said she never received any notice of his reinstatement. But when she talked with Iowa affiliate president Scott Van Gorp in emails and over Zoom, she said, he told her the national federation was responsible for reinstating Nylin.
That decision was made even though Janae Peterson, a member since high school who currently works at Iowa State University, told the federation that she also was sexually assaulted and harassed by Nylin in the same year as Olsen’s report.
Peterson said she had known Nylin for years and tended to dismiss his questionable behavior until the summer of 2018, when she said he tried to grab her genitals beneath her shorts while the two were at Johnny’s Hall of Fame, a downtown Des Moines sports bar.
Peterson, 31, said she wasn’t aware of Olsen’s complaint until the code of conduct panel contacted her in fall 2018 during its sexual misconduct investigation.
She said the group sent her a letter after hearing about her case and asked her to outline what happened. But she said the outreach seemed very process-driven and lacking in any concern for what had happened to her.
At that point, she said, she decided not to take part in that investigation.
But she said she later contacted state and national leaders about her case, expressing great disappointment at the way they had gone about trying to investigate Nylin.
In a November 2018 letter to Riccobono, she said she had declined to make a written statement because she feared it would be shared with Nylin, as happened in Olsen’s case.
“In the past month, I have learned a lot about our organization’s history regarding sexual misconduct. If we make victims think twice about coming forward by requiring them to write long letters, relive their experiences in writing, and then send that information to the accused, it will send the message to predators that sexual harassment is acceptable, tolerable, and easily dismissed,” she wrote.
Riccobono replied to her in an email, saying he would reflect on what she wrote and “will take the actions that I believe best serve the members of our organization and creating the culture that we want to have in the future. I hope that you might be willing to take a moment to consider that my intention in this process might actually come from a place of love.”
Riccobono declined to comment on any specific sexual misconduct allegation. In a statement to Watchdog, he said:
“The National Federation of the Blind has a zero tolerance for abusive or violent behavior of any kind. Last week we announced a comprehensive program, in addition to our existing Code of Conduct internal review process. This includes an on-going partnership with RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, to assist us in furthering a safe, inclusive, and welcoming culture as part of all our programs and activities, as well as a survivor-led task force to help advise and guide our efforts.”
Peterson has since posted her story on Facebook. She said it makes her angry the federation reinstated Nylin and put him in another leadership committee position in Iowa.
“I was a pretty prominent member, serving on some of the federation’s national boards. So it’s not like I was a nobody,” she said. “No one has invited either (Olsen or me) to be a part of things again, but they will call Jerad.”
Lynn Baillif, a longtime federation member living in Baltimore, said she got involved in the movement because she believes the federation’s scholarship structure has for decades made students vulnerable to more powerful members and mentors who might take advantage.
A former national scholarship committee member, she said students who attend the national convention are beholden to those who mentor them at conventions because those mentors have sway over the size of their college scholarships.
Bailiff, 51, said she experienced an incident similar to what Olsen said happened to her when she was 17, attending a national federation convention.
Bailiff said she also met the man in his hotel room and he told her he would help get her a college scholarship if she slept with him. She refused him.
She said she reported the man, and he was kicked off the federation’s scholarship committee “in a fairly public way.”
So she was flabbergasted when he was later allowed to rejoin the national federation’s scholarship committee in the late-1990s, when she was also a member, she said.
“I was told he had grown out of it, so they had put him back on,” she said.
Riccobono declined to comment on the allegation.
Bailiff said the man she reported — whom she did not want to name publicly — has been working for the national federation on alleged sexual misconduct cases for years.
Emails related to sexual misconduct cases and the federation’s tax filings show he continues to work for the federation.
Two Iowa Department for the Blind workers fired
Those who signed the open letter have demanded the national federation put in place by Aug. 31 clear policies to “swiftly and thoroughly investigate allegations.” They also want to ensure victims don’t lose services or funding or get kicked out of programs after reporting accusations.
They have asked that perpetrators be removed from their jobs at local rehabilitation centers or any leadership posts in the organizations.
Iowa women say they also have reported sexual misconduct to the Iowa Department for the Blind, which often partners with the National Federation of the Blind and its affiliates with programming.
Since August 2019, two department employees who have been accused of sexual misconduct — Harvey and Michael Hoing — have been fired, state records obtained by Watchdog show.
Hoing could not be reached for comment. Reached by phone, Harvey said he would have to call Watchdog back, but did not.
Olsen, now 24, said she discussed Harvey’s behavior with Van Gorp, the current president of the Iowa affiliate of the national federation, telling him she believed Harvey should be monitored because she knew he had been accused of harassing other women as well.
At that point, she said, Van Gorp told her the only way action could be taken was to file another formal code of conduct complaint to the national federation.
“But I had just done that process the year before with (Nylin). That was traumatizing, and I didn’t want to do it again,” she said.
She said she stepped down last fall as second vice president of the state affiliate after Harvey was tapped by a nominating committee to become first vice president last fall.
She said she told Van Gorp she would have to work closely with Harvey, and she did not feel safe.
“But he kept saying the past is in the past, and we have to keep moving forward,” she said. “But that’s not possible when you’ve been through trauma like this.”
Niah Howard, 29, a former Department for the Blind employee who is also a student now at Louisiana Tech University, said she is one of the people who made formal complaints about Harvey’s inappropriate behavior.
She did so in early summer 2019, she said, after participating in blindness immersion training at the Iowa Department for the Blind’s orientation center in Des Moines.
In the complaint to the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, Howard said Harvey, her braille and technology instructor, asked if he could demonstrate how to track a line of braille by touching her shoulders and back during one of her lessons.
“He proceeded to track his fingers across my back. It felt inappropriate to me, but as a new professional in the field, I was not certain of this,” Howard wrote.
She said she later spoke with another instructor in the training center a few weeks later and was told that the behavior was inappropriate.
“I spoke with (Emily Wharton), director of the Iowa Department for the Blind about the incident, and again it was confirmed that this had been inappropriate behavior of an instructor and she encouraged me to report the incident to the Department of Administrative Services.”
Harvey wasn’t removed from his position as president of the Des Moines chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa until it began a formal code of conduct investigation into several complaints in December 2020. He was first vice president of the state affiliate until October.
Wharton, director of Iowa’s Department for the Blind, said: “Unfortunately, our attorney says we are not able to release the reason for Michael Harvey’s termination.”
But Wharton did confirm that Michael Hoing, a summer worker at the department, left the department in 2019 after a state Department of Administrative Services sexual harassment complaint against him was deemed founded.
Wharton said she wished she “could legally say more” about reports of sexual misconduct within the department, but that she could not elaborate on specific reports.
However, she said, all complaints are referred to the Department of Administrative Services and investigated. All of the complaints the department has received involved employees, she said.
“I can tell you we’ve taken complaints very seriously,” she said. “As a rule or as a policy, we do act on them.”
On Jan. 13, Van Gorp sent the following message to all members of the federation’s affiliate in Iowa:
“In light of recent events within the blindness community and discussions surrounding the Code of Conduct, several members throughout the affiliate have approached me and other leaders with questions that I would like to address at this time. The questions have surrounded allegations regarding one specific individual in the affiliate.
“After coordinating with our national president earlier this week, I am sharing the following information in an effort to be as transparent as possible. A grievance has been filed under the Code of Conduct of the National Federation of the Blind against Michael Harvey. This grievance is still going through the Code of Conduct process, and I have not received any additional information. In the meantime, Michael has been advised not to participate in Federation activities while this grievance is pending.
“In addition, you may see stories in media outlets throughout the country and here in Iowa. We are not commenting on any specific individuals or incidents.
“We in the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa stand with survivors and are doing everything we can to prevent incidents from happening to others while ensuring a safe space for survivors’ voices to be heard. We support the efforts of the survivor task force and look forward to the changes that will be implemented by our national organization in partnership with RAINN as well as from recommendations from the task force.
“In the meantime, as President Riccobono alluded to in his Presidential release on January 4, we need to keep moving forward while continuing to deal with these issues in a compassionate and constructive manner. I look forward to seeing where we go from here. Let’s consider where we’ve been, look at where we are now, and continue to look forward to the future to put these issues behind us and make the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa a safe place for all. To borrow the title of a recent newsletter, Federation Forward!”
Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at email@example.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.