Foreword By Chris Hofstader
The article below was written by my good friend Amanda Carson, a founder and contributing editor to World Blind Herald. It describes in detail with references to original sources, the sexual misconduct problems surrounding The National Federation Of The Blind (NFB). If you have been reading my articles on this site, you may have read one I published last august called "In My Room" which detailed my personal battle with depression. I more or less disappeared from the world of blindness for a number of years and hadn't even heard that NFB had a sex scandal going on.
Amanda, however, has been following these unfolding events closely since the story first started coming out into the public arena. For this article, she has done a deep dive on the research side and I am confident that every factual statement in this story is both true and verifiable. Amanda had lots more information that she could have included in this piece but we did not want to rely on anecdote when we had so much real evidence in hand.
I will also state that the primary source for most of the factual statements in this article is NFB itself. A lot of the quotes come directly from documents NFB has on its own web site but in PDF format which is difficult to impossible to read accessibly on many devices used by blind people. Sure, they published the information but made it both hard to find and hard for a blind person to read.
Author’s Introduction By Amanda Carson
For as long as I can remember, the National Federation of the Blind has styled itself "The voice of the nation’s blind"," without making the distinction between members of the organization and those of us who are part of the blind community but unaffiliated with the federation. NFB has been claiming it has 50,000 members for decades now but has released no documentation supporting its membership numbers. So I doubt this is an accurate number. Given that there are an estimated 1.75 million blind people in America (according to a friend at CNIB), they do not represent 1.7 million of us, they represent 2.86% of us.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to designate your own organization as representative of an entire community, which is not homogenous, but as long as times are good this is a level of arrogance the rest of us can let slide even if we dislike it.
This article recaps the history of these problems at NFB and is based almost entirely on the contents of the NFB internal investigation and a later independent investigation into the problem and the reports containing their conclusions.
What You Will Find In This Article
- Three consecutive NFB presidents have been involved in covering up sexual misconduct by their employees.
- A thirteen year old was molested at their Colorado Center and an NFB employee is facing 18 charges of sex with a minor.
- Fred Schroeder, an NFB executive for years, sexually molested female NFB members for decades and NFB did nothing but cover it up.
- Mark Maurer did everything possible to protect the reputation of NFB even when it meant causing harm to NFB members victimized by the organization’s employees.
- Victims of NFB sexual misconduct are suing NFB in multiple states.
- While this article focusses on a few of the cases, there are many more involving NFB and its employees.
- And, perhaps most importantly, most of the predators identified by NFB itself as such still work for NFB.
- Lastly, I include a resources section at the end of the article for those who might want to seek legal help or counseling related to this matter.
The First Attempt
In July of 2014, Mark Riccobono began his first term of office as President of the Federation. In October of that same year when an allegation against Fred Schroeder, a very high ranking executive at NFB at that time, surfaced he took minimal action by speaking to Schroeder about his alleged behavior. Riccobono then handled Fred's resignation from the leadership position he held at the federation. A good step forward for a new president of the organization.
Riccobono hid the reason for Schroeder’s resignation and, as you'll read below, maintained the relationship between Fred and the NFB. The Fred Schroeder problem became too big to ignore, with the NFB conceding last year in Section 4 of its Interim Report that:
During the Committee’s work, it became increasingly clear that many within the NFB community feel disappointment and frustration about how the NFB addressed complaints alleging sexual misconduct on the part of Fredric Schroeder.
Given Dr. Schroeder’s prominence within the organization and the number of allegations about his misconduct over the course of many years, it is not possible to conduct an objective investigation of sexual misconduct within the NFB without addressing the subject of Fred Schroeder. The Schroeder matter has been described, figuratively, as the elephant in the room. In the Committee’s estimation, it has simmered within the organization for decades, and the Committee believes it is healthy and necessary for the organization to address it in a formal way in this Report.
The case illustrates the significant evolution in the NFB’s response to sexual misconduct over the decades. Because this aspect of the investigation concerns events and discussions occurring over the course of decades, establishing every detail was not possible. Moreover, to protect survivors, the Committee will not reveal specific details. Nonetheless, witness accounts of conversations and events were largely consistent (with one notable exception as set forth below) and several themes emerged.
The preponderance of the evidence is more than sufficient for the Committee to reach the following findings:
Schroeder engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of decades. Although the Committee does not know the exact number of instances, the Committee reasonably finds that there were many. Multiple women were traumatized by him.
By the early 2000s, certain members of leadership were aware of Schroeder’s misconduct and complaints relating to that misconduct. Leadership’s response improved in and around 2014, as additional incidents involving Schroeder were revealed and as the transition from the Maurer administration to the Riccobono presidency happened.
The response, in my opinion, however, was still not sufficient. In Mark Riccobono’s defense, though, he was brand new to the presidency and, while we’ve no documentation on this, Mark Mauer was still involved at a high-level at NFB and was likely looking over Riccobono’s shoulder, at least at the beginning of his administration.
Specifically, the decision to support Schroeder’s candidacy for president of the World Blind Union and to grant Schroeder a platform at annual conventions following his resignation from NFB leadership positions was a mistake. In our fourteen interviews concerning Schroeder’s misconduct and the response to that misconduct, seven specific survivors of Schroeder’s misconduct were identified by name.
Witnesses described several additional incidents of sexual misconduct by Schroeder but declined to identify the victims/survivors of those incidents. The survivors allege misconduct of two distinct types on the part of Schroeder – predatory grooming behavior with young women he mentored or supervised; and groping and aggressive acts committed in connection with alcohol consumption. Grooming is “manipulative behavior that the abuser uses to gain access to potential victims, coerce them to agree to be engage in sexual acts with them, and reduce the risk of being caught.”
The Committee finds that, based on the statements of then-President Maurer and additional witnesses with first-hand knowledge, leadership at the highest levels was aware of the misconduct by 2002 at the latest.
After a report concerning Schroeder’s misconduct was made to Louisiana Tech Universityin 2001 or 2002, then President Maurer learned of the complaint and discussed it with Schroeder and another witness. The witness asserted that Dr. Maurer was upset that the witness had initiated the complaint without talking with him first. Dr. Maurer admitted he was aware of the complaint and recalls that the discussions at the time were centered on protecting the reputation of the Louisiana Tech program and avoiding the potential fallout there and to the Federation itself.
If this isn't a cover up, I don't know what is, maybe NFB secretly has G. Gordon Liddy on the payroll.
Five separate, credible witnesses have recounted additional confrontations or conversations with then-President Maurer about Schroeder’s increasingly public misconduct and the need to intercede. Each, however, came away with the clear understanding that Dr. Maurer had no intention of intervening. The Committee concludes that there was a sense of futility on the part of witnesses who brought to Dr. Maurer concerns about Schroeder’s behavior.
One of the witnesses reported talking with Dr. Maurer about the issue before 2010. Meanwhile, an informal network of women formed to protect younger members from Schroeder’s misconduct by devising creative techniques for avoiding him or minimizing interactions. Dr. Maurer acknowledged conversations with only one of these witnesses and with an additional person with whom we have not spoken; he denied having any memory of the other conversations.
According to one witness, Dr. Maurer advised them that he intended for Dr. Schroeder to become the president of the World Blind Union and did not want anything to “derail” that. Dr. Maurer denied that that discussion occurred. Dr. Maurer explained, however, that, as a result of Schroeder’s conduct, Dr. Maurer concluded that he could no longer support Schroeder in his advancement within the NFB.
The Committee defers to the Board as to what, if any, action should be taken.
In or around October 2014, after Riccobono became president, a survivor came forward after another incident involving Schroeder. She went initially to then-Treasurer Pam Allen to report the incident, and thereafter the survivor and Ms. Allen met with President Riccobono concerning the incident. The survivor reports understanding that, at or around the same time, another person also came forward with allegations about Schroeder(1). Reference Section IV NNFB Interim Report.
Not long after, President Riccobono, Dr. Maurer, Mrs. Jernigan, and Dr. Schroeder gathered in Orlando to plan for an upcoming event. President Riccobono, Dr. Maurer and Mrs. Jernigan used the trip as an opportunity to meet with Schroeder about his misconduct. Also reference Section IV of the NFB Interim Report.
Specifically, the group had concluded that Schroeder needed to resign from his position as First Vice-President of the NFB Board and as President of the Virginia affiliate. President Riccobono recalled that, when they confronted Schroeder with the allegations (and before they had the chance to request Schroeder’s resignation), Schroeder did not attempt to dispute the allegations and offered to resign. Thereafter, Schroeder submitted his resignation to the Board, the members of which were made aware of the most recent issue raised. In the November 2014 Presidential Release, however, President Riccobono announced to the membership that Schroeder had resigned from the NFB Board for “personal reasons.” President Riccobono stated that, although Schroeder had left the Board, he was not leaving the Federation; President Riccobono expressed his appreciation for all the work Schroeder had done and would continue to do for the Federation. Marilyn Manson worked really hard to put his act together but still found time to be a predator. And, I'm sure Quentin Tarantino thanked Harvey Weinstein for doing such a great job producing "Pulp Fiction" as well.
At or around the same time, Schroeder resigned from the presidency of the Virginia affiliate. There was no announcement from either the national organization or the state affiliate that Schroeder’s resignation had anything to do with misconduct. In addition to remaining a member of the NFB, Schroeder maintained his roles on the boards of the World Blind Union and the NBPCB (National Blindness Professional Certification Board). Reference Section IV of NFB Interim Report.
One survivor who had previously reported Schroeder’s misconduct listened to the Release, watched for developments over the next several months, and wondered, “why did I bother?" Reference: NFB Interim report, Sec. IV, and this article.
Less than a year later, Schroeder spoke at the General Session of the NFB’s 2015 National Convention, giving a speech entitled, “The Blind in the World: Spreading The Federation Message,” (2015 Agenda, General Session, July 9, 2015). He was given a similar platform at the 2016 National Convention, giving the very first speech at the General Session. (2016 Agenda, General Session, July 4, 2016) (“The Blind in the World: Leadership, Philosophy, and Action on a Global Scale. We haven't seen Harvey Weinstein appear at the Academy Awards, why is the top NFB predator permitted to speak at a convention that claims to be for all blind people, including its victims?”).
A month later, with the NFB’s express support, Schroeder became the President of the World Blind Union. Once again, reference Section IV of the NFB Internal Report.
Meanwhile, Schroeder remained the President of the Board of the NBPCB, having been so since July 2011. When another member’s certification as a blind professional was revoked in 2019 for sexual misconduct, it was Schroeder who wrote the letter to him explaining his options. Another reference to Section IV of the NFB Interim Report.
The NFB continued to give Schroeder a platform; in 2017, he once again was given one of the general session slots at the National Convention. In 2019, Schroeder’s reception at the National Convention was different. Edward Bell, the Secretary-Treasurer of the NBPCB, was scheduled to speak during the General Session about consumer-driven professional development. Dr. Bell unexpectedly had to leave the Convention and asked Schroeder to take his place on the agenda; Dr. Bell viewed Schroeder as a natural pick because Schroeder was then the President of the NBPCB. Dr.
Bell reported that he, like many in the NFB, was unaware of the reason for Schroeder’s resignation from the NFB’s Board and we've no evidence that Bell was participating in a cover up. The audience, however, did not know about the change in speaker. As a result, there was no opportunity for audience members to avoid the presentation had they wished to do so. Multiple witnesses reported to the Committee that, when it became apparent Schroeder would be giving the speech, dozens of people stood and left the room (“the 2019 Walk-Out”). It was this event – when a large group of members literally voted with their feet – that caused leadership to realize that the decisions they made in 2014 were not adequate. Still another reference to Section IV of NFB Interim Report.
Leadership recognized that Schroeder should no longer occupy such a prominent position at NFB events or continue to lead the NBPCB Board. Since January 2021, when the NFB retained an External Investigator for Code complaints involving sexual misconduct, five complaints have been filed against Schroeder alleging sexual misconduct that occurred prior to his resignation in 2014.
The External Investigator recently completed her investigation into those allegations, finding in favor of the complainants and recommending that Schroeder be suspended from the NFB for a period of five years, at which point he will be allowed to reapply for membership if he has complied with several conditions. Reference NFB Final Report pages 13, 15 and Section IV on page 18.
President Riccobono adopted the External Investigator’s recommendations in full. He also notified the World Blind Union of the suspension. On June 15, 2021, the World Blind Union announced Schroeder’s early resignation from his position as president. Reference NFB Interim Report Section IV.
Multiple witnesses offered their perspective on why this occurred, explaining that Schroeder’s undeniable professional accomplishments and contributions to the blind community made it difficult for any leader to insist that Schroeder be held accountable for his acts, and further that there was a general belief that the sanctions applied in 2014 – effectively ending Schroeder’s advancement within the NFB – were fairly serious. Reference NFB Interim Report Section IV.
But the public-facing information about Schroeder was obviously very different. Schroeder’s ongoing access to prominent placement on the NFB’s National Convention agenda and the NFB’s visible (and reportedly financial) support for Schroeder as president of the World Blind Union created the distinct impression that the NFB had nothing but the highest regard for Schroeder. That was a slap in the face to the survivors of Schroeder’s misconduct.
The Committee further concludes that the 2019 Walk-Out was a galvanizing moment for the NFB, sending a clear message from survivors and their allies that no member was too important to be held fully accountable for sexual misconduct. The Committee believes that that message has been received and accepted, as evidenced by President Riccobono’s adoption of the External Investigator’s recommendation to suspend Schroeder’s NFB membership.
The Second Attempt
In 2017 while the Schroeder Saga was presumably wrapping up, Riccobono started making promises to fix the NFB’s sexual harassment, assault, and abuse problems, announcing a code of conduct and procedure for filing complaints under same in 2018. These promises and the code of conduct were presumably both in response to activists who had been raising the issue internally as well as an attempt to get ahead of anything that might arise from the then-nascent "Me Too" movement. But despite public expressions of a desire to fix the damage caused by alleged sexual abusers within the NFB, by the end of 2017 when Bridgit Kuenning, former head of the Omaha, Nebraska chapter with whom I had an email exchange while researching this story,-Pollpeter, (who had previously served as President of the Omaha, Nebraska chapter), emailed him with concerns surrounding accounts of sexual harassment and abuse she was seeing, to let him know that she wanted to work on addressing the issue, Riccobono’s response was defensive and he demonstrated unwillingness to even address the issue at all.
So efforts to reform stalled.
The Third Attempt
In December of 2020, former students of NFB training centers and counsellors and their supporters tried again, launching the #MarchingTogether movement within the NFB which then prompted a response from Mark Riccobono as well as the administrators of all three NFB training centers containing more apologies and more promises to do better.
This time, it seemed as if we were finally going to get a resolution. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) was hired and committees set up and reports written and more apologies offered and more promises made.. But by the time the final report was issued, it was more of the same. Minimize exposure for the NFB and damage control on steroids. In this author's opinion, The victims were obviously considered less important than the almighty NFB itself.
That minimization and high level damage control applies even when we're talking about the abuse of children.
There are at least two instances of child sexual abuse alleged to have taken place at NFB training centers: One at the Louisiana center and one at the Colorado Center. The NFB response to the incident at the Louisiana Center resulted in a five-year suspension for Michael Ausbun , who has since been arrested and indicted on eighteen counts of molestation of a minor.. THis story received mainstream coverage in articles like Student Accused Man Of Sexual Assault At LA Center For The Blind and Arrest made in Louisiana Center for the Blind sexual assault case. [
The incident which occurred at the Colorado center involved a thirteen-year-old, and while Julie Deden, still head of the Colorado center, insists that police were called once the incident was reported, there is no documentary evidence of that call being made according to the police, and center leadership has refused to turn over corroborating documentation to anyone. A phone conversation I had with David Gilbert (the Colorado journalist who broke this story (Sexual abuse, misconduct allegations kept quiet for decades at world-renowned Colorado Center for the Blind)) on 17 May 2022 at 21:15 Eastern, and phone conversation between myself and Trent Cooper, spokesman for the Glendale, CO police department on 19 May 2022 at 15:06 Eastern verified that law enforcement never received a call from the NFB center.
NFB seems to be asking to please don't judge us too harshly, because "As a general matter, board members from each Center acknowledged the huge amount on their respective director's plate, from recruiting and fundraising to running the day-to-day operations of the Center. Several board members expressed concern about bandwidth issues, particularly where the Center director was also expected to fulfill additional roles within the state or national organization. If the director of a center does not know what their employees are doing, they are incompetent; if they do know about any misconduct on the part of their staff and do nothing about it, they are involved in a conspiracy to cover up the problem – either way, they should be fired with a public announcement as to why so as the blind community can see the action being taken. Reference NFB Final Report page 9.
I'm not sure how many do-overs the NFB thinks it should be granted by the nation's blind, but three is enough. As in baseball and various criminal statutes, three strikes is all one should get.
If your plate is too full to prioritize reporting incidents of rape and child molestation to the authorities, you're too egotistic and protective of the organization's reputation to hold your position and you should be fired. If you've created a situation where your organization needs three separate attempts to resolve your issues with sexual assault and rape and child molestation, you're simply unqualified to keep your position and you should be fired.
If the organization that claims to represent the nation's blind refuses to police itself, (and I think if it needs three or more attempts to deal with sexual abuse within its ranks we can safely say that it definitely refuses), then it's up to the nation's blind, whichever organization it is or isn't affiliated with, to do the policing for it. I'm told that ACB, also part of the community, passed a resolution asking a federal agency to do an investigation of NFB training centers, it's uncertain if this investigation happened or is happening but NFB did object to the ACB move.
If you're a member of NFB, ask yourself if this is the kind of leadership the population of blind people need or want? NFB has, as they admit to in the article above, been covering up the victimization of its members and then doing anything they could to keep the victims from reporting the incident to law enforcement or engaging a lawyer. If you're the sort of NFB member who only attends the annual convention to "catch up with friends I only see once per year," why not just organize a big party at a hotel in Vegas or some fun place and enjoy hanging out together rather than endorsing an organization that places its reputation above your needs and those of the community?
There are some prominent NFB members who are really good people and I wish they were the ones in charge of the entire organization. These would include but not be limited to Tim Elder, president of the California NFB chapter and Bryan Bashen, CEO of LightHouse/SF. Unfortunately, Tim is very busy as an ADA lawyer and Bryan has expressed an interest in retiring.
To gain my trust and that of the NFB membership hurt by the organization's sexual issues, NFB must take serious action to reform itself. It needs to remove all of the known bad apples from its basket and ensure those who visit their residential centers and/or convention are safe.
If you or a loved one are a survivor of sexual abuse that took place at an NFB facility or event, and you wish to seek justice through the legal system, contact the O’Mara Law Group at (800) 267-5547 for a confidential case evaluation. The O'Mara Law Group has no affiliation with the NFB and is already representing at least one survivor in a related criminal case.
If you need assistance with finding counseling resources, including finding a local therapist, RAINN [offers a 24-hour phone hotline as well as online chat and an online search resource you can use to find professional help. I'd recommend using the hotline as the online search can be used but may be too much of an accessibility barrier if you're not in the brain space to get something online to play nice with your screen reader.
How This Article Is Sourced
This article is referenced in three ways. Item's with a link to a reference, the reference being typed out at the end of some paragraphs and any text in block quotes comes directly from the NFB Report on this matter. Anything without a reference is the opinion of the author.