Russell Shaffer, Joe Strechay, and Chris Downey at a 2015 AFBLC panel on employment Russell Shaffer, Senior Manager, Corporate Affairs, Walmart, Joe Strechay, AFB CareerConnect Program Manager, and Chris Downey, Architect, talking about success and vision loss

We just closed up our 2015 AFB Leadership Conference, and I would love to share some highlights. It was a fast-and-furious conference with no reference to the current Furious 7 film. The conference was jam-packed with unique and informative content from experts from around the United States and abroad. Our final head count was somewhere around 420 attendees from 38 states and 7 countries, which is quite awesome. The conference could not have happened without our co-host, Arizona AER, our conference ally, VisionAware Alliance, our partners, sponsors, exhibitors, volunteers, presenters, staff, and especially the work of Scott Truax and Amanda Kolling (AFB's conference dynamic duo).

So, without any further ado, here is your 2015 top 12 list!

  1. The first highlight has to be the tremendous list of generous sponsors who care about our mission and the AFB Leadership Conference. Our sponsors were JPMorgan Chase & Co., Delta Gamma Foundation, Google, AudioEye, IBM, Vanda Pharmaceuticals, Inc., CTIA, OpenText (formerly Actuate), Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, Canon, Comcast, Facebook, Freedom Scientific, Microsoft, NIB, HumanWare, APH, Helen Keller Services, A.B. Data, and TracFone. In addition, I have to mention the enthusiastic and innovative exhibitors who showed off their products and services, and provided fantastic prizes for our popular “exhibitor bingo.” AFB is all about partnerships and connecting people to resources, and these exhibitors provided an extra punch to the conference with their great offerings.

  2. AFB Press and Professional Development gave a presentation on leadership through authorship. Editor and author perspectives were given for helping to build the knowledge base of the field and to advance the dialogue on critical topics by writing books, submitting journal articles, and making presentations through webinars.

  3. The summits and offerings on the first day of the conference allowed attendees to gather, hear, and discuss the latest information about topics such as transition, research and policy, technology, and the aging population. You might have been in the Apple training, Google Android training, or in the packed AccessWorld Technology Summit brought to you by Lee Huffman. Maybe you were at the National Transition Summit, where we discussed current innovative programs and the obstacles faced by professionals and providers. You will see all the notes and next steps posted to the National Transition page soon.

  4. If you attended any part of the research and policy session from AFB’s Mark Richert and Rebecca Sheffield, you would have been blown away with the depth of knowledge, delivery, and humor used to make data, research, and policy as entertaining as television's “Big Bang Theory.”

  5. Getting to meet all of the future experts in the field of blindness and visual impairment by networking with current Delta Gamma Fellows in attendance of the conference was truly inspiring, and this is all thanks to the Delta Gamma Foundation's sponsorship. Delta Gamma didn't stop there, however—if you attended, you might have met a number of volunteers from local Delta Gamma chapters or alumnae who now live in the Phoenix area. Delta Gamma truly helped make the conference a huge success.

  6. Did you make it to the Saturday afternoon session by Mahadeo Sukhai, one of a handful of congenitally blind biomedical researchers in North America? Dr. Sukhai spoke about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) access in postsecondary education. I can tell you I walked away from this session with some great ideas and motivation around the inclusion of individuals who are blind or visually impaired in STEM lab settings and "practical spaces" in the arts and design. And he just happens to be an AFB CareerConnect mentor, too.

  7. Would it be wrong to put my employment panel on this list? Well, I don't think so as the panel was truly exceptional. Toni Mayros from the Tui Group, Jim Camp from Walmart, and Mylene Padolina from the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN) did a great job of addressing questions on trends in the employment process, disclosure, talent acquisition, social media, and advice for professionals and job seekers. I really don't think this panel could have gone any better, and that is because of these talented individuals.

  8. If you attended the informative personnel preparation panel general session and accessibility panel with Paul Schroeder, you would be geared up for next year's 2016 AFB Leadership Conference in Arlington, VA, as these panels set the tone for the level of content that come from the conference. Hearing from executives and experts at companies like Microsoft and Comcast leaves a lasting impression. During the personnel preparation panel, a great question about the preparation of teachers specific to training youth on technology was asked by Carl Augusto, and I believe this topic will be highlighted more next year.

  9. I am biased, but I am putting my own general session on this list! The Stephen Garff Marriott Award was presented during the session to Russell Shaffer from Walmart, an exemplary individual who gives back to the world while demonstrating that vision loss or blindness shouldn't stop you for reaching and striving for success at the highest level. During the general session, I had the opportunity to interview Russell and Chris Downey, lead architect from Architecture for the Blind, about their work, life, vision loss, and adjustment. We could not have picked two better panelists. I had multiple people come up to me and share that they cried during the session and two people even cried while talking to me about the panel. Many more asked for another general session like this in the future, and I would be happy to oblige.

  10. The newest AFB Press publication, Vision and the Brain: Understanding Cerebral Visual Impairment in Children, edited by Amanda Hall Lueck and Gordon Dutton was presented to great acclaim and the copies brought to the conference sold out quickly. This book will bring much needed information and new perspectives about working with children with CVI. I also have to mention the cool squeezable brains that AFB Press gave out at the conference for stress relief—that was quite cool and unique.

  11. Apple and the Apple Watch wowed the audience in the very first presentation about the accessibility and use of this cool new device. Numerous people remarked that they went online and pre-ordered their own later that day after seeing the demo.

  12. The top highlight, however, has to be the award presentation events at the conference. As the most prestigious award specific to the field of blindness, the 2015 Migel Medal was presented to Judy Brewer, Dr. Gaylen Kapperman, and Dr. Rosanne Silberman. The Kirchner Award for excellence in research was presented to Dr. John Crews of the CDC. The 2015 AFB Access Awards were presented to Comcast, Microsoft, MIPsoft, Odin Mobile, Joel Snyder, American Printing House for the Blind, Orbit Research, and Texas Instruments. The Access Awards highlight individuals, companies, and organizations that bring accessibility to a new level in way that can be replicated for the benefit of creating better access for people who are blind or visually impaired. This was a stellar group of winners to add to the great history of past winners recognized by the American Foundation for the Blind.

Besides all of the great general sessions and concurrent sessions, the conference was a fabulous place to network and meet other passionate professionals from around the United States and abroad. I met Joel Isaac from JPMorgan Chase, and he knows that I will be contacting him for an AFB CareerConnect Our Stories piece. It was wonderful meeting new contacts and networking with current contacts and friends. As always, it feels like you are visiting with a big extended family. On a side note, the staff at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown were top notch, perhaps even the best staff I’ve worked with in all of my Marriott stays (and I’ve racked up a lot of Marriott nights). A special shout out to Summer, Tommy, Monique, Ben, and Pamela. Both Summer and Tommy treated me like family; what a great hotel and staff!

If you attended, let us know your favorite aspect or session from the 2015 AFB Leadership Conference (#AFBLC). If you didn't make it this year, you missed out hardcore on innovative and unique information concerning technology, accessibility, employment, education, leadership, and rehabilitation specific to blindness and visual impairment. Don’t miss out next year—mark your calendars for March 3-5, 2016 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott, just a quick metro ride to all of the sights and attractions of Washington, DC. See you there!