During Black History Month, Independence Now shares stories that celebrate the lives and legacies of Black leaders who have ignited us to create a more inclusive, hopeful, and equitable world.
The following information was collected by Independence Now Board Member, Sandra Sermons, and originally appeared on the National Federation of the Blind website.
Anil Lewis was born in 1964 in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the third of four children. Both his older brother and older sister became legally blind at an early age from retinitis pigmentosa. Lewis was originally labeled educably mentally retarded but eventually became the first member of his family to graduate from college. He has excelled academically, received many awards, participated as a leader in many extracurricular activities, and received several college scholarships. Although he was finally diagnosed at age nine with retinitis pigmentosa, his vision was fairly unaffected until age twenty-five.
Currently employed as the executive director for Blindness Initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), located in Baltimore, Maryland, he coordinates outreach, marketing, and fundraising activities for a national nonprofit organization. He leads a dynamic team of individuals responsible for the creation, development, implementation, and replication of innovative projects and programs throughout a nationwide network of affiliates that work to positively affect the education, employment, and quality of life of all blind people.
As the director of Advocacy and Policy for the NFB, Lewis was responsible for a variety of public policy and strategic programs. Most notably, he was the legislative lead of the NFB’s efforts to repeal Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, an obsolete provision that allows employers to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. As the director of Strategic Communications for the NFB, Lewis coordinated the public relations campaign for the NFB’s Blind Driver Challenge™, an innovative research project to develop nonvisual access technology that made it possible for a blind person to safely and independently operate an automobile.
As a sighted man he fairly easily found respectable employment with wages high above the minimum wage. Then in 1989, while pursuing his bachelor’s of business administration in computer information systems at Georgia State University, he became blind from retinitis pigmentosa. “All of a sudden doors that had been open to me slammed shut.” At that point, although he had always considered himself socially aware, he became personally acquainted with actual social injustice and discrimination. “I am ashamed that only personal experience brought this awakening and decision to take action. But I am proud that I did take action and remain committed today to making a difference in the lives of others.”
Lewis received blindness skills training while completing his course requirements for his degree at GSU. He quickly learned the alternative skills of blindness, including Braille, activities of daily living, assistive technology, and use of the long white cane. He capitalized on them to graduate with his bachelor’s degree from Georgia State in 1993. “It was a struggle to regain the life that blindness had appeared to take from me. Almost everyone who had once respected me now pitied me, but I was determined not to be redefined by my blindness.” Armed with these new skills and this new determination, he quickly became committed to ensuring that others in similar situations could get appropriate training and unlimited opportunities.
Lewis got a job as a Braille and assistive technology instructor. Within a year he was given the greater responsibility of job development/placement specialist, helping clients develop employment skills and get jobs. “I had had no experience helping anyone other than myself get a job. I certainly did not have expertise in job placement for blind people.” It was during this time that he first became aware of the National Federation of the Blind. A friend referred him to the NFB when he had questions about Social Security work incentives and needed information about tools and strategies to help blind people obtain employment. As a result he attended his first NFB convention in Chicago, Illinois, in 1995 and became aware of the empowering philosophy and tremendous resource of the National Federation of the Blind. The technical assistance materials produced by the NFB’s Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB) program and the NFB’s Social Security and technical assistance information provided resources enabling him to motivate, educate, and encourage other blind people to achieve successful gainful employment. “My success as a job placement specialist was a direct result of my ability to infuse NFB philosophy into the clients I worked with.”
Lewis went on to develop and manage a job placement program for people with disabilities as the manager of the Disability Employment Initiative with Randstad Staffing, one of the largest employment staffing companies in the world, during the Atlanta Olympic and Para-Olympic Games in 1996. From 1997 until early 2006 he was employed by the law offices of Martin and Jones as the Georgia Client Assistance Program (CAP) counselor/advocate, representing people with disabilities every day. He served as a disability consultant working with various companies in Georgia from 2006 until 2010, at which time he began working for the NFB’s national office.
He became president of the Atlanta Metropolitan Chapter of the NFB of Georgia in 2000 and was elected president of the NFB of Georgia in 2002. In that year he also received the Kenneth Jernigan Memorial Scholarship, the NFB’s most prestigious award presented to a blind student, which he used to obtain his master’s degree in public administration with emphasis in policy analysis and program evaluation from GSU in 2003. That year he was also elected as a member of the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind. He received an Outstanding Alumnus award from GSU in 1997 and was also a 2003 GSU Torch Bearer of Peace Award recipient. In 2004, the American Bar Association presented Lewis with their Paul G. Hearn Advocacy Award. In 2006 Lewis was named alumnus of the year by Leadership DeKalb, a community leadership development organization in DeKalb County, Georgia. Lewis is also a graduate of the Leadership Georgia program, class of 2008, and the Greater Baltimore LEADERship program, class of 2015.
Lewis has dedicated his leadership skills to the development and growth of disability rights organizations that promote independence and improve quality of life. He was appointed by the governor as a board member and served as president of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Georgia, an organization promoting independent living for those with severe disabilities. He also served as the founding chairman of the board of directors of the Disability Law and Policy Center of Georgia, which used a variety of methods to influence and enforce disability policy. Lewis was appointed by the governor of Maryland and currently serves as chairperson of the Maryland Statewide Rehabilitation Council, which takes an active and visible role in how Maryland’s public vocational rehabilitation program is administered. While serving as a board member of the American Association of People with Disabilities, Lewis helped promote equal opportunity, economic power, independent living, and political participation for people with disabilities. He was also appointed by President Obama as a member of the Committee for Purchase from People Who are Blind or Severely Disabled, known as the U.S. AbilityOne Commission, which administers the AbilityOne Program, a unique employment program sponsored by the Federal Government serving the needs of people who are blind or have other significant disabilities.
All of these organizations recognize that people with disabilities are integral, necessary members of society and reflect the world’s normal diversity. Further, each works to ensure that the policies and programs developed for people with disabilities are created and implemented by people with disabilities. By helping to develop and strengthen such institutions to serve as a cornerstone in protecting the rights of people with disabilities, he hopes to secure the commitment and support of others. He also hopes to reduce the barriers people with disabilities face by encouraging the implementation of public policy securing the rights and promoting the responsible participation of the disabled as productive citizens.
Lewis volunteers as a teacher and mentor for blind kids, working with promising blind students who, because of limited resources and lack of trained professionals to teach them, are inappropriately encouraged to pursue special education diplomas. He wants blind students to set higher goals for themselves and to receive the training and tools they need to acquire the skills to reach their full potential.
Speaking of his personal life, Anil Lewis says that his proudest accomplishment is his bright, ambitious son Amari, born in 1997. Balancing his many civic responsibilities with his personal life as a father is undoubtedly his greatest challenge. His greatest success, he thinks, has been overcoming the temptation to subside into becoming an unmotivated, self-pitying person with a disability. He thinks his greatest contribution so far has been to encourage other people with disabilities to believe in themselves and to understand that they can make a difference.
Lewis says that lack of awareness of individuals with traits outside society’s accepted norms promotes extreme ignorance, which in turn results in unjustified fear, negative stereotypes, and discrimination. In an effort to combat that ignorance, he aggressively recruits, refers, and supports other like-minded people to become active in the National Federation of the Blind and other organizations in the disability rights movement. He hopes to promote social change by fostering the active participation of more people with disabilities in every facet of society, thereby replacing ignorance with understanding, fear with awareness, and negative stereotypes with mutual understanding. In the process he believes that we will eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities. “With a working knowledge of most disability law and policy and extended experience in advocating for the rights of others, I am committed to improving the quality of life for all people with disabilities by working to remove the barriers of ignorance while creating equal opportunities for all. My personal mission is simple: I want to make a positive difference in the lives of others.”