Legislative Agenda of Blind Americans: Priorities for the 106th Congress, Second Session
Public policies and laws affecting blind people have a profound impact throughout our entire society. Most people know someone who is blind. It may be a friend, a family member, or a co-worker on the job. In fact, as many as fifty thousand Americans become blind each year, and the blind population in the United States is estimated to exceed 1.1 million. By themselves these numbers may not seem large, but the social and economic consequences of blindness directly touch the lives of millions and--at least indirectly--have some impact on everyone.
Public policies and laws that result from misconceptions or lack of information about blindness are often more limiting than the loss of eyesight itself. This is why we have formed the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation's leaders and the vast majority of its members are blind, but anyone is welcome to join in the effort we are making to win understanding and equality in society.
Our priorities for the second session of the 106th Congress reflect an urgent need for action in three specific areas of vital importance to the blind this year. (For a further explanation of these issues please see the attached fact sheets.)
1. Congress should reinstate the policy of an identical earnings exemption threshold for blind and senior citizen beneficiaries under title II of the Social Security Act. This proposal seeks to reduce or eliminate altogether the work disincentive of the Social Security earnings limit as it now affects blind beneficiaries.
2. Congress should amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to exclude blindness as a basis for paying subminimum wages. This proposal is designed to achieve wage equity for blind employees by eliminating the subminimum wage policy as currently applied to blind workers.
3. Congress should amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to assist schools through the establishment of uniform nonvisual access standards which will be applied when purchasing instructional materials and technology. Without these standards instructional materials and technology will continue to be inaccessible to blind students, and the right to an equal-opportunity education for these children will be denied.
Blind people are asking for your help to address the priority issues listed in our current agenda. By acting on these priorities in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind, each member of Congress can help build better lives for the blind, and society as a whole, both today and in the years ahead.
Winning the Chance to Earn, Work, and Pay Taxes:
How the Blind Person's Earnings Limit in the
Short Title: "The Blind Persons' Earnings Equity Act," S 285 Short Title: "Blind Empowerment Act," HR 1601
To restore the linkage between the earnings exemption threshold for blind persons and the exemption allowed for retirees at age sixty-five under title II of the Social Security Act.
As the result of a 1996 law to raise the debt limit, senior citizens age sixty-five to seventy are encouraged to continue working while retaining entitlement to Social Security benefits. This is being done by annual changes in the exempt earnings threshold, which is $17,000 in 2000 and will increase to $30,000 by the year 2002. In making the case for this change, advocates in Congress explained that more senior citizens would have the opportunity to work, earn, and pay taxes, since they would not lose income from Social Security by working.
In spite of a law passed in 1977 to establish the earnings exemption threshold for blind people at the level used for seniors, a decision was made in 1996 to exclude the blind from the higher exemptions. This means that a lower earnings limit of $14,040 for blind people, as compared to $17,000 for seniors, is now in effect for earnings in 2000. By 2002, when the exemption for seniors becomes $30,000, the limit for the blind is expected to be approximately $15,360.
Earnings of this amount for a blind person who is age sixty-four will cause the complete loss of Social Security benefits until the individual becomes a retiree at age sixty-five. At that point the same individual is allowed to earn almost twice the amount allowed for the blind. This is the inequity that now exists.
Section 216(i) of the Social Security Act defines "blindness." Therefore, blindness--like age--can be determined with reasonable certainty. By contrast, "disability" is not precisely defined but is determined on the basis of "inability to engage in substantial gainful activity." Compared to evaluating blindness, this is a complex and fairly subjective determination. Although blindness is precisely defined, monthly benefits are not paid to all persons who are blind but only to those whose earnings are below the annually adjusted limit. Personal wealth not resulting from current work activity does not count as earnings and has no effect on eligibility. Only work is penalized. It was the recognition of this fact that led to the greater exemption of earnings now allowed for seniors, and the situation for blind people is precisely the same.
Congress should reinstate the policy of an identical earnings exemption threshold for blind and senior citizen beneficiaries under title II of the Social Security Act. Legislation has been introduced by Senator John McCain and Representative Robert Ehrlich. With 263 cosponsors of HR 1601 and forty-eight cosponsors of S 285, the legislation enjoys broad bipartisan support.
The National Federation of the Blind strongly supports this legislation. By creating a lower earnings limit for the blind, the action taken in 1996 has resulted in a harsh work disincentive policy which is widely regarded as an inequity created in the rush to pass the 1996 debt-ceiling bill.
NEED TO REMOVE WORK DISINCENTIVES
Mandating the adjustments in the earnings limit for blind people in the manner now allowed for age-sixty-five retirees will provide more than 100,000 blind beneficiaries with a powerful work incentive. Most blind people would not lose financially by working. Moreover, the mandated earnings limit changes would be cost-beneficial since among those of working age most blind people are already beneficiaries. At present their earnings must not exceed a strict limit of $1,170 per month. When earnings exceed this exempt amount, the entire sum paid to a primary beneficiary and dependents is abruptly withdrawn after a trial work period.
When a blind person finds work, there is absolutely no assurance that earnings will replace the amount of lost disability benefits after taxes and work expenses are paid. Usually they do not. Therefore few beneficiaries can afford to attempt substantial work. Those who do will often sacrifice income and will certainly sacrifice the security they have from the automatic receipt of a monthly check.
This group of beneficiaries--people of working age who are blind--must not be forgotten now that the earnings exemption has been raised for seniors. Just as with hundreds of thousands of seniors, the positive response of blind people to the higher earnings exemptions will bring additional revenues into the Social Security trust funds. The chance to work, earn, and pay taxes is a constructive and valid goal for senior citizens and blind Americans alike.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enacted into law the principle that individuals with disabilities are entitled to equal treatment in all areas of life. Title I of the ADA mandates that individuals with disabilities must be given equal employment opportunity. But for blind people who work in special work settings known as "sheltered workshops," the ADA mandate for equality has made little difference in the pay received. This is so because agencies that operate the shops can be exempt from certain provisions of another federal law--the Fair Labor Standards Act, in order to pay employees less than the otherwise applicable statutory minimum wage.
The minimum wage is currently $5.15 per hour. The exemption permits payments below this amount based on an individual blind worker's productivity. All employers can use this exemption; but, with the exception of sheltered workshops, they do not. There are eighty-nine workshops that supply products and services to the federal government and private sector. While most of the assembly-line workers in these shops are currently paid above the minimum wage (it is estimated that approximately 200 are not), payment of even $5.15 per hour is not guaranteed.
Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act requires the Secretary of Labor to grant exemptions from the minimum wage to employers who hire workers whose "earning or productive capacity is impaired by age, physical or mental deficiency, or injury." Subminimum wages are permitted "to the extent necessary to prevent curtailment of opportunities for employment." This principle is largely rhetorical since there has never been a finding that employment opportunities would decline without the subminimum wage.
There is no legal lower limit on wages below the statutory minimum. Employers, not the federal government, determine the pay rates. Affected employees may complain and seek redress of grievances in individual wage disputes, but actual compensation which may be received in these disputes is minimal, so workers who receive less than the minimum wage cannot afford the lawyers needed to bring the claim. Legal pay rates below the minimum wage are supposed to be based on individual productivity, as compared to standard productivity achieved by unimpaired people for essentially the same type, quality, and quantity of work performed.
Congress should amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to exclude blindness as a basis for paying subminimum wages. This proposal is designed to achieve wage equity for blind employees. Without the exemption all employers, including the sheltered workshops, would be required to apply the same pay standards to everyone regardless of visual acuity. In largely its current form, the minimum wage exemption has existed since the original enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. However, the exemption is philosophically inconsistent with current experience and more enlightened employment policies affecting blind people.
The proposal would amend section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act to clarify that impaired vision or blindness could not be used by an employer as the basis for obtaining an exemption from paying the minimum wage. Subminimum wage certificates could be issued to employers for hiring people with impairments that actually affect productivity. However, it has never been demonstrated that, in the types of work settings where subminimum wages are ordinarily paid, blindness has any negative impact on worker capacity to produce.
NEED FOR LEGISLATION
The 1986 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act extended important new appeal rights to persons employed under subminimum wages. In the few hearings that have been held so far, blind workers have recovered significant amounts of back pay. They have done so, however, at great expense. Through the efforts made in these hearings it has been demonstrated that employers control virtually all of the factors which affect worker productivity. Yet the blind employees, not their employers, bear all of the costs for low productivity and suffer the economic consequences. No worker or class of workers in American industry is subjected to such a rigid and unfair work-place standard. It is not uncommon to find that blind workers in sheltered workshops are being paid as little as half the minimum wage or even less.
The pay inequities resulting from the minimum wage exemption policy are particularly odious in view of the federal government's significant purchasing role, including price determinations, which ultimately affect wage payments. In all too many instances productivity records are not maintained to justify wages below $5.15 an hour. Officials of the Department of Labor have acknowledged that violations of the current law are found in over 50 percent of the wage and hour investigations that they conduct. A fraction of the sheltered workshops exempt from paying the minimum wage are reviewed each year. This leaves the rest free to pay less than the minimum wage at virtually any level without fear of scrutiny. When employers are caught illegally paying below the minimum wage, the penalty is only to pay the affected workers the amount due them. Under these circumstances the present law is unenforceable and must be changed.
ACCESS TO EDUCATION FOR BLIND STUDENTS
How the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Can Meet
the Needs of Blind Students
For blind students attaining a high-quality education can be very difficult. This is due in large part to marketplace forces which favor mass production of educational media designed for sighted students. As a result instructional materials and technology used in classrooms throughout America are often inaccessible to blind students. Modifications required for nonvisual access are time-consuming and result in significant expense to school districts and the taxpayers. As a consequence many needs go unmet.
With textbooks, for example, converting the printed version for use by the blind is labor-intensive. The process involves electronically scanning or manually inputting the printed information to create an electronic file. This file is used to produce books in nonvisual formats such as Braille or synthetic speech. At an estimated average cost of $1,200 for a single book for a single child, this process may take six months or more to complete. Therefore, it is an exception--not the rule--for a blind student to receive an entire book when needed.
In the purchase of technology school districts often procure computers not compatible with devices or software that allow nonvisual access. If the technology is purchased without regard to speech or Braille output, after-the-fact modifications are very expensive and may be impossible. The result is that blind students are left out of computer-based instruction and online learning available to their classmates.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and other laws have established the policy of equal access and equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities. Successful implementation of these laws cannot occur, however, without anticipating the needs of people with disabilities and taking steps to meet them. For instance, contractors must include access ramps that meet specific criteria when building a new public facility. Doing this before construction ensures that costly later modifications are avoided. In contrast, schools do not employ standards that permit blind students access to information that is fundamental to all education programs. There are no federal laws that create standards for nonvisual access to technology and published materials.
In an attempt to create nonvisual access standards, fifteen states require publishers to provide an electronic version of any textbook purchased by a state or local education agency. The electronic version is then used to convert the material into a nonvisual format, but considerable variation exists among the states in the file formats required for this purpose. These differences compel textbook publishers to meet inconsistent and conflicting standards. Even more troubling, most of the state requirements are imprecise and result in electronic files that cannot be used for the purpose intended.
In purchasing technology, five states now include a clause in procurement contracts to require compliance with nonvisual access standards. The states do this to permit both blind and sighted people to use the technology purchased. These standards for nonvisual access anticipate needs before they arise and avoid the expense and problems of modifying technology after the fact.
Congress should amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to assist schools through the establishment of uniform nonvisual access standards which will be applied when purchasing instructional materials and technology. The standards will be used by schools or state education agencies. Leadership to develop consistent and cost-effective criteria for nonvisual access will be developed at the federal level and applied at the local level. This approach will coordinate efforts to solve a problem of national scope, with local control left in place.
Under the proposal the Secretary of Education will promulgate standards to support conversion of electronic text into formats suitable for use with Braille or speech technology. The standards will also specify criteria for technology used in the classroom to be compatible with devices and software used for Braille or speech access to information.
The Secretary will develop these standards in consultation with all affected parties, including publishers, representatives of the information-technology industry, producers of alternate-format materials and adapted technology, representatives of blind consumer organizations, parents of blind children, and representatives of general- and special-education programs. Once in place and applied by state and local agencies, the standards will assure that all schools are better equipped to meet the present and future access needs of blind students.
NEED FOR LEGISLATION:
As last re-authorized in 1994, title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides funding to address the needs of disadvantaged children in general education programs. This fulfills the policy of our nation: to provide all children with the opportunity for a high-quality education regardless of economic, social, or cultural factors.
Keeping this commitment for blind students means convenient and ready access to instructional materials and technology which they can use. Some states and local schools can be praised for their efforts to support blind students, but this is the exception. In general the lack of uniform nonvisual access standards for schools to use in purchasing educational media places the burden on the schools themselves to obtain or create specialized materials and technology.
This is a responsibility which suppliers of textbooks and technology should help to meet by providing accessible products. For example, the standards may require textbook publishers to supply a single copy of the text in an electronic format suitable for producing a Braille version of the print editions purchased. Compatibility of classroom computers for use with nonvisual access technology may also be required.
Standards such as these are reasonable conditions for schools to use in purchasing. If they do not, the problem of access will persist, and the right to an equal-opportunity education for blind students will be denied.