From the Editor: The Washington Seminar has come to be one of the busiest and most interesting events in the Federation year. The 2001 seminar was no exception. For the first time ever representatives from all fifty-two affiliates took part in the meetings and headed off to Capitol Hill to meet with legislators.
The first event of the 2001 Washington Seminar was the student party Friday evening, February 2. It gave students a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones.
All day Saturday the National Association of Blind Students met to discuss building the future in the context of NFB philosophy. Peter Berg, President of the Illinois student division, emceed the banquet that evening. NFB Second Vice President Peggy Elliott delivered a memorable banquet address, and several hundred people had a wonderful time.
Sunday morning throngs of Federationists went off to Baltimore for a galloping tour of the National Center for the Blind. Meantime blind merchants, blind lawyers, Capital Campaign volunteers, and folks interested in a little extra preparation for Capitol Hill all met around the hotel to take care of business.
The great gathering-in meeting began at 5:00 p.m. sharp and lasted its allotted two hours. Before and after the meeting the Mercury Room, nerve center of the Washington Seminar, was fully staffed with volunteers who took down meeting schedules so that Kris Cox would know when meetings with Members of Congress and Senators were taking place in case she wanted to join the discussion. At the same time people were dropping by Mercury to pick up material for the folders they would be taking to each Congressional office.
Sandy Halverson and her crew always do a magnificent job keeping records and taking down reports after the meetings. But it also seems as if each year some things get a bit better. This year we actually had an agenda of the entire set of seminar activities. It was available in both print and Braille. The fact sheets we were using on the Hill were available in print and on cassette as usual, but for the first time they were also provided in Braille.
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday Federationists wore a path to House and Senate office buildings and could be seen and heard tapping our way all over that complex of buildings. We addressed three issues this year: raising the Social Security work earnings limit, providing Medicare Part B coverage for rehabilitation services for seniors, and a requirement that, if federal funds are available to states for modernizing voting methods, the systems bought with those funds be accessible to print-handicapped voters. The earnings limit bill has been introduced by Congressman Robert Ehrlich and is called the Blind Empowerment Act of 2001. Its bill number is H.R. 498. When we went to press in early March, 233 House Members had already signed on as cosponsors. We had 283 last session, so we still have work to do to get ourselves back to that point, but we have made an excellent start. At this writing Senator McCain has still not introduced a companion bill but is promising to do so almost immediately. His office reports that they have good response among senators interested in being original cosponsors.
Congressmen Adolphus Towns and Martin Frost have now agreed to sponsor a bill containing our Medicare language, though at press time we did not yet have a bill number. As soon as we have this information, everyone will need to go back to House members to urge them to sign on as cosponsors.
Rather than supporting one particular voting reform measure, our fact sheet urged Members of Congress to include our language requiring nonvisual access in any proposal to provide federal funds for voting-machine modernization. Senators Charles Schumer and Sam Brownback did exactly that in their proposal, which was introduced at a press conference Tuesday afternoon of the Washington Seminar. A number of blind people made a point of being present to underscore the importance we place on this matter.
Senator Mitch McConnell, chairman of the Committee on Rules and Administration, has now introduced his own bill addressing this matter, and he has agreed to include the NFB language, so we are already clearly making progress on this important issue. What follows is the NFB's 2001 legislative memorandum and the three fact sheets we discussed all over Capitol Hill. Please use them in the months ahead to continue urging our legislators to do what will truly assist blind citizens across this nation.
Legislative Agenda of
Priorities for the 107th Congress, First 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 coworker. In fact, as many as seventy-five thousand Americans become blind or visually impaired each year. The blind population in the United States is estimated to exceed 1.2 million with millions of others classified as visually impaired. 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 first session of the 107th Congress reflect an urgent need for action in three specific areas of vital importance to the blind. (For an explanation of these issues, please see the attached fact sheets.)
1. Congress should enact mandated increases in the earnings limit for blind people under Title II of the Social Security Act, similar to those enacted for seniors in 1996. This proposal seeks to reduce the harsh work disincentive of the Social Security earnings limit as it now affects blind beneficiaries.
2. Congress should amend Title XVIII of the Social Security Act to include Medicare coverage for rehabilitation services provided to older individuals who are blind. This proposal is designed to ensure that older blind Medicare beneficiaries have access to the critical rehabilitation services they need to remain independent and contributing members of society.
3. Congress should require nonvisual access to electronic voting technology as a condition for the receipt of federal funds. Many members of Congress have introduced bills which seek to establish a federal grants program to modernize voting systems used in federal elections. The proposed nonvisual access amendment would ensure that blind and visually impaired voters can use the next generation of electronic voting technology resulting from this legislation.
People who are blind 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 both today and in the years ahead.
Promoting Work and Fairness for the Blind:
Common Sense Work Incentives for Blind Social Security Beneficiaries
With the 1996 increase in the Social Security earnings limit, Congress provided seniors age sixty-five and older with a powerful incentive to work. 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 could work without fearing the loss of income from Social Security. The 106th Congress further encouraged work among seniors by eliminating the earnings limit altogether.
A law passed in 1977 established the earnings exemption threshold for blind people at the exempt amount used for seniors. In a rush to pass debt-ceiling legislation in 1996, Congress broke this historic link by excluding blind people from the increase in the seniors' earnings limit. This change enacted a series of mandated adjustments in the earnings limit in order to reach an exempt amount of $30,000 in 2002. However, the earnings limit was then completely eliminated altogether effective in January, 2000two years before the 1996 law was fully in effect. The blind were once again excluded from this change.
As a result a lower earnings limit of $14,880 is in effect for blind people in 2001 as compared to no earnings limit for seniors. Earnings of $14,880 for a blind person who is age sixty-four will cause the complete loss of Social Security benefits until the individual becomes sixty-five. At that point there is no limit to what that same individual can earn. This is the inequity that now exists.
Section 216(i) of the Social Security Act defines "blindness." Therefore, blindnessas with agecan be determined with reasonable certainty. By contrast "disability" is not precisely defined and 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 (if any) are below the annually adjusted earnings limit. Personal wealth not resulting from current work 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 increased earnings limit for seniors and its eventual elimination. The situation for seniors prior to 1996 is precisely the same for blind people today.
Congress should enact mandated increases in the earnings limit for blind people similar to those enacted for seniors in 1996. This proposal would be a step towards equity for blind people and reduce the harsh work disincentive policy now in effect. Under this proposal blind individuals would be able to work and earn up to $30,000 without fearing the loss of benefits. Congressman Robert Ehrlich has reintroduced legislation this session to reduce the harsh work disincentives now in place for blind people. Similar legislation is contemplated in the Senate. With 283 Representatives cosponsoring Congressman Ehrlich's bill and fifty-four Senators cosponsoring similar legislation in the 106th Congress, this proposal enjoys broad and bipartisan support.
Need to Remove Work Disincentives
Increasing the earnings limit for blind people will provide more than 100,000 blind beneficiaries with a powerful work incentive. At present a blind individual's earnings must not exceed a strict limit of $1,240 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 actually 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. Increasing the earnings limit will allow blind people to work without being penalized financially for doing so.
Moreover, an increase in the earnings limit would be cost-beneficial.
With a 74 percent unemployment rate, the vast majority of working-age individuals
who are blind are already beneficiaries. Providing them with a meaningful work
incentive would allow them to become taxpayers as well. Members of Congress
supported raising the exempt earnings threshold for seniors, and it is only
appropriate that they do the same for blind people of working age. The chance
to work, earn, and pay taxes is a constructive and valid goal for senior citizens
and blind Americans alike.
Medicare Coverage Equity for Older Blind Persons
The aging of seventy-six million American baby boomers and their parents will cause a number of societal challenges. Loss of eyesight, which accompanies advancing age, will be one of them. Today in the United States over 6 million individuals age fifty-five or older have severely impaired vision, and more than half of all blind people are age sixty-five or older. These numbers have doubled in the last thirty years and are expected to double again by 2030. Age-related vision loss is the second leading cause of disability among our country's senior population.
With blindness increasing among seniors, the demand for rehabilitation services is overwhelming. Without these critical services vision loss can destroy an older individual's quality of life and ability to live independently. Yet only 2 percent of seniors are served by current programs. In contrast, older blind individuals who receive rehabilitation services can continue to remain independent and active members of society. The programs that do exist are vastly under-funded, and there is no long-range plan in place to remedy this situation. Consequently older blind individuals are left without the essential support services they need.
The Medicare programTitle XVIII of the Social Security Actprovides health insurance coverage for people age sixty-five and older and for individuals with disabilities who qualify. As originally conceived, this program pays for reasonable and necessary services to prevent illness, maintain health, and restore functioning after injury or disease. Part A of Medicare Hospital Insurance--covers hospital services. Part BSupplementary Medical Insurancecovers a wide range of outpatient services such as physicians' services; physical, occupational, and speech therapy; mental health services; a variety of rehabilitation services; the purchase of durable medical equipment, including wheel chairs; and home health care services. Despite Medicare's coverage of these and many more services, coverage of rehabilitation services for older blind individuals is not provided.
Chapter 2 of Title VII of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, authorizes grants to designated state vocational rehabilitation agencies to provide independent living rehabilitation services to older persons who are blind and visually impaired. These services include visual screening; independent living skills training, such as orientation and mobility and daily living skills; and other appropriate rehabilitative services needed for older individuals to live independently. This program is currently funded at $20 million for fiscal year 2001. With this amount the program will serve fewer than 5 percent of those in need.
Congress should amend Title XVIII of the Social Security Act to include Medicare coverage for rehabilitation services provided to older individuals who are blind. This proposal is designed to ensure that older blind Medicare beneficiaries have access to critical rehabilitation services. The proposed amendments define rehabilitation services as those provided to an older blind individual under Chapter 2 of Title VII of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended, approved pursuant to regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. Services would be provided by the state vocational rehabilitation agency or others chosen by the beneficiary and supervised by such agency. The term "older individual who is blind" means "an individual age fifty-five or older whose severe visual impairment makes competitive employment difficult to attain but for whom independent living goals are feasible." This is identical to the definition currently in Chapter 2 of Title VII of the Rehabilitation Act.
As with Chapter 2 of Title VII, only state vocational rehabilitation agencies could receive payment for services provided in this program. This approach utilizes a well-established and accountable system for the delivery of rehabilitation services to older blind Medicare beneficiaries while also allowing beneficiaries to exercise choice. Title XVIII allows hospitals, community rehabilitation centers, home healthcare centers, and other entities enrolled as Medicare service providers to receive payment for services. Under this proposal state vocational rehabilitation agencies could also enroll as Medicare service providers. Once a service is approved by a state Medicare carrier, state agencies could submit claims and receive payment for rehabilitation services they provide to older blind Medicare beneficiaries.
Need for Legislation
Costs associated with age-related vision loss are substantial. For example, the Alliance on Aging Research reports that visual impairment is one of the top four reasons why seniors lose their independence, contributing to medical and long-term care costs of $26 billion annually. In addition, the Framingham Eye Study (ongoing) reports that 18 percent of all hip fractures among seniors can be attributed to age-related vision loss. At $35,000 for treatment and care in each case, the total annual cost attributable to hip fractures due to visual impairment exceeds $2 billion.
Rehabilitation services for older blind persons teach safe travel, daily living skills, and use of adaptive aids and devices. Individuals who receive these services are able to continue living independently in their own homes and communities. This is consistent with the goals of Medicare. By receiving these services covered by Medicare, seniors who become blind can regain self-reliance and self-worth. This will allow them to remain active and valued members of their communities for as long as possible. Without these services older blind individuals often become dependent and isolated.
The Blind and Electronic Voting Technology Ensuring Nonvisual
Access to the Next Generation of Voting Systems
Microchip and digital technology will undoubtedly change the way Americans vote. In the wake of the 2000 election, states and political subdivisions are scrambling to update their antiquated voting machines with electronic and computer-based voting systems. Arizona is already testing Internet voting, and other states have purchased touch screen digital voting machines.
Individual states develop and apply their own standards to approve or certify voting systems used in local jurisdictions. The needs of blind voters are rarely considered during this process. As a result virtually all electronic voting technology is unusable by as many as eight million people who are blind or cannot see a print ballot.
With the enactment of the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, Congress showed an interest in how blind people vote by approving the Voter Assistance Provision. Prior to the establishment of this provision, election officials could insist on entering the polling booth with a blind voter to assist the individual in casting a ballot. Today individuals with disabilities can vote using the assistance of whomever they choose. Voter assistance has been the only alternative for blind voters in the era of the paper ballot and mechanical voting machines. It is still a valid voting method. However, it does not allow blind people to cast a secret ballot or independently confirm their vote.
Two years after the adoption of the voters' assistance provision, Congress enacted the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act. This Act requires states and political subdivisions to make available "aids" to assist with registration and voting in federal elections. The Act has not been amended since its enactment. Consequently its provisions do not address today's electronic voting and nonvisual-access technology.
Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act as amended in 1998 requires federal departments and agencies to ensure that their electronic and information technology is accessible to individuals with disabilities. Several states have also enacted similar laws primarily focusing on nonvisual access. However, neither these state laws nor Section 508 have been applied to electronic voting technologies. Recently Texas enacted specific legislation requiring all voting equipment to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Congress should require nonvisual access to electronic voting technology as a condition for the receipt of federal funds. Many members of Congress have introduced bills which seek to establish a federal grants program to modernize voting systems used in federal elections. The proposed nonvisual access amendment would ensure that blind and visually impaired voters can use the next generation of electronic voting technology resulting from this legislation.
Under the amendment the federal department or agency administering the grants program would publish nonvisual-access standards for the development and procurement of electronic voting technology. Compliance with these standards would be one of the criteria for receipt of federal funds. Without this amendment nonvisual access, such as speech and Braille output, will be overlooked in the rush to use modern technology in voting.
Need for Legislation
According to the National Center on Policy Analysis, low voter turnout is primarily due to inconvenient voting procedures. Confirming this, an Ohio study pointed to "intimidating" voting methods as a significant reason why people don't vote. For blind people these factors are compounded by voting systems which are not only inconvenient but unusable. Inaccessible voting systems discourage blind voters from exercising the most fundamental right of citizenshipthe right to vote.
Modern technologies (such as synthesized speech and speech-activated software) allow electronic information to be accessed through visual and nonvisual means. Using these technologies, blind people would be able to vote privately and independently. The Nonvisual-Access Amendment extends the convenience and benefits of electronic voting systems to sighted and blind voters alike. Any action taken during the 107th Congress to modernize voting systems will impact the way Americans vote for decades to come. Consequently needs of blind voters must not be overlooked.