by Marc Maurer
From the Editor: Jett*Con (Joint Employment Training and Technology Conference) is an annual event sponsored jointly by the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies to promote employment and training services at state and local levels through the use of modern technology. This year the gathering took place in Baltimore, and 2,700 state and local officials attended the meeting from Sunday, July 15, through Wednesday, July 18. President Maurer was invited to address the Wednesday morning plenary session. This is what he said:
There are those who believe that we invent technology to solve problems. Others opine that technology shapes us rather than the other way around. To illustrate, consider beer--which is sometimes said to be one of the principal civilizing influences in the world. Before beer was invented, human beings roamed the earth as nomads, moving from place to place, seeking food and shelter. However, brewing beer demands a steady supply of grain and time for the fermentation process to take place. Farming is essential to provide this product. Some believe that, with the invention of beer, the agrarian society was established. Incidentally, Benjamin Franklin said that "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
I am President of the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation was formed in 1940 and is the oldest and largest organization of the blind in the nation--with a membership of over 50,000; with chapters in approximately 700 cities; and with affiliates in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The National Federation of the Blind is an organization of blind people who have come together to promote our common interests. We believe that, if we get proper training and if we have opportunity, we who are blind can compete successfully alongside our sighted friends and neighbors. We can, for example, dig a ditch, wire a telephone system, design computers, or climb mountains. I am totally blind, and I have been blind all of my life.
I became President of the National Federation of the Blind in 1986. Although this is only fifteen years ago, conditions for the blind were different then from those that exist today. Unemployment for the blind was greater than seventy percent in those days. Computers were part of the workplace, and blind people were learning to use them, but the Internet had not yet come into its own. DOS--remember DOS?--was the prevailing operating system, which had a convenient, character-based symbol set. By the early 1990's character symbols were being replaced with pictures of characters and other graphic representations. Employment opportunities for the blind declined because nobody had figured out how to make pictures audible. I am pleased to report that in many instances this problem has now been solved, and in almost every case it can be solved.
In the 1980's employers wanted able-bodied human beings with driver's licenses who were well educated, literate in the use of the latest technology, flexible in work habits and expectations, not encumbered with too many family obligations, free of addiction, hard-working and dedicated, and (all other things being equal) friendly and fun to be with. Often those doing the hiring had to settle for less than they regarded as ideal. However, an astonishing result occurred--the more perceptive employers sometimes discovered that the portrait of the perfect employee which they had devised was not the one that they discovered was most effective. Although it was not universally true, in many instances disabled workers were more reliable and long-term than those without disabilities.
Today in the National Federation of the Blind we operate, with the support and cooperation of the Department of Labor, the Job Opportunities for the Blind Program. We find a number of employers who are genuinely interested in working with us to find good workers for themselves, which also provides opportunities for the blind. However, there are others. Some of them say something like, "We believe in equal opportunity for the disabled; we know blind people have trouble finding work, so send us your computer engineers. We will give them a chance at a suitably modest introductory wage."
Of course the computer engineers are generally already working, often trying to fix the problems that other engineers (sighted ones) have created by devising computer systems that keep us from getting the information we need.
It is estimated that fifty-four million Americans have disabilities and that a little more than twenty-six million of them possess severe disabilities. Approximately 34 percent of working-age people with severe disabilities are employed. Of the severely disabled 1.1 million are blind. Of the working age blind population the unemployment rate is 74.5 percent. Let me say this again: the unemployment rate--not the employment rate, the unemployment rate--for the working-age blind is 74 percent. This means, for this population our systems are failing.
As the work force ages, the number of people with disabilities will increase. If the work force is to be maintained, it must include a larger percentage of workers with disabilities, including the blind. This demands that technology be constructed to be useable by everybody. The National Federation of the Blind estimates that the cost of supporting a blind person for a lifetime without work is $916,000. This includes only the cash benefits to support the blind person. It does not include the cost of medical assistance or lost revenue from taxes that would be paid if the blind person were working. If these costs were included, the number would approach two million dollars for one individual for a lifetime of not working. Few engineers build technology with universal access principles (especially nonvisual access components) in mind. However, companies spend a vast amount of money to make the visual characteristics of their products interesting. Consider the cell phone. The telephone was, until recent times, a device which blind people could use with ease and efficiency. Today, with what they say is advancing technology, there are cell phones that have touch screens and interactive displays built into them, which are an essential part of the process for operating them. It is necessary to see them to make them work--a thing that the blind can't do. Beyond that, millions of dollars have been spent to make them look snazzy. The cell phone is no longer a device whose only purpose is to call somebody else. Many of them have incorporated within them a clock, a pager, a calculator, e-mail, access to the Internet, and a set of computer games with a video screen for the display. All of these systems can be built so that they talk, but no cell phone makes all of its features audible, and most don't make any of them audible. In some cases you can't even feel the buttons to dial a number. If a fraction of the amount of money that has been spent on these devices to give them attractive visual features had been spent to make them accessible, we would all be able to use them.
My colleagues and I who are blind represent a segment of the work force that is sometimes frustrated, often annoyed, and always determined to get equal access to what everybody else takes for granted. In 1999 we filed suit in Federal District Court against America Online (AOL) because nobody in the company would even talk to us or pay us any mind when we said that the vast array of services provided by AOL could not be used by the blind. AOL is now getting better, but it is not there yet. If they cease making substantial progress, we will feel inclined to go after them again.
Here are examples of what causes the frustration. Keep in mind that bright, well-trained blind people are good at the computer, but most of us are like most of you: we get along.
As a contrast to this consider the America's JoblineŽ. The Department of Labor joined with the National Federation of the Blind three years ago to initiate a prototype for a service to provide access to America's Job Bank by telephone. We, that is, the National Federation of the Blind, planned the service to provide information to the blind. However, when officials at the Department of Labor first saw this product, they recognized that JoblineŽ has important benefits for the sighted as well and not just the blind. Only a few days ago, in fact beginning July 1, 2001, every single person in every corner of the United States--no matter how well-educated or not, no matter the ethnic background or economic circumstance--has access by touch-tone telephone to the JoblineŽ service. This provides them with access to all the job listings available in America's Job Bank twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year. And within a year we hope to provide this service in Spanish. There is a toll-free number that can be used in any part of the country--800-414-5748.
The Department of Labor and many states have demonstrated their commitment to providing access to America's Job Bank through this alternative technology. America's Job Bank is available online, but many people who may need it can't easily use it with a computer. The telephone is much easier.
In a number of states laws have been adopted (laws drafted by the National Federation of the Blind) which prohibit the states from purchasing computer technology unless it incorporates the capacity for nonvisual access to information. This is similar to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which took effect for the federal government in June. One such law was enacted in Arkansas. Despite the existence of this statute, and despite complaints by blind state employees, Arkansas is presently in the process of purchasing a nineteen million dollar system that is completely unusable by the blind. We have notified state officials that, unless they make this system accessible with all deliberate speed, we will ask the courts to stop the purchase of this illegal system.
But problems of access for blind people don't end at the Arkansas border. The Minnesota Department of Economic Security has a Mobile Career Development van featured here at Jett*Con in the Exhibit Hall. This may be a wonderful van, and this year it is at least accessible to people who use wheelchairs--accessibility was raised last year when the van came to Albuquerque. However, though people using wheelchairs can get inside, still today the technology being used is not accessible for someone who is blind. Nonetheless, all of the technology was purchased under a law in Minnesota just like Arkansas's, requiring nonvisual access. This is the situation. If the services of this van are important for people throughout Minnesota, they are important for blind people throughout Minnesota; and, to the extent that a law exists to enforce that policy, that law should be used and will be used.
An energetic, well-trained workforce is essential for the progress of our country. As the population ages, the incidence of disability increases. Our nation cannot ignore the disabled in employing the talents of those available to accomplish the tasks of government and business. It is, of course, not only the law of our nation that the disabled have equal access to information, but also a good idea. The technology is being built. If it is built with access in mind, the costs are minimal. If it must always be retrofitted to offer ease of use to the disabled, the costs are unbelievably high, and the mechanisms for building accessibility are slow, cumbersome, or (in many cases) impossible to locate.
In the mid-1970's Dr. Raymond Kurzweil asked us what blind people wanted. We responded that we wanted a machine that could read print aloud. To build the Reading Machine, Dr. Kurzweil had to invent the universal scanner. This desktop unit is now a feature in offices all over the world. Most of the time it is not used to read to the blind but to scan text for the sighted. We believe similar experiences will occur with other access technologies. Equal access to information benefits not only the disabled but the non-disabled as well.
When the technology has been built, it is virtually impossible to change it until new technology is constructed. It shapes us, and there is no way to avoid this phenomenon. Consequently it is of vital importance that we determine precisely how we want to be shaped. Unless we do so, the unforeseen consequences of our inventive minds can create for us more problems than they solve. It is not possible to uninvent. The cell phone, like beer, is here to stay.
Charitable Remainder Trusts
A trust is a plan established to accomplish goals for the individual making the trust and the beneficiary. The donor creates the trust, appoints a trustee (the donor, a family member, a bank trust officer, etc.), and designates a beneficiary. In the case of a charitable remainder trust, money or property is transferred by the donor to a charitable trust. This trust pays income for life. After the donor's death the funds remaining in the trust go to the National Federation of the Blind.
There are two kinds of charitable trusts. The first, a charitable remainder annuity trust, is set up to pay income to the donor based on a fixed percentage of the original gift. The second is a charitable remainder unitrust. The income from this trust is based on the annual assessed value of the gift. Both types of charitable remainder trust are common and relatively easy to set up. Appreciable tax deductions are available, depending on which type of trust is selected.
The following examples demonstrate how trusts work, but the figures are illustrative, not exact:
Michael Brown, age sixty-five, decides to set up a charitable remainder annuity trust with $100,000. He asks his brother John to manage the trust for him. During Michael's lifetime John will see to it that Michael is paid $5,000 each year (5% of $100,000). In addition, Michael can claim a tax deduction of $59,207 in the year the trust is established.
Mary Ellen Davis, age sixty-five, sets up a charitable remainder unitrust with $100,000. She asks her attorney to act as trustee. During Mary Ellen's life her attorney will pay her an amount, 5%, equal to the annual assessed value of her gift. If the $100,000 unitrust grows to $110,000, Mary Ellen will be paid $5,500. If it grows again to $120,000, she will be paid $6,000 in that year, and so on. Also Mary Ellen can claim a tax deduction of $48,935 in the year she establishes the unitrust.
For more information on charitable remainder trusts, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, phone (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.