The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  March 2005

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2005 Washington Seminar Fact Sheets

From the Editor: Following are the materials Federationists discussed with the members of the 109th Congress and their staffs:

Legislative Agenda of Blind Americans:
Priorities for the 109th Congress First Session

Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine talks in her office with James McCarthy, NFB director of governmental affairs, and Cindy Haley, president of the Maine Organization of Parents of Blind Children.
Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine (left) talks in her office with James McCarthy, NFB director of governmental affairs, and Cindy Haley, president of the Maine Organization of Parents of Blind Children.
The National Federation of the Blind was formed as the voice of the nation's blind to present the collective views of blind people in all aspects of society. All of our leaders and the vast majority of our members are blind, but anyone is welcome to participate in our movement. Each year 75,000 people will become blind, and there are an estimated 1.1 million blind Americans. The social and economic consequences of blindness affect not only the blind but also our families, friends, and coworkers.

Our priorities for the first session of the 109th Congress reflect an urgent need for action in three key areas of vital importance to blind Americans. (For an explanation of these issues, please see the attached fact sheets.)

1. Congress should preserve and improve disability insurance on behalf of blind Americans by taking the following actions:

• Assure that disability benefits payable under current formulas are not decreased for anyone who is or becomes blind or disabled before reaching retirement age;

• Assure that anyone who is or becomes blind or disabled before reaching retirement age receives the highest benefit payable at retirement age, taking into account entitlement to disability insurance benefits (computed under current law) or retirement benefits (computed with personal investment accounts, if any), whichever is higher; and

• Increase the statutory earnings limit applicable to individuals who are blind to the exempt amount applicable to other individuals in the year they reach retirement age.

2. Congress should amend the Higher Education Act to establish accessibility standards for electronic technology and information and designate a national access center for publishers to provide electronic document files in a standard format.

3. Congress should amend Section 853 of the FY 2005 Defense Authorization Act to resolve conflicts between the federal Randolph-Sheppard Act and the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act in the award of military troop dining contracts. Amendments should clarify that the Randolph-Sheppard Act applies to any troop dining contracts which include obtaining, preparing, or serving food to members of the armed forces.

Blind Americans seek your support to address these priorities during the first session of the 109th Congress. If needed legislation is adopted, the continued integration of the blind into society will be advanced. We urge every member of Congress to help us achieve our objectives during this session of Congress. Our success benefits not only the blind but all of America as well.

Insuring the Future:
A Common-Sense Approach
to Social Security Disability Insurance

Background:

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a vital program for blind Americans. Therefore two objectives are fundamentally important to the blind as lawmakers begin to debate the future of Social Security in the twenty-first century. These objectives are:

1. To assure continuation of disability insurance protection without reducing future benefits as the result of any legislation enacted to change the Social Security retirement system; and

2. To reduce the penalty placed on blind individuals who work.

Maintaining Benefits:

Individuals who stop working due to disability depend on monthly SSDI payments to support themselves and their families. Disability can happen at any time during a person's working life with significant doubt thereafter that the disabled individual will ever return to full-time employment. In fact, the vast majority of SSDI beneficiaries do not do so. Therefore, when benefits were first made payable based on blindness or disability in 1956, the SSDI program was simply incorporated into the existing retirement system, using the same method for figuring each person's individual benefits based on payroll contributions.

This approach remains in effect today, raising the concern that changes made in the relationship between payroll contributions and benefits could lead to reduced payments to people who qualify for SSDI. This could happen if funds set aside in private accounts do not have sufficient time to grow beyond the amount invested or to recover from short-term losses.

Therefore the rationale used to support a private investment feature as part of Social Security is not relevant to SSDI, where the impact of redirecting an individual's payroll contributions from earnings credits used to figure benefits could reduce future monthly payments and lead to significant hardships for blind or disabled people. According to the Social Security Administration, three of every ten Americans will become disabled prior to attaining retirement age. Under current law these individuals are treated as though they have worked up to retirement and are paid the benefit that they would receive at retirement. SSDI is not constructed as a retirement savings program. As its name suggests, it is insurance for those who may qualify at any time on the basis of blindness or disability. This commitment to insure against the premature loss of income before retirement must not be sacrificed.

Existing Law:

Reducing the Penalty for Working: In 1996 Congress first raised the earnings limit, which had been imposed on seniors who continued to work after reaching retirement age. For seniors this limit was later completely eliminated. Although before 1996 the same limit applied to blind people who received SSDI benefits, the changes made for seniors in 1996 excluded the blind. Therefore the earnings limit which once forced seniors into premature idleness still applies to anyone who is blind but not yet old enough to retire. To increase the limit, advocates for seniors made the case that seniors would continue to work, earn, and pay taxes once they could do so without fearing loss of income from Social Security, and the changes have obviously provided a powerful incentive for tens of thousands to remain active and productive.

Today the case for raising the earnings limit for the blind is much more compelling due to the nature of the earnings penalty imposed on the blind, which is far more harsh than the limit imposed on seniors during all the years it existed. For example, during 2005 a blind individual with gross earnings exceeding $1,380 monthly ($16,560 annually) will lose all benefits payable even though the same individual continues to be blind.

Need for Legislation Examples:

Like "retirement age," "blindness" is specifically defined in the Social Security Act and can be readily determined. Monthly benefits are not paid to all blind persons, however, but are paid only to blind persons who, if they work at all, have earnings below an annually adjusted statutory limit. There is no penalty on personal wealth but only on earnings resulting from productive work. Recognition of the earnings limit's impact on seniors prompted Congress to change the law, and the same should now be done for the blind. To reduce the penalty that results from working, the applicable earnings limit for blind beneficiaries should be the annual limit for individuals reaching retirement age in the present year. This amount is $31,800 and is adjusted annually. Presently, for blind people who find employment, earnings seldom replace lost benefits after taxes and work expenses are paid. Therefore most beneficiaries cannot afford to attempt significant work. Those who do so sacrifice income and the security of a monthly check. The following examples illustrate the penalty for working.

A single person with no dependents having annual SSDI cash benefits of $10,700 or roughly $894 per month (an average benefit), with no other income, receives this amount tax-free. To replace these benefits, gross pay must be approximately $18,350, taking into account taxes and work expenses (such as commuting and buying appropriate clothing for work). This is $1,825 above the amount allowed. Earnings below $18,350 result in a net loss. While some people choose to work in spite of this economic risk, some must choose not to work at a substantial level because they cannot afford to lose income.

If the beneficiary has dependents, the situation is more troublesome. With two dependents the family's total SSDI benefit would average approximately $17,900 annually. Therefore earnings of $17,000 (just above the earnings limit of $16,560) will not replace benefits. Using conservative assumptions, such as taxes figured at 25 percent of gross pay and childcare for two children at $500 per month, replacing $17,900 in family benefits requires approximately $29,150 in gross pay. The risk resulting from work for a blind head of household negates any economic benefit derived from most available work. When dependents are involved, the amount needed to replace everyone's benefit far exceeds the average blind person's earnings at the time of initial employment.

Action Needed:

Congress should preserve and improve the Social Security Disability Insurance program on behalf of blind Americans by taking the following actions:

1. Assure, as a part of any Social Security retirement legislation enacted, that anyone who qualifies for benefits based on blindness or disability before reaching full retirement age shall be entitled to disability insurance benefits computed under the law in effect prior to any changes that may be made;

2. Provide, as part of any Social Security retirement legislation enacted, that individuals who are blind or disabled before reaching full retirement age shall be entitled to the amount of their disability insurance benefits computed under current law or the amount of their retirement benefits based on revised procedures (including the value of an investment account, if any), whichever is higher; and

3. Increase the statutory earnings limit applicable to individuals who are blind to the annual exempt amount for individuals who apply for Social Security retirement benefits and applicable to such individuals in the year they reach retirement age.

Creating Opportunities for Success:
Access to Technology for the Blind in Higher Education

Purpose:

To improve opportunities in higher education for blind students by ensuring access to electronic technology and information including distance-learning programs, online instruction, campus workstations, and digital texts of printed materials.

Background:

Ensuring access to electronic technology and information for blind higher education students is a growing problem in the digital age. Rapidly evolving technology, combined with lack of planning for nonvisual use when developing electronic technology and information, has led to lack of access for blind students. This situation is so pervasive that no remedy short of federal intervention is likely to have a significant impact.

The modern-day education environment has become increasingly dependent on electronic technology and information, and this trend will inevitably continue. New communication methods include email, online instruction, electronic documents, and computer workstations. Much of the software used is not accessible to blind students. While vast resources from America's postsecondary institutions are available over the Internet, blind students are often unable to access them using nonvisual technology. Without access to this new way of learning, blind students will be left behind.

In addition, access to printed instructional materials (including textbooks) is still a challenge for blind students. Although these materials can be scanned into a computer and converted into digital text by use of optical character recognition programs, the accuracy of scanned documents often remains poor, and the scanning process takes a great deal of time. Electronic text offers the ability to make printed materials accessible to blind students, but concerns of copyright holders over protecting their rights could impede these developments.

Existing Law:

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (as amended) clearly establish the policy that individuals with disabilities must have access to higher education programs. However, successful implementation cannot occur without well-articulated standards and systems in place to anticipate accessibility needs. Currently there is no clear requirement that nonvisual access to electronic technology and information be considered when products are developed for use in higher education.

In 1998, when the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was last amended, Congress enacted Section 508, which established a process for the creation of technology access standards applicable whenever technology is purchased. However, these standards apply only to technology purchased by federal agencies for use by employees or the public. Postsecondary institutions are not covered under Section 508.

In addition to these federal requirements, approximately ten states have enacted accessibility laws relating to electronic technology and information. However, postsecondary education programs are often not covered by these requirements. As in the case of Section 508, these state laws generally apply to procurement of technology in order to address access issues before they arise.

Textbooks and Other Instructional Materials

An international consortium of technical experts committed to making printed material accessible to the blind has established the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) standard. This standard provides a navigable and versatile means for the blind to access printed materials. Using books prepared in the DAISY format, the reader can efficiently move among and between chapters, headings, pages, and paragraphs. Placing and returning to bookmarks is also possible. Most important, this standard also permits efficient conversion into audio and Braille formats.

Moreover, the recently reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) advances the goal of providing printed materials to blind elementary and high-school students. This approach should serve as a model for offering blind higher education students access to printed materials (including textbooks) as well. As amended in 2004, IDEA now requires the Department of Education to establish a mandatory National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). It also requires publishers to place electronic files of textbooks in a national access center. These files must be prepared using the NIMAS issued by the Department of Education. Once in the center, the electronic textbooks will be available to all elementary and secondary schools for easy conversion into audio and Braille formats. Based on work done so far, it is likely that the NIMAS will incorporate the DAISY format approach, providing readers and publishers with a consistent design for electronic documents.

Action Needed:

Congress should amend the Higher Education Act to promote nonvisual access in the procurement of electronic technology and information (including online instruction) by postsecondary institutions as follows:

1. Require postsecondary institutions receiving federal funds to insure that procurement, modification, development, and use of electronic information technology, for purposes of instruction or otherwise, complies with federal accessibility standards to be established pursuant to the Higher Education Act;

2. Require that wherever computer workstations are provided to students and academic personnel of a postsecondary institution, at least one such workstation must comply with federal access standards established pursuant to the Higher Education Act; and

3. Designate a national access center to receive electronic copies of books chosen for use in postsecondary education and require publishers to furnish electronic text additions to the center in accordance with the Department of Education's National Instructional Materials Access Standard.

Randolph-Sheppard in the Twenty-First Century:
Preserving Business Opportunities for Blind Vendors

Purpose:

To resolve confusion and conflicts in the application of the Randolph-Sheppard and Javits-Wagner-O'Day Acts to military troop dining contracts.

Background:

The Randolph-Sheppard Act: Originally passed in 1936, the Randolph-Sheppard (R-S) Act creates entrepreneurial opportunities for blind people to achieve their "maximum vocational potential," through the operation of food and vending service businesses located on any federal property. In 1974 Congress clearly showed confidence in the abilities of blind vendors when it created a statutory priority for the blind and expanded the scope of the act to include the operation of cafeterias by blind vendors in order to demonstrate their capacity to perform management duties. In addition to providing food and vending services in federal buildings in virtually every state and the District of Columbia, these duties now include management of all troop dining services at thirty-eight separate military installations located in the United States. By designating an agency to license the vendors in each state (referred to as the State Licensing Agency), the Department of Education through the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration oversees and regulates the implementation of the R-S Act.

The Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act: Originally enacted in 1938, and substantially amended in 1971, the Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) Act provides employment opportunities for blind and severely disabled persons who work on contracts for products and services supplied to the federal government. The goods and services are purchased from nonprofit organizations that hire disabled people for "direct labor" jobs. A federal agency known as the Committee for Purchase from People Who are Blind or Severely Disabled approves a list of products and services which federal agencies must buy under mandatory, noncompetitive procurement regulations. Most of the contracts for services are awarded through a central coordinating agency known as NISH (formerly National Industries for the Severely Handicapped). NISH is the agency under the JWOD Act that oversees the employment of severely disabled people and actively seeks military troop dining contracts on behalf of its member agencies.

Legislative Threat to R-S Priority:

Although NISH would like to secure exclusive rights to military troop dining contracts, two federal circuit courts have held that the priority for food service provided to the blind under the R-S Act supersedes the JWOD Act in contracts for military troop dining. Therefore, failing in the courts, NISH has asked the Congress to amend the law. Legislation to do this was most recently proposed by the Senate Armed Services Committee in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2005, reported to the Senate last May. However, this position was reversed by a Senate floor amendment offered by Senator Ensign with strong support from Senator Dodd. The end result, after conference with the House, was an agreement to continue the blind priority for the time being.

Nonetheless, NISH is likely to renew the effort to overturn the blind priority during Congressional consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2006. In asking Congress to remove the blind priority, NISH is seeking exclusive opportunities to provide these services. This goal is important to NISH because of substantial revenue (approximately 4 percent of the total price paid by the government for each contract). With approximately 105 contracts now in effect under the JWOD Act, NISH currently receives in excess of $12 million annually which goes straight to this nonprofit's bottom line. It is important to note that none of this revenue is paid in wages to people with disabilities.

Distinctive Programs:

Rather than overturning the blind vendor priority as proposed by NISH, federal agencies and the Congress should understand both the R-S Act and the JWOD Act and the distinctions which exist between them.

For example, under the R-S Act, contracts for troop dining services are awarded through the competitive bid process, and bids on behalf of blind vendors that are within a competitive range of other offers must be accepted. By contrast, the committee that oversees the JWOD program removes military dining facilities from competitive procurement and fixes the price the government must pay. Once removed from competition, a facility is placed on an exclusive "procurement list," where it remains forever off limits to any other vendor. Contracts awarded under the R-S Act, but not the JWOD Act, are reviewed annually and are open for competitive bidding every five years.

Under the R-S Act blind vendors are in essence business owners. They shoulder the responsibilities involved in running a business--hiring and firing, ordering supplies, accounting, food preparation, etc. Living the American dream, they benefit from the growth and success of their businesses and the resulting profits. By contrast, the JWOD Act supports jobs for people with disabilities in direct labor, but not in management. Unlike the R-S Act, the JWOD Act does not aim at management of an enterprise by persons with disabilities.

Finally, with specific reference to military troop dining, NISH holds almost three times as many food service contracts as do state licensing agencies under the R-S program. Moreover, the JWOD Act provides noncompetitive opportunities for NISH to supply over 3,000 other services (not including food service) to all agencies of the federal government. Therefore, compared to the R-S Act, opportunities available to NISH are secured by a much broader mandate.

Proposed Legislation:

Congress should amend the Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Reauthorization Act for fiscal year 2005 to achieve the following objectives:

1. Affirm the priority for blind vendors as mandated by the R-S Act when future contracts for military troop dining services are awarded;

2. Clarify application of the R-S Act by codifying the definition of "military troop dining services" to mean any services related to the provision of government-furnished meals to members of the armed forces;

3. Provide for advance notification to be given to the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration in order to determine if a State Licensing Agency wishes to have the priority of the Randolph-Sheppard Act applied to any particular procurement of troop dining services; and

4. Ensure that military troop dining opportunities that are placed on the JWOD procurement list are not permanently off limits to blind vendors or other qualified providers.

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