Braille Monitor March 2006
Washington Seminar Fact Sheets
Legislative Agenda of Blind Americans:
Priorities for the 109th Congress Second Session
Seated at the head of the table in his conference room, Senator Mike DeWine talks with members of the Ohio delegation. Affiliate president Barbara Pierce is on his left.
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) 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. Every 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 second session of the 109th Congress reflect an urgent need for action in three areas of vital importance to blind Americans. (For an explanation of these issues please see the attached fact sheets.)
1. Congress should require publishers of textbooks used in higher education to produce electronic editions for blind students in a standard, nonvisual format, by supporting the Higher Education Textbook Access Act. This proposal would:
2. Congress should expand targeted business and employment opportunities for the blind by enacting the Blind Individuals' Business Development and Employment Opportunities Act. This proposal would:
3. Congress should enact
H.R. 2872, the Louis Braille Commemorative Coin Act, and companion legislation
in the Senate. This proposal would provide funding for a national campaign to
increase literacy among blind youth by teaching them to read and write Braille.
Blind Americans seek your support to address these priorities during the second 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.
Toward Equal Opportunity:
Providing Blind Students with Accessible
Textbooks in Higher Education
Purpose: To require publishers
of textbooks used in higher education to produce electronic editions for blind
students in an accessible, nonvisual standard format.
Background: Regardless of modern advancements in publishing technology, access to textbooks used in college courses remains a serious and unsolved problem for the blind. Help to meet the need for accessible texts is provided by on-campus disabled student service (DSS) offices, by libraries for the blind in some states, and by service organizations such as RFB&D (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) and Bookshare.org. These organizations work hard to create audio and electronic editions of many textbooks in current use, but publishers could do far more than they currently do to support these efforts. Failure to provide equal access is a denial of equal opportunity.
Existing Law: The Americans with Disabilities Act; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended; and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act clearly establish the policy that individuals with disabilities are entitled to equal access to education. Successful implementation of this policy cannot occur without clear, specific, and practical standards and procedures designed to address accessibility needs. At present no specific law to support ready access to higher education textbooks for blind students is in place.
By contrast, publishers of elementary and secondary school textbooks are required by law to produce electronic editions which must be prepared in an accessible, nonvisual format, meeting a federally prescribed national standard. This required procedure was enacted as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, Public Law 108-446, signed by President Bush in December 2004. Under this new law the U.S. Department of Education must issue a National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard. Publishers are required to prepare electronic editions of textbooks sold to elementary and secondary schools in accordance with the national standard. The publisher's responsibility is met by placing a single electronic copy of each edition of a textbook in a national access center designated by law as the American Printing House for the Blind. This approach provides a model for similar procedures to be applied in higher education as well.
Need for Legislation: Preparation of textbooks in an accessible, nonvisual format has become an achievable and reasonable expectation due to evolving methods in textbook publishing. In fact, although printed editions are still essentially the norm, electronic editions are becoming far more common. This trend toward using computers to access books will continue and expand in the decades ahead. However, standards do not exist for books prepared in print or electronic formats to be published for nonvisual use. Therefore higher education institutions and taxpayer-funded programs have assumed the burden of providing blind students with assistance and support to achieve access.
With the appropriate technology now available, publishers can produce textbooks in accordance with a national access standard but have no incentive to do so. Recognizing this, eight states--Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, and Washington State--have passed laws requiring nonvisual access to college texts. These state laws are an important first step, but, by imposing an array of conflicting and inconsistent obligations on publishers, they emphasize the need for a uniform national standard.
Proposed Legislation: Congress should enact the Higher Education Textbook Access Act. This will assure that blind college students have access to instructional texts like that available to blind elementary and secondary school students. This legislation would:
A 21st Century Strategy to Increase Employment
of Blind Americans
Purpose: To provide expanded opportunities for the blind in business and employment.
of statements to the contrary, strategies to address the acknowledged nationwide
condition of unemployment among the blind have never been a priority for the
federal government. Labor market statistics are not gathered to document the
extent of the problem. However, knowledgeable experts agree that the rate is
between 70 and 75 percent unemployment or underemployment for working-age blind
people. Three of every four blind adults are unemployed although most want to
work. This pernicious unemployment rate remains despite the Americans with Disabilities
Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including
blindness. Without a commitment from the government to address the issues responsible
for unemployment of the blind and with programs ill equipped to offer sufficient
jobs, the promise of the ADA will remain unfulfilled for many blind Americans.
Enacted in 1936, the Randolph-Sheppard Act has a targeted mission to provide employment in small business management and operation for blind people. This law provides a priority for the operation of vending facilities by blind persons on federal property.
These businesses range in size and complexity from small newsstands to large cafeterias and dining halls. Average earnings for blind vendors under the Randolph-Sheppard Act are approximately $40,000 annually. However, several factors, including lack of federal leadership and failure by some agencies to cooperate, have caused this program to decline to fewer than 3,000 blind vendors during fiscal year 2004.
The Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act (originally enacted in 1938 as the Wagner-O'Day Act) also provides blind and "severely disabled" persons with opportunities to work, but all of the positions must be classified as "direct labor," not management or supervision. These jobs result from government procurement contracts awarded to nonprofit organizations that have light manufacturing or service units sometimes known as "sheltered workshops" or "industries divisions." The contracts for over 11,600 products and services are awarded under mandatory source procedures specified in the law.
Program Deficiencies: Although opportunities under the Randolph-Sheppard Act are valuable, factors both inside and outside the program continue to limit the number of businesses available for blind vendors and place obstacles in the path of future growth. The state agencies, which license and support the vendors with training, technical assistance, supplies, and equipment, often see themselves as stewards of sparse resources and bypass opportunities for program expansion. Federal agencies required by law to cooperate by providing sites for vending facilities regularly place roadblocks in the path of the blind and the state agencies. Although the U.S. Department of Education has federal administrative responsibility for government-wide leadership to implement the Randolph-Sheppard Act, it now shows little interest in this program and recently declined to appear at a U.S. Senate oversight hearing called to examine implementation of the law. Also the Randolph-Sheppard Act as written and administered discourages blind vendors from breaking free from the subsidies provided, offering few advantages and many risks to those who want to do so.
Over thirty years ago Congress expanded the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act beyond employment of the blind to cover organizations that employ people with "severe disabilities," but failed to address systemic shortcomings in the law. Through its statutory 75 percent direct-labor requirement, this 1930's-era law discourages promotion of disabled employees into positions of management, not to mention mid-level supervision. Discriminatory segregation of disabled employees from those without disabilities (including providing disabled-only bathrooms and lunch tables) continues to occur. Recent investigations have revealed several instances in which nondisabled managers receive shockingly extravagant salaries, while the average wage for direct-labor workers is only about $8,000 annually.
The Need to Modernize: A generic "cross-disability" approach to address the seemingly intractable rate of unemployment of the blind promises continuation of the unacceptable status quo. Surrounded by fear and cloaked in misconceptions, the limitations resulting from blindness are viewed as overpowering and all-pervasive. The all too common misconception that the blind are largely unable to be productive is widely accepted in society. This is as true among those who work in generic, cross-disability programs as it is among members of the general public. More than the loss of eyesight, this common misconception contributes to the dismally high rate of unemployment of the blind.
The time has come for a more enlightened and rational approach. Rather than simply combining programs using a cross-disability model, the real needs of individuals with unique disabilities should be met with common-sense solutions. For the blind this means that federal administration of the Randolph-Sheppard Act should be combined with an expanded capacity to promote business and employment opportunities outside of the more conventional vending facilities program.
Proposed legislation: Congress should enact the Blind Individuals' Business Development and Employment Opportunities Act to significantly expand the number and variety of high-quality jobs available to blind people. This legislation would:
A Campaign To Increase Literacy for Blind Youth
Purpose: To promote Braille literacy for blind youth by enacting the Louis Braille Commemorative Coin Act.
Background: Louis Braille, born in Coupvray, France, in 1809, is recognized worldwide for creating the system of raised dots--Braille--used by the blind to read and write. Braille brings literacy, independence, and productivity to blind people. By believing in the capacity of the blind to learn, Louis Braille demonstrated an understanding of blindness that was extraordinarily enlightened and positive for the times in which he lived.
Blind people today would be far less likely to achieve goals of independence and productive living without the positive contributions Louis Braille made throughout his life. His intelligence and recognition of the need of blind people for a means of literacy continue to inspire us all as we approach the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. Today blind people are teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, mathematicians, and much, much more because of Braille. Blind people working in these professions are living proof that literacy is a pathway to success.
Effective use of Braille
is one of the essential skills needed by the blind to achieve success. It ranks
with independent mobility; knowledge and use of adaptive technology; and a core
belief that equality, opportunity, and security are truly possible for all blind
people. This philosophy has steadily evolved during more than six decades of
work by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).
Today blind people strive to live productive lives as first-class citizens. To do this, we are making a sustained effort to improve public understanding of blindness. However, lack of a solid commitment to teach Braille to blind students is a serious problem in the education of the blind in our nation's schools. This leads to the shocking and tragic fact that only about 10 percent of blind children are being taught to read and write Braille. By contrast, research demonstrates that more than 90 percent of employed blind people use Braille. Therefore increasing the Braille literacy rate is a key factor in helping the blind to become employed and productive. Issuance of a commemorative coin to recognize Louis Braille will support a nationwide campaign to promote Braille literacy.
Current Status: During the first session of the 109th Congress, Representatives Bob Ney and Ben Cardin introduced the Louis Braille Commemorative Coin Act as H.R. 2872. Approximately 250 House members (including Representatives Blunt and Pelosi) have joined as cosponsors as of January 15, 2006. A similar effort will be launched in the Senate during the second session of the 109th Congress.
Action Requested: Please support Braille literacy for blind youth by cosponsoring H.R. 2872 in the House of Representatives or by introducing/cosponsoring a companion bill in the Senate.
To cosponsor H.R. 2872, please contact: