Braille Monitor May-June 1986
In late January or early February of each year the blind of the nation assemble in Washington to talk with Congress. Attendance at the March on Washington grows larger every year, and 1986 was no exception. The group topped 300. Almost every state was represented.
President Jernigan gaveled the first briefing session to order Sunday evening, February 2. His remarks set the tone for an exciting three days to follow. More and more one begins to feel the thrill of a national convention as the March on Washington begins. As with our convention sessions, the Sunday evening briefing is truly a working meeting. It gives those in attendance a chance to prepare for the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday visits to Capitol Hill. Tours of the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore are also planned. Many who come to the March set time aside to visit the National Center in order to experience the dynamics of the activities at national headquarters. There is an excitement, a feeling of enthusiasm, and a sense of commitment which is unique and uplifting.
On the morning of Wednesday, February 5, we had the opportunity to show our numbers (and the interest represented by our presence) at a Congressional hearing held by two subcommittees of the House of Representatives. The hearing dealt with Postal Service matters. Members of Congress were interested in learning the facts behind the appointment of a new Postmaster General, but the hearing also presented opportunity for members of the House Subcommittee to question Postal officials about their intentions with respect to the continuation of reduced rate postal services and Free Matter for the Blind and Handicapped. Of course, the fact that we were there in such numbers encouraged such questions. It is rare to see such a big turnout at a hearing dealing with the Postal Service. We were already filling the chairs in the hearing room when many of the Washington regulars arrived. It was standing room only by the time the Chairman rapped the gavel.
As the hearing proceeded, several members of the House Subcommittees raised questions relating to the future of the federal subsidy to the Postal Service known as "Revenue Foregone." Our presence in the room clearly had an impact. Representative William Ford (Chairman of the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service) explained our concerns in some detail and specifically named the National Federation of the Blind in expressing his personal dissatisfaction with plans to end the postal subsidy.
The issues raised during the March on Washington continue to be important well beyond the date of March itself. A "Legislative Memorandum" and three fact sheets are reprinted here. These are the materials we distributed to each Congressional office. In many cases they were given to the Senator or Representative personally.
For more information please contact:
Director of Governmental Affairs
From: Members of the National Federation of the Blind
To: Members of the 99th Congress
Re: The blind: Priorities for the 99th Congress, Second Session
One out of every five hundred of the U.S. population is blind, and fifty thousand people in our country become blind each year. Even more, the social effects of blindness magnify its impact to include families, relatives, friends, colleagues at work, and others. In short, millions of our citizens are affected to a considerable degree by laws and public policies concerning the blind. B pite its widespread impact, blindness is one of the most misunderstood conditions. So we have formed the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to increase public understanding about blindness and to build greater awareness among the blind themselves. NFB is a private sector voluntary organization maintained and controlled by the blind. It is a resource of knowledge and personal help with everyday problems for thousands of blind men and women. We are proud of our self-help philosophy and achievements. But decisions that will be made during this session of the 99th Congress could bring our programs to a halt, or severely curtail them. Therefore, certain actions must be taken.
(1) Congress should establish and assure stability in postage rates paid by nonprofit organizations, including NFB. This request seeks sufficient appropriations to meet "revenue foregone" expenses of the U.S. Postal Service, and to handle mailings by nonprofit organizations sent at reduced postage rates. Under existing law and appropriations levels, nonprofit organizations are required to pay approximately 40% more for using reduced-rate third class postage than comparable postage rates actually in effect even one year ago. But the rates could rise by another 70% next October if a budget plan to eliminate payments to the postal service is accepted by Congress.
Nothing can be more critical to a voluntary, private sector group of citizens than to have affordable, stable postage rates for mass communications. Paying the postal service's commercial rates for necessary use of the mails would force us to dismantle many programs. Survival for many national organizations (including NFB) would be threatened. If communications with blind persons and the public at large are cut, a time bomb is created since fewer people will understand anything about blindness and even fewer will know of the continuing need to help. Then, the downward spiral is in motion, with fewer people helped and even fewer people helping. Soon the benefits are gone.
This does not overstate how vulnerable we are to the postal rate crisis if Congress fails to approve adequate funding. The fact sheet entitled "Crisis In Nonprofit Mail Rates Means Serious Harm to the Blind" explains the current situation and gives details on how members of the 99th Congress can help.
(2) Congress should act to insure fair treatment for the blind in air travel. This request seeks a Congressional probe against the blind by means of irrational restrictions imposed upon the blind under the guise of federal procedures. Under existing federal regulations (14 CFR 121.586) certified air carriers are allowed discretion in establishing their own rules for transporting any person who may need assistance in exiting quickly in an emergency. The rule, promulgated in 1977, was originally intended as a directive for air carriers to transport the handicapped. The procedures should facilitate air travel and not impair freedom of movement. But blind people have become victims of the air carrier procedures (or interpretations of these procedures) by misguided airline personnel. Since blindness is not an obstacle in air travel, the procedures for the handicapped should have no application to the blind whatsoever. Even so, airline personnel insist upon enforcing certain restrictions which they alone have determined should be followed. There are even examples of blind persons being placed under arrest for peacefully sitting in seats assigned to them by the airline. This occurs when some airlines seek to enforce various seating restrictions they have established without specific guidance from the Federal Aviation Administration. The fact sheet entitled "Travel By Air, Discrimination And Chaos For The Blind," gives details about current incidents and suggests how Congress might help.
(3) Congress should enact the "Fair Insurance Coverage Act" to prohibit unfair discrimination in insurance based on blindness or degree of blindness. This proposal (pending in the 99th Congress, Second Session) is being made by Representative Jim Bates of California and Senator Charles Mathias of Maryland. It seeks a federal ban on extra premiums and denials of insurance coverage faced by blind people. Existing law does not provide such protection for anyone on an interstate basis. Thirty-five have already passed laws or regulations relating to insurance discrimination against the blind, but discriminatory insurance practices still continue in some of these states, and in others where no laws or regulations now exist. Congress should now examine the question and enact a comprehensive federal policy. The fact sheet entitled "Insurance Discrimination Against The Blind" explains the status of current efforts in Congress and in the states and gives details on the current need for federal legislation. Blind people are asking for your help in securing positive action by Congress and the Executive Branch in the areas explained in the attached fact sheets. To the extent necessary, new legislation to achieve these and other objectives will be introduced in the 99th Congress. Other actions to support our objectives may be taken by individual members independently. Many priorities confront this session of Congress, but the needs of the nation's blind must not be overlooked during this year's legislative agenda. We of the National Federation of the Blind stand ready to assist our representatives and senators in understanding our needs and to taking meaningful action to address them.
The Issue: During this session, Congress will decide whether federal funds will continue to aid the blind and others by meeting some of the costs for free and reduced rate mailings carried by the United States Postal Service (USPS). Many nonprofit organizations, such as the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), may not survive if forced to pay commercial postage rates. Yet, this would be the effect of budget proposals to terminate or reduce federal aid for nonprofit groups to use the mails.
Nonprofit Postage Rates Bring Help To The Blind: Holding the line on nonprofit postage rates will mean the difference between life or death for groups such as NFB which operate in the private sector. Voluntary initiatives made by the blind themselves without government expense (such as public education campaigns and drives for more employment opportunities for the blind) will decline or cease altogether if postage rates rise further. Materials and resources aimed at personal adjustment and self-help for the blind, provided without government cost, will not be available. Organized consultation by the blind themselves to assist in developing technology or to advise officials of public programs will not be possible. Communication links among the blind to share information, knowledge, and resources will be gone. Above all, the ability to encourage the blind toward self-betterment, growth, and productive living will be lost. This is tangible help made possible now because of federally provided special mail rates. The rates allow for educational communications and fund raising to enlist community, private sector support for the efforts of the blind to help themselves. NFB's programs help reduce dependency by the blind upon the government. That in itself is a benefit to all taxpayers. But if Congress decides not to use tax money to encourage these private initiatives, demand will rise from among the blind for more help from public agencies financed by state and federal tax dollars. Costs to the federal treasury for publicly run programs will rise while private efforts cease or suffer.
How Congress Can Help: (1) Vote for a budget resolution containing sufficient authority for appropriations to maintain nonprofit postage rates at current levels.
(2) Vote for appropriations measures which provide sufficient funds so nonprofit postage rates will not increase further during 1986 or 1987. The FY 1986 appropriation is $748 million. $833 million may be needed for FY 1987, but the amount may be lower depending upon the outcome of budget reconciliation legislation and upon recommendations being studied by the Postal Rate Commission.
Current Crisis and Background: Under the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act federal revenues pay for mail service authorized by law at free or reduced rates. Communications by nonprofit organizations and "free matter for the blind and handicapped" directly benefit the blind. Also (among others) political parties, newspaper and periodical publishers, schools, and libraries are also aided by the appropriation known technically as "revenue foregone."
This is a target in the current round of budget cuts. In 1981, 1982, and 1985, there were unsuccessful attempts to eliminate budget authority for the revenue foregone appropriation, but Congress wisely resisted. Again this year the President's budget may request complete elimination of revenue foregone payments to USPS. Then, no funds would be available to mail books for the blind postage free or to support use of the mails on behalf of the blind by NFB and other nonprofit groups.
7.4 cents per piece is the current third-class nonprofit rate. (At this writing--mid-April of 1986--it is 8.7 cents.) One year ago the comparable rate was 5.2 cents per piece. If the budget plan wins out to eliminate the revenue foregone payment, the third class nonprofit rate would be increased by another 70% later this year, and for the first time books for the blind would have to be sent at prohibitively expensive commercial postage rates. 12.5 cents per piece is the current commercial third-class rate. Without adequate appropriations to meet the difference, this would be the amount charged to nonprofit organizations. At the 12.5 cent third-class per piece rate, an organization mailing one million pieces would pay $125,000 as opposed to $74,000 for a similar mailing presently. If a nonprofit group mails ten million pieces annually (many do), a postage rate increase of one cent will result in an increased postage charge of $100,000 for that group. That increase may mean the difference between continuing to provide help and closing down altogether because postage costs are too high. Paying more to USPS for postage takes money directly from program services which now help the blind. It would be impossible to contact new potential contributors to raise additional revenues. If communications with blind persons and the public at large are cut, a time bomb is created since fewer people will understand anything about blindness and even fewer will know of the continuing need to help. The inevitable result is a downward spiral, with fewer people helped and fewer people helping. Soon the self-help organizations of the blind will be destroyed. These are the unanticipated ripple effects of rising postal rates, but they are nonetheless very real. The ability to communicate at an affordable cost is vital. Without it, many worthy efforts on behalf of the nation's blind will diminish or die altogether. Since fifty thousand Americans become blind each year, there must either be continued widespread mailings to the general public to inform them about blindness and how to deal with it or else an increasing number of the newly blinded will not be found until it is too late and they are hopelessly doomed to continuing dependence.
The Problem: Most blind people who travel by air can do so independently without limitation or undue concern on the part of the airlines. But procedures which most airlines have developed and filed with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) subject blind air travelers to unreasonable and often intolerable restrictions. With growing frequency, this results in confrontations causing numerous delayed departures and the detaining of blind passengers without justifiable grounds.
Unreasonable practices include prohibitions on seat assignments in emergency exit rows, but not by all airlines at all times from such seats in such rows; other restrictive seating requirements, imposed by some airlines and not by others, aimed at placing blind passengers at or near the back of evacuation lines; special instructions given to the blind by some airlines stating a requirement to stay seated in the event of an emergency in order to leave the aircraft at or near the back of the flow of passengers; required pre-boarding of blind persons so as to separate them from the rest of the passenger load; and other procedures exercised by some airlines which deprive the blind of freedom of movement and personal dignity.
It is not uncommon for airline personnel to enforce these limits with a vengeance. Some blind people have been attacked physically during confrontations provoked by airline personnel. In other cases, verbal abuse has been used to embarass blind people in front of other airline passengers in an attempt to ridicule the blind and to force them into submission. A shocking pattern of such incidents has been documented by the National Federation of the Blind. In the space of eleven months, beginning in November, 1984, five blind people were actually arrested by law enforcement authorities acting on behalf of airline personnel. All were not charged or later found to be not guilty of any wrongdoing. These arrests are the most extreme instances, but less dramatic incidents now form a pattern of almost daily occurance.
Solution: The appropriate Committees and Subcommittees of the Congress should examine current procedures and practices of the commercial aviation industry relating to air transportation of the blind. The investigation should include oversight hearings to receive testimony from blind persons, industry representatives, and federal transportation officials. Then, Congress should direct the Department of Transportation to pursue an action plan with specific objectives to assure that the present impediments to normal air travel for the blind are removed.
Background: Until 1977, federal policies pertaining to air travel by the blind (or the handicapped, as well) were no different than for other passengers using commercial aviation. In fact, despite some less frequent (although annoying) incidents prior to 197 7, air travel for most blind people was comparatively trouble-free.
Then, the FAA entered the picture by promulgating a rule under the heading "Authority to Refuse Transportation." This regulation is still in effect and found at 14C FR 121.586. It applies to anyone who is determined by the airline to be a passenger who may need someone else's assistance to exit quickly in an emergency. When the regulation was issued, federal officials said that airlines were required to transport the handicapped. However, service would not be required for any person determined to need assistance if the person could not be carried by the airline in accordance with its written procedures. Thus, each airline is given wide discretion in issuing these procedures, so long as they are placed on file with the FAA. But an analysis conducted by the National Federation of the Blind has shown that many airlines do not even foilow their own procedures, and most have procedures which are different from those which they have actually filed with the FAA. The procedures of many airlines allow for discriminatory restrictions to be placed on air travel for the blind. Yet, the FAA has declined to disapprove these requirements. According to FAA officials, airlines are free to establish any procedures they like, so long as the procedures meet federal safety standards administered and applied by the FAA. But officials say that any airline procedures which do not have a bearing on safety fall outside the FAA's jurisdiction. The result is that airline personnel are allowed to badger the blind with verbal and physical abuse while federal authorities stand by with a "hands off" posture.
How Members of Congress Can Help: Each member of Congress can help by calling for early scheduling of a Congressional investigation of these practices. Where appropriate, informal contracts might also be made with airline executives to secure their cooperation in reviewing and revising company policies. All opportunities to raise these issues with aviation industry and federal officials should be considered. Report language in the appropriation's bill for the Department of Transportation and Related Agencies might also be offered, directing the Department of Transportation to initiate corrective action on behalf of the blind.
The Fair Insurance Coverage Act Purpose: To prohibit discrimination in insurance on the basis of blindness or degree of blindness. House Bill: H.R. 2741, 99th Congress, First Session Senate Bill: S. 12 90, 99th Congress, First Session.
Background: The myths and misconceptions about blindness in our society today often manifest themselves in stereotyped thinking which, upon reasoned examination, has no basis in fact. Thus, the blind become victims of unreasonable and detrimental practices that are not supported by reliable evidence. This is how discrimination works against any minority. But the problem is particularly acute for blind people because of the attitudes of kindness and charity that are commonly exhibited toward them.
Practices common in the insurance industry exemplify the problem. Discrimination against the blind by insurance companies occurs when blind people are denied coverage or required to pay extra premiums based solely on grounds of blindness. Sound actuarial statistics do not exist to demonstrate that blindness results in increased risk for insurance carriers. Yet, underwriting rules followed by many companies require extra premiums, place limits on coverage to be provided under certain conditions, or deny coverage in some instances altogether. Some companies will sell their policies at standard rates if a blind person is a "healthy, well adjusted individual." But these requirements, whatever they might mean, are not specified for non-blind applicants or policy holders.
Prohibitions Proposed: H.R. 2741 (entitled the Fair Insurance Coverage Act) has been introduced in the First Session of the 99th Congress by Representative Jim Bates of California. S. 1290 (an identical bill) has been introduced in the United States Senate by Senator Charles Mathias of Maryland. These bills seek to enact a federal prohibition against insurance discrimination based on blindness. If enacted, the bills would establish a federal policy that no insurer shall, because of blindness or degree of blindness, (1) refuse to make insurance available to any applicant for insurance; or (2) treat any blind applicant or insured differently than any other applicant or insured with respect to the terms, conditions, rates, benefits, or requirements of any insurance policy or contract. Observing these requirements means that insurance rates and coverage for blind people will be the same as for sighted people. Conjecture and belief about hazards due to blindness (used in the past to establish special rates or more limited coverage) will not be permitted.
The Fair Insurance Coverage Act implements the policy described herein by clearly defining "discriminatory actions." States which currently have, or may later enact, laws relating to insurance discrimination based on blindness or degree of blindness are given prime responsibility for enforcement within certain time limits during which complaints of discrimination could not be brought in federal or state courts of jurisdiction under the Fair Insurance Coverage Act. In states where laws do not exist, or if enforcement does not occur within the time limits specified, enforcement of the Fair Insurance Coverage Act can occur by civil action brought in an appropriate United States District Court or in a state court having jurisdiction. The Attorney General of the United States is also authorized to file suit for enforcement of this Act on issues determined to have sufficient public importance. Penalties include recovery of actual and punitive damages.
Need For Legislation: The need for legislation to prohibit insurance discrimination against the blind has been documented by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) in a model insurance regulation, revised in December of 1984. The model rule identifies discrimination based on blindness as an "unfair trade practice." NAIC's revised model regulation was issued in December, 1984, after it was found that several insurance companies were continuing to discriminate on the basis of blindness. As the commissioners noted in the original report accompanying the model regulation, there is no factual basis for the "belief" that blindness constitutes an increased risk. If the blind were actually a greater risk, it would not be a discriminatory practice to charge higher rates or deny coverage. The practice of classifying the blind into a category of increased risk, without any basis in fact, however, constitutes discrimination.
Backed by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners' Model Regulation, thirty-five states have currently enacted laws or regulatory prohibitions relating to insurance discrimination based on blindness. But despite these positive moves, discrimination still exists in many jurisdictions. It has also proven difficult to combat the policies of a multi-state industry on a state-by-state basis. Instead of prohibiting discrimination on an intrastate basis, therefore, the Fair Insurance Coverage Act would put in place a national standard, applicable industrywide, fulfilling objectives of free commerce throughout our nation and the interests of the public at large.