The Braille Monitor                                                                                               April 1997

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Legislative Agenda, 1997

FROM: Members of the National Federation of the Blind
TO: Members of the 105th Congress
RE: Legislative Priorities of Blind Americans


Public policies and laws affecting blind people have a profound impact on our entire society. Most people know someone who is blind. It may be a friend, a family member, or a co-worker on the job. The blind population in the U. S. is estimated to exceed 700,000. Fifty thousand Americans become blind each year. By themselves these numbers may not seem large, but the social and economic consequences of blindness directly touch the lives of millions. In the form of its social consequences and to some extent its economic consequences, blindness affects virtually everyone.

Public policies and laws that result from misconceptions about blindness or lack of information 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 the members are blind, but membership is open to anyone who wants to join in the effort we are making to win understanding and equality in society.

Our priorities for the first session of the 105th Congress reflect an urgent need for action in three specific areas of vital importance to the blind this year.

(1) Congress should restore work incentive equity for blind individuals by re-enacting the identical earnings exemption threshold for blind and senior citizen beneficiaries under Title II of the Social Security Act. This proposal seeks to reduce (or eliminate altogether) the work disincentive of the Social Security earnings limit as it now affects blind beneficiaries. In spite of a law passed in 1977 creating a logical and identical earnings exemption threshold for blind people and retirees, beneficiaries who are blind were singled out for exclusion from a series of seven specified annual increases in the exempt amount mandated under a new law solely for seniors. This means that a lower earnings limit for the blind--$12,000 as compared to $13,500--is now in effect. By 2002, when the exemption for seniors becomes $30,000, the lower limit created by Congress
for the blind in 1996 will be less than half the amount allowed for seniors unless the law is changed.

People of working age who are blind must not be forgotten now that the earnings exemption for retirees has been raised. Just as with hundreds of thousands of seniors, their positive response to the higher amounts of earnings allowed will bring additional revenues into the Social Security trust funds. The chance to work, earn, and pay taxes is a constructive and valid goal for senior citizens and blind Americans alike. This is why the statutory linkage of the exempt earnings amounts which existed under the law for almost twenty years should be restored. For more details and an explanation of the need for this legislation, see the fact sheet entitled "WINNING THE CHANCE TO EARN AND PAY TAXES: HOW THE BLIND PERSON'S EARNINGS LIMIT IN THE SOCIAL SECURITY ACT MUST BE CHANGED."

(2) Congress should amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to include provisions for strengthening programs of Braille literacy instruction. This can be done by enacting Braille literacy for blind persons provisions as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Goal Five of the National Education Goals declares that by the year 2000, "Every adult American will be literate. . . ." For blind people this means having the ability to read and write in Braille at a level of proficiency which makes performance on equal terms possible. Without legislative change, today's blind children will not be able to meet this national goal.

As many as 34 percent of the blind students enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. during the last school year were classified as "non-readers." Fewer than 10 percent read Braille. Current federal and state laws require that an appropriate educational opportunity must be provided
to children with disabilities. Each such child is to have an individually planned program of instruction to meet identified needs, but growing illiteracy for blind children has been the result. Remedial federal legislation, similar to laws now enacted in twenty-eight states, can help to reverse this trend. For more details and an explanation of the need for this legislation, see the fact sheet entitled
"BRAILLE LITERACY AND THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES EDUCATION ACT."

(3) Congress should enact legislation this year to reauthorize the existing federal/state program of vocational rehabilitation. This program, as currently authorized under Title I of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is now in its final year before action must be taken to continue grants to states for serving persons with disabilities, including people who are blind. During the 104th Congress vocational rehabilitation was among the programs first included but later removed from a proposed job training, education, and employment system consolidation bill. Nonetheless, with the program's reauthorization due for consideration this year, the possibility of consolidation with other programs has been discussed and could be proposed again.

Vocational rehabilitation has been recognized as a specific responsibility to be shared by the federal government and the states for seventy-seven years. The mixture of this program (intended to address essential and complex disability-related needs) with generic job training, education, and employment programs for the general population is a fundamentally flawed concept. For someone who becomes blind in mid-career, unemployment is only one of many consequences. By comparison, however, the need for special help to deal with blindness is by far the most profound initial problem. This is why vocational rehabilitation services should continue to receive dedicated federal funding to support a targeted and identifiable service delivery system. For more details and an explanation of the need for reauthorization see the fact sheet entitled "Blindness, Rehabilitation, and the Need for Specialized Programs."

People who are blind are asking for your help in securing positive action by Congress in the areas outlined here. Legislative proposals will be offered to achieve each of our specific objectives. Many priorities confront this session of Congress, and the needs of the nation's blind are among them. 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.