The crowd at the opening of the 1998 NFB Washington Seminar
1998 Washington Seminar Fact Sheets
From the Editor: Participants in the 1998 Washington Seminar went to Capitol Hill ready to discuss two issues with Members of Congress. The first was reestablishing the linkage between the stipends received by blind Social Security Disability Insurance recipients and those of retirees under the age of seventy. The second was reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Following are the legislative agenda and the two fact sheets that Federationists took to the Hill:
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 throughout 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. In fact, as many as fifty thousand Americans become blind each year, and the blind population in the U.S. is estimated to exceed 700,000. By themselves these numbers may not seem large, but the social and economic consequences of blindness directly touch the lives of millions and, at least indirectly, have some impact on everyone.
Public policies and laws that result from misconceptions or lack of information about blindness 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 anyone is welcome to join in the effort we are making to win understanding and equality in society.
Our priorities for the second session of the 105th Congress reflect an urgent need for action in two specific areas of vital importance to the blind this year.
(1) Congress should restore work incentive equity 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 1977 law to maintain the same earnings exemption threshold for blind people and age sixty-five retirees, a decision was made to exclude the blind when the threshold was raised for seniors in 1996. This means that a lower blind persons' earnings limit of $12,600 is now in effect as compared to $14,500 for seniors. By 2002, when the seniors' exemption becomes $30,000, the blind persons' lower limit will be less than half that amount 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, the positive response of blind people to higher earnings exemptions 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. 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 expedite consideration and final passage of pending legislation to reauthorize the vocational rehabilitation program. Last reauthorized in 1992, this program is currently operating under an automatic one-year renewal provision, effective through September 30, 1998. Meanwhile a three-year extension bill has been passed by the House of Representatives, and a seven-year extension measure is now under active review in the Senate. Legislation to combine vocational rehabilitation with several other adult education, training, and employment services was considered but rejected during the 104th Congress. As a result the issue of consolidation appears to be settled, although the legislation to continue the program still awaits final action.
This program, which provides grants to states for assisting persons with disabilities, has been conducted with leadership and significant funding from the federal government for seventy-eight years. For the person who is blind, the difficulty in finding suitable employment is only one of many consequences. The most profound initial problem, in fact, is the need for specific help to deal with adjustment to blindness. Failure to provide services which respond to the blind person's fears, lack of confidence, and lack of relevant skills will almost certainly result in lifelong dependence. There is no program other than vocational rehabilitation which has the responsibility of helping to meet these needs. For more details and an explanation of the need for reauthorization see the fact sheet entitled "Reauthorizing Vocational Rehabilitation and Related Programs: A Call for Action."
People who are blind are asking for your help to enact the legislation described in the priority items of this agenda. 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.
For further information contact James Gashel, Director of Governmental Affairs, National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, (410) 659-9314.
Winning the Chance to Earn and Pay Taxes:
How the Blind Person's Earnings Limit in the
Social Security Act Must Be Changed
PENDING BILLS: H.R. 612; S. 375
PURPOSE: To restore the linkage between the earnings exemption
threshold for blind persons and the exemption allowed for
retirees at age sixty-five under title II of the Social Security
BACKGROUND: As the result of a 1996 law to raise the debt limit, senior citizens age sixty-five to seventy are encouraged to continue working while retaining entitlement to Social Security benefits. This is being done by annual changes in the exempt earnings threshold, which is $14,500 in 1998 and will increase to $30,000 by the year 2002. In making the case for this change, advocates in Congress explained that senior citizens in greater numbers would now have the opportunity to work, earn, and pay taxes.
In spite of a law passed in 1977 to establish the earnings exemption threshold for blind people at the identical exempt amount used for seniors, a decision was made to exclude the blind from the higher exemptions. This means that a lower earnings limit for the blind is now in effect. This lower limit for 1998 is $12,600. By 2002, when the exemption for seniors becomes $30,000, the lower limit for the blind is expected to be $14,400.
Earnings of this amount for a blind person who is age sixty-four will cause the complete loss of Social Security benefits until the individual becomes a retiree at age sixty-five. At that point the same individual is allowed to earn more than twice the amount allowed for the blind. This is the inequity that now exists.
EXISTING LAW: Section 216(i) of the Social Security Act defines "blindness" in precise medical terms. Therefore blindnessas with agecan be determined with reasonable certainty. In this respect blindness is unlike any other disability subject to evaluation under the Social Security Act. All other disabilities are determined on the basis of an individual's "inability to engage in substantial gainful activity," which is a complex and fairly subjective determination in many cases.
Although blindness is precisely defined, monthly benefits are not paid to all persons who are blind but only to those whose earnings (if any) are below the annually adjusted limit. Personal wealth not resulting from current work activity does not count as earnings and has no effect on eligibility. Only work is penalized. It was the recognition of this fact that led to the greater exemption of earnings now allowed for seniors, and the situation for blind people is precisely the same.
ACTION REQUESTED: Congress should restore work incentive equity by re-enacting the identical earnings exemption threshold for blind and senior citizen beneficiaries under title II of the Social Security Act. Legislation to achieve this objective has been offered in bills submitted in both the House and the Senate. The House bill is H.R. 612, sponsored by Representative Barbara Kennelly. The companion bill in the Senate is S. 375, sponsored by Senators McCain and Dodd. Although neither bill was considered beyond introduction in the last session of Congress, an impressive list of cosponsors indicates that substantial bipartisan support exists in both the House and the Senate.
The National Federation of the Blind strongly supports this legislation. By creating a lower earnings limit for the blind, the action in the 104th Congress has resulted in a harsh work disincentive policy which is widely regarded as an inequity created in the rush to pass the 1996 debt ceiling bill.
NEED TO REMOVE WORK DISINCENTIVES: Mandating the adjustments in the earnings limit for blind people in the manner now allowed for age sixty-five retirees will provide more than 100,000 blind beneficiaries with a powerful work incentive. Most blind people could then not lose financially by working. Moreover, the mandated earnings limit changes would be cost-beneficial, since among those of working age most blind people are already beneficiaries. At present their earnings must not exceed a strict limit of $1,050 per month. When earnings exceed this exempt amount, the entire sum paid to a primary beneficiary and dependents is abruptly withdrawn after a trial work period.
When a blind person finds work, there is absolutely no assurance that earnings will replace the amount of lost disability benefits after taxes and work expenses are paid. Usually they do not. Therefore few beneficiaries can actually afford to attempt substantial work. Those who do will often sacrifice income and will certainly sacrifice the security they have from the automatic receipt of a monthly check.
This group of beneficiariespeople of working age who are blindmust not be forgotten now that the earnings exemption has been raised for seniors. Just as with hundreds of thousands of seniors, the positive response of blind people to the higher earnings exemptions 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.
Reauthorizing Vocational Rehabilitation
and Related Programs:
A Call for Action
BACKGROUND: Under title I of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, states receive federal funds to provide comprehensive vocational rehabilitation services to eligible persons with disabilities, including persons who are blind. The program pays part or all of the cost for individually planned services leading to employment. The amount appropriated for fiscal year 1998 is approximately $2.25 billion.
ACTION REQUESTED: Congress should expedite consideration and final passage of pending legislation to reauthorize the vocational rehabilitation program. Last reauthorized in 1992, the vocational rehabilitation program is currently operating under an automatic one-year renewal provision, effective through September 30, 1998. Meanwhile a bill to extend the program for three years has been passed by the House of Representatives. A Senate bill on reauthorization proposing a seven-year extension is also under consideration after extensive negotiations to develop the bill last fall. This program has been conducted under shared federal and state responsibilities for seventy-eight years.
Legislation to combine vocational rehabilitation with several adult education, training, and employment service programs was considered but rejected during the 104th Congress. As a result provisions passed by the House as part of the latest consolidation bill call for maintaining vocational rehabilitation as a completely distinct service, which is also proposed in the Senate bill. Therefore the separate status of vocational rehabilitation has been settled, although the legislation to continue the program still awaits final action.
REAUTHORIZATION APPROACH: At a technical level the pending bills call for extensive revisions in title I of the Rehabilitation Act. However, the overall direction, structure, and funding arrangements now in effect would be maintained under either the Senate or the House bill. In general it is also fair to say that both bills contain several new provisions which are designed to lead to a more consumer-responsive approach to service delivery.
As one example of this, both bills include independent preparation of training and employment programs as the right of each consumer. Under existing law these programs must be prepared by rehabilitation counselors. The programs must include the plans for service, specification of training required, and identification of the resources necessary to achieve the individual's chosen goal. Also both bills contain expanded sections on consumer choice, building on language first included in amendments made during the last reauthorization of rehabilitation programs in 1992.
In fact the provisions now being considered for final passage should result in moving the vocational rehabilitation program toward a more consumer-focused orientation. Under the Senate bill, for instance, any blind or disabled person who has already met the qualifying standards to receive cash assistance from the Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income programs would automatically be found eligible for training and employment services from vocational rehabilitation. If this provision is accepted by the House and included in the final bill, blind people in particular will witness the removal of bureaucratic barriers to eligibility decisions and prompt service.
For the person who is blind, the difficulty in finding suitable employment is only one of many consequences. The most profound initial problem, in fact, is the need for specific help to deal with adjustment to blindness. Failure to provide services which respond to the blind person's fears, lack of confidence, and lack of relevant skills will almost certainly result in lifelong dependence.
There is no program other than vocational rehabilitation which has the responsibility of helping to meet these needs. This conclusion represents the shared experience of blind persons and speaks to the need for maintaining a system of specialized, blindness-related services with federal support and leadership. Therefore the pending measures to reauthorize the vocational rehabilitation program must move forward to final consideration and passage before the present session of Congress adjourns.
Have you considered leaving a gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will? By preparing a will now, you can assure that those administering your estate will avoid unnecessary delays, legal complications, and substantial tax costs. A will is a common device used to leave a substantial gift to charity. A gift in your will to the NFB can be of any size and will be used to help blind people. Here are some useful hints in preparing your will:
* Make a list of everything you want to leave (your estate).
* Decide how and to whom you want to leave these assets.
* Consult an attorney (one you know or one we can help you find).
* Make certain you thoroughly understand your will before you sign it.
For more information contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.