Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2006

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The Blind Educate Congress

James McCarthy, NFB Director of Governmental Affairs, answers questions about the three legislative priorities at the 2006 Washington D.C. Seminar.Some of the problems that blindness presents can be solved by legislation. Social Security benefits, employment opportunities, access to public facilities, access to the World Wide Web, the right to Braille instruction, access to books and instructional materials in Braille and other alternative formats--these are some of the many issues that have come before Congress over the years. And always in the forefront of bringing these issues to Congress is the National Federation of the Blind. The goal of the Federation is to educate the public about blindness, and the “public” includes Congress.

Annually, 400 or more blind people (members of the NFB) from all over the country gather in Washington, D.C, to personally visit their state delegates to discuss NFB priorities for that session. The event begins over the weekend at the Holiday Inn Capitol with specialized workshops for groups such as blind college students, blind lawyers, blind vendors, and others. This year the event began the weekend of January 28 and 29. On the following Monday evening, the delegates gathered to hear a mid-year update on activities of the NFB, and to review the three legislative priorities with the schedule for the week. On Tuesday, teams from each state headed off to the Hill for their appointments. Many of the state teams--such as Ohio, New York, Louisiana, and New Jersey--included parents of blind children and blind students, too. (The experience is a powerful hands-on, real-life lesson in government, and schools are usually happy to release students to come to this event.)

The priorities were summarized in four fact sheets which the teams studied and handed out to every senator and state representative on the Hill. Reprinted below are three of these fact sheets. The first is a summary of all three priorities, and the other two go into details on the two issues that are of particular interest to our readers because of their potential impact on blind students. The fact sheets have been slightly edited to reflect the most current status of the legislation as we go to press. Here is the first fact sheet:

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

Contact Information:
James McCarthy
Director of Governmental Affairs
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Email: jmccarthy@nfb.org
Phone: (410) 659-9314, extension 2240

For many years now, members of the National Federation of the Blind have gathered together in Washington, D.C, at the start of the legislative session to educate our nation’s lawmakers about the top legislative needs of blind Americans.

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.

Editor’s Note: Here is the second fact sheet:

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 can 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:

Action Requested:
Please support blind Americans by working for passage of the Higher Education Textbook Access Act, when introduced, to assure that printed instructional materials are accessible to blind students in higher education.

Editor’s Note: Here is the third fact sheet:

Promoting Braille:
A Campaign To Increase Literacy For Blind Youth

Contact Information:
Jesse Hartle
Governmental Programs Specialist
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Email: jhartle@nfb.org
Phone: (410) 659-9314, extension 2233

Purpose: To promote Braille literacy for blind youth by enacting the Louis Braille Commemorative Coin Act.

Jessie Hartle, NFB Governmental Programs SpecialistBackground: 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 200th 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 ten 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: [Editor’s Note: The following information reflects the most current status as this issue goes to press.] 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 305 House members have joined as cosponsors as of February 22, 2006. Senators Santorum and Dodd introduced S. 2321 on February 17, and currently, there are 22 co-sponsors for this bill. As Jessie Hartle wrote in a recent Legislative announcement, “Please contact your senators and urge them to cosponsor S. 2321. Your state’s Republicans will prefer contacting Senator Santorum while Democrats will prefer contacting Senator Dodd. Either way, we must make sure that both offices receive several calls from senators in support of Louis Braille Coin legislation so we can promptly complete this campaign.”

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