Washington Seminar: Advocacy in Action

John Pare speaks to the members at the Washington Seminar Great Gathering-In.

Washington Seminar: Advocacy in Action

By John Pare

I attended my first Washington Seminar twenty years ago as part of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida delegation. It was the first time I had stepped foot in one of the House of Representatives or Senate office buildings, and it was the first time I ever had a one-on-one conversation with a member of Congress.

I had carefully studied the fact sheets—back then they were available on cassette—but I was still nervous. I wondered if I would be asked to present one of the issues. I wondered what kinds of questions they would ask me, and how I could respond in a way that demonstrated my knowledge of the issues, while remaining respectful of their office. And I wondered if I would be able to find my way around the giant and complex set of buildings.

I remember attending my first Great Gathering-In, which is the kickoff meeting for Washington Seminar. We hear from our President, Federation leaders, and frequently a member of Congress. The enthusiasm was palpable. We learned about the issues and what questions we might be asked. It quickly became clear that we all knew more about the issues than I had originally thought. Our shared lived experience gave us understanding about each of the issues and our personal stories shared a common theme.

On my first day on “the Hill”, I drew strength from all of the other members of the National Federation of the Blind. We seemed to be everywhere—in the halls, in the cafeterias, and in the offices. Our energy and expertise, and the power of our collective action were clearer than ever.

I was asked to present one of the issues at my second meeting. It was extremely rewarding to be representing the National Federation of the Blind, and to be advocating for issues critical to blind Americans across the country.

I have approached every subsequent Washington Seminar with the same enthusiasm. It is essential to our unique brand of government that we educate our legislators about what laws are needed to improve educational and employment opportunities, protect the civil rights, and improve the accessibility needed for independent living for all blind Americans. This is our opportunity to educate all 535 members of Congress early in the session in order to guide their work for the remainder of the year.

The three issues we will be advocating for this year are the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act, the Medical Device Nonvisual Accessibility Act, and the Blind Americans Return to Work Act. All three bills are integral to the lives of blind Americans.

Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act: According to this Forbes article, a new website is created every three seconds. However, it’s widely recognized that ninety percent of those websites are inaccessible. With so much of life occurring online—school assignments, job applications, and shopping to name a few things—blind people are often left behind. This bill provides solutions by firmly defining web accessibility, establishing a technical-assistance center, and directing the Department of Justice to establish accessibility regulations.

Medical Device Nonvisual Accessibility Act: Medical devices with digital interfaces are becoming increasingly common, but their lack of accessibility features prevents blind people from operating them safely and independently. We need equal access to all aspects of our healthcare. This bill calls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish regulations regarding medical device accessibility, requires manufacturers to make their devices accessible, and authorizes the FDA to enforce accessibility requirements.

Blind Americans Return to Work Act: The “earnings cliff” contained in the social security disability income (SSDI) program discourages blind people from maximizing their employment potential. About seventy percent of blind people are unemployed or underemployed. This bill incentivizes gainful employment by removing the earnings cliff, and streamlining existing regulations.

You can find more information on our Washington Seminar webpage. You’ll also find information and Zoom instructions for this year’s Great Gathering-In. I look forward to visiting and working with everyone who will be attending this year’s Washington Seminar!