Braille Monitor                                                 November 2010

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Disability Policy from the White House

by Kareem Dale

Kareem DaleFrom the Editor: Late Thursday afternoon, July 8, President Obama’s advisor on disability policy, Kareem Dale, addressed convention delegates. President Maurer introduced him by mentioning that Mr. Dale created his own law practice before he was named to the White House position he now holds. He was recognized in the November/December 2001 issue of Ebony as one of the thirty leaders of the future under the age of thirty. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s degree in advertising, and he received his JD in 1999 from the same university, graduating cum laude. Presenting the final agenda item before convention adjournment is not an enviable task, but Kareem Dale did an amazing job of keeping the audience’s attention by delivering his report with liveliness and efficiency. This is what he said:

Thank you so much for inviting me to join you, Dr. Maurer, John Paré, the entire NFB family, for asking me to join you all today. It’s my great pleasure to be here. We stand on the brink of a historic anniversary. Nearly a quarter century ago, indeed even longer, advocates like many in this room fought, advocated, protested, demonstrated, and demanded that all our civil rights be protected and indeed honored. And twenty years ago this very month, America passed the landmark civil rights legislative act of our time, the Americans with Disabilities Act [applause], an act that, for many of us in this room, put into law and demanded openness and accessibility and inclusion where there had been none in the past. Whether it was requiring that hotels place Braille numbers on their room doors so that we could independently find our own damn rooms; demanding that restaurants and other public facilities make them accessible and inclusive for all; forcing employers to provide reasonable accommodations so that blind people could have an equal opportunity to excel in employment; or forcing cities and states across the country to make their services, including parks, facilities, transportation, and other facilities, accessible and inclusive for all so that you and I could participate just like everyone else--these advances, this mission of inclusiveness, of accessibility and openness for all are hallmarks of this administration. These are the ideals that we share with each and every one of you. This is our common purpose. And, over the first eighteen months of his administration, President Obama has delivered on his promise of leveling the playing field for all people with disabilities, including those who are blind. [applause]

From education to technology we are steering a new course, a course of independence, of excellence, and of opportunity. That course includes a commitment to education for people who are blind. An equal opportunity to education can only begin with Braille literacy [applause], because, if our young blind children can’t read, they are already at a severe disadvantage. It is unacceptable that a vast majority of blind children are not literate by reading Braille. President Obama has signed proclamations stating unequivocally that this administration is committed to Braille literacy. Secretary Duncan has met with your leadership and many members of the National Federation of the Blind to echo President Obama’s commitment, and the Department of Education just recently committed to including a Braille-reading component of a new “Let’s Move, Let’s Read” campaign so that Braille reading will begin right alongside print reading, demonstrating our full commitment to Braille literacy and equality of opportunity for those who are blind.

Of course our commitment also extends to include Braille technology, both in the education context and in all other contexts, for we know that accessible technology equals independence. Just a couple of weeks ago the Department of Education and the Department of Justice joined to send a letter to colleges and universities across the country. That letter stated in part, “It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.” [applause] So let me be crystal clear: this administration will not stand by while educational institutions use technology that is not accessible and that violates the law. To be sure, every change will not happen overnight. We have a long-standing, entrenched problem with failure to have accessible technology and many other things, but we are going to stay vigilant and root out the problem.

As I said, technology is critical for education and in all other contexts as well, and perhaps there is no better example than the Internet. The National Federation of the Blind has been engaged in this epic struggle to make sure that Websites and the Internet are accessible for people who are blind, and there are all sorts of thoughts and opinions, legal rulings on whether the ADA applies to Websites. Well, no more. [applause] The Department of Justice is preparing to issue rules that the ADA applies to Websites, [applause] and those Websites must be accessible. And the Department of Justice isn’t stopping there. They are exploring issuing rules regarding video description as well as accessibility of kiosks, ATMs, and other machines. Simply put, we’re turning our Department of Justice loose, and they are acting like a real civil rights division. [applause] I grew up as a blind person in Chicago (I have retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration, and keratoconus—a plethora of incurable diseases, so pick one.) I used to see very well. As those of you who have RP and macular degeneration know, your eyesight gets worse as you get older. I can tell you there is no bigger thrill than walking down the street and going to an ATM yourself and getting your own money or going on a Website or Googling something and finding it for yourself. That independence is immeasurable. It’s priceless. So, when we have folks here who just received awards like Apple and Blackboard, that is just priceless. You can’t put into words how important that is. In this administration we remain committed, not only to looking at the private sector, but to cleaning up our own house as well.

While the Access Board is in the middle of revamping and refreshing its standards on Section 508, we are not waiting. We are working on initiatives on Section 508, and announcements will be coming soon. But I can’t preempt those announcements, so stay tuned and pay attention, because I am sure that Dr. Maurer and John will send you notice when we send out our announcements on Section 508. We all know that this is critical for government employees. Those of you who work for the government know it’s critical so that you can access Websites and use the technology in federal agencies to do your work and be productive.

That brings me to employment because we know without jobs people cannot support themselves or their families and be independent. The president has made an extraordinary commitment to employment for people with disabilities, including those who are blind. I was humbled when the president chose me, a blind person, to lead his efforts on disability at the White House. The president also appointed a blind woman, Kathy Martinez, to serve and lead employment efforts at the Department of Labor for the Office of Disability and Employment Policy. We also appointed a blind person, a person many of you know, Mazon Bassory, who has been in the trenches with the NFB in many different Website litigations. He is at the Department of Justice in the Department of Civil Rights, hoping to lead our efforts in the many things that I mentioned earlier.

I should also mention that one of tonight’s scholarship awardees is Deepa, my intern. Is Deepa here? So Deepa, I am so proud that at the White House we are including people who are blind and hiring people who are blind and people with disabilities in our intern program. Deepa is doing a phenomenal job this summer, working on ADA plans and really doing some outstanding work in representing the blind community and NFB very well. The president also placed a person with a disability in the number two position in the Office of Personnel Management, which is a critical position for overseeing federal employment hiring at the career level.

As we look to make a difference in employment, on Randolph Sheppard, and on all employment efforts, we have the team in place to make a difference, and we are going to do so. To be sure, we have accomplished many things over the first eighteen months of the president’s administration. Have we done everything that we need to do for our community? No, probably not. Have we been perfect? Surely we have not been perfect, but I can proudly stand before you and say that we have made a difference for the blind community and the entire disability community. We have much more work to do in the upcoming six years—six years. [applause]

We need to continue to work on improving Braille literacy. We need to work on employment, and we need to solve the book famine around the world. Let me make a comment about that before I wrap up. I want to be clear. I’m sure that many of you, probably everybody, is familiar with the recent meetings at the World’s Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) dealing with the exchange of books across borders so that we can exchange books with other countries around the world. Let me set the stage. Prior to the president’s coming into office, the administration, the federal government had no position, was completely and totally uninvolved, uninterested in dealing with the issue of access to books for blind people and those who have other print disabilities. There was no activity.

When we came into office, we made it clear that access to books is a fundamental right, and access to books for people who are blind is something that this president is absolutely committed to. [applause] So that in and of itself is an extraordinary leap, to go from no position, not caring, to saying that this is a right and saying that we are supportive of access to books for people who are blind.

We didn’t stop there, though. We have engaged with the World Intellectual Property Organization. We have put forth possible potential solutions to the issue. We have been willing to engage with countries. We have been willing to negotiate treaties or other potential solutions. Our doors of negotiation are open. We are willing and ready to come to the table and find a solution to the issue of access to books for people who are blind. Now, if you look at the WIPO meetings that just took place (I am not sure how many of you have read about them). I went to the WIPO meetings. I was in the private sector before this job, and even after working in government for eighteen months, when I went there, I thought, this is just a morass. It is a very complicated process. When you are dealing with 140 other countries trying to come to an agreement, it’s an amazing, amazing process. But I want to be clear, and I want you all to leave with the understanding that the United States proposed one sort of instrument, and other countries proposed other sorts of instruments. But our goal, and you can take this to the bank, our fundamental goal was, let’s make a difference as soon as we can right now for people who are blind to have access to books and materials. We put forth a solution that we thought would make a difference today or very soon for access to books, and we did not close the door. In fact we were ready and willing to put down on paper that we are ready to move and talk about next steps for fundamental, binding law for access to books and materials for people who are blind.

We stand committed to this issue, and things were not resolved at WIPO because 140 countries were trying to negotiate, but we are going to keep at it, and we’re not going to stop until we find a resolution. As we move forward, you can be assured that we will approach these critical tasks of education, employment, access to books, Braille literacy, and on and on with the same sense of urgency, commitment, and purpose that we have demonstrated over the first eighteen months, and you will have a voice in that process. You will be included, and we will stay committed. Thank you for having me. [applause]

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