by Gary Wunder
A charter bus approaches the Holiday Inn Capitol at 550 C Street Southwest. The driver opens the luggage compartments and expresses concern about how all of the blind people will find their luggage, but in ten minutes an orderly line has formed, credit cards have been pledged, rooms have been assigned, and the first busload of Federationists are ready for the thirty-ninth Washington Seminar. As the official gathering-in meeting on Monday evening, February 6, approaches, meetings of parents, students, merchants, scholarship alumni, the research and development committee, and the college leadership program will already have consumed the better part of the last three days.
When the gavel fell at 5:00 p.m., the more than five hundred assembled moved from deliberation to concerted action. All states were represented, and we had more hotel rooms reserved this year than ever before.
President Maurer came with a solemn announcement. He said that Jesse Hartle had been hit by a turning car the week before the seminar, flew thirty-three feet, suffered a cracked vertebra, and had been placed in a body cast. Still we were amazed when Jesse came to the great gathering-in to help in the effort to advance the legislative agenda of the blind, whose proposals he has done so much to shape.
We also noted with sadness the passing of Sandy Halverson's mother on the previous Wednesday. Sandy and John coordinate the Seminar from the Mercury Room, where questions are answered, reports are taken, and lists are compiled for our governmental affairs staff. Sandy went to make funeral arrangements, came back over the weekend to set up the room and enter the data for our schedules, left to attend her mother’s funeral, and arrived in Washington on Monday in time for the 5:00 p.m. meeting.
President Maurer reminded us that our task during the week was to tell the policy makers what they need to know in order to make and implement the laws that will lead to greater opportunity for the blind in our homes, our schools, and our businesses. We are the people who know what it is like to be blind and the people who know how to communicate our experience, our hopes, and our commitment to the future to those elected to serve us.
Parnell Diggs is a blind South Carolinian, a state president, and a member of the national board who wants, not only to visit the Congress, but to join it as a representative of his state. Through his service he intends to demonstrate the goodness and the vitality of the people of his district and to show that blind people can serve their fellow citizens at all levels, including holding one of the highest offices in America. While the National Federation of the Blind does not endorse candidates or support political parties, we do care about the aspirations of blind people, so Parnell briefly addressed the gathering. He stressed that he is a candidate with a real chance to win; that his primary is in June; and that, even in the event that he is not elected, the worst outcome of this campaign will be that people see a blind man living out the dreams and demonstrating the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.
Sometimes the problems of the blind are committed to paper in articles and books; sometimes they are shaped into legislative proposals; sometimes they are given voice in the brevity and poetry of song. Two songs were written to commemorate our legislative agenda for 2012 and were enthusiastically embraced by the assembled when Richie Flores introduced a new singing group self-named "Risky Biz and the Cane Tips." The first song was about fair wages for the blind, and the first verse captured both the problem and its solution: "M-O-N-E-Y: Equal work for equal pay, the blind deserve an honest wage; educate and advocate, the NFB will get you paid.”
The second song is about the long white cane, which the NFB considers so important that we pay to have them manufactured; sell them; and, in case of need, give them away free. This is the tool that many fear will make them look different. Yet they come to discover that it is their most important weapon in the arsenal of devices the blind use to be independent. The name of the song we heard was “Tap That,” and one of the verses proclaims:
Tap that, when you're getting on a plane;
Tap that in the pouring rain;
Tap that; well, there ain't no shame;
You gotta tap that!
This and other songs will undoubtedly be heard when we gather in Dallas for the seventy-second convention of the National Federation of the Blind in July.
Today we move on foot and on public transportation, but the pioneering work done in the Blind Driver Challenge has been the beginning of letting us drive independently. Our vehicle, a Ford Escape, with its nonvisual technology still in its infancy, holds tremendous promise. We need people to help us further research how blind people can get information simultaneously from many sources and integrate it into a safe driving experience. People interested in being a part of this research should contact Patricia Miller at the Jernigan Institute by writing to her at <[email protected]> or by calling her at (410) 659-9314, ext. 2369.
Diane McGeorge, whose name is synonymous with the Washington Seminar, was introduced by President Maurer to talk about hotel logistics, but she surprised all of us, including the president, by introducing Maureen Nietfeld, a former student and current employee at the Colorado Center for the Blind. Maureen presented checks from Colorado to the national body totaling $226,662.25. The president, who likes to keep tight control on meetings and the time they take, allowed as how the deviation from his schedule was quite all right and expressed appreciation for this very generous donation.
Moving to the main agenda for the evening, we began by discussing the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, which, at the time of our meeting, had twenty-four cosponsors in the House of Representatives and was supported by forty-one organizations. The sponsor of H.R. 3086 is a friend who came to our convention last year and was honored for sponsoring the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. Congressman Cliff Stearns joined us and began his remarks by saying: "Once more I find myself in the midst of a group of people who have inappropriately been labeled incapable when actually you are a group of people with full capabilities." He observed that some of his friends in Congress are troubled by the proposal to phase out subminimum wages for the blind, their concern being that it will eliminate employment opportunities. He reminds them that most jobs paying less than minimum wage are in sheltered workshops--facilities which pay no taxes, get subsidies from many states and the federal government, and have active programs soliciting public donations. He tells them that today there are 160,000 blind veterans and that many new ones come home each day who deserve better than to return to a country where they can be paid less than the minimum wage. The congressman noted that some oppose the concept of any federally mandated minimum wage, preferring instead to let the market regulate compensation, but, as long as our country has a minimum wage, the blind should be protected like other American workers.
President Maurer said that New York leads the nation in congressional cosponsors and that a major reason for this is the help we have received from Former Governor David Paterson. The governor briefly addressed the gathering, noting that he believes that, until the blind and otherwise disabled are covered and guaranteed at least the minimum wage, the name of the 1938 act should be changed from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to the Labor Standards Act and that its basic unfairness should be cited each time the act is mentioned. He promised to let every member of Congress know about this unfair law and said that, if they don't get rid of it, we should get rid of them.
Jim Gashel, the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind, came to the podium to remind us about the annual Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards. These awards are to recognize extraordinary and exemplary contributions to the blind, and applications are due by March 31. While the committee would prefer they be made online, paper applications will be accepted. Jim also talked about the company we jointly own, KNFB Reading Technology, Inc., which has as a major priority seeing that blind people receive the same books at the same time and at the same price as their sighted neighbors.
Scott LaBarre's absence from the meeting was duly noted when it came time for the traditional report of our Preauthorized Contribution Plan, but the reason for his empty chair gives us great hope. Scott was in New Orleans attending a meeting of the American Bar Association, where a proposition was discussed committing the Bar to making all of its tests accessible and letting blind applicants use the technology that allows them to be most efficient. Mr. LaBarre was the floor manager for that proposition, and it passed unanimously.
In addition to taking our three issues to Capitol Hill, John Paré said that there would be a hearing about the need for the appropriate use of technology in education and that Mark Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute, would make a presentation on our behalf. His written remarks to the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee appear in full elsewhere in this issue.
A briefing about each issue followed, and the fact sheets given to every member of congress are found elsewhere in this issue. Anil Lewis began by discussing the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, H.R. 3086. He reminded us that the FLSA passed in 1938 and has been amended several times on the grounds that it was broken and needed fixing. When it was initially established, the blind could be paid no less than 75 percent of the minimum wage. When Congress decided the Act was broken, it was fixed, and the language was changed to say that the blind could be paid 50 percent of the prevailing minimum wage. When still found to be broken and in need of a fix, the Act was again amended. This time no floor was specified for wages that must be paid to the blind, and we have documented cases in which blind people are being paid as little as sixteen cents an hour. As Anil says, "This is not an issue of not being competitive; it is an issue of not being given the proper training and a real opportunity to succeed. As long as the law allows people to be paid less than the minimum wage, employers will do it. The time for change is long overdue."
Governmental Affairs Specialist Lauren McLarney, who is attending her third Washington Seminar, says this gathering represents one of her favorite nights of the year. She addressed the group on the Home Appliances Accessibility Act, noting that it calls on the Access Board to do a study outlining the many ways in which home appliances can be made usable by people with little or no vision and then requires the Federal Trade Commission to develop a minimal nonvisual access standard that will ensure that all home appliances can be used by the blind. Some in the Congress will say they oppose regulation, but it is clear that without governmental incentives the free market will not voluntarily and universally address this issue. Nothing less than the right of blind people to live independently in our homes is at stake, so access cannot be determined by whim or charity or by a corporate act of kindness. It must be the law of the land when the land is America, where we believe in independence and self-reliance.
Jesse Hartle came to the microphone, moved by the rousing cheers of those in the room who were amazed he would come to be with us after the injuries he suffered less than a week before. His mission was to summarize the Americans with Disabilities Business Opportunities Act, its purpose, and the way it fits with the other legislation we are proposing. When our country doubts the ability of blind people to live independently in our own homes and doubts our ability to be productive enough to deserve the minimum wage, it should be no surprise that, though we are economically disadvantaged, no one has yet seen fit to include us in the programs of the Small Business Administration to encourage the kind of training and preference in federal contracts already extended to women and other minorities. By proposing to add “people with disabilities” to Section 8(a) of the Small Business Act, the blind are embracing the new economy, in which we find fewer people looking to be hired and more of us seeking to create our own businesses.
When the great gathering-in concluded, some went to find dinner, some to plan how to apportion their appointments for Tuesday, and some to catch up on the sleep lost from flying from the West Coast and Hawaii. No matter how they spent Monday evening, Tuesday found the halls of Capitol Hill ringing with the sounds of canes tapping in the pursuit, not of blind justice, but justice for the blind.
When afternoon came, those who did not have conflicting appointments headed for Senate Room G 50, where our own Mark Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute, testified along with Eve Hill, senior counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Department of Justice; Dr. John D. Quick, superintendent of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus, Indiana; and Mark Turner, director of the Center for Accessible Media, California State University. Ms. Hill reiterated the position of the Department of Justice that the Americans with Disabilities Act most certainly applies to technology used in the schools and cited the joint memorandum between the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. Mark Riccobono began his testimony with these insightful words: "Today's hearing deals with the critical question of civil rights in the twenty-first century. Will technology facilitate unprecedented access to education for all, or will it be the force that segregates students with disabilities in an unequal learning environment?”
After more than an hour and a half of presentations and questions, the hearing drew to a conclusion with Mr. Turner emphasizing to the chairman that "We stand arm and arm with the National Federation of the Blind on our core messaging, which is that we want all students to be able to use the same products at the same time and with the same features. Senator Harkin, the chairman of the Committee, was moved by the testimony and seems determined to see that the d in digital not come to represent denial for students in K-12 and in colleges and universities throughout the nation.
When the Tuesday evening briefing convened, President Maurer brought us sad news, the passing of Levada Kemp, our representative from South Dakota, a board member of the affiliate, and a hard-working member who would do anything asked of her. A moment of silence was observed in her memory.
Anil Lewis told the gathering about his day on the Hill, the most moving part of it being a meeting in which Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers committed to cosponsor the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, H.R. 3086. We come to Capitol Hill because we know the value of personal contact, but Rep. McMorris Rodgers was moved to action in no small part because Nijat Worley interned in her office and gave her firsthand evidence of our talent and capacity. This member of congress is the co-chair of the Disability Caucus, her four-year-old son having Downs syndrome and drawing her to areas she didn't think much about when running for Congress.
We were joined by a second member of the House of Representatives, who has been our lead Democratic sponsor for H.R. 3086, Congressman Tim Bishop. He related that, when first contacted about sponsoring this bill, he did not know that the Fair Labor Standards Act exempted from protection American citizens with disabilities. When he found out about Section 14(c), he immediately signed on, because to him it was a simple matter of fairness and basic human dignity. Part of his passion to modify the FLSA is also rooted in the good it represents: the establishment of a forty-hour work week, the provision for extra pay beyond forty hours, and the example of his father who worked eighty or ninety hours a week to send his children through college. He noted that, despite having stood the test of time, the Act is far from perfect and has been amended to require equal pay regardless of gender, amended to protect the rights of migrant workers, and amended to ensure that new mothers get time off without being penalized; and soon it will be amended to eliminate Section 14(c) to ensure that blind workers receive at least the minimum wage--the next logical step in the evolution of the labor law and the laws regarding people with disabilities.
All three of our proposals were again discussed, with positive comments made by many Federationists about their contacts with members interested in supporting and cosponsoring. The final order of business for the evening was a report from Helen Stevens, a recent graduate of Harvard, who is interning at the National Center for the Blind and who has drafted a model voting rights bill for the states. While the Help America Vote Act was passed to provide accessible voting machines in federal elections, it does not ensure a secret ballot for blind people in local and state contests. This must be done state by state, and it will soon be sent to affiliate presidents for introduction in their legislatures.
On Wednesday evening we did our last recap of legislative issues, talking about general objections to federal regulations and how to deal with our specific issues. A legislator’s political agenda may include reducing regulations or the role of the federal government, but our focus must be to emphasize that we have specific needs which, if not met, will cost blind people opportunities and will also cost the government in the form of minimal subsidies that keep us in the clutches of the so-called safety net. Making disabled people eligible for the 8(a) program of the Small Business Administration costs not one dime. Making home appliances accessible saves state and federal money by letting us continue to live independently in our homes. Eliminating the provision allowing blind people to be paid less than the minimum wage will increase the taxes that employed blind people will pay. It will force the workshops that rely on an antiquated model of service delivery to look for ways to compete that do not encourage low productivity and continuing dependence on government subsidies. Many senators and representatives, once they come to see us as people rather than problems, will want to help, and continuing contact throughout the year will make all the difference.
When we left the nation's capital, we felt good about our progress and our prospects. Many of the members of Congress and aides with whom we met greeted our legislative agenda with excitement, noting that a Congress too often known for gridlock and bickering just might find some common ground in the creativity and reasonableness of our proposals. We, in turn, came away with hope for the future, knowing that, whether the issue is home appliances, fair wages, or business opportunities, the future is in our hands, and we are committed to making it one in which we can advance the goal of integration and full participation.