by Gary Wunder
From the Editor: Gary Wunder’s writings are sometimes found in the pages of the Braille Monitor, but his unfortunate tendency to turn exciting meetings into dull prose frequently shortchanges the national events that represent the best of our history and tradition. Lacking anything else to substitute as a lead for this month, we reluctantly give readers of the Monitor the following:
I frequently talk with my school-age children and grandchildren about school; they are excited about science, like reading, and enjoy English. Unfortunately history and civics are two classes they don't like, and, when asked to describe them, they use words such as “boring,” “stupid,” and “a waste of time.” How different might those classes be if some part of them were devoted to the study of blind people and the formation and work of the National Federation of the Blind?
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s some in society openly questioned the right of the blind to create their own organizations. Didn’t professionals already speak for them? Was it healthy to let defectives try to speak for themselves? Wasn't it obvious that the blind would always fall into that class of unfortunates who would require the care and supervision of their family, friends, and government?
Consider the change today’s students would see, from the days of arguing for the right to speak for ourselves to the days when our annual visit to Capitol Hill is anticipated by the 535 most powerful elected men and women in the nation. What a contrast they could observe between the pitiable and helpless wards we were once considered to be and the people we are today. Today the blind have formed a group which has compiled a legacy of legislative accomplishments that rival those of any group of citizens in America: the White Cane laws that exist in every state, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the inclusion of the blind in the Voting Rights Act, and most recently the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. How could anyone be apathetic or long entertain the thought that personal responsibility and collective action don't matter? What better example could we find to convince our children that they can influence their future and the future of those around them through citizen involvement and participation in our representative democracy?
But it is not enough to recite the history of the blind when so much remains to be done if the equality of opportunity America proclaims and seeks to deliver is to be more than words. With this in mind blind people from every state in the nation converged on Washington, DC, for the NFB’s annual Washington Seminar. So long have we met at the Holiday Inn Capitol that it seems like our second home. "Welcome back,” the bell captain said. “I have been here twenty-five years, and you were coming even before I started working with this hotel." Tell the staff what the blind will need? Forget it! They already know. Occasionally there are those little glitches, like not having the traditional peanut butter pie on hand, but these problems are soon handled, and off to the Hill we go to take on larger issues.
On the weekend preceding our work on Capitol Hill, the legislative directors or presidents of state affiliates met with our national staff responsible for advancing the legislative priorities of the Federation on Capitol Hill. Members were taught how to help draft bills, find senators and representatives to sponsor them, create brief but effective presentations, develop a state legislative agenda, use legislative technology, and make effective use of the media.
The Washington Seminar began on Monday, February 4, 2013, with meetings of the National Association of Blind Students, the state presidents of the National Federation of the Blind, the cash and caring committee, and finally the great gathering-in annual meeting at 5 p.m. To understand the mood and feeling of those attending, remember that on the previous day the Baltimore Ravens had beaten the San Francisco Forty-Niners in Super Bowl XLVII. The many who were elated frequently mentioned this victory, and those who favored the Forty-Niners responded with groans and a promise that next year things would be different.
After the falling of the gavel and the roar of the crowd, President Maurer began the great gathering-in by saying: "We come to Washington; we come to the Capitol of the United States; we come to the place where power is located because we intend to participate in that power. We come to talk about things that matter." As the evening would soon reveal, the things that matter included fair wages for blind people, access to usable technology in our colleges and universities, and the right of disabled veterans to fly on military aircraft under the Space Available Program.
Before addressing these three issues, President Maurer began by announcing an agreement between Monster.com and the National Federation of the Blind that will result in the accessibility of the nation's primary website for listing and finding jobs. The long-term benefits for blind people will be immense, and those needing skilled employees will benefit significantly from the people they will find.
The proposed regulations to implement the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act have been published. They will implement the law passed in 2010 to ensure that vehicles generate enough sound that they are not a hazard to pedestrians, blind or sighted. It took a tremendous effort to create public awareness of the danger posed by vehicles too quiet to hear, to gain the support of the automobile industry, and to get the attention of a Congress opposed to creating any new regulations; but the National Federation of the Blind promised we would do it, and we did.
In 2008 amendments were added to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act proclaiming that Braille would be the presumed reading medium for blind students. Sometimes, however, legislation is not enough, and the rights declared must be established by precedent and enforced by binding agreements. For three years the National Federation of the Blind has been fighting to see that Hank Miller, a blind student from New Jersey, will receive Braille instruction. At our meeting President Maurer read an announcement which said: "‘The New Jersey affiliate will meet in this room immediately following the great gathering-in meeting.’ This note, written in Braille, was signed by Hank Miller.”
Last year the National Federation of the Blind worked to defeat legislation that would have devastated the Randolph-Sheppard program that gives blind people priority in running vending businesses on federal and state property. The amendment that would have significantly eroded that priority was defeated in the United States Senate by a vote of eighty-six to twelve. In recognition of the Federation's work to preserve these business opportunities, the National Association of Blind Merchants presented a check for $40,000 to the national organization. The applause from the audience was not only for the money but for the working relationship the donation represents and the desire of the merchants division to give back part of what has so willingly been given in support of blind entrepreneurs.
At last year's great gathering-in meeting Parnell Diggs announced that he was running for a seat to represent South Carolina in the nation's House of Representatives. He did not win that election, but his influence as a representative of blind people brought his opponent to speak to the National Federation of the Blind. The Honorable Tom Rice, from the Seventh District of South Carolina, said he was honored to be a part of our meeting and that he recognized a bond between us. He said that people who run for congressional seats are often characterized as fighters because they have to deal with the unexpected and do what is required to win, but Congressman Rice believes that the blind of the nation truly deserve the title "fighters" for the flexibility we demonstrate in meeting each day's challenges and our determination to show the world that we can compete on terms of equality. Before being elected to Congress, Representative Rice practiced as an attorney in South Carolina, and he said it was an honor for him to know a fine and honorable colleague, Parnell Diggs (who is also a lawyer). The Congressman concluded by saying he would see all of us on the Hill and pledged to do everything he could to help us.
John Paré was welcomed to the podium to introduce the legislative agenda of the National Federation of the Blind for 2013. He said that, in keeping with the traditions of the Federation, we would explain to the political leaders of America what the blind needed and would do so with our characteristic resolve to be persistent, professional, and polite. He emphasized the need to be clear but concise, to structure presentations so that they would take no longer than fifteen or twenty minutes, and to lead with the issues in which the member of Congress is likely to have the most interest and influence, based on their committee assignments.
Anil Lewis addressed the gathering and began his remarks by asking the crowd to join him in the message we want to send about Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act: "That's not work; that's not training; that's not right!" For almost seventy-five years labor law in this country has allowed the payment of subminimum wages to disabled people, assuming that we are innately less productive than our coworkers. The system that has developed to take advantage of this exemption from the minimum wage defends its practice of paying low wages by saying that a primary focus of its work is training. When statistics clearly demonstrate that fewer than 5 percent of those employed in sheltered workshops transition to other employment, a poor training record for any institution, the workshops change the argument and say they are not primarily for training but for production and that the majority of those they serve are not trainees but workers. When asked why they do not pay their workers at least the minimum wage, though they pay no taxes, are the recipients of preferential government contracts, receive state and federal subsidies, and solicit direct contributions from the public, the shops revert to the argument that they are not places of employment but institutions dedicated to the training of their disabled consumers. We have heard these arguments for almost three quarters of a century, and the National Federation of the Blind and fifty other disability organizations intend to tell the Congress that Section 14(c) has to go!
Last year we had eighty-one cosponsors of the Fair Wages for People with Disabilities Act; this new session of Congress means we start over with a new bill number and the need to find a lead sponsor and cosponsors once again.
Lauren McLarney was introduced to talk about the Technology, Education, and Accessibility in Colleges and Higher Education (TEACH) Act that we are seeking to have introduced. After some humorous banter about the victory of the Baltimore Ravens, Lauren began her remarks by saying the following:
"In 2008 the National Federation of the Blind went to Congress, and we said that technology has altered the landscape of postsecondary education. Traditional instructional materials are being replaced with digital books, courseware, online library databases, web-based content, and mobile applications. We said that, while innovations in accessibility may be evolving and nonvisual accessibility may be available, manufacturers are not embracing these solutions. The lack of supply is compounded by the fact that colleges and other institutions of higher learning are not demanding that educational technology be accessible. This is creating barriers for blind and other print-disabled students, and something has to be done about it. Congress listened to us and amended the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act to create the Advisory Committee on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities. That's a really long title, so we just call it the AIM Commission. This commission brought together government leaders, representatives from institutions of higher education, the Association of American Publishers, and the National Federation of the Blind.
“In 2011 the AIM Commission issued its report, and guess what it found? It found that inaccessible technology permeates higher education, that blind and other disabled students have to bear the burden of going to their school and asking it to buy a separate and therefore unequal technology, while the mainstream students use inaccessible devices. The report also found that blind students don't have to be treated differently from mainstream students. Manufacturers need guidance on how to make their equipment accessible, and schools need to demand that the marketplace provide accessible products. This demand should be accompanied by a commitment to buy only those devices that are accessible.
“This year the American Association of Publishers said it wanted to partner with us on the very first recommendation made by the AIM Commission: to establish accessibility standards for instructional materials used in postsecondary settings. The partnership thus established has resulted in the TEACH draft bill. It does not seek to preclude manufacturers from building and selling inaccessible technology; it does seek to ensure that any technology that colleges and universities procure meets the accessibility standards proposed in the AIM Commission report.
"Congress undoubtedly has questions we will need to answer. Will this proposal result in additional expense for colleges and universities? The answer is that this act will lower the cost of accessible technology by creating a market that has not existed before. The expense to colleges and universities will be far less than what they incur now as they continue to duplicate accessible instructional materials for blind students one college or university at a time." Lauren concluded by urging that we go forth and teach about TEACH.
Jesse Hartle was next introduced. He amused the crowd by saying that for several weeks he had been feeling ill and presumed he had some form of the flu, but he has finally come to understand that his physical discomfort comes from being around so many Ravens fans. After all of the previous references to the awesome Ravens, Forty-Niner fans enjoyed this quip immensely.
The briefing Jesse came to provide was about H.R. 164, an act to amend Title X of the United States Code, “to permit veterans who have a service-connected, permanent disability rated as total, to travel on military aircraft in the same manner and to the same extent as retired members of the Armed Forces entitled to such travel.” This issue, brought to us by the NFB’s National Association of Blind Veterans, would let those who left the service as a result of blindness or some other disabling condition take advantage of the Space Available Program operated by the Air Command within the Department of Defense. This bill is being sponsored by Congressman Gus Bilirakis, and the chance to show our support for and help blind and disabled veterans was one the crowd clearly embraced with enthusiasm. At the time of our meeting the bill had nine cosponsors. That number would change significantly by week’s end.
Jesse concluded his remarks by saying: "At one time in their lives they answered the call of Semper fi or Hooah; sometimes they said `Anchors Aweigh’; and sometimes they said `Off We Go’; and off they went to defend the rights of all Americans, blind and sighted. Ladies and gentlemen, it's time that off we go to defend the rights of disabled veterans."
Chris Danielsen, the director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, emphasized that the job of promoting our legislation must not only focus on Senators and Representatives but come to be a part of the public's consciousness. This is done by sharing our proposals with family and friends and then by making sure they get out to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. He concluded by saying, "Let's really make it known to the world that we're in Washington, that we're fighting against separate-but-equal, and that we're going to change the lives of blind Americans."
President Maurer next introduced former Congressman Tom Allen, who now serves as the president of the Association of American Publishers. Mr. Allen noted that this is not the first time the Federation and the Association have worked together. "Our first collaborative effort culminated in the passage of the Chafee Amendment, but that was seventeen years ago. We next worked together on the IDEA amendments of 2004, which accelerated the ability of K-12 students to get instructional materials. That legislation created the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards (NIMAS) to ensure uniform standards of accessibility for students with print disabilities. ... AAP and NFB next worked on the Higher Education Amendments of 2008, which authorized the AIM Commission that produced the Consensus Report we've talked about this evening."
Mr. Allen went on to say that the issue is no longer how to convert print books into something blind people can read, as it was seventeen years ago, but how to deal with the digital technology that is coming to dominate the publishing industry. He said that during the long and sometimes laborious process followed by the AIM Commission, the major stakeholders, including the National Federation of the Blind and the Association of American Publishers, agreed on the goal that published products should be available in the marketplace and accessible to the print-disabled at the same time they are to others. The publishers not only support this goal, but they have concerns of their own. “Some of the Association's members still have the concern that a system which allows for the reproduction of copyrighted material in specialized formats could allow the diversion of materials intended for the blind and print-disabled to be made more broadly available to the larger public free of charge, thus weakening publisher markets. The sooner accessible materials are readily available in the marketplace, the sooner publishers can cease to worry about the diversion of their materials to others without special needs. We have the same goal, you and I: As soon as possible, make materials available and accessible to the print-disabled when they are first sold to the public at large.”
Our particular challenge, yours and ours, is to bring along the software and hardware industries, including those which manufacturer e-readers and similar platforms without which our products cannot be fully accessible." Mr. Allen concluded by noting that we share a vital common interest during this Congress, and that interest will continue as long as there is a need to make materials accessible to and therefore purchasable by the blind.
President Maurer next introduced Representative Gus Bilirakis, the primary sponsor of H.R. 164. The Congressman said, "It is an honor to join you in promoting initiatives that ensure a high quality of life for all disabled persons. I want to tell you that I am visually impaired—the font has to be very big here for me to see. I am also hearing impaired, but, you know, we can do anything if we put our minds to it.…I would especially like to recognize the efforts of your president, Dr. Maurer, whom I met with last week, and Dan Hicks, your president in my home state of Florida. I wish all of you an enjoyable trip to Washington. Enjoy yourselves, let's get some work done, and let's go get ‘em!"
Jim Gashel, the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind, talked with us about the Jacob Bolotin Awards that are presented each year in recognition of the pioneering efforts of Dr. Jacob Bolotin. This year we intend to award more than $50,000 to deserving individuals and organizations who have made a significant contribution to advancing the cause of the blind. Nominations will be accepted until March 31 and can be submitted online at <https://nfb.org/bolotin-award-main>. Though the committee prefers that applications be made online, they can be sent using email by writing to <[email protected]> or through the U.S. Postal Service by writing to Bolotin Award Committee, National Federation of the Blind, 200 E. Wells Street, Baltimore, MD 21230.
Mark Riccobono came to the microphone to say that, while he didn't want to mention the Baltimore Ravens specifically, he did want to observe that the National Federation of the Blind is different from either of the teams who played in the Super Bowl because we keep marching, even when the lights go out. Of course this was a reference to the power outage that took place at the Superdome in New Orleans and temporarily halted the game.
Mark said, "We are powerful! We are powerful because we imagine a future full of opportunity; we are powerful because we imagine a future in which every blind child gets Braille; we are powerful because we imagine a future in which we have the same book at the same time and at the same price as everybody else. We imagine a future in which blind parents don't have to worry about retaining custody of their children simply because those parents are blind; we imagine a future in which technology is designed from the beginning to be accessible to all of us; we imagine a future in which every person is guaranteed the minimum wage; we also imagine a future in which a blind person can win a Nobel Prize in physics." He went on to observe that, not only do we dream of and imagine a future full of opportunity for blind people, but we actively work to build that future. One of the greatest investments we make is in our youngest blind members. Despite the funding difficulties we now face, we are going to have a program for young people that focuses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It is really exciting to realize that some of the first beneficiaries of our STEM programs are now teaching them.
To fund these innovative programs for young people, we must find a way to increase our contributions from the public. Each affiliate is being asked to contribute something of value from its state that can be used in a Cyber Monday auction following Thanksgiving.
Mark closed with a plea to help the student division with the fundraiser that was taking place during the seminar. He encouraged contributions to President Sean Whalen's fundraising bucket. He then reluctantly revealed that his plea to help Sean was as much personal as financial; the person whose bucket contained the most money would get a pie in the face later in the evening, and President Whalen's two competitors were Anil Lewis and Mark Riccobono.
President Maurer next introduced Scott LaBarre to say a word or two about the Preauthorized Check Program. He reported that PAC pledges and contributions are at an all-time high but that this might be the last time he appeared at the Washington Seminar on behalf of the Preauthorized Check Program. This is so because we need to change its name to reflect the way financial transactions now occur. Most are now electronic, and, though we have grown attached to this name and have even honored it with a song, the word “PAC” is too often thought to mean that the National Federation of the Blind sponsors a political action committee. Scott and his committee will soon be announcing a contest to come up with a new name for the most successful membership-financed tool in our history. Please look for contest rules in an upcoming issue of the Braille Monitor, and help us come up with a fitting name for the successor to the Preauthorized Check Program.
The great gathering-in meeting concluded with announcements about the upcoming national convention, a generous donation of doughnuts by the District of Columbia affiliate for those trudging off to Capitol Hill in the early morning, and some logistical information about the hotel from Diane McGeorge. For the first time in the history of the great gathering-in meeting, we adjourned before 7 p.m.
On the first day of meetings with the 113th Congress, Federation members had significant progress to report, and this they did at the 6:00 p.m. meeting. Ramona Walhof began with an announcement from the cash and caring committee. One way we may be able to generate some badly needed funds for the Federation and have a good time while doing it is to take the quiz on blindness which can be found at <http://www.quizonblindness.blogspot.com>. In addition to teaching people about blindness through this graded quiz, it will give participants the opportunity to make a donation to support the programs of the National Federation of the Blind and will be a part of a drawing to win $100. Not only should all of us take the quiz, but we should tell our friends and neighbors about it, including those who follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
Congressman Greg Harper, representing the Third District of Mississippi, has agreed to sponsor the Fair Wages for People with Disabilities Act in the United States House of Representatives. Several affiliates reported being greeted by their Senators and Representatives with the comment, "You are here to talk about fair wages, aren't you?" Before our march to Capitol Hill, H.R. 164 had nine cosponsors. By the end of our first day we had more than doubled that number.
The Honorable Thomas Petri, representing the sixth district of Wisconsin, came to express his support for the principle that educational materials used by colleges and universities should be as usable by the blind as they are the sighted. Congressman Petri serves on the Education and Workforce Committee, was the sponsor of the Accessible Instructional Materials Act in 2003, was a significant player in 2008 in getting language included in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act which created the Accessible Instructional Materials Commission, and has been a longtime supporter of the National Federation of the Blind. He reaffirmed his commitment to accessibility, his determination to involve all of the major stakeholders in arriving at a solution that will provide accessible hardware and software for the blind, pledged to do his best to keep this from becoming a partisan issue in which the merits of the legislation can become secondary in the fight to get the bill enacted into law, and pledged his support to do whatever he could to get the ball across the goal line for the blind.
At the end of our second day on Capitol Hill, Federationists gathered for our 6 o'clock meeting. When Diane McGeorge gaveled the meeting to order, those assembled applauded with vigor and yelled her name in recognition of her long years of service in coordinating the logistics for the Washington Seminar. Diane acknowledged the appreciation but said that she would be remiss were she not to mention the stellar work of Lisa Bonderson, who takes calls several months before the seminar to make sure that the reservations get made and that roommates are found for those who want them.
Lauren McLarney reported that our day on the Hill generated more interest in the TEACH proposal, and the search for cosponsors is encouraging. Of course there can be no cosponsoring until the bill is dropped, but Congress seems to understand the imperative that equality of opportunity for blind students include equivalent access to the technology used by their peers. One congressional staffer said that many proposals are prematurely brought to the Congress before all of the parties involved have tried to work out a resolution. She said that too often the assumption is that Congress should tell business what to do, when business has never been afforded the opportunity to speak to the issue. She asked whether we had been involved in negotiations with providers such as Amazon, and, when she realized that collaboration had been ongoing since at least 2008, her support for our cause and admiration for our work were quite evident.
Two more cosponsors were added to include disabled veterans in the Space Available Program, H.R. 164, and two of the representatives who pledged their support serve either on the Armed Services Committee or on the Veterans Affairs Committee.As the seminar concluded, I was reminded of the question I so often get about what part of the blind population the National Federation of the Blind represents. Sometimes the question is asked in all innocence; at other times it is asked with the intention of asserting that our organization represents only the super blind, the elite, and that, in so doing, it shuns those who have multiple disabilities, are less educated, are more economically disadvantaged, or are nontraditional students. It is hard to make that case when one reflects on the Federation's legislative agenda for 2013. Our concern for blind students at all levels is undeniable; our concern for those who work in the sheltered shops and our willingness to champion their cause is unmatched by any organization of or for the blind in the nation; our concern for blind veterans goes beyond honoring them for their service, by affirmatively embracing one of their issues and making it our own. The legislative agenda of the National Federation of the Blind does not begin to encompass all of the programs and activities we undertake, but it clearly shows our commitment to all of those who are blind and to their aspiration to make the most of their God-given assets in the America we call the land of opportunity. For thousands of blind people we are making the dream come true. And for thousands upon thousands of sighted people we are demonstrating that the course of history can be changed and the theories contained in the civics books are just as vital and relevant as the framers of our Constitution envisioned. With willing hands, willing hearts, and an unquinchable desire to better our lives, the blind of America concluded our Washington Seminar and vowed to travel the long and winding road that leads to equality.