Braille Monitor                                               October 2013

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Our Efforts in Washington on Behalf of the Blind

by John Paré, Anil Lewis, Lauren McLarney, and Jesse Hartle

From the Editor: On Friday afternoon, July 5, 2013, John Paré and his very competent team came to talk about advocacy for the blind and the efforts of our Advocacy and Policy Department. His presentation immediately followed the moving remarks of Congressman Gregg Harper. Here is the report from his team:

John ParéJohn Paré: Good afternoon, fellow Federationists. That was such a great talk we just heard. If someone could pass me a box of Kleenex that would probably be good. If we had more members like that Congressman, we’d have a better country.

I want to tell you a little bit about what we do. The Advocacy and Policy Department is responsible for NFB-NEWSLINE®, public relations, and governmental affairs. We have a great team, and I want to thank them for all of their work.

Let me talk about Newsline. NFB-NEWSLINE is the largest and most successful audio newspaper service anywhere in the world. It is available in forty-six states plus the District of Columbia. We have over 100,000 subscribers, 327 newspapers, forty magazines, TV listings, job listings, advertisements, and English- and Spanish-language content. Publications are available over the phone, through email, through an iPhone app, and for download to a variety of devices, including the NLS Digital Talking Book Player. Since the 2012 convention NFB-NEWSLINE subscribers have enjoyed over 38 million minutes of news, made over 2 million telephone calls, received over 2.3 million email messages, and had access to over 6.8 million newspapers.

On August 29, 2012, we announced a collaboration with AccuWeather to provide emergency weather alerts to NFB-NEWSLINE subscribers. This service provides emergency alerts on such things as flash floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and natural disasters, and I've heard from many of our members that they relied on this service when Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast last fall. On November 20, 2012, a new category was added to NFB-NEWSLINE called Breaking News Online. There are four publications available: BBC, CNN, FOXNews, and the Huffington Post.

Earlier this week we released information about new features on Newsline, including expanded weather information, five more newspapers, expanded national papers, and expanding breaking news. To find out more about that, please listen to Newsline, push option number one, and again option one for the weather information. NFB-NEWSLINE is expanding every day, and I really appreciate the work that the team does in that area.

I would like to mention several volunteers. We could not do the work we do without hundreds of volunteers who help us each year; many of these are in this room right now. There are four volunteers I would like to highlight at this time for answering hundreds of NFB-NEWSLINE calls and helping members all across the country. They are David Meyer of Illinois, Peggy Chong of Iowa and now New Mexico, John Glisson of Kentucky, and Michael Barber of Iowa. I would also like to thank Lee Martin from Indiana. When the Indiana legislature said that they were going to reduce the NFB-NEWSLINE budget from $38,000 to $36,000, we took action. When he was done, the legislature decided to increase the budget to $100,000 per year.

Our public relations team continues to advance our legislative initiatives, policies, and programs. The NFB has been mentioned, quoted, or featured in over 3,350 news stories over the past year; here are a few examples. On August 25, 2012, the National Federation of the Blind conducted over ninety informational protests at Goodwill thrift stores across the country. The protests were very successful and resulted in a widely disseminated Associated Press article as well as twelve other articles appearing on websites such as Yahoo, Michigan Live, and CBS Denver, and in newspapers including the Des Moines Register, and the Albany Times Herald.

The NFB has long advocated for making the World Wide Web accessible for blind users. On September 11, 2012, Computerworld magazine, at the instigation of the National Federation of the Blind, ran an in-depth report on the current status of the web and beyond. On December 12, 2012, we held an informational protest regarding the distribution of inaccessible Kindle e-books to K-12 school districts across the country. The protest occurred outside the headquarters of Amazon in Seattle, Washington. The protest included a surprise visit by the Grinch, or should I say Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. We have a short clip from the protest; let's play that:

[Those reading the audio edition heard the live feed, but for those reading using other methods, the playing of the song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," was accompanied by the announcement that Jeff Bezos was coming to meet with us. This was followed by the announcement that it was not Mr. Bezos but the Grinch.]

I want to thank Mike Freeman for his work there; he was walking in with one of the most wonderful Grinch costumes and a big sign that said "Jeff Bezos." It was covered on television, and the folks there did a great job.

Prior to the protest Education Week ran a story in its publication regarding our Kindle books initiative. On the day of the protest several Seattle television stations ran stories with live video from the event, and the day after the protest the Seattle Times ran an in-depth story about what we did. We swept the media before, during, and after the protest. Since the protest Amazon has released two new versions of their iOS app. What a coincidence! The app is substantially improved, but still has some deficiencies. President Maurer, I think we might need to go back to Seattle, Washington.

The public relations team continues to work to strengthen the National Federation of the Blind's social media's presence and to drive traffic to our website. Over the past year we have increased our Facebook fans to 2,887 and our Twitter followers to 3,575. We typically have about 8,000 visitors to our website each week.

Our governmental affairs team tracks all federal legislation that might affect the lives of blind people. We endorse legislation that will improve our lives and shut down legislation that will set us back. The National Federation of the Blind successfully advocated for the passage of the Pedestrian Enhancement Safety Act, which was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011. On January 15, 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued its proposed regulation to implement this critically important law, which ensures that hybrid and electric vehicles make enough sound to be safe. The National Federation of the Blind commented on these proposed regulations, and our comments were endorsed by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in all areas except the stationary sound and when the sound should be turned off. Now, as you can imagine, the National Federation of the Blind is advocating for a stationary sound and for the sound to be turned off no sooner than eighteen MPH. In two weeks Jesse Hartle and I will be meeting in Washington with members of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and with members of the United Nations working on a global technical regulation.

How many people have heard about the NBC Rock Center video? [Applause] We have here Harold Leigland, and it took a lot of courage for Harold, who works at Goodwill, to get up and speak—to speak for all of us—and talk about the unfair and immoral activity that Goodwill is doing. Here, to introduce the video, please welcome Harold Leigland:

Thank you, my fellow Federationists. Good afternoon. I was quite surprised to be asked to participate in this; I want to thank Anil, and I want to thank Anna Schecter and Harry Smith from NBC. They did a marvelous job on it. The article, if you haven't seen it, is on our website, and you can sign the petition if you haven't.

In 1980 I participated in the little hubbub we had in Minneapolis [a protest on behalf of the workers and the lack of representation by blind people on the governing board of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind]. I was going to the airport on my way home, and you might remember a fellow named George Wallace, who ran for president of the United States. He said, "If you want to know what's going on in America, talk to the taxi drivers."

Well, the taxi driver I had that day said, "Why are you in Minneapolis?" I explained it to him, and he said, "You know, for six years I have taken those poor devils to work for the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, and they act like they own them—own them."

I can tell you that Goodwill Industries has much the same idea. The basic emphasis since I have been working there has been that, in a city of 60,000 people, Goodwill employees must produce not $8,000 a day, not $9,000 a day, but more than $10,000 a day in product. Goodwill Industries is competing against at least two other charities. Nevertheless, their emphasis is not on the meaningfulness of work that their employees get versus their pay; it's on productivity. So, with this in mind, very carefully watch the video, with special attention to what Mr. Gibbons has to say. Thank you.

[The Rock Center piece was shown and can be found at <http://rockcenter.nbcnews.com/>. Following the presentation of the video, Anil Lewis came to the microphone and said:]

Anil Lewis speaking at the 2013 conventionThere's no better place to be than right here with my Federation family, especially around this issue. You heard about the legislation from Congressman Harper; you've heard about this issue in detail; what I need you to understand is that we don't do this alone. I am proud to be part of the governmental affairs staff under John's direction and under Dr. Maurer's leadership and to work with my colleagues, Lauren McLarney and Jesse Hartle. We work on behalf of every person in this room, every blind person in our nation, and in fact every person with a disability in this country. We are proud to do this, but we don't do it alone. This point is clearly demonstrated in the Rock Center video—you didn't see me in that video—you saw Harold and Sheila Leigland on that video, and without them our message would not be as strong.

I'm probably going to make some people upset—that's what I do, but it's all about relationships. I can't get out and meet everybody, but the people in this room can. By developing those relationships, we can make things happen. Sometimes we develop good relationships, and sometimes we develop bad relationships, but in all of the relationships we make our conscious efforts at building a coalition to positively change the life experience for blind people throughout this country. I thank Harold and Sheila Leigland for being on the front lines, putting their lives into the living rooms of US citizens so they could understand the true plight of people who work in sheltered workshops and what they have to deal with.

So I want to talk a little bit about relationship-building. You heard Pennsylvania mentioned in the Rock Center video. I don't know why Anna Schechter chose that particular state, because this is pervasive throughout the country—except for the state of Vermont, which has no special wage certificates and no subminimum wage payments. Still some people argue that Vermont is such a small state that they really can't be used as an example for the rest of the country, as though people with disabilities in Vermont are not the same as people with disabilities in Arizona, California, Washington, Georgia, or Florida. So what did we do about it? How did we effect a change in Pennsylvania? Well, we teamed with our members like Michelle McManus and Zach Brubaker, who knew that Congressman Thompson in the last Congress came on our fair wages bill and then got off our fair wages bill. They knew he had expressed an interest, and someone changed his mind—probably someone like Jim Gibbons. So we had to change his mind back. How do you do that? You do it by developing relationships. Michelle and Zach set up a meeting; I was able to fly in and meet with the Congressman. We met in front of the Workforce Investment Board, and I want you guys to get to know your Workforce Investment Boards. None of them were aware of the 14(c) provision. We convinced them that it was wrong—that wasn't easy—but we had to do it. By the time we left, they knew it was unfair, discriminatory, and immoral; the Congressman was in the room, and he signed on to the bill and Congressman Thompson is on the bill to stay.

We developed relationships in Texas. Tony Jones in Texas, I met him through José. It turns out that he has a relationship with his Workforce Board as well. Through his relationship with the Workforce Board, Tony was able to take a $50 million contract that Goodwill was getting ready to take advantage of and snatch it from their hands. Tony says they were a little upset, but I think it's time they started experiencing the anger that we feel about this exploitive provision. We'll continue to hit them where it hurts.

I love the irony—it's ironic that these entities who say that they are doing a good thing take the wages they should be paying people with disabilities and instead pay lobbyists to come to DC to continue this exploitative provision. That to me is a sad irony, and I love the fact that we’re engaging in poetic irony, because we're engaging in a thrift store program that is going to take even more money from Goodwill Industries and put it into places where it can remove this discriminatory provision for everyone. They will wake up, and they will understand.

Tony also told me something very interesting in a phone call I had with him over lunch. It appears that God loves the Federation. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is going to be meeting sometime soon. I don't know how he did it, but this is going to be part of their agenda—ending subminimum wages has become a part of the Catholic agenda.

So we'll continue to develop relationships, but there are relationships that are still pending. We don't know if they will be good or if they will be bad; we are friends with everyone who wants to be friends with us, so let's see if the members of the US HELP Committee want to be our friends and develop good relationships or bad relationships. They are at it again; they are reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act. They are putting together Section 511, which we believe is a prescription for rehab professionals to employ people with disabilities at subminimum wages. We won't tolerate it; we want to be your friend; we want to develop good relationships, but we will use the tools that we have to use. We may not have the money to pay lobbyists in the way Goodwill Industries does, but we can put our members on your front steps to see that the world knows that this is wrong. So, here again, they're not going to know me, but we’re going to get them to come to know the Federation.  

After enthusiastic applause following Anil's speech, John next introduced Lauren McLarney. Here is what she said:

Lauren McLarney at the 2013 conventionGood afternoon, fellow Federationists. I'm really happy to be here, but let me ask you, are you having fun? As I said on Tuesday in our legislative seminar, this is a legislative presentation, not a vegetative presentation, so let's keep the energy up throughout.

Before I get started on TEACH, I wanted to talk a little bit about missed opportunities. With technology in the classroom we know that blind students have always faced unnecessary barriers to education and were segregated from mainstream students, partly because of misconceptions and low expectations, and partly because the print world is just inherently different, separate, and inaccessible for blind students.

But now the intersection of technology and education has created this opportunity to expand the circle of participation and allow universal access to mainstream products for everybody, for all students, disabled or not. Curricular content that was once available only in textbooks and during lectures can be disseminated through electronic books, web content, digital library databases, advance software, and mobile applications. But, instead, inaccessible technology has permeated the classroom, segregating blind students more now than ever before. That opportunity has been missed.

Rather than leveling the playing field, technology has created a whole slew of challenges to replace the old ones. The mainstream students use one type of technology, and then the blind student has to go to the office of disability services to explain that it's inaccessible, and then that technology is modified or the student is provided with some accommodation or separate, accessible device. The sad thing is it doesn't have to be this way. There have been many more opportunities to fix this oversight, and those opportunities have been missed too.

In 2008 NFB went to Congress and we said we were noticing a problem, that instructional materials were increasingly digital and that those materials were inaccessible to blind students. They commissioned the Advisory Committee on Accessible Instructional Materials for Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education, and that was five years ago. Since then not much has happened. So that's five years of missed opportunities.

In 2010 the Department of Education and the Department of Justice sent a Dear Colleague to presidents of institutions of higher education clarifying their obligation under the law to provide equal access to blind students. That was three years ago. Since then only a handful of universities have stepped up to the plate; only a handful are investing in accessibility. That's three more years of missed opportunities.

In 2011, just to set the record straight, the DOE (Department of Education) released a follow-up to the Dear Colleague, a Frequently Asked Questions document, and that was two years ago. Technology has evolved exponentially in those two years, but we still aren't seeing accessible technology in the classroom. Two more years of missed opportunities.

In late 2011 the AIM Commission published its report. That report said blind students face overwhelming barriers to their education across the board because of inaccessible instructional materials and that opportunities to succeed in college are undermined and missed because of inaccessible technology. The burden to fix that falls on the blind student; it doesn't fall on the institution, not the manufacturer, but the student. The report also gave recommendations for exactly how to fix the problem. That report was issued two years ago—two years ago. Nothing has happened. That's two more years of missed opportunities.

A Supreme Court justice said, "It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity...is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." He concluded that "in the field of public education, the doctrine of `separate but equal' has no place." Same rhetoric as the AIM commission's findings, as the Dear Colleague, as the FAQ, only the justice’s comment was said sixty-five years ago.

Now I ask you, how fast does technology evolve? How many innovative, revolutionary changes have we seen in the last five, three, two, one, or sixty-five years? After being presented with this great opportunity and all this time to take advantage of it, why is the majority of digital instructional material still inaccessible to blind students?

This is why we drafted the Technology, Education and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act, a bill that calls on the Access Board to develop accessibility guidelines for instructional materials used in postsecondary education so that those materials are fully accessible to disabled students. The bill also calls for those guidelines to be adopted as standards, providing direction for schools on how to meet their legal obligation to provide equal access under the ADA.

If TEACH passes, 1) Institutions of higher education will no longer put emphasis on modifying and accommodating for disabled students. Instead they will have clarity for what mainstream accessibility looks like. Since all institutions will be following the standards, the availability of accessible products will increase and the cost will decrease. 2) Manufacturers will have incentive to embrace accessibility solutions. 3) The burden will no longer fall on blind students. Students will be able to use the same materials, the same content, and get the same access as mainstream students. Blind students are and will be mainstream students.

Since Washington Seminar we have been working hard behind the scenes to get this bill introduced. First, we have the endorsements of the Association of American Publishers (who we are partnering with on this bill, and you'll hear from their CEO tomorrow), AAPD (Association of American People with Disabilities), the Hearing Loss Association of America, National Association of the Deaf, NCIL (National Council on Independent Living), and tons of other groups who have endorsed this bill before it's even dropped. We are also getting a lot of press, something very unusual for a bill that hasn't even dropped. There have been two articles in the online newspaper Inside Higher Education, and I just got an email before I came up here that USA Today plans to run an article on the TEACH bill.

As Dr. Maurer said in his presidential report, Congressman Petri will likely drop the bill in the next month or so, and we are optimistic. We are working on finalizing language and negotiating with stakeholders. This critical, yet kind of cringe-worthy task is slow but important. Sometimes the power of the Federation is loud and pushy, bringing surge to a bill after it has been dropped. Other times it is subtle and firm, building relationships (Anil's favorite thing) and closing deals with players behind the scenes. So we want to drop a bill that has widespread support, that says exactly what we want it to say, and that we know will pass. That's what we're working on right now with TEACH.

When talking about this bill, we will always get the same two questions, and we have two good answers. First, is it even possible to make that stuff accessible to blind students? I get asked that a lot. Well, I can ask a two-by-five, eight-ounce robot to find me a restaurant, give me directions, call the restaurant to make a reservation, tell me what's on the menu—if phones can give you the weather in Texas while you play Tetris, it's not that outrageous to expect technology to be accessible to blind users.

The other question is, why should everybody be denied use of a product just because the blind student can't use it? I get that one probably even more. Well, first, it's discrimination. It's morally wrong. And, second, because it doesn't have to be that way. Blind access and mainstream use do not have to be mutually exclusive. As a society we have collectively decided that we philosophically and fundamentally believe that education is only good when it is fair and equal and that discrimination because of inaccessible technology just isn't necessary. Most people don't realize how bad this situation is, and it’s prime time we fix it. We have the data to back this up, we have industry support, we have a thoroughly developed bill. The tide is turning.

Now let me ask you, are we willing to wait any longer for technology to be accessible? Now let me ask you, can I count on the full Federation gusto when TEACH is finally introduced? [strong, affirmative applause]

Dr. TenBroek pointed out that some problems inherent in blindness are "to some extent increased, to some extent diminished, by the structures and conditions of modern urban life and activities." Modern urban development of technology in education is an opportunity to diminish any problems created by separate but equal education, and this is an opportunity that we won't miss. Thank you.

Jesse Hartle was next introduced to talk about the Space Available Act and other legislation that must be passed to ensure that we may live on terms of equality with the sighted. Here is what he said.

Jesse Hartle speaking at the 2013 conventionGood afternoon. I want to take just a brief moment to recognize the fifth member of the advocacy and policy team. Last fall Kristian Kuhnke left the National Center for the Blind to pursue her education at the University of Maryland, and she left behind some very big shoes. Those shoes have been filled by Taeler Lottino, who keeps Anil and Lauren and John and me straight, and I want you to recognize her work. [Applause]

“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith in the allegiance to the same, and that I will obey the orders of the president of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me according to regulations and the uniform code of military justice, so help me God.” This is the oath of enlistment for individuals entering into the military service of the United States of America. It was taken by those who went to Baghdad, Falluja, and Nasiriya. They took it before serving in Kamdesh, Mazari Sharif, and Takur Ghar; in the Gulf of Tonkin, Long Khanh, and Long Tan. On the ground of Inchon, Pusan, and Seoul. They were at Guadalcanal, Manila, and Omaha Beach to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. Many brave men and women lost their lives defending our rights, and many more became disabled doing so. Today I'm going to address the concern raised by the National Association of Blind Veterans. Last fall Dwight Sayer, the president, brought to our attention the Space Available program operated by the United States Air Mobile Command. The Space Available program allows active duty members, some members of the reserve component, family members, emergency workers, and retirees to fly on military transport flights if there is space available. It does not allow currently those individuals who were disabled in the service of our country. One hundred percent disabled veterans cannot benefit from this program.

At the Washington Seminar many of you came to me and said, "This is going to be a slam dunk issue for the Congress. Who can say no to disabled veterans?" Well, in the 110th Congress the late Senator Inouye of Hawaii introduced a bill to allow service-disabled veterans to participate in the space available program. That bill went nowhere. In the 111th Congress the late Senator Inouye introduced a bill to allow 100 percent service-disabled veterans to participate in the Space Available program. The bill went nowhere. In the 112th Congress Senator Daniel Inouye introduced the bill to allow 100 percent service-disabled veterans to participate in the Space Available program and he did it early in that Congress. At the end of the 112th Congress, that bill had two cosponsors.

On January 4, 2013, at the very beginning of the 113th Congress, Congressman Gus Bilirakis of Florida introduced H.R. 164, a bill that would allow 100 percent service-disabled veterans to participate in the Space Available program. That bill has the support of 169 members of the House of Representatives. We have heard from two of them today. On June 13 H.R. 164 was amended into the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act H.R. 1960, and on June 14 H.R. 1960 was passed by the entire House of Representatives with the language of H.R. 164 included.

In the United States Senate, Senator Jon Tester of Montana introduced S. 346 on June 14. This is a companion bill to H.R. 164. Senator Tester's bill currently has fourteen cosponsors, and Senator Tester has already agreed to offer an amendment to the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act when it comes to the floor later this year with language identical to the amendment offered by Congressman Bilirakis in the House bill.

We must now work to increase support on S. 346 in order to ensure that the Senate leadership will allow this bill to be offered as an amendment during Senate consideration. If anyone is wondering what changed from the last three sessions of Congress to today, look around this room. The organization that changes what it means to be blind stood up and pledged to support and defend the rights of blind and otherwise disabled veterans. Fellow Federationists, this issue has become a slam dunk for Congress for one reason: the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind have made it one. The exclusionary policy is going to be changed, and it's going to be changed soon. One hundred percent service-disabled veterans will take their seats on Space Available flights because of your work.

Mary Jo and I had our lives changed on April 7, 2011. At 1:05 in the afternoon we welcomed Kayla Elizabeth Hartle into our lives. She was 21 1/2 inches long, and she weighed just over nine pounds. This was one of the greatest days of our lives, and later this year we’ll have another of these life-changing experiences as we will welcome our first son into this world. While the birth of any child should be a cherished day for the parents of that child, we know that is not always the case. Today, twenty-two years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States of America, the misconceptions about the blind continue to be used as a weapon to deny blind individuals the right to be parents. We have seen it in Missouri; we have seen it in Maryland; we've seen it in Texas. Two thirds of state laws allow for disability to be used as a reason to deny custody or to terminate parental rights of blind Americans.

Disabled parents often find it difficult or impossible to adopt because of discriminatory practices of adoption agencies. They tell us we cannot be competent parents; after all, how would a blind parent know if his/her child was in danger? How would we know if our child was hungry or a diaper needed to be changed? They say the blind cannot be competent parents; I say, tell it to the Carranzas, to the Bureshes, to the Maurers, to Anil Lewis, to the Riccobonos, Lisa Maria Martinez, to the Fredericks, Pierces, Diggs, Worleys, Schroeders, Changs, Wunders, Browns, Elders, and Wilsons. The list of blind parents goes on and on. We in the National Federation of the Blind know the truth about blindness, and the truth is that blindness does not prevent a person from being a competent parent. It is time that we deal with the issue of discrimination against the rights of blind parents—and we do it now—there is no other organization that can lead the charge for equal rights for blind parents like the National Federation of the Blind can.

If a state law needs to be changed, let it be the National Federation of the Blind that changes it. If the federal law needs to be amended or passed, then let the National Federation of the Blind march on Capitol Hill and put that legislation on the president's desk. You can rest assured that, wherever discrimination appears against the blind, the National Federation of the Blind will be there, and we will win.

Many individuals seem to think that the blind should just be allowed to exist in the world. We will not just exist! Fellow Federationists, the blind have a right to live in the world, to live on equal terms with our sighted peers, to live with equal pay for equal work performed, to live with equal access to educational information, to live without the threat of our parental rights, or any other rights being denied on the grounds of blindness. This right will be achieved and it will be achieved through the collective action of the National Federation of the Blind. Our cause is just; our cause is right; and our cause goes marching on. God bless you.

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