Braille Monitor                                             August/September 2015

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The Impact of the Organized Blind Movement: Perspectives from a Friend and Champion in the Maryland Legislature

by Brooke Lierman

Brooke LiermanFrom the Editor: One of the more moving speeches on the first afternoon came from a friend of the organized blind movement, a newly elected member of the Maryland Legislature who came to encourage and challenge us in our advocacy and in our building of relationships with elected officials. Here is what she said:

Good afternoon, Federation members. Wow, what a view I have from up here! You all look beautiful.

My name is Brooke Lierman. I am an attorney at Brown, Goldstein & Levy (BGL)—that's right, another lawyer. But that is not why President Riccobono invited me up here today. He invited me up here because last November I was elected to the state legislature in Maryland. So now, not only do I have the honor of being part of the crack legal team that works with the NFB and its members on legal cases; I also have the honor of representing the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind in the Maryland House of Delegates.

When President Riccobono asked me to speak today, I asked him what he'd like me to speak about. He paused, thought for a moment, and then told me he'd like me to speak for about five minutes. I'm going to try to abide by his directions so I'm invited back.

I am here to do something lawyers do—I am here to make a case. I am here to make the case to you for why you need to be involved in politics. Local, state, federal—you choose the level, but you need to be involved. The reason for my argument is this: the blind community needs more champions fighting for it in the state house halls around this country.

So I am here to make a case to you because, although this room is full, it is not full enough. I am here to make a case to you because I don't want to be the only state legislator who attends NFB conventions. I am here to make a case to you that we must grow our ranks—we must have champions in every state legislature. I am here to make the case to you to educate legislators so we can create advocates. And then I want to briefly tell you how to do it.

If you remember nothing else today, the two words I hope you remember are "educate" and "advocate."

To educate, meaning "give intellectual, moral, and social instruction to."

To advocate, meaning "to support or argue for a cause or policy."

Legislators around this country—at the local, state, and federal level—are advocating every day. But are they educated about the issues you and I care about? Are they advocating for or against the causes you—and we—all champion?

I will tell you, in a word, by and large they are not. But you can change that. Why aren't they advocating for the civil rights of blind people, you ask me? Well, let me tell you a little bit about the district I represent. It includes about 117,000 people in Baltimore City. My district includes every neighborhood along or near the water in Baltimore. It is one of the, if not the most, racially diverse districts in the state, and it has the largest relative income gap between highest earner and lowest earner of any district in the state. It includes the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards, the Ravens stadium, and the Ritz Carlton residents. It includes one of the largest public housing developments east of the Mississippi. I tell you this because one thing I have learned is that I cannot know what every one of my constituents needs or the challenges that they face on a daily basis. But what I do know after knocking on 14,000 doors in my campaign is that they all want the same thing: a safe, clean, green neighborhood where they can live and raise their children; good schools; good-paying jobs; and efficient public transit.

I ran for office so that I could help all neighborhoods and all constituencies white or black or Latino, rich or poor or middle-class, blind or sighted—to achieve these basic life goals. But to know how to help them, I need to know what obstacles are standing in their way. For that, sometimes, I need them to tell me.

When I go to community meetings, when I knock on doors, when I attend events, I tell everyone: if you don't educate me, I can't advocate for you. If there is an intersection in your neighborhood that you think is really dangerous, I can't help you fix that unless you tell me. If there is a principal at the school your child attends who is refusing to provide Braille, I can't help advocate for you or change laws unless you educate me. And I am here today to tell you—if you do not educate your elected officials, they—we—cannot be strong advocates for you.

Fortunately for the people in my district, President Riccobono, the NFB, and all of you—I have been learning about the challenges and injustices faced by the blind community for five years now through my work at BGL. My second day on the job at BGL, I spoke with a young man named Chris Toth and his girlfriend Jamie Principato. Despite having been admitted to Florida State University and paying their tuition just like everyone else, they were being denied access to even the most basic learning tools—a math book and the homework problems. Through my work with Chris and Jamie; through my work with blind vendors—some of the most creative entrepreneurs I know, by the way; through my work with workers at SSA—I have been educated. And because I am educated, I can be a more effective advocate.

Here are two small examples of how, through being educated and understanding issues, I can be a better advocate. I sit on the House Appropriations Committee, and this year the governor proposed steep budget cuts, including for the Library for the Blind. John Paré from the NFB told me about this issue, pointed me to where it was in the budget. I found the subcommittee chair that deals with that particular issue as well as the appropriations chair, talked to them, and explained to them why this funding was so important and needed to be restored. I'm happy to say it was. When the sausage of policy is being made in the backrooms of state capitols around the country, you need to know that you have leaders there in those state capitols watching your back.

Here is another example of the way in which one single person can make a difference through advocacy. I have a constituent who contacted me shortly after the election. He’s an older gentleman who had been working at a company for over twenty years, and his father had Parkinson’s disease. So he went to the company and he said to them, “I’d like to use my flexible leave.” Flexible leave is the state equivalent of FMLA.

They said, “Okay, you can use your flexible leave, but tell us what day you are going to start, because the day before that we are going to lay you off.”

Now that’s crazy. He said to them, “You can’t do that! That’s against the law. It says in the law that you can’t fire people for using their leave.”

Their reply to him was: “That’s right; you can’t be fired for using your leave, but you can be fired for asking to use your leave.” Can you imagine? What a loophole in the law, one that would have a chilling effect on anybody who wanted to use their flexible leave. So he came to me and he said, “We have to fix this. This basically guts Maryland’s entire Flexible Leave Act.”

I said “You are absolutely right!” I would never have known about that loophole in the law if he had not come forward to tell me about it. I’m happy to report that I introduced a bill to close that loophole, and it successfully passed this year, and now no one has to fear requesting to use their flexible leave in Maryland.

Unfortunately not every legislator gets the opportunity to work at Brown, Goldstein & Levy and learn about the importance of being a champion and ally to the blind community. It's sad but true—we are a pretty small firm, and Dan winnows out the applicant pool by ensuring that we know our tomatillo sauce from our ranchero sauce and our scotch from our bourbon. Thus it is up to you.

Now that I have explained why it is so important, here are just a couple notes on how to educate your legislator. First, I'm not going to ask for a show of hands or a round of claps, but I know there are people out there who are not registered to vote. I am here to tell you: we know who you are. We legislators—we do not have enough hours in the day to see everyone. We can look up online whether someone is registered and how many elections they have voted in. I can go in right now on my phone in fact and look up anyone in Maryland and see how many elections they have voted in. So take the time to get registered. Take the time to vote.

Second, cultivate a relationship with your legislators. Legislators are people. We have families. Most of us have other jobs. We have one or two part-time or full-time staff as well. Take the time to look up your legislators, learn about them, and schedule a meeting with them. Keep in touch with them. Sign up for their email blasts. Visit with them and their staff. Get to know them. You may not need anything from them right now. You may not need anything from them this year. But at some point there is going to be a budget item that you care about—maybe transit being cut or carve-outs being created to the state Randolph-Sheppard Act or policies around teaching Braille in schools debated. Someday there will be an issue. And, if you show up then for the first time, it's too late. You need to show up now so that, when you show up at the time it is most needed, that legislator can count on you to tell him or her the whole story.

Third, work with your local NFB chapter to organize advocacy days at the state capitol, and introduce yourself to many legislators. Above all, know that not all legislators are equal—some may have some knowledge of our issues, some may have none. Meet them where they are. Educate them so they can advocate for you.

Do it for yourself, and do it for your kids and your neighbors. You are leaders—you are here, you are involved. Take the initiative when you get home to find your legislator, and start ensuring that all fifty states have champions in their state legislatures.

I hope I've made my case to you successfully today [applause]. If I have, then I conclude with a challenge: I challenge you—between now and the next convention—grow the blind civil rights movement. Create more champions. Touch someone on your left. Touch someone on your right. If you each reach out and talk to your legislator, meet with your legislator, and educate your legislator, next year when we come back here there will be so many state legislators who are champions and advocates that I won't get a chance to take up another ten minutes. Thank you.

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