by John Paré, Rose Sloan, Gabe Cazares, and Lauren McLarney
From the Editor: Before I could afford to go to the convention, the part of the Braille Monitor I most looked forward to reading was the Washington Report by James Gashel. I loved hearing about our legislative skirmishes, the arguments made against us, and the way we were so often able to prevail. Much of the Monitor was interesting, but this section was where I got my marching orders—something I could really do beyond my local chapter to help the National Federation of the Blind. It is with these thoughts in mind that I try to include much of what we now know of as the Advocacy and Policy Report. I hope you enjoy the remarks made by these dedicated men and women as much as I do:
John Paré: Good Afternoon, fellow Federationists. The Advocacy and Policy Department is responsible for NFB-NEWSLINE®, public relations, and governmental affairs. The mandate for our department is to promote equality and opportunity for all blind people so that we can live the lives we want. This is our assignment and our joy.
The problem is that society views blindness as a tragedy. Our founder Dr. tenBroek said, “The principal misconception, the one that embodies and epitomizes all the rest, is that blindness means helplessness—social and economic incapacity; the destruction of the productive powers; the obliteration of the ability to contribute to or benefit from normal community participation; in short, the lingering image of the helpless blind man.”
I know a lot about these dismal views of blindness and the hope the NFB has to offer because of the role the NFB has played in my own life. About twenty years ago I began losing my eyesight. At the time I was working for the Advanced Digital Information Corporation and was one of their top salespersons. The company would fly me all over the country and sometimes the world so I could tell prospective clients about our high-end digital mass storage equipment. While on a business trip in Chicago, I first noticed problems with my vision. My eyesight deteriorated slowly, and it took several years for a retina specialist to finally diagnose my condition as cone rod retina degeneration. The doctor told me that my condition was incurable and degenerative.
As the late 90s progressed my eyesight got worse and worse. Eventually I had to stop driving and turned in my driver’s license for a state-issued ID card. In retrospect my biggest problem was my lack of a role model. I did not understand how a blind person could be successful at much of anything, and as I became a blind person I did not think I could be successful. I progressively relinquished all of my responsibilities at work to others because I didn’t think I could do the work as a blind person. Eventually I agreed with my employer that the only option for me was to leave the company and go on SSDI [Social Security Disability Insurance]. I was resigned to the fact that I would spend the rest of my life sitting at home, very busy at nothing.
In 2001 I was living in Tampa, Florida. I had learned about NFB-NEWSLINE® and spent hours listening to the service. I began to wonder: if the NFB was able to create a service as great as NFB-NEWSLINE, maybe I should learn more. One day I researched the NFB and discovered that there were hundreds of chapters and that one met close to where I lived. I went to the meeting and after all those years of feeling isolated and alone, I met another blind person. In fact, I met lots of them. But they were not sitting at home busy doing nothing. They had careers, families, and avocations. I was amazed. I was intrigued. I was motivated. I was filled with hope.
I quickly got involved in NFB-NEWSLINE at the state level and traveled to the national center for NFB-NEWSLINE administrator training. I met Jim Gashel and Dr. Maurer and others. I was even more motivated and inspired to know that I could live the life I wanted to live. I could go back to living the life I used to live, but I would simply do it as a blind person. This would require me to do a lot of things nonvisually, but I quickly learned, from my ever-increasing number of NFB friends, that I could still do what I wanted to do.
In February 2004, after attending the Washington Seminar, Dr. Maurer invited me to the national center to interview for a job. Well, as most of you know, I got the job.
At the NFB we say that our battles are not over until we win. That is because our battles are personal. At one time I perceived being blind as an insurmountable problem. I was wrong. But being blind in a sighted world can pose some challenges. I am frustrated when I encounter inaccessible websites, inaccessible apps, inaccessible kiosks, inaccessible instructional materials, inaccessible home appliances, and inaccessible technology of all types--which brings me back to the Advocacy and Policy Department. We all share a similar story: our bond is our personal journeys to conquer our blindness; not with restored eyesight, but with our shared attitude that blindness is not what holds us back, that blindness does not have to be viewed as a tragedy.
As you have heard, NFB-NEWSLINE is what introduced me to the NFB, and this year is the twentieth anniversary of this terrific service. It was conceived, designed, and implemented by the blind for the blind.
NFB-NEWSLINE is available in forty-five states and the District of Columbia. It serves over 108,000 subscribers. There are 347 newspapers, sixteen breaking news sources, fourteen international newspapers, and forty-three magazines. Over the last year NFB-NEWSLINE subscribers have: enjoyed over thirty-eight million minutes of news, made over two million calls, received over two million emailed articles, logged into our web portal over two million times, and accessed our mobile app over 260,000 times.
Over the past year several new features and services were added to the system. In December of 2014 we introduced a new continuous reading mode for the telephone access method. By simply pressing 99 at the section level of a publication, a subscriber can hear the entire publication read cover-to-cover without having to prompt the system to move to the next section or article. I love this feature.
Two of the most recent publications added to the magazines category are Braille Book Review and Talking Book Topics. Books listed in these two publications are listed as individual articles which can be emailed to you by pressing #9. These emails can then be forwarded to your regional Talking Book Library to request these books.
I still listen to NFB-NEWSLINE every day, but now I do it with purpose and pride. I am proud that the NFB could create such a valuable service for blind people. And I listen to learn how we can convince more companies to make their websites accessible, to make their apps accessible, to make their kiosks accessible, to make electronic instructional material accessible, to hire more blind people in competitive integrated employment, and to increase access to Braille. I am now part of the strongest, most effective advocacy group of blind people in America. When I go to the halls of Congress or to Fortune 500 companies or to universities, I go with my long white cane, the confidence you have given me, and the knowledge that we are all working together side by side to live the lives we want. Thank you for what you have done for me. [Applause]
Alright, we have more to go. We’re going to go through more details with each of our three specialists. The first one I would like to introduce is Lauren McLarney:
Lauren McLarney: Good afternoon, friends. I'm here to talk to you about the TEACH Act, so I want to know what that stands for: [tepid audience response] Technology, Education, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education. What does the bill do: it creates guidelines [slight audience response when uttering that line]. Oh, that was awful. Okay, what does the bill do? [The audience responds, "It creates guidelines."]
Okay, you guys got it. Before I get into any more details, I want to start by saying that this is my fifth or sixth convention, and the one thing that I notice is that you get to hear from us in government affairs, but there are a lot of other people at the National Center who work on these issues, particularly higher education, that you don't get to hear from. So there is Kristian Kuhnke and Mya Jones—they do a lot of our administrative support—Chris Danielsen helps with public relations. Mehgan Sidhu is our general counsel, and she has listened to me rattle on and on about the higher ed lobby for hours. Stephanie Witt is the person who did the TEACH Act video. Jen White makes me smile every day. There are tons of people at the national office who support our higher education issues, so if everybody could acknowledge their work even though they're not up here talking [applause].
Now back to the TEACH Act and just a brief reminder of what brought us here. We saw the effect of inaccessible technology on students with disabilities in college. We saw that blind students were delaying their education, changing majors, even dropping out—not because they didn't have the work ethic and not because they weren't smart enough, but because the very technology that should've leveled the playing field for them was inaccessible and creating needless barriers. We knew we had to do something to stop it, and so we initiated litigation. We went to the Department of Justice; our student division started letter-writing campaigns; we did petitions; we have done everything, but we knew that nothing would change unless the market was stimulated to include accessible things, and that meant schools needed to be told that "This is what accessibility looks like, this is the criteria you should follow, and this is what you should ask for." So that is what the TEACH Act was meant to do. We introduced it in November, and then Senators Warren and Hatch introduced the Senate companion the following February. Then we got fifty-six cosponsors in the House and six in the Senate. We had twenty-two different groups endorsing the bill. We had over 1,000 views of our video, we were on a roll, and we were feeling good! And then the higher ed lobby said "We don't like the bill." Then members of Congress said "You might want to get them to like the bill." We thought that this made sense. We don't like it when other people who are not blind people say they know what's best for the blind. We say that we know what's best for the blind, so when Congress says higher education knows what's best for higher education, go talk to them; this made sense. So we reached out to them; that was nine months ago.
I will tell you that we have spent the last nine months negotiating with them, and in that time I've had several moments of frustration. I keep hearing in my head this line from one of my favorite comedy bits, where the comedian is talking about how absurd it is when the airline tells you that when the oxygen mask drops down, you should adjust your mask before helping the person next to you. He says, "I did not need to be told that." And I have heard that in my head countless times over the last nine months.
The education people told us that they do more for students with disabilities than anybody else. I asked if they had any specifics. They said no, we have 7,000 institutions, and we couldn't possibly tell you any specifics. They told us that the experiences that our students were reporting were the exception and not the rule, that we were only hearing from students who are having problems. We said no: we are listening to the National Association of Blind Students, not the National Association of Blind Students with Problems at institutions of higher education.
They then began to lecture us, saying that they want help because they don't want to have to spend all of this money on accommodations. They say that the accommodations model, the separate but equal model, is really expensive, and again I thought, "I don't need to be told that; I know, and that's why we're here trying to help you." They told us that they wanted a new title for this bill. We said that was okay. They said they wanted a purposed-base commission instead of the access board, and we said we would be glad to think about it. Then they said they wanted a safe harbor for considering the guidelines during the decision-making process—just considering them—they should be able to buy whatever they want but should get a reward for considering buying accessible technology. This was the equivalent of saying, I sat outside the bank, and I considered not robbing it, but I decided to go in and rob it, and you shouldn't arrest me because I really thought about it. We said we would never accept that. I'm happy to report that nine months later, as of about two or three weeks ago, we have finally reached an agreement with the higher education lobby on the TEACH Act. [Applause]
So what does this agreement look like? First of all, it has a new name. It's called the SMART Act, so scratch all of that practicing about what the TEACH Act stood for. The SMART Act stands for Stimulating the Marketplace to Make Accessibility a Reality Today. The guidelines will be created by a purpose-based commission with equal representation from all of the different stakeholder groups, so there will be seven representatives from the disability community, including two students with disabilities. There will be two or three technology experts, seven representatives from institutions of higher learning—higher education, and five industry reps. There will also be a bifurcated safe harbor, which is a fancy way of saying that they didn't get what they asked for. They are going to get the safe harbor that we proposed in the first bill, and then they will also be incentivized to adopt the guidelines into their decision-making process and write down why they make the decisions that they make, what's available on the market that they're choosing to reject, and how they are going to provide equal access to students with disabilities.
So the next step is getting all of the different disability groups to join us. I thought this would be really easy, but I was on a call last week with a few other blindness groups, and it was kind of eye-opening. They had some concerns. They started out by saying, "Well, up until now we really appreciate all you have done. Up until this point NFB has done some phenomenal legal advocacy—what you have done with your litigation, those settlement agreements—those settlement agreements have changed everything, and accessibility is mandatory because of those settlement agreements." Then they said that their biggest concern was not the change in the safe harbor, not the purpose-based commission, not the new name: their biggest concern was that the guidelines were not mandatory. And I said, "The bill last year had voluntary guidelines and all of you endorsed those."
And they said, "Well, we had a different interpretation of that bill."
So I read them this line: "Nothing in this Act is to be construed to require an institution to only use technology that conforms to these guidelines." I asked them if they really thought that meant that it was mandatory. They said yes.
But, when we were wrapping this conversation up, the group said they couldn't support it. And I said, "Okay, I'll take your concerns back to the higher ed lobby." And they said, "When you go back to them, go back with strength." I did not need to be told that. What did they think we had been doing for the last nine months--and they weren't there when we were doing it!
Here is what NFB is doing: we have initiated over a dozen lawsuits; we have settled those lawsuits; the Department of Justice has intervened in some of our lawsuits; we have had the Department of Justice issue guidance that we urged them to initiate; we have conducted two or three letter-writing campaigns, we have met with presidents of institutions of higher education, we have brought the higher education lobby to the table, and they agreed to this bill. What have these other groups done for blind students? Nothing! So I'd like to have them with us, but we don't need them—they either need to steer clear of us or join our team, because we don't need anything from a group that doesn't understand this bill, the lawsuits they don't help us with, and the negotiations they don't participate in. [Applause]
So what's next? Well, we're going to pass the bill, so we have to write it. The person who is going to write it you will meet in a minute, but the reason I'm not going to write it is because I'm leaving in August to go back to school. I want to take advantage of this opportunity to say: First, don't forget me because I want to come back. Second, what has driven my career choice is a quote; it's really cheesy, but I like it. William Carey says, "I'm not afraid of failure; I'm afraid of succeeding at things that don't matter." And that has driven my choices.
The Federation is changing lives, and nothing can matter more than that. I have loved being a part of this family, so thank you!
To tell you more about the SMART Act and how important this is for students with disabilities, here is the newest member of our team. First he was my friend; now he is my colleague. Please welcome Gabe Cazares.
Gabe Cazares: Howdy to my record-breaking Federation family! It's an honor for me to address you this afternoon as the newest member of our government affairs team for the National Federation of the Blind. By way of introduction, my journey in the Federation began in the summer of 2009 when I applied for a summer work program through the school for the blind. I had the privilege of working for the National Federation of the Blind of Texas as an intern. The internship was supposed to be six weeks long that summer, but six years later here I am.
Because of the mentorship and love I received in my home affiliate, the National Federation of the Blind of Texas, and the skills and confidence I gained by attending the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I am now living the life I want. As a student I have experienced firsthand the barriers and frustrations that inaccessible technology pose. For instance, during the 2015 spring semester, my last semester of college, I took a math course to fulfill a core curricular requirement. The textbooks, homework, and quizzes for the course were all web-based. I'm a Braille reader, so I requested Braille copies of all the course materials since, as is too often the case, the web-based interface was completely inaccessible. However, because of a staff change in the office of disability services, my request for Braille materials was never submitted. So what did the school decide to provide me as a reasonable accommodation you may be wondering: a print copy of the textbook and a human reader/scribe. I was fortunate in the sense that the reader/scribe is also a mathematics instructor and a friend of mine who truly understands both the importance of Braille and the capacity of blind people. But stop to think about what could have happened if the circumstances had been different. What if I had been unsuccessful in completing my course assignments, my quizzes, my exams successfully because of the lack of access in the course? I would have failed and not graduated from college on time.
The frustrating reality is that I know my story isn't the only story. Hundreds of students are here this week who know what it's like to be left behind by the same technology that has the potential to level the playing field for us. When you need to sign up for a course, but you can't independently access the registration system, that is second-class citizenship. When you need to check your grades—although some of us would rather not sometimes—but you can't independently access the learning management system, that is second-class citizenship. When a professor assigns you an online reading, but the PDF file they upload is not properly tagged, making it impossible for you independently to access it, that is second-class citizenship. It's time for developers of electronic instructional material and institutions of higher education to stop thinking about accessibility after the fact. It's time for schools to stop adopting a separate but equal attitude about accessibility. We will not accept second-class citizenship in society, and we will not accept it in the classroom.
But this is what it's all about, right? This is not necessarily just about education. It's about the fact that, if we settle for less than equality in the classroom, then we are settling for being one, two, three steps behind everyone else for the rest of our lives. To those outside the Federation it's easy to assume that this second-class citizenship is just part of being blind—that technology benefits plenty of people—just not blind people, yet. And accessibility is too far beyond the horizon. We are just going to have to wait, and we should learn to live with this discrimination. But I know this is not true, and I know this is not the life I want to live. [Applause]
Students are the only ones who can change the landscape, and that is why the National Federation of the Blind has fought for the rights of the blind, and we will continue to do so until both developers of electronic instructional material and institutions of higher education understand that we will not accept being an afterthought. We are not against innovation; in fact we know the innovation is and should be there. What we are against is the deployment of technology that shuts out blind students. Because having equal access to education is not a privilege; it's our right.
In closing I'd like to address students in particular. As we move forward with the SMART Act, I call on you to be engaged and active. Passing this proposed legislation will revolutionize the development and procurement of electronic instructional materials. But we need your help. Tell your story. The National Association of Blind Students is always collecting stories about the effects of inaccessible technology. Talk to a fellow NABS member, and learn about how your story can make a huge impact in the fight for equal access. When we call for grassroots mobilization, don't sit on the sidelines. No one does grassroots like the National Federation of the Blind, and that's because our members are active, engaged, and energized.
In the last few months I've been sitting in on and participating in our negotiations with the higher education lobby. They're at the table, it's true, but they don't get it. And how could they? They haven't heard from us. They need to hear from us, and I'm calling on you students to make it happen. One of the reasons I wanted to come work at the National Center for the Blind is because I want to take my experience as a blind student and use it to bring about meaningful change for blind students across the country. I know what it's currently like to be a blind student in the United States. And let me tell you something, Federation family: it's unacceptable. However, I take comfort in knowing that with our grassroots movement, our legislative influence, and the love, hope, and determination of the nation's blind, we will see complete access to electronic instructional materials become the norm, not the exception. [Applause]
Thank you for giving me the privilege of working for our movement. I sincerely look forward to building the Federation with you.
Rose Sloan: Good afternoon, NFB family! It's so great to be here at our seventy-fifth convention. Before I begin I'd like to take a moment to say thank you to someone who has been a huge positive influence on me. And also, you might want to know who I am. I'm Rose Sloan, and I'm also a government affairs specialist at the NFB National Center. I specifically handle everything employment with regard to policy. The person who I would really like to say thank you to is someone I talked to two years ago in this very room. I sought her out because she had the type of job I wanted. Ladies and gentlemen, the person who has been such a role model to me is Lauren McLarney. Thanks in part to her advocacy on my behalf, I got a shot at working at the national office. Lauren, I, along with many Federationists, will really miss you. You've inspired and motivated us all with your never-ending determination and energy, and we can't thank you enough. I wish you the best of luck as you further your education. Can we take a moment to show Lauren our appreciation? [Cheers, applause] You'll truly be missed. I also wish to welcome Gabe to the team; wasn't his presentation great? Finally, I just wanted to say I cannot wait to start working with Mr. Parnell Diggs; it'll be wonderful.
As our one-minute message so eloquently states, we raise expectations for blind people, because low expectations create obstacles. These obstacles couldn't be more prevalent than in the employment sphere, and specifically in the jobs and wages that are assigned and paid to people with disabilities.
Passed in 1938, but practiced prior to, and even today in 2015, people with disabilities are being paid sub-minimum wages. Some of our fellow Americans with disabilities are being paid a dollar, a quarter, even zero dollars and zero cents per hour! [Boos from crowd] But although this practice may not be affecting you directly, it is absolutely affecting each and every one of us indirectly. The low expectations that society sets for us stem from many places, but the mere fact that we can be paid sub-minimum wages does not reflect our attitude of high expectations. The low wages that are paid to our brothers and sisters with disabilities are a reflection of the low expectation set for them and, in effect, for all of us. We, the National Federation of the Blind, are committed to ending this antiquated, discriminatory, and demeaning practice of paying people with disabilities sub-minimum wages. We support H.R. 188, the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act, or the TIME Act. Sponsored by Congressman Gregg Harper from Mississippi, the TIME Act will responsibly phase out section 14(c) over a three-year period. The idea of repealing section 14(c) is supported by over eighty disability organizations, and thanks to all of your hard work at and after the Washington Seminar, I'm happy to report that the TIME Act is up to forty cosponsors. And to me, the very exciting thing about these particular forty cosponsors is that there are eighteen Republicans and twenty-two Democrats—very bipartisan legislation so far.
I encourage all of you, especially if you live in districts that have a Republican representative, please to write, email, or call your national legislators, and urge them to join the forty members of Congress who already support the TIME Act. Maybe you wrote them after Washington Seminar. It's time to write them again; it's time for 14(c) to be repealed. After all, a few states in our great nation have already shown that every person, regardless of disability, is worthy of at least the minimum wage. On May 7, 2015, the governor of New Hampshire signed S.B. 47 into law. S.B. 47 says that no entity can pay a person with a disability a sub-minimum wage. Congratulations, New Hampshire!
Other steps have been taken, too. For example, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act created a committee tasked with increasing the integrated and competitive opportunities for workers with disabilities. Dr. Schroeder is a member of this committee. I want to join him in urging all of you to write emails to the committee, and now there's a simpler way to do this. To personalize a template email, please visit <www.nfb.org/ice>. ICE stands for Integrated Competitive Employment; remember ICE. The form will allow you to include your own personal reasons as to why you feel that 14(c) should be phased out. Perhaps you might explain how discriminatory and unhelpful sub-minimum wage environments are for people with disabilities. Maybe you'll remind the members of the committee that there are alternatives to 14(c) certificates such as customized and supported employment. Or maybe you'll mention that New Hampshire and Vermont have already figured it out, and there are competitive, integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities. If enough of us use our voices, the committee will recommend that Section 14(c) be responsibly phased out. Who can I count on to fill out the form at <www.nfb.org/ice>? [Cheers] That's what I thought. No other group does it like us; our voices will surely be heard by the committee.
Since I last spoke to you at Washington Seminar in January, the legislative affairs team has been working diligently on legislation that will help improve the Social Security Disability Insurance system. As you've likely noticed, SSDI is a rather hot topic right now. The trust fund will be insolvent as early as December of next year, and, unless Congress takes action, SSDI beneficiaries will see about a 19 percent cut in their benefits. As you can imagine, Congress does not want this to happen, as demonstrated by actions they are taking every day. This morning they held a meeting about this very topic. The insolvency of the SSDI trust fund is not the only problem. The work incentives currently in place for blind SSDI beneficiaries are broken. To illustrate my point and explain the need for change, I'm going to tell you about my friend, Allison Duttner.
Allison is a smart woman who loves to teach. She taught in New Mexico and now lives in California. She is an SSDI beneficiary. Because she cannot live on her SSDI benefit alone, and because, quite frankly, she doesn't want to just sit at home all day collecting money from the government, Allison works part-time as an electronic transcriber. But Allison has to be really careful about how much money she earns. Because, believe it or not, she could lose money if she works too much. And Allison isn't alone in this predicament. In fact, many blind people throughout this nation are either turning down jobs or discouraged from looking for work at all because it could cost them money. Simply put, blind SSDI beneficiaries can maximize their take-home income by working part-time and collecting SSDI as opposed to working full-time. This is backwards! Blind individuals want to raise expectations for ourselves; we want to be independent, but the system doesn't allow us to do that.
So what will the reform look like? As long as we make our voices heard, it will encompass the Blind Persons Return to Work Act, a piece of proposed legislation that will create a two-for-one phase out of benefits, eliminate the confusing and unhelpful trial work period, and expand work expenses to blind SSDI beneficiaries.Low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our vocational dreams. We want real jobs at real wages. [Applause] We want an SSDI system that encourages us to always work to our full potential. By working together as we have been doing for seventy-five years, we will be heard on Capitol Hill. We will ensure that the TIME Act and the Blind Persons Return to Work Act are signed into law. No one does it like the Federation; no one does it like us. Be on the lookout for emails that will alert you to contact your members of Congress about all of the legislative priorities you've heard about today. Have a great convention, everyone.