by John Paré, Parnell Diggs, Derek Manners, and Gabe Cazares
From the Editor: One of my favorite parts of the convention has always been the report from the policy and advocacy team, for in one presentation I am able to feel pride in all of the things we do and at the same time figure out what I am to do to further our work in the halls of Congress and the offices of the administration. What follows is a report on the legislation we support and how those of us can, from our homes, reach out to public officials and make a difference in policies regarding blind people.
John Paré: Why is the National Federation of the Blind so successful with advocacy? Why do some members of Congress call us “the most effective advocacy group in Washington”? Why are we able to get so much done when other, larger groups are doing so little? I believe that the answer to this question is that what we do is personally important to each one of us. We fight to raise expectations for blind people because every day every one of us experiences the consequences of low expectations. Whether it is inaccessible technology, barriers to education, discrimination in the workplace, denial of the custody of one’s own child, or even something as simple as crossing the street, we have all been personally affected by society’s low expectations and misunderstandings of what it is like to be blind.
Here is a recent experience of my own: on May 6 I traveled to south Florida to visit my mom for Mother’s Day. My sister and brother-in-law picked me up at the airport. On the way to my mom’s, we stopped at a restaurant for dinner. I had not seen either of them for quite a while, and we were immediately immersed in conversation. Suddenly a man approached the table and asked if I was blind. Before I could answer he announced to the restaurant that he wanted to touch my eyes and pray for the return of my eyesight. I have no objection to prayer, even publicly. But I was irritated that this man felt the need to interrupt my family dinner because he perceived me as less fortunate than himself. I cannot help thinking that he saw me as someone who was defined by my blindness, someone who could not possibly be happy unless I could see, someone who was broken and sick, someone who needed to be fixed and returned to good health.
Unfortunately incidents like this one are not rare. We have all experienced low expectations, not only from random strangers, but from our teachers, our coworkers, and even our own family members. These low expectations are pernicious—not only because they upset or embarrass us. They affect our education, our employment, our wages, and much more. We know from everyday experience that these low expectations are not figments of our imagination and that they are deeply hurtful and harmful. When we don’t get fair wages, that’s personal. When we can’t access our coursework because of inaccessible technology, that’s personal. When a website is inaccessible and our government tells us to wait—now six years and counting—before it will even issue regulations, that’s personal. I know how personal it is because I have felt the hurt and humiliation of low expectations in my own life. When I speak to members of Congress, I draw on your energy, your passion, your determination, and your experiences. I tell them that we will not accept low expectations and second-class citizenship anymore [applause]. I tell them that we will not accept the second-class citizenship, and that we will work to eliminate the barriers of pity erected by low expectations. And they believe me because they have met all of you, and they know that we share a common determination and a common effort. Because for all of us, it’s personal.
Speaking of personal, let’s talk a little about NFB-NEWSLINE®. NFB-NEWSLINE is what first introduced me to the National Federation of the Blind. NFB-NEWSLINE is the largest, most effective accessible newspaper service for the blind anywhere in the world. It was conceived, designed, and implemented by the blind, for the blind. NFB-NEWSLINE is available in forty-six states plus the District of Columbia. It has over 112,000 subscribers, 343 domestic newspapers, sixteen international newspapers, twenty breaking-news sources, and fifty-one magazines. Over the last year NFB-NEWSLINE subscribers have enjoyed over thirty-seven million minutes of news, made over two million phone calls, received over two million emailed messages, logged on to our web portal over three million times, and accessed our mobile app over 332,000 times [applause]. NFB-NEWSLINE now has all of the jobs in the USA Jobs database. This database includes thousands of job opportunities across hundreds of federal agencies and organizations. We’ve added a new NFB National channel. Offerings on the NFB National channel include: the Braille Monitor, Future Reflections, and the Presidential Release. We have improved our Target advertisements, which now include all of the information in Target’s print advertisements. We have also improved our NFB-NEWSLINE app. Enhancements include a new global search feature, improved weather alerts, and streamlined TV listings.
The Department of Advocacy and Policy is also responsible for our public relations efforts. I am proud that public relations and media strategy are effective tools for us; here’s one example: on August 20, 2015, we put out a press release saying that we would protest a meeting of the New York City Department of Education because it planned to enter into a contract with Amazon for the purchase of inaccessible educational content. On August 25, the day before the planned protest, New York City school officials announced that they planned to postpone the vote on the contract [applause]. Coincidence? I don’t think so, and neither did the media. Chris Danielsen, our director of public relations, got a call from the New York Daily News wanting to know what happened. The next day the paper reported that the contract had been delayed due to accessibility issues. Not only did we get the attention of the New York City Public School System; we also got the attention of Amazon. Now Amazon is collaborating with us to make all of its educational content accessible [applause].
People sometimes ask me, “When will the National Federation of the Blind say that its work is done?” I tell them: as soon as every blind child is taught Braille. As soon as every website is accessible. As soon as every blind person is being paid at least the prevailing wage. As soon as every blind college student has full access to their course material. As soon as every blind person has access to a fully accessible voting process. In short, as soon as every blind person has the opportunity to live the lives we want on terms of equality [cheers, applause]. I tell them that each one of us is prepared to work every hour of every day of every year for the rest of our lives. I tell them that we do not approach these objectives as a job, but as a mission, and that this mission is personal [applause]. I tell them that we intend to live the lives we want and that we will never stop advocating, never stop working, never stop protesting until we have achieved these goals for every blind person in America! Let’s build the Federation!
Now we have a really great legislative team who’s now going to go through and give you more detail about some of the great legislative work that is occurring and a lot of the work that we’re doing directly with every single one of you in this room. I want to begin with our director of governmental affairs, here is Parnell Diggs:
Parnell Diggs: Thank you so much for that warm welcome. Mr. President, fellow Federationists, let me begin by thanking you, my Federation family, for the work that you do each day to move our legislative priorities forward. Your advocacy sounds a tone that resonates in the halls of Congress throughout the year. Of course it begins with the Washington Seminar, but it is your vigilance week after week and month after month, long after we depart from the Washington Seminar which drives our work on Capitol Hill. Before I ask Derek and Gabe to discuss our legislative priorities, I want to give you a glimpse of Federation advocacy across the spectrum of federal and state government.
As we gather here in Orlando, for example, the Department of Transportation is considering regulations related to the operation of autonomous vehicles. The Department of Transportation has announced that it wants to reduce the number of traffic fatalities, 94 percent of which—according to recent statistics—are attributable to human error. If the government intends to reduce driving to the mere act of typing in coordinates, shouldn’t blind people be able to drive as well? In April President Riccobono asked me to represent us at a hearing conducted at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Their proponents argued that the proliferation of autonomous vehicles will be wonderful for people with disabilities. If benefiting people with disabilities is going to be a talking point for manufacturers of autonomous vehicle technology, shouldn’t the technology be accessible to blind people as well? We have done more in this space than anyone else in the world, and we intend to remain out front in this dialogue.
Yesterday President Riccobono reported on the development of a new model parental rights bill. Under our new model legislation there are three layers of protection, three procedural safeguards which apply if a court is inclined to deny custody to a blind parent or a prospective blind parent: first a party suggesting that blindness is a factor in the ability to provide appropriate parental care—that party must show by clear and convincing evidence that somehow the blind parent is not fit. But even if that standard for some reason is met, we move to the second layer of protection: the blind parent has the opportunity to seek supportive parenting services such as training at an NFB center [applause] to address any concerns that the court or others may have. And finally, if the court still thinks that the blind parent is unfit, then the judge—and this is the third procedural safeguard—must set forth in writing why the provision of supportive parenting services is not a reasonable accommodation. I want you to learn about those procedural safeguards, I want you to get a copy of that bill off of NFB.org, I want you to get it introduced in your state legislatures across the country, and I want to protect the rights of blind parents all across America on this very day [applause]! And by the way, a shout-out to the state of Maryland and President Sharon Maneki for passing a version of our model legislation. Congratulations guys, I know others will be following soon as well.
I have one final item that I want to talk to you about. We’ve been talking during the course of this convention about our efforts, our organized response, to the recent announcement by the Department of Justice that intends to delay further the release of technical standards about internet access regarding state and local government websites. If you have attempted to acquire a state ID, register to vote, or if you’ve tried to sign up for classes or check grades at a public college or university website, I need you to visit NFB.org. Under the “What’s New” follow the links there right to our easy-to-complete, very accessible web form. I need you to tell us your story, good or bad. It might be a good experience, it might be a bad experience, but we need to show the Department of Justice that we the blind do care! We the blind do care about internet access and engagement in public activities and taking an opportunity to participate in the programs, services, and activities available on those websites. President Obama called it, “the most important updates since the enactment of the ADA itself.” Yet, we’ve waited six years, and the Department of Justice has told us that we need to wait even longer. It is time for us to respond—now. Upload the regs now, upload the regs now, upload the regs now! [applause]
I’m going to introduce my good friend now, who has been working for us as our advocacy and policy analyst at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. He’s going to talk to you about a few legislative issues, and then he in turn will introduce another very good friend of mine, Mr. Gabe Cazares. But for now, ladies and gentlemen, would you give a warm Federation welcome to Mr. Derek Manners.
Derek Manners: Howdy, fellow Federationists. Many of you may not know me, but I want to briefly share with you a little of my life story. When I was in high school, I was placed in a subminimum wage job by my guidance counselor because she thought that I, as a blind person, would not be able to compete with my sighted peers for competitive employment. I was paid $2.25 an hour while my sighted peers were paid $8 an hour. After three months my employer made me the manager and gave me the ability to hire and fire these same people who were making almost four times more than me [applause]. I subsequently graduated high school and recently graduated law school. I will be joining a DC law firm in September, earning a competitive wage with other first-year lawyers. I’m sure this story doesn’t surprise anybody in this room. The National Federation of the Blind has always known that we can compete with our sighted peers and that Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, is based on the same antiquated notion that allowed my first job to directly discriminate against me and has allowed discrimination against many others in this room here today. This is why we’ve been fighting this practice for decades. While we continue to urge Congress to pass the TIME Act [Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment], action is happening across the country. Massachusetts just finished their phase-out of the subminimum wage last month. Maryland signed into law a statewide phase-out similar to that one passed in New Hampshire last year. I believe that we have the momentum on our side, and with your continued engagement we will see this unethical and discriminatory treatment of the nation’s blind end all across the United States [applause].
Speaking of momentum, we’ve got a ton of that in our effort to ensure that all disabled veterans have access to the Space Available Program. For those of you who don’t know, only veterans injured on or after September 23, 1996, can participate in the Space Available Program, which allows qualifying veterans to travel on unused seats on military operated or chartered flights. Our blind veterans who have fought against Hitler, the spread of Communism, and Saddam Hussein’s aggression in the first Gulf War are currently excluded because of a technical error. Because of your tremendous support for our heroes, the House passed section 1046 in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act [NDAA], which would allow all veterans medically discharged due to a disability the ability to have the same honor that only some of those brave men and women have today. The only thing standing in our way for passing this law is Senator John McCain. For some reason he and his staff so far have been unwilling to allow all disabled veterans the benefit they have earned through their tremendous sacrifice. That’s why I’m asking each and every one of you to call Senator John McCain’s office tomorrow when they open up for business from the July 4 holiday. The phone number is (202) 224-2235. Don’t worry, I know most of you aren’t taking notes; that’s okay. We will send out an email tomorrow with this included, but please make this call. We are asking him to include section 1046 of the House NDAA in the final NDAA passed by both chambers so that all disabled veterans can be honored for their sacrifice to keep us free [applause]. Our veterans have our back every day; it’s time for us to return the favor. We, the National Federation of the Blind, will not rest until there is not a single worker with a disability working in a subminimum wage job, and every veteran discharged due to a disability is treated with the same dignity and respect as their fellow veterans. I have more faith than ever that with love, hope, and determination we will transform these dreams into reality. Thank you, Federation family.
Now I would like to introduce my buddy Gabe Cazares.
Gabe Cazares: Howdy, fellow Federationists [cheers]. Now everyone knows where the Texas delegation is. Today being Independence Day, I am reflecting on some of the words the framers of our more perfect union penned in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” As members of the National Federation of the Blind, we understand first-hand the fight for equality, whether that be fighting for an equal educational opportunity or fighting for equal access to the printed word. Last year the national convention passed resolution 2015-02, calling upon the Obama administration and the interagency working group to wrap up its work and transmit the Marrakesh Treaty, along with its ratification and implementing legislation packages, to the Senate with minimal or no changes to existing law. Thanks to hundreds of tweets, emails, and phone calls from you to officials in the administration, the administration did just that in February of 2016 [applause]. Now, as we usually do, the National Federation of the Blind is leading the way to ensure that the United States Senate promptly provides its advice and consent for ratification. By ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty, we will be expanding the availability of accessible published works, both here in the United States as well as around the world. However, our work is not done. I know that no one moves a policy agenda like members of the National Federation of the Blind, so I am confident that we will get the job done.
Equal access to educational opportunities level the playing field for our blind students. Ensuring that institutions of higher education deploy only technology that is inclusive and accessible to all students, including those who are blind, has been a top priority for our organization for a number of years now. And let me tell you, Federation family, having been on the front lines of these discussions for a year now, no one is doing more to protect the rights of blind students than the National Federation of the Blind. We are leaders in this space, and don’t ever allow anyone to tell you otherwise. At last year’s national convention, I told you that the higher education lobby was at the table but they were not hearing us. Now I can tell you that not only are they still at the table, they are hearing us loud and clear [applause]. Approximately two weeks ago we reached an agreement with the higher education lobby as well as other industry groups representing developers and manufacturers of post-secondary electronic instructional materials on legislative language. Congressman Phil Roe from Tennessee’s First Congressional District has agreed to sponsor our Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act [applause].
This victory would not be possible without President Riccobono’s steadfast commitment to digital accessibility, his guidance, his leadership, and his willingness to apply pressure on the higher education group when it was necessary. But he can’t do it all alone, and that is the beauty of our movement: he doesn’t have to. The National Federation of the Blind of Tennessee and its president, James Brown, is also playing an integral role in this process by building and maintaining a relationship with Dr. Roe and his staff and by steadily encouraging the congressman to take the lead on this legislative initiative. The higher education lobby and the representatives of developers and manufacturers are engaged, the bill language is done, the sponsor is lined up, and our bill will be introduced very soon, but there is still more work to be done.
Other groups who have been on the fringes during this process have criticized our work, saying that we gave too much, that we aren’t getting anything in return, and that we should sit quietly and wait for future regulations. And I suppose that’s an easy view to have when you have no skin in the game, when you are not leading in this space, when ensuring blind students’ digital accessibility is not your top priority. But that is not the Federation way. The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines us or our future, and we refuse to sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to do the hard work [applause]. Armed with the stories of the National Association of Blind Students, our experience as blind people, and the power of collective action through our Federation, we are changing the paradigm of digital accessibility for blind students in the United States, and we’re doing it now. Will it be easy? No. Will there be obstacles along the way? Absolutely. But with love, hope, and determination we will transform digital accessibility into reality. Thank you for giving me the privilege of working for our movement. Let’s go build the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you very much [applause].