by Mark A. Riccobono
From the Editor: One of my favorite columns in the Braille Monitor when I started reading it in the early seventies was called “From the President’s Mail Basket” and was written by then-president Kenneth Jernigan. In those days there was no President’s Notebook and no monthly Presidential Release, most of President Jernigan’s communication with the membership was done through the United States Postal Service, and these columns in the Braille Monitor spoke clearly to the issues of the day, the concerns of the membership, and the talented man who was responsible for coordinating it all. This article from President Riccobono brings some of the best of what made “From the President’s Mail Basket” special: the interaction with a member, the highlighting of an important issue, and a chance to observe the thinking and the talent of our current president. Here is his article:
We live in a communication rich world. With those rich communication tools—mobile phones, email, social media, etc.—comes a pace of activity that sometimes prevents us from taking the time to tackle the artificial barriers we face. Some of those barriers are a real nuisance when we face them, but the immediate move to the next thing makes stopping and dealing with a problem feel like more work than it is worth. A recent exchange and its outcome prompted me to take a moment to write this article. I believe this situation demonstrates the importance of individual members taking the initiative to raise their voice to activate our vehicle for collective action—the National Federation of the Blind.
As President of the National Federation of the Blind I receive a lot of correspondence—mostly via email but often via telephone. Attempting to deal with them quickly and effectively can be a challenge. Yet I am often surprised by the correspondence that does not make it to me. I try—sometimes successfully and sometimes not—to stay plugged in to social media knowing that many members of the Federation are discussing important topics in those communication channels. One day I came across a tweet from David Bouchard of Oregon. I reached out to David and asked him to send me an email to tell me more about his situation. Here is what he wrote to me on September 24, 2016:
Good afternoon, Mark,
Yesterday, at approximately 5:00 p.m. PST, I went to the Post Office at 101 SW Madison Street in Portland, Oregon, to mail a package for a friend. I purchased a box for the item, and when I asked the attendant behind the counter to assist me with filling out the shipping label, she refused, stating that she was forbidden to fill out customers' shipping labels per a USPS regulation. She asked another customer to assist me. I accepted that assistance to save time, but pressed the issue once my package was shipped. Her supervisor informed me that employees could be fired for filling out the shipping labels and that I would need either the assistance of another customer or a "caregiver." When I asked him if this was a federal regulation, he said that it was. As we both know, this is unacceptable, and I will do whatever it takes to change this outdated policy. I am still trying to find the offending regulation. Please feel free to contact me with any questions by email or at _________.
Regards, David Bouchard
I appreciated David’s email because it demonstrated that he had taken positive steps to solve this problem by himself. He had questioned the policy and pressed the local postal worker for as much detail about the policy as he could get. Furthermore, he was attempting to research whether a regulation of the type described really exists in the federal code. David’s email stands in contrast to those that simply request help from the National Federation of the Blind without demonstrating that the individual has done their part to solve the problem at hand. Often, we can get the most effective outcome when the blind individual has done all that they can to solve the problem before activating the national organization.
I asked Parnell Diggs to research this issue and draft a request to the United States Postal Service to get clarification on this regulation. Below is Mr. Digg’s letter:
October 17, 2016
The Honorable Megan J. Brennan
Postmaster General and Chief Executive Officer
Office of the Postmaster and Chief Executive Officer
United States Postal Service
475 L’Enfant Plaza, SW, Room 10022
Washington, DC 20260
Dear Ms. Brennan:
We received the following inquiry from David Bouchard, a blind gentleman in Portland, Oregon:
“On Friday, September 23, 2016, at approximately 5:00 p.m. PST, I went to the Post Office at 101 SW Madison Street in Portland, Oregon to mail a package for a friend. I purchased a box for the item, and when I asked the attendant behind the counter to assist me with filling out the shipping label, she refused, stating that she was forbidden to fill out customers' shipping labels per a USPS regulation. She asked another customer to assist me. I accepted that assistance to save time, but pressed the issue once my package was shipped. Her supervisor informed me that employees could be fired for filling out the shipping labels, and that I would need either the assistance of another customer or a ‘caregiver.’ When I asked him if this was a federal regulation, he said that it was.”
We would greatly appreciate your kindly providing us with the regulation in question. I have provided my contact information below so that we may further discuss this matter.
Thank you in advance for your assistance, and I look forward to hearing from your office in the near future.
Sincerely, Parnell Diggs, Esq.
After receiving David’s initial email, I mentioned the issue to a number of blind people and a surprising number of them told me they or someone they knew had encountered a similar situation. It got me wondering if blind people are sometimes too quick to brush off unfair treatment based on false information. Is the problem that the small incidents are too easily left behind in our fast-paced society? Is it that we believe some requests are unreasonable—even if they are small—or that we are afraid to question the officials that are directing us? Or is it simply that we face too many barriers in one day, and we can only choose so many to tackle? Whatever the case, I was surprised that the issue was known but had never been tackled in a way that would answer the question once and for all. In order to resolve the matter, I give you the response from the United States Postal Service so that you might use it whenever the question comes up in the future:
November 16, 2016
Mr. Parnell Diggs, Esq.
National Federation of the Blind
200 East Wells Street
Baltimore, MD 21230
Dear Mr. Diggs,
This letter is in response to your recent inquiry to Postmaster General Megan Brennan on behalf of Mr. David Bouchard. The letter described Mr. Bouchard's visit to a Post Office in Portland, Oregon. During the visit Mr. Bouchard asked the window clerk for assistance completing a shipping label and was told "a federal regulation prohibited such assistance." Your letter asked to be provided with the federal regulation in question.
There is no federal regulation prohibiting a postal employee from providing assistance filling out a shipping label for a customer with a disability. To the contrary, it is the Postal Service's policy to offer assistance to customers with disabilities if requested.
Employees are expected to be flexible and responsive in providing such assistance.
I apologize on behalf of the Postal Service for Mr. Bouchard's unsatisfactory customer experience. The Postal Service provides training to employees about serving customers with disabilities. We want all customers to receive great service from Postal Service employees, and it is our responsibility to ensure they get it—everywhere, every day, every time.
Thank you for bringing this problem to our attention.
Samuel J. Schmidt
9350 South 150 East, Suite 800
Sandy, UT 84070-2716
As a follow up, I wrote the email below to David on December 1, 2016:
There you have it, the answer to the question of whether or not the United States Postal Service will assist you with your packages. I encourage all members of the National Federation of the Blind to continue to share with each other the barriers that are encountered and work together to break down those barriers. When an issue comes up locally, be sure to share it with your chapter president and, if appropriate, your affiliate president. If you find that an issue requires the attention of our nationwide network, please be sure to call upon the national President so that we might have an opportunity to evaluate the situation. I can be reached at our national office by telephone at (410) 659-9314 or by email at email@example.com. The more that we take the time to address the artificial barriers we face rather than shaking them off as a nuisance, the faster our pace of progress will be. We might find that in many cases, like this one, a simple letter requesting clarification from the entity involved might give us the answer we seek. Then, we should find a way to share that correspondence with others within our Federation network.
As the motto says, “the mail must go through.” Your letter of September 24 pledged that you would do whatever it takes to change the outdated practices that you experienced at the Post Office on Friday, September 23, 2016. I appreciate that you recognized discriminatory practice and you activated the Federation network to resolve the issue. You could have walked away figuring it was just the way life goes. You could have decided that blind people simply had to give up some privacy to get equal access. You could have decided to never bother with that post office again. You did none of these things, and you did not expect someone else to solve the problem for you, but rather sought assistance on how you could be part of solving the problem. For that I am thankful, and I commend you on your active leadership.
I am sharing with you the response we have secured on your behalf from the United States Postal Service. I believe you will be pleased with the response. I have asked Mr. Parnell Diggs, our director of governmental affairs, to respond to the letter and invite the postal service to work with members of the Federation on their training. I suspect if they accept our offer we might call on you for assistance. Thank you for raising this issue and for helping us secure this useful response.
I am going to publish the letter and details of your case in the Braille Monitor so that others encountering this problem know the truth. The mail must go through, and the blind can expect equal treatment in the post office according to the leaders of the organization. Since your case came to my attention, I have talked with others who have experienced this problem or know people who have, and it appears as though they chose not to challenge the practice. I am glad you pushed a little further. Keep raising expectations.
If you decide to take the response down to your local post office, I will be interested to hear how they react.
Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind