by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: We live in a time of significant political change, and each issue we examine confronts us with two questions: Does this affect blind people, and will our advocacy to see that the blind do not lose hard-won victories be perceived as a partisan stance by the organization? President Riccobono gets a number of letters asking these questions, and here he shares a recent one regarding legislation to change our nation’s tax system. Here is the letter he received and his response:
Dear President Riccobono:
Over the past few days I've noticed that the National Federation of the Blind has really been pushing for the legislature to keep the tax deduction that is granted to all blind individuals, and I'm curious as to why this is. It seems to me that allowing us to pay fewer taxes just because we cannot see goes against NFB philosophy, just as cutting in line at amusement parks and pre-boarding airplanes goes against our values. Giving blind people a tax deduction seems to imply that we are not as capable of working as our sighted peers and thus require special treatment. We don't want to be seen as entitled just because of our disability, and this tax deduction seems to do just that.
I understand that blind people can incur expenses that our sighted peers do not, such as screen readers and other assistive technology. But I can't help feeling that when blind people purchase these types of items, they should receive a tax credit, just as people do when they buy an extremely expensive vehicle. I feel that if we manage to pass the law granting tax credits for the purchase of assistive technology, this blanket tax deduction would be rendered obsolete.
All that said, I don't know much about how and why this tax deduction for blind people was implemented. There could very well be information I don't currently have that completely justifies this. I thought it would be prudent to email an expert before deciding whether or not to start lobbying my legislators. Thank you for your time and consideration in reading this message.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful message.
You have made a very reasonable observation: "It seems to me that allowing us to pay fewer taxes just because we cannot see goes against NFB philosophy, just as cutting in line at amusement parks and pre-boarding airplanes goes against our values. Giving blind people a tax deduction seems to imply that we are not as capable of working as our sighted peers and thus require special treatment. We don't want to be seen as entitled just because of our disability, and this tax deduction seems to do just that."
I agree with you completely about our own sense of entitlement and being viewed as less capable especially in the work context. We also have to balance that against whether we have equality of opportunity in society and whether we need certain supports to compete on terms of equality. You compare the increased standard deduction to cutting a line or pre-boarding an airplane, and I think this is not a fair comparison. Blindness does not prevent a blind person from following a crowded line or walking effectively down a jetway and boarding a plane. Yet, when I go to a store to buy products, I do not have equal access to the labels on the food boxes or the tags on the clothing. When I go to inquire about a job, I often do not have equal access to the application, and I rarely have equal access to the job listings themselves. My examples are instances where society is built in a way that it prevents equal access by those who do not use vision as a primary method of gathering information. Weighing whether we need some additional advantage to compensate for those inequalities is a question worth examining regularly. I believe that there are still enough artificial barriers that we need to give blind people methods of overcoming those obstacles in order to compete on terms of equality.
If that argument is not enough, let us examine the current politics. Even if you believe that we have enough advantage, that we have all the equality we need, Congress decided to eliminate the increased standardized deduction, and blind people were not consulted. Since when does Congress get to speak for us without us? As you know we offered the Access Technology Affordability Act earlier this year knowing that Congress would be discussing taxes. The ATAA was built on the idea that the increased standardized deduction was in place. These are different means of providing a basic level of support to overcome the artificial barriers so blind people have a fair shot at competing in the marketplace. The ATAA is a limited measure that will benefit blind people making little or no money when they spend their own dollars to purchase technologies. The increased standard deduction that the U.S. House of Representatives proposes eliminating helps blind tax payers get a little bit of benefit to overcome all of the other inequalities we face. Most importantly, both of these tax provisions, even added together, are a very small slice of the overall tax picture in the United States. We should not support throwing something out until we absolutely need to do so. It is much harder to get something new than it is to keep something we have. Since the ATAA has not yet passed, we also do not know how effective it will be in helping blind people move to a stronger position in society.
We also must think of this not as a specific element in isolation. We should think of the proposal to eliminate this benefit in the context of other proposals being considered in Congress. Most significantly, proposals to water down the Americans with Disabilities Act and weaken the civil rights protections we have gained. Should we accept elimination of a benefit meant to compensate for the lack of equal access in society at the same time that some are saying we have pushed too far with our movement for equality? One proposal feeds into the other. If we make the argument that, in fact, society has advanced enough that we do not require some additional support to overcome those artificial barriers, we may actually find ourselves in a worse place once the entire wave of disability elimination proposals washes away.
My friend, you have raised a very important question and, in principle, I agree with you about the disconnect with our philosophy. We must always keep in mind that our philosophy has to operate in the world where we are today and with a diversity of people. Many blind people do not need the increased standard deduction because they have achieved a level of success that overcomes the benefit that the deduction provides. However, many blind people are not even close. Our challenge is to continue to raise expectations every day but not be so idealistic that we hold ourselves back in the process. That is the challenge that you and I must continue to meet together in the coming decades of the Federation. I appreciate that we have you to ask these thoughtful questions. I hope that my response has provided some better context for the conversation. If not, I anticipate more questions from you.
In closing, let me say that the National Federation of the Blind is always free to make up its mind. If you think our policy is wrong, you can work with your Federation colleagues to get the organization to adopt a different position.
Thank you for all you do.