Braille Monitor                          August/September 2019

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The 2019 Convention Resolutions: A Guidepost on Our Road to Freedom

by Sharon Maneki

Freedom has been an important value in American society since we declared our independence from England in 1776.  We have been singing and writing about freedom throughout our history.  For instance, in 1832, Samuel Francis Smith wrote the song “America.”  We still sing this song today, but it is better known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  The most famous verse of this song reads: 

My country ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died!
Land of the Pilgrim’s pride!
From every mountain side,
Let freedom ring!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote and delivered one of the most famous speeches about freedom on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He delivered this speech entitled “I Have a Dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The last paragraph of this famous speech reads: “…when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

Freedom is equally as important to the blind as it is to the sighted.  Freedom is not something that we merely sing or write about.  Obtaining freedom requires action.  As President Riccobono explained in his 2019 banquet address:

“We the blind, with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and intersectionalities, have chosen to come together to create a choir of freedom. When we say, ‘Let freedom ring,’ we mean let us build the National Federation of the Blind.”

How do we determine the next steps on the road to freedom for the blind?  As we know, the convention is the supreme authority of the Federation. During the convention we establish policies and adjust priorities. Our policies and priorities are reflected in the resolutions adopted by the convention. Each year, President Riccobono appoints a resolutions committee to review all of the resolutions presented by the membership and to determine which resolutions should be considered by the convention.  This large committee of Federation leaders met to debate twenty-one resolutions on July 8.  I was honored to serve as the chairman of the committee and was ably assisted by Patricia Miller, secretary of the committee, who has been part of our national staff for thirty-two years.  Other members of the 2019 committee were:  Pam Allen, Denise Avant, Everette Bacon, Edward Bell, Ron Brown, Amy Buresh, Shawn Callaway, Christina Clift, Norma Crosby, Tim Elder, Chancey Fleet, Deepa Goraya, Ever Lee Hairston, Lynn Heitz, Cathy Jackson, Scott LaBarre, Anil Lewis, Barbara Loos, Jeannie Massay, Dr. Marc Maurer, Cassandra McKinney, Ronza Othman, Thomas Page, Sachin Pavithran, Barbara Pierce, Donald Porterfield, Bennett Prows, Casey Robertson, Amy Ruell, Joe Ruffalo, Tracy Soforenko, Ryan Strunk, Dan Wenzel, Kevan Worley, and Gary Wunder.  On July 10, the convention considered these resolutions and eventually decided to pass all of them. 

In his presidential report, President Riccobono explained “We have prepared our movement for a significant period of growth with the development of the latest strategic plan for the National Federation of the Blind, which we released earlier this year. In order to expand our organizational capacity, our areas of priority include (1) education, rehabilitation, and employment; (2) membership and community building; (3) advocacy; and (4) development. Each of these pillars supports our ultimate goal of freedom for the blind. This new plan will allow us to accurately measure our progress, effectively synthesize the feedback of active members, and strategically utilize our resources—which are not unlimited.” How do the twenty-one resolutions reflect the priorities in our strategic plan and establish a guidepost for our continued progress on the road to freedom for the blind? 

Pillar II of the strategic plan is membership and community building. Objective #4 under this pillar calls for the further development of methods and practices for recruitment of new diverse members from a diverse pool. Resolution 2019-01, regarding diversity, intersectionality, and blindness, promotes this objective. Intersectionality means the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. In this resolution it is resolved that, “the National Federation of the Blind pledge its willingness to partner with advocacy organizations to provide the authentic expertise of the blind and to connect blind members of these advocacy organizations with the resources and expertise of the Federation.” This resolution was sponsored by Ever Lee Hairston, a well-known author and civil rights advocate who serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind.

The convention passed six resolutions concerning the first pillar of our strategic plan: education, rehabilitation, and employment.  Four of these resolutions were about education. Ashley Neybert sponsored resolution 2019-07, regarding the lack of accessibility of the American Chemical Society examinations. Ashley is the vice president of the Science and Engineering Division of the National Federation of the Blind. She intends to obtain a PhD in chemistry. Unfortunately, she had to abandon her studies in the US because of the accessibility issues outlined in this resolution. Ashley will be continuing her studies in Australia. In this resolution we demand that the “American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Education Examinations Institute promptly adopt and post publicly a robust accessibility policy.”

Resolution 2019-17 also deals with access to education, but in this case the culprit is Pearson Education Inc., North American Operations. In this resolution we call upon Pearson to demonstrate a full commitment to accessibility by publicizing its roadmap for addressing the accessibility of its educational products and services and by ensuring that all new products conform with WCAG 2.1 AA prior to their release. This resolution was sponsored by Johna Wright, a senior at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Johna also serves as vice president of the Community Services Division of the NFB and social media coordinator for the National Association of Blind Students (NABS).

Two people proposed resolution 2019-11 concerning equal accessibility for all Learning Ally customers, including the blind. Sheri Koch is the president of the NFB of West Virginia. Trisha Kulkarni is a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Blind Students and the vice president of the California Association of Blind Students. She won a national scholarship in 2018. These proponents explained that one of the problems with the Learning Ally phone app is that you can only move backward through a book—you cannot go forward. Therefore, the resolution reads in part “this organization strongly urge Learning Ally immediately to upgrade its current book-reading software and VOICEtext audio format so that blind patrons have the same access and equivalent ease of use as other print-disabled readers.”

Tactile Graphics fluency is an important skill in education for both children and adults. We will never be able to achieve this fluency unless we have access to this material. Mausam Mehta, a board member of NABS and secretary of the Virginia Association of Blind Students, proposed resolution 2019-15. In this resolution we urge the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to include tactile graphics in the production of all future hardcopy Braille materials and to develop a policy that offers a hardcopy of just the accompanying tactile graphics that BARD users can order.

The convention passed one resolution concerning rehabilitation.  Thanks to the NFB, consumers have informed choice, which means that they can choose their rehabilitation service providers.  In resolution 2019-04 we “call upon all state vocational rehabilitation agencies to review implementation of their informed choice policies with particular reference to selection among comprehensive adjustment to blindness training centers, including documentation of public participation by blind individuals and organizations in those reviews.”  Aaron Espinoza, who was attending his first national convention, sponsored this resolution because he had difficulty getting information to attend an NFB training center. 

The convention passed two resolutions dealing with employment.  Denise Valkema, president of the NFB of Florida, introduced resolution 2019-02.  In this resolution we urge “all entities that continue to exploit workers with disabilities through the payment of subminimum wages immediately to develop and implement models to transition all of their disabled workers to competitive, integrated employment.”

The convention passed a second resolution concerning the subminimum wages problem.  In resolution 2019-06, we call upon the United States Congress quickly to pass H.R. 873 and S. 260, the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act of 2019.  This act will sunset Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act and permanently unlock the doors to competitive integrated employment for people with disabilities.  Anna Forest, a recent graduate of the Louisiana Center for the Blind program who will begin her college studies at Michigan State University this fall, sponsored this resolution.

The convention passed fourteen resolutions concerning the third pillar of our strategic plan, advocacy. This third pillar contains the most categories, so it is appropriate that most of our resolutions fall under advocacy. The vision statement of this pillar states: “The National Federation of the Blind is the leading advocate for all blind Americans in areas such as education, employment, transportation, voting, and civil rights. Blind people, their families, agencies for the blind, corporations, and the government turn to our organization for expert advice on programs, skills building, encouragement, nonvisual access, and technology that level the playing field for blind people.”  As you might expect from this priority, the convention passed resolutions on voting, civil rights, transportation, and accessibility.  

Over the years the convention has adopted many resolutions about voting. This year was no exception. Recently, the Protecting American Votes and Elections (PAVE) Act was introduced in the United States Senate. This act limits the use of ballot-marking devices (BMD) to voters with disabilities.  Since ballots printed from a BMD differ in size and content from hand-marked ballots, the BMD ballots are no longer secret. Lou Ann Blake, deputy director of the Jernigan Institute, proposed resolution 2019-05 to ensure that voters with disabilities have the same right to a secret ballot as voters without disabilities. The resolution further states, “that this organization demand that the Senate amend the PAVE Act to make BMDs the primary method for ballot-marking and provide sufficient funds to state and local governments to purchase the required number of BMDs for use by the majority of voters.” 

The convention passed two resolutions that specifically deal with civil rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a comprehensive civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. To assist us in asserting our rights under the ADA, the law contains a private right of action. A small group of plaintiffs and attorneys do not advance the cause of accessibility, because they file dozens of lawsuits all at once and settle them quickly and confidentially. In some cases the settlements do not evidence any changes to the websites, so the businesses pay money but no good for the blind results. In 2019-09, we urge members of the legal community to act responsibly and to draw up public settlement agreements that outline the specific steps to be taken by an entity to achieve accessibility and the anticipated timeline for those steps to be completed. The resolution also states our continued objection to any federal or state legislation, “that seeks to shift the burden of compliance from the entities to people with disabilities affected by noncompliance.” Tai Tomasi proposed this resolution. Tai is a civil rights lawyer who won national scholarships in 2000 and 2004.  She recently became the program manager for the Alabama Freedom Center for the Blind. 

Christina Clift, president of the NFB of Tennessee, sponsored the second civil rights resolution.  Title II of the ADA prohibits state-administered benefit programs, such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, and workforce development from discrimination against and disparate treatment of people with disabilities and thus mandates the provision of equally effective communication and equal access to services for such persons. In resolution 2019-08, we insist that all state-administered benefit programs live up to their ADA obligations.

The convention passed three resolutions concerning relatively new forms of transportation. Dockless electric scooters disrupt the flow of pedestrian traffic because users leave them in locations that block curb cuts, obstruct sidewalks, and block bus stops and stoops. Resolution 2019-13 reads in part: “that this organization demand that all dockless electric scooter companies place their company name, scooter identification number, and contact information on each scooter in a format accessible and easily detectible by the blind and that these companies develop accessible websites and mobile applications so that blind pedestrians can easily communicate reports of misuse or injury.” Ronza Othman, who serves as both president of the Maryland affiliate and first vice president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers proposed this resolution. She won a national scholarship in 2006.

Domonique Lawless, who serves in the Virginia affiliate as the Richmond chapter president and won national scholarships in 2004 and 2013, sponsored resolution 2019-16. In 2017 the National Federation of the Blind entered into settlement agreements with Uber and Lyft to resolve drivers’ discriminatory treatment against blind travelers with service animals. In resolution 2019-16 we demand that Uber and Lyft vigorously enforce all aspects of these agreements.

Autonomous vehicles will be a tremendous transportation option for blind people when they become fully operational. The convention adopted resolution 2019-18 to send a message to automobile manufacturers and other stakeholders not to overlook or leave the blind behind. The resolution outlines four features that must be included in the design, development, and testing of these vehicles to ensure full accessibility for the blind. Scott Van Gorp, president of the Iowa affiliate, sponsored this resolution. 

The convention passed five resolutions dealing with accessibility. GreatCall is a cell service and medical alert provider whose products are primarily intended for use by seniors. Resolution 2019-03 outlines the accessibility issues with these products. The resolution reads in part “this organization urge GreatCall to provide an accessible activation method, describe the accessibility features of its phones in the Product-Support section of its website, and train customer service staff on all accessibility features.” Elizabeth Wisecarver is very familiar with the need for and problems with accessible phones because she serves as the NFB-NEWSLINE® coordinator for the NFB of Texas. Liz also directs a popular training program for seniors called Silver Bells. She was a great sponsor for this resolution.

Dorothy Griffin, president of the NFB of Georgia, introduced resolution 2019-10, regarding the speedy passage of the Greater Accessibility and Independence through Nonvisual Access Technology (GAIN) Act. Blind people are losing our independence because digital interfaces prevent us from operating home appliances, fitness equipment, and medical equipment used in the home.  This act will require the Access Board to create nonvisual access standards for this equipment, the Food and Drug Administration to enforce the nonvisual access standard for medical home use devices, and the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the nonvisual access standards for home appliances and fitness equipment.

Chelsea Page, a teacher of blind students who has been active in the Federation for some time and recently moved to Iowa, sponsored resolution 2019-12.  This resolution calls for social media to give accessibility features more prominence on their platforms and to implement stricter accessibility testing protocols.

When reading Kindle books with a refreshable Braille display, formatting and attribute information such as line breaks, indentation, and page breaks are frequently not conveyed to the reader.  In resolution 2019-19 we “call upon Amazon to design, develop, and implement solutions that will enable Kindle books displayed in Braille to convey formatting and attribute information to blind users.” Elizabeth Rouse, who serves as the vice president of the Iowa Association of Blind Students and won a scholarship in 2018, sponsored this resolution. 

Audio description makes movies and television programs more accessible to blind people.  Everette Bacon is president of the NFB of Utah and a member of the National Board of Directors. He also represents the Federation on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Disability Advisory Committee. Everette proposed resolution 2019-21 to demand that HBO begin airing new original programming with video description. In this resolution we “call upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to explore mandating that video description be provided by HBO and other premium cable services.”

The last two resolutions that I am discussing in this article illustrate how the Federation intends to carry out objective number three of the advocacy pillar or priority. Under this objective the Federation will “increase public support to achieve acceptance, full integration, and equal opportunity of blind people.” In resolution 2019-14 we “urge all parts of the entertainment industry, including directors, producers, casting agencies, and acting schools, to seek authentic representation when casting for blind roles.” When we achieve the goals of this resolution, the public will have a better understanding of the real capabilities of blind people. Maryanne Melley, president of the NFB of Connecticut, sponsored this resolution.

Cody Bair, treasurer of the NFB of Colorado, who also won national scholarships in 2012 and 2013, proposed resolution 2019-20.  Blind Ice Hockey is becoming a popular sport. Unfortunately, athletes who are totally blind are limited to playing only the goaltender position because additional modifications are needed such as locator sounds when the puck stops moving.  A sport for the blind should be fully accessible for all blind players.  A sport that is more accessible to individuals with a greater level of vision perpetuates misconceptions about the capabilities of blind athletes by promoting a hierarchy of sight. In this resolution we “demand that the International Blind Ice Hockey Federation, USA Hockey, and the United States Association of Blind Athletes immediately convene a study group that includes blind ice hockey players and members of the National Federation of the Blind Sports and Recreation Division to explore ways to make the sport of blind ice hockey equally accessible to blind players regardless of their level of vision.” 

As you can see, NFB resolutions provide the next steps in fulfilling our priorities. They truly are a guidepost on the road to freedom for the blind. This article is merely an introductory discussion of the resolutions considered by the 2019 Convention. The complete text of each resolution is reprinted below. Readers should analyze the text of each resolution to understand fully our policy on these subjects.  Let freedom ring through the 2019 resolutions! 

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