Braille Monitor                          November 2019

(back) (contents) (next)

Expanding Opportunities, Protecting Rights, and Ensuring Accessibility: A Report from the Advocacy and Policy Department

by John Paré and Gabe Cazares

From the Editor: The energy is always high at convention, and this presentation was certainly no exception to that. When introducing the two presenters, President Riccobono noted, “Together they represent the dynamics of what we do in our advocacy space in the National Federation of the Blind. They come from different backgrounds, from different generations, but they share many traits. Chief amongst them that they are tireless, thoughtful, and positive representatives for us in the halls of power in Washington, DC, and they bring those strengths to us in a strategic way. They help me to coordinate the tremendous amount of work that we get done on an annual basis, both with our members and our staff. Their talents and especially the heart that they bring to the work of this organization are critical in helping each and every one of us achieve success in our advocacy work in this organization. Their job is to put the National Federation of the Blind in the right place at the right point in every conversation that we need to be in in Washington, DC, and they’re doing an awesome job.” Here is what John and Gabe had to say:

John ParéJohn Paré: Thank you, President Riccobono. E pluribus unum. As most of you probably know, this Latin phrase was the original motto of the United States. When translated it means “Out of many, one.” The thought behind this phrase was that, through the union of the original thirteen colonies, a single nation was born. Out of many, one. I am in awe when I think about our nation’s founders as they set about this grand experiment in self-government that we know today. I feel that same sense of awe when I stand up here in front of all of you and imagine the unlimited potential of what we might accomplish when we work together.

To further illustrate this point, I’m going to go back even further in time, more than two thousand years to ancient Greece and the storyteller Aesop. One of Aesop’s fables is about a father and his children. The father gives each of his children a twig and asks them to break it. The children are easily able to snap the twigs with their hands. The father then takes a bundle of twigs, ties them together, and asks his children to break the twigs now. Each child tries, but none succeed. The father tells his children, “When you stand alone, you are easily broken. But when you stand together as one, no one can break you.” [applause] The moral behind this story is that union gives strength. When many stand together for a common cause, they become one, and that one is unstoppable. Aesop knew this immutable fact 2,500 years ago; the founders knew it in 1776; and I know it right now as I stand up here before all of you.

It is no coincidence that the written history of the National Federation of the Blind is titled Walking Alone and Marching Together. It is this sense of teamwork that has resulted in our recent legislative successes: here are two examples.

On June 28, 2018, the United States Senate passed the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act. The House passed it on September 25, and it was signed into law on October 9. The Marrakesh Treaty Resolution of Advice and Consent was also passed by the United States Senate on June 28. The treaty ratification paperwork was signed by the president on January 28, 2019, and deposited in Geneva on February 8. Both the law and the treaty were passed by unanimous consent. This is a perfect example of our teamwork. It was all of you working in every state, every county, every city which resulted in the ratification of the first multilateral treaty specifically intended to benefit blind people. [applause]

At last year’s convention I discussed and reported that the House and the Senate had included language in the National Defense Authorization Act to permit veterans with a service-connected permanent disability rated as “total” to participate in the space-available program, but there was a problem. The House and Senate language did not match, and we needed the House to agree to the Senate language. Again our advocacy paid off, and on July 23, the House agreed to the Senate language. The president signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law on August 13. In a congress divided by acrimony and turmoil, our teamwork gets things done. [applause]

Turning to our current work, on March 14, 2019, Senator Boozman of Arkansas and Senator Cardin of Maryland introduced the Access Technology Affordability Act. This legislation would create a $2,000 refundable tax credit for use over a three-year period for the purchase of access technology. The bill currently has fourteen cosponsors including Senator Wyden of Oregon, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. On April 4 Representative Mike Thompson of California, the chair of the House Select Revenue Subcommittee, and Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania introduced identical legislation in the House. The House bill has eighteen cosponsors.

On January 29, 2019, Senator Casey of Pennsylvania introduced the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act. This legislation phases out subminimum wages for workers with disabilities over a six-year period and then sunsets section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. [applause] It also authorizes $300 million in grants to facilitate the transformation from subminimum wages to competitive, integrated employment. The bill currently has seven cosponsors. On January 13, Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington introduced identical legislation in the House. The House bill has fifty cosponsors.

We are working with Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois to introduce the Greater Accessibility and Independence through Nonvisual Technology Act. This bill would establish a minimum nonvisual access standard for home-use medical devices, home appliances, and fitness equipment. [applause]

The National Federation of the Blind continues to promote the development of autonomous vehicles that are fully nonvisually accessible. We have participated in congressional policy briefings, presented at industry summits, and submitted regulatory feedback. We have also pivoted our excellent relationship with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers from the quiet car issue to autonomous vehicles. You will be hearing from Dave Schwietert tomorrow.

Let’s talk a little bit about NFB-NEWSLINE®. As President Riccobono announced, NFB-NEWSLINE now includes the core elements of KNFB Reader. [applause] You can now use NFB-NEWSLINE to read your newspaper, check the weather, look up your favorite television program, find a job, or use it to take a picture of almost any printed text and have it read back to you aloud. NFB-NEWSLINE is available in forty-five states plus the District of Columbia, with Maine scheduled to come online later this fall. It has 125,000 subscribers and more than five hundred publications. On average we receive 5,700 calls per day, and some portion of NEWSLINE is accessed every 1.8 seconds.

The weather portion of the service includes detailed seven-day forecasts, emergency alerts, and other useful information such as air quality and heat index (it’s about 106 right now). [laughter] The TV listings include content from every cable and broadcast provider, specific channel mappings for your cable and satellite provider, and information on video description.

Our job listings include every job listed on CareerBuilder and USAJobs. Note that the iOS app now includes four pages or tabs. The first page is the Highlights page and provides quick access to announcements, your favorites, and the weather. The second page contains links to all of the major content categories. The third page now is KNFB Reader. [applause] The fourth page contains overall app settings.

Late last year NFB-NEWSLINE was released as an Amazon Alexa skill. [applause] You can now access NFB-NEWSLINE hands-free on any of the Alexa family of products. To get started, just say, “Alexa, open National Federation,” and the skill will walk you through the login process.

As you can see, the past year has been incredibly successful for the Federation in terms of our advocacy. You—each of you, every one of you, all of you—you were the key to that success. But there is still much more work left to do. The demand is great, but we are equal to the challenge. It will take all of us working together as a team to achieve that success. When one of you calls your congressional representative, they take a note. When ten of you call, they pay attention. [applause] When a hundred of you call, they realize we mean business. And when all of the members of the National Federation of the Blind call, they understand that we cannot be stopped. They understand that we demand to be recognized. They understand that we demand for our voices to be heard. And they understand that we demand our civil rights. [applause, cheers]

Our many voices together create a single unified voice that rises above the din of partisanship in Washington. Out of many, one. E pluribus unum. Through our union we become stronger, and that strength makes us, the National Federation of the Blind, unstoppable! [applause, cheers]

Alright, turning to our next speaker. So much of what happens is a result of our entire team and our group in Baltimore, and the next gentleman does an incredible job leading that effort. His intelligence, his passion, his in-depth knowledge of education policy, the work he does to help organize and run our Washington Seminar, and most recently his incredibly effective testimony that he delivered to help ensure appropriate funding for the National Library Service, here is the manager of government affairs, Gabe Cazares.

Gabe CazaresGabe Cazares: Howdy, my Federation family. It is a joy to be up here. I tweeted earlier this week that the energy is electrifying. You don’t understand how powerful you are.

In 1857 Frederick Douglass, the escaped Maryland slave turned abolitionist and orator wisely observed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” All of us gathered here in this room know all too well this to be true. Ten years ago an insecure, shy, closeted, Latinx blind kid stumbled upon a ragtag group of folks who called themselves the National Federation of the Blind of Texas. [loud cheering from Texans] Those folks were fiercely independent, committed to one another, and, more importantly, to a larger movement, the National Federation of the Blind. [applause]

Fast forward five years from the initial interaction. Since May 18, 2019, I have had a front-row seat to the steely determination, collective power, and unwavering resolve of my Federation family from across the country. Over the last four years I have witnessed my Federation family spring into action to successfully advance a multilateral treaty many thought was dead, and simultaneously pass its implementing legislation. All of this we did while charging forward to tackle a broad policy agenda from the accessibility of electronic instructional materials in higher education to protecting our right to cast a private and independent ballot. [applause] From protecting the rights of blind parents to our continued push for the elimination of subminimum wages for blind and other workers with disabilities, the depth and breadth of our organization’s policy agenda is the envy of many. And because John Paré, Kimie Eacobacci, Stephanie Flynt, and I are frequently on Capitol Hill wheeling and dealing, many get to thinking that we are the driving force behind our organization’s policy success—and side note, here, we do have an excellent policy team—but boy do I enjoy telling them that they are wrong. Make no mistake: the only reason why John and I are able to stand before you today highlighting the policy successes we have achieved over the last year is due to President Riccobono’s steadfast leadership and your relentless advocacy.

You see, one of the many lessons I have learned from my Federation mentors is that even when the odds are against us, I will still bet on my Federation family every time, because I know my Federation family will always get the job done.

After the famous (or infamous) 2016 presidential election, security and voter protection were thrust front-and-center into our national dialog. Politicians were tripping over themselves to be the first to call for securing the integrity of our electoral process. Over the subsequent two-and-a-half years, politicians and pundits alike have offered their “expert” opinion regarding election security. Often the discussion turns to the method by which ballots are cast. This inevitably leads to their foolproof solution: casting hand-marked paper ballots. When introducing the Protecting American Votes and Elections Act (or PAVE Act for short—DC loves its acronyms—Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said, “The PAVE Act scraps insecure voting machines that are juicy targets for hackers and replaces them with reliably secure, hand-marked paper ballots.” I know I don’t need to point out to this crew the obvious problem with the Senator’s observations, and to be completely honest, I didn’t think I’d have to point out such a glaring discrepancy to congressional staff. These ballots would be so secure that they would deprive blind and other voters with disabilities from our right to cast our ballots privately and independently. We fought this battle during the consideration and passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2001, and we won. We have tasted freedom, and we will not go back. [applause]

Now to Senator Wyden’s credit, and thanks to the work of our Oregon affiliate, the Senator’s staff attended an election security conference which was held at the Jernigan Institute in May of this year. As a follow-up to that conference, we met with Senator Wyden’s staff and proposed major changes to the PAVE Act that balance the need to protect the integrity of our electoral processes and the necessity that we not compromise the privacy and independence of voters with disabilities. We fully expect these changes to be implemented.

Although we may not always agree, when we are invited to the table, we endeavor to negotiate in good faith. But when we are excluded, my Federation family has no problem kicking down the door, pulling up our own chair, and inviting ourselves to the table. Power concedes nothing without a demand. [applause]

For several years now our National Association of Blind Students has been leading the effort to pass our Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act (AIM HIGH). First we were negotiating with the higher education lobby—and I’ve got the higher blood pressure to prove it. Then we were convincing congress to take our bill on. Now we have language, we have congress’s support, and our bill will be reintroduced in the 116th Congress with the goal of having it included in the larger higher education package that is expected to move before this congress adjourns. [applause] And I’ll tell you a secret, just for us in this room and everybody listening to the stream: the lawyers are going to love this. Our bill will be introduced without a safe harbor for institutions of higher education. [applause, cheers]

My Federation family is not afraid of doing the hard work of negotiating, persuading, and mobilizing. I know that with the energy and enthusiasm of our students, we will get AIM HIGH across the finish line. [applause]

Eighty-one years ago congress passed the Wagner-O’Day Act, and in doing so authorized the creation of the Committee for Purchase from People who are Blind. Amended in 1971 as the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act and expanded to include nonprofits employing blind and other people with severe disabilities, the committee was also rebranded as the AbilityOne Commission. While the originally intended goals of the program are noble, the current structure falls short of those ideals by failing to equip workers with the necessary skillsets to compete in the twenty-first century workforce. Not to mention that the AbilityOne Commission’s failure to adequately manage their own financial resources and display an appropriate level of transparency has eroded public confidence in the program.

It’s no secret that the American workforce is changing. Automation has transformed almost every industry. Yet many workers with disabilities employed under the AbilityOne program are assigned repetitive tasks which do nothing to equip them with the skills needed to succeed and advance in the modern workforce. However, the biggest failure in the AbilityOne program is not that it creates artificially inclusive work environments, nor that some of the specialized nonprofits participating in the AbilityOne program pay workers with disabilities subminimum wages, but rather that the founding statute of the program incentivizes the exclusion of blind people from advancing to administrative, supervisory, and managerial positions.

We know that blindness is not the characteristic that defines us or our future. We have come to understand through our participation in the organized blind movement that society’s low expectations are the true obstacle between us and our full potential. Together we will reform the AbilityOne program to reflect the changing workforce, to better prepare blind workers to meet the needs of the twenty-first century, and to ensure that blind employees are employed in all industries at every level, from the private to the public sector. [applause] No more will we settle for artificially integrated workplaces. No more will we allow contracts to prohibit blind people from climbing the ladder of opportunity. No more. Together we will advance the Disability Employment Act, which will allow for-profit as well as nonprofit entities to bid on contracts through a newly created commission. We will ensure that workers with disabilities have the same earning opportunities as their nondisabled colleagues by prohibiting the use of 14(c) certificates and by requiring employers to pay workers with disabilities at least the minimum wage, or, if greater, the prevailing wage. Oh, and by the way, we will protect our blind entrepreneurs by ensuring that the newly reimagined commission honors the Randolph-Sheppard priority for all military dining contracts including cafeterias. No more will we allow the AbilityOne Commission to ignore the Randolph-Sheppard Act and unilaterally threaten the livelihood of our blind merchants. No more. Our bill changes the composition of the commission, restructures the way contracts are awarded, and creates a trust fund to support the organic integration of workers with disabilities into the mainstream workforce.

Revolutionizing this program won’t be easy. In fact some folks have told us that we don’t truly understand what we are attempting to do. My response is simple: you don’t truly understand the members of the National Federation of the Blind. [applause, cheers] We will transform the AbilityOne program, and we won’t rest until the job is done.

My Federation family, I could spend more time telling you more about the countless ways your advocacy, your dedication, and your commitment to our movement continues positively to influence the reputation of our organization in the halls of power. I could talk more about how in January over five hundred of you stormed Capitol Hill bringing our priorities to congress at our Washington Seminar. Or that in May over one hundred blind merchants hiked The Hill to protect and expand employment opportunities under the Randolph-Sheppard Act. I could talk about the great strides we have made over the last twelve months to ensure that no blind parent is ever torn away from her child solely because of the low expectations and ignorance of a social worker. A dozen states have now enshrined permanent protections for blind and other parents with disabilities, with Alabama and Georgia passing such laws.

There is no question in my mind that in the field of blindness, we are the only real game in town. But our policy successes are only possible because we are committed to our movement as well as to one another. Ten years ago the shy, awkward, Latinx blind kid would never have believed that he would be here today celebrating the policy successes of such a powerful movement.

We are changing what it means to be blind through public policy, yes. But through our active participation in the movement we are also showing those who are newly blind as well as those who are losing vision as well as black and brown blind kids, kids who look like me, that we can live the lives we want. “Puedo vivir la vida que yo quiero. Mi ceguera no es que lo me impide.” Blindness is not and will not hold us back. Together with love, hope, and determination, we are and will continue to transform our collective dreams into reality. [applause] So here’s my invitation to you here today: join me, and together let’s go build the National Federation of the Blind.

Media Share

Facebook Share

(back) (contents) (next)