by Gary Wunder
When I was a young lad, there were some things I knew to be solid and certain. My mother was the sweetest, kindest, gentlest woman in the world. My father was the smartest, hardest working, most motivated man in the world. He could walk into a room, and the room was his. People wanted to talk with him, to know what he thought, and if by chance they didn't ask, he let them know anyway.
But the one thing that surprised me was that when it came to government action and policy, Dad would sometimes refer to himself as the little guy or the little man. In no other area of his life did he think or talk about himself as little or helpless or inferior to anyone. When he would listen to the news and they talked about presidents, senators, or congressmen, he would occasionally comment about what they did, but he also made it clear that he had little to no influence over any of it except to complain, and, once in a while, cast his vote for or against them.
What a shock it was to me when I came to this blind group who said they routinely dealt with the House and the Senate at the state and national level. They said these men and women with titles came to their meetings and that the blind also went to visit them. They said that when the blind talked, these officials often listened, and the Federation had this impressive list of accomplishments that had come from their interaction.
To say the least I was impressed and then almost overwhelmed when they asked me to come along and speak with these powerful people. When I did it, they listened, and when some of them knew my name in repeat visits, I was on cloud nine. Almost as good was that my father was impressed and told family and friends about how I went to Washington to talk with people about what blind folks needed, and they actually acted.
For decades, the NFB has been coming to Washington, never deterred by the weather and not even when one house declared it was going on retreat after we had made plans to attend. One year we made it to Capitol Hill when many congressmen and staffers had a hard time getting in because of the snowy weather, and this helped immensely in convincing them of our commitment and how seriously we took our issues. They mentioned our presence for years after, and this was a big plus for a group considered so limited in dealing with their environment.
The Washington Seminar focuses on our trip to the hill, but over the years it has grown to be much more. This year witnessed a job fair sponsored by our committee to encourage employment, and more about it will appear elsewhere in this issue. The National Association of Blind Students has long held what it calls its mid-winter meeting, and recently the trip to Washington has been used for a meeting of state presidents. This, along with a meeting of state legislative directors, has people really pumped when it comes time for the Great Gathering-In meeting. This year it occurred on Monday, February 10. It began promptly at 5 p.m., and this is what President Riccobono said to open the meeting:
Why have we gathered here this evening? President Barack Obama said, "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” President John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
We, the blind of this nation, have come from near and far to take a stand for our future. We have come to stand for equality, opportunity, and security. We have come seeking not to be cared for by our government but to share in the responsibilities of building our nation. The blind have come because for too long we have suffered the injustice of low expectations. We stand together because we are not satisfied with the second-class education we have been offered compared to our sighted peers. We stand together because our independence is threatened by the failure of manufacturers and technology developers to include nonvisual access in their products. We stand together because we represent blind individuals from every state in the nation who seek to be the change needed. In standing together we raise expectations and eliminate the obstacles that hold us back.
We stand together in rejecting the institutionalized systems of discrimination that have existed in the past and often continue to define the present. We stand together with hope for the future. We stand together in solidarity, supporting the conviction that blindness is not the characteristic that defines us or our future. We stand together even in the year when vision is being celebrated by every agency and organization that believes that the future is exclusively defined by eyesight. We stand together for the 2020 view on blindness, one that is defined by our authentic experience, and where we are the change we seek. We stand together knowing that united we can change the world.
To those who say we are unrealistic and should compromise our values, take note: we stand together, and we will not back down!
In 2018 the Office for Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education arbitrarily changed its case processing manual to strip away the protections that we had to make sure that we could file complaints if we faced discrimination in education. The National Federation of the Blind took a stand against the government deciding on its own and without notice to take away our rights, and we invited the NAACP and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates to stand with us. The government does not get to decide when we have rights and when we do not simply because it is not prepared to deal with the barriers that stand between blind people and our dreams.
As a result of our lawsuit, the Department of Education voluntarily returned to some of its previous policies; however, they did so with no guarantee that they would not make changes again in the future. Just a few days ago we announced a settlement agreement with the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. As a part of that settlement agreement, anyone who filed an OCR complaint that was dismissed between March 5, 2018, and November 19, 2018, may appeal the dismissal, thanks to the work of the National Federation of the Blind. The United States Department of Education now knows that we stand together, and we will not back down.
Michelle Clark is an information technology specialist with the United States Department of Agriculture. Ironically, part of her duties include Section 508 coverage for the agency. Michelle faced significant discrimination due to inaccessible workplace technologies. The National Federation of the Blind assisted her in resolving her employment discrimination complaint and in filing a Section 508 complaint against the Department of Agriculture. The evidence that we provided was overwhelming. The department was forced to investigate its adherence to Section 508 and ultimately found against itself. Specifically it found that, in procuring and implementing inaccessible technology, it had violated federal law.
We have also stood with Amy Ruell and Joe Orozco in filing lawsuits against their employers, Beacon Health Options and the FBI respectively, because those institutions have implemented inaccessible workplace technologies that prevent blind people from being fully independent in their jobs. Similarly, we have supported NFB member Maryann Murad in filing a suit against Amazon for implementing inaccessible workplace technology that prevented her from being hired as a virtual customer assistant using Amazon’s platform. We offered to help Amazon fix its platform, but instead they said that maybe Miss Murad should “apply for a more appropriate position.”
We support these blind individuals and others to let all employers know that the future we seek is one in which the technologies do not bar us from full participation. We stand together, and we will not back down.
Similarly, in such an important election year, we face discrimination in voting. Let any elected official who supports unequal access to the American democracy that bars blind people from having a secret, independently verifiable ballot know that we will find a way to organize, and our votes will count against you. On the issue of equal access to voting, we stand together, and we will not back down.
We have come with solutions. We stand with a clear commitment to demonstrate to others the future we believe is possible. Long ago we recognized that the education system was failing our blind children. The limiting effects of low expectations have held generation after generation of blind youth back. We built training centers in Colorado, Louisiana, and Minnesota to cultivate the capacity that America’s education system fails to recognize. But this has not been enough. So, we committed that if they will not teach them, we will teach them ourselves. We started programs in science, technology, engineering, art, and math nearly two decades ago. Now hundreds of blind youth have successfully pursued advanced degrees and careers in the most innovative and cutting edge areas of our American society. Many of those blind people have now come back to teach the next generation in the Federation education program. This commitment was made by blind people standing together for blind people. It was made with love, hope, and determination for the future that we seek to build. For the next generation we stand together, and we will not back down.
We will not back down because our future is on the line. We have come because we want the future to be built on our terms, not on outdated notions of blindness that have held us back. We have come because we have real solutions to offer, and we are prepared to stand together as long as it takes to get those solutions enacted into law and implemented across the nation. We have come because the National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines us or our future. Every day we raise the expectations for the blind because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want, and blindness is not what holds you back.
We stand together with love, hope, and determination. We will not back down because we come to our Washington Seminar to transform dreams into reality. This is the significance of the Washington Seminar. Let’s go build the National Federation of the Blind!
President Riccobono’s theme would be echoed again and again during the Great Gathering-In, and the speaker who followed him used it several times. Bobby Scott is the chairperson of the committee on education and labor, and the remarks he made will appear elsewhere in this issue.
After Congressman Scott’s moving remarks, President Riccobono noted that in the audience were Immediate Past President Dr. Maurer, his wife Patricia, and Mrs. Mary Ellen Jernigan. Their presence was greeted with a warm round of applause.
For a very long time Diane McGeorge was the coordinator of the Washington Seminar, but she announced last year that she was passing the responsibility to Buna Dahal. After welcoming us to the 2020 Washington Seminar, Buna asked us to give a shout-out to Diane, who was no doubt listening on the seminar stream. This we did, and it almost brought the house down. Buna thanked all of the people involved in the logistics that make the Washington Seminar possible. She also said that she had had a talk with the hotel staff and that they would be ready for the onslaught of people who would visit after the Great Gathering-In meeting concluded.
Our director of communications, Stephanie Cascone, made her first appearance at the Washington Seminar in her new capacity, and she took a minute to talk about the importance of chronicling our activities on Twitter and Facebook. She urged us to share with the world those congressman and staffers we had met with but to refrain from announcing endorsements until they are officially confirmed by our advocacy and policy group when they review the list of those who have cosponsored.
Anil Lewis is our executive director of blindness initiatives at the Jernigan Institute. He gave a brief overview of many programs that we sponsor including the Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning Academy, our Spatial Abilities in Blindness Engineering Research (SABER) program that is funded by the National Science Foundation to help us in our work to teach mechanical engineering skills to blind students, Youth Slam in which we bring over two hundred blind students each year for a series of weeklong activities, and the expansion of that program that we will bring to fifteen of our affiliates. We continue to teach people how to create nonvisual access in the programs and websites they design, and as an extension to this, we are going to teach both novices and experts how to design mobile applications that are similarly accessible. Much more detail can be found on the NFB website about the programs, and we are hopeful that an article with more in-depth coverage will be coming for the Braille Monitor.
The National Federation of the Blind wants to recognize innovative programs and the people who create them. For this reason we created the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award, and President Riccobono reminded everyone that we should get in applications before April 15. This is a marvelous opportunity to give significant recognition to those who have made real advancements in work on behalf of the blind.
Rideshare services represent a wonderful opportunity for blind people, but we continue to see discriminatory behavior when it comes to transporting people and their guide dogs. We have a monitoring program in place. This is the last year of the program, but since discrimination still persists, it is urgent that we use the service to report both the good and the bad. Let us take this opportunity to make our voices heard so that we as Federationists can decide what we should do next.
Jeannie Massay is the chairperson of the National Federation of the Blind Membership Committee. She took the microphone to discuss our initiatives to get new members and reminded all of us that if we know blind people who were not members, we should make a special effort to let them know about the programs and activities of the Federation. She also said that we have initiated a quarterly call in which people who are not members can talk with the leadership of the Federation and ask questions that they may have about the organization. More information can be had by writing to [email protected].
John Paré is the Federation’s executive director of advocacy and policy, and it was his turn to address the group. He said that we would be highlighting three issues as we went to Capitol Hill but that we are involved in at least six active issues. They include the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act; legislation on autonomous vehicles; and Sami’s Law, a bill to enhance security when using rideshare services. The three major issues we took to Capitol Hill were outlined by members of the advocacy and policy team. Since the fact sheets will immediately follow this article, we will not attempt to summarize them here.
Dr. Sachin Pavithran is the chairperson of the United States Access Board, and he addressed the gathering. Dr. Pavithran said that many universities tell us that they do not know how to comply with accessibility requirements, but it is clear to him that the technology and techniques definitely exist for them to comply. It is up to us to see that they do, and from his fourteen years attending the Washington Seminar, he believes we will. The executive director of the Access Board has announced his retirement, and President Riccobono suggested that Sachin Pavithran would make a wonderful replacement. The Access Board has never been headed by a blind person, and he opined that, should Dr. Pavithran decide to apply for the position, he thought that the Federation might support him. The room evidenced its agreement with its cheers and applause.
The Dream Makers Circle is a program through which members and non-members alike can make a contribution to the Federation on their death. This support can make a tremendous difference in the lives of blind people in the future, and President Riccobono encouraged those who are interested to contact Patti Chang by writing to [email protected] or by calling her at 410-659-9314, extension 2422.
Scott LaBarre came forward to talk about the Preauthorized Contribution Program. He observed that the changes we want to make in the lives of blind people cannot be done on fumes. Progress will require real fuel in the form of commitment and money. The Preauthorized Contribution Program is an excellent way to see that the organization has the funds it needs to be effective in pushing forward our agenda by allowing members to make reliable and affordable monthly contributions to our organization. Scott asked that we sing the PAC song twice since it is likely that we will be changing the name of the program to avoid the frequent confusion with organizations that make political contributions through what they call PACS.
Terri Rupp of Nevada is the newest member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. She announced that she would be doing a 50-K run to raise $50,000 for the National Federation of the Blind. She urged members to support her run using social media and suggested that there is something beautiful in being able to unite three things she loves: shoes, running, and the Federation. The crowd enthusiastically wished her well in this endeavor and expressed gratitude for her enthusiasm and commitment.
The next to last announcement of the evening was that the National Association of Blind Students would be holding its Capitol Karaoke event immediately following the Great Gathering-In, and all were encouraged to attend either as performers or spectators.
Whether the last event at the Great Gathering-In qualifies as an announcement or not I will leave to the reader. President Riccobono said that the 2021 National Convention will be held from July 6 to July 11. He started to announce the location, but since it was getting close to 7 p.m. he said that announcement would have to wait.
After the Great Gathering-In meeting, some went to caucus and role-play, some went to find dinner, and some went to karaoke.
On Tuesday morning the DC affiliate offered us delicious doughnuts to ensure we would have the energy to take on the rigors of Capitol Hill. Uber, Lyft, and the DC taxis were delighted by the morning rush. The halls of the House and Senate were crowded, but not so crowded that one could not hear the click of dog nails and the tapping of white canes. We had to balance our desire to say hello, brag about our latest meeting, and hear the same from our compatriots against the need to make our next appointments.
After a busy day on Capitol Hill, many of us moved to the Kennedy Caucus Room, one of the most prestigious in the United States Senate, where we participated in the National Federation of the Blind Congressional Reception. The purpose in holding the reception was to bring the 2020 view on blindness to Capitol Hill. The Alliance of Automotive Innovators has been very helpful in sponsoring this event, and Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland helped us secure this beautiful room for the evening.
We have had a number of exceptional congressional receptions, but by far this one was the most exceptional. Fourteen senators and representatives attended, and a number of them made remarks, some of which we will print here.
The first person introduced to speak was Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He is the chief sponsor of the Accessible Technology Affordability Act in the Senate. The senator very generously and courteously acknowledged members of the House of Representatives and other senators from both parties. He went on to say,
There's a lot going on in our country that challenges the values of this great nation. I’m not going to go into all of that, but one thing is clear: this country needs to make sure that every person is treated fairly and equitably here in America and has every opportunity. I want to thank my friend Fred Graefe for always reminding me about the importance of these issues as they relate to those who are visually impaired. We need to make sure we do what’s right, and today technology is out of the financial reach of too many people who are visually impaired. That needs to change in this country, and that’s why I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation. I want to thank Senator Bozeman, my cosponsor of this bill in the United States Senate. This will provide the kind of financial help so you can have the technology you need to be able to do all in your ability to help your families and help this country. Yes, this is about individual empowerment and fairness to the individual. But it’s also about the economic strength of America by using the talents of every person in our country so that our country can perform at the level that we need to for international competition. We need your talent; we need you to help build our country; we need you to help build wealth here in America. I couldn’t be prouder of what you do as individuals and as an organization. You really are carrying out the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, 'Each one of us is here for a purpose. Each one of us can make a difference in someone’s life, but when we join together, we can bring about change.' You are joined together, you are bringing about change, we are on that journey, and we are going to succeed.
Congressman Bob Latta from Ohio was the next member to address us. He is particularly influential in the area of autonomous vehicles and the role that the federal government will play in their regulation and adoption. He thanked President Riccobono for the testimony delivered earlier in the day to the Energy and Commerce Committee. The Congressman’s mother was significantly visually impaired, and she stopped driving when he was sixteen and relied on others to help her with transportation. He is excited about this bill because 37,000 people die on our nation's roads each year, and the overwhelming majority of fatalities are caused by human error. We concentrate on safety in many areas of our lives, and automobile and pedestrian safety should rank high on the list. He noted that it is wonderful when Congress can pass something that not only creates a safer world but also extends such tremendous opportunities to those who need equality in transportation.
Congressman Cathy McMorris Rodgers hails from the state of Washington. She is our lead cosponsor on the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act and is also heavily involved in the issue of autonomous vehicles. She also has a deep commitment to raising expectations and eliminating discrimination for workers with disabilities. Representative McMorris Rodgers began by commending President Riccobono on the testimony he gave earlier in the day. She said that when members of that committee and the rest of Congress saw us walking those halls, there could be no better testimony to our capabilities and the things we need in order to enjoy full equality of opportunity. She said,
I have a son with special needs. He’s in sixth grade, and I often wonder about his future. Where is Cole going to live, where is he going to work, and what kind of future is he going to have? You know, I am super excited about his future right now as I think about the policies you are advancing, not just for the blind but for so many others around driverless cars, around competitive employment, and so many other things. So you being here makes a difference, and I just want to say thanks more than anything for doing that. I am proud to be the Republican lead on the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act. There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come, and this idea has come. You look at the unemployment rate in America and we’re celebrating that the unemployment rate for those with disabilities has come down; however, we need to make sure that as we are moving forward that we are recognizing the ability of each person and seeing them the way they deserve when it comes to their employment. Thanks for being here, thanks for all you do; we're in this together, and we're going to get it done. God bless you.
President Riccobono introduced our next presenter with these words. “He is our lead champion in the House of Representatives for the Accessible Technology Affordability Act. He serves as the chairperson for the Subcommittee on Tax and Policy for the Ways and Means Committee. From the great state of California, here is Congressman Mike Thompson:
Thank you to all of you for coming to Capitol Hill to work on this issue. The bills you have heard about today are so incredibly important, and your being here is going to be the impetus for making sure that they become law. I’ve got to say a special thanks to Ben Cardin who’s carrying this bill in the Senate. I’m so proud that he’s doing that, and I’m so happy he could get this room for all of us tonight. But you know, what I’m most happy about with Ben is that he left the House to run for the Senate because I was able to move up on the dais in the Ways and Means Committee. As a result I am the chairman of the Special Revenues Subcommittee, and I’m able to really work hard for your accessibility legislation. We are going to get this bill passed by the House, passed by the Senate, and signed into law.
Congressman Sanford Bishop addressed the reception and began by thanking all of us for being at our nation’s capitol. He related a story in which a high school friend was always chosen last for the basketball team, and although people liked him, they couldn’t figure out why he could never keep hold of the basketball. When the congressman left to go to college, his mother hired this young man to weed her garden. When she saw that he had not cleaned all the weeds, she asked him why not, and he said that he thought he had. She convinced his mother to take him to an ophthalmologist; he was diagnosed as legally blind, he got services, went to college, and finished Summa Cum Laude. He became a minister and pastored a church for some thirty-five years. The take-away the congressman wished to share with everyone is that ability is not measured by visual impairment if you have the resources, and it has no bearing on your ability to become a fully functioning American. He said,
When we invest in people, people succeed, so I am proud to be a cosponsor of the technology bill. I’m proud to support AbilityOne, and I’m proud to support all of the programs that enhance your position to be able to realize a high quality of life. … I say to my constituents over and over again that it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease and the crying baby that gets the milk. Here at the seat of power, I want you to squeak, I want you to cry, and I want you to let all of the members of the Senate know just how important it is to invest in each and every one of you through the Accessible Technology Affordability Act and all of the resources that will make your life better.
He concluded his remarks with these words:
Isn't it strange
That princes and kings,
And clowns that caper
In sawdust rings,
And common people
Like you and me
Are builders for eternity?
Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass,
A book of rules;
And each must make—
Ere life is flown—
A stumbling block
Or a steppingstone.
I want to thank you, each and every one of you, for not being a stumbling block but for being a steppingstone for a higher, better quality of life for all Americans, particularly those who are blind and have vision impairments.
President Riccobono next introduced Congressman Bill Pascrell of New Jersey. He began by acknowledging all of the distinguished persons who came to the microphone before him and those in the room who would soon come to speak. He observed that if a member of the House or Senate was not on the Accessible Technology Affordability Act, there was something wrong with him. The congressman noted that in 2016 he suffered significant vision loss in one eye as a result of shingles on his head. He said that each and every one of us, no matter who we are, all face problems and that we are all in the same boat. This is why we must help one another.
Congresswoman Alma Adams thanked us for coming to the Capitol and observed that this was where we needed to be because it is here we can meet with the people who hold the purse strings and shape the policies that will influence our lives. “I have always said that sometimes you can’t change policies unless you change policymakers, so if you have to do that, you can go ahead and do it.” The congresswoman has some special insight into the needs of blind people, her sister being blind and having sickle cell anemia. She assisted her sister through school, and this experience helped her recognize some of the difficulties that blind people can face in the world. She supports bills to see that blind people get into the workforce, that once there we are treated as we should be, and that we have the skills and technology to be effective in all walks of life. “You are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing, and as you continue to advocate, you need to make sure that what you need is known to each of us. … You know it doesn’t matter who we are; what matters is what we can become.” Thinking further about the future, she said, “A community can only grow great when old men and old women plant trees under which we know we will never sit. We are serving here in the Congress to plant those trees for those who will come behind us and for those who are here right now. Thank you for what you do, and thank you for your leadership as well.”
Congressman John Sarbanes represents the district in which President Riccobono lives and where the National Federation of the Blind has its headquarters. He is a good friend of the Federation, and he next came to the microphone. He said he is proud to represent the National Federation of the Blind and proud of the advocacy work we do because he believes that all of it is oriented to lifting people up, and when you lift them up, they in turn lift everyone else.
The majority leader of the United States House of Representatives, Congressman Steny Hoyer, was next introduced. The close working relationship we have with him was evidenced by the applause he received as he moved to the microphone. He reminded us that the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and that he was the sponsor of the bill. His only regret is that he believes the bill was misnamed and should have been called the Americans with Abilities Act since the reason for its being is to help all of us focus on the things that we can do. He tells people that the Americans with Disabilities Act was not passed just for people with disabilities but so that this great country could tap all of our talents in making her the best that she can be. In closing he said, "So I want to thank you for your advocacy, notwithstanding that which you can’t do but magnifying what you can do. That’s what we all need to do.”
Before leaving the stage, Congressman Hoyer introduced a friend and a person he has known for a long time. “You now have somebody who has dedicated all her life to educating, lifting up, reaching out, and making lives better in so many roles. She is an extraordinary educator, a former president of the University of Wisconsin, a former president of the University of Miami, a former secretary of the health and human services agency, and now a member of the Congress of the United States. She has spent every day of her adult life advocating for better policies for all of our people. I am so pleased to be her colleague and her friend; ladies and gentlemen, Donna Shalala.”
Congresswoman Shalala said that she spent a long time as secretary of Health and Human Services and that she came back to Washington, DC, in her seventies because she found herself “pissed off.” In her opinion, we have so much more to do. The Americans with Disabilities Act was step one, and Congresswoman Shalala believes that it is our job to figure out what piece of legislation will deal with the problems we face now and in the future will be step two.
President Riccobono next introduced Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. The senator apologized for beginning with bad news but noted that the poverty rate for people with disabilities far exceeds the rate for those who are not disabled. Similarly, the rate of employment of disabled people falls far below the employment rate for people without them. We all know this is unacceptable, and Senator Casey discussed four bills intended to address poverty and unemployment for the disabled. He began by talking about the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act to phase out the payment of subminimum wages and to create good jobs in their place. He supports the Disability Employment Incentive Act to double the existing tax credit for hiring a person with a disability. He similarly favors the Home and Community-Based Services Infrastructure Improvement Act that will provide additional Medicaid funds to states so they can increase the availability of accessible housing, transportation, and funds for creating competitive, integrated employment services. If passed it will also provide funds for increased wages for direct service workers. Lastly, the senator believes we need to grow the ABLE Act [Achieving a Better Life Experience]. “It’s good legislation; we’re glad we got it passed five years ago, but ABLE, as it stands now, isn’t good enough. We’ve got about 56,000 accounts across the country, and we want that number to grow. One of the best ways to grow it is to raise the age from twenty-six to forty-six. That will make millions more people eligible including one million veterans. We want to make sure we do that...I’m giving all the credit to all of you for walking the halls, for making the case to move this agenda forward. God bless you and thank you. Have fun tonight.”
President Riccobono took the opportunity to recognize Dave Schwietert from the Alliance of Auto Innovators. He thanked the alliance for their tremendous support, both of the National Federation of the Blind and the concept that accessibility of autonomous vehicles should be baked in rather than added as an afterthought.
President Riccobono introduced our next guest by saying that the way we got acquainted was by our president being called to the congressman’s office with the complaint that we were holding up action on an important bill. When President Riccobono met with the congressman, the president was pleasantly surprised when Representative Chris Smith said that he understood why we were holding up his bill and that the safety provisions it was intended to provide for users of rideshare services should not be visual. He wanted to know how to change them and expected us to help. We are working with the congressman to ensure that Sami’s Law makes the world a safer place for rideshare users and provides all of the benefits to blind people that will be enjoyed by those who can see.
The congressman began his remarks with a cute story. He was asked to give a keynote address, told to keep it to an hour, and delivered it in an hour and five minutes. At the end of his presentation, a little girl came up and told him that his speech was long and boring. A few minutes later the father of the girl came and said, "I don’t know what you two were talking about, but I just want you to know my little daughter Melissa is four years old, and she just repeats whatever she hears.” He says he now keeps all of his remarks to two minutes.
Representative Smith said that he has been in Congress for forty years and that much of his time and energy have been put into civil rights and disability issues. He introduced Sami’s Law when the mother and father of one of his constituents came to report her brutal murder after getting into a vehicle that was not part of a rideshare service. The goal of Sami’s Law is to ensure that those requesting a rideshare vehicle can verify before closing the door that they are indeed entering the vehicle they ordered. Representative Smith is grateful for our input and believes that the resulting legislation will be far better as a result of our collaboration.
Congressman Steve Stivers was the last lawmaker to address the reception. He said that his goals and our goals are aligned, that he was cosponsoring some of our legislation, and that our shared commitment was to see that blind people could live the lives we want with technology that is accessible to us. He offered as one example his commitment to see that his website was completely accessible and thanked the Federation for its assistance with the project.
In wrapping up the reception, President Riccobono said, "We have friends like these because all of you make the effort to come from your local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind to Washington, DC, to represent our movement. We’ve got some more work to do on the Hill, so enjoy some food, enjoy some drink, and let’s go build the National Federation of the Blind.” With a thank-you to all of the congressmen who came and to the Alliance of Auto Innovators, the reception was adjourned.
There is much that could be said about the events of Wednesday and Thursday, but I think the results of our seminar are best summarized by John Paré when he says:
Thank you for your fantastic work at Washington Seminar. As President Riccobono reported in his weekly notebook, we had a significant increase in all of our cosponsor counts. In the House, the Access Technology Affordability Act went from forty-nine to sixty-three cosponsors. In the Senate it went from fifteen to seventeen cosponsors. The GAIN Act went from four to thirteen cosponsors. Finally, AIM HIGH went from four to twelve cosponsors in the House. This Washington Seminar was one of the most productive in recent history, and you deserve all the credit.
The Federation is built for and run by men and women who have too often been counted out rather than counted on. When work has been needed, we have been told to stand aside. Sometimes we are admired for wanting to help but told we must be realistic about the things we can do and more importantly the things we can't. But more and more because of events like our Washington Seminar we are being welcomed into the workforce and seen as contributors. We are far from our goal of total integration, but we know progress is achieved one step at a time, and the journey is painfully slow for those of us who are traveling it. But, we will not back down, we will not give up, and we will not forsake our brothers and sisters who want and demand a piece of the pie and to share in the American dream. We will make the future we want because our principles are sound, our commitment is unshakable, and our cause is as American as any challenge can be.
As you read about the issues we have taken to Congress, convert your enthusiasm into action. Write, call, visit your members of Congress when they are home, and build the relationships that make real for them the need for the changes we propose. Step up; don't think of yourself as the little man or woman. Exercise your right to be heard and taken seriously, and bring others with you by building this marvelous organization we share.