Braille Monitor                          May 2020

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Federationism in the Time of the Coronavirus

by Chris Danielsen

Chris DanielsenFrom the Editor: Chris Danielsen is the director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, but that one line cannot begin to convey who he is, what he does, and how very lucky we are to have him. In the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, Chris has managed to outline almost everything we are doing without making it so detailed that it would be tiring to read and fail in its attempt to give an overview that hints at and gives information as to where more detail can be had.

Everything we are doing, from the live online presidential release with more than eight-hundred participants, to the affiliate activities that combine education, physical fitness workouts, and just a chance for some socialization and sharing among friends demonstrates what family members do to reach out and help other family members. Here is one of the finest articles I have ever been privileged to help in publishing:

Whatever else may yet happen in the year 2020, it has already seen its defining event: the pandemic spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes a respiratory disease imaginatively named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Despite the clinical blandness of its name, this illness is not to be belittled. At this writing there are over 369,000 cases in the United States alone, resulting in over 11,000 deaths, as well as nearly 1.5 million cases worldwide with a death toll of over 76,000. That is why a virus that some originally hoped would be confined to the discreet geographical location where it was identified late last year has upended the lives of virtually everyone in our nation. The way that we all work, learn, and socialize has dramatically changed, with most of us staying in our homes and venturing out as little as possible in order to slow the spread of the virus.

Although the disease is killing only a fraction of the people who get it, many of whom experience only mild cold or flu symptoms if any, that number is nonetheless staggering, as is the number of people who experience symptoms that are serious enough to require hospitalization. Therefore, the vast majority of state governments have ordered increasingly tight restrictions on human activity, shutting down many businesses entirely, while limiting the scope of others and requiring everyone who can to work from home. The order also extends to emptying primary and secondary schools as well as college and university campuses. These orders have devastated our economy, taken investments and retirement plans on a roller-coaster ride, dramatically increased unemployment, overwhelmed our healthcare system, turned grocery shopping into competitive hoarding, and stretched the capacity of broadband internet connections, to name just a few results.

In short, there is not an individual, a business, or an organization that is not affected by this serious and frightening outbreak, and that very much includes the National Federation of the Blind. Fortunately, our movement continues to demonstrate the love, hope, determination, and resilience that have always been a part of who we are and how we operate. With the steady and strong leadership of President Riccobono and our National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors, as well as our affiliate, chapter, and division leaders combined with the efforts of countless members, we have done our part to slow the spread of the disease, rallied to address the unique affects the crisis has on blind people, and found innovative ways to continue our work and grow our movement during this difficult and anxious time.

As the seriousness and scope of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent in mid-March, the National Federation of the Blind quickly took action to do our part in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Although we had originally proposed cautious guidelines for holding traditional meetings as late as March 11, it became clear the next day that our initial measures needed to evolve. On that day, March 12, 2020, Maryland's governor and others across the nation closed schools and issued further restrictions on public gatherings. So, on March 13, the board of directors met and issued a directive that all in-person Federation meetings at the national, affiliate, and local level be immediately canceled or postponed. This includes state conventions, local chapter meetings, division meetings, fundraisers, and other events. Originally planned to be in effect until Easter, this directive was later extended to May 31 or whenever federal, state, and/or local social distancing restrictions are lifted, whichever is later.

The following week, a third of the staff of the NFB Jernigan Institute was shifted to emergency telework, both to accommodate specific health and personal needs and to prepare should further restrictions require our headquarters to be shut down entirely. On March 23, Maryland Governor Larry J. Hogan issued an order that, in President Riccobono's judgment, required us to close the NFB Jernigan Institute at 5 p.m. that day. As mentioned, however, the infrastructure had already been put in place for most staff to work remotely, so, with a few exceptions, the work of the national staff began again the next morning and has continued ever since. As always, this work follows the direction of our national elected leaders and serves the needs of our affiliates, chapters, and members across our movement.

It was clear from the outset that one of the most critical needs during this crisis would be timely and accessible information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Communications staff at the Jernigan Institute quickly put together a list of resources, both from within and outside the Federation. That list is still being updated and is available at www.nfb.org/covid19. NFB-NEWSLINE was also ramped up to meet the emergency. Blind people in all fifty states, DC, and Puerto Rico can access current outbreak statistics and breaking news articles about the pandemic, regardless of whether NFB-NEWSLINE is sponsored in their area.  

While national-level information and breaking news are critical, most decisions in response to the pandemic are being made at the state and local level. Accordingly, affiliates also began immediately developing and distributing their own collections of resources for publication on their websites and disseminating to every blind person they can find. In addition to identifying local and statewide information and resources, our affiliates are directly assisting blind people with critical needs like finding volunteers to drive them to medical appointments or to deliver groceries or prescriptions. Our nationwide network has never been more critical to meeting the needs of blind people, especially those who are vulnerable due to age, underlying health conditions, or physical isolation exacerbated by the limited availability of public transportation and ride-sharing options. Therefore, as previously mentioned, our imperative is to find and help as many blind people as possible, without regard to their membership in the Federation.

Our Utah affiliate developed a list of resources and set up a conference call to discuss strategic action, including the Utah Council of the Blind and others in the effort. The National Federation of the Blind of Colorado worked with the Colorado Center for the Blind to set up a hotline for all blind Coloradans who have questions or need assistance. The Texas affiliate is working with Lions clubs in rural areas of that vast state to recruit volunteers who will help get groceries, medicine, and other critical supplies to blind people who need them. The National Federation of the Blind of Maryland started a coronavirus fund to help unemployed blind people get essential supplies. These are just a few examples of the actions our affiliates are taking to address the needs of blind people across our nation in this time of need.

Our advocacy and policy team is closely monitoring federal legislation that is intended to relieve the economic distress that the pandemic is causing. This legislation will of course benefit blind people in many ways, but it may harm us, intentionally or unintentionally, in others. For example, an early legislative alert called our members to action to stop a Senate proposal that the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) be completely waived during the crisis. As a result of members contacting their senators, the waiver language was watered down to require only a study by the secretary of education to recommend whether any limited waivers should be authorized. We will continue to monitor developments in this area. We are also urging Congress to adopt provisions that will specifically help blind people deal with the setbacks the pandemic is causing. Randolph-Sheppard vendors, for example, will suffer ever-increasing hardship if Congress does not take action to support them, so our National Association of Blind Merchants initiated a letter-writing campaign to ask Congress for an appropriation to support the Randolph-Sheppard program. In addition, we are pushing for the incorporation of our Access Technology Affordability Act into COVID-19 relief legislation so that blind people can acquire the technology they may need in order to work from home or change jobs. We signed on to a cross-disability letter urging healthcare providers to avoid using low expectations and unfounded misconceptions about the lives of people with disabilities in making critical-care decisions. More information about public policy as it affects blind people during the outbreak is available at nfb.org/covid19.

In addition to these nationwide efforts, our affiliates are working closely with state rehabilitation agencies, departments of transportation, health and safety agencies, and the like to ensure that blind people in their jurisdictions have access to the services and supports they need.

Online accessibility is always a primary focus of our activities, but it is especially important during this time of social distancing. Public schools, colleges, and universities have closed their physical facilities and moved to online learning. We know that access to course-management platforms, accessible textbooks, and other materials is uneven to say the very least. To combat this problem, we immediately launched an initiative called #AccessibleNow to identify problems and to urge schools at all levels to be proactive in meeting the needs of blind students. One of the first components of this initiative was a Twitter chat that brought together advocates, teachers, and blind students to discuss ways to improve accessibility and accommodate students during the crisis. An email address, [email protected], has been set up so that blind people can inform us of barriers in education and beyond. Other accessibility issues that blind people are facing include difficulty in applying for unemployment benefits, small-business assistance, and other services that states are offering in order to mitigate the devastating economic effects of mass business closures. State and local COVID-19 response directives and other information may also be inaccessible. The National Federation of the Blind is combatting these problems at all levels.
While COVID-19 brings many challenges, it also presents opportunities to reach out to more blind people. Early in our response efforts, President Riccobono announced that any affiliate that wanted one would be given access to a Zoom Pro account. Zoom is a powerful and popular audio-and-video conferencing service that has been used at the NFB Jernigan Institute for some time now. It is especially useful to our movement because it is highly accessible. Many affiliates and divisions are taking full advantage of Zoom not only for the conduct of virtual NFB business meetings, but also to hold trainings, seminars, philosophy discussions, or just virtual social gatherings.

With coordination and leadership from the NFB Jernigan Institute, a distance education plan has been developed to provide blind children and their parents with home-based activities covering Braille, independent living, STEM subjects, arts and crafts, and more. This will help replace some of the one-on-one instruction that blind children are not receiving from teachers of blind students while schools are closed. The access technology team will offer weekly "accessibility boutiques" to train information technology workers and others on accessibility principles, expanding a program of our Center for Excellence in Nonvisual Access that until now primarily benefited people living and working in the Baltimore area.

All of these activities are open to blind people, parents of blind children, and other interested individuals whether or not they are members. We are intentionally connecting with people we did not know previously and who may never have attended a Federation event due to transportation issues, health concerns, or other factors. It seems highly likely that we will see substantial growth in our organization.

It is often said that a crisis is a time of challenge but also one of hope and opportunity. No doubt, blind people and the National Federation of the Blind will face additional challenges because of COVID-19. In addition to those mentioned above, for example, we will need to be particularly mindful of our financial situation because of the economic contraction that is occurring, and the monetary contributions of those who can make them will be more critical than ever. At the same time, we are expanding our existing capabilities, learning new ways of doing things, and reaching new potential members and partners. As we plan our first-ever virtual convention, all of those processes will continue. There is every reason to believe that, as we have in the past, we will emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient than ever. Let's connect and protect blind people during the time of the coronavirus, and let's go build the Federation.

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