Braille Monitor                         August/September 2020

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Interview with Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi

MARK RICCOBONO: I am proud to welcome to our stage today the fifty-second Speaker of the House of Representatives and the first woman to ever serve in that position. For thirty-one years, Speaker Pelosi has represented San Francisco, California's 12th district in Congress. She has a tremendous record of accomplishment as an elected official that we really just don't have adequate time to cover here today because we want to hear from her directly. I do want to note that she comes from a very strong family tradition of public service. Her late father served as mayor right here in Baltimore for twelve years after representing the city for five terms in Congress. Her brother also served as mayor in Baltimore.

It's my great honor to introduce to the largest convention of the National Federation of the Blind ever, Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Madam Speaker, it's great to be with you. To begin, can you please tell us, you have a flag pin with the phrase "one country, one destiny." Could you tell us a little bit about the history of that phrase and its meaning today?

NANCY PELOSI: Thank you very much, Mark, Mr. President. It's an honor to be with the National Federation of the Blind, a force for good, working to ensure that all can live the life you want.
Thank you for your beautiful message about connecting and protecting. Thank you for your kind introduction. It's a joy to be with Tim Elder, president of the National Federation of the Blind of California, born and raised in Baltimore, now representing San Francisco. And Frank Griffy, my dear friend who is a friend—I don't see him that he doesn't talk about the National Federation of the Blind. I'm honored to be with you.

Yes, I do wear this pin. And it says "one country, one destiny." That's what we all have to think in terms of. How we are a nation of people together, "from many, one." From many, one—E pluribus unum. Now this message, “one country, one destiny”—those very words were sewn into the jacket, the overcoat that Abraham Lincoln wore. And, of course, he had it that sad fateful night. So his message that was close to him, close to his heart at the end of his life and part of who he was his entire life, is a message that we should always remember: that we are one country, and we have one destiny. And we have to go down that path together.

Especially true now as we face the COVID-19 crisis and other injustices to race and health and environment and financial security. We must keep remembering, one country, one destiny. As policymakers, if we keep that as the focus, we'll do better. That means we must put aside bias, act on facts, starting right now with the HEROES Act [Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions] that has so much in it for everyone in our country, the George Floyd Justice Act in Policing, and so many other pieces of legislation of inclusion. One country, one destiny.

MARK RICCOBONO: Nice. I love the message, and I think it rings with the beliefs of the National Federation of the Blind. Another belief of our organization is that it's critical that blind people have equal access to the full set of options that all other voters have. The vote should be private, independent, and include a means of verifying voting choices once selected. We do appreciate the voting provisions that are included in the HEROES Act. I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about your priorities for including equal access provisions in future legislation that might be considered regarding voting.

NANCY PELOSI: Well, I thank you. We have learned so much from you over the years about accessibility to the ballot in a fair and private way, so thank you to the National Federation of the Blind for your guidance, your relentless and persistent advocacy, which has made everything better, but we still need to do more.

COVID-19 has pointed out how critical it is that every voter has options for how to cast a ballot in a safe and accessible manner. Voters should not have to choose between their health and their vote. That's why we included in the HEROES Act $3.6 billion specifically to help states prepare for the upcoming election. States must be ready to ensure that not only in-person voting options are safe and accessible for voters and poll workers but must implement vote by mail. The HEROES Act included a minimum of fifteen days. We think if you have more time, that is better for everybody, certainly for those who may be new to a particular polling place and have issues with the vote.
So in-person voting. The HEROES Act includes a minimum of fifteen days of early voting as well as nationwide no-excuse absentee ballot. In other words, you don't have to say, I can't vote, come in, so I need a ballot because...No. If you qualify to vote and are a registered voter, you should be able to vote, as well as use no-excuse prepaid, so postage free, so that the ballot can be returned. We want to support all of the above approaches, a ballot that works for every voter no matter how they cast their ballot.

Now, other ways more generally that can be helpful, and that we look to you for guidance on this, is something that I know we share in common is our support for the Access Technology Affordability Act in the next COVID-19 relief program. That's something that we all want to have. We have resistance by some—and I won't be political, but some in the Congress have resisted inclusion of individual refundable credits in relief packages to date; however, we intend to push hard for inclusion in the final package. If they do show willingness to include refundable credits, ATAA is a strong candidate for inclusion.

Now, I answered—I went to two places on that. But the accessible electronic options that might be there for you in Pennsylvania, I know were a step forward but not good enough. And I commend you for the actions that you have taken, that you're taking all over the country in different states, challenges that need to be in the state legislatures. It shouldn't have to be. It should be a national expectation that the right to vote would be respected and that means removing all obstacles of participation. But you have pointed out some very specific ways—some barriers that we all should be fighting against. So I thank you for that. And again, when you make your agreements or compromises leading up to one election, it doesn't mean that becomes the best possible way for the future. It means we're all moving forward together. So I thank you for your leadership—for making America more American by making our voting process more democratic and more accessible.

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Madam Speaker. We appreciate your acknowledgment of the expertise of the Federation, and we stand ready to work with everybody on voting accessibility. It does feel like we're pursuing equal access very aggressively in almost every state right now, so that's where the inclusion of these provisions at the federal level come in—we hope they will truly protect us as a fundamental right. And we think that we have a great opportunity to give blind people equal access to the range of voting, so we appreciate your support on that.

I do appreciate you mentioning the Access Technology Affordability Act and your willingness to consider it in future relief for COVID-19. We are pretty proud of this bill, like other legislation that we advance. We recognize that blindness is not a partisan issue, and we're pretty proud of that fact that, despite the reluctance often to have refundable tax credits, ATAA by itself has great bipartisan support, significant bipartisan support, and we appreciate your supporting it as well.

NANCY PELOSI: It has bipartisan support because of your advocacy. So I thank you for that, because it's good for the country, and it's good for you. But it also gives us a better chance of passing it. Richie Neil, the chair of ways and means, and Mike Thompson of the revenue committee, have this as a strong priority. But we want it to be bipartisan. It should be. The refundability issue is necessary, and again, it will happen. We just want it to happen sooner.

MARK RICCOBONO: We agree with that 100 percent. The sooner the better. We appreciate the support. Could you talk to us just a minute more broadly about equal access and your support for protecting the rights of blind people? You know, we believe in the National Federation of the Blind that blindness should not define a person or their future in that what really stands between blind people and our dreams are the low expectations and artificial barriers that others put in our way. We see a lot of significant opportunities for the Congress to protect our rights, especially by making sure that we're not introducing and passing legislation that, for example, puts in place technologies that are not accessible to blind people, which is really one of the things that we face in education—inaccessible technology, which stops us from being able to participate fully. Could you talk a little bit about your support for eliminating the artificial barriers in society?

NANCY PELOSI: Well, I appreciate that question. And in doing so, I thank you for raising the awareness of so many people who might not be aware. Without knowledge, people may be thinking they're going the right direction, but in fact, every new opportunity can be a new challenge for more progress. So know your power in this. Know that good things will not happen without your guidance in all of it.

In terms of my involvement, I was here for the passage of the ADA, the high priority for our office, for me personally, and when I became Speaker, one of the manifestations of that priority was that in the chambers of Congress, if you were physically disabled and couldn't climb the steps, you could not preside as a Speaker of the House. So right around the time of one of the anniversaries of the ADA, when we were going off for like summer or Christmas or something, we had architects come in, change the construction of the podium where the Speaker presides and the clerks record and the rest, so that now a person in a wheelchair can access and then be taken up to preside. It's made a big difference. James Langevin was the first person with a physical disability, challenged in terms of mounting the podium, to preside in over the two-hundred-year history of our country. Then Tammy Duckworth and others have as well.

The idea is that we respect people. We honor people for what they can do rather than judge them for what they cannot. Because cannot is just a physical barrier of some kind. And it challenges us all when we make these changes, especially seeing that they are changes for the positive. And in order for that to happen, you all, the National Federation of the Blind, etc., have to be on the ground floor of that decision making. It's not like, oh, here it is, oh, too bad we didn't know, maybe next time. No. Again, know your power.

In my own office, our chief counsel—and that is a very high position in the Speaker's office—our chief counsel has been there for years when I was Speaker before and still now. And he is hearing impaired. He's deaf, and he has every technology, every opportunity to participate. We don't even think of him as hearing impaired or deaf or whatever the term that he prefers, or that you prefer for him in this conversation. He's remarkable, and he's brilliant, and his brilliance is not deterred by any obstacle in terms of hearing. So we're very, very proud of the fact that he is a senior member of the Speaker's staff and of the Congress of the United States.

But it is amazing that so many things happen because people just don't know. And that's why when you're going around to these states and talking to these secretaries of state and other states to say, “Maybe you didn't realize it, but this is why this is problematic for us.” You make such a tremendous, tremendous difference. You give people a path. You show them the way to do it in a way that removes obstacles of participation.

As a matter of fact, in our democracy, whether we're secretary of state, community activist, legislator, or whatever, removing obstacles of participation to voting or to anything is what our country should be about. So thank you for challenging us, but understand how welcome that challenge is.

MARK RICCOBONO: I appreciate that and your support for the Americans with Disabilities Act. You know, our organization—this being just on the doorstep of the thirtieth anniversary—we have really been advancing the notion that the Americans with Disabilities Act has to apply to the digital environment, which of course not too many people were thinking about in 1990. And we appreciate your support for helping make that a reality, not just in the physical facilities but in the digital assets of our nation, which of course are becoming an increasingly important part of our economy and the work that we do.

Before we run out of time, I want to make sure that we give you an opportunity. You know, this is an important election year. All election years are important. But with everything else happening right now, there's a lot of focus on this being a very significant election cycle. As an organization, our job as I've said is to make sure that blindness is considered by everybody regardless of their political background. But I wondered what you would say to blind Americans about the importance of just getting out and participating in the American democracy this fall.

NANCY PELOSI: Well, I appreciate that opportunity. Before I do, Mr. President, though, may I just congratulate you on your upcoming anniversary of the National Federation of the Blind. When you think all the way back to that post World War II era, think of the courage of those people. I mean, you're courageous, right? But think of the courage they had to say, “We're going to make a difference, and we're going to do it by bringing people together, one nation, one destiny, one friend, many friends, bringing people together.” So always recognizing the great work that you're doing, we just have to think of the courage of the people who started all of this and whose shoulders you stand on and the difference they have made over time.

But as you indicated, with technology being in a hurry and moving so quickly, who could have ever anticipated some of the change that could be so rapid. So good for you for being on the ground floor and recognizing that and seeing what opportunities are there and leapfroging over any incremental notion that something could be a little bit better. Just leapfrog over that whole thing. Where you want to be—let's back up from there and make that happen.

So with elections, they have ramifications. And whoever you vote for, Democrat or Republican or whatever, make sure that those people understand that public policy makes a difference in your personal lives. Whether it's how people are educated, how they are employed and how their employment is respected and valued, and how there isn't a difference in terms of unemployment insurance. I was reading some of the examples that you had about unemployment insurance not being fully respected here or there. So you have the need for unemployment insurance.
Look, I'm a Democrat. I want a Democratic president, Senate, and House because we believe in the people. We want to have budgets that members of Congress vote on and presidents acknowledge to be for the people so that their resources are there. Investments in education and challenges that you face bring a bonus back to the American people. It's for the people, not just the people who might be directly involved in terms of the blind, but if the blind are helped, it's for everyone. So again, in my most nonpartisan way, I would say, whoever you vote for, make sure you have their commitment to you, to the opportunity that you present, to the beautiful value that you add to our country.

And remembering that, at any given time, the challenge could affect any one of us. So while we're concerned about everyone in our nation, we want to be sure that we can understand. A friend of mine once had a disability just for a period of time, and he said, “If I hadn't had that disability, I would never have had a full appreciation of what other people go through.” For example, the subject of time. It might take me a shorter period of time to do something than it might take somebody else. I have to recognize that. So whether it's time or transportation or whatever it happens to be, education or employment, advancement, politics—and aren't we excited about the candidate in Washington state running for lieutenant governor there? He said he went from Braille to Yale.

MARK RICCOBONO: We need more blind people to be elected to office.

NANCY PELOSI: That's right! That's right! So again, make sure people know your story, and make sure you know your power. And again, take some responsibility by deciding to run for office yourselves, because, again, being present at the table, as Mr. President, you can tell us, you have been there, Mark. You're a leader. And that leadership is required in your organization, of course, the National Federation of the Blind, but also for our country.

There's nobody like each and every one of you. You bring a unique set of talents and experience and the rest. And that uniqueness and that authenticity is so valued, and at the table of decision making, the diversity that that recognizes is invaluable.

So I'm going to encourage you all to run for office soon but also to vote in this next election and make sure that whoever you vote for cares about what you care about, knows about what the opportunities are, and is willing to make them a priority. God has truly blessed America in so many ways. One country, one destiny. Let's all work to move toward that one way or another—whatever the party, whatever the challenge.

MARK RICCOBONO: Madam Speaker, I really appreciate your words, your support for both the history and the future of the National Federation of the Blind. We want to extend our appreciation to you for the courage that you have, both continuing the tradition in your family for public service, which we know public service takes grit and commitment. You've got to stand and take the incoming fire day after day, which you do. It does take courage. But also the great line of public service that you represent, and we appreciate you trying to pass that forward to our members by encouraging us to go out and be not just part of the voting electorate but of the elected officials to run this nation. So thank you. Thank you for serving also in this time when our nation is facing really unprecedented circumstances. It's not the first time for you. Your first time around you had some pretty unusual things to deal with too. So we appreciate what you're doing and trying to keep our country moving forward. And we look forward to your support for the National Federation of the Blind in the future. God bless you.

NANCY PELOSI: Thank you. God bless you as well.

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