by Sharon Maneki
From the Editor: Sharon Maneki has been the resolutions chairperson since 1999. The part of the job the public sees is hard enough: publicly chairing a large committee, seeing that everyone who should gets recognized, and on resolutions day reading at least half of the resolutions that come to the floor. But there is so much more to this job that Sharon will never tell you. Resolutions start as ideas, and if they are to go anywhere, they need to be loved and nurtured. So too do the people who submit them. Once they get presented to the committee, it has a number of changes that it may or may not wish to make prior to convention day. This is where Sharon the diplomat steps in.
When the gavel falls on the last convention session, Chairperson Maneki’s work isn’t over. She makes sure that all the changes adopted get put in. Then she sits down to write the article you are about to read, and this is the twenty-first she has written.
Each year the convention resolutions process follows a similar pattern. Yet each year’s experience is unique because of influencing factors. This year there were a variety of influences. What were the influences that made the 2020 resolutions process and content unique?
As usual the Resolutions Committee met on the second day of the convention, which this year was July 15. The committee was large and as is customary consisted of Federation leaders from throughout the country. Once again I was honored to chair the committee and was ably assisted by Patricia Miller, who served as secretary to the committee.
The Resolutions Committee met on a Zoom webinar platform. Since we could not vote by voice, the process was more cumbersome, which made the meeting longer than expected. In true Federation spirit, we persevered and considered twenty-nine resolutions. Joe Miller, Chris Danielsen, Sophia Connell, and Ronza Othman served as Zoom maestros, and their assistance was invaluable.
The convention considered the twenty-nine resolutions later than normal, on the last day of general session, as the convention was shortened by a day due to the use of virtual platforms. The mood of the convention on the last day of general session was more somber than usual because of the death of US Congressman John R. Lewis, a renowned civil rights leader from the 1960s, who had served as the conscience of Congress since 1987. President Riccobono began the July 18 general session by playing Congressman Lewis’s remarks when he joined us at the 2007 Convention in Atlanta. Congressman Lewis was a Federationist at heart. He, too, believed in standing up to make “good trouble” to achieve equality. Jonathan Capehart’s article “John Lewis Practiced What He Preached and We Are a Better Nation for It” from the Washington Post dated July 19, stated the following:
“In my last interview with Lewis last month, I asked him what advice he had for this generation of marchers, who will invariably face setbacks. ‘You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more,’ he said. ‘We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it.’” Good advice indeed!
The afternoon moved quickly as we considered each resolution. Each individual who had enrolled in the voting system in advance was able to cast his or her vote for each resolution by text or phone. This voting system took a little more time than the conventional voice vote that we would have used if we had met in person. However, we enjoyed the fit breaks and listening to Federation folksongs as we waited for everyone to complete their vote. We heard favorites such as “Braille is Beautiful,” “Tap That,” and “Live the Life You Want.”
Members who wished to speak in favor or against a resolution on the convention floor had to sign up in advance due to the virtual nature of the convention. This need for planning did not stifle debate.
Even though we met virtually, the convention exercised its will as the supreme authority by passing only twenty-eight of the twenty-nine resolutions that it considered. The convention killed resolution 2020-19 which criticized media coverage of the problems faced by voters with disabilities. This resolution failed in part because voters felt that it did not contain enough examples of media bias. Maura Loberg, a recent graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind who also serves as president of the Nebraska Association of Blind Students, proposed this resolution.
The virtual nature of the convention did not cause members to shy away from proposing resolutions. Having twenty-nine resolutions for the committee and the convention to consider was not a record, but it definitely was a high number. The last time that we handled twenty-nine resolutions was in 2015. Let us turn to an examination of the factors that influenced the content of our 2020 resolutions.
Since the world is in the middle of a pandemic, it is not surprising that approximately one-third of the resolutions passed by the convention were influenced by COVID-19. While the issues of these resolutions are very familiar to us, they came to the forefront of widespread conversation because of the pandemic.
The convention passed three resolutions concerning education. Schools and colleges closed in March 2020 to prevent the spread of the virus and moved to online learning. It was more important than ever for parents to be able to communicate with teachers. Blind parents need the same opportunity that sighted parents have to be involved in their child’s education. Melissa Riccobono is First Lady of the Federation and is a member of the board of directors of both the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. As a parent of three children, it was most appropriate for her to propose resolution 2020-02. In this resolution, we “demand all companies responsible for the development of parent-school communication apps ensure that their products are accessible to blind parents, teachers, and school administrators.”
Another blind parent, Terri Rupp, who also serves as president of the NFB of Nevada, sponsored resolution 2020-15. Phone apps are being developed to encourage the practice of reading. These apps are especially useful because people had to stay at home during COVID-19. By using these apps, teachers and parents can easily track the reading progress of young children. Children have thousands of books to choose from, and they like using the phone. In resolution 2020-15, “We demand that the creators of educational apps make them fully accessible to ensure all blind students, parents, and teachers can have the ability to read any book available using a Braille display.”
Due to COVID-19-related school building closures, the College Board shifted the administration of its Advanced Placement (AP) tests to a virtual format. The College Board cancelled accommodations for blind students, such as the provisions of hardcopy Braille and tactile graphics. High school students, led by Kaleigh Brendle, sought the help of the NFB to stop this discriminatory action. Kaleigh, a rising high school senior from New Jersey, proposed resolution 2020-17. The resolution reads in part: “…that this organization demand that all high-stakes testing entities, including College Board, implement plans for the provision of hard-copy Braille and tactile graphics for any test administration, in conformance with Title III of the ADA, regardless of whether testing occurs in person or virtually.”
The convention passed three resolutions concerning accessibility that also related to COVID-19. Because of COVID-19 and the need to stay home, more people were using virtual conferencing platforms for work, school, church, and other activities. Justin Young, president of the New York Association of Blind Students, introduced resolution 2020-06. In this resolution we “urge all conferencing vendors to continue to improve nonvisual access to their platforms and to collaborate with the National Federation of the Blind to find new and innovative solutions to barriers that exist now or may arise in the future.”
There were three proponents of resolution 2020-07: Amy Baron, John TeBockhorst, and Jessica Beecham. Amy and John are active members in the Minnesota affiliate. Jessica Beecham will be familiar to Federationists as the leader of the fit breaks that occur during general sessions. Jessica serves as president of the Sports and Recreation Division of the NFB and as first vice president of the Colorado affiliate. She won a national scholarship in 2011. Many fitness facilities have been closed because of COVID-19. This trend has led to the growth of the digital fitness industry. Resolution 2020-07 reads in part: “this organization urges wellness and fitness industry leaders including Weight Watchers, Beachbody, Aaptiv, Fitbit, and others to collaborate with the National Federation of the Blind to make their programs, services, websites, and apps nonvisually accessible, and to work with the National Federation of the Blind regarding customer service training.” The inequity faced by blind persons because of lack of access constitutes a health emergency. In this resolution we also call upon “national health care organizations and advocates, such as the American Medical Association, to join their voices with ours to raise awareness about this unjust healthcare inequity.”
Access to information has always been a problem for blind people. It is more important than ever that we have access to news because of the need to know about changing government regulations and statistics about the spread of COVID-19. As the proponent of resolution 2020-08, Virgil Stinnett, president of the NFB of Hawaii, explained that too many websites provide information by using maps, graphs, and charts with no verbal description of their content. In this resolution, “We call upon the Federal Communications Commission to consider expanding requirements for media access, particularly in the area of broadcast and cable television, with the goal of making news and information more accessible to the blind and deafblind communities.”
Blind people, along with the rest of the public, are facing economic hardships during COVID-19. The convention passed three resolutions to improve economic security for blind persons. Blind individuals who work for the Louisiana Association for the Blind Inc. could not collect unemployment during COVID-19 because state and federal law permits sheltered workshops to exclude wages paid to blind employees in the calculation of unemployment benefits.
Consequently, sighted workers, who performed the same tasks as blind workers, obtained unemployment benefits, but blind workers did not. We were surprised to learn of this loophole in state and federal law. Long-time Federationist Shirley Colbert, who has worked at the Louisiana Association for the Blind for approximately twenty years, sponsored resolution 2020-04. Shirley explained that, despite her many years of service and her ability to function as a laser machine operator for the past six years, she is still considered a client. The resolution reads in part, “that this organization condemn and deplore sheltered workshop employers, such as Louisiana Association for the Blind Inc. and others, who refuse to provide unemployment benefits to blind employees solely on the basis of blindness and call upon these employers to cease and desist this discriminatory practice.” You can be sure that, because of Shirley and other sheltered workshop blind employees, as well as resolution 2020-04, we will work with Congress and state legislatures to repeal these discriminatory wage laws.
Emily Schlenker, president of the South Central Chapter of the NFB of Kansas, proposed resolution 2020-09. To sustain themselves, many blind people are applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits because of COVID-19. If an individual is determined eligible for SSDI, he or she must wait an additional five months before receiving any benefits. SSDI beneficiaries are eligible for Medicare insurance after they have received benefits for twenty-four months. These waiting periods are especially burdensome to beneficiaries during COVID-19. In resolution 2020-09, we urge Congress to temporarily eliminate these waiting periods for eligible SSDI recipients.
As a result of COVID-19, many entrepreneurs in the Randolph-Sheppard program had to close their businesses because many government employees were working from home. Nicky Gacos and Ed Birmingham—president and first vice president of the National Association of Blind Merchants, respectively—sponsored resolution 2020-29. The US House of Representatives included $20,000,000 in a budget bill to provide relief to blind vendors negatively affected by this pandemic. In this resolution the NFB urges the US Senate to provide the same funding in their budget bill.
Resolution 2020-23, sponsored by deputy director of the Jernigan Institute Lou Ann Blake, is the last resolution under what can be classified as COVID-19. In the spring of 2020, more local, state, and federal elections were conducted by using vote-by-mail to protect the health of both poll workers and voters. The US Congress must update the Help America Vote Act to cover all types of elections, not just federal elections, as well as vote-by-mail. Resolution 2020-23 reads in part:
…this organization demands that Congress provide funding to the EAC (Election Assistance Commission) for grants to develop technology that will enable electronically delivered ballots to be returned electronically in a secure manner, that will enable blind voters independently to verify their printed ballots, and to develop technology that will tabulate ballots printed from home or office printers in a manner that preserves the secrecy of the ballot.
Since its inception, the National Federation of the Blind continues to strive to improve programs and services for the blind. We also create new, innovative programs. The convention passed two resolutions offering challenges to agencies serving the blind and six resolutions urging the US Congress to take actions that will improve the lives of blind people.
Longtime Federationist Bryan Bashin is the chief executive officer at the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind. When Bryan addressed the national convention in 2019, his mantra was “Nothing without us.” This captures the spirit of resolution 2020-05, which Bryan sponsored this year. The resolution reads in part, “that this organization calls upon private agencies for the blind to adopt the formal goal of committing to a governing structure with numeric parity between blind and sighted directors and managers, which will ensure partnership with the blind who have dedicated their lives to improvement of blindness services nationally.” By formally adopting a pledge, these private agencies will demonstrate their commitment to involvement by the blind in management, governance, etc.
Resolution 2020-12 was also directed at agencies serving the blind. In this resolution we urge “all providers of services for the blind to incorporate diversity and inclusion principles and policies in their employment practices and service delivery.” Justin Salisbury, a frequent contributor to the Braille Monitor, who serves as second vice president of the National Association of Blind Students and won a national scholarship in 2011, sponsored this resolution.
The lives of blind people will definitely be improved when the US Congress heeds the next six resolutions that the convention passed. The first action we are asking Congress to take is to enact the Access Technology Affordability Act immediately. This legislation is outlined in resolution 2020-01, which “provides a solution that empowers blind people to procure these items for themselves by creating a refundable tax credit in the amount of $2,000 to be used over a three-year period.” Derique Simon won a national scholarship in 2019. He is the president of the South Carolina Association of Blind Students and is a member of the affiliate board of directors. He was the sponsor of this resolution.
Nina Marranca, a college student herself who recently graduated from the Louisiana Center for the Blind and is also the secretary and treasurer of the New York Association of Blind Students, proposed resolution 2020-03. We have worked on the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act for many years. In this resolution we thank the many members of Congress for their leadership in promoting this legislation. In this resolution we also demand that “colleges and universities make accessibility a top priority for their virtual and face-to-face campus communities.” We look forward to the passage of this legislation soon.
Jen Spears, the friendly voice who answers the phone at the Colorado Center for the Blind, described the aggravating problems that too many blind people face when Social Security alleges that they owe money due to overpayments. She sponsored resolution 2020-13. In this resolution, we urge “the United States Congress to amend the Social Security Act to specify that recovery of an overpayment for any month that is more than twelve months in the past is against equity and good conscience and must be waived unless the recipient is at fault in causing the overpayment.”
Seniors losing vision will be cheering when Congress implements resolution 2020-16. In this resolution we urge “Congress to substantially increase funding for the Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind program, so that older individuals who are blind can get the training and technology needed to live with complete independence, social integration, individual productivity, and personal dignity.” Rachel Grider sponsored this resolution. Rachel is president of the Central Valley Chapter of the NFB of California and a member of the Affiliate Board of Directors. She won a National Scholarship in 2012 and also serves as vice president of the California Association of Guide Dog Users and the secretary of the California Organization of Parents of Blind Children.
Long-time Federationist and avid Braille reader James Konechne sponsored resolution 2020-21. Congratulations to James, who, at the time of the convention, was president of the NFB of South Dakota for less than a month! The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled plans to move its headquarters closer to its parent organization, the Library of Congress. This move will definitely improve the visibility of this important program. In resolution 2020-21, we urge Congress to approve the necessary funds so that this move can take place as soon as possible.
Lizzy Mohammad Park is an active Federationist who serves as vice president of the Performing Arts Division. She won a national scholarship in 2014. Lizzy sponsored resolution 2020-27, which commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In this resolution we call upon “Congress and the United States Department of Justice to maintain the integrity and intent of the ADA and to update regulations on a timely basis so that they reflect the manner in which members of the general public live their lives, including in the areas of web accessibility.”
Eliminating barriers to employment is another long-term goal of the Federation. FaShandra Howard, treasurer of the Englewood chapter of the NFB of California, passionately described the need for resolution 2020-11. She previously worked for Amazon at a warehouse in San Bernardino. Amazon chose to terminate her rather than to provide reasonable accommodations to allow her to perform the essential functions of the job. Resolution 2020-11 reads in part, “that this organization hereby condemn and deplore Amazon’s pattern of discrimination against blind employees and job seekers in violation of federal and state law.”
It is not surprising that the convention passed a multitude of resolutions about the effect of the lack of access to various technologies. What is striking about the next eight resolutions that I will discuss is the breadth and variety of accessibility issues described in them. We have raised our expectations with regard to access over the years. We are no longer willing to allow various industries to ignore our needs.
Derrick Day will be a freshman at Westminster High School in Westminster, Maryland, in the fall of 2020. When he was in the seventh grade, he joined a robotics team to compete in the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) challenge competition. The students were to program an autonomous robot to perform certain tasks. The team faced various accessibility issues because neither the programming software nor the interface to the controller were accessible using screen readers. Since Derick and his teammates are members of the National Federation of the Blind, they were not willing to accept these limitations. Derick sponsored resolution 2020-10, which reads in part:
that this organization strongly urge the FIRST LEGO League to engage with the National Federation of the Blind, LEGO MINDSTORMS competition teams having blind persons as members, and others interested in providing an accessible LEGO MINDSTORMS experience to develop and implement full nonvisual accessibility for the LEGO MINDSTORMS programming software, LEGO EV3 Intelligent Brick and all future control brick user interfaces, and any related software or hardware necessary to program and operate LEGO MINDSTORMS robots.
Resolution 2020-18 is another example of our unwillingness to be left behind in access to information. Charles Vanek is a senior director of engineering in the communications industry. He has also been a brokerage and retirement account investor for twenty years. Charles has found frustrations in this field, so he decided to write this resolution. In resolution 2020-18, we demand “that mutual fund, brokerage, and rating services build their online and mobile applications in a manner that allows blind users to access the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services offered to other users with the same privacy, independence, and substantially equivalent ease of use.”
The International Association of Accessibility Professionals [IAAP] offers various exams which lead to certification as web accessibility specialists and other types of certification to help business professionals advance in their career. Darrell Hilliker recently took an IAAP exam which led him to propose resolution 2020-20. IAAP allows sighted people to take tests at testing centers but does not give blind people that option and does not force the testing centers that it contracts with to do the same. In this resolution we demand that IAAP develop robust accessibility policies and procedures that will eliminate the barriers faced by blind people. IAAP must also make sure that all centers that it may contract with follow the same robust accessibility practices. In proposing this resolution, Darrell was continuing his practice of promoting accessibility wherever he can. He is a long-time Federationist, and he and his wife, Allison, publish the Blind Access Journal blog and podcast.
Scott LaBarre, president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers and president of the NFB of Colorado, proposed resolution 2020-24. For many years we have been working with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to implement the Marrakesh treaty. The purpose of this treaty is to provide greater access to published works for print-disabled individuals. In resolution 2020-24, we urge WIPO to continue to rapidly expand its Global Book Service and to establish one global search site so that blind persons here and throughout the world can quickly and efficiently search for accessible titles and download them directly and immediately.
Cricket Bidleman and Paul Sandoval brought a very interesting resolution to the committee and convention. Cricket is president of the California Association of Blind Students, and she won a national scholarship in 2017. Paul is a technology trainer and is the president of the Wild West Chapter of the NFB of Colorado. The gist of resolution 2020-26 is to make sure that the accessibility needs of blind citizens are incorporated when building the structures and services in smart cities. A smart city “uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to collect data from citizens, devices, buildings, and assets to improve city services and the lives of the citizens and businesses that inhabit the city.”
Curtis Willoughby is a licensed ham radio operator. He helped to start the NFB Amateur Radio Division and served as its president for approximately twenty years. The American Radio Relay League is the preeminent organization of amateur radio operators in the US. Resolution 2020-28, which Curtis sponsored, reads in part, “that this organization demand that the American Radio Relay League immediately adopt policies and procedures to ensure that all present and future digital content be published in an accessible format on all of its platforms.”
The last three resolutions that I will discuss in this article deal with audio description. The energetic new president of the NFB of North Dakota, Jesse Shirek, sponsored resolution 2020-14. In this resolution, we demand that “YouTube develop the capability for producers to upload videos with incorporated audio description tracks that can be independently activated by the user if desired, eliminating the need for producers who wish to include AD for blind viewers to upload two separate versions of their content.”
As the sponsors of resolution 2020-22, Kelly Cussack and Samantha Flax described the wonderful experiences they have had because of the policies that Netflix has of making its films and other digital content available with audio description. Kelly is a recent graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind and will be on her way to college this fall. Samantha is president of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students and is the social media coordinator for the Minnesota affiliate. In this resolution, we commend Netflix for its extraordinary commitment to “full and equal access to its programming and services for its blind customers.”
By contrast, in resolution 2020-25, we strongly admonish HBO for its failure to provide audio-described content for its blind customers. HBO offers content from other companies but does not even bother to use their existing audio description! Last year President Riccobono wrote a letter to HBO and enclosed a resolution about its audio description failures, but HBO never responded. Jordan Moon, first vice president of the NFB of Arizona, sponsored this resolution. He lamented that, as a blind person, he pays the same subscription price that persons without disabilities pay but receives an inferior service.
As you can see, the 2020 resolutions were varied and timely. Having a virtual convention did not stifle debate, and everyone was able to cast their vote on each resolution. The influences of COVID-19, core Federation goals, and technology shaped the content of the resolutions this year. This article is merely an introductory discussion of the resolutions considered by the 2020 Convention. The complete text of each resolution is reprinted below. Readers should analyze the text of each resolution to fully understand our policies on these subjects. These resolutions will affect our activities for the coming year and beyond.