Braille Monitor                  August/September 2021

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Interview with Senator Tammy Duckworth

by Mark Riccobono

Senator Tammy DuckworthFrom the Editor: Senator Duckworth is from Illinois, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, and sustained life altering injuries while there. She was unable to appear in the timeslot provided on the agenda, so this interview was prerecorded. Here is the question-and-answer session she and President Riccobono enjoyed: 

President Riccobono: Well Senator Duckworth, thank you very much for joining the National Federation of the Blind convention.

Senator Duckworth: It's so good to be here; thank you.

President Riccobono: I appreciate the opportunity to ask you some questions. I know your time is limited, so I'm going to jump right in. You have many important characteristics that you bring to the table in your capacity as a member of the United States Senate. Yet you are the only United States Senator with a visible, physical disability. Can you talk to us a little bit about how that informs your work and how it impacts the way that your colleagues perceive you as a member of the Senate?

Senator Duckworth: Well, thank you. Yes, because I am a wheelchair user, it's very clear that there is one of these senators who is not like the others. I'm the one senator that's visibly not like the other ninety-nine. I don't think it has changed how my colleagues perceive me in the Senate, but once you make it into the Senate, everybody knows the tough road it took to get here.

But it is interesting in that I've had to spend a lot of time, ever since I was elected to the House of Representatives, educating my colleagues because they do so many things here just because that's how we've always done them. I remember the first day that I was in the House of Representatives, and we had the freshmen members' orientation. They picked the restaurant, and they picked a restaurant with a second floor, and they held it in the private room because that's where they've always held the freshman orientation. But there's no elevator to get there. So, once I got there, it's like, okay, how do I get in there? Nobody had ever even thought about it, which is crazy because we spent a lot of time educating everybody that, hey, I'm going to have these needs. They would hold things in townhouses. Washington DC has lots of townhouses where you have to walk up stairs to get to them. So a lot of it is just a process of educating people and saying that, if you invite me to go someplace and I get there and it's not accessible, I'm leaving; I'm not crawling upstairs for you, even though I could do it. I have figured out that actually gives me a bigger voice on issues of disability because I can demonstrate that I know the issues, and this isn't just anecdotal. I think it actually gives me more weight in many ways in my arguments and in my conversations with my colleagues. In some ways it's actually an advantage.

But I tell you that they're often astonished by the challenges I face just to come to work every single day. One of the things that we do that is an important part of our job is we senators represent the United States overseas. Recently I was going on a trip to South Korea, and one of my Republican colleagues was going with us. "Why don't we just go in mil-air? It's so much easier, Tammy; you don't have to go through all of the other immigration and all of that. You can just go from one military base to another."

I looked at him and said, "It's because mil-air is not wheelchair accessible," and it never occurred to him. "I can't use the bathroom on the mil-air, so if you want to put me on a flight for nine hours, and I can't use the bathroom, I'm not going."

President Riccobono: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Senator Duckworth: People don't even understand the challenges that someone who has a disability faces just to get up and get out the door of your house to go to work.

President Riccobono: It's so powerful that you're there to do that, and it's even more powerful that you have to do the same thing that, well, all of us have to do on a daily basis as people with disabilities. So thank you for being there to do that extra lift there in the Senate.

Speaking to your authenticity on issues, we noticed that on March 2nd you introduced a resolution along with Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton to make the Prologue Room at the FDR memorial accessible, including proper tactile Braille there. This is certainly a work of yours that we very much appreciate. Can you tell us a little bit more about your work to make sure that the memorial is fully accessible?

Senator Duckworth: Oh, absolutely. Well, first of all, the FDR Memorial is a good start, but we can't stop there, right? The national parks belong to all of the American people. Whether or not you walk, use a wheelchair, read Braille, or listen, or—you know it doesn't matter—they belong to all of us, so they must be accessible to all of us. Our national parks need to be accessible to everyone.

But I did think it was important to acknowledge the important role that the disability community played in ensuring that future generations knew about FDR and that he led the United States during the Great Depression and World War II while dealing with his own disability. There's still a lot of issues with that memorial, including the lack of legible Braille, and I will continue to press every administration, including the current one, on how they are addressing this issue, because they know it's a problem. The National Park Service knows this is a problem. I also plan on working with the National Park Service on making all of its monuments and all of its parks accessible. This includes its websites, for crying out loud. I mean this is 2021. It's not like we just invented the web. By the way, it's thirty years since the passage of the ADA; come on, people.

President Riccobono: Yeah, well we agree with you 100 percent in the National Federation of the Blind and on websites and mobile applications. Of course, they're needed in so many areas, not just national parks, but education, employment, travel, healthcare, and in so many other areas as you pointed out. We already know that the vast majority of these sites include accessibility barriers, certainly for people who are blind. As you've already demonstrated, this is an issue that you take seriously and that you've been working on pushing improvements in. Can you talk to us a little bit about your interest and work to promote increased web accessibility?

Senator Duckworth: Oh, absolutely. Well part of this is because of my own experience. When I was first wounded and recovering at Walter Reed, I couldn't use my arms. I had to go through a lot of therapy in order to use my left hand, and we weren't sure that I was going to get to save my right arm. Eventually we did. I was in limb salvage for a number of years, and I'm always under threat of losing my arm due to infection, persistent infection. I say that because early on at Walter Reed I had to learn to use assistive devices to use web pages. I had to learn to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and I just found that, even as someone with sight but not able to type and use my hands at the time, I found webpages incredibly difficult to navigate. You know it's been eleven years since the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking came out regarding web accessibility under Title II and Title III of the ADA, and there's still no regulation. I know government can move slowly, but this is ridiculous. Given how much Americans rely on the internet and on mobile apps, addressing this issue now is critical to ensuring equal access under the law for people with disabilities. It's that simple!

I will tell you that before her confirmation I did meet with Kristen Clarke, who now heads up the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, and at that meeting I asked her for her commitment not only to hire a deputy assistant attorney general focused on disability rights but also her commitment that DOJ will prioritize its efforts to issue these very important regulations. We can legislate this as well; we can write the laws and pass them here, but it also makes sense to lean on the administration to do the right thing, because they can do it; they just have to push to do it.

President Riccobono: Yeah, absolutely. We agree with you completely. What can blind Americans do to help with this problem and make this change move in government?

Senator Duckworth: Well, several things: just making sure your voices are heard, talking to your legislators, and you know even those who are friendly like myself—I would love to get your letters, your phone calls on my answering machine—we still even accept faxes, emails, all of that—we need to hear from you. Everyone needs to hear from you so that your congress people, your senators know that, Oh my Gosh, this is a really important issue. You can go to the White House and start a White House petition. If you get enough signatures on that, they have to deal with it; they have to respond to it. I'll have to check, but I think it's 100,000 signatures? But you need to make your voices heard, because then I can go onto the floor and say "You know what? I've heard from five thousand people in this last month alone on the fact that we still need to have a rulemaking on accessibility for web pages." Keep exercising your rights as an American and holding those of us who are elected accountable. Reach out to us, talk to us, even the ones who are friendly, because then I can go and say, "Hey, I've got five thousand letters on this, and I'm going to continue to push this because this is important to my constituents.”

President Riccobono: I love the contrast of getting five thousand faxes about web accessibility. So let's flood the Duckworth fax machine on web accessibility, but, of course, all the other members of Congress as well.

Switching gears, both the National Council on Disability and the United States Commission for Civil Rights have recommended that subminimum wages for people with disabilities be phased out of law in the United States. Obviously, we in the National Federation of the Blind believe that low expectations are one of the biggest problems we face. You've already talked a little bit about how you have been conquering low expectations in your political career. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that, and then tell us if you support the phase out and elimination of Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act?

Senator Duckworth: Yes, I do. In short, the subminimum wage has got to go. Especially in 2021 it is outdated, and it is unjust, plain and simple. There are lots of examples where people with disabilities, working in competitive and integrated employment settings, are doing so in a successful way and in a profitable way for those companies; so it can be done.

I'll give you an example. Chicago Lighthouse Industries, which is an associated agency of the National Industries for the Blind—they pay fair wages. There are no problems there. We must guarantee that people with disabilities can access employment opportunities that will provide them full and fair compensation for their hard work. We don't need to create a second class of citizens! That's why I did cosponsor Senator Casey's Transformation to Competitive Employment Act last Congress, and I am a proud cosponsor of the current Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal minimum wage for individuals with disabilities in early phases and help 14(c) participating employers and employees transition out of the subminimum wage program. It's wrong, we need to get rid of it, and it's long past time that we did so.

President Riccobono: Thank you very much. We of course agree with you. I think your stance on this is one that sings with the blind of America, and we appreciate your leadership in pushing these bills forward.

I know we have only a little bit of time left before you have to go and do some of the other important work that you need to do. I just want to ask you two more questions. Our convention is the largest gathering of blind people anywhere in the world on an annual basis. If you have one thing to say to blind Americans at our gathering here today, what would that be?

Senator Duckworth: That you're equal to everyone! You were talking about low expectations; don't accept those low expectations. Sometimes we get normalized into how we are treated, and that is not the fault of the person with the visual impairment; that is the fault of society, and we have to push back. I know it can be tiring, but I will tell you that it is important to push back. Sometimes you think that “I just don't want to cause a scene; I don't want to be a problem; I just want to do my job and keep on going.” Sometimes you have to cause a scene! That's how things happen; that's how we founded this country. We caused a scene by throwing some tea into the harbor, so I think that, please, you know, speak up and know that you have allies everywhere. You have an ally in me. You're not doing it on your own, even if you are dealing with one very particular situation. Know that there are allies all over this great nation that will stand with you. Frankly, you are fighting not just for yourselves, but for others within the disability community and even for people who have yet to develop a disability. You know it was the disability community that fought for my rights as a person with a disability when I was perfectly fit and flying helicopters. I did not know that I was going to need the ADA's protection for most of my life, and yet, here I am. Thank God there were members of the disability community, like Martha Bristow and all those wonderful folks who fought for my rights before I even needed them. There are a lot of Americans right now who may even be opposing the work that you're doing who will develop a disability one day, and they will be thanking God that you were there to fight for these rights even when they were opposing them. So keep it up because you are doing incredibly important work that makes our nation better. It moves us toward that more perfect union that we all strive for but have yet to achieve. So thank you for doing the work.

President Riccobono: And thank you. Cause some good trouble. We like to say that you should hope you live long enough to be a blind person because if you live long enough you will be a blind person.

So last question: There's a lot of blind people out there, and they may be inspired by you to help make it more than just one out of one hundred members of Congress. What would you say to blind people who are interested in serving in public office but maybe they're a little hesitant about getting in the mix?

Senator Duckworth: Do it, do it, jump in and do it. You don't have to start with running for the US Senate. You can actually start off by running for smaller, local, more manageable offices. There are things like your local library board of trustees: you know who decides what books kids read? The local library board of trustees. So you could actually effect the availability of Braille, the availability of audio books, the availability of services in local public libraries for kids, for adults who have vision impairment. You can run for your local town trusteeship; you can run for the PTA. You don't have to run for US Congress or the US Senate, but if you do and you're interested, call me, I'll help. But start somewhere, because the change has to start not just from the top down but from the local up. You can make a difference in the world even at your local level. Do it!

President Riccobono: Great, thank you very much. Do it, do it and cause good trouble. Yeah I like it. So Senator, I know that you have to get to the business of the United States Senate. We appreciate you taking the time to be with us and the organized blind movement here. I want to say on behalf of our Illinois affiliate and really all of our affiliates across the nation that we appreciate your authentic leadership in the United States Congress. I suggest you remind your staff to refill the fax machine, because I think you're going to hear from our folks, and mostly what you're going to hear is appreciation for your leadership on issues that impact our lives as blind Americans. So thank you for your time.

Senator Duckworth: Thank you. We have an answering machine too, so you can also just leave a message on that as well.

President Riccobono: We agree with you about web accessibility. Eleven years is a century in terms of the internet, so thank you for that.

Senator Duckworth: Thank you. Thank you, take care.

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