by Valerie Yingling
From the Editor: Valerie is no stranger to these pages. She handles many of our legal issues, and her extension is one of the most dialed at our Jernigan Institute. She coordinates much of our legal work and is the primary collector of information when we need examples that should be addressed. Here is what this outstanding member of our staff has to say about documents being made usable by the blind:
Applying for, renewing, and modifying state benefits such as Medicaid, SNAP, and TANF should be a private, independent, and accessible process for all applicants and beneficiaries, including those who are blind. State agencies with practices of sending print-only communications and/or using inaccessible websites and web forms violate the effective communication requirement in the Americans with Disabilities Act1 and jeopardize blind individuals’ ability to secure health care coverage and food and cash assistance.
This is why in 2019 the National Federation of the Blind and members of the NFB of Indiana, Christopher and Sarah Meyer, filed a lawsuit against Indiana’s Division of Family Resources and Family and Social Services Administration. The lawsuit demanded that the state agencies send notices and communications in Braille or in an accessible electronic format, when requested by applicants or beneficiaries, and that the agencies remediate access barriers on their websites.
For years, Indiana’s Division of Family Resources and Family and Social Services Administration told Christopher that they simply did not have the capacity to produce Braille communication. Even after attorneys contacted the agencies on behalf of Christopher and Sarah, and the agencies agreed that they would provide Braille communications, they still did not send any Braille. Both Christopher and Sarah lost critical state benefits because they were not notified in a format they could read of time-sensitive requests for information.
The NFB knows that Christopher and Sarah’s experiences are not unique. NFB’s legal program hears from members across the country who request but do not receive accessible communication related to government services and from members who have lost needed health care coverage, food assistance, and cash assistance because benefit information and notices are not accessible.
President Riccobono has stressed that “state and federal agencies that administer government benefits and programs have been required to communicate effectively and accessibly with all current and potential beneficiaries for decades. Today, technology makes effective communication easier than ever, but agencies throughout the nation are still failing to meet this legal and moral obligation. The National Federation of the Blind is committed to fighting for blind people like Christopher and Sarah Meyer when state agencies flout the law.”
We are now closer to securing equal access for our members, but the devil is in the details, and the struggle is ongoing. Earlier this year, the NFB and Christopher and Sarah Meyer resolved our lawsuit against Indiana’s Division of Family Resources and Family and Social Services Administration. The agencies agreed to many settlement terms that have improved access to health care coverage, food assistance, and cash assistance for the blind in Indiana. The agencies agreed to:
The full settlement agreement is available via NFB’s legal webpage: https://nfb.org/sites/nfb.org/files/files-pdf/Meyer%20Settlement%20Agreement%20ACE%20with%20all%20signatures.pdf.
This settlement is worthwhile reading. It is not only an important resource for blind residents of Indiana; it can be a powerful tool for NFB members in states that do not yet provide accessible benefits-related communication. The settlement terms provide an effective how-to guide for states needing to implement alternative format, web accessibility, and other related processes. It can help these states avoid expensive and time-consuming litigation; and most important, it can raise expectations and afford blind individuals with the same access to state benefits and services as our sighted peers.
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